On the way to school one morning, I tried to explain to my daughter Sophie why we pray:
“When we love somebody, we talk to them. Prayer is talking to God”
“But God doesn’t talk back,” she responded.
From the mouth of babes! She had a point though. If you’re comparing typical human conversation with our communion with the Divine, there are more dissimilarities than similarities. Some stories in Scripture (and Hollywood movies) can give the impression that God should talk to you like anyone else in a back and forth conversation.
Many years ago, when I was a volunteer teacher assistant, my boss put me in charge of an after school running club. Our small, inner-city school didn’t have a track, so we would run on the street sidewalks through our neighborhood. We were leaving school grounds, and the neighborhood wasn’t particularly safe. I had one rule: we stick together as a group.
That never happened. Kids were always running ahead or dragging far behind; a nightmare. Oh, how I came to dread running club with a passion!
One afternoon, when we were beginning to cross one of the drawbridges in the town, one of the little angels had run ahead to the middle. He stopped to look around, and something possessed him to stand on the bottom rung of the railing.
Before I had a chance to respond, we heard a booming and commanding “Get down from there!”
That scared all of us, especially the boy. In confusion, I scanned the area around us. It was coming from a megaphone on the control tower that I had assumed was empty. Turns out that the city had a security guard up there.
I bet you can guess that the boy stayed close to me from that day forward. We would often joke about how the voice of God spoke to him on the bridge that day!
Many people think of God’s voice as loud and commanding. This can be especially true for children, who come to associate authority with the raising of one’s voice. But it can carry through to adulthood. Even if we no longer look for a literal voice from the heavens, we may allow other loud voices fill a perceived void of answers from God.
That’s why one of my favorite Hebrew Scripture passages has to be where God is said to speak to Elijah in a “small still voice.” Elijah is in a cave, pouring out his distressed heart to God. God tells him to stand to attention on the mountain, and what follows can only be described as a cacophony of loud noises: “Then the Lord sent a mighty wind which broke the rocks in pieces; then He sent an earthquake and a fire” (1 Kings 19:12) God’s voice is not to be found in these impressive events. Rather, God whispers in the quiet that follows.
We live in a noisy culture. There are a lot of voices, constantly vying for our attention; sensational news coverage, advertisers, self-improvement gurus. One must shout to be heard, so we might be tempted to imagine God as the loudest of them all. That’s why this passage is so refreshing; the creator of the universe speaks softly.
How and where do we hear this quiet voice? Is it a matter of finding a quiet place, or freeing the mind of distractions? Both can certainly help, but I don’t think God can only be heard when it is quiet. For those of us who must live at least part of our lives in noisy and distracting environments, that would be a sad prospect, especially since we are commanded by Jesus to “pray always.”
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the heart is ultimately where you encounter or stray from God. The heart in this sense is not an organ, but the hidden center of our activity in the world. It consists of our thoughts and desires, both conscious and unconscious. “With all vigilance guard your heart, for in it are the sources of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)
Jesus was a Jew, of course, and spoke from this tradition. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew, 5:8) Do you want to hear from God? Tend to your heart. Keep your heart open for God.
In prayer, we turn to God with our joys and sorrows, our petitions and questions. If our hearts are open, the Spirit prompts or “tugs” at us. Maybe it’s a tug to call an old friend; to give someone the money in our pocket; to look at a situation or person in a new way. This is the gentle whisper of God.
How do we discern the difference between a “Spirit tug” and our own wishful thinking or desires that would lead us away from God? The Bible and two thousand years of Christian practice address discernment from many angles, and it’s not really within the scope of this essay to address the various methods. Rather, let’s revisit my conversation with Sophie.
When the time is right, how might I respond to her in a way she could understand?
First, God’s voice is not like our voice. God voice is like a tugging on our heart. Remember the last time you helped your brother play with his train? You got an idea and it felt right. That is closer how God speaks to us.
Second, we have to be patient. God answers on God’s time. Remember the last time you were surprised by something. Maybe it was stopping for ice cream after school one day? You didn’t plan for that. God’s voice also comes as a surprise. That is why we should always be listening in our hearts.
Finally, Jesus teaches us how to listen for God. In the Bible, we read about how He payed attention to His heart and followed the tugging of the Spirit. The love He showed for others was the fruit of a pure heart.