Awkward Conversations with God

Casey was an abandoned German shepherd pup that we found in a box in the parking lot of the local general store on the edge of town. He looked so tiny and cute that we couldn’t bear to leave him there. But he was a bad dog. He chewed the carpet and growled at babies. When Casey bit someone, we realized we had to get rid of him. It was a difficult decision but not nearly as hard as the task of telling my two little boys that their dog was gone. I choked out the sad news between gasps and tears, trying to explain why it was necessary.

Telling someone about the loss of a loved one. Talking to the kids about the facts of life. Informing an employee that their contract will not be renewed. Some conversations are just hard. But to be honest, nothing is quite as challenging for me as trying to talk with someone who has nothing to say. You know the kind conversartion I mean. This is the sort where you have to do all the heavy lifting while the other person responds with an inscrutable silence. In a way, a one-sided conversation is an oxymoron. We might call it a monologue, a soliloquy, or a sermon, but whatever it is, it is not a conversation.

Not everyone is a good conversationalist. Some of us are shy. We have thoughts, many of them good ones, but we have trouble expressing those thoughts to others. A few like to talk so much that they do not make room for the silence necessary for another to join in. They think they are having a conversation when they are really just “holding forth.” A conversation requires an exchange of thought between at least two people to be a conversation.

I say this to make a point about God. Or be more precise, to make a point about my experience with God in prayer. I have found that God is not much of a conversationalist. He is mostly silent when I talk to Him. Not that I am such a good conversationalist either. My prayers tend to be repetitive, made up of the same requests every time. My attention span is short. I suppose that if I were the one on the other side of the conversation, I would probably be too bored to respond too. But at least I say something. God, as far as I can tell, doesn’t say anything. I pray and all I get in return is an awkward silence.

I have found that God is not much of a conversationalist.

We know from Scripture that God is capable of speech. According to the book of Genesis, the first words ever spoken were God’s words. God said, “Let there be light, and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). God spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod. 33:11). He spoke to Abraham the same way. Yet, the Bible also demonstrates that ordinary conversation has never been God’s primary mode of communicating, at least not the kind of conversations we are used to having. Most of the time, He has spoken through others: prophets, preachers, and occasionally angels. Even then, God has never shown Himself to be what you could describe as voluble. Long gaps of years, decades, centuries, and even millennia separate the occasions where God spoke to His people.

Taken as a whole, there are enough of God’s words to fill the Old and New Testaments. But when they are considered individually, the instances where God has spoken exhibit two main characteristics. Most of the time, He has spoken through others. God used human agents who were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” to deliver His message (2 Pet. 1:21). God spoke but indirectly. The other characteristic of God’s verbal communication is restraint. Although God has spoken at many times and in various ways, He is not what you would call chatty. His words tend to be few and far between. When God does speak, He does not say everything that could be said. He does not answer all our questions. Even when God does answer our questions, He does not always tell us everything we want to know.

We are frustrated by this reserve. There is much we would like to know that we do not. Of course, there are probably good reasons for this. Would we understand God’s reasoning even if He told us? Sometimes we have a question, and Scripture bluntly tells us that the answer is none of our business (Acts 1:7; Rom. 9:19–20). Would knowing why God answered a particular prayer in a disappointing way make that answer easier to accept? We think the answer is yes. Yet any parent who has had to argue with a child will tell you that explanations, even reasonable explanations, do not always satisfy.

Whatever prayer is it is not an ordinary conversation, if only because prayer is a conversation where we seem to do most of the talking. In prayer, we approach God but do not see either face or form and cannot hear His voice. Therefore, as a conversation, prayer lacks all the normal cues we usually rely upon for meaning. When we talk to God, we cannot hear the way He inflects his voice. We do not see body language or read facial expression. Perhaps we should be grateful for this. Scripture says that God spoke to Israel “face to face out of the fire on the mountain” (Deut. 5:4). The people were so put off by His manner of delivery, coming as it did “out of darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire,” that they begged him to stop (Deut. 5:22–25). The prophet Elijah heard God speak in a gentle whisper, but it was a shout on Sinai. Even Moses, who was used to speaking to God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend,” found the experience terrifying (Ex. 33:11; Heb. 12:21). We assume that it would be a comfort to hear God speak to us. But Scripture suggests that we are more likely to be unnerved by the experience. Perhaps, like Job, we would want to put our hands over our ears in stunned silence (Job 40:3–5).

Prayer differs from ordinary conversation in another respect. Those who pray often talk to themselves at the same time as they are talking to God. Sometimes this takes the form of self-talk or self-encouragement. Martyn Lloyd Jones describes this as an effort to “take ourselves in hand” and proclaim the truth to ourselves. “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” Lloyd Jones observes.  The self-talk of prayer is not a pep talk or even positive thinking. Instead, we base what we say to ourselves on what God has said in Scripture and on our experience of His faithfulness. With these things in mind, we put our expectations into words and speak them aloud to ourselves. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” the Psalmist prays in Psalm 42:5. “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (cf. Ps. 42:11; 43:5). The self-talk of prayer amounts to a confession of faith made in the presence of God.

Those who hope for response from God to their prayers are often looking for some kind of feeling or inner impression. It does not necessarily have to be an audible voice. But they seek a sense of assurance about what God will do or what He wants us to do.  There are so many accounts of this sort of thing that it cannot be denied that something like this happens when people pray. But experiences like this are not constant nor are they infallible. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that when we come to prayer it is not with a request so much as with a plan. Our prayers not only include an ask but directions about how the answers should come. In this way, what some have called “listening prayer” all too often becomes presumptuous prayer. We bring our desires and plans with us and place them on God’s lips.

If the temptation of the theologian is to reduce God to a topic, the temptation of the spiritual practicioner is to reduce God to an experience. When we objectify God this way, we go to Him not for a relationship but for an experience. Our interest in Him extends no further than the potential He offers to make us feel a certain way or give us what we want. “The essence of Christian prayer is to seek God,” John Stott has observed. “We seek him in order to acknowledge him as the person he is, God the Creator, God the Lord, God the Judge, God our heavenly Father through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

In the end it is not God who is disengaged in prayer but us. God has already spoken, but we fail take His words into account. We know only what we want. I am not saying that we have never read the Bible, or even that we have no interest in God. Just that we tend to be single minded in our interests. We have not bothered 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 expect Him to say something new without orienting our prayer to what He has already said. We complain that He is tight lipped and unresponsive. When the real problem is that He will not stick to the script we have already written for Him. What would we say differently, if we really believed that God was listening? It probably wouldn’t change our request. But it might change our prayer.

Praying to a Silent God

The house I grew up in had one phone. It hung on the kitchen wall and had a long cord that stretched to the end of the hall. It was barely long enough to reach my bedroom. If I really wanted to talk in private, I had to walk to the nearest payphone. This was long ago, in the days before everyone had their own cell phone. In my teens, I mostly used the phone to talk to girls. But I wasn’t very good at it. I never knew quite what to say. I had trouble reading the mood of the person at the other end of the line. Did they enjoy talking to me or were they rolling their eyes, just waiting for the call to end? My phone conversations were made up mostly of insecure chatter interspersed with awkward pauses. Much like my prayer life and for the same reason.

Those calls, as I remember them, were usually one-sided. My prayer life feels the same. I seem to do all the talking. I know that there are some Christians for whom prayer is a dialogue. They come away from prayer filled with thoughts and impressions from God. It’s as if he has a conversation with them. That has never been true for me. For me, talking to God is a lot like trying to talk to an introvert. He is a really good listener. But he never seems to have much to say. In fact, he never seems to have anything to say, at least not out loud.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1). But I don’t always feel like God is talking to me. I have often wondered why. Maybe it’s like the phone on the kitchen wall. Because I can’t see his face or hear the inflection in his voice, God seems to be inscrutable. I am tempted to interpret God’s silence as indifference toward me or worse.

I find God’s silent nature to be a mystery. At times it is a frustration. After all, it’s not as if God has trouble with words. He was the first to speak. Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke the worlds into existence. He is also a prolific author. I’ve read his book more than once. Yet for some reason, God prefers to speak through others. He does not use his own voice. Instead, God communicated through prophets and the writers of Scripture.

It has occurred to me that God’s silence may actually be an act of mercy. When the Israelites heard God speak on Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as their go-between so that they wouldn’t have to hear it again. “We will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer,” they said. “For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:25-27).

It seems that prayer isn’t about hearing God’s voice at all. It is about speaking.  “Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God” the 19th-century church leader J. C. Ryle observed.  “It needs neither learning nor wisdom nor book-knowledge to begin it. It needs nothing but heart and will. The weakest infant can cry when it is hungry. The poorest beggar can hold out their hand for alms, and does not wait to find fine words. The most ignorant person will find something to say to God, if they have only a mind.” The essence of prayer is in the asking.

Although the answer to a prayer is no small thing, it is not the only thing. We do not always get what we want when we pray. Sometimes we make our request and find that we must wait for the answer. Sometimes we ask and get something different. There are times when we ask and it seems that we do not get anything at all. Prayer is not about getting but about being heard. It is also about being known. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” Jesus assures us in Matthew 6:8. I usually know what I want, but I do not always know what I need. My prayers are often ignorant. God’s answers are not.

We find God’s refusals, when they come, hard to accept. Indeed, we have such an aversion to them that some of us have developed a theology of prayer which leaves no room for God to say no. If we do not get our request it is our fault. It means we do not have enough faith. Or the right kind of faith. But God’s right of refusal is proof of the relational nature of prayer. “The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted” C. S. Lewis observes. Lewis offers the prayer of Jesus as irrefutable evidence. “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him” Lewis explains. “It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”

I think my problem with prayer is that I have misread the silence. Silence can mean many things. It is true that silence is sometimes a signal of irritation. It can be a mark of contempt. But silence is also the comfortable space that has been carved out by long familiarity. Two people who sit together for hours in silent happiness do so because they enjoy being in one another’s presence. Silence is a mark of someone who is listening carefully.

I am not a great man of prayer. I know that don’t pray as I ought. What I have to say to God is usually dull and unimaginative. I am repetitive and sometimes whiney. I am pretty sure that if I had to listen to myself pray, I would soon grow bored. I have moments in prayer when I lose heart. I also know that the fault is mine. I misinterpret the silence on the other end of the line, mistaking it for boredom or contempt when in reality it is the silence of presence. I know that I do not pray well. But perhaps I do not have to pray well to know that God has heard me.