Say, “Speak, LORD, for
your servant is listening.”
-- Eli to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:9)
Prayer wasn’t meant to be a monologue, but a dialogue. A two-way connection.
But listening to God can feel like an intimidating task. We’re often encouraged to go to a quiet place and to wait. But when we go, for some of us, nothing happens. The heavens don’t part, the glory cloud does not come down to rest on our souls. Instead, in the silence, the pulse in our ears start to beat like jungle drums, and we wonder if we’re spiritual at all.
The practice of hearing God feels elusive and mysterious, and if we’re honest, it can be quite frustrating.
But the Scriptures keep pressing us to hear God’s voice. The people in the Bible, from the Patriarchs to the Prophets to Peter to Paul -- all seem to be able to hear God’s voice leading and guiding them. They get direct guidance. The Scriptures promise that we have the Spirit living in us (1 Cor. 6:19). In John 10:2-4, we’re told that we would be able to recognize His voice, out of the many, many voices out there. Later, in John 14:26, Jesus said that the Spirit “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
But there’s a huge chasm between these biblical examples and our current reality, it begs a question:
Should it be this hard?
And if not, are there some concrete practices that can help us hear God more clearly?
Critiques of Guided Listening Prayer
For some, listening prayer itself is suspect in the expression of Christian faith. It feels too subjective, too prone to emotionalism and spiritual abuse, if not downright dangerous. For others, it seems to press against the centrality of Scripture: if we’re always seeking God’s voice -- a subjective experience -- then won’t these practices erode the objective authority of Scripture in our lives?
My quick answer is two-fold. First, for right discernment during listening prayer, Scripture must remain central. Second, I turn to a quote from Dallas Willard in Hearing God:
Hearing God? A daring idea, some would say--presumptuous and even dangerous. But what if we are made for it? What if the human system simply will not function properly without it? There are good reasons to think it will not. The fine texture as well as the grand movements of life show our need to hear God. Isn’t it more presumptuous and dangerous, in fact, to undertake human existence without hearing God? (11)
So yes, listening prayer can go badly if done wrongly or poorly, but if done biblically and rightly, it’s worth the risk.
But let me zero in on more specific critiques about Guided Listening Prayer in particular. But first, let me offer a definition. In short, Guided Listening Prayer are a form of guided meditation -- either individually or in larger settings -- that leads someone prayerfully through a scene in their mind’s eye. Sometime during the scene, Jesus is introduced, and people are asked what they hear from him.
Some believe that there isn’t any Scriptural precedent for this kind of listening prayer exercise, and thus, it shouldn’t be used. In the very least, they think it shouldn’t be promoted as a major evangelistic strategy. Also, in Scripture, it seems that God often takes the initiative to create an image or scene for people, but Guided Listening Prayer seem to place the initiative with human beings. The leader of the exercise is setting the scene. Therefore, aren’t we just asking people to see what we, as ministry leaders, want them to see and hear, or what they themselves want to see and hear? By having some sort of prompt, are we really just tricking ourselves into thinking that God is actually speaking?
Dealing with underlying assumptions
At first glance, the argument seems reasonable: if the practice isn’t in Scripture, then we shouldn’t promote it as a major ministry strategy. But when we dig a little bit, the logic doesn’t always hold. There are many major strategies we use that don’t have explicit mention in Scripture. The most obvious come from the realm of technology: we have major social media and digital communications strategies that aren’t explicitly in Scripture. There are no biblical mentions of Snapchat or Facebook. Add worship leading techniques, management techniques, even preaching techniques -- and we find ourselves often without an explicit biblical mention. Even the prevalent practice of closing our eyes in prayer is hard to find in Scripture. Still, we have these practices, we teach them, and we use them.
But how is this legitimate, if it’s not explicitly in Scripture?
It’s because we study the Scriptures in their original historical and cultural contexts, derive the principle from the texts, and then apply them to our current contexts. Much of ministry today happens not because it is explicitly there, but because it is derived from principles that we know to be based in the Scriptures.
So to be fair, the explicit use of Prompts is not extensive, but I think 1 Samuel 3:1-19 is such a passage. The boy Samuel is sleeping by the Ark, where God’s presence was thought to be. God calls out to him, but the boy doesn’t recognize Him. This happens three times, and Eli figures out what’s going on, and gives him a spiritual exercise. It’s a Guided Listening Prayer exercise: “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ ” So now, armed with a concrete exercise, he is able to focus and recognize God’s voice. He would be so renowned for hearing God that it would be said of him: “The LORD was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground.”
You might say that God is still taking the initiative. But in our day and age, God is still taking the initiative with all of us. We, like Samuel, are just not aware of it. And sometimes we need something like a Prompt to help us tune in.
Biblical guidelines of Guided Listening Prayer
Still, are there biblical guidelines can be derived that can serve as a foundation for Guided Listening Prayer?
1. God speaks in a variety of ways.
Here’s a list Sánchez-Herrera and Ball came up with in their Listening Prayer
article, and it’s not even complete:
- a particular scripture coming to mind (Acts 1:20; Acts 13:16ff)
- a picture or vision (Acts 10:11-17; Acts 16:9-10)
- a dream (Daniel 4:4-17; Daniel 7:1-14)
- an interpretation of a dream or vision (Daniel 4:18-27; Daniel 7:15-27)
- a picture or impression of a word (Acts 10:3ff )
- a sensation or pain in one’s body (Acts 9:8-9)
- a spiritual song (Acts 16:25; Ephesians 5:19)
- divinely sent messengers or angels (Acts 1:9-11; Acts 8:26) (Philip is told to go south to Gaza—that’s all—but along the way he bumps into a seeker, and it’s obvious to Philip this is the reason he was told to come.)
- signs and wonders (Luke 23:44-45; Acts 5:18-21; Acts 9:36-42; Acts 12:6-11)
- restriction of movement and speech (Acts 16:6-8)
It’s just to say that God will not be limited by my theological or experiential boundaries. He’ll even speak through an ass, and I’m not judging someone’s personality (Numbers 22:21-39).
2. Human initiative is encouraged, and does not undermine God’s initiative. Some may think that God speaks to us abruptly and out of the blue, perhaps like Moses’ burning bush. And that does happen. But more often than not, our spiritual effort puts us in a place to receive God’s initiative. As I’ve heard Dallas Willard say: “Grace is opposed to earning, but not effort.” In a sense, we can take steps to hear God better, if he chooses to speak.
These rhythms prepare us, such as Samuel’s sleeping near the Ark, a symbol of God’s presence, before he hears his call (1 Sam 3). Or Jehoshaphat calling the entire nation to fast and gather to pray, before they hear from the prophets (2 Chr 20). Or when Jesus took Peter, James and John up to a mountainside to pray -- part of Jesus’ regular rhythm -- before they saw Moses and Elijah, and heard God’s voice (Matthew 17:2, Mark 9:2–3, Luke 9:28–36). The fear-huddled followers were praying in the upper room before the Spirit blew through and the Church was born (Acts 2). The Antioch missions outpost were praying and fasting before they heard the Spirit give them their next steps (Acts 13:1-3).
These rhythms -- like any spiritual discipline -- don’t force God to speak. It’s God’s choice to speak or not. He always takes initiative, even if we think we are. We are merely creating an opportunity. Even when we read the Scriptures, it seems that we’ve taken the initiative to pick up the text. But God actually prompted someone to write the text, and He can take the initiative to speak to us through the text. It is always his initiative. We may go to church on what seems to be our initiative, but God will choose to speak to us through the worship service. And in the end, even these acts are prompted by God’s spirit, and that only bolsters the point: Prompts are not undermining God’s initiative, but merely placing us in positions to receive whatever God might want to do. He blows with his wind, but our rhythms allow us to put up a sail to catch as much of it as we can.
3. We don’t speak for God; that’s left open. It’s unfair to say that these Guided Listening Prayer actually determine what God is saying to people. We merely set up a scene -- a visual focus for meditation -- but how God looks, interacts, and speaks is always left up to God. No Guided Listening Prayer exercise seeks to actually tell people what God is saying.
Guided Listening Prayer does not make God speak. Instead, it gives us a focus. Like Scripture reading or meeting in a small group, consider this another form of concentration. It’s giving God an opportunity to speak to us, and under no measure, are we filling in the content of that message. We are merely creating a vessel that the Spirit may choose to fill, or not. It’s a rhythm. We take initiative to place ourselves in a place to receive whatever God has for us. But God himself will take the initiative to speak to us.
4. Discernment happens through community. In 1 Corinthians 14:29, whatever a prophet might say in the Christian community is to be weighed by the rest of the community. The Spirit doesn’t merely live in each of us (1 Cor 6:19), but the Spirit also dwells in the community as a whole (1 Cor 3:16). Therefore, anything that is thought to have come from God should be tested through the community of believers. If someone uses their prophetic gifts to undermine valid spiritual authority and divide the community, they do not speak on behalf of the Lord, for the gifts were meant to build the community up (1 Cor 12:7, 14:26).
5. Scripture is central, and all revelation is tested against it. In Acts 17:11, the Bereans are considered more noble because, “for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” With “great eagerness” meant they were open, and yet, they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” They tested his words against the Scriptures, and it was attributed to them as “more noble.”
The Bible is our standard, and so any revelation that comes from God will not contradict it. In fact, 1 Corinthians 14:3 says that prophecy is for “their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” If it doesn’t strengthen, encourage or comfort, then it should be treated with suspicion. Also, words from God should bear the fruit of His Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), and if they don’t, then they should be discounted. In this way, even though we allow for subjective experiences in God, all things still need to be tested with Scripture.
Given these guidelines, my hope is that we hold onto the authority of Scripture while not quenching the Spirit.
Historical precedent: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
In addition to biblical guidelines for Guided Listening Prayer, there is also precedent in Christian history. In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, highlights different forms of prayers that have helped Christian pilgrims over the centuries. I just want to highlight two of them for the purposes of this article, while a third way (lectio divina) is already well-received, and is highlighted in other prayer resources.
Bible-based Guided Listening Prayer: Ignition Contemplation
Sometimes, Guided Listening Prayer can happen through a Scripture passage itself. Jesuit James Martin writes this:
In Ignatian contemplation, you “compose the place” by imagining yourself in a scene from the Bible, or in God’s presence, and then taking part in it. It’s a way of allowing God to speak to you through your imagination (James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, 2012, 145).
Ignatius really wanted us to experience the passage, and he highlights a method of doing this in his Spiritual Exercises called “composing the place.” At the start of almost every exercise, he wanted people to enter into the Gospel narrative as deeply as possible:
It should be noted at this point that when the meditation or contemplation is on a physical object, for example, contemplating Christ our Lord during His life on earth, the image will consist of seeing with the mind’s eye the physical place where the object that we wish to contemplate is present. (Ignatius, 54).
Then in the second week of the Exercises, he presses in further and invites us to use our five senses to contemplate a place: to see, hear, smell, taste and touch the scene in our mind’s eye. In this way, you can invite people into the passage to experience it, and let God speak to them through it.
As discussed above there are ways that this way of praying can go awry. James Martin found himself a bit incredulous when it came to using his imagination in prayer. But after a conversation with a mentor, he found himself coming to terms with the idea:
Using my imagination wasn’t so much making things up, as it was trusting that my imagination could help to lead me to the one who created it: God. That didn’t meant that everything I imagined during prayer was coming from God. But it did mean that from time to time God could use my imagination as one way of communicating with me (Martin, 146).
Trinity-based prayer prompts: Colloquy
Instead of a Bible passage, a person of the Trinity can also be the focus of a Guided Listening Prayer exercise. At the end of most of Ignatius’ Exercises, he invited us into what he called a colloquy. Ignatius would change the scene and the person you are talking to from exercise to exercise. For our purposes, think of a conversation with a Person in the Trinity. For example, you basically imagine that Jesus is with you, and then you talk to him as if you’re having a normal conversation. Here’s what he wrote in the first exercise:
The colloquy is made properly by speaking as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant speaks to his master, now asking some favor, now accusing oneself for some wrong deed, or again, making known his affairs to Him and seeking His advice concerning them. (Ignatius, 56).
In sum, derived from Biblical principles and illustrated by Christian history, there seems to be at least be a place for Guided Listening Prayer in our movement, and I hope that it will be used not only to grow our intimacy with Jesus, but to help our friends who don’t know Jesus yet to recognize His voice, and repent and believe.