Chapter 2: Is Prayer a One-Way Conversation?
IT WAS AN AWKWARDLY SILENT WAY TO BEGIN a seminar on prayer. Before he began to teach, Paul Miller asked those people who had come to learn more about prayer to spend five minutes praying. Then he asked them to tell him what they experienced in those five minutes of silence as they prayed. People responded:
“It felt like a one way conversation. I did all the talking.”
“It was boring.”
“Time seemed to drag by – it felt more like 10 minutes. I found myself wondering, ‘isn’t five minutes over yet?’ ”
“My mind wandered. I couldn’t stay focused.”
“It’s like God isn’t there and I’m just thinking words.”
After he had written their responses on a white board, he read them to the group and flipped back to what people had said in previous seminars. Then he asked what they would think of someone who described their relationship to their earthly father like this:
“When I talk to my dad, it’s like a one way conversation. He never says anything. It’s boring. My mind wanders. I can’t stay focused. Time seems to drag by.”
What would you think of that person’s relationship with his father?
Talk about a dysfunctional relationship. That is a pretty sad relationship. What kind of cruel father would sit there and say nothing while his son tries to carry on a conversation? What kind of son has a hard time enjoying even five minutes talking to his dad?
The point Paul Miller was making is powerful: the way we pray says a lot about what we think God is like as our Father. The battle to enjoy prayer is not learning right techniques. Rather, it is about discovering who our Heavenly Father is and understanding how he speaks to us.
At the dawn of creation, Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden and talked with him face to face, like friends who take a walk together in the afternoon. But when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they were put out of the garden and a fierce angel with a flashing sword guarded the way back to the garden. The message was clear: they had lost face-to-face access to God. Their sin now kept them from the immediate presence of God.
The amazing promise of Scripture is that the day is coming when we will see God face to face. We will be with God and enjoy the kind of face-to-face conversation with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the garden. But what about now? Jesus said we ought always to pray and not give up. He warned us not to use prayer as a tool to impress other people with how spiritually mature we are, or to let it become a kind of meaningless babbling, repeating words that have lost any real meaning for us. He gave us a pattern for prayer. So obviously, Jesus, our Savior and King, wants us to pray.
Prayer is not just for some people. It’s for all of us who have been saved by God’s grace. God wants us to pray. But what has your experience been with prayer? Many of us would say: “Honestly, it feels like a one-way conversation. I do all the talking and God is silent.”
What makes it all the more confusing is that you have Christian friends or have heard Christians say: “I was praying the other day and God said to me…” You thought to yourself: “Really? God spoke to her? Why doesn’t he speak to me?”
On the other hand, when you’ve heard people talk about what they claim God told them, it makes you wonder if they were hearing God or imagining things. Sometimes the things people claim God told them are pretty harmless. Sometimes the words they claim came from God sound like something from the Bible (and it is intriguing that God still speaks King James English.). But sometimes it gets more than a little strange.
A man once told me God had assured him he would marry a single woman in the church. As things unfolded, it seems God neglected to inform the woman. And when the man told her God had said she should marry him, she had her doubts. She married someone else. And this man was convinced she had chosen to go against God’s will.
I heard another man teaching about how to hear from God. He said all the thoughts going through your mind all the time are God’s way of speaking to you. And if you’ll just slow down and listen to those thoughts, you’ll hear from God. I thought, “Do I really want to attribute to God many of the thoughts that go through my head? I don’t think so.”
When it comes to the subject of prayer and listening to GOD as part of prayer, there are a lot of confusing ideas. I don’t want to defend or deny what people claim about how God speaks to them – God is free to do far more than I can imagine. But the Bible is clear that God is communicating with us all the time. And if you’re going to grow in terms of enjoying prayer and delighting in God, you have to believe that God is communicating, and you need to hear what he is saying.
The reason for prayer
The reason the Bible invites us to pray and encourages prayer is because, when God visits his grace on us, we are brought into a relationship with God that is not like a slave/king relationship. A king doesn’t want to know what the slave is thinking or feeling. He doesn’t care what his slave thinks or feels. He just wants the slave to be quiet and work hard.
That’s not what our relationship to God is like.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba. Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 4:4-7)
If God has saved you by his grace, if God has given you life by his Spirit, something inside you begins to turn instinctively toward God as Father. “Abba” is a term of intimacy, like when my daughter calls me “Daddy.” One of the powerful ways the Holy Spirit works in God’s people is to convince them that God is their Father:
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba. Father.’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Romans 8:15-17a).
When you think of intimacy in marriage, one of the simplest ways to define intimacy is as the experience of being close to another person. Intimacy is knowing someone and being known in a safe and secure environment. It is enjoying someone and having that person enjoy you. Intimacy grows out of giving yourself to another person and having that person give him or herself to you.
God created us with the capacity to know and be known and with a need to know and be known. And it is the process of communication that fulfills this need. Communication is essential to a marriage relationship. In many ways, you don’t know yourself until you have to express what you are feeling and thinking to your spouse. As you express your deepest thoughts and feelings, you begin to understand yourself better.
Communication, in marriage or in a good friendship, requires sharing not only facts and ideas, but talking about what you are feeling – disappointment, fear, grief, joy, hopes, longings.
That has not been easy for me in marriage. I have been afraid that if I told Margaret what I thought or how I felt about something, she wouldn’t like me. What I’ve found is that we’ve actually grown closer as I have learned to share my heart. And I have grown to understand what is driving my heart as I’ve tried to express my thoughts and feelings. I know her far better than I did when we were first married, and she knows me better. We understand more clearly how different we are in temperament, how differently we respond to the same situation, and we know now how to love and encourage each other far better than we did at the beginning of our marriage. That growth has come through a long, sometimes difficult struggle to communicate with each other.
The same is true about prayer. As you listen to what God is saying about himself and about you, and as you tell God what is in your heart – doubts, questions, things you can’t understand, things that make you angry, things you like or dislike – your intimacy with God will grow deeper, your love for him will grow stronger, and your confidence in his goodness and faithfulness will become more unshakeable.
The psalms tell us that God is communicating with us all the time. When I tell you how God is doing this communication, you’re going to say, “Oh, yeah. I knew that…” But I remind you that knowing something in your head is one thing. Believing it in your heart and experiencing it in practice is something very different. You can know a lot about something without ever having experienced it for yourself. This is what the Scriptures affirm about God speaking to us:
God speaks to us every day through the things he has made.
God speaks to us more clearly through his written Word.
You know that theologically. But what does this have to do with prayer? I want you to consider the fact that prayer is not a one-way conversation with you doing all the talking and God remaining silent. To the degree you believe this, it will inform and shape the way you approach prayer and the enjoyment you find in prayer.
A language everyone understands
In one of our hymns we sing, “In the rustling grass I hear him pass, he speaks to me everywhere.” Have you ever thought about what you were saying when you sang those words and thought, “Really? God speaks to me everywhere?” Yes, the psalmists affirm. God speaks every day, loudly and clearly.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies above proclaim his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard” (Psalm 19:1-3).
To declare something means to announce clearly – to speak out. To proclaim means about the same thing: to state, to declare. Hebrew poets found beauty in parallel statements, not in rhyming lines. To pour out speech means there is a steady flow of words. What God is saying through his handiwork is clear in every language in the world. God is a master communicator.
But it’s one thing for someone to speak – even to speak well and clearly. It’s something different for people to understand what is being said. If someone came into our church service, ran to the front of the auditorium and started declaring something important and proclaiming it loudly in Japanese, none of us would understand a single word that was said.
God’s daily proclamation is not in a language we can’t understand.
“There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard” (Psalm 19:3). No matter what language or what words someone uses, what God is saying is clear. It gets through. His words go out (v. 4) “to the end of the world.”
By declaring the truth about himself and proclaiming things about himself through what he has made, the message is communicated to people in every culture, in every language, in the entire world, in a language they can understand. There are truths about God that he is literally shouting from the skies every day of our lives.
I live in Florida. Sometimes in the spring, the smell of orange blossoms is inescapable. I love the time of year when Azaleas bloom in all their rich colors. We don’t get much of a seasonal change in Florida, but there is something sweet about the first cold front of the fall, when the humidity drops and there is finally the hint of coming change. Season follows season in predictable order. Birds that have been gone all summer begin to show up again and we hear their songs in the woods behind our house. Soon the oranges will be ripe and we’ll get to taste their sweet flavors again.
Step outside a cold, cloudless night and look at the stars. If we climb out on the roof of our house that faces the back yard, the main arch of the roof blocks out the light from the streetlight out front. Sometimes we climb out there to gaze at the stars. My whole family was out there one evening to watch a meteorite shower that was spectacular.
Focus on the full moon with good binoculars or look at pictures of distant galaxies from the Hubble telescope on the Internet. They are indescribably beautiful. Depending on where you live, you experience tornados, earthquakes, powerful thunderstorms or even hurricanes. You see the power of nature in those terrifying and destructive forces.
God is constantly talking to us
What is God saying about himself through these things we see and smell and taste and feel and hear? He is constantly telling us, “I am majestically glorious. I am frighteningly powerful. I delight in a rich variety of color, sound, taste, smell.” He is saying, “I am good. I am the God who provides for birds and fish and animals daily. I am beautiful. I am greater than you imagine. There is order and design in the universe because I am a God of order and intentionality.”
There is an amazing variety of plant and animal species in our world. Scientists tell us hundreds, even thousands of species are now extinct that were once common on this planet. Think of the person with the creativity to invent such variety and the power to actually make what he thinks up. What is God saying? He is declaring, “I am infinite in wisdom.”
In Romans 1, the apostle Paul says nobody will be able to stand before God on the Day of Judgment and say, “I didn’t know you existed.”
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made…” (Romans 1:19-20).
You say, “Yeah, I can’t believe so many people don’t believe in God creating the universe but choose to believe in a mindless, unguided natural process of evolution as the explanation for the origin of the universe. I believe what the Bible says about creation.” That’s great. But do you value what God is still saying to you day after day through what he has made?
Does seeing and tasting and smelling what God has made move you to say: “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds….What god is like our God? You are the God who works wonders…” (Psalm 77:11-13).
The psalmist is probably talking about remembering the great things God did in Israel’s history as he made himself known to his people. God delivered them from their enemies. He fed them. He led them in the wilderness. But I think the psalmist is saying more than that when he says, “I will ponder all your work.”
God is communicating constantly. If anyone could think prayer is a one-way conversation most of the time, it would be God. He speaks constantly. He declares his glory and power and majesty everywhere, every day. And once in a while we respond.
Delighting in what God has made is part of prayer in the psalms. “When I consider your heavens, the moon and stars which you have put in place” (Psalm 8:3).
Think of it this way: if your dad was a world-renowned artist, and you were on a visit to his house and he showed you his latest painting, would you say, “That’s nice, but let’s talk about something more important. I need your help with…” It’s fine to ask your father for help, but wouldn’t it be nice to be interested in what he has expressed through his art? Wouldn’t it be honoring to him to look carefully at the way he has poured his heart into his art?
If you want to know an artist, looking at what is important to him through something he has made will tell you things about what he loves. The first time you look at his painting, you might say, “That is very nice…I really like that.” The more you look at it, the more you are able to tell him specifically what you like about it or what you don’t understand.
We need to learn to see God and to hear God’s voice in what he has made and to enjoy and delight in God in prayer by responding to what he is saying. It is prayer to say to God, “I like that. How kind of you to let me see that. How glorious you must be to have made something this beautiful. If this world is fallen and still so glorious, what is the future world like that you are preparing for us? I long for that world… and I long for you.”
How else does God speak to us?
“The Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
“The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
“The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.
“The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
“The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever.
“The rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
“More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7-11).
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes.
“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law….
“I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word…. O how I love your law. It is my meditation all the day.
“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth…. I am your servant; give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies” (Psalm 119:12,18, 97,103,125).
The affirmation of Scripture is that God is communicating clearly all the time through his works and through his Word. We sing:
“He speaks and listening to his voice new life the dead receive,
The mournful broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe….
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ.”
Learning to hear God
The question now is, “How do you learn to hear God as he speaks through his Word?” The simplest answer is found in Psalm 1: “In his law the righteous man meditates day and night.”
Listen as Scripture is read publicly in worship. Read it for yourself. And then think about it. Meditate on it.
That word scares some people. Meditation techniques usually try to help people empty their minds as a way of relieving stress and anxiety. That’s not what the Bible means by meditate. When the psalmist says, “Oh how I love your law. It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97), it clearly means he is thinking about what God has said throughout the day.
Take a little time to get some portion of God’s Word before your mind and you have something to mull over and think about. As you do that, understand what you have read in the Bible is not just what Moses or David or Paul said. This is what God says.
“All Scripture is God-breathed…” (2 Timothy 3:16).
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets…” (Hebrews 1:1).
This kind of mulling over what God has said creates a kind of dialogue in your head. You can tell God what you like about something you’ve read or what you don’t understand and ask him to give you insight.
Furthermore, as you ponder those words, God’s Spirit personalizes it. You begin to hear God saying to you: I have removed your sins as far as east is from west. I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have adopted you as my child. I want you to know me as your Father.
God is speaking to you by his Spirit through his Word. Now you respond to him. You can say, “Father, I believe what you have said, but help my unbelief. You satisfy my thirst, but I keep drinking from other fountains. Forgive me. Change my heart.” As I say this, you are probably thinking, “Okay, but what you’re describing is still not like someone sitting down and talking with me face to face. It still feels like prayer will be a one-way conversation.”
What you feel is not the ultimate determination of what is true. I am encouraging you to believe what the Bible says – that God is daily, tenderly communicating his power, his reality, his faithfulness, his goodness, his sufficiency, and his love for you. These are not just figures of speech.
God wants us to really know him
This is the truth. God wants intimacy with you. He made you to know and be known. And he wants you to know him and experience his presence and power. He is not far off somewhere and therefore hard to contact. He is near. He is with you. He is in you through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is God’s Spirit who opens our minds and hearts to believe what God says. God is the one who gives us ears to hear and hearts to believe what God has said in his Word. God’s Spirit is the one who leads us to apply God’s Word personally, so the message doesn’t just stay a kind of generic letter to the human race, but becomes a letter from God to you about his love for you.
It might help to start with reading some of God’s Word. There is great value in Bible reading plans. Most of those plans have you read through the psalms once or twice in a year.
As you read some portion of Scripture, ask yourself, “What does this passage tell me about God? How does this point me to Jesus? What does it say about God’s love for me?”
Let that passage and its applications roll around in your mind and let it sink into your heart. Tell God what you like about it. Tell him what you don’t understand – he won’t be offended if you’re confused about something or if you don’t understand something. Ask him to open your eyes to see wonderful things in his Word.
Thank him for the things he has promised you. Praise him for things you are seeing about his character.
God invites us into this relationship
God walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when the world was new. Someday God will walk with us and talk with us. Then it will be face to face, like it was in the Garden when the earth was young. But will you believe that being God’s child by his grace means God welcomes you to this kind of relationship now? The Bible doesn’t promise that someday God will be with you. It promises that he is always with you. He will not leave you alone. He will never leave or forsake those who have been rescued by his grace. And God invites us to enjoy this relationship as we delight our souls in him in worship and prayer.