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Synopsis of the Series
We started off our series on Hearing God by showing that from the beginning of Creation it has been God’s Plan, Our Privilege for God to speak to us as a part of normal prayer and worship. We saw that communion and communication come from the same root and concept. In the second installment in the series, we looked at the reasons Why Many Christians Don’t Hear God. We looked at four primary reasons why believers don’t hear God:
- They suffer from a self-inflicted malady called “Scriptural insolvency”; that is to say, they don’t make regular “deposits” of God’s written word into their heart by thoughtful, prayerful, disciplined daily reading of their Bibles.
- They are not taught about their privilege, and their resulting ignorance inhibits them from believing that God wishes to speak to them and that He would if they would let Him.
- They do not fellowship with the sort of Christians who could provide a nurturing, encouraging environment in which they could learn more about how to hear God.
- They lack personal knowledge and experience about how to listen.
Our Focus for This Article
It is this fourth and last point that I wish to address in this chapter. A believer with this lack of personal knowledge and experience in the art of hearing God rightly asks, “How do I listen for and hear the voice of God when I pray?” And although I want to focus, more or less, on what happens “in the prayer closet,” let me state clearly that God can and does speak anywhere, at any time, and through many means to His children, if they are listening. I hope this article will help you to recognize God’s voice when it comes to you “outside the prayer closet.” It should be no surprise to the Christian to hear God’s voice and sense His leading while commuting to work, laboring in the fields, doing laundry, washing dishes, eating a meal, preparing for bed, or even while sleeping.
While sleeping? Yes, for, as the Scriptures clearly teach us, God might speak through dreams (examples include Jacob in Genesis 28:12-17, 31:10-13, 46:1-5; Joseph in Genesis 37:5-11; Solomon in 1 Kings 3:5-15; Daniel in Daniel 7:1-15; and the other Joseph in Matthew 1:21-24 and 2:13,19,23); or that exotic dream-equivalent of the daytime, a vision (e.g., Paul in Acts 16:9-10; Peter in Acts 10:9-17.2 While it’s obvious that He might speak to us through the reading of Scripture, we might also hear Him speak through His “other book”—Creation.3 If we’re alert, we can often hear His voice speaking specifically to us during the preaching of His Word, through another Christian’s counsel, through fellowship with other believers, or even by means of a chance remark from a passerby. Indeed, any circumstance in which we find ourselves may be the occasion for God to speak a word to our heart.
Having freely and gladly admitted all that, I want to draw our attention to hearing God in times of daily prayer and solitude. My burden is to share how purposeful, prayerful, thoughtful, believing, and disciplined heart-preparation will unlock the door to genuine two-way communication with God, opening our spirits and minds to hear God’s voice.
Preparing Our Hearts to Listen
Coming in an Attitude of Faith and Expectation
As with everything else in the Christian life, hearing God is based on moving in faith. For our purposes here, I will trust that you have read the first article in this series, not only as an introduction, but also as a foundation for your faith in this matter. In that study we saw how God was no respecter of persons in either the Old or New Testaments. He spoke with saints and sinners. He spoke with mighty prophets and unknown peasants. He spoke with believers and non-believers. He spoke with the proud and the humble. He spoke with kings and commoners. He spoke with His friends and His enemies. He spoke with successes and failures. He spoke with His rebellious and disobedient children as well as His obedient ones. Surely you must fall into at least one of those groups!
While it is true that God wants to deliver us from selfishness and self-centeredness, it is also true that our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is intensely personal. For instance, it isn’t enough for me to believe the general truth that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). I could sincerely believe that historical and theological fact, but without that being made alive to me personally by the Holy Spirit, I would be unsaved and unregenerate. There is that wonderful epiphany in every Christian’s life, about which Charles Wesley exults in his Hymn to Be Sung on the Anniversary of One’s Conversion (which you almost certain know, but by another title):
I felt my Lord’s atoning blood
Close to my soul applied;
Me! Me He loved! The Son of God!
For Me! For me He died!
On these same lines of personal intimacy with God, I pray that the Holy Spirit will quicken the teaching that follows so that your heart will know the truth of Jesus’ words: “My sheep hear My voice.”
Along this line of faith, let me encourage you with one more word before we proceed, an immutable promise from Hebrews:
But without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.
Move in faith in these matters, for in seeking to hear Him, you are seeking Him, and He promises to reward those who do.
Way Too Busy, Way Too Noisy
I know too little about how it is in the rest of the world, but here in “the West,” and particularly the United States, our society is a busy, noisy place—far too busy and noisy. Our schedules are crammed full. Many of us have 40-to-50-hour-long work weeks, not including commute times. Somewhere in the waking hours that remain, we have to shuttle the children to music lessons, soccer games, Cub Scouts, and dentist appointments. A multitude of other duties and errands are crammed in whenever a moment presents itself. Our evenings seem given over primarily to television watching, the prevailing attitude seeming to be that nightly viewing of hours of vapid, puerile, or immoral (or all of the above) TV programming is either a necessity of life, a God-given right, or a constitutionally-mandated responsibility of every citizen. Aside from our never-stop, frenetic mentality, the substance that fuels this breakneck pace is caffeine, a stimulant consumed in coffee, tea, and an ever-increasing variety of popular “energy drinks”—even for children.
The unspoken “dirty secret” of being driven through life in this way is that on the inside we become emptier and emptier. But we’ve discovered a way to drown out the emptiness and forget that it’s there: we fill our lives with noise. I don’t mean the kind of noise over which we have no control – traffic in the street below, the baby crying in the neighbor’s apartment, the construction going on in the next block, the incessant rumble of a busy highway nearby. No, I mean our self-appointed ways of noise-generation – television, radio, YouTube, podcasts, and music (Christian or otherwise) delivered by iTunes and a dozen streaming services.
The morning alarm goes off and built-in radio yaks at us while we shower and dress – at least until we can get downstairs to turn on the TV so that we can watch our favorite “good morning” program. After a hurried breakfast, we dash to the car and listen to the “news-weather-sports” radio show on the way to work while chattering on our cell phones. Chances are good that whether you work at a large office (with background music like Muzak) or a construction site (where some “good ol’ boy” has his “boom box” tuned to a country-western or rockabilly station all day) or a florist shop, something is always assaulting our ears, trying either blatantly or subliminally to attract (and distract!) our attention. After work, back we hop in the car, tuned either to a “drive-time” radio show or listening to a favorite music CD (on the car’s specially-installed thousand-dollar stereo system) and, once more chattering on our cell phones, we accomplish a few errands on the way to the gym. At the gym we continue the assault on our overworked eardrums by stuffing our ears with “buds” from our iPhone. That way we can either listen to more music or audio books or radio or listen to the audio portion of the television shows being broadcast to multiple screens that surround the exercise area.
When we arrive home, the television is probably already on, powered up by the first household member to make it through the door and grab the remote control. The “telly” drones on in the background during a hastily-consumed meal, and then it loudly summons us to either the living room or the den (wherever the ten-thousand-dollar “home theater” system has been installed) for a mind-numbing evening of game shows, situation comedies, police shows, lawyer shows, sports highlights programs, and shoot-em-up, blow-em-up movies. (Many can do this with special aplomb, because they get over one hundred different cable TV channels piped into their homes.) Finally, as we retire to the bedroom, we catch either the late-night news and weather or the first hour of some late-night talk show on our bedroom TV. Only then, just before we drop off into slumber, does the noise stop for a few (too few) hours of sleep, before this whole scenario is replayed the next morning.
It’s almost as if we Westerners are terrified of how loud the emptiness of the inner void might be if the noise ever stopped.
Are Christians immune from this? Far from it! But we pretend to make it seem better than it really is. We don’t cover over the emptiness with worldly noise; nope, not us. Instead, we swim through a sea of “Christian” noise. At least some of the time, we tune into Christian radio programs or television programs. We listen to Christian music. Maybe it’s even another Christian with whom we’re chattering away on the cell phone on our crazy, cacophonous commutes to or from work. In the evenings, except for the few of us who are at church meetings, we generally watch (let’s not kid ourselves) mostly what our unsaved neighbors watch.
To you, dear, hyper-active, noise-shrouded believer, comes a word from God’s throne. It comes as an urgent command and a gracious invitation. It comes as a shout to catch our attention and as a whispered promise of something to fill the emptiness within. You’ve probably heard this word many times, but the time has arrived to heed it, personalize it, and obey it:
Be still, and know that I am God…
Be STILL! It sounds like something that we would say to rowdy children. This command comes in the midst of a Psalm that details upheavals, perhaps spiritual as well as worldly—trouble, global upheavals, wars, and desolation. Before detailing the turmoil surrounding God’s people and leading up to the word we are considering, the Psalmist sets up our expectation when he starts out by saying, “God is our refuge” (Psalm 46:1), a place of safety, peace, calmness, and quietness. After the psalm’s confusion and commotion crescendo and crest, God speaks. He speaks in the same powerful voice that uttered the first recorded words, “Light—be!”
Be still! The root word in the original Hebrew is rāpâ¸ which carries various meanings and nuances, including cease striving, be quiet, relax, sink down, let go.
This is a word to all believers, even (perhaps especially) to those who are trying to know God and draw closer to Him. Those of you who have regular “quiet times,” may God bless you for the loving obedience and faithfulness you show to your Lord in wanting to spend time before Him and with Him every day. But let me ask you—are those “quiet times” you have ever really “quiet”? Many would have to answer, “No.” Those with full-time jobs, children to raise, and church ministry responsibilities find their devotional time sliced down to a fairly small time segment each day. If we even thought about doing so, it would be a challenge to shift out of go-go-go mode while we pray. It’s hard for us shut off the busy-ness of our overworked, multitasking minds. We have a few minutes for Bible reading and a few minutes of prayer. In those few minutes of prayer, all too often we have “a million things” to tell God, so prayer becomes an agenda-driven, menu-oriented task list we give to God, reminding Him of all the things He has to do, people and projects He has to bless, and all of the healing He needs to dispense. It is as though, on some level, we think God is as busy and harried and distracted as we are and that He needs to be reminded of His role and responsibilities. “You thought,” says the Lord, Who dwells outside of Time in the Eternal Sabbath, “that I was altogether like you…” (Psalm 50:21 nkjv).
Praise God that He calls us to be different from the world, and He provides the motivation and means and guidance to be different. And “being different” in this context means to be wholly and uniquely His. He wants us to come to the place where we are quite comfortable with silence as a part of prayer and worship.
Comfortable with Silence as a Part of Prayer and Worship
When it comes to times of prayer and communion between you and God, which do you think has more importance—what you say to God or what He might say to you? I’m happy that question is rhetorical, and we don’t have to permanently make an “either-or” choice. But I think, on reflection, most of us would agree that what God has to say would be far more important than anything we might tell Him. (He already knows what I’m going to say before I say it anyhow!4)
Not including Jesus, Who came later, King Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived (if you don’t count what a fool he made of himself at the end of his life). Not only was he awesomely wise, but he also walked closely enough with God to be used in writing part of our God-inspired book, the Bible. He wrote most of the book of Proverbs, a few of the Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. And this wise, Spirit-inspired man had a very no-nonsense, unsettling thing to share about prayer:
- Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.
- Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.
- Ecclesiastes 5:1-2
Undoubtedly the New American Standard translation renders the passage a bit more clearly:
- Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.
- Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.
- Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 nasb
Consider the spiritual life and experience of the man who wrote these words. Solomon spoke with God Himself two different times in dreams. (More on one of those dream-encounters in a moment.) When Solomon dedicated God’s temple, a construction project which he himself superintended, God indicated His good pleasure with His people, the king, his work, and the new temple by a spectacular consummation. God sent fire down from heaven to consume the burnt offering from the sacrificial altar. And simultaneously the visible, tangible Shekinah glory of God so filled the building and its environs that priests dared not enter it (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).
I can tell you a truth about anyone who has spoken with God face to face, about someone who has experienced the literal glory of God: knowing more than most the awesome holiness of God’s august presence, they act toward and speak of God with quiet reverence. They are very much unlike the majority of modern-day Western Christians, who are almost careless and glib in their approach to the presence of God. Rather than approaching this Almighty King’s throne room with the same solemnity Esther approached her royal husband’s presence, we seem to think that entering the presence of this Peerless Potentate is more like joining a big, raucous, ongoing party where we can get away with glad-handing, back-slapping, and high-fiving the Holy Host. Such is our spiritual “depth.”
And such a shockingly familiar approach would never do for Solomon, this wisest of kings (who knew something about how kings should be approached, after all). Never! This mighty king prostrated himself, bowing with his face to the ground, along with his people, when the fire and the Shekinah fell. No, this man, as he dispenses his wise, inspired counsel to us, tells us:
- to enter God’s presence carefully (“Guard your step”) and
- to come with the primary intent of listening (“draw near to listen,” “be more ready to hear”), and
- to not offer “the sacrifice of fools.”
Solomon, being the wisest man, was an expert on fools, as many of his bons mots in Proverbs will attest. His words leave us to conclude that if believers don’t come before God with the primary purpose of listening, then perhaps the opposite might be true, namely, that they come before God full of things to say, thinking that they will be “heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6:7). This “sacrifice of fools” is a very sobering matter, for of these fools and their pratter-prayers, Solomon (and the inspired word of God) says, “They consider not that they do evil.” Wherein does the evil lie? Aren’t we encouraged throughout the Scriptures, especially in the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and James to pray—even “without ceasing”? Certainly we are. But I believe Solomon—and God’s Spirit—would ask us:
- Are you coming in reverence and respect?
- Are you coming to commune, that is, to communicate, that is, to be as ready to listen to God as to speak to Him? Or are you coming to dump your prayer requests and move on to the next item in the schedule of your busy day?
Solomon puts it all in perspective: “God is in heaven, and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few.” Although we are encouraged to pray and to let our needs be known, Jesus (in the context of prayer, especially “much speaking” [Matthew 6:8]) says,
Be not ye therefore like unto them [the ones who think they’ll be heard for their “much speaking]: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.
Beloved, when it comes down to it, God doesn’t need to be reminded of our needs or wants. As an omniscient, loving Father, He already knows our needs. I’m not saying not to pray for things—far from it! But if it comes down to telling God what your needs are or to hearing Him speak—about your needs or anything else—which do you suppose is more important?
One final word about Solomon and his wisdom and perspective in this matter of “listening prayer.” Solomon was a man who knew just how much someone who listens delights God. You will recall that at the very beginning of his reign, Solomon basically went on a “spiritual retreat” to Gibeon. You can read the account in 1 Kings 3:3-14. One night during that retreat, he experienced the first of his two famous dreams, an encounter in which God said, “Ask Me for anything you want” (v.5). Solomon reviewed before God his great royal responsibilities and his inadequacy to meet them (vv.6-8). Arising from the state in which he found himself, Solomon determined the most needful thing and requested it:
Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?
1 Kings 3:9
The marginal notes of the King James and the New American Standard versions give an interesting alternative translation, bringing out the nuance of the Hebrew phrase translated as an understanding heart. Both translations’ notes give the reading of “a hearing heart.” The translators of the Septuagint5 understood this, rendering the phrase from Hebrew into Greek in this way: δώσεις τῷ δούλῳ σου καρδίαν ἀκούειν — “Give your slave a heart to hear.”
Please note: This request of Solomon’s so pleased God’s heart (v.10), that the Lord gave him a hearing heart, along with fame, renown, almost immeasurable wealth, and honor.
How many of us are as wise as Solomon in our praying? Are we praying for ability to hear God—for a “hearing heart”—or are we just offering “the sacrifice of fools”?
The idea of silence is also inherent in the Biblical idea of waiting on God. The Hebrew word most often used in the Old Testament is dāwâ, which means to wait or look with eager expectation, to hope. A sampling of its use can be found in Psalm 69:6; 130:5; Isaiah 26:8; 40:31; 49:23; and Lamentations 3:25. Of this word and concept, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says,
…The most important and frequent use of the word “wait”…is to define the attitude of a soul God-ward. It implies the listening ear, a heart responsive to the wooing of God, a concentration of the spiritual faculties upon heavenly things, the patience of faith… It describes an eager anticipation and yearning for the revelation of truth and love as it is in the Father.6
I am thankful that the author points out the aspect of “the listening ear,” but I rejoice in his spiritual understanding that waiting means “a heart responsive to the wooing of God.” It helps to make mention of this point in our consideration: why does God want our listening attention, our “ear,” as it were? It is to let us know how much we are loved. I am very thankful to have learned that lovely children’s song:
Jesus loves me; this I know For the Bible tells me so…
I am glad to have started off with God’s Word in the matter—“the Bible tells me so”—but how much more wonderful it was when God Himself told me so directly! This lines up with what the quote above says, that waiting “describes an eager anticipation and yearning for the revelation of truth and love as it is in the Father.” Amen!
Among the other Hebrew words that are translated as wait, the most interesting is dûmîyâ. Consider the first of two of the passages where it appears:
Truly my soul waiteth upon God: from him cometh my salvation.
That looks fairly innocuous in the King James translation, but modern translations bring out the root meaning—still waiting, silence, repose—of dûmîyâ:
- New American Standard: My soul waits in silence for God only…
- New King James: Truly my soul silently waits for God…
- New Revised Standard: For God alone my soul waits in silence…
- Tanakh: Truly my soul waits quietly for God…
- American Standard: My soul waiteth in silence for God only…
- English Standard: For God alone my soul waits in silence….
Perhaps the most eye-opening use of this word is when David employs it to introduce a little-known concept regarding worship:
Praise waiteth for thee, O God, in Zion: and unto thee shall the vow be performed.
Even before we turn to modern renderings of the text, the King James translators supply us with a key thought in the marginal reading: “Praise is silent for Thee, O God…”
Praise is silent? Can that be right? Consider some other translations of the same verse:
- Modern Language Bible: Silence is praise to Thee, O God, in Zion…
- English Standard margin: Praise waits for You in silence, O God, in Zion…
There are times of silent worship—even dumbstruck, reverential awe—when we come before God. There is nothing about true worship that requires a continual blather of words or music or noise. This may come as something of a surprise to a generation of Christians who are continually encouraged to consume “praise and worship music” 24/7, by any and every means. Worshipful waiting on God is an attitude of heart and doesn’t require a soundtrack. Far more often than we realize, the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts requires silence. Common sense tells us, of course, that worship and praise aren’t always silent; but David, the “poster boy of praise,” that Holy-Spirit-inspired “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1), tells us there are times when praise and worship should be silent. The balance may be best shown in the NASB translation of Psalm 65:1—
There will be silence before You,
and praise in Zion, O God,
and to You the vow will be performed.
Application to Public Worship
The Psalms were written, of course, for public worship. Thus, it’s logical to expand our thinking outside of personal “listening prayer” for a moment and think about what this means for our congregational gatherings. If “silence is praise” to God, if “praise waits…in silence” for Him, if we should have a care about offering “the sacrifice of fools,” then these things hold true in the public gathering of the saints as well.
Yet in my experience, this is rarely so. What is the cause of this lack of quiet? I’m certain part of it must be an ignorance of God’s desire to speak with us corporately. Some of it we must drag in with us from our busy, hectic, noisy week. If we can’t stand silence when we’re by ourselves, who can conceive of being quiet together? Do worship leaders fear the fidgeting that might occur if the singers and instrumentalists “stood down” completely (no background “mood music,” either!) for four or five minutes to let God quietly minister among His people? Do we worry about offending people? (I fear so—far more than we fear offending the Holy Spirit.) Are we concerned that it might “turn off” visitors because we’re forcing them to suffer some sort of “sensory deprivation”? (Would that the Spirit of Truth had a few moments of peace to make His “still, small voice” heard in visitors’ hearts!) I appeal to you to pause and give some thought to the “Selah” exhortation that appears in so many psalms.
Why is it that in the vast majority of Pentecostal and charismatic churches we have visited in the last dozen years, the gifts of the Spirit are manifested so infrequently—if ever? I believe it’s because we have so tightly scripted our worship meetings (really, brethren, we’ve come to the point where the Sunday services are more pre-planned and inflexible than any liturgical service against which we smugly compare ourselves) that we shut out all opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak to His people. There needs to be time in our church services for quiet reflection, for listening to the voice of the Spirit, and there needs to be time and opportunity for the saints to be able to speak forth prophecies, words of wisdom and knowledge, and so forth. In your zeal for worship (as you understand it), I beg of you to “quench not the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19) by racing pell-mell through your man-made “praise and worship” agenda, oblivious to the need to wait on the Lord.
It is possible (though, admittedly, not often likely) to have a meeting that is silent from beginning to end. I know that such a statement would border on heresy to those imbued with the rules of how to have a “seeker service” or to those given over to the lock-step of current worship theory and practice. Nevertheless, we had such a meeting once. Our meetings were such that we came to them prayerfully prepared, but with no set agenda musically. We had discovered that the most beneficial and fruitful meetings were those based on 1 Corinthians 14:26, where any believer, by his or her sharing, might lead us into the theme, the “flow” that the Spirit had determined for that particular gathering. Usually we were successful in discovering this flow, but we also acknowledged times of failure; we’re human and we weren’t always sensitive to God’s heart in a particular gathering.
There was one meeting where it was clear we were missing the Spirit’s leading from the time the first hymn or song was requested. Somebody prayed. That wasn’t on the mark, either. Another shared a testimony. Nothing. Finally, in what must have been a “word of wisdom,” I suggested that, rather than trying in our own strength and understanding to “make something happen,” we should just quietly wait on the Lord for a bit to see if we could determine what was on His heart. So we waited quietly upon Him. And we waited. And we waited. In silence.
If there had been a video tape of the rest of that meeting, someone viewing the tape might have thought nothing happened, that perhaps everyone fell asleep. We sat in almost complete silence for ninety minutes. Nobody sang. A few prayed audibly now and then. Nobody testified. Nobody preached. And nobody left! The reason nobody left was because God’s Spirit was moving in a powerful way, speaking to people, encouraging them, convicting them, leading them deeper into Himself, healing them, causing tears, drying tears, and touching us as a congregation in a thousand ways that never would have happened in a “regular” meeting. Then at the end of that hour and a half, the church as a whole suddenly knew that the meeting was over. The gracious Spirit of God was through and dismissed us as clearly as if someone had uttered a glorious benediction over us. There was fellowship that went on after that meeting, but it was more subdued than usual. Everyone agreed that God had met us in a special way. God’s Spirit had ample time—quiet time—to have His own way in our midst that morning.
Learn How to Get Quiet
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
“Enter into Thy Closet…”
All right, enough of the why we need to be quiet before God. “Why” is because: a) God says to; and, b) because we want to hear Him and commune with Him. Now comes the how.
Pastor Percy Gutteridge, a father in the Lord to me, often used to say to new believers:
“Find a time and a place to pray
And read your Bible every day.”
The “time and a place to pray” are what concern us at the moment. It should go without saying, but—alas!—it needs saying to a great many believers, that we need time alone with God on a regular daily basis.
The words of Jesus would suggest, on the surface, at least, that we should find a small room in our homes which can be devoted to prayer. Taking the word “closet” from the King James quite literally proved to be the first motivation I had as a teenager to haul the junk out of my clothes closet. It was small, but with all of the unnecessary items removed from the closet floor, I had a “prayer closet.” Come to think of it, during house meetings we used to have at the home of Ray Rempt, my other father in the Lord, I often used to retreat to the closet in Ray’s bedroom during the meetings in order to intercede for the meetings and the people in them. Dredging up other memories from my high school days, I can recall times of prayer over at the home of my good friend Bill Morrow. One of the closets at his house wasn’t deep, but it was very wide – wide enough so that four of us fellows could fit in, head to head, toe to toe, head to head. When our closet prayer meetings became too boisterous (as they often did) and Bill’s mother would complain, we would exit the closet, grab pillows, return to the closet (again arranged in a head to head, toe to toe, head to head configuration) and muffle our shouts and cries with our pillows.
That all seems a bit humorous now—not the prayer or fervency, of course, but the fact that we thought we had to all fit into a closet to seek God. We interpreted the King James translation of Jesus’ command literally, and, in the best way our baby Christian minds and hearts could respond, we obeyed with simple, heart-felt enthusiasm.
But having lived for decades since that time and having had the privilege of seeing some of the world while traveling on ministry trips, I can tell you that a significant portion of Earth’s population dwells in one-room homes (those who have homes at all). That one room is a family’s living room, kitchen, dining room, family, and common bedroom. There is no “closet,” as most of my readers would understand it; and even if there were, the impoverished state of most of those people would make a closet irrelevant, for they own little more than the clothes on their backs. Such living arrangements would have been considered quite normal by the peasants who listened to Jesus teach this during the Sermon on the Mount.
The word “closet,” we now know, is a 17th-Century rendering of the Greek word ταμεῖον (tameion). Modern English translations render it as inner room (NASB), inner chamber (ASV), or simply room (NIV, NRSV). The word appears in the New Testament only four times, and only in the Gospels. Prior to New Testament times, it meant treasury, magazine (that is, a repository for weapons), and reservoir. In Luke 12:24, we find the word used to mean store-room (or, possibly,store-house), a room in the interior of a house, hence innermost, hidden, or secret room. A similar meaning appears in Luke 12:3.
Since Jesus’ hearers would have come from all walks of life and from every socio-economic level—from those with large homes to those whose dwellings were a single, closet-less room—I would like to propose that Jesus had a more universal meaning in mind when He said, “Enter into thy closet.” He was speaking of being able to retreat to a quiet place within ourselves, to our own heart, our own spirit. And how wonderful that this should be so. If I’m part of a large family in a small, crowded, one-room home, with scarcely four square feet to call my own, I still have a “prayer closet.” If I am a businessman, ever transiting through airports, I have a “prayer closet” even at the crowded, noisy boarding area at the terminal gate. If I am a harried housewife and mother, with small children clamoring for my attention, there is still a “prayer closet” to which I can retreat, even if only for a few moments.
“…and when thou hast shut thy door…”
If the closet isn’t actually a small, four-walled room, then what did Jesus mean by “the door”? Well, in the greater context of the passage, of course, Jesus is contrasting private prayer, meant only to touch the heart of God, as opposed to public prayer that has a motive of trying to impress an audience with the “spirituality” of the one praying.
But taken in the context of praying in the “closet” of one’s spirit, shutting the door is the equivalent of shutting out every distraction of heart and mind in order to focus on God. This is a wonderful ability, but—fair warning!—it is a discipline hard won. It is not with ease, at first, that we shift from our over-active, hyper-kinetic lives to come and sit quietly before the Lord, the better to hear His voice. If you don’t believe that, a simple fifteen-minute experiment should suffice to convince you. Turn off your radio, TV, CD player, and iPhone.7 Power down your computer, smartphone, and tablet. Find a comfortable chair and settle yourself in it. Then, without singing, praying, or speaking in tongues, try to sit quietly, focusing on the Lord, for a quarter hour, without letting your mind wander or looking at your watch every other minute. Even if you fail miserably, with your mind drawn in many different directions, the experiment will have been a success on one level: it will prove how little experience you have in concentrating solely on God Himself, His presence, His purpose, and His voice. Cheer up—Paul tells us that the working of God's Spirit will bring about in us “power and love and a disciplined mind”8 (2 Timothy 1:7) — all things required to wait upon Him quietly. Like all other disciplines, most of us start at the level of novice, then train and strive and grow toward mastery.
If you’re not careful, this exercise can be a bit discouraging in the short term. What a distracted people we Westerners are! It is as though some part of our brain has gotten hold of the “remote control” of our attention and is “changing stations” as constantly as a bored husband channel-surfing for “something interesting” on the television. Every few seconds the image on the mental screen changes. This seems even more true when we try to sit quietly before the Lord. When God says, “Be still,” it can be a trial to unruly flesh and undisciplined minds. Even those who ought to be spiritually mature may find it's like dealing with a squirmy, restless, bored—and whiny!—two-year-old child.
Nevertheless, if your unwavering desire is to be able to “close the door” of your “closet” to everything within that would divert you from concentrating on God’s presence, if you’re willing to work through the discouragement, failure, and self-revelation (so to speak) of just how un-quiet you are, you will find that the Spirit of the Lord will help you with the process of “casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
I find that the two commandments—“enter into thy closet” and “Be still, and know that am I God”—work to aid each other in their accomplishment.
Practical Considerations, Personal Perspective
So, your attention-demanding gizmos are turned off and you’re ready to listen. I would counsel you to have several things at your side:
- your Bible,
- a pen, and
- a notebook.
Have Your Bible Handy
I mentioned in the second installment of this “Hearing God” series that there is a one-to-one correspondence between those who read their Bibles regularly, faithfully, and systematically, and those who hear from God. That’s not to say that the Lord will only speak through the Scriptures; nevertheless very often it’s where He will start.
But what if you don’t know the Bible well? That might be because you are a new Christian, or because you are only now repenting and making Scripture reading a priority in your life. (The best time to start reading the Bible annually and cover to cover is the day you get saved; the second-best time is today.) That’s not an impediment with God if you’re trying to develop a hearing heart. Think about it. Is God unable to speak to someone who is illiterate? No, He’s not under any such limitation.
You might have an experience like I did, back in the summer of 1971. For reasons I won’t go into, I was on what amounted to an extended spiritual retreat, a period that I see (as I look back across the decades) was critical to my spiritual formation. I was somewhere toward the end of my third read-through of the Scriptures, as I was coming up on my third spiritual birthday. But it could hardly be said that I knew the Bible well. (Indeed, now, after more than five dozen annual cover-to-cover readings through the Bible all these decades later, I don’t know that it can yet be said that I know the Bible “well”; but I’ve come to know the Author better, which is more important.)
Anyway, I found that the Holy Spirit had put into my heart a great desire to learn how to pray. And I remembered that somewhere in the Gospels the disciples had put this request to Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” My Bible was at my side, but my Strong’s Concordance was almost 3,000 miles away (and the concept of “Googling” something on the “Internet” from a “personal computer” [never mind from a smartphone!] was the stuff of science fiction). Nevertheless, I prayed almost the same prayer: “Lord, would You please teach me to pray?” And no sooner were the words out of my mouth, than I heard the Spirit whisper in my heart, “Luke 11 and Luke 18.”
Other than those words, I had no idea what was in Luke 11; and I wasn’t even certain that Luke’s Gospel had as many as eighteen chapters. But my Bible was on the seat next to me, so I opened it first to Luke’s eleventh chapter—and to my joy and astonishment, there, starting in verse one, was the very story which had prompted my prayer! I carefully read and re-read the first thirteen verses, being especially captivated by the teaching on importunity in verses 5-13.
I spent some considerable time that afternoon, reflecting and meditating on that passage, asking the Lord about various aspects of what I was reading. And then I asked the question that you’re probably asking now: “Yes, but what’s in Luke 18?” So, I took a deep breath, flipped the intervening five or six pages from chapter 11 to chapter 18, half-expecting to find nothing related to prayer.
Oh, me of little faith! The first fourteen verses are (you guessed it) more of Jesus’ teaching about prayer. What caught my attention that day was the parable about the widow and the unjust judge in verses 1-8. It struck my soul as the “second chapter” on the subject of importunity. I concentrated on the importunity aspect of prayer that day, but note that Luke 18:9-14 also speaks to the subject of humility in prayer before God.
Now someone may ask, “Did the Holy Spirit really speak to you, or did your memory just pull those passages up?” Well, it’s true that in the first two years I was a Christian, I had memorized hundreds of verses from the Bible; but I can assure you that none of those verses was from either of those two chapters. Furthermore, the question ignores a key ministry of the Holy Spirit: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26 nasb). Was He teaching me something new, or was He bringing something to my “remembrance”? (It no doubt helped that, although I didn’t have much in my “spiritual bank account,” a concept mentioned in the last article, the “bank balance” showed almost three years of steady deposits.) The question didn’t occur to me then, and it seems irrelevant now. All I know is that I vaguely recalled a passage of scripture (“Lord, teach us to pray”), I prayed the same prayer, and because I was listening, the Holy Spirit told me exactly where to open the Bible and He taught me all that afternoon.
Perhaps that’s a long way around to make my first point about waiting on God and listening: have your Bible handy!
Because You're So SADD
Have a Pen and Notepad Ready
When I mention a pen and notepad, you might immediately think, “Ah, yes, this is for recording whatever the Lord might speak to me.” Hold on a bit. I can’t guarantee that the Lord is going to speak anything to you, especially at the beginning. For a while, your notepad will serve a more important purpose—helping you deal with the onslaught of S.A.D.D.
You know that passage in Ephesians 6 that speaks of “the shield of faith” that will allow you to “quench all the fiery darts of the wicked” (verse 16)? Well, at first, your notebook is going to serve a similar function, but not along the lines of spiritual warfare. Until you’ve had some practice and success at getting quiet before the Lord, you’ll probably find that every time you sit down to wait on the Lord, your over-stimulated Western mind will start immediately manifesting SADD—Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder.
Martin Luther once said about his periods of fasting, “The flesh was wont to grumble dreadfully.” Those disciples among my readers who practice the discipline of fasting will be sympathetic with Brother Martin and his grumbing innards. Well, what fasting is to undisciplined flesh, quiet will be (at first!) to an over-stimulated brain. But instead of “grumbling dreadfully,” your SADD soul will get a serious case of the fidgets, dredging up dozens of thoughts that fall into categories like What-Abouts, Don’t-Forgets, and Gotta-Dos. It seems as though your brain, addicted to the constant interruptions of your phone ringing, your computer beeping, and your smartphone alerting you to a new text message, is bound and determined to marshal a bucketful of reasons why you can’t and shouldn’t “be still” before God, and why you should get up and go do something else—right now!
Are all those distracting details “fiery darts” from the enemy of souls? I suppose that argument can (and will) be made by some. (I’d bet that Satan would be thrilled to actually be responsible for even a tithe of all the things for which he’s blamed.) But in truth, the devil has more important things to do, and he operates in the confidence nowadays that SADD is ingrained in us to such an extent that it doesn’t need his help.
Your pen and notepad are going to serve the function of a “sword and shield” against all those…well, not “fiery darts,” exactly, but all those dozens of distracting ideas. Since, at first, you won’t have the discipline to stop them from coming, use the notebook to capture and neutralize them, to stop and “quench” them, as it were.
- SADD distraction #57: “John’s orthodontist appointment is next week. But is it on Wednesday or Thursday? Go check the calendar now!” No, don’t. Just jot down “Ortho appt. – what day?” and get back to waiting.
- SADD distraction #88: “The bulb in the porch light needs to be replaced.” Hardly an earthshaking revelation, but make a note and settle back in.
- SADD distraction #112-114 (yes, they come in multiples sometimes!): “What I supposed to bring to the small-group covered dish? Call Mary to find out. Stop by the grocery store on the way back from the gym.” A note to the effect of “Dish for potluck?” should quench those.
I could go on, but you’ve no doubt gotten the picture. (If not, you will soon enough when you start waiting on the Lord.) “Quiet” isn’t the normal state of the average modern man or woman. For most of us, it will be a learning process before we gain the ability to “be still” almost instantly whenever we wait on the Lord. On the way to apprehending that ability, using your notebook helps to quiet your mind by corralling the myriad of “darts” into one place, giving your SADD brain the assurance that those “really important” items won’t be forgotten; it’s just that they will wait for you while you wait upon the living God.
Now, of course, the notebook can also be used to write down impressions from the Holy Spirit, scripture passages, to-dos from the Lord (sometimes “call Mary” is a prompting from the Spirit, not a SADD distraction!), words to your own soul, and guidance from God. But how can we tell that impressions of that sort are really from the Spirit? How can I tell if it’s God’s voice? What does His voice sound like? What if I’m mistaken? What if I’m self-deceived? Worse, what if I’m being deceived by the enemy?
These are all fair and important questions when dealing with the subject of Hearing God, and we shouldn't try to finish the subject of waiting quietly on God each day until we've addressed them. So we’ll look at some answers in our next two chapters, The Sound of God’s Voice and How to Avoid Going Off the Deep End. Then, Lord willing, we'll finish up with a chapter on what a typical time of waiting on God might look like — in Choosing the Good Thing.
- Copyrighted image used under license from kozzi / 123RF Stock Photo ↩
- In fact, Peter may have been more used to these visions than we realize. When his angelic liberator appeared in his Fortress Antonia cell the night before his scheduled execution, Peter “thought he saw a vision” (Acts 12:5-11, especially verse 9). ↩
- Creation, says the Psalmist, “declares the glory of God” and “shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). In fact, part of the purpose of the nineteenth psalm is to show how Creation (verses 1-6) and God’s revealed word (verses 7-14) are both a part of the revelation of God. From Solomon, who exhorts us to learn from those tiny creatures, the ants (Proverbs 6:6-11), to Jesus Himself, Who bids us to “consider the lilies of the field” for what they teach us about our heavenly Father (Matthew 5:28-30), Scripture teaches us not to overlook what God speaks to us in His Creation. ↩
- Isaiah 65:24; Matthew 6:8 ↩
- The Septuagint was a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek around 200 b.c. Because it was reportedly accomplished by seventy (or seventy-two) Jewish scholars, the name Septuagint (septuaginta is Latin for seventy) is often abbreviated as LXX, the Roman equivalent of the number 70. Listen to the one-episode podcast entitled God’s First Popular Bible Translation and read the shownotes there for more information. ↩
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, s.v. “Wait.” ↩
- And, no, no “prayer music” or “mediation music” or “Christian devotional music.” Absolutely not! The goal is QUIET, remember? Not “sort of” quiet or “mood music” quiet or “mostly” quiet.” This sort of music affects the soul (and not always in the good way you might think it does), but is counterproductive in matters of spirit and Spirit. And, no, this series is not the place to unfold the critical difference between soul and spirit, and why the vast difference between them matters. ↩
- The KJV renders the Greek word σωφρονισμός (soh-fron-is-MOS) as “sound mind.” Other translations prefer discipline, self-discipline or self-control. Marvin R. Vincent in his notes on 2 Timothy 2:17 from Word Studies from the New Testament says of this word, “Not self-control, but the faculty of generating it…in one's self, making them…of sound mind” (emphases his). Taking all these together, I have opted for a translation of “disciplined mind.” ↩