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.

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.

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