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Listening prayer and new age faith

AIM encourages short-term mission participants to listen for God’s voice. After doing so, one said, “Sometimes I find myself feeling hesitant to just sit and listen to God because I think that he’s going to tell me what I did wrong that day or bring up something from the past, but the other day…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

AIM encourages short-term mission participants to listen for God’s voice. After doing so, one said, “Sometimes I find myself feeling hesitant to just sit and listen to God
because I think that he’s going to tell me what I did wrong that day or
bring up something from the past, but the other day he just reminded me
that I am good enough and I am loved.”

If you open your mind (so the argument goes), who knows what kind of odd thought might enter your head? After all, isn’t that what other religions advocate? Isn’t the canon closed?  Listening for God’s voice outside of reading the Scriptures could really just be a Trojan Horse for the enemy to deceive you.
In other words, could it be that those who practice listening prayer are really engaged in a form of New Age religion? When we listen for God’s voice, what is to protect us from any random thought where it’s really the enemy speaking to us?
These are good and important questions. If you believe that God does speak today, how do you answer them?
First, I welcome the dialogue. When I first wrote The Art of Listening Prayer, I encountered some critics. People are going to disagree about what Scripture says. That’s why the “closed canon” argument doesn’t resolve the issue – you still have to interpret what you read. A good illustration of that is our disagreement about what the Bible says about listening prayer. There are many, many examples throughout Scripture of God speaking to people using a variety of means. People draw different conclusions about what they read. It doesn’t matter that it’s there in black and white, we still need to figure out what it means.
Critics of listening prayer have to explain why they think God has changed his methods. If he has stopped, it should be up to those who say he’s changed his methods to show why he did so. Listen closely to the critics; they can’t find a verse that proves God has changed his method of communication. They cite Hebrews 1:1-2, but that is a passage that is speaking to the uniqueness of Jesus as a means of communication with men: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many
times and in various ways. But in these last days he has spoken to us by
his Son…” If it were a message of God clarifying how he’s going to communicate, then it sure is oblique. Why would God use such an obscure message to communicate how he’s going to improve communication? It doesn’t make sense.
So if God’s people practiced listening prayer in the Bible, how did they protect themselves? And what does the Bible say about how we discern God’s will? As humans trying to connect with a transcendent God, we would do well to be humble about our discernment. We’ve all been wrong. But here are five tests:
  1. Was it a clear word or just
    an impression?  God may give us different degrees of confidence in what
    he has said.  We therefore need to humbly admit our fallibility. Get
    someone you trust to check your impression and to confirm it or not. (John 10:3-5)

  2. Does it exalt Christ? (John

  3. Is it scriptural?  Scripture
    is our authority. God does not contradict himself. (2 Tim. 3:16, Proverbs 30:5-6)

  4. Do other Christians confirm
    it? (1 Cor. 14:29-32)

  5. Does God cause it to actually
    take place?  (Isaiah 55:11, Deuteronomy 18:21-22)

At AIM, we have a high view of Scripture. We believe that it is inspired and inerrant in its original form. We believe we should seek God in the Scriptures for what he may be saying to a person today. We believe in renouncing our enemy and declaring Jesus’ authority over anything masquerading as light. Is this orthodox? Absolutely. Do good people who love Jesus still disagree about how and when he speaks? Obviously they do or I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.
So, who’s the heretic? One could make a strong case that those who would say that, “Yes, David, John, Peter, Paul, all the prophets and a host of other heroes of the faith heard God speak to them extra-biblically, but that no longer applies to us,” are in fact the heretics. You could make a case that to invalidate the clear teaching of Scripture based on an interpretation is heretical.
But then you’d be stirring up contention and division. And Paul warns against contentiousness in 1 Cor. 1:
  • agree with one another
  • that there be no divisions among you
  • be perfectly united
  • there are quarrels among you
  • One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”
  • Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?
Yes, we need to recognize the potential heresy of unchecked man-sponsored views. But the Bible reassures us that it is God’s job to superintend the heretics. He says in 1 Cor. 2 that God has revealed his wisdom to us by his Spirit.  He further says that “the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God… thus we have been given the Spirit who is from God that we may understand…”  He says, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit.” 
And earlier in that chapter, Paul says that his evangelistic tract to the Corinthians was not even “wise and persuasive words” but the Spirit’s power.  Jesus tells us in John 16:12 that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” 
It’s reassuring to know that God will protect the truth. He does that through his Holy Spirit who speaks to our hearts in a variety of ways today just as he always has.

Comments (17)

  • Hey thanks for your thoughts today and yesterday about listening prayer. I’m in the midst of a Menternship with Chi Alpha Campus Ministries and during this month on listening we have been talking a lot about listening prayer. More specifically this week and you thoughts have added to our discussion. Thanks!!! Check out the Menternship.com if you want to see some of our ideas…

  • So very well said! Thanks for this post. I remember one woman arguing with me once on this subject, saying God speaks ONLY through His Word. So I told her the story of my not being able to find an address in a Communist city, and could not safely ask for directions because of the many Bibles we had. We had run around that city for two hours with no success. So then (duh) we listened to the Lord as He told us when and where to turn right, left, etc. He got us there within two minutes. Why? So we could get His Word to these people! That was one for her to ponder!

  • Great Post, Seth!

    For me, listenting to the Lord gives me peace, no matter what is going on in the “physical world”.

  • Seth, great explanation of this complex and divisive issue. I especially appreciate your pointing out that it is God’s job to protect the truth, He really doesn’t need us to be His police. And Kathy’s example reinforces WHY we need to hear God everyday.

    As a young Christian, I thought it was kind of funny when our bible study leader told us that he asked God every morning what to wear and what to eat. While I still think it was overkill, I still admire his total dependence upon Father, which is on a level that I must sadly admit, I don’t practice.

  • Amen, Seth…good stuff! Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.” Don’t think there’s an expiration date on that!

  • I need to read your book. The discipline of listening is very hard for most people. It must be practiced and aligned with his Word. A relationship is built on love. It must be open to his voice and directions. We miss out on so much by just our prayers and miss out on the secret whispers of God. Thank you 🙂

  • I have a question for Seth or whoever wants to reply. Before I get into it, I have to disagree that the only options could possibly be: you believe that listening prayer is a wholesome biblical practice, OR you deny that we can hear God’s voice like the disciples did.

    You see, there is a third factor here and a third option: that listening prayer is not a biblical practice but that people do in fact still hear God’s voice. Nowhere in scripture can I find any description of anyone sitting down and saying, “Okay, I decided GOD is going to speak to me directly today, right now, so I am going to sit down and clear my mind and wait for Him to speak something, anything, to me.”
    Prayer is always about coming to the Lord and praying, speaking the burdens of your heart, interceding for others, praising Him with words. Silent moments are involved, but sitting in silence and clearing your mind is Buddhist as far as I can tell. The word “meditating” in the scriptures means thinking deeply and reflecting, not clearing your mind and waiting for any thoughts to come.

    Don’t get me wrong: God absolutely positively speaks to us! He has given me words that I absolutely needed to hear, but they have been in the midst of prayer not in the midst of mind-clearing and listening for a voice. He doesn’t have a speech impediment. If He wants to tell me something, He can and will. But you have to be seeking Him as a person, not seeking some message from Him. You have to be intimate with Him in prayer, not waiting to “channel” something.

    SO, my question for any and all of you is this: where do you find a biblical basis for listening prayer – not just for hearing God’s voice (that’s different) but for the specific practice of listening prayer? Where do you find anyone sitting down with no other purpose but to listen to God? Because as far as I can tell, in history and in the scriptures, when the Lord speaks, people are either in the midst of real prayer or receive His instruction without looking for it. The danger I see here is that if listening prayer is not in scripture and it looks a LOT like Buddhist meditation, then it very well may be eastern new age practices disguised as Christianity. At the very least, don’t you think it is presumptuous to just decide that “I’m going to receive words from God today, right now, at the time of my choosing, and I don’t have to even bring anything constructive to Him in prayer – I just need to clear my mind”?

    These are my thoughts and where I feel the Holy Spirit led me. I really genuinely want to understand your viewpoint on this, so I hope you guys can provide me some scriptural evidence for listening prayer that I may have overlooked. Lord bless!!

  • Alexander – thanks for the thoughts. I don’t tend to use the words, “clear your mind.” I prefer to simply ask people to “pay attention to what God may be saying.”

    Another way of looking at it is that many of us need help just learning to listen in general. We interrupt, we get distracted, we misperceive, we fail to give feedback. If God were speaking, we might fail to hear him just through our poor listening skills.

    Perhaps others are presumptuous in saying, “God is going to speak to me now,” but really try to avoid that. Most of the time I’m frustrated by the exercise and feel like I made the effort but he was silent.

    I’ve written more about it here:

  • Interesting article. I tend to agree with Alexander Mack, though. If listening were a central part of prayer, then why didn’t Jesus, when asked by the disciples how to pray, mention anything specifically about listening?

    I agree that we need to learn to listen to God, but that’s different from “listening prayer” per se. The term “listening prayer” is never used once in the Bible. I think we should use the terms “listening to God” and “learning to hear God’s voice” instead–those concepts are biblical. But the term “listening prayer” implies a certain kind of specialized prayer that I don’t think is entirely biblical. If it were, then I think many of the early Church fathers would have used the term, but I’m not aware that any of them did. Of course, I could be mistaken.

  • A key problem with “listening prayer” is, ironically, illustrated in the very first paragraph of this article:

    “AIM encourages short-term mission participants to listen for God’s voice. After doing so, one said, ‘…[T]he other day he just reminded me that I am good enough and I am loved.’ ”

    Uh, no, God didn’t tell you that. Because you assumed that the stream of thought entering your mind was “from God,” and because you failed to compare your thoughts with Scripture, you came to the *anti*biblical conclusion that God views you as “good enough.” Wow.

    Biblically, no one is good enough for God – except Jesus. God views us as righteous (or good) ONLY IN CHRIST.

    Yes, there are many scenes in Biblical history of God conversing with people. BUT, (a) it’s never treated as the “norm” for God’s people, and (b) it’s usually for individuals who were prophets and/or contributors to Scripture.

    On what grounds should I believe that the divine-human conversations sprinkled throughout the Bible should be the normal pattern for God’s people – all of them -today?

    Another question: How does the “listening prayer” model avoid the trap of treating our own thoughts as if they were on equal footing with the inspiration and authority of Scripture?

  • Often the “message” one hears from God and the interpretation of it become very mixed by our flesh/soulishness. Because we obviously aren’t inerrant creatures (as opposed to the scriptures), we often don’t hear God clearly or correctly. The person who claimed to hear God say “he was good enough…and loved” may have heard God tell him/her that they were loved, and that they could stop striving and rest in the finished work of Christ. That would be a biblical interpretation of such a message. The flesh, however, hears it as “you are okay, don’t fret about sinning, everyone does it, you are still loved” which of course is contrary to God’s word and will.

  • Fair comment, Bob.

    I need to clarify: I *do* believe God plants thoughts in our heads. But the problems *we* create include: (1) There’s no biblical reason to necessarily *expect* God-thoughts immediately following a “listening prayer” we send up. That’s a false expectation that’s bound to result in disaster and disillusionment.

    And (2) there’s no biblical reason to assume, in any given instance, that the thought that suddenly popped into my head is *necessarily* from God – at any time whatsoever, not just in the midst of prayer. Yes, God’s thoughts get lodged in there, but they’re intermixed with *my* thoughts, and it requires growing discernment to sift through them all. Or many times God will lead us to make such and such a decision, and we’ll never actually know if it was “God’s will” per se; we just know in retrospect how it worked out.

    So yes, God’s doing His part in relation to our thought-life, but the “listening prayer” model creates false expectations.

  • Andy, you make very good points and insights. It is likewise one of the difficulties I have with the “prophetic words” fad that is going on in many services and revival settings. I question our “ability” to demand or command or even expect an immediate “word” from God in response to someone’s request. That doesn’t mean God can’t or doesn’t speak…just that it may be flesh speaking out of a zealousness to have God speak.

    Listening prayer to me means having a heart that is open to actively hear God in the midst of quiet time, scripture reading and journaling. Oftentimes, I “hear” God in loud whispers that appear in connect the dots fashion. And as you noted, we know best in retrospect what God may have been saying to us, we still step out in faith (which right or wrong, God often honors).

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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