I asked my best mate Jonathan a few questions about prayer for your blog-reading pleasure. He and I have had numerous talks about prayer over the years and have different experiences as praying people. I've learned a lot from him, and now you get to:
What is your daily experience of prayer like? I would say it's short. I tend to keep my prayers pretty short and simple. I used to feel guilty about that, but then I realized Jesus taught that was okay--even preferred at times. I often find myself thinking through my upcoming day and the interactions I anticipate, and asking for what I think I may need in those moments. Often when I sit down to talk to someone, I'll quickly ask God to help me listen well, to discern what's being said and what's not being said, and for wisdom in how I respond. Additionally, I'll ask very specific questions of God as part of prayer and try to quiet myself to discern how God may choose to answer. This isn't a daily discipline. But, it's an important part of my prayer experience.
We all have prayer, or a lack of it, modeled for us. Where did you learn to pray the way you do? Like many others, I'm sure I have several influences when it comes to prayer. I'm sure there are phrasal patterns I picked up along the way that I don't even remember where I first heard them. I'm sure my parents played a role in that, as well as influential pastors, mentors and friends. When I was 17 years old I found myself in my bedroom yelling at God. Up to that point, I had always repeated very traditional prayers before meals and bedtime. Yet, in those moments of yelling and letting God have it, a thought came to mind that seemed to suddenly interrupt my current stream of thought. It was, Finally, you're actually talking to me. That was a critical point for me that radically changed my paradigm. One, this was no longer a one-sided conversation. God speaks back. And two, perhaps God wasn't interested in all the great ways I could perform by saying the 'right things' at the 'right time.' Perhaps, God really just wanted to hear the raw version of me. That moment was a catalyst in several ways. A few years later I read a book by author and philosopher Dallas Willard called Hearing God that gave me some handles on how to grow in navigating and discerning an interactive conversation with God.
How do you ask God for things, and how do interpret whether it's God responding or your own brain, coincidence, botulism-induced delirium via bad fish, etc? Again, I would say my asks are very short but specific. Asking God to just 'speak' has rarely proved helpful in my experience. So, I try to ask specific questions. In terms of interpreting whether it's God responding, or my own thoughts, or delirium from bad fish--I try to approach the whole process with great humility. The reality is I can misunderstand something my wife says when she's sitting next to me on the couch. Therefore, I try to always remember that I can certainly misunderstand the whispers and nudges from an invisible, spirit God. As for discerning between specific thoughts, I tend to pay attention to a few key filters that were greatly influenced by Dallas Willard.
- One, does the voice carry a weight of authority? Throughout the Scripture, God doesn't ever seem to try to convince. Or bargain. Or plead. Or argue. He just speaks. It's like the healthiest version of any kind of leader in your life.
- Two, is the tone of what I'm hearing consistent with the voice and spirit of Christ we find in the Scriptures? For example, often the thoughts that flood to mind are hurried. There's an anxiousness to them--imploring me to do something right away--typically out of some kind of fear. But Jesus' voice was never marked by hurry or anxiety in the Scriptures. So, I tend to dismiss those thoughts as I'm sifting and discerning through. Additionally, Jesus didn't use guilt, manipulation, or condemnation. So those thoughts of, "Who do you think you are--thinking you can do this? Remember what you did? Remember when you failed?" Or, "If you really love me, then you'll _____." I've learned and am still learning to let myself be free to dismiss those thoughts as not the voice of Christ in my life.
- Three, I try to ask myself if what I'm hearing contradicts a principle clearly taught in Scripture. If my thoughts are prompting me toward revenge or are giving me reasons to hold onto bitterness--then I try to remind myself that isn't the voice of Christ. If someone tells me he feels like God is telling him to pursue another woman other than his spouse, I feel like I can say with a fair amount of confidence that God isn't saying that. I've never heard God speak audibly out loud. However, I use those filters to sift through the thoughts that come to mind when I ask specific questions in trying to discern what God may be saying.
When the disciples asked Jesus for some help with praying, He responded with what we call the Lord's prayer. But the first word in it is "our". How does this inform your experience. Especially when it comes to big decisions, I bounce what I think I'm hearing off a very close, trusted circle of Christ-centered friends and mentors. Again, I'm very aware I can misunderstand God and misunderstand myself. So, I invite communal discernment and feedback, trusting that God speaks through the community He has surrounded me with as well.
What do people get hung up where praying is concerned, in your experience? Especially when it comes to the listening and interactive side of prayer, I think people get hung up on wanting immediate results. Recognizing one's specific voice in any relationship takes time. There are a handful of people on the planet that if all they said to me on the phone was 'hey' that I could immediately discern who it is. And all of those are relationships that I've interacted with for over a decade. I still have trouble distinguishing my two young boys from one another on the phone. I think that same principle holds true in our relationship with God. But, it's very tempting to bail quickly on learning to discern the voice of God because we feel like it should be obvious to us and if it's not--then it's easy to conclude either something is wrong with me or something is wrong with God or prayer itself. Instead, it may very well be that's just the reality of how relationships work and develop over time, and we're impatient.
Further, I think we can often get hung up on asking specific questions. We can carry this sense of not wanting to bother God with the questions we're wrestling with personally or professionally. Sure, we can ask him to intervene and heal and fix. But, the idea of asking a specific question and trying to listen causes us to hesitate. One of my biggest hurdles in that regard was simply fear of what would happen to my faith if I asked something and didn't hear anything. I was scared of what that may say about me and I didn't want to have to confront that. I was also scared of what that potential silence may say about this Christ I've put my faith in and I didn't want to risk or confront it. So, it felt 'safer' to keep the conversation one-sided. I imagine I'm not the only one who gets hung up on that.
Another thing about prayer that's easy to get hung up on is disconnecting it from actual life. It's easy for it to become this separate spiritual thing we do only in a carved-out, specific period of time. To counter that temptation, often I pray with my eyes open. That used to feel taboo to me based on what I had witnessed growing up. Sometimes closing my eyes helps me focus. But sometimes opening them reminds me this interaction with God is very much a part of my actual day to day world--not disconnected in any way. Also, I used to feel guilty when I would get distracted by to-do lists in my head as I was trying to listen. But now, rather than trying to keep listening while simultaneously trying not to forget this 'to do' that suddenly popped in my head--I just write it down on a pad of paper or type a note in my phone and go back to sifting through my thoughts afterward.
One more thing. It's easy for prayer to get disconnected from your actual life if you don't act on what you hear. Again, prayer isn't a disconnected spiritual experience. If you try to perfectly discern when it's actually God speaking versus coincidence or bad fish--the goal becomes recognizing God's voice over living a life surrendered to the leadership of Christ.
So, what does this mean practically? When God brings someone to mind out of nowhere, call them. Stop by and visit. When you ask God for specific guidance--and a thought interrupts that you think may be God, after passing it through the filters I mentioned earlier, take a risk and act on it. As you see the leadership of Christ play out more and more in your life, it gives you increased confidence in future moments of discernment. When I've gone through seasons of finding it more difficult to discern God's voice for whatever reason, I've found it helpful to be brought back to surrendering to the leadership of what Jesus has already said in the Scriptures. I recognize in some situations I don't need a new word from God. I just need to surrender to the leadership that's already been given through the life and words of Jesus. As I do that, not surprisingly, I find it easier to 'tune back in' to a more interactive, conversational relationship with God. Not because God was previously holding out on me, but more so because my heart was postured to listen just for listening, rather than for the sake of living.