There are, however, other reasons for muted conversation with God. Like taking our cell phone to a dead zone, our attitudes, actions, and circumstances can make hearing God (and His active listening) suffer. The three obstacles listed below do not constitute every reason. But when we acknowledge and address the three impediments below, we can do our part to clear the lines of communication.
First Impediment: Rebellious living affects the conversation
I often hear people cite Psalm 66:18 as an example that God will not listen to our prayers when we
sin. "If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (NET). The equation can be converted: If I had harbored sin in my heart, I have not listened to the Lord. In both the Old and New Testaments, the verb for obedience can be translated "to hear" (See Deuteronomy 6 or James 2). Of course, some obedience may be in outward form alone, so we cannot insist every act of righteousness means we will hear (or have heard) from God. But we can dogmatically state, if rebellion marks our life, our ears are not attuned to the voice of our Heavenly Father. In Hebrews 3-4, the author makes a strong case for keeping one's heart soft to God's word. Disobedience leads to drifting and eventually to spiritual deafness.
Second Impediment: Rival voices affect the conversation
God does not always shout. Unlike my phone that gives constant push notification, my computer that rings and whirs with updates, and my television that amps the volume when commercials air, our God speaks quietly (see 1 Kings 19). Psalm 46 calls God's people to stillness (v. 10) in the midst of a raging world (vv. 2-3, 8-9), so that we may know Him. Such knowledge goes beyond theological information. Knowing God implies an intimate, yea verily, conversational relationship.
Media are not God's sole rivals. Each of us brings enough internal dialogue to quench the voice of the Holy Spirit. I can obsess about a project, stress about a problem, or retreat to my "mind palace" for solace. In each situation my voice rings in my ears and crowds out God. A good indicator the thoughts in my mind are from me rather than God is the level of self-centeredness. God affirms His children. He speaks words of truth, comfort, consolation, and rebuke. He neither dotes nor condemns.
A final rival in the conversation is Satan. From the beginning of the biblical story, his words drip with cunning, charm, and deception (see Genesis 3). During a dispute with a Jewish crowd, Jesus accuses his opponents of listening to the voice of the devil - their father and the originator of lies (John 8:44). The clearest indication that Satan has intercepted the conversation is its tone: he tends toward seductive or shaming speech. If he cannot lure us into new rebellion, he will chain us to former failures. These include envy, criticism, hatred, self-loathing, and greed.
Third Impediment: Selfish motives affects the conversation
In many of his books, C.S. Lewis remarks on the fine line between pursuing intellectual stimulation or an emotional experience and the pursuit of Joy (or Glory) itself. For Lewis, Joy (or Glory) are metonymy for God. We have all experienced exalted moments, where Joy (or Glory) swept us away. Naturally, we want more. We crave it like Edmund's lust for Turkish Delight, but the object always loses its original power because it was never the ultimate goal.
People who want to converse with God may confuse the conversation with the Creator. I'm guilty of this pursuit. In Cambodia I prayed for the gift of interpretation for the experience of it. In prayer circles I've asked God to shake the room (see Acts 4:31) to say I felt it. In worship services I've called out for revival to be swept up in a movement of His. God never did capitulate.
In his timeless work, Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence warns against seeking an experience of God rather than God Himself.
"There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God. Those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it; yet I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise; but let us do it from a principle of love, and because God would have us. "
An experience of God and a relationship with Him are easily confused. When we love Him, we are better able to hear His voice, silence rivals, and curb our rebellion. And we love Him when we truly accept He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
In Part 3 we consider conversational starting points.