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Listening Prayer

Growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church the way prayer was portrayed to me was that it’s more about talking than listening. “Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend,”[1]I was told. Most of the time this quote from Steps to Christ was used to support the idea that I should open up and honestly talk to God as one who is deeply interested in my affairs. I believe this to be true; however, if God and I are “friends,” then doesn’t it make more sense to read Ellen White’s statement as an invitation to see prayer as a dialogue, a mutual exchange of talking and listening? That’s what friends do, right?

As most of us know, talking to God is one thing but listening is something entirely different. It has been noted that “in Western culture listening has never been a prized pursuit, the way, for example, teaching or preaching has been.”[2]There will likely never be any awards handed out, no accolades pronounced for “The Greatest Listener.” Yet, a fundamental human need is that of being heard, which means that someone must listen. Herein lies our dilemma: we’ve become so accustomed to noise, and all that is associated with such raucous, that we’ve actually trained our ears not to hear. The tragedy is that our failure to listen has not only wreaked undue havoc upon our relationships, but also on our ability to hear the voice of God.

God is Speaking

Our ability to hear God is not only conditioned by our culture but also by our view of God’s nature. For example, do we believe that God speaks in the present, or do we believe that God’s voice is solely bound to the past between two pieces of leather? The answer to this question may provide an important starting point in discerning how to listen to God.

An Evangelical author of yesteryear once wrote: “The Bible will never become a living Book to us until we are convinced that God is articulate in His universe. To jump from a dead, impersonal world to a dogmatic Bible is too much for most people.” Such a person “is the victim of a divided psychology. He tries to think of God as mute everywhere else and vocal only in a book.”[3]

It seems pretty clear to me that Scripture portrays God as one who longs to communicate with others. The Psalmist declares that the whole world is filled with God’s voice (e.g., Ps. 29). The Book of John puts it this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). It is God’s nature to speak. Therefore, we should disregard any notion that ‘once upon a time’ out of silence God fancied to speak in a book and then retreated into silence once again. God is speaking, and doing so in every facet of the human experience. This is the truth behind all biblical truths, without which there could be no revelation at all.[4]The question is: Are we listening?

Hearing God’s Voice

The first time I audibly heard what I perceived to be the voice of God I was 16 years old. I was traveling north on the I-405 freeway in Los Angeles at approximately 70 mph. I briefly reached over to grab something out of my glove box. When I looked up the traffic in front of me had suddenly stopped. I didn’t have time to consult my mirrors, much less slam on my brakes. It was a moment of sheer panic. It seemed as if my heart had stopped beating, and in a few seconds all hell was going to break loose. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I heard a voice say: “Go left.” It couldn’t have sounded clearer. I went left and it just so happened at that very moment what was once a sheer concrete wall had now opened up to a new lane. My life was spared from certain catastrophe.

I’m absolutely convinced that what I heard was the voice of God. In fact, I know that I’m not alone in my experience. Scripture and church history is rife with men and women who have heard God’s voice in the crisis and the calm. Moreover, I’ve met many believers over the years that left me with the impression that God literally talked to them on a routine basis. While this may be true, I dare say that for most of us mere mortals the reality is quite the opposite; God’s audible voice is scantily heard.

The Listening Heart

This leads me to what may seem like a rather commonsense conclusion: when it comes to listening prayer it’s not so much a matter of the ears as it is a matter of the heart. I believe it is in the heart where we struggle to hear God’s voice. Scripture says that out of the heart flows “the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23, NIV). And it is here where Christ must reign supreme. So why do we struggle? I suppose one could say that sin is to blame. Practically speaking, the problem partly lies in our reluctance to be still and wait on God.

Our lack of experience in being silent before God is revealing. It’s as if we’re afraid of what we might find. Instead, we opt for noise—anything to keep us from looking below the surface. How can we hear God’s voice when we can’t even distinguish it from our own?

Listening prayer is less about audibly hearing God and more about being attentive to the many ways God is speaking to our heart. It’s an attitude of intention whereby our heart is open to greater clarity, expansion, and change. If God’s voice resounds throughout all of creation and can be heard in the present, then all of life becomes the textbook for our learning and spiritual growth. Our great need, then, is to engage like the saints of old in disciplined practices that can help us be more attuned to God’s voice within and without.[5]

Then if we will we may draw near to God and begin to hear Him speak to us in our hearts. I think for the average person the progression will be something like this: First a sound as a Presence walking in the garden. Then a voice, more intelligible, but still far from clear. Then the happy moment when the Spirit begins to illuminate the Scriptures, and that which had been only a sound, or at best a voice, now becomes an intelligent word, warm and intimate and clear as the word of a dear friend. Then will come life and light, and best of all, ability to see and rest in and embrace Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and All.[6]

Erik Carter, D.Min., is working on a Ph.D. in Practical Theology at Claremont School of Theology.


[1]Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association), 93.

[2]Mark Brady, ed., The Wisdom of Listening (Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003), 1.

[3]A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1982), 81.

[4]Ibid., 75.

[5]For a practical introduction to prayer see: Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006). Also, please consult previous and future contributions in this Spectrum series on prayer to help guide the way. 

[6]Tozer, 80.

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