Prayer is an inspiring and a confusing activity! It’s the very thing that keeps us connected to God, yet it’s one of the most important practices we can be involved in. Prayer is all about our relationship with God which requires practice and perseverance. It’s also what brings the personal into personal relationship. If you’ve ever been in a relationship you’ll know that it’s hard work: It takes effort. It takes time. It takes energy and perseverance. Admit it – it takes discipline!
If we are to be missional (involved in the mission of God), and if we are to understand the Church’s role today, we need to get better connected with God! There is no easy way to relate to God – we need to cultivate a heart that hears his Still Small Voice; we need to intercede for our friends, family, towns, churches, and world; we need to talk to God; we need to be led by God – this will take work on our part.
Cultivating a Heart for God
The heart is a dark place that needs invaded with the holy light of God’s divine presence. Our hearts are not readily open to God. We are filled with all manner of desire; some good and some as dark as a moonless night. We need to invite God into the mess that is our heart so that he can ‘plough our hearts’ with his Spirit. As we open our hearts to God he does come in.
It’s when he begins to work within us that we need to stay open. He will want to clear out all our unholy mess – our bad attitudes; our ungodly habits; our darkest thoughts; our deepest sins. The question is, will we cooperate with him and follow his leading. We need to let God ‘declutter’ us from the inside out. It’s hard work, but it lays the foundation needed for relationship. It teaches us to trust Him and to hear him. It teaches us to surrender to him. Unless we do this we will always struggle in our relationship with him.
Learning to hear
When we allow God to clean up our hearts and lives we open ourselves to being in a position to hear his voice. We tend to think that because we can hear we are listening, but hearing and listening are two different things.
As you walk down the street you will hear traffic, voices, airplanes, mobile phones, etc. We are always hearing noise – it pollutes our ears and it can crowd out the voice of God. Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice”. I have been asked many times “How can I know the will of God?” and “How can I hear God speaking to me?” I believe that the answer to both questions is the same: We need to learn how to listen for God’s voice. Jesus assures us that it is possible to hear and to recognise the voice of God – it is not impossible, so have faith in God that he’s calling out to you. Learn to ‘tune in’ to his tones. Begin to identify how he speaks to you. Here’s some principles that I’ve found useful as I’ve learned to identify and hear how God speaks to me:
God is concerned about our lives and he loves us and wants to speak to us about what we should be doing with it – He has a plan for our lives; “I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you and give you success” (Jeremiah 29:11). So how can we know them?
The Example of Jesus
Jesus was “led by the Spirit” (Luke 4:1) and only did what he saw his Father doing (John 5:19). Jesus shows us that even he had to depend on God the Father and the Holy Spirit for guidance. In the garden of Gethsemane he prayed “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus trusted God. He took time in prayer to know God’s will. He was honest with God about his fears and weaknesses (Luke 22:42-43) – and God gave him strength. If we are willing to do as God wants then we can expect him to speak to us.
He speaks to us through scripture (The Bible)
The Bible is the Word of God. It is not just another book of wisdom – it is given to us by God himself so that we can know him. The Bible shows us what God is like (Psalm 103:8-12; 1 John 4:8; Hebrews 10:30-31). It shows us his purposes for our lives. It reveals how much he loves us (John 3:16). It is full of wisdom (Proverbs). It instructs, guides, encourages and disciplines us, and we can place our trust in it because it is God’s own words to us. As we read the bible we ought to read it prayerfully, asking God to speak to us from it.
Guidance through the Holy Spirit
Before Jesus ascended he told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5). Jesus had told the disciples previously that he would send the Holy Spirit to them (read John 14:16-27). He told them that the Holy Spirit would be their counselor (advisor) and that he was the “Spirit of Truth” (v16-17). The Holy Spirit would remind Jesus’ followers (us too!) of the teaching they learned (v26) and that he would convict us of our sin as well as lead us into righteousness (John 16:8-10) – the Spirit show us how to live in God’s will regarding right and wrong. He shows us God’s will for our lives when we are willing to be led by him as Christ was.
God gave us the common sense that we have and he does not expect us to abandon it because we are Christians. As we are seeking God’s will for our lives we need to look at our decisions with intelligence as well as with spiritual eyes (true spirituality should embrace all the gifts, sensibilities and abilities God has given us). As you think about the decisions you have at the moment, what makes the most sense? What path allows you to use the skills and passions that God has given to you? What do you enjoy? God speaks to us in very natural ways, as well as supernaturally. Are you good at sport, but not at literature? – Then look in that direction. The natural gifts and abilities we have are part of how God prepares for the plan he has for us. What has God already given to you?
Advice from Christians
“A wise person listens to advice” (Proverbs 12:15). Don’t be afraid to ask other people for their advice and opinions. God often speaks to us through other people. God intended the Church to be a community of people that pray, share, talk, worship and learn together – God will use other people to guide us because as members of his Church we are not meant to be alone. We are meant to rely on those around us. God may use other people to guide you, and he may use you to speak to other people.
Whom should we ask for advice?
The best people to ask are people that are walking close to God. These may be older Christians who have much spiritual and practical experience in life – Perhaps a parent, a Church leader, a trusted friend. It is important that we trust those of whom we are asking for advice. God often speaks to us through other people, so aim to seek advice from people that have shown closeness to God and who are spiritually mature.
God guides through circumstances
“In his heart a man plans his course but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). God leads us one step at a time. We do not need to be in a hurry and at times we may have to wait a long time for guidance to come. Take time to look at your current circumstances – is there a reason to rush into so. There are important times in life where our circumstances draw us to seek God’s guidance – preparing to leave school; thinking about our career; changes in relationships; etc.
On the more day to day questions of life perhaps God just wants us to stay close to him; to listen for his voice; to seek his word in the bible; to enjoy the friendships we have (and expect God to work through them); to keep our heart and mind fixed on those things that please him.
The Silence of God
There are also times when God is silent – periods when God does not answer our prayers; times when even God’s word does not seem to speak to our hearts. These times can be a source of blessing in the long-run – although in the middle of it they can be frustrating. Persevere through times of silence – God will not always be quiet. He will speak to you. He will continue to lead you. Perhaps he just wants us to listen. Billy Graham offers us great advice in the concluding statement: “If you want God’s will badly enough, you can’t miss it!”