One day I was walking in the mall and saw someone I knew. We walked towards each other and as we came near we made eye contact and I said hello and he responded, “Hi, How are you doing?” I was about to tell him but he just kept right on walking. He asked me a question, but did not stay around to hear the answer. I would have been surprised, but I have probably used the phrase, “how are you doing?” in the same way. We ask, but we don’t stay around to hear the answer.
Is that what our prayer life is like? Frank C. Laubach says, “The trouble with nearly everybody who prays is that he says "Amen" and runs away before God has a chance to reply. Listening to God is far more important than giving him your ideas.”
At the ministerial retreat which we had last November, we invited a speaker to speak to us on prayer. The messages which I have shared with you these last three weeks come out of the material on prayer that we learned there. He spoke on prayer, but he also spoke on listening to God and this morning, we will consider this matter of listening to God.
When our kids were younger, they would sometimes ask me to come outside and play catch with them. I might have sent them outside to play by themselves until I was finished doing whatever I was doing. When I came out, they might have been playing catch by themselves or sitting there waiting for me. You see, it isn’t much fun to play catch by yourself. You throw the ball and there is no one to throw I back. That wouldn’t be called “catch,” it would be called “throw.”
Have you ever had conversations like that? You ask a question and you get a one word answer. You make a statement and the other person listens, but makes no reply. A conversation that is a one way street is very frustrating.
Have you ever thought that your conversation with God is a one way street? You pray and do all the talking and God never seems to respond. There are many times when I have felt that prayer is a one way street and it is God’s fault, because he doesn’t talk to me. Such thinking makes me think that he doesn’t want to speak to me or can’t speak to me. Have you ever felt that way?
When we go to the Bible, we learn that such thinking is wrong. We learn that God is very interested in communicating with us.
First of all, we learn that God cares about the details of our life. Here is what Jesus said in Matthew 10:29-31, “For only a penny you can buy two sparrows, yet not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. As for you, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!”
Reading this verse, it seems to me that if I pull this hair from my head, God has just subtracted it from the ones that are there. If God cares about that tiny insignificant detail, how can we doubt that he also cares enough about us to respond to our prayers?
Furthermore, God’s Word has also told us that we will receive guidance from God. One well known verse is Proverbs 3:5,6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Never rely on what you think you know. Remember the Lord in everything you do, and he will show you the right way.”
If you get caught for speeding and try the excuse, “I didn’t see a sign,” you know that it won’t get you very far. The signs are posted and it is up to us to pay attention to them. If we say that God is not speaking to us, but we never read His word, it is just about the same thing. His words are out there for us to examine and read and God speaks to us through them.
II Timothy 3:16, 17 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
I am not going to say much about listening to God speak through His word today, but it is so absolutely basic and foundational to hearing God speak that I must at least say that if you are not spending time daily in His word, you will have a hard time hearing him speak in any other way.
Furthermore, God’s communication does not stop there. As Christians we have the amazing privilege of having God living right inside of us through His Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the disciples in John 16:13, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.”
God cares about the details of our life, he promises to speak to us, he does speak to us through His word and promises to guide us by His Spirit. Above all of that, God invites us to seek Him and his wisdom and promises to answer us and to speak to us about what we need to know.
In fall we studied James and you may remember the verse we looked at in James 1:5 which says, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
From all of these verses and ideas it is quite clear that God speaks to us. Our prayers, our communication with God is not a one way street. God is not silent, He does care. If this is true, then when we feel that prayer is a one way communication, where is the problem? François Fénelon writes, “God never ceases to speak to us, but the noise of the world without and the tumult of our passions within bewilder us and prevent us from listening to him.”
We are like the fellow who met me in the mall. We ask God a question, but we don’t stay around long enough to hear the answer. We are not listening! As we contemplate prayer, there are compelling reasons why we need to take the time to listen to God.
In the messages on prayer which I have already preached, we have learned that God has chosen to act in response to the prayers of his people. Since that is true, it is evident that our prayers are important. God desires our prayers in order to accomplish His work. If our prayers matter and if God has a plan for this world, does it not make sense that he will prompt us to pray? In fact, last week, I said this very thing that we will be moved to prayer by God, as God prompts us to pray.
But what happens if we are not listening? What happens if we never take time to hear what God might want to us to pray about? It is important that we listen to God in order to determine how he wants us to pray.
A while ago, someone spoke to me about what they should pray for. They were in a situation of illness and they did not know if they should pray for healing, for partial healing so some of the more difficult symptoms would be removed or simply to pray for strength to bear what was coming. I have had this discussion many times.
The answer I gave was that we need to be bold in asking God for what our heart desires. I think that in our prayers, we need to ask boldly. Two weeks ago we learned that we have an invitation to pray and that invitation allows us to “come boldly to the throne of grace.”
But that is only part of the answer. The other part of the answer is that as we pray boldly, we also need to listen to what God is saying to us. As we listen to God, he will communicate with us as to how we should pray more accurately in a situation so that through a process of praying and listening, our prayers will come to be according to His will. Prayer is a dialogue. We ask God, he speaks to us and then we speak to him again.
A wonderful illustration of such prayer as a dialogue occurs in Habakkuk.
The book begins with Habakkuk’s complaint. In verses 1-4, Habakkuk has been prompted to prayer by the evil he sees in the nation around him. His prayer has to do with the people of God. His nation is filled with violence and injustice. Habakkuk has seen this among his own people and is wondering why God is doing nothing about it.
In verses 5-11, we have God’s answer. God tells Habakkuk that he is going to bring the Babylonians to destroy his nation. This is a prophecy of what God was intending to do in order to deal with the evil among his people. It is the answer to the prayer which Habakkuk had just prayed.
But the answer did not satisfy Habakkuk. In fact, it brought up more problems for him. Now he is wondering how God can use such a violent and evil people, as the Babylonians, to destroy his own people. He asks in verse 13, “Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” He is truly troubled at the terrible answer to his first prayer. So he prays again in 1:12-2:1.
In 2:2-20, God answers again and explains more of what is happening and assures him that He is still in control. In 2:20 we have that wonderful verse, “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.”
Then in chapter 3, we again have Habakkuk’s prayer and in the end of that prayer we see that Habakkuk has come to peace in the presence of God and to trust him in what he was doing. There we read about the peace which has come to his mind when he prayed, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail, And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold, And there be no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.”
The whole book is a conversation. Habakkuk prays and listens. God hears his prayer and speaks. The first time, Habakkuk’s perception is changed a little and he prays again and listens and God speaks again and brings him to the place of trust and hope.
If we want to pray accurately and grow in our faith and hear God’s direction and God’s answer to our life, then we need to wrestle in prayer. A critical part of that wrestling in prayer is listening. If we only pray and don’t listen, we will never hear what God is trying to say to us, we will never know God’s mind..
This summer when we travelled on our vacation, we spent some time on the freeway because we wanted to get somewhere fast. Freeways are built wide and inaccessible. Once you are on them, you fly. One time we missed an exit and we had to travel an extra 20 miles to get back to where we needed to be. When you travel on a freeway, you go fast, but you don’t see much. Most of our vacation, we took smaller roads so that we could go slower and notice things and stop when we wanted to.
We live our lives on the freeway of life. We want to get everywhere fast and we find it hard to slow down and take time to notice what is there.
In our family, whenever anyone was getting out of control and going too fast and trying to accomplish too much we had a saying. We would encourage the person going too fast to “slow down your soul.”
At the freeway pace of life, we will never have time to listen to God. In Habakkuk 2:1, we have a great pattern to help us understand how we can listen to God. Let me read it in several translations. Good News Bible says, “I will climb my watchtower and wait to see what the Lord will tell me to say and what answer he will give to my complaint.” New International says, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.”
The first thing he says is, “I will climb my watchtower.” The watchtower was a place of waiting or observing. Does it mean that he literally went up on a watchtower or is it intended as picture language? One commentator says that this refers to “the spiritual preparation of the prophet’s soul for hearing the word of God within.” I believe that what was happening was that he was getting away by himself so that he would not be distracted by his work or by people rushing around so that the physical condition of his surroundings would help him to concentrate on listening to God.
John Maxwell, in the book Partners in Prayer, talks about going to a place where he could sit on a large stone and that was his quiet place where he would go on a regular basis to listen to God and to pray.
I have gone to different places to do just that. Sometimes I have gone to a park. When I was in university, I went to one of the chapels on campus. I have a room in our house in which I close the door and that is my quiet place.
In Luke 5:16 we read that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
The advantage of a lonely place is that it is a place where we will not be bothered by other people or other distractions. It allows our mind to get off the freeway and stop to speak to and to listen to God.
I would encourage that we designate this sanctuary as such a place where people could come during the week and let it be a quiet place where you can pray and listen to God.
In the Good News Bible the next phrase is, “and wait to see what the Lord will tell me…”
This next part of listening is to simply wait. In order to wait, we need to be at peace within. You know how kids get when they are waiting for something exciting. They can hardly sit still and they don’t hear anything you say. If we are in that kind of a frame of mind, we will find it difficult to listen to God. We need to have hearts that are calm and calm hearts come from bodies at rest. Psalm 46: 10 encourages us to “Be still…” and Psalm 5:3 says to “…wait in expectation.”
Many times the Bible encourages us to wait upon the Lord. In Psalm 27:14 we read, “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.”
Such waiting takes time. Last week we looked at Nehemiah’s prayer and how God moved him to pray. As we read about that prayer and how it was answered, we notice that Nehemiah 1:1 says that he began to pray in the month of Kislev. Then we notice that he did nothing except pray until about four months later when, in the month of Nisan, he approached the king.
Eugene Peterson says, “In prayer, we are aware that God is in action and that when the circumstances are ready, when others are in the right place, and when our hearts are prepared, he will call us into the action. Waiting in prayer is a disciplined refusal to act before God acts.”
But as we wait, we also remain alert to God. In the NIV, we read the next line, “I will look to see what He will say to me.” What does it mean to “look to see…”
The speaker at the ministerial retreat suggested that as we wait we should be very aware of the mental images which come to mind. He suggested that for some people, God’s answer will come in picture language. That is why the writer says, “look to see.”
I appreciate that and believe that that is how God speaks to some people. My experience has been different, but still in line with the words of Habakkuk here. For me “looking to see” means that I explore thoughts and ideas and lay them before the Lord to test them.
One of the helpful ways to “look and see” whether we look in the world of ideas or the world of pictures is to write down or journal what we are thinking or seeing. When we journal, it helps us keep focused, it helps us remember the questions we have asked God and it keeps a record of the way in which God has spoken to us. It also helps us to check out and make sure that our impressions are God’s direction and not merely our thoughts.
I am not one who likes to write a lot and so my journal entries are often brief and might even sometimes be in point form, but I have found it very helpful to write out my prayers and to write down my impressions as I listen to God.
One of the difficult things is “How do I know if God is speaking to me or if I am just confirming my own thinking?” John White in the book “The Fight” writes about guidance and warns us that it is possible to deceive ourselves. He reminds us that the heart is deceitful. He warns about the “dominance of our conscious and unconscious wishes.” How do we overcome these dangers.
There are several thoughts which help me in this area.
First of all, we need to be reminded about what Jesus said. He promised us, “My sheep hear my voice.” The closer our walk with God and the more we pray and listen to God, the better we will become at distinguishing and recognizing His voice. John White writes, “If I but concern myself with hearing the voice of the Shepherd, paying heed to Christ, obeying Him, doing His will, I shall find that the problem of distinguishing his voice will begin to take care of itself.”
Another thing that can help us is to understand the difference between having a map to show us the way or having a guide to bring us to the place where we want to go. In traveling, I have always felt more comfortable when we have gone with someone who knew the way than when we were just trying to follow a map. There is a difference between guidance and having a guide. If we want guidance, we will concern ourselves with the answer for this time and this issue, but if we want a guide, then we will focus on God and he will be our guide in all of life. “Guidance is meant to be an aspect of your ongoing relationship with God.” “God does not desire to guide us magically. He wants us to know His mind.”
So as we watch, we always need to remain in relationship with God and it is amazing the way he guides us along our way.
The last part of listening to God is to thank him when we receive guidance. In
Habakkuk 3:2 we read, “LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD.”
This is one reason why journaling is so good. We can look back and see how God has answered. When we have heard from God, we need to also praise Him for His answer.
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard said, “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.”
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said, “Prayer begins by talking to God, but it ends by listening to him. In the face of Absolute Truth, silence is the soul's language.”
I am trying to learn this and have been blessed as God has spoken and through His speaking has guided me. I have probably told you this story before, but it was a powerful experience of listening to God for me. When you called us to come here, we wrestled in prayer if this was God’s will for us. One of the difficult aspects was changing denominations because I was quite happy where I was. One day as I was wrestling over this with God, an idea came into my mind. I thought “do I love God or the denomination I am a part of?” I knew right away that this was God speaking to me and it was in answer to this question that I, on my part, answered the question about whether God wanted us to come here.
I would like to encourage all of us in our individual prayers and in our prayers for the work of the church and the direction of the church, not only to pray, but also to listen to what God is saying to us.
Let us pray.
Grant me to be
silent before you--
that I may hear you;
at rest in you--
that you may work in me;
open to you--
that you may enter;
empty before you--
that you may fill me.
Let me be still
And know you are my God.