This article was written by David Mathis and published by Desiring God
We have surrounded ourselves with screens. On the desk. In the family room. Even in bedrooms and kitchens. Increasingly in automobiles. One for every passenger on the airplane? And most importantly, hitchhiking on our person everywhere we go, the Precious in our own pocketses and handses.
Once upon a time, screens came attached to heavy, unwieldy boxes. Not anymore. Now they’re as thin as picture frames, and thinner. Some of us can count more screens in our homes than wall décor.
We are living in stunningly image-driven and visually-oriented times. We do well, then, to query ourselves regularly, and thoughtfully, about what images we’re allowing to pass before our eyes, and how they are shaping us. Moving pictures are powerful. They can arrest and extract attention we don’t mean to pay them (say, at a restaurant). And our habits related to screens don’t leave us unchanged.
Yet, in such days, it could be easy to be captivated by the screens and overlook the deeply formative and re-formative power of the great invisible medium that accompanies them: words. Words, especially spoken words, are the great unseen power that give meaning to our world of images and shape how we choose to live.
Words for Good, and Ill
Perhaps even more than our other four celebrated senses, our ability to hear makes us deeply human.
“Words are the great unseen power that give meaning to our world of images and shape how we choose to live.”
After touch (at three weeks), hearing is the next sense to develop in the womb, at about twenty weeks, and it is widely considered to be the last sense to go while dying. Which makes sense for us as creatures of the Creator who is (amazingly!) a speaking, self-revealing God. First and foremost, he made us to hear him, to receive and respond to his words. He created the world, through words, saying, “Let there be light.” He speaks new creation into our souls by effecting new birth through his word, the gospel (James 1:18; 2 Corinthians 4:6). And he grows and sustains our souls in the Christian life through his words (1 Corinthians 15:1–2; 1 Thessalonians 2:13).
When the serpent slid into the garden, he didn’t show Eve an Instagram video, or perform a TikTok dance. He spoke. He slid his poison into her heart through her ears. After all, God had spoken to create the world. He had given Adam instructions through words about how to live in the world. So too, when Satan attacked, he came with something more perilous than a sword or boulder. He came with words, leaning on the stunning power of the audible and invisible, seeking to unseat God’s words. “Did God actually say . . . ?” (Genesis 3:1).
Who’s in Your Head?
In our day of striking media saturation and consumption, we will do well to remember the profound shaping, world-changing power of words.
Whether they are the words accompanying television and YouTube, or the written words of articles and tweets, or the purely audible media of podcasts and audiobooks, words form and fill our inner person, penetrate deeply, and quickly shape our desires, decisions, and outer lives — the whole of who we are. It’s not a matter of whether words are shaping us but whose.
Whose voice — whether through audio or written words or video, or old-fashioned face-to-face talk — whose voice is most regularly streaming into your ears, and going down into your soul? Whose voice captures your finite attention, and focuses you, or distracts you? Which voices do you long to hear most? Whose words are you welcoming most to enter into your soul, to sow seeds of life — or death? Whom do you welcome into that intimate space that is your ear?
Do the words you hear and cherish most “follow the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2)? Are you becoming “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) rather than “transformed by the renewal of your mind”? How “highly online” and “Internet-formed” are you? Some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2), but are we showing hospitality to demons?
Two lines from a recent Gospel Coalition email stopped me in my tracks:
Internet-formed Christians are increasingly being catechized by partisan politics and secular pop culture. The result? Divided and fragmenting churches, declining church membership, and weary leaders.
It stopped me in my tracks as a spot-on diagnosis. Christian parents, pastors, and disciple-makers were once the most formative catechizers. What happens when the words, and perspectives, of television and the Internet shape Christians more than their churches? We’re already seeing it.
Whose Words Are Changing You?
For many, the fight for faith in this generation — to not only survive but thrive as a Christian — is about not just what we see, but perhaps just as pressing (if not more so), what we hear and to whom we listen.
God made us for the gospel, which is first and foremost a message to hear. “Faith comes from hearing,” says the apostle Paul, “and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And how did you receive the Spirit? “Hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:2). “He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you” does so not “by works of the law,” he writes, but “by hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:5). The voices we habitually allow and welcome into our heads have profound shaping power. “In the sensorium of faith,” writes Tony Reinke in his book on today’s countless visual Spectacles, “the ear is chief” (148).
“Whom you hear with delight today will be who you become like tomorrow.”
A new year is as good a time as any to take inventory of the audible voices and written words we encounter daily, especially those we habitually choose. Whose words do you welcome? Whose words do you not only hear, but listen to with rapt attention? Whose words fill your social feeds and podcast queues? What do you listen to on the way to work, or while you walk, exercise, or clean? To whom do you turn for advice? What podcasts, what shows and series, what musicians, what audiobooks? Are your choices governed by the pursuit of entertainment, or the pursuit of God? Instant gratification, or progressive sanctification? Shallow, mindless consumption, or careful, thoughtful growth?
Whom you hear with delight today will be who you become more like tomorrow. As Jesus himself says seven times in the Gospels, and then seven times more in Revelation, “He who has an ear, let him hear.”
New Year’s Defiance
As we continue to sort out the effects of new media and algorithms, and how the Internet shapes Christians and our churches in particular, we do have one clear, simple, ancient, decisive act of defiance.
To those of us willing to hear and heed the cautions, the solution, of course, is not to plug the ears that God has so wonderfully dug, but to open them and eagerly receive words and voices that are true, good, life-giving, balanced, and Christ-magnifying. Even more important than what we keep out of our heads, and hearts, is what we fill them with — and none are more worthy than the words of God himself.
God made us to meditate, not flit endlessly from one message to the next. It is a remarkable design feature of humans, that we can pause and ponder, ruminate and think, that we can stew over truth (and not just lies), and over the good God has done (and not just the evil of others). Perhaps, if you’re honest, you find your mind fragmented. Texts and notifications, tweets and memes, audio and video ads and clips seem to have eroded your capacity for serious, meaningful attention, and you’re not sure where to turn next, but just hit refresh. Make the word of God be where you turn.
Make his voice, in Scripture, the first you hear each day. And his voice, above all, the one that you welcome most, and try to take most deeply into your soul through his words. Let his words be your unhurried meditation, in the morning, and the place you return to regain balance in spare moments. Pray for, and aim to have, his word be “on your heart,” and central in your parenting, and present in conversation, with you “when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6–7).
Let meditation on God’s word be one great new-year’s act of defiance in our media-driven age. Half an hour of such unhurried, even leisurely, lingering over and enjoying God’s words just might fortify your soul for the unavoidable drivel of distant dramas, hot takes, and idle words we seem to encounter at every turn in this world. “Whoever gives thought to the word will discover good, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord” (Proverbs 16:20).
You will find, over time, that God can indeed restore what the locusts have eaten. He can rebuild your mind, and your capacity for focus and sustained attention, and he can restore your heart, and give you wisdom and stability.
How different might the next year be because of what you resolved to do with your ears?