When I was growing up, my dad taught me to sail our small Sunfish sailboat. We took month-long summer vacations, and we always camped on lakes. So we could ride the wind every day.
I probably sailed with him for a hundred hours before I faced the wind on my own. During those hours, my dad would have me either manage the sail or handle the rudder. Of the hundred hours sailing, I bet his actual instruction time totaled one hour. Two at the most.
He might say, “Pull in the sail a bit,” or, “Turn a little more to the left” (yeah, I know, starboard and port, but my dad didn’t care much about proper terminology). Those short comments took mere moments to say, and he didn’t make them often. Mostly we just sailed together. For hours and hours. And bit by bit, gust by gust, wave by wave, I learned seamanship.
Instead of lessons, we mostly just chatted.
He would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d say, “Be a pirate” (of course) and he’d heartily agree (“Yo, ho, ho”). He’d ask why I had yelled at my sister, and I’d ask why he got angry at my mom. We’d talk about books we were reading, sermons he was preparing, what girls I was interested in, and what it would be like to sail across the ocean.
Our relationship with God can be like that. Conversational.
Would we want it any other way?
When we imagine “hearing God,” we mostly picture God telling us what to do. We ask for guidance—directional answers—but it means we’re asking for lectures: Do this and don’t do that. God wants conversations with us far more than he wants to lecture.
Jesus once said, “If you earthly fathers, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your kids, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).
Think of your fondest memories of your fathers. How many of those memories are the times your dad lectured? Why do we think a good relationship with God would be any different?
My earthly father made boatloads of mistakes, but he also did tons of things right. My favorite memories of him are discussions around the dinner table, phone calls, and sailing.
He did give advice, and occasionally (albeit rarely) I even asked for advice; but he always loved to talk with me. About life. About ANYTHING: movies, friends, spiritual quandaries, and jokes.
If our best memories of our earthly fathers are conversations not sermons, why do we think our heavenly Father (who is better than the best earthly father) wants mostly to lecture? “Will not our heavenly Father give good things to us when we ask?” Would we want it any other way?
We most frequently seek God’s voice during times of crisis. “I’m in trouble; I need direction!” The thing is, until we have learned to recognize his quiet voice in the humdrum of life, what chance do we have of distinguishing his voice in the maelstrom of crisis?
Let’s learn to sail our boats in a gentle breeze before raising our sails in a hurricane. We think we mostly need guidance, but mostly we need conversation.
Besides, the best guidance is in conversation
My dad did teach me sailing, but I never felt our sailing adventures were classroom instructions. I doubt if one percent of my discussions with dad—one hour amidst one hundred—was directional. Directions did come (“Let out the sail a bit, I see a squall coming”), but they were gusts in the winds of conversations, punctuation marks in the midst of chapters.
My ability to sail grew through persistent conversations, sometimes boring sometimes exciting. My dad and I went through life on the seas together. It was in those communal adventures that he taught me to navigate. He never once used a whiteboard, flipchart, or PowerPoint to abstractly teach me seamanship. He taught me through a shared daily life on the waves.
On our trips together, I’d make mistakes (as would he), and the boat would capsize. We’d right it together, we’d laugh (most of the time), and we’d drag our soaking wet bodies back onboard, to match our wits against the wind and waves once more.
Through it all, I learned to sail. His guidance was vital but mostly unnoticed. Within a year—at eleven years of age—I was sailing the Great Lakes alone, beyond sight of land, amidst the wake of freighters, capsizing, righting, laughing, and testing my strength and courage.
Even now, when I sail as an adult, his conversational guidance is with me when I face a squall.
So how do we have a conversational relationship with God?
It’s perfectly normal to talk about “normal” stuff with our friends; why not with God? He isn’t less of a person, he’s more of a person. He isn’t less interested, he’s more interested.
And he has a better attention span.
I set aside a daily time for prayer and study, but my best conversations with God take place throughout the day, when driving home from an appointment, waiting in line at the supermarket, or thinking of how to express a point in the blog. I say to God,
- My last lunch meeting didn’t go well. I said something more harshly than I meant to. Why do you think I said it that way? What is going on in me to explode like that?
- I’m tired. I feel like my daily mantra is: Too much to do, too little time to do it. What will it take for me to let go of my life? What does it mean to be satisfied in you alone?
- God, I felt alive when I gave that talk on friendship. How can I help others find friends? How can I walk in a friendship with you?
The best relationships with God are conversational. Yes, he wants our petitions and praises, but mostly he wants relational exchange. In the Garden of Eden, we know very little of Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. Except this: he walked with them in the cool of the evening.
Which is a Hebrew metaphor for God having a conversation with friends.
This article includes material from my upcoming book Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere. It will be released in mid-July.
Pre-order it now by clicking on the link or on the image. Topics include:
- Learning to recognize the sound of God’s voice
- Hearing God in his silence
- How to Brainstorm with God
- Hearing God in Scripture
- Hearing God for guidance
Gary Wilkerson (pastor, author, and son of David Wilkerson) said this:
A key longing in every human heart is to connect with God, to actually hear his voice. Sam Williamson has written a remarkable book that teaches both how to hear God’s voice in Scripture, and then to hear his voice in every avenue of life. It’s filled with humor, insight, practical tips, and sound theology. I can’t recommend a better guide than Hearing God in Conversation.
Whenever I am able to pray in a conversational way AND get to the point of the real spiritual issues and my real needs and wants–then I count it a success, a wildly successful time in prayer.
–And I must add, bringing in “my …wants” feels awkward. Even to say. How dare one ask God for what you want? Isn’t that, you know, like, *wrong*? Feels like it. But it’s not. Book of James draws the lines, but saying what you want is closer to telling the truth than it is to being egocentric.
Yeah, I know, we feel that bringing our “wants” feels awkward because we’ve been taught to speak to God with stilted language.
God wants us to be real with him After all, he knows our wants, wishes, and thoughts better than we do. We really have nothing to hide. Just read the Psalms. The writers express the reality of their inner life, the most secret thoughts.
That is real prayer, exemplified for us in scripture. It is when we treat God as a person; he IS a person. He is the original person; all our person-hood is because we are made in his image.
God wants us to be real. As we are real with him–in our hurts, desires, and even our temptations–he becomes real to us.
God redeemed us … to be in a relationship with him. So, let’s be in a real-ationship with him.
Great words! Living in Milwaukee for so many years I was blessed to be able to go out on Lake Michigan and experience the thrill of sailing. Sometimes the winds push you one way, and sometimes another…hard to predict or see. Way too often I look to our Father for the answers that I can’t get. It took me a long time to understand that He provides so many answers to life’s questions, but I needed to get past putting me first. Once I got it into my head that sometimes the answers aren’t the answers I want, but His answers it took the pressure off. I think we get too frustrated when we go to Father looking for our answers and when they don’t come we wonder why. Maybe, just maybe His plan is so much better…right!
Yeah, sometimes (often really) we don’t get the answers we are looking for. Not just an unwanted answer to our question but an answer to a different question. We want to redo our closet and ask God which color to paint it. He says, “I’m building you a mansion next door.” We want to know what to say to a difficult employee, God tells us to repent to our wife for our harsh language.
But, as you say, his plan is always much better.
As a young child I had that relationship of walking with God while holding his hand in complete confidence. We often didn’t say a word. I just trusted and He just held my hand with a fatherly strength that left my tender child heart beating with the rhythm of His heart for me.
But, then I grew up and was ripped up by the roots, abandoned by my earthly parents, thrown around and onto a deserted island like a castaway
Yes, my earthly father was deeply flawed and spiritually damaging. My mother was cruel and critical.
My relationship with God did not begin to mend, even though many earthly mentors tried to help me heal along the way, but I began to heal when my eyes were opened to my true Father’s unfathomable grace. When I found that I could do nothing or say nothing to earn His grace and favor. When He showed me an empty cross and I heard the words. “It Is Finished.”
I took care of my mother in her last years and she said on her deathbed. “You’re a good daughter.” I took care of my father until he passed away a few months ago. I wrote a eulogy that touched my family and those who knew my father. It touched them because they knew him with his flaws and the years of damaged wreckage that was our family. I spoke from my heart to my daddy that day with forgiveness and compassion. Like the Father I now know would speak to me.
I have spoken with many men and women with earthly parents who caused great pain. Your story is particularly poignant.
The amazingly common element in these stories is that by adulthood, almost everyone came to understand the faults of their parents. Amazing, because there are so many imperfect parents (including all of us!). If all parents are imperfect, how would we know it?
I think its because God has imprinted his own nature of fatherhood on all of us; we know there is something more, a dad who loves and cares and protects and teaches and talks (and, yes, who disciplines, but disciplines with love).
The faults of our earthly parents lead us to look to the perfect parent. We know everything else is a dim shadow.
Smart man, your father. Maybe he worked it out or he could have been a natural – but he showed you the way with two vital lessons, time and togetherness. (Two on a Sunfish is as close as you can be) And you picked up the essence of sailing – becoming a sailor, by being with one. No white board can give you the feeling of a sudden capsize, as they say “You had to be there!”
What would we give for an hour on a Sunfish with our Father when the wind was up? Priceless! And He says it’s available to you and me. Trying to slow down enough and be quiet enough to make it happen is my big nut to crack, and I’m not alone.
Another good word, look forward to the book.
And anyone who would sail out of sight of land in a Sunfish is either crazy or a confident sailor – and I’m neither.
I think my dad genuinely liked people. Including his kids. (He also made lots of mistakes, but that is for another article!)
I think the battle for us is to understand–to believe in our hearts–that God IS with us in our daily sail through life. He IS with us when we capsize and when the winds are calm. He IS teaching us moment by moment.
As I’m sitting here, he IS with me, speaking, watching, laughing, and teaching.
But … most of the time, I don’t even think of it.
Thanks again Sam. It’s funny that you should post on this, because I’ve just been in a Facebook discussion with a friend of mine, wondering why it is that God doesn’t speak to us audibly, conversationally, normally, as a loving human father would. This friend and I have both struggled greatly with this problem throughout the years – I’ve spent evenings screaming at God, so heartbroken that he won’t answer me when I just want to hear him talk to me, to say anything, and not knowing why I’m bothering to scream and ask him questions when I don’t even believe he’s going to respond. I don’t know how or why, but I think I’ve come to a more calm acceptance than my friend. I just know that God isn’t going to talk to me individually, and I don’t know why, but I’m tired of asking, so I’m just getting on with serving him as best as I can. But my friend, although he’s a Christian, I think has been very angry at God for many years, and I worry sometimes about where he’ll find himself if he refuses to accept what he can’t understand. On the other hand, I worry sometimes that there’s an experience of God out there that I’m missing because I’ve given up after repeated disappointments, and that people who search longer and harder than me will find it.
But we’re not just looking for God to tell us what to do. Sure, that would be nice a lot of the time. But what we really want is to have the sort of conversational relationship you’re talking about – to chat to God about what’s going on, to ask him little questions about what he thinks of things, and to hear his answers. I do sometimes talk to God the way you describe, asking him about things that are on my mind, but I don’t think he’s going to answer – he never has yet. So I guess I don’t like to phrase my prayers as questions, because I’m afraid that I’ll just think about it, figure out an answer to my own question, and then chalk that up as God’s response. I don’t understand much about prayer, but I’m determined that it can’t just be a psychological affair whereby we provoke changes in our own minds (which would have happened regardless of God’s existence) and then give God the credit… When you talk to God like that, do you hear a response? Or is it “just” a tool for helping you to sort through your own mind?
I’m very keen to read this upcoming book. I’ve tried several books on the subject, and been fairly constantly dissatisfied with either the theology or the cop-out answers. But after reading so much of your work, I’m happy to give you a chance to be the exception. 🙂
I love–absolutely LOVE–your refreshingly honest response. I think you said what most of us believe. Honesty with God is the greatest starting point.
I believe that God does speak to us, but it is rarely that audible, booming shout we want, and it’s rarely the handwriting on the wall. Mostly it is a voice that is hard tor recognize because of all the other voices the seem to overpower.
I hope my upcoming book helps. We’ll see, eh? You have laid down the gauntlet!
I look forward to hearing your response, and I hope it really does help you hear the voice of God.
Maybe God talks to us in the people we meet or in some situation that comes along. An example, my family live in Taiwan, my little son needed a kindergarten, but the good ones were too expensive for us. THEN one near us wanted me to teach English there and my son would get a discount!
Though I didn’t do it because I basically didn’t want to teach kids. A big excuse in retrospect. If I had listened who knows how the experience would have helped my son, and our family and all the little kids! I would have learned a ton too.
I absolutely believe God speaks to us through people we meet, circumstances, and even events. His ways are not limited.
Golly, I thought I was the only person who did this! One time a “friend” said to me, “You talk like prayer is just like having God sit on the couch next to you!” It wasn’t meant as a compliment!!
Great article, Sam. Yes we can hear from God in a conversational way. It is a learned skill, I believe and have found. Once it is learned and practiced (much like having a loving relationship that we pursue in the more conventional way), the conversations come easier and more free flowing. One of the major keys, I have found is to be willing to hear: no or some other negative response. Most of us pray for and demand things we want (much like a young child). when we learn and grow to be mature enough to KNOW that our Heavenly Father wants the absolute best for us those answers come (and are heard) much easier.
As with our own children, we will thwart some childish request or action when we know that in the long run is will truly bless our child in the end, so does our Heavenly Father do the same! When we aren’t willing to hear that, well quite simply, we won’t. The problem is we often interpret this as God ‘holding out on us’ when in fact it is: God loving us much to much to give us our childish demands.
Learning to hear God is just part of the bigger picture of learning to walk with Him just as we were designed to right from the creation of man.
Thanks for your words. I look forward very much to the book!
I love your parenthetical comment: “much like having a loving relationship that we pursue in the more conventional way.”
Most Christians do not think of Christianity as a relationship with God. But sin–disobedience–is a relationship breaker, we are cut off from God.
No, most people think of Christianity as a “normal” religion; we pay our vows (and sacrifices) and that being out there blesses us.
Sin isn’t just breaking God’s rules; it is breaking God’s heart. He wants a relationship with us. And what is the most common element in a relationship? Communication. God wants communion and communication with us.
And we want it with him.
I think I will have to buy dozens of copies of the book when it comes out and hand them out generously, because you very eloquently stated what I try to tell people who struggle with “hearing from God.” We live in a society that is increasingly casual, but yet most Christians seem to persist in keeping prayer very formal. Having had a pretty good relationship with Abba from my childhood and throughout adulthood, it seems normal to me to speak with Him like in any other conversation and hear back from Him in the same way. (I’ve had my own Abba issues because of religious tradition, but in other areas.) I am constantly amazed at how difficult and/or complicated adults make it to communicate with GOD (and I use the all caps on purpose) and how they train their children to have the same hang-ups. I appreciate Kate’s Mom comment, too, because I have had the same experience and gotten some “you’re a kook” looks. But I wouldn’t have it any other way! I treasure those conversations with Him – He tells great jokes, gently guides, gets great pleasure from our pleasure, and is terrific at comforting.
I think you have nailed one of the key obstacles to hearing God; it is the formality. Nothing wrong with formality at times (I dressed up for my wedding); but it is deadly in large doses for a relationship. Relationships require reality, just just being us, real and raw.
I used to have a real father-daughter relationship with God. He was always there for me in hard times and in good. I used to immagine before falling asleep that He sends His angels to guard me. I cant reall tell, when it all changed…probably then, when my history teacher held a lecture about people seeing aliens and thinking it is Jesus rising to the sky and asking me to stand up and say in front of the whole class, if I really believed in it all….
Yeah, my world was shaken in the 8 or 9 grade…
I really want the same relationship back, but I wonder if it even is possible…maybe it is supposed to be different for an adult. We also have different relationships with our earthly fathers when we are grown up. What are your thoughts on this, Sam?
I really do think we can have that kind of close relationship with our Father–our Dad.
But I also think it will be a little different than it was as kids. I have four adult children, and my relationship with them is much closer than it was when they were kids.
I used to tell them when to clean their rooms or do their homework.
Now they ask me, “What do you think I should do?” and I answer, “Tell me what you are thinking….” In other words, I give far less direction and much more conversation. We tease things out together.
I really think we can have that kind of relationship with God.
That’s why I’m writing this book.
I must admit I am a bit troubled by this post. It appears that the comparison is being made between having a conversational relationship with your father and having one with God. The only problem is God does not engage in conversation… We can chat with him in any way we like, formal, informal, liturgical, through song, it doesn’t make a difference… utter and complete silence is all that is there. Some people make claims about maybe feeling like God guided their thoughts, and somehow communicated to them through another person, all of which is certainly possible, although I remain skeptical. When we focus so much attention on trying to find something, even just a slight indication that possibly God is talking to us, I think we always find “something.”
I guess I am troubled because I have been hearing for my whole life that God wants a relationship with me but I just need to get right with him. There are things in the way. I couldn’t communicate with God because I didn’t have enough faith, or I had some sin I needed to confess, or I didn’t know how to pray right or I needed to stop doing (fill in the blank)… Well its been almost 3 decades now of “trying to get right” and hear God… still not as much as a word or a sound (I have ‘Felt’ god at times but not communication). A few years ago I realized something, I think we need to admit as christians that God does not want a ‘relationship’ with us (In the sense of a human communicative relationship) and he doesn’t want to talk to us. Im not sure why, and I’m not saying its a bad thing, but so much damage is being done by saying God wants those things and everyone spending their entire lives pursuing something that will never come. I will spend no more time trying to have a conversation with God. I will live a life to serve him, and practice reverence towards him and bend my life to his principles but a conversational relationship? I think I have wasted enough time already…
I’m sorry to hear about the difficulties this subject has caused you.
I still think it is possible to have a conversational relationship with God, but I don’t want to increase the pressure you are under. I’d like to give you hope, but a burden.
Yes, it is possible for sin (etc.) to block our hearing God, but I don’t think that is the primary block. Remember when David sinned by murder and adultery? God still spoke to him through the prophet Nathan.
I think the key issue is learning to distinguish his voice. There are a thousand voices in our head, and God is one, but we confuse it with the others.
I still have hope for you to hear the voice of God.