Prayer Is a Mess, Part 2: Why “Learning to Listen to God,” Is Total Nonsense

–Daniel S. Ferguson

My last post was about how prayer is a mess and a few tips based on my new journey for approaching prayer. I got quite a few responses to this post, but there was a troubling theme among many of them. By and large the most common piece of advice I received sounded like this:

“God is speaking back to you while you pray. You just have to learn to listen.”

I would say that this kind of response is pretentious, but for it to be pretentious it would first have to not be nonsense. There is literally no Biblical example of someone having to “learn to listen” when God speaks. God speaks and people always hear it, they always understand it, and they (largely) always know it’s Him. In the Bible, there is simply no case of ambiguity when God speaks. To claim that there’s ambiguity now is both unBiblical and ridiculous.

It’s religious-sounding crap like this that keeps people out of church and away from Christians in general. When I mention I’m a Christian to outsiders, there’s often a hesitation on their face, as if they’re worried I’ll say something spiritually vague and superior, just like that statement. It takes a lot of work to overcome that expectation and have a real conversation about faith, and you’re not helping when you spew arrogant talk like this.

And yes, it is arrogant. You just made a claim to being closer to God than other people because of your personal religious discipline. You seem to think that by trying harder, you have drawn yourself nearer to the Lord. Not only is that arrogant, it’s directly heretical. It’s counter to any understanding of the Gospel that the Bible gives. God has already drawn near to us, the Bible claims, and this was not of our own doing. When we are close to Him now, it isn’t because we tried hard enough, for then our salvation would be based on works and not grace.

So congratulations. You’ve spewed arrogant, heretical nonsense, just like those outside the church expected you to do. Thanks for making the mission field even harder.

Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so. This is a serious matter. If non-Christian people know you’re Christian, they might come to you when there’s a question of faith on their mind. These questions are substantially likely to come from a place of spiritual or emotional pain for them, and they don’t just want an answer for logic’s sake. They don’t just want a spiritual-sounding response. They want a solution for their soul.

So when they ask you where God is when someone prays, it’s might not be just a logical question that can be resolved through cliché. It might instead have to do with their genuine yearning for a relationship with the divine; it might have to do with the fact that they’re spiritually lonely. They’re reaching out, even in their doubt, and they’re not getting anything back. And that hurts.

Then you say it’s because they’re not trying hard enough.

No, you’re not trying hard enough. Put yourself in their shoes for a second, and imagine how they must feel when they hear that. Confused? Hopeless? Even angry? No matter what, they certainly don’t feel better about their relationship with God. If anything, they may feel like there’s no hope for them, because even if they wanted to “learn to listen,” they wouldn’t know how. After all, the Bible isn’t very helpful on this issue (at least not in obvious ways), and you haven’t offered any constructive advice.

So they walk away, even lonelier and more distant from God than when they came to you. Here you had a phenomenal opportunity to introduce someone to a discipline of faith that will enrich their life and may help them cross from doubt into belief, and you lost them because you decided instead to puke spiritual-sounding heretical vomit straight into their mouth.

I know that I’ll get pushback from this post. I know that people will say I’ve been too harsh or that I’m not being gracious enough. But I really haven’t even touched the surface of how angry this makes me. Believe me when I say this is the most gracious I’m capable of being in response to this.

Perhaps not. Maybe I can say something more positive. Let me take a deep breath.

Deep down, I know you’re trying to be helpful when you say things like this. Despite the fact that it comes off as arrogant and meaningless, I should expect that that’s not what you intended. Sorry for shooting off at the handle. Let me give you another shot.

Because maybe you’re lonely, too. Maybe you’re reaching out for God and not getting very much back. And maybe it’s comforting to think that it’s your fault, that if you could just reach out a little harder, then you would have the relationship with God that you’ve always wanted. Maybe you want to think that the power to have a friendship with the divine is in your hands, because then at least you could keep stretching for it.

I can get that. That makes sense. But please know that it’s not your fault. You are not the reason you can’t hear God speaking in your life. You are not responsible for that. It may be comforting to think that you’re in control, but ultimately that means you’re carrying a burden you were never meant to carry.

I completely understand the desire to want to connect to God; I have that desire, too. But relationships go both ways. All relationships, even this one. No, you don’t have to “learn to listen.” You just have to learn to trust. God is there, not out there in the distance, but right here, right alongside. I don’t know why He doesn’t talk back to you or me; I wish He did. It really hurts sometimes that He doesn’t, and it doesn’t always feel loving. But I don’t believe He has abandoned us, not for a second. I think He just loves watching the look in our eyes every time we glance up to see Him still there. Parents like peek-a-boo, too.

“Truly, thou art a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, Savior!” (Isaiah 45:15). Just, you know, show yourself once in a while. Preferably in a way I can directly see and enjoy. K, thanks.

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1 Comment

  1. I agree with what you are saying in this post. Things can come off as arrogant, particularly when a hurting person is doing all that they know how to do. I particularly liked this sentence: “They don’t just want a spiritual-sounding response. They want a solution for their soul.” So true!

    Liked by 1 person

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