"Is persuasion dead?" an editorialist asks, admitting he feels the signs are not good. And though his own editorializing is itself an attempt to persuade, he brings up a subject often recognized but unquestioned; namely, our capacity for selective hearing is gigantic. "Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted... Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts."(1) Persuasion seems to have been replaced with preaching to the choir, and we are all very particular about the choirs to which we want to listen. The image may hit home, but it is usually the home across the street we point at first.
When it comes to listening, we are quick to listen to the things we want to hear. We are also quick to listen to the things we think other people need to hear. In a book study with several couples on the subject of marriage, several of us mentioned the struggle to actually read the book for ourselves and not for our spouses. I found myself carefully reading the sections I hoped my other half would most carefully notice; another admitted circling and highlighting and handing it over. I'm not sure you can call our attempts half-hearted or good-hearted; for our hearts were not the ones we were putting on the line. Undoubtedly, we missed things that would have been good for us to hear ourselves. Though reading with our own eyes, we were listening for someone else.
Expanding on G.K. Chesterton's clever aphorism that between one and two there is often a difference of millions, F.W. Boreham notes the massive difference between a congregation of one and a congregation of two: "A congregation of one takes every word in a direct and personal sense; but, in a congregation of two, each auditor takes it for granted that the preacher is referring to the other."
Long after Jacob had tricked Esau out of his birthright, Jacob stood at an impasse. His brother was approaching and there was nowhere else to run. Fearful and distressed, he sent his family and a peace offering ahead of him. And Jacob was left alone. Yet, the text is sort of unclear about this. Immediately after Jacob is reported to be alone, it seems to tell us he is not: "And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak" (Genesis 32:24).
The times in life when it seems God is speaking most clearly to me are often the least pleasant. Yet perhaps it is in tears and distress that I stop listening for others, and find myself most desperate to hear God myself. Jacob was alone in the sense that there was finally no one else to manipulate, no one else to listen for, no brother or father to trick or blame. He was a congregation of one, wrestling with the beloved enemy who demands everything. When the stranger asked Jacob the very question he had once answered deceptively, there was no one to help twist words for him, no one to answer but him.
"What is your name?" the stranger asked.
"Jacob," he replied.
And the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."
While Christianity offers a body of believers that transcends history, race, and language, so it also invites participation in a congregation of one; an invitation to wrestle, to lay down pretenses, and to peer at the face of God for oneself.
On his way to see Esau the following morning, Jacob watched the sun rise upon him as he left the place where he wrestled with God. Jacob walked away limping, but with the memory of seeing God face to face. He had heard for himself the voice of God.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Matt Miller, "Is Persuasion Dead?" The New York Times Online, June 4, 2005, www.nytimes.com/2005/06/04/opinion/04miller_oped.html, accessed October 5, 2011.