I’ve often been told that prayer is talking with God, not talking to God, and so you can’t just talk: you have to listen, too. This is usually followed by the suggestion that I spend time just sitting and listening. I’ve tried that, but it never seems to work out that well for me, I think because it’s never been all that clear to me what I’m supposed to be listening for. God’s voice, sure. If I’m listening to God then I’m hoping to hear His Voice.
But what does God’s voice sound like? Certainly, some of the saints have heard Him speak audibly, just as some of them have seen Jesus or Mary in visions. But this is clearly the exception rather than the rule, and not the usual. Clearly I should be expecting something else.
Well, someone might say, it’s a still, small voice. Oh. All righty then. Except that I don’t know what that sounds like either.
So I sit there in my chair for the canonical five minutes—”Start with five minutes at a time, and work your way up.”—sit there trying to be silent, so that I’ll hear God if he speaks to me. And as I sit there, I start to free-associate, and ideas pop into my head as they always do, some appropriate to the occasion and some most definitely not, and I try to ignore them all and make them go away, and be quiet, because I’m listening to God. And at the end of five minutes, I’m feeling nicely quiet, maybe, but also ready to do something else, and I don’t feel like I’ve heard God at all.
Seriously. If prayer is talking with God, if it’s truly meant to be two-way conversation, then there’s something wrong with this model.
So I got to thinking: if I’m going to hear God’s voice, if I’m going to listen and actually be aware of “hearing” Him in some way, then it has to be some way that I’m used to being aware of things.
It has to involve my faculties in some way. It could involve one or more of my senses, as it would be if I heard an audible voice or saw a vision or smelt roses—but as I noted above, that’s not the usual way.
It could involve my emotions, as when I feel an unusual sense of joy, or a strong feeling of God’s presence.
Or, and this pretty much exhausts the possibilities, it could involve the ideas that are going through my head.
It could involve the ideas that are going through my head.
It could involve the ideas, the distractions, the things that drift in and out of my consciousness as I’m sitting there trying to be quiet.
It could involve precisely those things that I was trying to ignore. D’oh!
And as I’ve thought about this further, I begin to think that that’s exactly how God speaks to me: by drawing my attention to particular things. It might be a person I need to pray for, or an idea I need to think about in more detail. And if I go ahead and think about it in more detail, then sometimes He goes a little farther, by prompting me to notice something I hadn’t noticed before: a connection between ideas, or something about someone, or something about myself that I’d been ignoring. In short, listening to God isn’t something I do instead of thinking; it’s something I do while I’m thinking. It’s thinking with God instead of thinking without Him.
Now, just because an idea pops into my head that doesn’t mean that God’s trying to tell me something. St. Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians is useful always and everywhere: test everything and retain what is good. If I find myself consumed by thoughts of revenge, for example, I can be sure that God’s not suggesting that I go avenge myself on that jerk; vengeance is His, says the Lord, and He doesn’t need me to attend to it.
Putting all of that together, I think I’ve figured out how it works—that is, how it works for me. You might be different.
For me, listening to God means sitting and pondering about things: my problems, a scripture reading, a book I’m studying, the weather, or what have you. And as I ponder, I need to pay attention to the ideas that occur to me, and follow the threads to see where they go. It’s about testing the conclusions I come to, to see if they are consistent with what I know about God’s word, and God’s character, and that involves more pondering. And the essential thing is that when I sit down to ponder, I invite God to come along and I make Him welcome.
The thing I don’t do is simply sit there and try to be quiet. For me, at least, that means shutting out exactly the words I’m listening for.
Update: Tom McDonald has some useful commentary; I don’t know whether it was triggered by this post or not. But he’s absolutely right: prayer is a conversation initiated by God, not by us.