When asked what prayer is, the average Christian is likely to say something about communicating with God. This implies speaking and listening. Most of us, however, are more comfortable with the talking part.
We're good at sharing our joys and concerns, giving thanks, and reciting prayers from memory or a prayer book. Then, when we finish with what we have to say, we conclude with amen, open our eyes, unfold our hands, and get on with the rest of our day (or night). Rarely do we pause to hear what God is saying to us.
We can do better
The Rev. Adam Weber, pastor of Embrace Church—a multi-site United Methodist congregation in and around Sioux Falls, South Dakota—recently released his popular book Talking with God: What to Say When You Don't Know How to Pray in paperback. The new edition includes an added chapter titled "Just listen."
"When the first version of Talking with God released there was one chapter that I really wanted to add," Weber shares in a conversation on the Get Your Spirit in Shape podcast. "The book is Talking with God: What to Say When You Don't Know How to Pray, but honestly," he continues, "the most important part of prayer isn't speaking. It's listening."
Like any good conversation, there should be some give and take. We should spend some time talking and some time listening.
"When it comes to hearing and listening to God, I think there's a whole lot of confusion," Weber adds. "People feel like they should maybe know how to hear from God, but they just don't."
Cathy White, a member of Bethany United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, discovered the richness of listening prayer several years ago. Longing for an answer during a difficult time, she read God Guides by Mary Geegh, a 20th century missionary to India who shares how learning to listen to God changed her life and ministry.
White's experience with the process was profound. She received her answer and soon incorporated times of listening into her regular spiritual practice. Later, she began a listening prayer ministry at her church that includes weekly times for group listening prayer, and a resource to help individuals listen for God on their own.
Get to know God's voice
Learning to listen to God is not something new. In 1 Samuel 3, we read the remarkable story of Samuel's first encounter with hearing from God.
Samuel twice mistakes God's voice for that of his teacher Eli. The Bible tells us the reason for his mistake is that, "Samuel didn't yet know the Lord, and the Lord's word hadn't yet been revealed to him" (1 Samuel 3:7). We too must learn to recognize God's voice.
"The best place to begin to know what God's voice sounds like, is by opening up the Bible," Weber explains. Through reading the scriptures we observe how God has spoken in the past, what God does and does not say. That helps us recognize when God speaks to us.
"The more in tune we come to knowing the heart of God," he adds, "the more in tune we'll come to hearing God's voice." Weber clarifies that "hearing" from God has not typically been an audible experience for him.
The Bible is also central to White's practice and teaching about hearing from God. During times of listening prayer, she often reads Scripture, tuning it to how the Holy Spirit will speak to her question.
For example, when a group was trying to decide on a mission project, she led them in a time of listening prayer. When they regrouped after a period of individual seeking, the members found a similarity in what they heard.
"The Scriptures we all got had to do with water," White reports. "We all knew that God wanted us to focus on water."
Asking God to speak
When God calls to him a third time, Samuel bursts into Eli's room again. It is then that Eli understands that Samuel is hearing from God. He instructs Samuel, "Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening'" (1 Samuel 3:9). White and Weber offer similar advice to us today.
"If you have a decision, it is great to turn to God in that and simply ask, 'Speak to me in a way that I will understand,'" White advises.
Likewise, Weber encourages us to pause and pray, "God, I want to hear from you, so I'm just going to be quiet for a few minutes. In this quietness, would you just speak to me?"
Sometimes answers come quickly. Other times, we have to wait.
"We would love a neon sign in the next 24 hours, but we have to be willing to wait for God to speak," White reminds us. "It could happen in the next 24 hours, but it could take a week. Or it could take months."
We must patiently continue to listen because sometimes God speaks in interesting ways.
"For myself, God has probably most clearly spoken—away from his Word—through other people," Weber shares. He has heard God answer through friends who without prompting address topics about which he had been praying.
"If we're willing to be patient and listen for God," White shares, "God will speak."
"It's not [a question of] if God is speaking," Weber concludes. "God is speaking. Are we listening?"
Find helpful resources and more information on the website of the Listening Prayer Ministry of Bethany United Methodist Church, Austin, Texas.
Order Talking with God: What to Say When You Don't Know How to Pray from Cokesbury.com or another outlet.
This story was first published June 6, 2018.