Deafness: Physical and Spiritual (Mark 7:34)

by Lawton Posey

Mr. Posey is minister of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Charleston, West Virginia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 12, 1980, pp. 278-279. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Physical deafness and spiritual deafness are alike; Jesus confronted one type in the man born deaf, the other type in the Pharisees and others who were dulled to his message. The writer shares out of his own experience some of the insights he has gained about both kinds of impairment.

Then Jesus looked up to heaven, gave a deep groan, and said to the man, Ephphatha, which means, "Open up!" [Mark 7:34].

As I write these words, I am enjoying the sound of rain spattering on the windowsill outside my study. I’m also enjoying the excellent music shimmering in the room, courtesy of the Public Broadcasting System -- lovely strains of Mozart. These days, I take such sounds for granted, but ten years ago I would have worked in a muffled, partially silent world. Unless the radio had been turned to its highest volume, or I had somehow actually felt the rain, I would have typed away in a cocoon of silence. I was becoming deaf, and all the while I was denying the fact. The growing degree of my hearing impairment was beginning to cut me off from the society of my friends, from my profession, from everything. My family was aware of my deafness, and they grieved over it. But in addition to my physical loss I had developed a psychic unawareness. I was, in effect, a victim of both spiritual and physical deafness.

That I can now enjoy Mozart and take pleasure in the sound of the rain is not the result of a single miracle, or a consequence of one of those wonderful operations which have helped so many. I hear today, in a limited fashion, because I wear a hearing aid. For the rest of my life I will receive sound via a transistorized amplifier and a plastic plug in my ear. Never again will I hear (as I once did) the full range of musical sound. The music I hear today is truncated, roughly equivalent to the scratchy sound of a primitive, windup phonograph. But I hear, and as a consequence of the "miracle" of modern electronics I have had the veil lifted from my ears.

Because I am a religious person, and because without this hearing aid I am almost deaf, the stories of Jesus healing deaf people are particularly meaningful and poignant to me. When I read about Jesus healing the deaf man by means of groanings and prayers and signs, I am deeply moved, since buried in such stories is my own.

Physical deafness and spiritual deafness are alike; Jesus confronted one type in the man born deaf, the other type in the Pharisees and others who were dulled to his message. I would like to share out of my own experience some of the insights I have gained about both kinds of impairment.


Many of the deaf tend to be closed to new ideas. In part this is owing to their physical lack of receptive ability, but in the main it is because they are without the desire to perceive what they can. When I was growing deafer, I shut myself off from what I could understand, what I could hear -- simply because it was not as beautiful and as perfect as what I remembered from my days of better hearing. I will, I said to myself, retreat into my inner world. I stopped singing, stopped listening to records, and I left my beloved piano alone. I was, in short, a retreater. Resentful at what I perceived as my fate, I fell into some negative patterns of thought and behavior. I became a repeater of old orthodoxies, increasingly rigid, increasingly afraid. Spiritually, I was dulled to new ideas -- and to the joys of caring for others in my desire to be protected and cared for. The wonderful world out there was shut off in favor of the safe world in here.

As my hearing diminished despite three surgical procedures, I wondered what would become of me. I feared I would not, could not, make it. But here I am, 44 years old, holding a responsible job, singing in the choir on "good days" and generally enjoying life. Of course, the old insecurities pop up from time to time, especially when my hearing aid begins to fail. Yet the weight of the curse has been lifted.

The worst attribute of some hearing-impaired people is a tendency toward extreme conservatism with emotional and fiscal resources. Saving is a virtue; spending is a vice. To risk, either by loving or giving, is difficult for a person who has become rigid and unbending. My experience is that many of the deaf are acquisitive to a degree unknown in the hearing world. It can be a vice of the sensorily deprived that they are unwilling to take risks which might result in a capital loss. Also, because of their physical deprivation and spiritual dimming, they tend to feel that they are of little use in the world. I recall saying to myself: if I am hired, I will fail, or at best succeed only to a limited degree.

Such thinking was, of course, unfounded. In my case, offers of employment have not been lacking. But this crippling adjunct to my hearing impairment remains, and I continue to be plagued by a desire to conserve my emotional and spiritual resources -- which I resist with great difficulty. The trade-off is the fantasy that I will have what I need on a rainy day. What about the Day of Judgment?


To all of us, hearing or deaf, Jesus says, Ephphatha! He quickens in us the hope of a cure, even a partial cure -- a rehabilitation, if you will. The command "Be opened!" comes as a joy -- and as a threat as well. Which brings me to a couple of final thoughts. I have to want to "be opened." At one time in my life I became accepting of the compensations, the lack of responsibility, and the "strokes" which came from sympathetic friends and co-workers. In order to be healed, I had to desire healing. There was no more difficult time for me than that day exactly eight years ago when I walked into the hearing-aid dealer’s store, presented my audiogram, and turned my case over to him and his electronic devices. Then I had to decide that I would wear this contraption all the time, every day, even during naps (lest I miss the phone) and even while making love. What a burden! How much easier it would have been to sit in my little study in silence. There I could think, read, write and listen -- to the waterfall pounding in my cranium.

But in a secular way I had heard the command "Be opened!"


We have little information about how the healings the evangelists tell us of were accomplished. But buried in the stories are some analogies to my own experience. There are the friends who bring the afflicted to the point of healing. There are the physical signs, the eye contact, the prayers, and then, in the case of the man deaf and speechless, Jesus’s mysterious word, Ephphatha! -- be opened! How much power must have flowed from him! How weary he must have been at the end of the day! How depleted his, powers!

Here is congruence with my own experience. One of my healers was a not fully trained hearing-aid dealer -- a kind, caring man who went the second mile for me many times, I still remember the agony on his face when he sought in mine signs that I could hear. I almost heard his deep groan, his Ephphatha!

Is this not a word for us who deal with deafness of whatever sort? If cure is to come, there must be an alliance among the healer, the friends of the afflicted, and the candidate for healing. And in all there is a great expenditure of emotional strength, there are prayer and groanings -- and a command.

One day I was standing on the sports field of a school for the deaf and I watched the kids at play. I was amused to see two girls signing to each other -- about me. I was taken aback to see one of them signing, "Is he dead?" I quickly sensed my error. I had misread her rapid spelling; what she had actually asked was: "Is he deaf?" Mulling that over as I walked back to the classroom building. I realized that there is a mere letter’s difference between being deaf and being dead. From that moment on, I decided that I would rather be alive and a little deaf than dead in any way.