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Listening prayer is normal for Christians

In past blog posts, I’ve made the case for listening prayer. Here I take on those who try to make the case that God limits himself to speaking through the Bible, that in fact listening prayer is not normal. This is an unusually long post because I want to help equip you to respond to such a view….
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
In past blog posts, I’ve made the case for listening prayer. Here I take on those who try to make the case that God limits himself to speaking through the Bible, that in fact listening prayer is not normal. This is an unusually long post because I want to help equip you to respond to such a view.
Some people see a contradiction between listening prayer and holding a high view of Scripture. But a belief in a God who speaks to us personally is completely consistent with a belief in a God who speaks to us through the Bible. We see God’s people practicing listening prayer everywhere in the Bible. The God of Scripture likes to talk to his children and does so as they listen for his voice. Unless he’s changed the way he interacts with us, listening prayer should be normal for Christians.
The problem with this is that it can feel messy and vague. Seeing that, some people insist that God only speaks through the Bible. If God were to limit his speaking to the Bible, it would be so much cleaner, wouldn’t it? The words are there in black and white. It stands to reason that a God whose truth is absolute would use a method of communication that affords as little room for deviation as possible, right?
You would think so, except for the many problems such a view overlooks. It’s not nearly as tidy a view as it seems. You have to twist yourself in knots to adopt such a perspective, a perspective that, historically is at odds with mainstream church doctrine. To listen to God through life and in prayer has been the normal practice for devout Christians since the first disciples.
Here are a few issues that make the matter far less tidy than Bible-only people would have you believe:

Bible-only people overlook the fact that there was no Bible for 337 years after Jesus died. There was debate over many other possible Scriptures like the gospel of Thomas or the books of Esdras.

Most people the world over have never owned a Bible in their language and even if they did, they weren’t literate enough to read it. 

Before Wycliffe’s translation, the Bible only existed in Latin, a language spoken by a small minority of the population.  Even now, it doesn’t exist in 2200 languages and dialects. 

The Bible was not available outside a few churches and monasteries before 1453 when Guttenberg invented the printing press. 

As distribution has expanded and multiple translations have appeared, so the variation in what the Bible actually says has multiplied.  Which version do you believe?  Some leave out whole sections that others include.  So the Bible-only people are forced to give the caveat that the Bible is inerrant “in its original text.”  And it’s even more complicated for languages where just one translation exists. 

More than half of the world’s population was illiterate before 1900.  26% are still illiterate.  If the illiterates are to hear from God, the Bible-only people would say they are out of luck. 

Near sightedness occurs in 77% of the Chinese population in high school. A great majority of people older than 50 need eyeglasses.  Before widespread distribution of eyeglasses after 1950, people lost their ability to read as they aged.  Bible-only people would have us believe that an old person living alone without eyeglasses not only lost their ability to read, but any meaningful two-way relationship with God since they could no longer hear him in Scripture.

Relationships are predicated on the correlation between action and response – in the case of a relationship with Jesus, that means a feedback loop where a human activity prompts a divine response.  When that feedback loop is reduced to interacting with a book, the relationship becomes academic and watered down. 

General principles are contained in Scripture, but we make hundreds of decisions every day that have no correlation in Scripture.  We are given the Great Commission and told to go, but where?  How do we go there?  Who should we go with?  And when we don’t go and the rocks cry out, the donkeys talk, or Muslims have dreams, are we to discount them because they weren’t reading the Bible?

Even if everyone the world over had the same Bible in their language and could read it, the words on paper still must pass through the optic nerve of the reader, the letters which, after all, are only symbols, must be converted to words, and the words must then be interpreted in the context of their sentences, and the sentences interpreted in the context of their paragraphs and chapters and books. Then, all of that must be interpreted in the context of the reader’s intellectual, sociological, religious and psychological upbringing and experience. 

Thus a Jew, a Mormon, a Muslim, and a Christian all can claim the book of Isaiah as divinely inspired and come up with wildly different interpretations. 

Thus two Christians can look at Hebrews 1:1-2 and one can interpret it to mean that God is saying he will no longer speak to people as he once did and another person can interpret it to mean that Jesus is God’s new revelation to man. 

Because Bible-only people must check every decision where they need divine guidance against Scripture, and because people don’t live that way in real life – carrying a book around and checking it – they make most of the decisions on their own without checking the Bible. The person who believes the Holy Spirit prompts them as they go through life and are consistently listening may hear a prompting to talk to a person they dislike across the room. The Bible-only people are left on an island of self-governance since they would disregard such a prompting as being their own thought. 

The Bible-only people have no clear Scriptures to cite saying, “I, the Lord, will now restrict my speaking to Scripture.  Disregard other sources of guidance.  This is a new phase in my relationship with humans.  Because I desire clarity, I will restrict myself to leading you through what you read.  Please distribute Bibles, teach people to read and how to interpret so that I am not misrepresented.” 

Instead Bible-only people are forced to torture highly debatable meanings from Scriptures to back up their interpretations.  By doing so and declaring, that “God has changed the way he has chosen to interact with people,”  they set themselves up to be heretics if they are wrong.  Because they are so absolutist, they have no margin to possibly be wrong. 

The position of the Bible-only people is often graceless and advanced through argument and condemnation not love. 

For a faith that is built on the radical idea of grace, this is dangerous. Orthopraxy gives the lie to a faith that prioritizes orthodoxy.  Thus do arguments get advanced through personal attack, thus are web sites and papers written to show the world not an answer to Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, but a church at war with itself. 

Recently, one of the most prominent of Bible-only theologians whose radio program includes the world “grace” was introduced to a charismatic believer at a baseball game.  When he learned of the Charismatic believer’s church background, he sniffed and turned away, ignoring him.

When argument is substituted for grace as our primary calling card, we Christians look more like Jesus’ antagonists than we do like him. 

In that spirit of grace, we see that the Bible-only people have good motives. They want purity of doctrine, they have a high regard for the truth. They see that God has used the Bible as a primary means for conveying truth. They see the variability of human perception and are properly concerned for how truth may be distorted.
The problem comes that they then ascribe a role for the Bible that it never ascribes to itself. And in so doing, they dismiss the many creative ways in which the Holy Spirit wants to relate to us and guide us.
Listening prayer is normal for Bible-believing Christians, or at least, it should be.

Comments (15)

  • Good case for living by faith. However I think you may be missing the issue of the influence of Scripture in shaping the life and practice of believers, even tho they themselves may not have access to the written Word. Another interesting point is that the early church did have access to the Bible just not the new testament. Keep up the good work!

  • Thanks Seth for another well developed line of thought. As a pastor in a denomination that has recently trended toward ultra-fundamentalism, our church has been swimming upstream against the current. We lost many well-intentioned members as we have increasingly stressed the supernatural nature of the Christian life and the ability to hear God in the ways you have described. The upside is that we have seen several people come to Christ with a fire that won’t be quenched now by those who have left!

  • You once again put “thinking” and “Christians” together. My first introduction to God was through a group(Christadelphian) that was very legalistic and not only discouraged, but virtually banned any questioning and reading of non-Christadelphian materials. It was their way period. This has made my faith relationship with my husband, who is NOT a believer very difficult at times. While he never committed to Christadelphianism, the worldview his family held was void of grace and so black and white it makes how we react to situations very different and difficult at times…And of course they (the Christadelphians) ascribe to a Scripture only view and his two sisters are still heavily committed to this faith system.

    I appreciate your well thought out and affirming view.

  • Wow, very well written. I couldn’t find anything I couldn’t agree more. I pray all of us get it. Thank you.

  • This is inspiring and moving Seth. Have always been led by the Lord, my grandmother stressed listening for Jesus. He spoke to me about Kerri’s mission with you.

    Many “Bible only” believers are indeed Graceless and lacking his Love.

    Like Marc, I love this, thank you.

  • As good as your writing is, Seth, the proof of listening prayer is in the doing. My guess is that folks who say the Bible is the ONLY way God speaks, haven’t really read it and those who say He doesn’t speak today haven’t listened.

    Another thought, among many, is that Jesus performed miracles,taught, died, was resurected and the Pharasees clung to their law based perspective. God has given you important work to do. Keep teaching how to do listening prayer and witnessing to it but dont get sidetracked in defending it. God will speak even to deaf ears when He is ready.

    Thanks for doing what you do.

  • I took a short-term mission trip to Haiti last year in March. A 50 year old woman being led by two 20 something year old kids. When they, our leaders first asked us to go back to our tents and pray, listen to what God may be saying to you”, I thought they were young and foolish, but out of respect, I did as I was asked. God gave me a vision on that first day, and it came to fruition on the last day. After my return, I began following your blogs. Some how I came upon your book on listening prayer. I bought it for my next trip to Haiti and one for the other three people on my trip. God moved in powerful ways, by listening to him and expecting him to answer. I have now bought 20 copies and give them out as God leads me. I have seen many peoples prayer lives turned upside down because they NOW know that God speaks!!! We only need hearts that believe and ears to hear.

    Thanks for helping us on along on the journey to know Him more.

  • Great blog, dad! Thank you for articulating these thoughts so well for all of us. You are a great teacher and stellar example. Love you!

  • Emily – what are you doing up at 1:20 a.m.?

    It’s morning over here in Romania.

    Anyway, thanks, to you and the others who responded. What an encouragement this is to hear! God loves to guide his children.

  • haha! love the personal touch, “girl, what are you still doing up?!”

    so seth, the blog advice websites recommend leaving a post “slightly incomplete” to incite the readers to prattle ad nausea in the comments section, lol. this post was written so well there’s not much wiggle room in my comment, but that’s ok though because I’m glad you finished this one up! – fun read and definitely you drove your point home.

    liked the part under No Consistency, “…[they] may hear a prompting to talk to a person they dislike across the room” ahh, yes, hate when that happens 🙂

    speaking of which, sometimes I wish the Spirit would give me something more clever to say. for instance, this morning I was accosted at the gas station for money by a burly guy who surprised me as I was pulling out. The unclever thing I said [as I begrudgingly gave a couple bucks, remembering Jesus’ words to “give to the one who asks you and not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you”] was to the effect he should at least change his story: it was the same one he gave me last time.

  • This is great, but what I’m really impressed by is your CHARACTER! Glad to be one of your (favorite) kids! 😉

  • I disagree on the “no bible” point. I’ve heard this idea circling, mostly since Bethel’s pastor said something about it. But the first Christians were Jews and would have been educated in the Torah and the rest of the OT from a young age. When they didn’t have a physical, they memorized huge portions of scripture. Our memory skills are put to shame compared to the 1st c Jews.

    Jesus’ stories, too, were circulated by word of mouth for years before they were written down. What they didn’t have of the Bible as we know it were Paul’s writings, the other letters, and Revelations. They had more Bible than they didn’t. Plus, if you look at Jesus and Paul, they spoke scripture fluently. We’ve always needed the Bible.

    Still, isn’t it interesting though that Paul is a Bible-only guy until Jesus appears miraculously to him. Paul wouldn’t be a Christian if he didn’t recognize something more than the Bible.

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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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