Keith, what can I do when my prayers are boring—even to me? How can I pray more attentively in a way that leads toward the transformation of my real life?
Years ago, when I first began taking a life of communicating with God seriously, I felt uneasy with silence while praying. So I filled most of the communication time with words. But as the years rolled on and I read the lives of many of the saints of the church, (and met some very loving and unselfish Christians), I noticed that a number of them seemed to view communication with God as a time for them to listen to Him (since they had the idea that the purpose of prayers was to let God change them—instead of informing Him about what He should be doing each day).
At about that time Paul Tournier told me that he and his wife, Nellie, spent time together each day listening for God, and writing down what came to them in the silence. I still didn’t do anything until some years later when another very reality-oriented spiritual friend told me she did the same thing the Tourniers did, and it helped her a lot. So, feeling a little uncertain, I began to listen for ten minutes, writing whatever came to me. At first what came was a cross between a laundry list and a “to do” list for a Daytimer. The first thing I wrote down was “get your car washed.” I shook my head but wrote it down, along with calls to make, immoral thoughts that came up as I was praying, and financial worries.
When I reported that listening for God didn’t seem to work very well, my friend pointed out that I was getting my day organized, and the immoral thoughts could be transferred to my prayer, asking God to help me with them. “Besides,” my friend said, “you’ve told me that you have spent a good many years tuned into other stations in your mind. It may take weeks or months to be able to sort out the way God talks to you.”
I am amazed at what has happened. After many years of listening this way, I now often get a list of everything I need to do for that day in about five to eight minutes. Later I reorder the list, and my day is planned, and—after several years of doing this—I added almost nothing to the list except for new things coming into my office that day. But often the last couple of minutes I’d just sit in silence and listen.
And in that small space of silence, one morning I heard, “Keith, you are a precious child and I love you”—and I wept.
I didn’t know whether that came from God or just the deepest part of me. But I wept the first time I wrote it down, because I had never heard anything like that in my mind before. All the inner voices I’d listened to all my life seemed to be critical, pointing out faults and mistakes I had made, or was afraid I would make. And in that last few minutes I have also become aware of ideas for creative projects, many of which I later investigated and some of which I have carried out.
But some days, God seemed to be silent. That is, I didn’t feel or hear God’s presence. And I guess I had the idea that I wasn’t doing something correctly. I smile now as I think of the way I often used to get busy at such times doing religious things, as if by doing that I could get God’s attention. I would increase my time of reading the Bible, or lengthen my (talking) prayer time—focusing on intercession. But most of the time God was still silent.
I told a friend about this not feeling God’s presence. I told him that some days I didn’t seem to have any faith. He smiled and said, “You seem to think that if you don’t have a spiritual feeling you don’t have any faith?” When I looked a little puzzled, he said, “Keith, if you have the feelings that God is with you, you don’t need any faith.” He went on to tell me how someone had pointed out to him that on those days when God is silent, and there are no spiritual goose bumps, that could be an opportunity to give God a special gift—as a matter of fact about the only gift we can really ever give Him: a day of living in raw faith.
So now when God is silent, instead of feeling I’m losing out on a relationship with God, I tell God that I love Him. I say something like, “Thank you, God for this chance to tell you that I love you by risking doing what I think may be your will today and living in faith—with no feelings that you are here at all. I love you! Have a good day!”
Then I try to do something for someone in trouble, or need, a small thing, a call or visit with someone who is lonely. And often I feel much better at the end of such “silent” days in which I haven’t worried about taking my spiritual temperature.
Lord, thank you that you have given us a life of love, instead of just a religion. Help us learn to let love loose in our lives—and through them. Amen.
It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”
Matt. 10:40 The Message
Have you ever tried to spend a whole hour doing nothing but listening to the voice that dwells deep in your heart? … It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many boisterous and demanding voices of our world and to discover there the small intimate voice saying: “You are my Beloved Child, on you my favor rests.” Still, if we dare to embrace our solitude and befriend our silence, we will come to know that voice.
Henri J. M. Nouwen
Life of the Beloved