Is God Hard of Hearing?

Despite the countless number of books on prayer that have been written, C. S. Lewis observed that he had never come across one that was of any use to him. Ironically, he made this observation in a book he wrote about prayer. Lewis said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to those written about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader. Or, at least, they made the wrong assumption about the kind of reader Lewis was. “The author assumes that you will want to be chatting in the kitchen when you ought to be in your cell,” he observes. “Our temptation is to be in our studies when we ought to be chatting in the kitchen.” 

I have often felt something similar. Books about prayer never seem to fit my situation. They either assume that I don’t want to pray or that I don’t know how. Neither is really the case. My problem lies elsewhere. I have been praying for as long as I have been a Christian. Longer, even. I’ve never felt that my problem with prayer was a matter of mechanics. Prayer never seemed like rocket science to me. You just talk to God. When I became a pastor, I became a praying professional. That is to say, prayer was a part of my job. I prayed publically as the church worshipped. I opened board meetings with prayer. I led the church’s weekly prayer meeting. I prayed for the congregation in my study. And I prayed with those who came to me for counsel. Over time I discovered that most people are like me. We pray, sometimes frequently, but there is something about the experience that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and vaguely dissatisfied. We aren’t sure why.

Our Problem is Relational

It seems to me that the primary problem most of us have with prayer has nothing to do with motivation or method. Our problem is relational. We don’t like the way God treats us. We feel like we are doing all the talking. It’s hard to carry on a conversation with someone who never talks back to you. After a while, a person begins to feel like the other party in the conversation is disinterested. Even when we do get an answer to our requests, they rarely seem to take the form that we anticipate. God’s disposition is unreadable and His paths seem oblique.

The main reason for this is because prayer is a conversation that moves primarily in one direction. It moves from the believer who prays to the God who hears. God’s silence does not mean that He is unresponsive. Good listeners are often silent when they are paying attention. It is true that in ordinary conversation, silence can also mean other things. When we try to talk to others, people may respond with the silence of disinterest, rejection, or even complete absence. But where prayer is concerned, the fundamental assumption of faith is that we have God’s attention. If we ask whether God is hard of hearing, Scripture’s emphatic answer is no: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).

Why do I feel that God is unresponsive to my wishes?

The one guarantee we have in prayer is that God always hears us. But there is more to this hearing than awareness of our requests. The key to understanding John’s bold and frequently misunderstood promise is to note that to “hear,” in this sense, means something more than to take notice of something. To hear as John uses the term is to grasp the full implications of what we say. God knows both our desire and our true need. He also knows how our request fits into His plan.

John’s condition that our requests must be “according to His will” is not God’s liability clause designed to protect His reputation if we find the answers to our prayer disappointing. This is a condition that implies that we have a responsibility to consider the nature of our requests before we make them. Do we have a warrant to ask such a thing of God? Is it something for which He has told us to pray? How does the request fit with a larger understanding of God’s general will and plan for our lives? What is our motive in asking? God’s hearing of our prayers includes an assessment of everything that lies behind them.

We Misinterpret God’s Silence

We misinterpret God’s silence if it leads us to think that we are the initiators in prayer and that God stands by impassively as we wait to see what He will do for us. The Scriptures paint a very different picture. They show that God moved in our direction first. “The first word is God’s word,” Eugene Peterson explains. “Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary.”

woman in black jacket and black pants sitting on white staircase

For this reason, Peterson describes prayer as “answering speech.”   Consequently, our prayers are a conversational answer to what God has already said. Prayer is a response to an invitation, extended to us through Jesus Christ, to express our needs and desires directly to God. The fact that God does not answer in kind when we speak to Him in prayer does not mean that God has nothing to say. As the hymn writer declares, “What more can He say than to you He hath said, You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”

Scripture is an essential companion to prayer, not only because it teaches us how to pray but because it shows us where the conversation began. The Bible tells us what God has already said. By reading it carefully, we develop a way of thinking about prayer. We begin to understand the one to whom we are speaking.

It is easy to accuse God of being unresponsive to our prayers because we cannot hear His voice. But the truth is, we are the ones who are disengaged. God has spoken first, but we do not take His words into account. We are deeply interested in getting what we want when we pray but not nearly as concerned about God’s wishes. I am not saying that we have never read the Bible or that we have no interest in God. Only that we tend to be single-minded. We do not bother to consider God’s point of view. We are waiting for Him to respond to us when, all the while, He has been waiting for us. We are hoping that God will say something new without bothering to orient our prayers to what He has already said.

Would we pray differently if we believed that God’s silence meant that He was truly listening? It might help if we thought of prayer as communion instead of conversation. The essence of communion is shared experience. We usually interpret God’s silence as absence or disinterest. But in true conversation, listening is interaction as much as speech. Indeed, genuine listening may be even more of an exchange than words because, to really listen, we must enter into someone’s experience.  We have all had conversations where the other party did not really hear what we were saying. Their silence was merely a pause before speaking. We ourselves have been guilty of this. Such conversations are not conversations at all but merely an exchange of sounds.

Silence & Presence

Silent listening is essential to genuine conversation. It is also a common attribute of the experience of communion. Every happy couple knows that the joy of conversation is not the chatter but the pleasure of exchanged presence. The Christian idea of communion is rooted in the biblical concept of koinonia, a Greek word that means fellowship or sharing. Sometimes koinonia speaks of our experience with God, and at other times, of our experience with other believers. There is a connection between these two. In 1 Corinthians 1:9, the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that God had called them “into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Such language denotes a special kind of relationship.  It is a fellowship or union with Jesus Christ. The church celebrates this relationship when it observes the Lord’s Supper, a rite that we often call “communion.” But the spiritual communion Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:9 is something more. Fellowship with Christ is an abiding union with our savior. Those who have been called by God and have trusted in Christ are themselves “in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

This union is what Jesus prayed for when He asked that all those who believe “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17: 21).  He went on to ask, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” We often view Jesus’ words as a prayer for church unity, and unity is partly in view. But Jesus was asking for much more. Our mistake has been to see Jesus’ words as a statement of aspiration. Interpreted this way, Jesus’ words are more of a wish than a prayer.

If desire were all that Jesus meant, He might as well have said, “Father, I hope that they will be one.” Indeed, this is exactly how we usually hear this text preached in church. The emphasis is not on what God has done in response to Jesus’ prayer, but on what we are supposed to do if it is ever going to be a reality. Instead of a prayer addressed to the Father, we have changed it into a sermon preached to the church. But the “may be” of verse 21 is not a maybe. It is a “let it be” that echoes the Father’s declarations at creation. Just as God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, Jesus prayed, “Let them be one in us and in one another.”

What does this have to do with our prayers? It means that communion is a state before it is an experience. Communion is still a fact even when we do not sense its reality. God hears us when we pray, even when the silence leaves us feeling like we are talking to an empty sky. God is present when we pray, even when we do not sense His presence. Sometimes when we pray, we act as if we need to attract God’s attention. We feel like a person on the ground waving their hands at a plane passing high overhead, hoping that someone up there will see them. But God does not have to come down from on high to take note of us. Nor do we need to arrest His attention. Although we often talk about “coming” into God’s presence, the truth is that we are already there. Whenever we pray, and even when we are not praying, we are always in the Father and the Son. God cannot be any closer than He already is. Even if we were in heaven (Rom. 10:6-8).

When God Says No

In the early days of my walk with Christ, I was taught to believe that miracles were an everyday occurrence. The Christians I knew were generous in their definition of what constituted a miracle, as likely to call a good parking spot an act of God as someone’s sudden recovery from cancer. Every situation was treated as an occasion for divine intervention. I confess that this was part of what attracted me to the Christian faith. I was not interested in a God who was merely an abstraction; I wanted to know that God was real. I was looking for a God who paid attention to me when I spoke to Him. It did not occur to me that I was the one who was supposed to do the listening.

I often prayed for God to intervene in my life. But I did not always get what I wanted. I asked Him to heal my mother when she was unexpectedly hospitalized for an illness that the doctors did not seem to be able to diagnose. She died. I asked God to deliver my father from alcoholism. He did not. I prayed to win the lottery (only once). You can guess how that turned out. I am not saying that God has never answered my prayers. Only that God refused my request often enough to know that an affirmative answer is not always a given.

 “Them that’s got shall get, and them that’s not shall lose,” Billie Holiday sang. The whole world seems to be divided into a few privileged people who get everything they want and the majority who do not. Why not Kingdom of God too? We often wonder why God grants to others the thing He denies to us. The effect this has on our prayers is often an attitude of ambivalence. We conclude our prayers with a resigned shrug and interpret delay as denial. We secretly think that God is playing favorites. But the truth is we are the ones who suffer from bias. Our memory is selective, more inclined to dwell on God’s refusals than to remember the many times He has granted our requests. Impatience distorts our sense of God’s timing in His answers so that we ignore the winding and unexpected path that leads from entreaty to answer that earlier generations called providence.

Praying Like a Child

Such thinking is childish, of course. Yet there is no spiritual act that is more childlike than the act of prayer. Jesus acknowledges as much when He encourages His disciples to be persistent in their praying and asks: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matt. 7:9–10). When it comes to our most basic needs, God often grants them without our even having to ask. He “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). God “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25).

God is generous by nature. But He is no pushover. Whatever our prayers are, they are not a means by which we may manipulate God. We cannot bully God or wheedle Him into granting us the answer that we prefer. The divine right to refuse our requests is necessary if prayer to be something more than a merely mechanical or transactional event. Anthony Bloom’s observation about the possibility that those who pray might still experience the absence of God’s presence also applies the answers we seek in prayer. “If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter,” Bloom explains. “We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person.”

Mechanical Praying

In His teaching about prayer, Jesus described this same mechanical style as the sort of approach the pagans use when they pray, “for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). The one who piles up words in prayer has lost sight of God. When we cease to relate to God as we would a person, He might as well be a vending machine. At best, we treat God as if He were a mere functionary, the same way we might treat someone who gives us our order at the drive-through. We are hardly aware of them. We hand over our money, take our meal and drive off. We don’t know their name, and minutes after we have left the parking lot, we cannot recall their face.

unrecognizable men praying in old catholic church

Our failure to grasp this can turn prayer into an attempt at manipulation. We desperately try to gauge whether the amount of our faith is enough to trigger the desired response from God. This uncertainty, in turn, lends itself to spiritual posturing. We put on a show in the vain hope that we will somehow convince God that we have the kind of faith that warrants an answer. We fuss over our delivery, trying to sound confident and prove that we have enough faith to gain our request. Or we conclude that the weight God will give to our prayers is a function of the number of people we can persuade to take up our request. We approach prayer as if it were an oral petition drive, hoping that the sound of so many others will drown out the uncertainty of our own voice. We mount a lobbying campaign, inviting those we consider spiritual authorities to pray for us, convinced that their prayers have more influence with God than ours.

More than Answers

Miracles do not always lead to faith any more than answers to prayers do. John 6 tells how the crowd followed Jesus to the other side of the lake after He fed the multitude. “You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill,” Jesus chided them (John 6:26). The Israelites ate bread that fell from heaven and still grumbled about the menu. The disciples saw Jesus raise people from the dead. But when the women came and told them that they had seen Jesus alive after His crucifixion, they thought they were talking nonsense (Luke 24:11).  As important as the answers to our prayers are, there is more to prayer than getting. Getting the answer is certainly no small thing, but it is not the only thing. “In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prays three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not,” C. S. Lewis points out. “After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.” That one denial, combined with Jesus’ resigned, “Yet not my will, but yours be done,” is evidence that prayer is an exercise in trusting God’s answer as much as it is the act of making our request (Luke 22:42).

When I was a boy, Superman was my favorite television show. I wanted to fly like him, so I did the natural thing. I asked my father to teach me. When he told me that he did not know how to fly, I didn’t believe him. It is in a child’s nature to assume not only the willingness of their parents to grant their requests but their ability to do so, no matter how unreasonable the request may be. One of the first lessons of maturity is that of learning to accept our parents’ limitations in such matters. But where our prayers are concerned, the limitation is with us rather than with God. We are not always the best judge of what we need. Like a child who demands a pony for Christmas, our requests are sometimes frivolous. Others are selfish. A few of the things we ask for may even be so bad for us that God dismisses them outright. Yet, many of our requests are reasonable and even beneficial.

If the Bible reveals anything about God’s power, it indicates that He is a God of miracles. All the miracles of Scripture ultimately point to the miracle of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the central miracle of the Bible, the one which makes our salvation possible. Yet it is a miracle that was possible only because the Father refused the Savior’s prayer in Gethsemane. We do not always understand why God withholds from us the thing we have asked of Him. But we do not need to know why to understand that His answer is good for us. The Father’s refusal of the prayer of His own Son is all the proof we need that sometimes God’s “no” is more loving than His “yes.”

John’s latest book, Dangerous Virtues: How to Follow Jesus When Evil Masquerades as Good is available from Moody Publishers. Check out the free small group resources by clicking on the Dangerous Virtues-Group Resources tab above.

Clay Feet

When I was a student in college, a Christian writer and speaker that I admired visited our campus on a lecture tour. A young believer at the time, I had been greatly influenced by one of her books. She was the kind of person I aspired to be. A writer, speaker, and a serious Christian. After she spoke to our student group, several of us took her to lunch, where I was thrilled to get a seat at her right hand. I didn’t elbow anybody out of the way for the privilege, at least not much. I didn’t want to miss a word.

I don’t remember much of what this famous author said during lunch. What I do recall is being puzzled by her tone. She didn’t seem to be nearly as excited to meet us as we were to meet her. Maybe she was tired from her long travel schedule. Perhaps she was coming down with something. For whatever reason, most of her comments to us were terse, almost impatient. If you had forced me to put a name to her mood, I would have said that she was grumpy. But of course, that couldn’t be true. Here was a person who had written several no-nonsense books about discipleship and the Christian life. She was famous for her faith. Her spiritual lineage qualified her as Christian royalty. I was sure it was only my imagination.

When the visit was over, some of us asked the staff worker who had picked her up from the airport what it was like to spend time with so distinguished and spiritual a person. The staff worker was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, all I will say about it is that sometimes you need to allow your heroes to have clay feet.” I remember being troubled by her answer. I didn’t like what it seemed to imply about one of my heroes in the faith.

These days heroes are hard to come by.

These days heroes are hard to come by. We have galaxies of stars, swarms of celebrities, and an abundance of influencers. But bonafide, pedestal-standing heroes are in short supply. It is hard to find heroes in an iconoclastic age. We love to tear down the idols of earlier generations. Once, we built monuments for our heroes and wrote biographies in their praise. Now we would rather expose flaws than laud virtues. The histories we write today reconstruct those old narratives using a wrecking ball. The new standard leaves no room for moral ambiguity or the limitations of cultural context.

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints. But Protestantism divested itself of most of those champions of old during the Reformation. The Reformers did not deny the existence of people with remarkable faith and exemplary lives. But they did object to the way the church had exaggerated their accomplishments and elevated them, as Calvin put it, “into copartnership with God, to be honored, and also to be invoked and praised in His stead.”

But our greatest problem is that our heroes always turn out to have feet of clay, no matter how good they appear from a distance. Some years ago, I took a class with a professor who was famous for his books on spiritual formation. More than one person told me that he was the most Christlike person they had ever met. During one of our class sessions, this professor told us that ordinary Christians could live the same kind of life that Jesus did. I was troubled by his assertion and asked him if he thought that his life met that standard. “I’m not going to answer your question,” he replied. “Because if I said yes, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The rest of the class laughed, feeling that his answer had put me in my proper place.

I won’t deny that there was a challenge implied in my question. But I meant it sincerely. If the professor had answered in the affirmative, I would have gone on to ask what such a life looked like and how it was possible. I genuinely wanted to know the answer to those questions, because his assertion made me realize that, although I wanted to live like Jesus, I didn’t actually believe it was possible. Instead of helping me resolve the contradiction, it felt like he had shamed me in front of my peers. It made me question the validity of his assertion. Would Jesus have treated my question the same way?

In the church, we used to call our spiritual heroes saints.

He might have. Jesus wasn’t afraid to leave his listeners feeling awkward and confounded. Still, I felt stung by the embarrassment of the encounter. In my mind, it eroded his credibility. I found it hard to remain open to the rest of what he had to say. I admired his work but not his personality. At least, not that sliver of personality that I came into contact with that particular day in class. For his part, I doubt that my discomfort even registered on his consciousness. I’m certain he did not even remember my name.

Some years after this painful exchange, at the Bible college where I taught, one of my students asked to meet with me. I could tell he was uncomfortable. He told me that the appointment hadn’t been his idea but his wife’s. Something had happened in one of my classes that left him deeply discouraged. So much so that he was thinking of dropping out of school. His wife felt that he should at least tell me about it before taking such rash action. He had said something in class, a question or a comment, I couldn’t recall what it was. I had dismissed it with a joke. He had been earnest in what he had said. My flippant response embarrassed him and left him feeling stupid. I hadn’t even noticed.

He went on to say that he had initially come to the school because of something I had written. Perhaps he was exaggerating when he said this. It doesn’t make much difference if he was. The exchange had hurt and embarrassed him. What do you say to someone who has put you on a pedestal, only to discover that you have clay feet? There isn’t much that you can say, except to show them the whole ugly picture. You gently try to help them see that your arms, legs, head, and heart are made of clay as well.

Mark Twain once wrote that the traits that we admire in our heroes are usually the qualities that we lack. “If everybody was satisfied with himself,” Twain observed, “there would be no heroes.” When our heroes fail us, it’s not just the fact that they have fallen from their former height that leaves us so disillusioned. It is that they have come down to our level. Indeed, this may be the bitterest discovery of all. The dismay we feel comes from learning that those we used to hold in high esteem are no better than us. Certainly, their sin disappoints, but it is their ordinariness that causes us to view them with contempt.

If everybody was satisfied with himself there would be no heroes. Mark Twain

For most people, coming to terms with this kind of disappointment is the first great challenge we face on the path to mature adulthood. We learn that we must forgive our parents for being human. And as every adult son or daughter knows, the hardest parent to forgive is the one we most resemble. The great torment of our adolescent struggle with our parents is the fear that we might one day grow up to become “just like them.” But the real tension actually moves in the opposite direction. It comes from our growing awareness that our parents are like us. “The natural or normal course of human growing up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one’s parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow up if one remains a child,” Wendell Berry explains. “But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life.”

Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

It’s not wrong to have heroes. We need them. Hebrews 13:7 urges us to: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” But if the Bible’s unvarnished portrayal of those leaders reveals anything, it shows us that we must also leave room for their humanity. Whatever pedestals we build for our spiritual heroes must also leave enough space to include things like Moses’ petulance, David’s lust, and Peter’s hypocrisy.

In the end, we will find that all our heroes have clay feet. All except for one. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). His feet are flesh, not clay (John 1:14). Those hands and feet were pierced, wounded by those who should have been His friends (Zechariah  13:6). We will not be sorry when we find that this hero was like us, because Jesus had to be made like us, “fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He was tempted too like us, “yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is the church’s only real hero because He is everything that we lack. Because He is everything we are not, He is the guarantee that one day we will be like Him.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.