Many years ago, I lived in London with a bunch of friends, working in campus ministry. One of my friends spent a couple hours with Dr. John Stott, an internationally-known pastor with a church that also ministered to university students.
Dr. Stott and my friend discussed prayer. Dr. Stott confessed that his best prayer time is spent in thinking with God, reflecting on scripture passages, and meditating on eternal truths.
My friend argued that the best prayer is found in corporate worship, enthusiastic singing, exalting in the presence of God, shouting his praises, singing, dancing, kneeling, and bowing before the throne of God. We considered Stott’s “prayer” of reflection too intellectual, too shallow, too unenlightened, and perhaps unspiritual. We chuckled.
In fact, I’d say we snickered.
By the end of his life, Time Magazine identified Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the world; he had written over 50 books; and he had helped hundreds of thousands of people —probably millions. And we twenty-something neophytes snickered at his shallowness.
Thirty-five years later, I’m rethinking spiritual reflection—actually practicing it—and it is rich beyond belief. Stott was oh-so-very right, and I was oh-so-very wrong. Spiritual reflection is one of the deepest ways to connect with God that I’ve ever experienced.
I love to brainstorm, whiteboard, and creatively go after innovative ideas. I love doing this with friends when considering anything, so I am trying it with God. And I love it.
Spiritual reflection is connecting me to God, and I’m hearing his voice.
What’s the point?
Dallas Willard claimed that one of largest human problems—for believers or not—is our denial of deep reality. We live in shallow realities while denying or ignoring the deep.
The primary purpose of prayerful reflection is to connect with the Real God deep in our hearts. C. S. Lewis said that we are content to play in mud puddles while God invites us to the seashore. Prayerful reflection is a visit to the coast. Jesus loves to speak to us at the beach.
The external, solid world appears more “real” to us than our intangible inner life; our external senses are more alive than our inner senses. I “see” the reality of stains on the carpet; I “hear” the grind of the garbage truck; I “feel” the soreness in my bad knee. These senses seem more concrete than the elusive inner life of God’s love and presence.
Our daily reality mostly consists of our five physical senses. They have more appeal; they are on HD video while our inner life with God is on scratchy old audio.
Our prayers are usually limited to: Asking (Please help me with my test tomorrow), Worship (God, you are so great!), Thanksgiving (Thanks for dinner), and Repentance (Please forgive me for snapping at my wife). These prayers are great. But they are one-sided monologues, us saying something to God. Sometimes God wants to respond.
Discussion and Connection
Real prayerful reflection is much more like conversation, a connection with a friend, a back and forth like tennis practice, questions and answers, clarification and interpretation, speaking and listening. It is a personal, conversational connection to God, the Ultimate Reality.
Prayerful reflection requires curiosity and a heightened personal awareness. We notice—that is an awareness arise—of our anger at a negative comment. In curiosity we ask God why we responded with such ferocity. Our curiosity is not satisfied with our own shallow answers like, “I’m angry because they disparaged me in front of others.”
Of course negative comments triggered anger, but why do the opinions of others matter so much? We ask God, and he speaks. Sometimes he speaks words—“Why is their opinion so important?—and sometime he simply triggers the inner realization that the opinions of others are more “real” to us than the opinions of God.
And then God offers a heart sense of his reality and care, and our hearts are at peace.
Questions and Reflection
With increased inner awareness, and in curiosity, we go to God with questions like,
- I’ve read this passage a hundred times, but this time something quickened in my heart. God, what is that quickening about, what are you surfacing?
- God, I just watched a movie and during the ending I began to tear up; what about that ending is moving me? What are you revealing to me?
- Father, I’m feeling anxious about my children. Why do I think you are less concerned for them than I am?
- God, what does it really mean that you love me? How can that shape my life?
Here’s the thing: when we go to God in prayerful reflection it fuels our ability to Ask, Worship, Thank, and Repent. Let’s look at that anger. As we discuss it with God—as we practice prayerful reflection—God speaks, and all of a sudden we,
- Ask: God, may the magnitude of your majesty eclipse the opinion of man.
- Worship: As I see the beauty of your reality, I am moved to adore you.
- Thanksgiving: Thank you God for your opinion and care for me.
- Repentance: I repent that the molehill of human opinion continually overshadows the mountain of your great interest in me.
Prayerful reflection is a conversation with God that connects us to him. It is learning to have a conversation with God. I am learning that one of the best ways to hear God is through prayerfully reflection.
Hey! Did I just hear someone snicker?
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.
I have a realistic opinion of you Sam. I see you eye-to-eye. Real
This was such a powerful reminder of how to stay in touch with God.
I have learned that when i do “listy” prayers, I’m not really in touch.
I start the day by reading devotionals, thanking God for how great (and in control) He is, and asking for His will to be accomplished, extracting a verse or thought to dwell on and then my day begins.
I allow God’s Spirit into my reflecting place during the entire day. When I see the “old, dead self” rise to the surface, I turn to Jesus and thank him for dying for me and ask him to create a clean and new heart in me. He is continually. I don’t always do that right away though. When i don’t, the dead self thinks its won, but I turn back to the cross, I AM NEW FOREVER. SO HAH, OLD SELF.
Every thing you mentioned hit that place in me. I kept nodding inside. (My dog might think I was crazy if I was nodding at my computer, but I guess i shouldn’t care too much about his opinion either.)
I got something out of every part. This one is a keeper. Not that they’re not all keepers.
Thanks again Sam for a reality check for the day.
Keep on keeping it real.
I love your line, “This was such a powerful reminder of how to stay in touch with God.” That certainly is my hope, but I don’t always succeed!
Keep on keeping it real.
How do we hear God answer these questions that we ask? Is it mostly looking to scripture? I am assuming it’s unlikely that God will speak an answer to me in an audible way. Do I wait for a thought in my mind that seems like it’s from God? How do I know this is from God and not from me?
When I read your comment, it made me think of a speaker that I listened to once, who said that God speaks to us in different ways, but he often uses the voice inside our head to communicate with us. A lot of times for me personally, I see things throughout the day or the week that connect to each other, and it seems like a coincidence, but I just believe that it is God trying to get some point across to me. And often when a thought just happens to pop into my head while I am thinking of something, I assume that was God talking to me, too. I am sure that Sam has a good answer too but I just thought I would share my experiences 🙂 But honestly I think the best way to go about trying to listen to God is to ask Him to speak to you, and believe that He will (James 1:5-6). He speaks to everyone in different ways, so don’t have any expectations and just allow Him to speak how He will, and you will start to see His hand everywhere. It’s pretty amazing.
I like your answer of “asking God to speak” and believing he will.
And I like your comment about becoming more aware of God’s speaking.
Scripture says God is always speaking, but we often fail to perceive it. Some of the time, we fail because we’re just unaware or not looking for it.
God does speak to us, and while not audible, they certainly are tangible. At any given times, we may have a dozen voices in our heads: our boss yelling directions, a wound from the past shouting shame, or our family’s asking for help.
God also speaks into that mix, and we can learn the skill of distinguishing his voice from the cacophony of sounds around us. It takes time and a little training.
But yes, the best place to begin is through reading scripture, but reading it to hear his voice, not just get information. I’m told that Secret Service agents are taught to handle real money and in that way, the learn to identify counterfeits. Reading Scripture is the best way to learn the REAL sound of God’s voice.
But once we do, we can hear his voice in many places.
I have a book on this topic coming out soon. I hope you get a chance to read it.
I found that when I cut “god” out of my life, that instead of waitingfor “god’s” voice to emerge from somewhere in my mind for me to interpret, I was able to cut out the “middle man”, realizing that the voice was actually mine, speaking from my own experience, reminding me of lessons I had learned myself. That way, instead of a vague guessing of what a real person was supposed to be saying, I got at least a concrete idea of what a real person, myself, might have learned. If “god” were real, and he were interested in you knowing something, he would tell you, and you would have no doubt what message was being relayed. That is what the Bible says, and as soon as you start demanding that those words be true instead of suggestive, you will be able to find your way out from under the fear that has you trapped in this life of vaguery and doubt. Good luck.
I find that hearing God increases humility; it’s a way of attributing our best ideas to God instead of to ourselves; it reduces arrogance and feeds humility.
I’d say the world could use more of that.
I’d wish you luck as well, except that as a believer, I think more than luck is involved. So I’ll wish you good fortune.
Thanks for this post, Sam. I think my prayer life has traveled some of the same paths as yours! That youthful contempt thing is so familiar…
Noticing my emotions and looking at them intentionally in God’s presence has lead to some pretty amazing movement along the path. I’m glad you reminded me. It’s so easy to not pay attention. Especially those tearing-up moments. Those have revealed really important clues to God’s heart and image in me.
Noticing is also the best way I’ve found to “listen” to God. I’m afraid that when I try to intentionally be still and listen to hear God say something in words to me (you know those times when someone is praying with or counseling you and they suggest you just take a moment to listen?) I generally experience more doubt than revelation, with my mind casting here and there and wasting a lot of time wondering if I’m doing it right. I do better when I just ask my question or express my desire to hear, and then I walk away confident that he will communicate. After that I just notice. Things dawn on me, and I realize my question has been addressed.
I recommend spiritual direction for helping the hearing process, by the way. A good director doesn’t really give direction–he or she helps you direct your gaze at God’s activity within or around you and asks questions that help you respond.
So, now we’re in the reflective stage of our journey, eh? Next is silence, I think. I have known no greater challenge in prayer — or greater longing — than to simply BE with God.
I completely agree with you when you say, “Noticing is also the best way I’ve found to “listen” to God.”
One of my biggest problems in life is not “noticing” or being unaware of all that God is doing.
And yes, maybe silence is next. But I won’t say anything about that.
Sam, the contents of this blog kind of stumbled into my life upon my active participation in the training being offered by a wonderful woman, as she took us through the School of Healing Prayer – Level I, by Francis and Judith MacNutt. Actually it was just her, another sister in Christ, and me. In the first of the sessions, when it came time to pray, the 2 of them started praying with me, and it was kind of a “tiny fearful thought of what’s going on”, when they just sat there with me what seemed for the longest time in total silence. The part of me that was my only reality for praying was thinking, “Come on…someone say something!” It did not take too long to realize a new sense of just resting silently in Jesus presence, in
a peaceful trust that God would reveal Himself in the depths of my heart and that it may require a time to “leave all the talking and study of each lesson” and set it aside. The initial discomfort I felt was also accompanied by a sense that God was desiring to reveal more to me, and to humbly embrace that. As I did so, the uneasiness slowly faded and was replaced by experiencing a depth of God’s presence that involved my starting to discerningly understand very wonderful word s He was speaking to my heart, strikingly speaking far more specific insight and direction from Him than I ever experienced in my prayer life. This experience was coupled with an exciting deeper realization of the truth of His continual presence with me, that indeed He has been and is about answering our petition we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Judith and Francis McNutt did a fascinating presentation that, upon completing this first level of training, that left no doubt in my mind that indeed He is actively revealing His presence to many everyday, bringing life and healing into our deeply troubled world. I completed this level I presentation with a humbling excitement of His invitation to embrace Him as His ambassador, to team with Him in bringing His kingdom on earth through the very sometimes seemingly mundane activities of my daily life. Since then, I am getting used to being comfortably expectant that He may speak something to me at any given time or in situations that interface within daily life, not just during specific times of exclusively reading scripture and praying at a specific time of day. I sense this many times when I find my thinking at any time has a sense of increased impact as opposed to the usual ongoing fleeting thoughts we go through in a day. He sometimes says something like, “Joann, I want you to know that there is much more going on in this particular situation, “than meets the eye”, followed by His request to keep this in the forefront of my mind, and in His timing He will speak more. In time he brings more insight is of what is on His heart regarding this situation, such that at a certain point, He leads me to step out in faith and actively, obediently, actually do something He is asking me to do. Other times, though not as often, I will experience a stronger than usual thinking/sense within a situation, where God will reveal immediately what “more that meets the eye” in a situation and directs/guides me through strong thoughts to do something specific immediately. I make mistakes at times in my discerning incorrectly, but this helps me only to learn more, be humble, and that the most important aspect to God is that I maintain a willing, learning, and humble heart. I have seen God miraculously reveal Himself in powerful
ways. I conclude that your chosen subject for this blog is a critical key to God’s invitation for a deeper intimate relationship with Him, through this understanding, for this broken world to have the veils taken off their eyes and in seeing/experiencing His love revealed in the further bringing of His Kingdom on earth, we WILL see love saturated healing and miracles, drawing many, many people on earth to Himself. Thank you for the gift of time in reading this comment!
Joann, I continue to love your personal sharing.
It’s clear that God continues to work in your life.
Every type of conversation with God is good, welcomed and useful. Letting Him answer us, makes Him an active part in the relationship He wants to have with us. He is a living God!!! That means, he can, wants and will answer. And He wants us to let Him answer….If we only cast our thoughts on Him, we act as He would be a mere statue, no different than those false gods…I think I have made this mistake many times. If we look at the Bible, and what it tells us: I have always been amazed, why God does not wipe from earth the one who fights Him (was it Thomas, I forgot his name?) in the Bible….and one answer is probably that, only those who take Him as a real living God can fight, love, praise Him: that means have a real, personal relationship with him.
Also, praise can be long, but also done in one sentence, also casting our worries to Him can be short. But conversation on deep topics takes time. It needs the investment of our time. And that´s what He wants, time with us. So we just are not mumbling about US, we would hear about HIM and get to know HIM.
Another thing; we are humans, we are flawed. If we read scripture without talking to God, we can lead ourselves in a rut, cause our flaws make us see things in a wrong way. That is why God says to the pharisee: You seek the scripture, as therein lies life. Actually life is in God, in Jesus. Scriptule is profitable reading, but it has to be done WITH God!:) Cause many parts of the Bible can be understood in many ways, when looked at with our eyes full of specks and logs:)
Thank You for a very profitable reading, Sam! I wish you would also write about negative emotions (anger, frustration, anxciety a.s.o), and give some good pointers …I know we have to use self control. But I cant somehow get the load off without bursting when it all accumulates…
Great idea to write about what you called the “negative emotions.”
Believe me, you are not alone.
It’s in true humility that we can hear the voice of the Lord. It’s a process of faith that we aren’t taught enough but we desperately need to live the abundant life.
Thank you Sam. Always the right thoughts at the right time for me 🙂
May God keep on inspiring you.
Thanks! What do you hear God saying these days?
It’s almost 2 o’clock in the morning and do you know what I’m doing? Spiritual reflection…. Yes it is so good to think with Him and share with him every single thought that crosses my mind.
So you wanna know what I’m thinking about these days? And what I think God is saying? Ok, I’ll tell you.
I was thinking about the will of God. What is His will for my life? Which way do I have to take, which choices do I have to make ? The only thing I desire is doing His will and doing what pleases Him.
I’m a musician, a music teacher, and a christian songs composer. Many “doors” are in front of me right now and I didn’t know which one to push : wich proposal do I have to accept? Am I to work on this project? Or do I have to focus my energy to that one? Or that one? What is the will of God for me?
Do I need to wait for a “revelation” ( or “signs”) from God or is it ok to just think about each of these projects and evaluate them in my mind (positive and negative aspects of each one of them) to make my choice? I discussed it with God, searching for an answer to that deep question : how do we find the will of God in a particular case?
So I typed the words “the will of God” on Google and I found a soooo interesting article from John Piper. And I found an answer to my question.
He starts his reflection with Rom 12.1-2 (the reflection is long but great) and here’s his conclusion : what you need to do is deeply long and pray for a renewed mind. Focus your efforts in being transformed by the renewing of your mind (through reading and meditating the Bible). This renewed mind will give you new thoughts, new desires, new goals. And with your inner self being transformed, you can discern what is the will of God, what is pleasant to him in daily choices.
“There is a world of difference between praying and laboring for a renewed mind that discerns how to apply God’s Word, on the one hand, and the habit of asking God to give you new revelation of what to do, on the other hand. Divination does not require transformation. God’s aim is a new mind, a new way of thinking and judging, not just new information. His aim is that we be transformed, sanctified, freed by the truth of his revealed Word (John 8:32; 17:17)”
So I got the answer to my question : I’ve got to dig more and more into the Bible, allowing God to transform my mind more and more to his likeness. Then I know that I will make good choices and do his will for my life.
And yes, it’s ok to make choices with my (renewed) mind and not to be always looking for “signs”.
Sorry for being so long, but you asked me first… 😉 it’s almost 3 o’clock now and I hope my spiritual reflections (I’ve just shared with you one out of many) will stop coz’ I just need to sleeeeep!
God bless you!
You were not too long, you were just right. And your story sounds just like it works for me.
Okay, one more question. How did “reflecting with God” seem different than normal prayer? And how did it seem different than just normal thinking in the middle of the night?
It is never too late to answer. I think God has often waited decades for me to answer a question of his.
I absolutely love your answers, and I so deeply appreciate the time and approach you took to answering it.
My experience of meditation is almost identical to yours: (a) it engages the mind in a different way–it’s like engaging the brain of the heart, not just the brain of the body, (b) it is more of a conversation… I believe this is the heart of biblical meditation, a conversation with God about his Word, talking WITH him, inviting him to illuminate his word, YES!!, (c) you expose your thoughts, concerns, ideas, worries to God; again, YES, it is inviting God into our thinking, it’s not just praying our petitions TO him, it is talking WITH him, and (d), it is rooted in Scripture; this is important. Yes, I often “meditate” with God on other issues, but the way I learn to recognize his voice is to meditate on his word; when I learn to hear his voice there, it’s easier to recognize his voice when he speaks to me on the drive to work and while mowing the lawn.
THANK YOU SO MUCH for your wonderful answer.