I once had a friend who talked a lot. I don’t know if it was because the person looked at me as a pastor, and thus assumed, wrongly, that it was my job to just listen to them express their struggles all the time. We would meet, sometimes for an hour or an hour and a half, and they would talk almost nonstop, hardly coming up for air, rarely asking me how I was doing. Or if they did ask me how I was doing, I would get in a few sentences or a few minutes, and they would jump right back into talking about what they were thinking and feeling. It was really…frustrating. I felt used.
I wonder if God ever feels used.
This week in our study through Colossians, we are looking two marks of a healthy church, based on what Paul teaches in Colossians 4:2-6. In the previous post, we learned that the first mark of a healthy church is to be devoted to prayer. In that post we looked at a few ways to practice prayer, especially through the lens of the Lord’s Prayer. But there are still more ways to pray. Look at the next phrase in verse 2, “Being watchful.”
What is watchful prayer? To watch is to observe, to listen. Too often we think of prayer as us doing the talking, primarily to make requests of God, and God is doing the listening. But that is a warped view of a relationship, right? How would your feel in your relationships, if the other person did all the talking, and you just listened?
Is that what we do to God? Have you ever asked God how he is doing? And then stopped and listened? If we are in a real relationship with God, and we are, shouldn’t we ask him how he is doing and then actually give space and time to listen?
I have shared this before, but I’ll share it again because I think it is so helpful. My seminary Old Testament professor, David Dorsey, who has since passed away, once told us in class that in his conversations with people, he sought to practice a 60/40 rule in conversation. He would strive to actively listen to the other person 60% of the time, and share his thoughts 40% of the time. You might think, “Why not 50-50? Shouldn’t a relationship be equal?” Here’s why: as followers of Jesus we are called to die to ourselves, to consider others as more important than ourselves, so the 60/40 rule emphasizes listening to the other, leaving more space for the other person to share, but also honors the fact that any good relationship is a two-way street. Thus Dr. Dorsey felt he should share his thoughts about 40 percent of the time.
Of course, it is impossible to track these percentages in real time, unless we could configure our phones to record word count or time speaking, and alert us somehow. Frankly, that is likely possible, but I don’t think we’d want to do that. Instead, we should be aware of how much we are talking in a conversation. We should be actively inquiring about the other person, how they are doing, how they are feeling. Active listening means asking questions of them, rather than being ready to share about our thoughts. But there is also the 40% side, our side, and therefore it is not right if we, in a desire for humility, allow the other person to always dominate the conversation. Frankly, I should have not allowed that friend to talk that much. I should have confronted him. My lack of confrontation meant that I was discipling him into thinking that it is okay that he talked 95% of the time or more. It’s not okay.
And yet, how often do we do that with God? It is not okay. We need to be people who listen, and if we use the 60/40 rule as a guide, and I think it is a wise guide, we will listen to God 60% of the time! Think about how different 60% listening is from our normal practice of prayer. Evaluate your practice of prayer. How much time do you listen to God? Is it anywhere close to 60%? Given that God is the ultimate selfless One, it seems reasonable that he would be the one to listen more than he talks. So flip the percentages, and make it your goal to listen to God 40% of the time. Even then, do you come anywhere close to listening to God 40% of the time?
What I have heard from people over the years, and the question I ask myself, when it comes to listening prayer is this: “What am I supposed to hear, or what if I don’t hear anything?”
I have a couple thoughts about that. We can hear God in many ways. Primarily, we hear him through the words of Scripture, so we should make studying Scripture a priority. I have been using a Daily Office podcast lately, Common Prayer Daily, which I have found so helpful. Every day it is about 15 minutes, and I try to start the day listening to it, before everyone in my family wakes up. Each podcast includes scripture reading and guided prayer. That helps me listen to the voice of God in Scripture.
We can also hear God through nature, or through other people. I hope you hear God in sermons, in songs, and in the fellowship of the church family, such as through group discussions.
We can also hear directly from God. I also listen to The Daily Disconnect podcast. It is about 7 minutes that includes some brief devotional reflections, and then a space of 3-4 minutes of quietness, in which you listen for God to speak. Sometimes I use a prayer app that allows you to set a timer for silent prayer. 10 minutes, 12 minutes, however long you want to listen for the voice of God. This helps me practice what Paul calls being watchful.
What am I listening for? Could be thoughts. Could be memories. Could be reflections on Scripture. Dallas Willard, in his book Hearing God, says that it can take time and practice to recognize the voice of the Spirit. And when we think we hear it, we should always test it to see if it in line with Scripture.
What I think is most important to remember is this: practice watchful prayer. We will not hear the voice of the Lord if we do not listen. I encourage you to begin adding a time for listening to your daily prayer. Read a book like Hearing God to learn more about how to listen. Perhaps use a podcast like The Daily Disconnect.