I have read -- your words rang true and I saw your hand at work: your love in history, your ancient mystery. I lean back onto your chest to let you do what you will do: talk to me, sing to me, simply rock and hold me. Abba God, my ears feel plugged, my inner eyes are restless! I long to understand. to feel your loving hand! I now wait, quieting the words, settling my questing heart in full submission: contemplation.
“Tell me,” the inquirer said to Jesus, “what is the most important commandment?” And Jesus’ answer set everything in perspective. He cited Deuteronomy 6:4-5: to love God with all you heart, soul and might, and your neighbor as you love yourself. That covers it all, he said.
So how do we become the kind of person who actually accomplishes this?
I have been on a lifelong journey, very slow at times, in coming to understand some foundational practices that stimulate this kind of growth. And one of them is a transformational style of prayer.
Prayer can be an intimate conversation with God, not just recitation or laying out our usual requests. And when we really have deep conversations with someone, we get to know them. When we live with someone, sharing daily life, our conversations can deepen our relationship. If we don’t talk, don’t share, don’t listen to each other, instead we grow farther apart. We don’t really matter to each other.
In Matthew 6:1-4, the passage in the Sermon on the Mount that I’ve been contemplating these last few weeks, Jesus points out that prayer is to be private, not done in order to be seen by others. He is underlining the importance of the heart’s motivation. Is the prayer done in order to be seen as a good person, a practicing Christian? Or is praying a matter of the heart, a deep inner commitment of love and trust? If it is this, it would change who we are and how we live. All would be done for our good Father that we love.
As Donald Hagner pointed out, when Jesus introduced these four verses, he was most likely pairing the practice of prayer with loving God with all your heart, from the key verse in Deuteronomy 6:4-8. The Louw-Nida lexicon explains that the Greek word for “heart” that is used here, καρδία, is a figure of speech that refers to “the causative source of a person’s psychological life in its various aspects, but with special emphasis upon thoughts – ‘heart, inner self, mind.’ ”
So if we are to love Yahweh our God with all of our inner self – our mind, our thoughts, our view of the world – how do we learn to do that through prayer?
I’ve been mentored through the years by many authors (see a list at the end of this blog). What a treasure to have access to their teaching through their books! What truly changed my prayer life and deepened my relationship with my Lord was the recurring theme of learning to listen to God, not just blab to him. Maybe that is partly what Jesus was referring to when he said not to blabber on and on like the heathens do:
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt. 6:1 NIV).
He already knows what we are asking for and what is going on in our lives. So pure repetition is definitely unnecessary. So is the recitation of some formula, thinking that is sufficient.
How would you feel if someone you love were to call you on the phone, talk non-stop and ask you to do all sorts of errands for them, then hang up without giving you a chance to even respond? Brad Jersak asks this question in his book Can You Hear Me? Tuning in to the God Who Speaks. That illustration really convicted me. Yes, getting that kind of call (especially regularly) would hurt me. And yes, that was how I was always talking to my Father. I began to practice listening prayer, as it is called, finding other books on the topic and then taking their counsel. Listening prayer is about making it a conversation.
Over about three decades of practice, I changed a lot. I began to seek out moments of silence and solitude so that I could open the ears of my heart. Some of that journey (like the poem introducing this blog) is shared in the book of poetry that I published last year, When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey. I found that it took at least one hour of silence to “let the mud puddle settle”—the thoughts, concerns, linguistic challenges that kept swirling in my mind. Sitting under the golden rain trees at the side of our house in Ferke, which became my “sacred grove,” nature was around me, joining me in contemplation. My Bible and notepad were in a second chair beside me, reminding me of the Word who is always with us, and providing pen and paper for that moment when a certain thought would become significant. I would take up my pen and become a listening scribe. For me, the thoughts would begin to build into free verse poetry—a prayer, or a message from the Lord to me. A conversation! When the poem did not come, I expressed my yearnings and my trust, and learned to wait. Often, then, I would receive a strong impulse to do a certain act of service. Waiting was worth it!
After a while I even began to sense those nudges as I walked through daily life, and was amazed when I saw the outcome and realized the true source of the nudge.
I know that poetry is not usually the way most people access the message the Lord has for them. My closest friends, including my husband, have found that inner processing is enough, or journaling, or even walking and praying with space for an answer to come. You may be able to add to this list.
As we grow in intimacy with our Lord, delving into his Word, listening, loving him more and more, it does change how we live. We want to be like him. And then, as he promised, he reveals himself to us:
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (Jn. 14:21 NIV)
My husband, my son and I try to have a devotional time together after the evening meal. Recently we read Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church that Transforms, by Jim Wilder. Wilder dissects the final teachings of Dallas Willard at a conference before his death, adding his own experience in neuroscience and counselling to show how attachment to God impacts who we are (our hearts, our minds). He explains “mutual mind,” which is knowing someone so intimately that you intuitively sense what they are thinking or are going to do.
My husband and I laughed as we heard this. We certainly have developed mutual mind during our 49 years of marriage and ministry together. Sometimes I know exactly which pun he is going to make. Or someone will ask me for a certain favor that would also impact him, but I know that he would agree to do that, so I do it. And he has that same knowledge of me. Back in 2004, for instance, we were looking for a house to buy. Civil war in Côte d’Ivoire was keeping us out of the country for three years, and we needed a place to live. We had looked at several low-cost possibilities, but when we walked into the old house in Detroit that was just beginning to be renovated, still littered with some beer bottles left behind by vagrants, we both “knew” this was the place for us. And all these years later, we have increasing assurance that it was our mutual mind with God that also was involved.
Knowing what the Lord wants from us, knowing him intimately enough to be sure of what he values, is a wonderful spot to be in. It is a great life to live. And just as my husband, our son and I are growing in that mutual mind as we increase the depth of our sharing and we journal our listening prayer, spending time with our Lord that includes letting him speak to us will increase the quality of our mutual mind with him. This definitely builds that unity among us that he desires as well.
Are there dangers in learning to listen to the Lord? Yes, some people take their own thoughts and claim that God has said them. There are ways to test what we think we are hearing. Is it in line with Biblical teaching (not just a verse taken out of context)? Is it self-promoting, or promoting God’s purposes? Read and listen to the voices of trusted preachers and authors. Ask the Lord for his guidance.
I could go on and on. But I will just close with a list of some other resources that I recommend. May our God lead us all further in our prayer journey, and may we listen to what he says through his written Word and his promptings and messages!
Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, by Dallas Willard
Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, by Dallas Willard
Joyful Journey\: Listening to Immanuel, by Jim Wilder (for group study in developing mutual mind)
Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal, by Leanne Payne
Hearing God’s Voice, by Henry Blackaby
Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, by Ruth Haley Barton
Prayer and Listening, Jan Johnson (Life Guide Bible Series, IVP)
When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey, by Linnea Boese