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).

Aging as Letting Go

Shortly before I retired, I asked a friend to describe what the experience was like. “It’s like death,” he said. “It goes on and on.” He was joking, but I was unnerved by his reply. Something in my bones told me that he was right. For obvious reasons, the primary metaphor of retirement is rest. But rest is also a euphemism for death. The truth is that we experience many kinds of death throughout our lives.

Every new stage of life lays to rest the one that preceded it until we reach the final stage and eventually lay aside physical life itself. Every major life event, especially the happy ones, is often attended by a measure of sadness or a sense of loss. The graduate realizes that the years of preparation and childhood are over, and it’s time to look for a job. The bliss of the newly wedded couple is unsettled when they feel the chafing tug of their lost freedom. New parents feel the awful weight of responsibility for the life that has suddenly been thrust into their hands. Then they must yield that burden up with tears when the time comes for the child to leave home as an adult. Knowing that this is part of the natural order does not make it any easier to accept.

Since I retired, I find myself saying no to things that I once would have been eager to take on. I am not doing the things I thought I would do. Some of those things are no longer of interest to me. Others have grown more difficult, and I am either unwilling or unable to expend the energy. It is unnerving. I find that I am disappointed with myself for the things I no longer want to do and disappointed with God for the things He has not permitted me to do.

Change is disorienting. Those stages associated with aging are also disquieting because they usually involve the laying aside of tasks and identities that we have carried with us for decades, perhaps for most of our lives. How are we to think about ourselves now that we are no longer what we once were? The answer, of course, is that we are not what we do. Or perhaps it would be better to say that we are more than what we do. This truth is hard to accept. One of the questions people ask when they meet for the first time is “What do you do?” We define ourselves by the tasks and jobs that occupy our time. But that is not what we are. It does not help matters that the church tends to do the same. In sacred spaces, as in secular ones, we assign significance based on role, task, and return on investment. Those who perform and produce have value. But what happens when our capacity to produce begins to diminish? What value do we have then? According to 1 Corinthians 12:22, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are “indispensable.”

“To grow old is to lose our acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death.”

Stanley Hauerwas & Laura Yordy

Part of the work of aging is letting go. We must let go of aspects of our former identities, familiar tasks that we once enjoyed, along with the friends and colleagues that go with them. There is relief, but it is a relief tempered with a measure of sorrow. “To grow old is to lose our acquaintances and lifelong friends to distance, illness, and death,” Stanley Hauerwas and Laura Yordy remind us. “As our friends move away or die we lose the confirmation of our own life stories and identities. We are not even sure, as we grow old, that we are still the same people we were.” Perhaps we are not. But the change does not necessarily mean that we are less than we once were. We may do less. But we have not lost value, at least to God, because of the difference.

A little over a decade ago, I sent a letter to Eugene Peterson asking if he would endorse a book that I had written. A short time later, I received a gentle refusal in the return mail. “I am honored that you would trust me in the task,” Peterson wrote. “But I cannot. I am fast becoming an old man; the strength diminishes; I’m unable to do what I used to take on effortlessly.” Then, in the style that made me love him as a writer, Peterson added a brief line of poetry from Wendell Berry: “I am an old man\ but I don’t think of myself as an old man \ but as a young man with disabilities . . .”

I have often heard Christians say that the Bible does not teach retirement. This assertion, usually expressed in a condescending tone by church leaders, is meant to shame those who have pulled back from activities to reenlistment. Or it is a form of virtue signaling by those who have reached retirement age meant to highlight the fact that they have not slowed down like others they know. Ironically, the Old Testament does more than describe something that might be called a form of retirement. It mandated it, at least for the Levites. According to Numbers 8:23–26, the Levites were required to retire from tabernacle service at fifty. They were permitted (though not required) to assist their younger brothers in their duties at the tent of meeting, but they were not allowed to do the work themselves. The wisdom in this should be self-evident. Levitical work included physical labor and heavy lifting. Where the tabernacle was concerned, they were something like the team that sets up and tears down the church that meets in the school auditorium.

A secular form of the non-retirement myth often appears in television commercials, usually for companies that trade in financial planning. We see a montage of scenes that involve a stylish and attractive smiling couple in their 60s that shows how fit and active they are. They gaze happily in each other’s eyes as a tropical sun sinks below the horizon just off their yacht or their hotel balcony or the dinner table, where they clink their wine glasses together in mutual self-congratulation. The message is clear. Age brings no diminishment of power for those who take charge of their life (and use the services of this financial company). We only get better looking, wealthier, and busier in the things we love to do.

“There is no point in imagining old age, especially in its last years, to be easy.”

Maxine Hancock

Perhaps this is true for some. But it is not the case for most. “There is no point in imagining old age, especially in its last years, to be easy; nor should we expect that many of us will have a lot of ‘golden years,’” warns Maxine Hancock in an essay that describes aging as a heroic stage in one’s pilgrimage of faith. “From what I have observed, what lies ahead is more like a rockclimbing expedition, straight up a rock face, and then a slipping and sliding down through the shale on the other side to the place of our ‘crossing over.’”

But if letting go is proof of our growing weakness, it is also an act of faith. We submit to the changes that come with aging because we have no other choice. We are unable to exercise the degree of control over our lives and our energies that the detractors of retirement or the marketers would like us to think. Yet even as things that were once precious slip from our grasp, we ourselves are held fast. “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die,” Jesus promised (John 11:26). For the Christian, what may feel like a swift descent into the Valley of Shadow, turns out only to be a momentary point of departure for a different location. One where we will find brighter fields and better service.

Godspeed, Eugene Peterson

Today I read that Eugene Peterson has entered hospice care. Peterson may be the most influential person in my life that I’ve never actually met. Not only have his ideas about the nature of pastoral ministry profoundly reoriented my thinking, his books have introduced me to some of my favorite writers and thinkers, people like Wendell Berry and Stanley Hauerwas. I am sure that I am not alone in this. I had heard of Eugene Peterson as a young pastor but his greatest influence came when I became a professor training others for pastoral ministry. For over twenty years I have required my students to read Under the Unpredictable Plant,  a remarkable book where he turns pastoral ministry on its head.

Instead of describing the pastor as someone who controls the church and shapes the lives of others, Peterson argues that congregational ministry is the place where God shapes the pastor’s soul. In the process, he takes aim at the culture of careerism which has so infected our idea of ministry. He calls career driven ministry idolatry: “The idolatry to which pastors are so conspicuously liable is not personal but vocational, the idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage.”

Peterson’s criticism came as a great relief. It explained so much about my ministry and my life. “There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” he warns. “The congregation is a Nineveh like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” How many times since have I wished that I had heard this warning when I was first starting out in ministry? But the truth is, I doubt that I would have accepted it. Oh, I might have believed that this was true for other more ordinary sorts but not for me. I was young.  I was gifted. I was destined for great things.

Peterson warns that anyone who glamorizes pastoral ministry does a disservice to pastors. “We hear tales of glitzy, enthusiastic churches and wonder what in the world we are doing wrong that our people don’t turn out that way under our preaching” Peterson observes. But the real problem is not our ministry but our expectation. We have been pursuing a fantasy. “Hang around long enough and sure enough there are gossips who won’t shut up, furnaces that malfunction, sermons that misfire, disciples who quit, choirs that go flat–and worse.” It cannot be otherwise, Peterson explains. Every congregation is a community of sinners and has sinners for pastors.

I do not think Peterson saw himself as an iconoclast so much as a witness. “It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish” he has written. “At this moment I am the one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and Tarshish is a lie.” For the past twenty-five years, I have tried to add my voice to his.

A few years ago I wrote to Peterson. I hoped that he would agree to write the introduction for a book I had just finished. He declined the opportunity. In a brief handwritten note, he explained that he had reached the stage in life where he had to make careful choices. He said that he was not an expert in everything and needed to stick with what he knew best. He closed with a quote from Wendell Berry. It was the kindest rejection I’ve ever experienced. Godspeed, Eugene Peterson.