Carla Unseth

Listening Prayer

This week, Jamie and I got stuck out in the village where we work and do school. We headed to the village in the morning, but halfway through the day discovered that a protest had started and the road back to our house in the city was blocked. We quickly adjusted our plans and our village colleagues hosted us overnight. Life goes a little differently in the village – it is dark by eight o’clock, and while there is still plenty of noise (even music from the neighbors), it is not as busy as the city. We hadn’t brought books or technology with us, so we didn’t have lots of distractions. I woke up before Jamie did and at that point the village was quiet. It was peaceful to sit in the early morning silence.

Our lives are not always so quiet, which means that it’s often hard to listen. Hard to pay attention while Jamie tells me ALL THE THINGS that happened to her during the day. Hard to focus even on work when a swirl of household tasks demands my attention. And hard to take time to listen to God.

By listening to God, I don’t actually mean a daily devotional time. That kind of time can be scheduled in. But it’s the content of that time that I mean – it’s much easier to read devotional books or the Bible and follow a structured prayer plan than it is to sit and listen to God. In fact, I’ve never been very good at “quieting my mind” and just listening. When I try to be quiet, I easily get distracted. And when I try to listen to God I spend so much time trying to block out the extraneous thoughts that I’m not quite sure how to let God’s voice in!

Recently, though, I learned about “listening prayer”, and realized that my attempts to be quiet and listen aren’t the only way to intentionally listen to God in prayer. I had always thought listening to God meant endeavoring to still one’s mind to hear God’s voice, so I was interested to learn that it’s possible to use those thoughts in prayer rather than trying to block them out.

Listening prayer as a discipline is meant to be a conversation with God. It is a way to hear from God about the situations in our lives and seek His will. It is easy to make prayer a one-way conversation – we praise God, thank Him, confess our sins, and bring Him our requests. All of these are good things, but they all move from us to God. In listening prayer, we give God time to respond and speak into our lives and situations.

So, how do we listen without just trying to not be distracted? How do we use our thoughts in listening prayer?

The first step is to come to God and ask what He wants to speak to you about. The listener can ask a specific question, or ask God to guide the conversation. Then, pay attention to the thoughts that come to mind. Rather than trying to block them out, think about them. God may speak through a Scripture verse, a memory, a song, or an image. When those things come to mind, reflect on them rather than trying to block them out. Consider what God is saying, and even ask Him, “What are you saying through this?” Write down the thoughts that are coming to mind and what it seems like God is saying through them. Even when the time of prayer has ended, continue to ask God for confirmation – check out what you are hearing based on Scripture, and share them with accountability partners or Christian leaders. Let them help you discern as well what God is saying.

This may sound a little dangerous to some people – too vague and undefined, too easy for our own thoughts and desires to masquerade as God’s voice. This is why we always test things by Scripture, and always share them with other Christians. We know that God has revealed truth in the Bible. We are not searching for new teaching or new revelation; instead, we are looking for God’s wisdom in specific situations. The wisdom He reveals will always be backed up by Scripture. The messages of Scripture can also be confirmed by other Christians. Accountability partners, groups, and Christian leaders can give us perspective, help us understand Scripture, and lead us toward the truth if we are missing it.

It also may sound like an attempt at some kind of mystical experience – being led by thoughts and emotions rather than by truth. Again, that is why we test things by the Bible. I will admit, sometimes I think the evangelical church tends to avoid emotions a little too much – our emotions are relevant in worship and it’s okay to get into a worshipful “mood”. But, we need to balance emotions with truth. If listening prayer makes a person feel spiritual, but that person is hearing something contrary to Scripture, then they are not truly hearing God.

Perhaps it needs to be said outright at this point that in order to practice listening prayer, or any kind of prayer, we must be open to hearing God. We need to be ready to hear whatever He is saying to us, whether it is what we hope for, expect, or like, or whether it is different than those things. If we come to listening prayer with an agenda – wanting to hear a specific answer, or to confirm a decision we have already made and don’t want to change, then we aren’t really listening.

There are so many examples through Scripture of God speaking to people. He spoke to Abraham, Moses, and Samuel directly. He spoke to Joseph in dreams, David through a prophet, Ezekiel in visions. An angel came to Mary, Peter had visions, Philip was simply transported by the Spirit! God speaks in many ways, and we can begin to hear Him if we listen intentionally. I like Philippians 2:15, which says, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” This verse implies that God will speak to us, personally! There may be areas where we disagree on theology as Christians, but we need to be listening for God’s voice to teach and guide our lives and actions. Listening prayer is one approach to doing so.

As I’ve learned to practice this type of prayer, I have heard things from God, for which I am very thankful. The things I have heard are rarely neon-sign type direction, but rather increased understanding of what God says in Scripture. Just recently, I had a parenting decision to make, and I asked my prayer team to pray for me and also used “listening prayer” to hear from God. That night, I woke up with a song in my head that is a song of blessing for Christian parents. With the song came great reassurance of the decision I had to make. You can see that this was not some kind of glorious new revelation or even a direct answer to the question. But, the song helped me to understand God’s heart for children, and it brought His comfort and reassurance. And again, I shared it with my prayer team so that they could continue to pray with me over this issue.

Listening prayer is a way that we can become attuned to God’s voice and be intentional in centering our decisions around His will. We can hear Him speaking to us through the Scripture, songs, memories, or thoughts He gives us. And, when we hear from God this way, we confirm it with the truths of Scripture and the wisdom of fellow-believers. Whether we have times of village-quiet, or whether we live fast-paced-city lives, let us take time to listen!