What comes to mind when you think of prayer? My first thoughts tend to be of the words I use and the act of reaching out to the Lord. I think of gratitude, and acknowledging the need for the Lord’s guidance. While these are important, I recently questioned whether I do more speaking or listening when I pray. It seems so obviously misguided to approach prayer with the mindset that I’ll do the reaching out and the Lord will do the listening, yet I find myself falling into that mentality. I often find myself praying more for the sake of talking than for the sake of listening. Prayer should be a two-way conversation though, and sometimes I forget that I have a responsibility to listen.
There are various ways to listen to the Lord. A few examples might include reading the Word, being willing to learn from others, and noticing the small blessings in our lives. During prayer however, I sometimes find listening to be much more difficult.
Perhaps being a verbal processor is part of what makes listening difficult for me. I tend to feel a need to perfectly and exhaustively articulate what I’m struggling with, or how much I want to accept guidance and to do the right thing. As if He won’t understand if I don’t. As if it won’t count if I’m not thorough. As if my words have more power than the Lord does. How silly.
Another thing I find can make listening difficult is the natural tendency to be focused on our active roles in things. It can be much easier to do, than to pause; to take action, than to step back and trust the process; to talk, than to listen. We want to be forging ahead and being useful. The Lord does want us to do, talk, and take action. It’s our duty, in fact. He’s given us our freedom and rationality for a reason, and it’s part of His providence that we act from them as if of ourselves. However, it’s also important that we acknowledge that really we are nothing without the Lord. Reflecting on my day to day mindset, I notice how frequently I’m making decisions, figuring things out, and being in charge. Day in and day out, I’m at the center of my universe. I’m in control. Do I remember to give this mindset a reality check when I pray? How often am I still in I-have-to-figure-this-out mode when I pray – as if the Lord is there to help my efforts, rather than the other way around?
I have noticed how often I say things like “please guide me,” and “Thy Will be done,” only to then end my prayers and carry on my life as usual, presuming He’ll get back to me when He’s ready. But He’s always ready. In reality, I’m the one who needs to make myself ready and willing to genuinely make space for Him. The Lord says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:20). The ball is always in my court.
Perhaps integrating time to focus on simply listening to the Lord would help my prayers for guidance become more sincere. Doing my best as I navigate things doesn’t necessarily mean I’m listening too, after all. Waiting patiently while I carry on isn’t the same as listening. I can be giving my all, and still missing something if I’m failing to pause and intentionally invite the Lord to be my reason and my compass. As important as my efforts are, they only make up half of the picture.
There is use in recognizing and articulating what we’re thinking and striving for. But it’s all about balance. Focused on our own understandings and thought processes, we may only be able to see answers that fit our own agenda. When we speak to other people, aren’t we supposed to be actively listening, instead of listening for the sake of further emphasizing our own point of view? It seems astonishingly easy to forget this rule when talking to the Lord. Shouldn’t we be just as eager to hear what the Lord wants from us? It seems foolish to cheat ourselves of His infinite wisdom and mercy by forgetting to turn a listening ear to what He might be communicating. Don’t we owe Him a turn in the conversation, and the respect of our full and undivided attention?
Lately I’ve been trying to say “please guide me,” and then make myself silent. It can be an uncomfortable position for me. I squirm in my silence. I want to make sure He knows what I mean. I want to band-aid the unknowns by focusing on what I do know. I squirm as that silence increasingly pushes me to loosen the reins on my illusion of control. I squirm because my trust in the Lord and His providence is being tested. It’s uncomfortable.
And yet slowly, sometimes the discomfort eases a little and it starts to become relieving to let Him be in charge; to be okay with “I don’t know” and “I’m listening.”
I know the answers to my prayers won’t always be what I want, or when I want, or even recognizable at all. But I wonder what might happen if I stop and simply say “Lord, I’m listening” more often. I wonder what might happen if I lift the constraints of my own perspective when I pray, and allow for the possibility that He might have things to say too. How exciting to think that He might have paths and plans for me that haven’t even crossed my mind!
“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people…” Psalm 85:8