Devotional Podcast #3: “Good News! Prayer Is Not ‘Listening'”

January 15, 2018

It’s become a truism among many Christians that “listening for God” in prayer is at least as important as “talking to God” in prayer. But what if that’s not true? What if prayer doesn’t involve “listening” at all? If that’s the case, then prayer suddenly seems much easier, doesn’t it?

Of course listening to God speak to us is incredibly important, but the way we do that is not through prayer but through reading God’s Word.

Devotional Text: Matthew 6:9-13

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Monday, January 15, and this is the third of my new series of devotional podcasts. My plan is to release new podcasts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—in addition to my sermons, which I’ll also post here. Speaking of which, I realize I’m already a week behind! It’s been a busy week! 

You’re listening to Elvis Presley, and his version of the Andraé Crouch song, “I’ve Got Confidence,” from his 1972 gospel album, He Touched Me.

I chose this song because I want us to have greater confidence when we pray. In fact, the theme of these first three podcasts is that prayer shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as we make it seem. As I’ve preached in my last two Sunday sermons, Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer—the model prayer which is meant to guide our own praying—in part to show us how easy prayer is meant to be! Listen to today’s scripture, Matthew 6:9-13:

Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

For one thing, the Lord’s Prayer is short. That should reassure us that our prayers—even good prayers that follow the Lord’s prayer as a model—don’t need to be long prayers. What does Jesus say in Matthew 6:7-8? “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Among other things, Jesus is giving us permission to pray short prayers, as necessary.

Notice something else: Prayer, according to Jesus’ model prayer, is verbal communication that moves in one direction—from our hearts to God. It is one-way communication from us to God.

I emphasize this because it’s become almost a truism among many Christians to say that prayer is two-way communication; that prayer involves both our speaking and our listening. Haven’t you heard this before? I’m sure I’ve heard many times over the years from Christian teachers and preachers that our “listening” for God to speak to us is at least as important as our “talking” to God. Of course, these same teachers will tell us that we shouldn’t expect God to speak to us in an audible voice. God’s “voice” will seem more like an intuition—a thought, a warm feeling.

Haven’t you heard something like this? Where does this idea come from?

Yesterday morning, I asked on Facebook where in the Bible we get the idea that prayer involves “listening”? A seminary classmate of mine, who is now an Episcopal priest, quoted 1 Samuel 3:9: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

And that sounds great, until you look at that verse in context. In context, Samuel is so convinced that he’s heard an audible voice that three times he walks over to his mentor, Eli, the priest, and asks, “Here I am. You called me. What do you need?” And three times Eli tells him, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t call you.” Only then does it become clear that this voice—which sounds like an audible voice to Samuel—is the voice of God. And at that point, Samuel says to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

What do I conclude from this? As much as I would like for God to speak so directly to me—as much as I would like to hear God in an unmistakably audible voice, the way Samuel did—I don’t expect that to happen, and besides, this is light years removed from the subtle kinds of intuitions, thoughts, impressions, and feelings through which the modern-day mystics tell us we should expect to hear God.

Besides, we don’t need to hear God speak to us in this direct sort of way. Why? Because God has already spoken… in God’s infallible Word… in holy scripture. In fact, we have about 750,00 words that God has given us. If we want to listen for God to speak to us, we need to start there… by reading the Bible. Haven’t we all had the experience of facing some challenge in our life. And then we read something in the Bible that is exactly what we need to hear to help us with whatever we’re dealing with! That’s the main way God speaks to us!

Of course, some Christians would say that the only way God speaks to us today is through scripture; I’m not even willing to go that far. If God is sovereign, which he is, then that means he’s sovereign over our thoughts and feelings, and he may use them, providentially, to guide us. He may guide us through dreams and visions. He may guide us through the advice or prophetic word of other people. He may guide us through circumstances. I’m thinking, for instance, of Acts 16:6-7, in which Luke tells us that the Paul and Silas were prohibited by the Holy Spirit from preaching the gospel in two different regions. How exactly did the Spirit prohibit them? We’re not told, but it was likely through external circumstances. We usually call this providence. But this revelation or illumination or providential guidance on God’s part—call it whatever you want to—is not prayer, even though it may be God’s response to our prayer.

Regardless, whatever we believe God is telling us in these various ways does not rise to the same level of authority as God’s Word, nor should this message be considered nearly as trustworthy. So scripture is still by far the main way through which we “listen” for God to speak to us. And listening to God speak in this way is not prayer.

Why does it matter so much that prayer does not involve listening for God to speak? Why am I getting worked up about it? Because I am a frustrated pray-er, in part because I believed that for years, decades even, that prayer was partly or even mostly about “listening.” So for years when I prayed, I thought I was supposed to wait until I heard something from God, or felt an intuition, or got an impression, or experienced some warm sense of God’s presence inside me—and unless or until I did, I hadn’t prayed properly. I would get discouraged with prayer! “It isn’t working,” I’d tell myself. “I’m not doing it right!” It just made me want to give up—or at least not do it as often as I should. I would think, “I’m not spiritual enough to pray properly.”

Don’t be like me! Jesus is telling the truth! Prayer is not hard!

Besides, maybe all this “listening” for God to speak to us is just a way of reassuring ourselves that we’ve really been heard. As if we’re waiting for a sign from God that he’s listening. Why? Because we don’t really believe Jesus when he tells us what prayer consists of. Because we don’t believe how simple it really is. Because it’s not enough to simply talk to our Father and trust that he’s listening and he’ll respond. No, we need to hear back from him—to make sure he’s really listening; to make sure that he really cares; to make sure that he’s really there.

So maybe all this listening is disguising our own lack of faith? Hmm.

If so, I repent.

11 Responses to “Devotional Podcast #3: “Good News! Prayer Is Not ‘Listening'””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    I think this is a question we all have. How do I know what God’s will is for me (in a given situation). We are told to pray about it. We are to told to seek our answers in Scripture. We are told to “do what Jesus would do”. But, how do we know?

    I think that we need to look to the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “I will send another “helper” – “counselor” – “one to come along side” – , but He didn’t say how it would work. So, I find myself saying, “I have prayed to the Father. – Holy Spirit, please help me to understand God’s will.” Then I wait. I listen. I read Scripture that I think is on topic. I meditate, so to speak. But, I don’t hear any voice. In the end, it’s up to me to “weigh the evidence pointed to in Scripture” and to trust that The Holy Spirit in me is helping to make some decisions.

    The more time we spend in the Word, and in Prayer, and in Worship, I think the more we become one with Jesus and His Holy Spirit. But, I can’t really explain how it works. I can only see that there are generally good results.

    So, YES, it’s largely a matter of FAITH.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m sure you’re on to something, Grant. I think God’s will isn’t necessarily one specific course of action. Often, God’s will is to do the things you mention—prayer, meditation on scripture, etc.—make a wise decision, and trust that God’s providential hand will guide you—no matter what course you choose. (Of course, God foreknows what you will choose, so he’s planned for that decision. God can build in “course corrections” as necessary.)

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I’m now totally convinced with your position, Brent, that we should not be “waiting for an answer” when we pray, as some “necessary part” of what it means to pray. God is perfectly capable of guiding us where he wants us to go without “speaking to us,” and, in general, we will likely be wasting a lot of time “waiting around.” Not to say, however, that we should not be “expectantly” looking for God’s direction in whatever way he may choose to provide it. And, in general, as you say, the most likely and usual guide is reading scripture.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Very well said, Tom. Given your convictions regarding Pentecostalism, you likely agree with me that the risk of self-deception here is great: If we think that we’re supposed to “hear God speak to us,” then we can easily imagine that we’re hearing God speak, when in reality we’re listening to ourselves.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Without going into detail, I once made a decision based on what I thought was counseled in prayer, and it turned out terribly. I had just read “The Prayer of Jabez”, by Bruce Wilkinson, and I thought God was telling me to “expand my kingdom”. I lost several years and a lot of money. Maybe that’s what God intended to happen to teach me a lesson, but I will now forever both pray for divine guidance, AND listen to my financial advisors!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Right! Why does God emphasize wisdom so much in scripture if faith is merely figuring out what course of action God wants us to take? But I’m sure God did teach you a lesson, so it’s all good. 😉 (Easy for me to say, right?)

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