I stumbled into listening prayer by accident. After having been a hyperactive church leader, I experienced huge disappointments in my work life and personal life. Everything seemed to fall apart. As a result, I no longer wanted to pray. Somehow I consented to go to a retreat where the speaker was positioned in front of a two-story high window in the chapel. I spent every session staring out that window at the tree-filled mountainside and a tiny tree-house structure near the top. I had a sense of God inviting me to stop being mad and just “be” with him. I stayed afterward in the chapel and shut my eyes knowing God was with me. No words. No tears. I just wanted to be still and know that God is God. I loved it.

Where in Scripture?

I wondered if anyone else ever practiced this wordless prayer. I found some of these moments in Scripture, especially in these three patterns: waiting, resting and delighting.

Waiting

While most people consider waiting to be a negative, tiresome void that happens because what we want has been delayed, waiting on God can be full and rich. It’s active, expectant and open-ended: “Truly my soul silently waits for God; my soul, wait silently for God alone; for my expectation is from Him” (Ps 62:1, 2 & 5 NKJV).

People talk about “being in God’s waiting room” as if it’s worse than a medical waiting room, but listening prayer is full of alert peacefulness. The expectancy is electric as described by Wisdom declaring: “Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway” (Prov 8:34).

Listening prayer trains us to be hopeful and trusting rather than pessimistic and suspicious. “Wait” is often linked with “hope”:

  • We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield. (Psa 33:20)
  • I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. (Ps. 130:5)
  • But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Rom 8:25; italics mine)

Waiting in prayer may involve asking God questions, but we don’t expect God to answer us that moment. Our asking sets us up to hear God later in the voice of a child, in the recalled words of a co-worker, in an article in the newspaper. Often my question is, What do I need to know about … my spouse, a work project, my leg injury? I assume that if I need to know something, God will make it known to me when I need to know it. This puts us in a posture of listening to God in the back and forth of life.

Resting

The shadow of the Almighty is a great place to rest for the soul that is scattered, parched, guilt-ridden, or uncertain. The psalmists spoke to their soul about rest, saying: “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him”; “Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you” (Ps 62:5, 116:7, italics mine).

Delighting

Waiting and resting can lead to delighting: “I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God” (Isa 61:10). “One thing I have desired of the Lord, That will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord All the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord, And to inquire in His temple” (Ps 27:4, NKJV). We realize there’s no better place to be than with God.

One of the best illustrations of listening prayer in general and delighting in particular is one of an old Russian peasant who with clockwork regularity everyday would slip into the church to sit and, apparently, do nothing. The priest observed this every day, and knowing the peasant was poor and needed to be working, finally asked him why he wasted his time every day doing this. The old peasant said, “I look at him. He looks at me. And we tell each other that we love each other.”

Resting in the Word

Listening prayer works well as a follow up to reading the Bible. After we have read it slowly and carefully, we hold it lightly within ourselves. What stood out to us? What do we need to know from this passage about God? From God?

An abbreviated form of the above process is to rest in images as one wakes up or goes to sleep. They might be: the very satisfied sheep laying down in green pasture instead of standing on all fours and eating (Ps 23:2), God singing over us, perhaps even rocking us (Zep 3:17) or even reclining as John did in the upper room with our head resting on Jesus’ chest (Jn 13:23, 25). Then we rest in that.

How We’re Changed

Peace in agitation

Listening prayer slows us down and detaches us from the hurried, harried culture. Life is less like a pressure cooker and more like a slow cooker as we experience space for our thoughts to simmer.

Practicing this quiet prayer makes it easier to be restful even when you wait to pick someone up from school or a busy airport or as you sit in the dentist’s chair. I notice it most after an airplane lands and we passengers in the back wait for the folks in front to deplane. It’s normal for people to complain and even gasp, “I must get out of here.” For several years I prayed the 23rd Psalm in this situation but have gradually slipped into just “being” with God. Yet it’s an alert waiting—you notice who’s struggling: the person getting suitcases out of the overhead bin and or the mom holding a diaper bag and juggling a baby. So you lend a hand.

Waiting and resting train you to be alert to God in all of life. You see and hear God in the flowers around you, in the books you read and in the voices of your teenagers. Honestly.

Able to be changed

Listening prayer addresses the “head to heart” problem of knowing things intellectually but not knowing them in our gut and so not being willing to act on them. It gives time for truth to be embraced and move throughout our soul.

The quiet, restive moments with God melt one’s hard heart. Many times we know what the kind and loving thing to do is in a certain situation, but we just don’t have the kind and loving heart needed to do that thing. I want to be willing to reach out to someone who has scorned me; I want to lay down my self-importance and need to be noticed; I want to stop voicing my opinion when no one is asking. But I can’t quite do it. Sitting with God in the midst of such tension often “slow cooks” the heart into alignment with God’s heart and we find ourselves doing that thing that was impossible before.

Searched and known

In the quiet of such prayer, I see how I have behaved with others—pressuring and condemning or invitational and hopeful. The silence is not always comfortable. God searches us and sees our offensive ways and gently notifies us about them. We may find ourselves praying such things as, “Lord, change me on the inside so I’m different on the outside.”

The faces of those I serve at a drop-in center for the homeless come to me in moments of contemplation at home. In the early years of volunteering, especially, I would hear in my head the shrill words I spoke to a client or feel the resentment toward one I deemed undeserving. In these quiet moments, I saw my real self and asked God to put within me a deeper and quieter love for these “have-nots.”

Nudged forward into service 

We discover there’s no such thing as the Mary-Martha stereotypes, i.e. people are either passive praying-types or active doing-types. In reality, pray-ers make powerful activists and activists cannot survive unless they’re pray-ers. In the quiet, we become motivated by God to roll up our sleeves and partner with God in reconciling people to God, to others and even to themselves. Prayer and action are as inseparable as loving God and loving one’s neighbor are inseparable. And so life is never boring: There’s no better place than to be on the journey with God.

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This article first appeared (in an expanded form) in Conversations Journal, from material found in Jan Johnson’s When the Soul Listens (Colorado Springs: NAVPress), 2nd edition 2017.