Some Thoughts on Listening to God, or A Brief Theology of Prayer

Prayer — talking and listening to God — has been on my mind lately.  I’m sure this is mainly because I just came back from a church prayer retreat followed by a convicting and insightful sermon on listening to God this Sunday.  But it’s also because there’s been a lot of personal needs on my mind that drive me to my knees.  I wish it wasn’t the case that I think about prayer mostly when I’m feeling needy.  But I suspect that’s the case for most of us.  So let me take this opportunity to share with you what’s been on my mind.  I’ll save the personal stuff for more personal conversations.  These thoughts are directed more towards what Christian prayer is all about.  Perhaps you will find them helpful in your own practice of prayer.

Prayer — talking and listening to God — is a central Christian practice.  Such a claim is uncontroversial.  In fact, prayer is central to most religious traditions.  Furthermore, what makes prayer Christian is not primarily its content, form, or technique.  What makes Christian prayer unique is the identity of the One to whom we pray and from whom we expect to hear.  If prayer is conversation with God, then Christian prayer is conversation with the Christian God, i.e., the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  What makes prayer Christian is that it is prayer in Jesus’ name.

But surely there’s something more to Christian conversation with God than tacking “in Jesus’ name Amen” to an otherwise pagan prayer.  Lately I’ve been thinking that the best way to get at this “something more” is to think less about our talking to God and more about how we listen to God.  For the fact is, we are human beings, and prayer is a deeply human act.  Hence we cannot expect that our words to God will be fundamentally different from every other kind of human religious speech.  So what is fundamentally different about Christian prayer is the one who answers our prayers.  He is absolutely unique, and so listening to him is a unique activity — still human, but unique nonetheless.  In fact, its uniqueness consists in its unequivocally human character.  Let me explain what I mean by that.

The Christian God is unique not only because he is different from us humans.  What object of religious devotion is not different from his or her devotees?  Isn’t that the point of religion, i.e., that the gods have something that we want but don’t yet have?  But the Christian God is unique from all other gods on offer because he is not only different from us but also became one of us.  “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14).  God’s word to us takes human form.  Jesus is God’s central and definitive speech-act.  God’s speech to us is not only divine, but also human.

What does this mean for prayer, i.e., talking and listening to God?  Well, it at least entails that learning to discern the voice of God is not as spooky as it sometimes seems to be.  Jesus says that his sheep follow him because they know his voice (John 10:4).  This metaphor does not simply refer the generic search to discern the will of God for my life.  This metaphor refers to the very specific act of being a disciple of Jesus, knowing his voice, learning to discern the will of God in him, and in no other.  The Word of God is Jesus.

So discerning God’s voice means, at its core, recognizing the voice of Jesus.  And Jesus was a man.  He was a human being like you and me.  So we can really know his voice.  We can read it in a book.  We can hear it spoken.  We can discern him speaking here and now in and through the records of his speaking there and then.  In other words, listening to God means first and foremost reading the Bible.

But just because it’s not so spooky after all to hear God’s voice, doesn’t mean it is easy!  In fact, it’s quite hard.  Not because God is so inaccessible to us.  The whole point of the incarnation is that God is knowable.  The reason it’s so hard is because we are dead in our sins.  We can’t hear because we’re dead, and dead people don’t do anything, least of all listen to the living.  That’s part of why we mourn death so much: we can no longer speak to those who are gone, no longer say the things we wish we would have said.  That’s the sort of situation sin creates between us and God.  We can no longer hear him, because we have died.  Our deadness in sin constitutes our deafness to the voice of God made audible in Jesus Christ.

But there’s hope.  For the voice of Jesus, though it is human like ours, is not only human.  In the voice of Jesus there resounds the words of eternal life (John 6:68).  His voice, without ceasing to be a recognizable human voice, can breath life into the dead so that they can hear again.  “Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).  Jesus doesn’t hear the voices of dead people, like some of us claim to do.  Dead people hear the voice of Jesus!  Why?  Because in his human life dwells the very life of God.  Because in his human words resounds the very words of God.  Jesus is the Word of God.

We seem to be getting far away from prayer.  But we’re not.  If prayer is conversation with God, then we must identify the parties of this conversation to make make any practical headway.  The Christian God is the God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made audible in his life.  And those who talk and listen to this God are the dead who are raised by the voice of Jesus.  So far, so good.

However, this kind of makes it sound like we won’t get to really converse with God until the end, i.e., when Jesus Christ returns, raises us from the dead, and glorifies us so that we may hear his glorified human voice.  Well, in a certain sense, prayer is only possible at the end.  But the good news is, the end is here!  The kingdom of God is at hand!  “A time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God.”  We can lean into our future with God because the future is made present in the living Jesus Christ.  We can hear the voice of Jesus today, for he is risen.  He is not only human (and therefore recognizable).  He is not only divine (and so able to speak to the dead).  He is also risen (and so speaks to dead people like us now).

With all this in mind, let’s eavesdrop on one particular conversation with the risen Jesus:

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.  (John 20:11-18)

Note: Although not immediately, Mary eventually recognizes the voice of Jesus.  He has fulfilled his promise that his sheep would know his voice.

Note also: She doesn’t recognize him until he reveals himself by speaking her name.  She was looking for a dead man, when she herself was dead, unable to recognize her living Lord.  The dead man she was looking for was alive, and he awakens her with his voice.

Note finally: All this takes place after Christ’s resurrection.  Conversing with Jesus is not a thing of the past known only to those around during his earthly ministry.  Nor is it a thing of the future known only to those who are raised bodily at the end of time.  No!  Conversing with Jesus is a present-tense reality, something that happens in the time between his resurrection and his return.

Our conversations with Jesus are made possible by his Spirit, whom he gives to us upon his ascension to the Father.  But they are no less real.  In fact, he claims that they are even better because of this (cf. John 14 and 16).  By the Holy Spirit, we cry out to God, joining the eternal conversation between the risen Christ and his Father, who by his grace is also our Father.  And though it is wonderfully divine, this conversation is also thoroughly human. And so we can actually participate in it, i.e., understand what’s going on, contribute to the conversation, and be taken up into it so that we are changed.

Those are my thoughts on prayer today.  They have helped me to deepen my understanding and pratice of talking and listening to God.  Perhaps they will be helpful to you too.

-John

  • Bob Whitesel

    Great insights on prayer John.

    And, I am glad that when launching our new seminary, the first course we offered was a course on “prayer” with Dr. Elmer Towns. Now as we continue to grow and prepare for our new seminary building, I find it comforting to know that we can retreat from the hectic environment of our office or classrooms to a prayer room on the premises. I have often found the Williams chapel suitably located between my office and the library.

    I know you are not saying a prayer room is necessary for heavenward communication, but you are emphasizing the special numinous nature of prayer. And, I am glad our new seminary space will have areas of retreat for this purpose.