The Basics of Listening Prayer
Jesus said in John 10:27, “My sheep listen to my
I know them, and they follow me.”
I don’t know about you, but for a
long time, this verse bothered me. I was supposed to be listening for his
voice, but mostly all I heard was silence. And this pointed to a deeper
frustration. All my life I had struggled with this problem: I had accepted
Jesus as my savior and was supposed to have this personal relationship with
him, but it didn’t feel very personal. As a teenager, my mom would ask me
the same question every morning at the breakfast table: “Did you have your
devotions?” She meant, had I read the Bible and prayed?
My devotions were dry, routine
affairs. I’d whip through a chapter in the Bible. I’d run down a list of
prayer requests, and I’d check that part of my day off the list. What a
contrast with, say, a date with my girlfriend. When I took her out for
dinner and a movie, sometimes we missed the movies because we couldn’t stop
talking. Our conversations had a momentum all their own.
How discouraging that the
relationship that was supposed to be the most exciting and wonderful in my
life had become a check on my to-do list.
Maybe you are like me – you grew
up having monologues with God and have never heard before that he wants to
talk to you. You’ve not really learned how to hear his voice.
I remember the first time I heard
his voice. It was years later; I was desperate. I had been betrayed by
someone very close to me and I needed to know that God cared. I asked him
if he would share with me what he thought of me. The next thing that
happened changed my life forever. God spoke inwardly to me in a way that
might as well have been audible. He said, “Seth, I love you.”
That did it. I was a junky,
ruined for anything that smacked of a tame, compromising faith. I shared
with my children what they called “praying the new way.” One of them heard
God say, “I love you more than the flowers and the trees.”
After that, we all began to grow
in our ability to listen. We would ask the Lord questions, then listen, and
he often spoke.
In 1998, Allie Pohlmeier traveled
with a team from Judson College to do a project in Matamoros, Mexico. As
so often happens, her heart was touched by what she experienced,
particularly by one family for whom her team built a home. They painted it
green. Before leaving, she took a picture of herself with that family in
front of the home.
In the spring of 2005, she
returned to Matamoros on an AIM project. One day, she asked the Lord what
he wanted her to do. Then she waited and listened. Allie felt the Lord
saying, “Find the green house.”
“But God,” she said, “Matamoros
is a huge place! There may be a million people living here. I have no idea
where that house is - how in the world would I ever find it?”
God said, “Find the green house.”
“But God,” she said, “that’s a
crazy thing. I don’t even know the name of the neighborhood. I have no
idea what the family’s name is. I’ll look stupid!”
God said, “Find the green house.”
Eventually Allie gave in, and
taking the picture of the house with her, started off.
She looked up and down the first
street - no green house. She felt ridiculous, but knew she must obey. She
saw a girl walking down the street, so she approached her, “Could you look
at this picture and tell me who these people are or where this house might
The young lady studied the
picture and slowly a look of amazement came to her face.
“That’s me!” she exclaimed,
pointing at the picture. “That’s our house! I’ll take you to it - it’s
just around the corner.”
As it turned out, she was only a
block away from the green house!
What Allie experienced shouldn’t
be unusual for those of us who listen for God’s voice. Christianity is a
personal faith. God wants to talk to us. He wants to guide us, but we have
How do you listen to an all-powerful but invisible God? The Bible has a
lot to say about it. Over and over God interacts with people in a variety
of ways. Our God is endlessly creative in how he communicates with them.
He spoke to Daniel through visions, Balaam through a donkey, Peter through a
rooster, and of all things, he spoke to Moses out of a shrub. He is a God
who says, “Listen for my voice.”
There are hundreds and hundreds
of examples of God speaking to people in the Bible. It’s his modus operandi
– and he gives detailed instructions for this in both the Old and New
Testament. We also have a rich history of God speaking to man from Jesus’
time until the present - people like Augustine, Mother Teresa, Joan of Arc,
and Brother Lawrence.
In our relationships, we are so
distracted and busy that it’s often the exception rather than the rule that
people listen to one another, much less listen to God. We need to learn how
to listen. Recently I spoke to a church. They asked me to ask for the
church’s missions faith promise offering. I asked, “How did you do last
year?” The answer came back, “Not so well, people gave just 46% of faith
promise monies they had pledged.”
I thought, “That’s interesting.
I’ll bet the reason the figure is so low is not that they don’t have the
money, but that they didn’t hear the Lord correctly. If they heard him
clearly, then the figure would be 100%.”
So I did a survey. “How many of
you feel as though you hear clearly from the Lord?” The answer came back -
that same 46% figure! I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Frankly, almost
everyone struggles to hear God and many people have never heard him.
So how do you do this?
Learning to hear the Lord’s voice isn’t complicated. But it does require
some discipline to find a quiet place and to allow some time just
listening. Perhaps the hardest part is clearing your mind. With all the
noise of life regularly cascading through your mind, it can be hard to hear
God’s voice. There’s no formula, but let me share a few principles that
have worked for me:
Set aside at least half an
hour to start. When you are ready, quiet yourself. If stray thoughts
come through your mind, write them down on a separate piece of paper.
Read some scripture. Ask the
Lord to speak to you through it in a way that you can understand. Ask
God to protect you in Jesus’ name from deception.
Then write down your question
for prayer. Pause. This is where you wait and listen. God may direct
you to another passage of Scripture. He may share a tender word.
Whatever you feel he may be saying to you, write it down.
Ask him to confirm anything he
shared with you.
Some Simple Strategies
Use a journal; it will help
you focus. Plus it’s a great resource to look back and see the journey
the Lord took you on. It also helps fine-tune your spiritual ears to
better hear him. Writing down your impression of the Lord’s responses
creates in you an expectancy that he will respond.
Use two different pens. I
like to use the first color to record my thoughts and the second pen to
record what I sense God is saying. The different colors clarify “who’s
If, when you sit down to
pray, you often have a to-do list pop up in your head, then have another
piece of paper handy to make a list with any other thoughts that pop
up. It’s okay and it’s natural. Just let them come out so you can
How to Test It
Was it a clear word or just
an impression? God may give us different degrees of confidence in what
he has said. We therefore need to humbly admit our fallibility. Get
someone you trust to check your impression and to confirm it or not.
Does it exalt Christ? (John
Is it scriptural? Scripture
is our authority. God does not contradict himself. (Proverbs 30:5-6)
Do other Christians confirm
it? (Proverbs 20:18, Proverbs 15:22)
Does God cause it to actually
take place? (Isaiah 55:11, Deuteronomy 18:21-22)
Vicki Gross was struggling with
this concept, and described a breakthrough that the Lord gave her. “I was
on a school bus full of jabbering, yelling kids. My son was in the back of
the bus. There were 20 rows of children making noise between us, but as I
listened, in the back, I could make out the distinctive voice of my boy. To
anybody else who didn’t know him, his voice would have blended into the
cacophony, but because I know him, I recognized his voice. The Lord showed
me, ‘That’s how you recognize my voice, too. Because you know me, you
recognize my voice, even above life’s noise.’”
God’s voice is distinctive. He
promises that we, his sheep, will hear it. The more you pause and listen
for his voice, the more you will find that your ears tune in to it – you
become familiar with it. It just requires your listening.