IT IS A COMMON SCENE. A couple sits at the breakfast table. One spouse (let’s say the husband) is immersed in the newspaper, while the wife is pouring out her heart. Frustrated, she finally complains, “You’re not listening to me.”

“I can repeat every word you’ve said,” is the standard response. He proceeds to demonstrate. Is she satisfied? No! She doesn’t want him simply to be able to replay her words—a tape recorder could do that. She wants him to be fully present. She wants him to put down the paper, look her in the eye, and pay attention to her.

Being heard is not enough. She wants to be attended to.


ATTENTION IS ONE OF the most powerful forces in the world. Along with food and water, a baby needs the attentive gaze of a human face. A baby lies in the crib and smiles, the face smiles back, and the baby realizes that someone is watching, is responding, that what the baby does counts. The baby’s joy or anger or sorrow is reflected in the face of another. Psychologists speak of this as attunement. The baby realizes it is possible to be somehow connected to—in tune with—another human being. The face scowls, perhaps, or disappears, and the baby tries to figure out what happened, how to bring it back. This face becomes the mirror through which the child learns whether it is a source of delight or disappointment. A child simply cannot survive without the face. The face is what tells the baby that it matters.

Erik Erikson writes,“Hardly has one learned to recognize the familiar face (the original harbor of basic trust) when he becomes also frightfully aware of the unfamiliar, the strange face, the unresponsive, the averted … and the frowning face. And here begins … that inexplicable tendency on man’s part to feel that he has caused the face to turn away which happened to turn elsewhere.”

When we grow up, we still need to be attended to. In one study, according to Gerald Egan, at a prearranged signal students switched from a slouched, passive, no-eye-contact posture to leaning forward and looking attentively at the teacher. The teacher, who had been mumbling from his notes in a colorless monotone, gradually responded by beginning to gesture, look at the students, and speak at a faster and more energetic rate. At another signal the students switched back to their old style, and the teacher,“after some painful seeking for continued reinforcement,” reverted to his old monotone.

There have been times in preaching when I’ve felt like whole congregations are secretly in on that experiment. Every speaker knows that when you speak, there are certain people that encourage you, that feed you, just by paying attention. There are certain faces you look for because, by their look or smile or nod, they are saying, Keep going! What you say matters. Proclaim the truth!

One of the great miracles of life is that God pays attention to us. This is partly why the writers of Scripture speak so often of God’s face. This is the hope of the great priestly blessing that God himself taught the people of Israel:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine upon you
and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you
and give you peace.

John Ortberg, Love beyond Reason: Moving God’s Love from Your Head to Your Heart (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).

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