Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Listening Prayer

I read a booklet some time ago called God Guides. It really was a booklet: paperback, with staples for a binding. It was written by Mary Geegh, a missionary hitherto unknown to me who spent 38 years as a teacher, pastor, and program director in India.

The booklet was intriguing. It started off with a story about how she, Mary Geegh, had been working in India for some time and found that change was slow to come. She had been working and teaching and preaching and helping, but while people had come to love and respect her, no one really cared to know Jesus or to change the abuses of their social system. No one was interested in the message of grace and new life.

Another missionary came to town to visit her for a week. She told him about her tough work there. He told her gently that maybe God wanted to speak.

He went out the first day of the week and told the villagers that he would be in the church and that if anyone wanted to come listen to God with him, they were welcome.

After a few hours, a man came in. This man drank too much, beat his wife, and was an untrustworthy businessman. He boasted about all his exploits and abuses and then asked this visiting missionary what God thought about it.

"Let's hear what God has to say," he replied. "We'll sit here quietly and listen until God speaks."

They sat there in silence as the minutes ticked by. After half an hour, the man began to cry. "I know I've done many things wrong," he said. "I know I have mistreated my wife and cheated many people. I know it's wrong. I really do want to change; at last, God is telling me I can change. He told me that he forgives me. He told me to go home and apologize to my wife and treat her and others better."

The man left as a new person. Everyone in the town noticed it. The next day, more people came to the visiting missionary. "We want to hear God too."

They told Mary Geegh, "You have done many things for us, but nothing like what this man has taught us. He has taught us that we can all listen to God and hear him for ourselves."

From that day forward, Mary Geegh devoted her work to helping people with Listening Prayer. When people came to her with problems, instead of giving them godly, biblical advice, she would just sit with them and they would wait to hear what God had to say. Sometimes it would take hours; some people didn't want to hear him. But invariably, God spoke. And people changed.

She began the practice in her school as well. Every morning, all the teachers and pupils would sit down for an hour and listen to God. Any time a question arose, they would listen to God. Sometimes the things God would tell her would be very silly, like, "You need to brush your teeth with this particular concoction." When she didn't follow his advice, she soon learned why--and learned to follow next time!

Sometimes she didn't know how to do what he asked. "I know you asked me to buy a train ticket to that place, but I do not have the money to purchase it," she said once. The next day, a man came to her with excess money from the sale of some goods. It was the exact amount.

We don't think God works like this any more. "Prophecy and miracles are something that used to happen, when the church was just starting; God doesn't use those things any more." But people who say this are wrong.

How do you hear God? Does he use an audible voice? How do you know it is God and not your own head making it up? Because we deny the miraculous, we are ill-equiped to answer these questions. But people are asking them.

How do you hear God? Simply, you listen. We've gotten into this mode of prayer where we speak our pleas and requests, maybe some praises if we're really pious, and then we're done. It has become all one-sided. I blame things like facebook and twitter for making us think we can have a one-sided conversation with God--as if prayer is like posting a status update to God, "Here's what I'm doing right now, I'll even send you a photo." God is personal. He may God and not human, but he wants to have a relationship, and he took on our humanity to make it possible.

The fact that our prayers are so one-sided and that we don't believe God works in supernatural ways explains why we have an intellectual crisis about prayer in our modern day. We don't understand prayer. Why does it work? If God knows what I think and feel, why does he need me to tell him? If God knows everything and is in control of everything, why does he need us to ask for things? Doesn't he already have a plan for all things? Or if he really does answer prayer, does that mean he won't step in if I don't pray?

Because our prayers are one-sided we see them only as a tool to change things around us in some visible way--and an unpredictable, half-broken one at that. We do not realize that prayer is a conversation, an interaction, a date, a hang-out. Prayer has become a journal or manifesto; it doesn't matter who is listening.

But prayer is conversation with God. It's sitting down like friends and talking about life. When you talk with a friend, it comforts you and encourages you; they help re-frame things for you and show you points of view you hadn't considered; and they act independently as a second party in the situation later--whether to ask your crush if they are interested in you or to help you get out of a conversation with someone you don't like. They are there in your life, and when you ask them, "Can you pick up some butter for baking on Thursday?" you expect them to do so. You don't go buy butter yourself.

When we pray, we should start leaving room for God to speak, because I'm sure he'd have a lot to say. And when we pray, we shouldn't leave and go try to handle all the things we just prayed about. In C.S. Lewis's book The Screwtape Letters, two demons are writing letters about how to tempt and trip up Christians. About prayer, one demon says:

"When they meant to ask Him [God] for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling."

We pray for help and then judge whether God answered by our own ability to conjure up an answer. But a relationship is about trust. Ask and wait. You will, after all, only know God's true power if you give him room to use it on your behalf.

I suspect that we are too afraid. We are afraid that God doesn't answer prayer. We are afraid that we can't hear him. We are afraid that he won't act on our behalf--or perhaps we're afraid that he will. Our relationship with him needs to become genuine. We need to confront our fears and know the truth. Put God's relationship with you to the test and see what happens when you listen for his voice and when you depend upon him for the requested help. Your relationship with God will grow when you treat it like a relationship.

Learn to let your prayers be conversations. 

- Post-Script -

The demon in The Screwtape Letters goes on to angrily declare:

"Wherever there is prayer, there is danger of His own immediate human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in a quite shameless fashion."

And that is the most beautiful thing about prayer: God reveals himself to us.

I would highly recommend Mary Geegh's God Guides and C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters and Letters to Malcom, Chiefly on Prayer if you would like further reading on the subject. I have found all three to be challenging and heartening, and my relationship with God has grown. The book I would most recommend on the topic, though, is the Bible. Reading the whole thing through will give you a better idea of who God is than any other book.