Monday, November 22, 2010

Prayer and Listening to God Part 2: A Biblical Definition of Prayer (What the Bible Teaches [and doesn't] About Prayer)

(This is Part 2 in a series of posts on Prayer and Listening to God. Click here to begin at Part 1).

In my first post in this series, I explained my purpose for writing on this topic: the Church's need to know whether listening for God is part of biblical prayer. Are we taught in Scripture to listen for God's voice speaking directly, apart from Scripture, to us? By "God speaking", I mean his giving us messages directly into our thoughts--nudgings and inner promptings about decisions we need to make, for instance. Our thinking on these things needs to right, so that we can know if this is something the Bible does teach us to expect, or not. If the Bible does not teach this, how in the world did we come to believe it? What's the harm in trying to practice hearing God's voice outside of Scripture? And also, if we are not to do so, how can we discern God's will in the decisions and choices of life?

We need to go to the Bible for insights and answers to all these things. But in order to give the Bible the "final say" on these matters we must see Scripture as our "only rule of faith and practice". We have to come to the Bible willing to agree and submit to its teaching as the very word of God, the source of all our doctrine. The Bible's teaching trumps everything, even our own experience. That's what Scripture claims for itself (2 Timothy 3:16), and to fail to submit to it is to fail to submit to God. So with that said, we soldier on to a biblical definition and look at prayer.

A Biblical Definition of Prayer

It'll be helpful to first take a look at a couple of definitions from two respected Bible study tools, Easton's and Baker's Bible Dictionaries. Here’s how Easton’s defines prayer:

Prayer is converse with God... not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him. It is a "beseeching the Lord" ( Exodus 32:11 ), "pouring out the soul before the Lord" (1 Samuel 1:15), "praying and crying to heaven" (2 Chronicles 32:20), "seeking unto God and making supplication" (Job 8:5), "drawing near to God" (Psalm 73:28), and "bowing the knees” [Paul’s euphemism for petitionary prayer] (Ephesians 3:14).

So prayer is here defined not as listening, meditation or contemplation, but as our talking to God.

Baker's makes this point:

Though prayer also includes adoration (Psalm 144-150; Luke 1:46-55), confession (Psalm 51; Luke 18:13), and thanksgiving (Psalm 75 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:2), Christian prayer has always been essentially petitionary… The immediate source of this confidence came from the teachings and examples of Jesus himself, such as the model prayer he offered (Matthew 6:9-13 ; Luke 11:2-4) and his assurance that one had only to ask the Father in order to receive what was needed (Matthew 7:7 ; Luke 11:9) (italics mine).

On this petitionary character of prayer in the Bible, Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne say helpfully, "...people today may refer to any number of different activities as 'prayer' but when God speaks about prayer in the Bible, he is really only talking about one thing. In the Bible, prayer simply means 'asking God for things'... prayer in the Bible is unashamedly and universally verbal."1

Is Listening to God Part of Prayer?

Missing from these descriptions of prayer is the idea of our listening for God to speak. And that, of course, fits exactly with the whole testimony of the whole Bible. Nowhere in all the accounts of people praying in the Bible, nowhere in all its teachings on prayer, nowhere is a listening mode in prayer ever modeled, taught or implied. That probably needs to be read again, digested for a moment and considered. The idea of waiting on or listening for God to speak, to impress something in the way of guidance for decisions on our minds during prayer, is unknown in Scripture.

I hear the protests, I really do. You may be wondering about all the Scripture verses that are quoted as proof we should be quiet and still and try to hear God speak into our hearts. There are many helpful things to know concerning those various passages in the Bible, and we'll get to those as we go along.

For now, consider just these two things about Christ's prayers and what he taught on prayer. When his disciples came to Jesus for instruction on how to pray, Christ did not describe listening as part of prayer; rather he taught his disciples to make requests that were in accord with the Father's revealed will (Matthew 6:7-13). In his Gethsemane prayers, Jesus spent no time listening for his Father's voice and asked for no answer from him, but rather made requests: "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence" (Hebrews 5:7). Christ petitioned; the Father heard (and acted). This is the model and pattern of all prayer in the Bible.

I realize this idea may be a surprising, even an offensive claim. We're steeped in decades, now, of being taught that it's normal to expect God to direct us by inner promptings, whispers and nudgings; that listening is as important a part of prayer as our speaking. I'm not saying we have no warm communion, no fellowship with God in prayer, of course not! But what we have come to mean by "fellowship" with our heavenly Father needs a more biblical light shined on it, which I'll also attempt in a later post. For now, I'd ask you to prayerfully and with an open Bible consider the things I'll be talking about. With your Bibles open you'll see texts that hopefully will raise honest questions, and addressing some of those will be the topic of my next post: why did we come to believe we should listen this way for God's voice? There are very understandable, and fascinating, reasons this view has taken hold in the Church! We'll also talk about why it matters.

Click here for Part 3

1 Phillip D. Jensen and Tony Payne, Prayer and the Voice of God: Listening to God's Living Word Will Transform the Way You Pray (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2006) pg. 15

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