Can You Hear God When You Pray?
- Mary Southerland Journey Ministry, Inc
- 2022 18 Jan
I have been a Christ-follower for over fifty years. For most of those years in my journey with Jesus, I thought prayer was talking to God. Then, ten years ago, I learned a new truth. I should have figured it out long before that, but I can be a slow learner. My father-in-law always said that in any conversation, the one who knows the most should do most of the talking, while the one who knows the least should do most of the listening.
What would that look like in prayer? God offers a hint since he gave us two ears and one mouth. What if our prayer life was more about listening for God to speak instead of filling the air with what I consider to be profound and eloquent words. Seriously? I'm often amazed at the arrogance of which I am capable. We need to learn how to be quiet and simply listen.
Few of us have to work at learning to talk, but most of us have to learn to listen. This problem is especially true in prayer. What about the listening side of prayer. Two disciplines have helped me learn how to listen to God.
1. Solitude - deliberate time alone with God.
2. Silence - deliberate time being quiet in the presence of God.
For years - decades - prayer for me went like this:
- Pray in the morning. Tell God all the things you would like Him to do.
- Pray when in crisis. Pray when trouble comes my way during the day.
- Pray at bedtime. Thank God for what He had done during the day and remind Him of the things still on my to-do list.
Notice what was missing? Listening. Contemplating. Solitude. Silence. Let's look deeper into the practices of solitude and silence. The first practice is learning to listen to God in solitude. Solitude means getting time alone with God.
Dan and I were best friends for two years before we ever dated. We dated for a year before we were married. We did many things with family and friends and spent a lot of time together at church. The group stuff was good, but I looked forward to time with just Dan and me. One on one time. When you love someone, you enjoy being alone with them. That is the essence of solitude. Getting alone with God. Getting one on one with God.
Jesus practiced solitude regularly:
"And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35).
We find Jesus doing this again and again in the scripture. And Jesus wants to continue this practice of solitude - with us! Solitude is the place where all of me gets laid out before all of God. We all need to learn how to practice solitude. Just like I got to know Dan by spending one on one time with him, I will get to know God by spending one on one time with him. Don't underestimate the importance of solitude. Don't underestimate the importance of time alone with God.
The second practice of learning to listen to God is silence. Silence means being quiet so you can hear from God. The point is not just to be quiet. You are quiet when you sleep. The point is to be quiet so you can hear from God.
Blaise Pascal, math genius, philosopher, and Christian, famously said this about silence: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." And he lived from 1623-1662. Unfortunately, it seems like there may be even more distractions for us in 2022! One of the most dangerous pollutants in our society today is noise. We are a people who have lost our ability to contemplate because we cannot bear the silence. And people who cannot maintain silence have a tough time hearing God.
I live from the conviction that God is speaking and wants to talk to us. So, the question isn't whether or not God is speaking, but whether or not we're listening. The Scriptures provide us with a different sort of guide:
"Be still before the Lord and wait patiently" (Psalm 37:7).
"The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him" (Habakkuk 2:20).
"Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).
The quest for exterior silence is difficult enough for most of us, but it is only the beginning and the easy part. If we dare to turn off our technological distractions and toys and find a quiet place, we will still have the interior noise to cope with. Taking a sabbatical from social media just might lead to a closer relationship with God. Think about it. If we spent as much time with God as we spent on Facebook and Instagram, our spiritual life just might be revolutionized.
The actual noise problem is interior noise for many of us - the running mental commentary we all have every minute of every day. To pray contemplatively, we must find the off switch to this noise. Kallistos Ware writes this: "True silence is not merely a cessation of sound, a pause between words, but an attitude of openness, receptivity of attentive waiting upon God … true silence is nothing else than God-awareness."
Silence and solitude. Now how do we practice silence and solitude? First, we find a place to be completely alone for five minutes or an hour or something in between. And then, the best way I can explain how to practice silence and solitude is through five basic movements that we take when sitting quietly with God.
A short word on each.
Ronald Rohlheiser defined prayer as relaxing into God's goodness. Is that how you think about prayer? What are you doing when you pray? First, we must learn how to relax into God's goodness.
We live so much of our days from our bodies' fight or flight reflex. Running from thing to thing on the hype of adrenaline and caffeine until we collapse. Then, our system goes down, and we watch Netflix with a bleary eye at night. The first task of contemplative prayer is to calm down. Psalm 4:8 says, "In peace, I will both lie down and sleep for you alone make me dwell in safety."
Let your mind and your body settle into God's presence to let your nervous system draw into this peace that flows from the Spirit. There's no right way to do this. Start by reading scripture slowly and in a prayerful spirit. Maybe a psalm or a selection from the gospels.
Detachment in the ways of Jesus is very different from detachment in the Buddhist tradition or eastern religions, where the goal is to detach from all desire. For followers of Jesus, it is a way to disconnect from our surface-level desires to attach to our deepest desire, union with God - of just being there for God. When you are quiet and still, your mind will go to whatever is unresolved. Things to do. Things to worry about. Things to fix. Jesus detached by praying, "Not my will but yours be done" (Matthew 26:30).
So, we relax, detach, and then:
This step is the heart of prayer - looking at God looking at you in love. The ancients called this beholding and becoming. Remind yourself of how God sees you. Notice how Paul did this:
"So, I live trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:30).
I repeat a phrase daily that helps me realize how God sees me. "You are the child of the living God - and He loves you just as you are." How do you think God sees you? What you give your mind to, your attention to, will determine, shape, and forge you into the person you become. Let the fact that God loves you sink into your soul while you are being silent before Him. So, we relax, detach and look.
The most powerful posture that a disciple of Christ can have is sitting at the feet of Jesus - listening to Him speak. Look at what Samuel did. Check out his prayer.
"Speak Lord for your servant is listening" (1 Samuel 3:9).
That statement is the heart we are after. Speak Lord - I am listening. Speak Lord - I will obey. Being silent and listening to God may be a little awkward at first. In his book, Chair Time, my husband Dan tells this story:
"When I started this practice - which I call Chair Time - it was hard. For three weeks I would sit for 20-30 minutes asking God to speak to me. I heard nothing but the chirping birds, planes flying overhead, nearby traffic, children playing ... everything and everyone but God. But on the 22nd day - I heard God whisper these words in my soul. 'Welcome home son - I have missed you.' That is how I learned to listen to God."
We relax, detach, look at how God sees us, and listen.
The essence and the end goal of the entire spiritual journey is love. It's been said by several scholars that you can summarize the whole spiritual journey as a journey from fear to love. Love is what our prayer life is all about.
Lord, fill me with your love. Lord, help me love as you love. Lord, may your love flow through me.
Jesus said it this way: "So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples" (John 13:34-35).
Relax. Detach. Look. Listen. Love. These five actions will give life to your times of solitude and silence with God. Relax by centering your mind on Jesus. Detach by turning loose of whatever is bothering you. Look at yourself as God sees you, as His child whom He loves. Listen for the voice of God. "Speak Lord - your servant listens." Love God and ask God to fill you with his love.
Right now, take a minute to pray these words: "Lord, I want to learn how to really listen to you. I want to learn how to be alone with you in silence. Speak to me, Lord. I am listening."
Photo credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/palidachan
Mary Southerland is also the Co-founder of Girlfriends in God, a conference and devotion ministry for women. Mary’s books include, Hope in the Midst of Depression, Sandpaper People, Escaping the Stress Trap, Experiencing God’s Power in Your Ministry, 10-Day Trust Adventure, You Make Me So Angry, How to Study the Bible, Fit for Life, Joy for the Journey, and Life Is So Daily. Mary relishes her ministry as a wife, a mother to their two children, Jered and Danna, and Mimi to her six grandchildren – Jaydan, Lelia, Justus, Hudson, Mo, and Nori.