Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How To Listen To God

Written for a similar audience. I do sort of assume this is post-Baptism in the Holy Spirit, though.

This is about just one part of prayer. It's the part that is hardest to get sometimes.
When we talk to each other, a certain process takes place. We see something in the world, and we want to tell someone about it, so we figure out how to describe it using words. We always lose information in this process- for instance, if you talk to someone a week from now about tonight, you probably won't mention the chairs, what color they are, how comfortable, and so on. It's good that the chairs are here, but they aren't important to the story and we don't want to overload our friends. You want your friend to get an idea about what tonight was like, what makes it different from other nights. The chairs are usually the same every night, so they don't help the story.
Your friend, in turn is forming an idea in his mind. He may forget most of the words that you said, but he has this idea, this concept which he can return to in his mind. Later on, he may be able to tell someone else your story, even if he uses slightly different words.
God communicates with concepts. He sometimes will put words in our mind, but if you pay attention, you'll notice even in these situations there's more information, and it takes time for us, in prayer to work things out.
We do our speaking to God like we do with other people, but our listening to God is a bit different in that He usually gives us the concept, and then we have to turn it into words and finally into action in order to make something happen in the world.
This is slightly harder than talking to your friends for a few reasons. First, God is a whole lot smarter than we are, which means we have to really work and study sometimes to understand His full meaning. Second, when you talk with your friends, it's all in your language. This means most of the ideas that come to you from people are easy to put back into words- you have already heard them spoken!
This is why we need to learn for our whole lives. We need to read our bibles, participate in our churches, and study various subjects. This is the way we come across new concepts. As we learn new concepts, we can then notice similarities between them and what God is telling us. Imagine for a moment you didn't have any idea what chocolate was and someone was trying to explain it to you without giving you any at that moment. What could they say? Brown food that's yummy? Don't let anyone tell you that Christians are against science and knowledge. We started science because we wanted to better understand God, and what He wants us to do in this world.
I imagine most of you will try to listen to God after praying to Him about other things. Suppose he does give you an idea. What should be your first reaction? Sometimes you will get an extreme emotional reaction- get very happy, or sad, or even fearful at what it could mean. Sometimes you'll get doubtful and worried that maybe it's not God. You may start 'what if' thinking, and worry about the possible effects of whatever is going on. All of these are distractions too. The real work for you is to not react, wait, especially in your prayer time. You need to take the time to make sure you understand the Lord.
This is what listening to the Lord looks like. You are waiting, you are quiet. When you notice your mind is wandering, you return your attention to God, just like you would if your friend was talking and something behind him momentarily distracted you. You may have no idea what's going on. That's okay. This is something we should do our whole life; our primary responsibility is to try. It's not a test.

Another thing we have to watch out for is sin and unforgiveness. I'll focus here on unforgiveness, but I just want to tell you Catholics, please don't let fear of confession stop you from going.
When we don't forgive, we become resentful. When we become resentful, we start to have an agenda, and this agenda can get in the way of God's plan. When God sent Jonah to Nineveh, Jonah tried to get out of it. God had to take time to deal with Jonah. But that wasn't all. When Jonah did get there and he started telling them that God would destroy them for their evil, the people of Nineveh repented.
So God had mercy on Nineveh, but Jonah was mad. (Jonah 4)He was resentful of all the things that Nineveh had done to his people. Jonah didn't like God's plan of mercy, he wanted Nineveh to be punished.
Not only that, but our resentments can encourage us to do a lot of bad things. Some people told Jesus about how the Romans had killed a man from Galilee and mixed his blood with some sacrifices. The people who told Jesus this were probably zealots and they wanted Jesus to say that it was okay to murder Romans because of all the horrible things the Romans had done. But Jesus told Israel to repent.
(Luke 13). We must seek God's will in what we do and not justify our actions based on what other's do.
Resentment and sin will disrupt your understanding of God. Often, in the bible, God refers to Israel as a stiff-necked people. This is a reference to their unwillingness to listen to Him. There are entire ideologies and political parties founded on resentment, with people committed to using force in order to make other people suffer or give up things based on resentments. It is really hard to hear God if evening the score feels that important to you.

When you try to listen to God, the first thing you are likely to notice are all the distractions. The world is a busy place, and so are our minds. Are you worried? Are you hungry? Do you have to go to the bathroom? I want to encourage you to make time in your day to listen to God. You have to be intentional about it. Turn stuff off. Make sure your body is reasonably comfortable so it won't start doing annoying things while you a trying to listen. A growling stomach can be very distracting.
Also, throughout the day, you can find times when you can pray to God. It can be really simple, like 'Praise you Father'. It's a way to return your attention to Him.
Of course, remember to speak to the Lord often. Share what happened to you to day, share your concerns. Learn the prayers and practices of your church. I highly recommend saying the Our Father everyday and reading at least one chapter of the bible each day. All of this and more is an important part of your relationship with God, but do listen to Him as well, so that He can respond to you.
If you notice, I haven't said anything about how long do this. It's different for everyone. Each person's relationship with God is different. If you want to start with just 5 or 10 minutes to get used to it, that's fine. Just start, and work out with God what works for the both of you.

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