The Listening Side of Prayer
By Stacey Patrick
God desires for us to be intimate with Him. And true intimacy requires more than just speaking to Him ⎯ it involves listening to Him as well. I used to think, If only God would speak more clearly, I would follow Him more closely. But at unexpected times, stopping from my jog to watch a sunset, or gazing at a starry evening sky, I have heard Him, the voice of a friend, a friend longing to be heard and waiting for my ears to be open and attentive.
God desires to communicate with His people, even more than we desire to communicate with Him! I have learned to hear His voice through listening prayer ⎯ what some call contemplative prayer. You may think of contemplative prayer as a practice only of saints and mystics in by-gone eras. But it is not limited to a particular type of person, a particular era, nor is it reserved for the “super spiritual.” Contemplative prayer is a form of prayer that all believers today can enjoy.
What is contemplative prayer?
So what exactly is contemplative prayer? How can we incorporate it into our busy daily lives? Contemplative prayer is thoughtful, reflective prayer. It requires effort. It demands active listening, focused attention, and confident expectation that God will speak.
In contemplative prayer, we are still before God, reflecting, anticipating, listening, and waiting on Him. Throughout the Psalms, David models one who waits on God in this way: “My soul waits in silence for God only” (Ps. 62:1, NASB). “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Ps. 42:2).
Contemplative prayer is being with God, empty-handed, waiting attentively for whatever He wants to speak, to show, or to do. Why is simply sitting at His feet with no agenda so difficult ⎯ even frightening?
Most of us argue that we haven’t “enough time.” Those of us who have taken time may complain that God doesn’t seem to speak clearly. I recognize other reasons for my avoidance. I am afraid of what I might hear. When I quietly wait on God, the Holy Spirit often speaks penetrating words ⎯ words of conviction, words of love, or no words at all.
With words of conviction, God reveals actions or attitudes I need to confess to Him and sometimes others and directs me to seek reconciliation. Only by listening to the Spirit’s conviction can I recognize my sin and hear Him direct me to seek forgiveness.
At other times as I listen, God has exposed attitudes of mine that dishonor Him. For instance, when I have: been wrought with anxiety about a situation I face, He has revealed that my anxiety reflects a lack of trust in Him.
Surprisingly, I often find myself just as reluctant to hear His words of love⎯ particularly when I feel less than lovable. Hearing His words of grace and love can be painfully difficult. Many of us don’t wait in His presence long enough to let Him love us. We are quick to voice our concerns, seek His guidance, and request His blessing. Yet, how it must grieve our Father’s heart that we come to Him only in want of something, rather than coming simply because we enjoy being in the Father’s presence.
Perhaps another reason we hesitate to practice contemplative, listening prayer is we fear hearing no words at all. We strive to attain some tangible result validating the use of our time, even our devotional time with God. We become unable to enjoy the delight of simply being with Him. Yet, as two lovers are content to be in each other’s presence, not needing always to speak, God delights for us to sit at His feet and enjoy being with Him.
Putting It into Practice
How can we begin to practice contemplative prayer? The following are suggestions to explore.
1. Meditate on Scripture. “I will meditate on your precepts” (Ps. 119:78).
Choose one verse, phrase, or word upon which to meditate. Ponder it. Slowly repeat it. Ask the Lord what He wants to speak to you through it. Taste the richness of His spiritual food and its nourishment for your life.
2. Sing and pray the Psalms. “Sing praise to the Lord!” (Ps. 68:32).
After reading a psalm, begin to sing it to a tune you know or create as you go along. I find that singing a psalm helps me ponder it afresh. Try praying a psalm as if you had written the words from your heart. During my stay at a monastery, I joined the monks as they chanted a few chapters of the Psalms each morning and evening.
3. Journal in prayer. Write your prayers to God and wait for His response. Writing helps us stay focused and enables us to probe our thoughts and heart more deeply. Try an exercise called “Dialogue with God.” Write something you want to tell God (for instance, a statement rather than a question.) Asking the Holy Spirit to guide you, write what you sense is His response to your statement. Continue the dialogue until you believe God has finished speaking to you.
For example, while struggling with a chronic illness, I wrote in my journal:
Stacey: Lord, I know You can heal me. God: Yes, I can heal you, but I want to heal your spirit first. Will you let Me heal your spirit and wait on My timing to heal your body?
When I first learned this exercise, I was very reluctant. How presumptuous to think I could write God’s response to me! Yet, I beheld with amazement His words to me through this exercise ⎯ words very different from what I expected to hear. God also points out the enemy’s lies I have been listening to and directs me to claim His words of truth. I recommend writing with a Bible nearby to refer to as He leads.
4. Take a walk in nature and listen to God speak to you through His creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Ps.19:1-2).
When I take time to thoughtfully observe God’s creation, He tangibly teaches me His Word. While I sit alone on a beach, absorbed in the power and constancy of the waves, He reminds me that His love for me is constant.
5. Be still before Him. “The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently.... Let him sit alone and be silent” (Lam. 3:25-26,28, NASB). In this posture of stillness, we can more keenly hear Him speak. We honor God by expressing our willingness to be still in His presence.
We may find it difficult and uncomfortable at first to relinquish our needs-oriented approach to prayer. But I firmly believe we delight God’s heart when we come to Him not to receive or give Him anything, but rather simply to delight ourselves in Him (Ps 37:4). Allow Him to express His love and joy over you. If total stillness is difficult, try the following exercises. After closing your eyes and stilling your body, become aware of your breathing. As you slowly inhale, think on a name of Jesus:
- Meditate on this name as you slowly speak it to yourself, reflecting upon all that it means; for example: Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, Master, Light of the World, the Vine, the Door, the Resurrection and the Life, Alpha and Omega ...
- Or meditate on the names of God: Deliverer, Rock, Strong Tower, Jehovah-Jireh (Provider), Jehovah-Rapha (the Lord who Heals), I AM, Abba ...
- A similar exercise helps when I am anxious. I slowly inhale, saying to myself Jesus’ name, and with each exhalation I release a fear or worry that is on my mind. Then, I continue to think on Jesus’ name.
Try scheduling a longer period of time once a week for contemplation. Reflect on the events of the week, conversations, unexpected news, a sermon, or something you are reading. I like to see it as “making a date with God.” Go for a walk alone with Him, or sit with a cup of coffee and talk to Him freely, listen, and enjoy being with Him.
Developing a discipline takes perseverance. Our flesh does not like to be trained and controlled. We will find every reason not to practice contemplative prayer. But as we sit with Him in faith and obedience, He will honor our desire to know and hear Him. Do not be discouraged if you do not hear anything. God often wants us to sit in stillness at His feet and learn to be content in His presence. Pray for the desire and grace to communicate with God in this intimate way.