“If they will not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Jesus often ended his teachings with the somewhat mysterious instruction, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (as in Luke 14:35). What did our Lord mean by implying some had “ears to hear” and some didn’t? Obviously, he wasn’t referring to their physical sense of hearing. It seems he meant some could hear spiritually—were open to spiritual truth—while the ears of others were closed to his words.
Haven’t our own experiences taught us this is true? You share the same explanation of a teaching of the faith with two different people. One is open, presents honest questions, wants real answers. The other dismisses what is said without any serious consideration or maybe humors you with politeness, but you know the message isn’t getting through. Whether it involves a partial or total rejection of Christ’s teaching, a defining characteristic of being without spiritual ears is obstinacy—an obstinacy that rejects truth regardless of the logic or love with which it is presented.
In contrast to physical deafness, which is not something we can help, spiritual hearing loss is self-inflicted and can be life-threatening, since the soul lives “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). To refuse to hear is to go on a spiritual starvation diet. Why then would anyone reject truth? Why are some without “ears to hear”?
Your Ears Are Connected to Your Heart
As we begin to look at the causes of spiritual deafness, we should remember to first apply any lessons learned to ourselves. It is wise to clean out our own ears so we can hear clearly enough to help our brother clean out his (cf. Matt. 7:5).
The first thing you’ll notice when speaking to someone “without ears” is that sound reasoning doesn’t get very far. This usual apologetic approach hits a brick wall. A basic understanding of spiritual anatomy reveals why. Although the mind is very important when it comes to understanding truth, it is the heart that determines how well we can hear. Spiritually speaking, your ears are connected to your heart.
The “heart” is the deepest self, the interior person. The prime “mover” of the heart is the will, acting like a rudder that can steer us toward truth or away from it. The more our will seeks God’s will, the more readily we will hear, and welcome, the truth. But if disordered desires and fears hinder it, the will can actually become an obstacle to our receiving truth. Such desires, set as they are on something other than God’s will, are the cause of much spiritual hearing loss.
How does it work in practice? Imagine what would happen if a certain truth calls into question something I want very much or challenges me to do something I fear. To accept the truth might mean losing the very thing I’ve set my heart on (or encountering what I fear). Rather than face this possibility, I might choose to fend off the truth to protect myself, keeping my world and my hopes intact. An example might be I don’t want to lose my position as a Protestant minister, so I refuse to consider the claims of the Catholic Church.
In such a situation, we aren’t often consciously aware of our attempts to escape from the truth. Many “heart” problems lie undetected. Before we know it, we come up with many good reasons why we needn’t—or shouldn’t—listen to the arguments presented. No doubt we would be offended if anyone told us we were rejecting the truth in favor of self-will.
This prospect is a little frightening, since we all contend with potentially deafening desires and attachments. Thomas More called these our “fond fantasies.” Self-deception can be defeated only as we come to love truth more than our dreams. But if we stubbornly cling to our desires, self-will will mute the voice of Truth.
Simply put, to the degree our heart is set somewhere other than the truth, we will be “hearing impaired.” What are some of the “heart conditions” that hinder us from hearing the truth?
Heart Condition One: The World Is Enough
If we let the world—with all its promises of wealth, status, power, and personal “freedom”—capture our heart, we will gradually turn our ears away from the Word of God. The more we attach our hopes for happiness to the things of this world, the less we will be sincerely interested in the things of God—things like spiritual truth. Why? Because the world and the kingdom of God stand in direct opposition to one another. We can’t love the world and love God.
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God?” (Jas. 4:4).
“Do not love the world or the things of the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
“Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:9–10). (Notice it is the desire to be rich and the love of money—the attachment of the heart—that causes the problems.)
Consider, too, that Satan is called “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30). That fact alone provides a major clue as to the real nature of the world, and how loving the things of the world affects one’s ability to receive the truth. The “father of lies” (John 8:44), Satan, is the world’s ad-man. And he’s adept at selling his counterfeit goods—for example, wrapping up “selfish ambition” (Jas. 3:14) in the attractive package of success. If we’re not careful and his idea of the good life becomes our own, we will find ourselves “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2) rather than to the image of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:29).
It’s an ongoing struggle to combat the weeds of the world in our souls. The question is, are we trying to uproot these weeds or are we fertilizing them? The danger of spiritual deafness arises when we don’t recognize that what the world values is an abomination in the sight of God (cf. Luke 16:13–15), and, instead, embrace those values as our own. More and more we will find ourselves in step with the world and becoming what Scripture calls “unspiritual” or “carnal.” Spiritual truth sounds like nonsense to worldly ears. “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them, for they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).
An often-unrecognized warning sign of becoming unspiritual—and as a result earless—is professing to be neutral in regard to religious matters. Another word for neutral? Indifferent. Sounds harmless, but to be indifferent to truth is to be indifferent to God. Our attitude toward truth is our attitude toward Jesus, who is the Truth.
What are some other indicators that we might be giving our heart away to the world? We need to look at things like: What really gets my interest? What do I like to talk about? Where does God come in? Who are my role models—saints, or those who boast of their sin? What’s my idea of success? Compare that idea with the latest bestseller on getting ahead, then with the Sermon on the Mount. Do I put forth more effort to increase my net worth or to grow in holiness? What about prayer and spiritual reading? Do such things seem like a waste of time?
If I believe my happiness lies in what the world offers, I’m not apt to be earnestly seeking spiritual truth. In fact, I may be set against it, seeing it as a threat to my beliefs and plans. Jesus said, “The world . . . hates me because I testify to it that its deeds are evil” (John 7:7). It’s clear, then, why love of the world can cause profound spiritual deafness. It’s also clear why speaking about spiritual truth to someone who loves the world can be a frustrating experience. You’re attempting to give them what they don’t want, what they don’t think they need. Only as they realize authentic love and real happiness aren’t found by running after the world’s treasures will their ears begin to open to the truth that will set them free (cf. John 8:31–32).
Heart Condition Two: Pride and Prejudice
When it comes to spiritual hearing loss, pride and prejudice go together like a set of earplugs. This attitude could be summed up with the words, “I already know better.” Pride and prejudice cause us to cling to our preconceived notions. We don’t want to consider other positions, even when presented with the most tantalizing evidence.
The Pharisees were a prime example of this type of deafness. They were sure Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah, because the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, and Jesus was from Galilee (cf. John 7:52). Did they ever ask him where he was born? No. They already knew they were right, and Jesus wasn’t their idea of a deliverer, anyway. Willfully ignoring the evidence, they missed the Messiah.
The “pride” portion of pride and prejudice comes into play when a message is rejected because the messenger is looked down upon. This attitude can be summed up with the words, “Who are youto tell me?” The Pharisees just about said as much to the blind man our Lord healed (cf. John 9:34). They rejected the message of John the Baptist for the same reason, and Scripture says “by refusing baptism from him, the Pharisees and the lawyers had thwarted what God had in mind for them” (Luke 7:30). And don’t forget the town of Nazareth, whose attitude toward Jesus was, “Who does he think he is?” (cf. Matt.13:53–58).
We may wear the earplugs of pride and prejudice only when certain topics are brought up or when particular people speak. In my Protestant days, I had a set that I inserted whenever I encountered anything overly Catholic. Since I’d held onto those plugs more out of ignorance than malice, our Lord mercifully removed them, opening my ears to unimagined wonders.
Don’t want to listen? Why? What’s wrong with the messenger? He’s too young? Too old? Too familiar? He’s Catholic? Are we saying, “I already know I have nothing to learn from him?” Then we’re wearing the earplugs of pride and prejudice—one in each ear.
Heart Condition Three: The Soundproof Booth
I believe this is the most slippery and stubborn of all causes of spiritual hearing impairment: subjective truth. If the others are akin to blocking your ears, this one is like entering a soundproof booth where you can duck the truth and your conscience in one move.
Here’s how it works. You begin by doing away with objective truth all together. “Truth” becomes whatever you believe it to be. Make up God according to your design. Feel free to vary his laws to suit you preferences. A sin? What’s that? Who’s to say? You can break the commandments and tell yourself and others you’re still following God as you understand him.
And therein lies the attraction—and deception—of subjective truth. It leads people to believe they can change the spiritual world simply by changing their minds. Preferring a “reality” they can invent, they have little desire to hear about an objective truth to which they must conform. Scripture predicted this phenomenon: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4).
Having one’s own spiritual dream world is appealing on many levels. In our culture, the popularity of subjective “truth” has increased as moral standards have declined. Custom-made truth often tells us sexual immorality is love and that God will accept it because he’s a God of mercy.
This particular slant on “truth” conveniently overlooks a few vital facts. For instance, Scripture plainly says no real love is possible unless we first love God, which requires keeping his word (John 14:23–24; 1 John 2:3–5). And to love involves seeking the good of the other. Since only God can tell us what’s good (Luke 18:19), and Jesus plainly says fornication “defiles a man” (Mark 7:20–21), how can it be loving for anyone to fornicate or encourage others to do so? If that’s not enough, Scripture also says those who practice fornication will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9–10). Is it loving to put the soul of another at such risk?
As for God’s mercy, if we believe we’re doing nothing wrong, why do we need his mercy? And if we admit our behavior’s wrong, how can we continue in it and even justify it? Mercy is for those who are willing to repent.
Such inconsistencies abound in the world of individualized “truth.” In fact, when examined closely, the whole notion of subjective truth begins to look like the emperor’s new clothes—a kind of spiritual craziness that actually enjoys being out of touch with reality.
But what’s really wrong with this idea of subjective truth? Is it really so dangerous to our spiritual hearing? Consider this: When we accept anyone’s version of truth as “the truth for them,” what we’re doing is denying the reality of the spiritual world. We’re saying, in effect, spiritual reality doesn’t exist—or if it does, there’s no way to know it. Because if actual truth does exist, and we can know it, why would we accept anyone’s personal view in its place? Yet those who espouse subjectivism have done just that, exchanging reality for fantasy.
The phrase itself—”subjective truth”—is an oxymoron. Truth can’t be changed on a whim, from person to person, or even with the times. By very definition, truth is “a transcendent fundamental spiritual reality, the property of being in accord with fact or reality” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1976). Spiritual truth describes God and spiritual things not as you see them or I see them but as they really are.
We reach new heights of spiritual insanity when we try to combine subjective truth with Christianity, which many today are attempting to do. Jesus is the Truth, objectively, in Person (cf. John 14:6). He is real. We can’t remake him in our own image. If we attempt do so, we are believing in “another Jesus” (2 Cor. 11:4), not the real Son of God, and our Savior becomes a figment of our imagination.
Still, some may say, “I believe truth exists, but we can’t really be sure of what it is. So we have to decide for ourselves what we think is true.” Again we are straying from authentic Christianity and hindering our ability to receive its message. God’s word is truth (cf. John 17:17). To believe we can’t know truth is to effectively do away with “the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13), denying God has spoken in a way we can understand and heed. Everything is then a mere human word, with one no better than another. “So who are you to tell me?” becomes the prevailing attitude. An apologist’s evidence for truth is just one more opinion, easily cast aside. And we hear the echo of Pilate—”What is truth?” (John 18:38).
In response, Christianity declares God has spoken: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb.1:1–2). The Incarnation is all about God speaking to us. He sent us his living Word: “This is my beloved Son . . . listen to him” (Matt. 17:5). The Word says, “For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (John 21:37). “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
Paul too directly challenges those who say we can claim ignorance as an excuse for being our own guides. Speaking to the Athenians about their monument “to an unknown god,” he says, “What therefore you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you….The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:23, 30).
Our Lord went to great lengths to give us truth and to ensure it would be handed on intact until his return. He established a Church that he said would always be guided by the Spirit of truth (John 14:16–17, 16:13). He put apostles in charge of his Church, giving them gifts to govern and teach in his name, saying, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). And, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). To say we can’t know the words of Christ—i.e., the truth—is to accuse our Lord of grave injustice, for in the end we will be judged by whether or not we have kept these words (cf. John 12:47–50).
Ultimately, if we can no longer depend on the Church Christ founded to teach the truth, what Jesus promised would never happen has happened: “The father of lies” and “the gates of hell” (cf. Matt.16:18) have prevailed against his Church. But Jesus has not failed. How could any faithful Christian claim he has? Truth exists and we can know it—if we want to.
Here we have hit upon the answer to the question, “Who has ears to hear?” Those who honestly want the truth will “hear” it. They will recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd, distinguishing it from all merely human “voices” (cf. John 10), precisely because they are willing to do what he says. They want to follow his way, so they are attentive to him. “If any man’s will is to do [God’s] will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God” (John 7:17).
Those who prefer to follow their own philosophies, on the other hand, will continue to find a welcome hiding place from truth in the world, in their prejudices, and most securely in the sound-proof booth of subjectivism.
What’s an Apologist to Do?
What are we to do about spiritual deafness? Being aware that every explanation we give does not go directly to our listener’s mind for consideration, but may first pass through a disordered heart, is a beginning. When we recognize heart trouble as the cause of our “failure to communicate,” we can change tactics rather than banging our head against the other person’s hardened will.
While we should never give up witnessing to truth, our apostolate for those who “will not hear even if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31) may be more fruitful if it takes the form of silent prayer and sacrifice, awaiting an indication of any new openness. Although it is humbling to find our own well-crafted arguments tossed aside like yesterday’s newspaper—unread—we mustn’t give in to discouragement. The Holy Spirit is still converting hearts; we need only look to ourselves for evidence of that.
A refocusing on what needs to change in us, rather than just in those we hope to reach, is also crucial. It has been said Monica won the conversion of her son, Augustine, by becoming a saint herself. And vital to the process of our sanctification is improving our own hearing. This involves primarily the purification of our hearts. Remember, your ears are connected to your heart. The pure of heart will not only see God (cf. Matt. 5:8), they will hear him as well.
The “hearing lessons” contained in this article provide a few guidelines for self-examination. First, let’s be sure we believe in the existence of truth, for that’s a basic requirement for finding it (cf. Heb. 11:6). Then we can ask: Are we attached to something more than truth? Are we choosing our own will over God’s in any area? As we let go of our self-will to do the will of God, we will be gradually “purified . . . by [our] obedience to the truth” (1 Pet. 1:22) and become more faithful witnesses to what we hope to convey.
We can also cultivate the qualities of a hearing heart. A hearing heart is one that is hungry for truth, as opposed to being unconcerned with such matters. God “fills the hungry with good things” while “the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53). A hearing heart is humble, teachable, and attentive. With an eye to saying “yes” to God, it is always asking, “What do you want from me, Lord?” The Immaculate Heart of our Lady is the perfect model of the hearing heart.
The essence of the hearing heart is summed up in these words of the psalmist: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you art the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long” (Ps. 25: 4–5).
Knowing its importance, let us pray for ourselves—and for those who seem not to be listening—that the One who still “makes the deaf to hear” (Mark 7:37) will give us “an ear . . . to hear what the Spirit says” (Rev. 4:22).