Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Praying as a Conversation - Part 4 of 5

I like listening to my wife talk on the phone. When she speaks, her free hand sweeps through the air in dramatic gestures unseen by the receiver. When she listens, she laughs, sighs, and makes affirming noises. I'm privy only to half the conversation, but I can always tell if my wife is engaged by her tone and body language. The more invested she is, the harder I try to interpret the other half of conversation.

I suppose most of us do not look as invested in the other half of conversation when we pray. If I were to observe the casual prayer encounter, I would not see swinging arms, nodding heads, or hear grunts of agreement. I would guess we're not too engaged. I would move on without trying too hard to eavesdrop.

Sadly, for many of us, prayer is not much a conversation. We tend to lead with requests and end with Amen. Listening for God and to God is not natural. Timothy Keller provides a helpful corrective in defining prayer: What is prayer, then, in the fullest sense? Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him. (Prayer, 48).

Both in his preaching and writing, Keller stresses our need (and privilege) to approach God as Father. As Jesus taught, we are to lead with worship (Hallowed be Thy name), so that God's character dethrones the idol of our needs. When we move into submission, petition, and forgiveness, we must take speaking breaks. Conversation implies times of listening. Active listening.

Jesus provides an essential first step to listening prayer in His sermon on the mount. "Go into the closet," He implores. "Isolate yourself noise and get close to the Heavenly Father (Matthew 6:6)." If anyone modeled a conversational prayer life, it was Jesus (see John 11:41-42). Time and time again, he found quiet places for prayer (see Mark 1:35; John 6:15).

Periods of isolated prayer give way for conversation to unfold. In these encounters, it is helpful to invite God to speak. And when we make the invitation, it is worth quieting our minds and withholding our requests for a period of time to listen for God's voice. 

In The Table of Inwardness, Calvin Miller uses three verbs that call us to interpret what we are hearing: discerning (impressions)…quieting (needs)… expecting (Inwardness, 70-77). Not ever thought to pass through our minds when we pray is a word from God. We must weigh these thoughts against the character of God, His special revelation, and the shape of our spiritual life. In my experience, God does not always speak in paragraphs or full sentences. He gives impressions (peace), phrases (it's not finished), or words (generosity). The effect of His communication is conviction, clarity, or calm. God does not seek to confuse or condemn.

Like all good relationships, conversation is not limited to extensive dialogue. A great deal of important communication happens en route or in passing. We need both types of talking. But the more we set aside time for listening to God, the more likely we are to integrate conversational prayer throughout the day.

Summarizing the Steps to Conversational Prayer:

  • Isolation
  • Invitation
  • Interpretation
  • Integration
Up Next: Structuring our Prayer Lives

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