“A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.” ~ Soren Kierkegaard
(This is part 3 of a series on four essential prayers for faith leaders. You can find part 1 here.)
There was this one training session Jesus had with Peter that was so important Jesus took him through it twice. On two separate occasions in the Gospel record, Jesus caught Peter out fishing, and used the situation to teach the disciple what it means to listen to God, and follow His lead (Luke 5:1-11 and John 21:1-11). I describe the scenario in my ebook Leading Wide Awake:
Peter is a skilled fisherman ~ skilled enough, anyway, to make it his livelihood. He has at least two boats in his fleet, and a small cadre of men working for him. I think it’s safe to say he’s a professional fisherman.
On two separate occasions, though, we find Peter out on the water with his nets and his men, applying all of his considerable skill to catching some fish, but despite all his efforts he can’t catch a thing. On both occasions, Jesus comes onto the scene, and suggests to Peter a new strategy. “Try casting your nets out now,” (strategic timing) or “Try casting your nets out in the deeper water” (strategic targeting).
Now keep in mind that Peter is a professional fisherman. He knows how to fish. He knows what he’s doing. Nevertheless, he follows the strategy Jesus suggests instead of relying on his own experience and know-how, and on both occasions lands such a catch he can barely pull it to shore.
What’s the lesson Jesus is trying to get across to Peter, and through him to us? I think it’s simply this: Following Christ begins with listening. We need to learn to hear His voice, and follow His lead, even when it seems counter-intuitive or doesn’t make sense to us. Jesus himself modeled this way of following when he described His own relationship with the Father:
So Jesus answered them, “I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. ~ John 5:19
Of course, it’s hard to follow God if you don’t hear Him, and you probably won’t hear Him if you haven’t taken time to listen. That’s what the Prayer of Listening is about: Taking time with God to really listen.
The form of this prayer is simple. All you need is a quiet place away from the internet, phone, computer or other distractions, and a journal, pen, and Bible. Once you’re settled in, follow this process:
1. Make a list of topics for which you want God’s direction. Your topics might include things like “my marriage,” “my leadership goals for the coming year,” “my health,” “the conflict happening on staff right now,” or anything else for which you need God’s help and guidance. Keep the list short as you’ll want to give each item all the time it requires.
2. For each topic, take time to be silent and listen for God’s voice. God, what do You want to say to me about this situation? What is Your will here? What do You want for me to learn here? How do You want me to handle this? As you listen, write down any impressions that come to mind: words, phrases, passages of Scripture, images, specific memories. Don’t worry in the moment whether what you’re hearing is really God, or just your own imagination. You’ll discern that over time. For now, just get it all down on paper, even thoughts or images that in the moment seem illogical or out of place.
3. Review what you’ve written and look for trends, themes, or points of deep resonance in your heart. What stands out to you as most important? What most strongly aligns with your own spirit, what you know of God’s character, and the principles of Scripture? What do you need to pray about more, or share with a trusted spiritual friend to gain further discernment?
4. Respond with obedience. When you have clarity on your next step ~ whether that step is one of action, or is more about a shift in attitude or perspective ~ do it. Practice following God’s lead.
But what if you mishear God, and make a mistake? Or what if you try this and hear nothing at all? Like any relational skill, learning to listen takes time, and practice. You probably won’t hear God clearly all the time, especially at first. As Paul says, right now “we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT). But how is that different from any other relationship?
Choosing not to listen for God’s voice for fear of mishearing Him is like refusing to listen to your spouse because you’re afraid you’ll misunderstand them. Of course you’ll misunderstand them sometimes, but you’ll get better and better understanding the more you practice really listening. The same is true for your relationship with God.