Listening Prayer:
Listening to God for Life and Ministry

David John Smith

Listening prayer is a form of contemplative prayer which emphasizes listening to God for Christian living and effective ministry. Listening prayer is contemplative because it fosters laying aside thoughts, words and emotions, and opening the mind and heart of the whole being to God who is the ultimate reality.1 Listening prayer also goes beyond contemplative prayer and personal integration of self. It has as its goal listening for guidance, direction, answers and insight—often within active ministry—beyond oneself. In other words, listening prayer is a reflective kind of prayer with a purpose to hear from the Lord for specific action.

 This paper will examine the contemplative roots in The Christian and Missionary Alliance in relation to the contemporary understanding of listening prayer. Further historical analysis of the early Alliance movement will underscore how critical listening prayer was for effective ministry. Finally, constructive analysis will propose primary issues that need to be addressed in explaining listening prayer for today.

A. A Model for Listening Prayer

 The Alliance is a Protestant, evangelical denomination founded in 1887 out of two passions in ministry of its founder, Dr. Albert B. Simpson—deeper life in Christ and worldwide evangelization. Its historic roots grew from five movements prominent in the late nineteenth century: gospel evangelism, the holiness movement, the divine healing movement, the modern missionary movement and the rebirth of premillennialism.

 The spirituality of the early leaders of the Alliance was influenced by the contemplative emphasis found in the seventeenth-century Quietism movement. Authors such as Madame Guyon, François Fénelon and Miguel de Molinos held the conviction that God’s voice could be heard in quietness and stillness. At times, early Alliance leaders encouraged Christians to read these writings, which expressed biblical principles for cultivating spiritual disciplines for an inner life in relationship with God. They did not embrace the entire Quietism movement, but they had no difficulty in assimilating certain aspects into their spirituality while endeavoring to balance contemplation with action.

 Listening prayer was like a hidden spring, nurturing and inflaming the passions of early Alliance leaders. The essence of listening prayer was particularly embedded in the writings of two primary leaders of the Alliance: founder Albert B. Simpson (1843-1919) and early Alliance scholar and theologian George P. Pardington (1866-1915). Simpson had learned and taught the contemplative power of stillness: “There is, in the deepest centre of the soul, a chamber of peace where God dwells, and where, if we will only enter in and hush every other sound, we can hear His still, small voice.”2 He wrote nearly a century ago about the frenetic pace of life and the need to slow down to listen to God:

These days of waiting are important also that we may listen to God’s voice. We are so busy that we cannot hear. We talk so much that we give Him no chance to talk to us. He wants us to hearken to what He has to say to us. He wants us on our faces before Him, that He may give us His thought, His prayer, His longing, and then lead us into His better will.3

 Various dimensions of listening prayer can be gleaned from Simpson and Pardington which embody a model for listening prayer. The following presents seven phases of listening prayer as a practical pattern.4

1. Relax and Be Silent

 To enter listening prayer we need to relax physically and be silent. We deliberately let go of everything—tension, worry, anxiety, frustration—and seek to relax in God’s presence and to obey the command given through the psalmist, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). This can include simple techniques such as finding a quiet, private place, bringing thoughts into focus, expressing feelings to God through bodily posture and dealing with distractions.5 Pardington gave the following instructions for a daily quiet time with God:

Get alone each day with God at a time when there will be no intrusion; open your whole being to the free operation of the Holy Spirit; consciously and voluntarily drink in His fullness until every part of your being is filled and thrilled with His divine presence and power.6

 External silence can foster internal silence. We recognize that “God speaks to those who keep silence.”7 Evangelicals are often guilty of ignoring the physical aspects of relaxation and silence. Pardington, however, did not.

So if we would know the will of God and hear His voice when He speaks, we must get quiet at His feet. We must cease from ourselves and our own ways. The clamorings of our own hearts must be stilled. The wandering and opposing thoughts of our minds must be quieted. We must even get ourselves into an attitude of physical and mental repose before Him. Silence must reign throughout our soul; stillness must pervade our entire being.8

 Simpson wrote an intriguing hymn entitled, “Breathing Out and Breathing In,” with this first stanza:

Jesus, breathe Thy Spirit on me,
Teach me how to breathe Thee in,
Help me pour into Thy bosom
All my life of self and sin.

I am breathing out my own life,
That I may be filled with Thine;
Letting go my strength and weakness,
Breathing in Thy life divine.9

 The rest of the hymn talks about breathing out the sinful nature, sorrows and longings, and breathing in cleansing fullness, joy and comfort, peace and rest, and answers. It is reading too much into this hymn to suggest that Simpson was endorsing breathing techniques for listening prayer. It is not, however, pressing the limits to say that Simpson connected physical breathing with spiritual cleansing and receiving. In the context of this paper, following the directives of this hymn does help create an atmosphere in which to listen to God.

The first phase in listening prayer is to physically relax and be silent. Get alone with God. Sit at Jesus’ feet. Prepare to drink in the Spirit’s fullness. Deliberately let go of tension, worry and frustration. Seek to relax in God’s presence. Let external quietness foster internal silence.

2. Become Aware of God’s Presence

 In listening prayer we need to open ourselves to an awareness of God’s presence, attentiveness and care. We take time to recollect that God dwells at the core of our being. We learn to practice the divine presence by acknowledging the God who is really there and by affirming that this God is with us.10 Simpson acknowledged that following a quieting phase, there comes an awareness phase:

God was waiting in the depths of my being to talk to me if I would only get still enough to hear His voice. . . . And as I listened and slowly learned to obey and shut my ears to every sound, I found after awhile that when the other voices ceased, or I ceased to hear them, there was a still, small voice in the depths of my being that began to speak with an inexpressible tenderness, power and comfort. As I listened it became to me the voice of prayer, the voice of wisdom, and the voice of duty.11

 After a quieting of mind and body, there comes a lifting of the soul toward heaven and an awareness that Christ is with us and in us.

The second phase in listening prayer is to become aware of God’s presence. Recollect that God dwells at the core of your being. Remind yourself that Christ is in you and you are in Christ. Affirm that God is here with you now and the Holy Spirit is upon you. Lift your total being heavenward.

3. Surrender and Obey

 Awareness leads into surrender. We make a conscious attempt to hand back to God all that we are, all that we possess, all that we do and all that we feel. This aspect is seen in part of a covenant that Pardington made with God to hear and obey God’s voice:

I determine and promise to obey God’s voice upon every occasion and to any extent. I determine and promise to listen and hear His voice. I determine and promise to be quiet and still upon every occasion till I hear His voice. I will on no occasion do anything until I definitely and satisfactorily get God’s voice in regard to it.12

 Pardington also believed that whenever God speaks we must mind, and whatever God commands, we must implicitly obey.13 If God is going to speak to us, we must be willing to obey what God tells us to do before we are told. Surrender to God was not a one-time occasion for him, but part of his regular spiritual discipline and ongoing promise and mind-set to listen to God in obedience.

The third phase in listening prayer is to surrender and obey. Make a conscious attempt to hand back to God all that you are, all that you possess, all that you do, all that you feel. Be willing to listen, hear and obey whatever God directs—before you are told.

4. Accept, Repent and Forgive

 Acceptance, repentance and forgiveness often follow surrender. We invite God to put His finger on specific situations, sins or attitudes which block our ability to listen to Him. We welcome whatever God will communicate to us through our acceptance. Once God has put us into the divine light, our response may be to confess our sins and to receive and accept forgiveness.

 With roots in the holiness movement, the Alliance positively emphasized Jesus as Sanctifier. Its leaders were particularly sensitive to confession of sin and death to the sins of the self-life. Slogans emerged in hymns written by Simpson: “I Will Say ‘Yes’ to Jesus,” “I Want to Be Holy,” and “Search Me, O God.”14 Personal holiness was perceived as preceding power for service. Anything that would prevent listening to God for effective service was to be removed.

The fourth phase in listening prayer is to accept, repent and forgive. Invite God to put His finger on specific situations, sins or attitudes which block your ability to listen. Welcome whatever God communicates. Respond willingly—accept a cross, confess sins, forgive others. Receive freely—the grace to bear, the forgiveness of sins, a love for others.

5. Enter Contemplation

 Following these preparation phases of quietness and patient waiting in listening prayer, we enter a contemplative phase of gazing upon God and lingering in satisfied silence. We turn ourselves entirely to God’s presence, to look at God in love, to hold the awareness of God’s near presence, to linger in the presence of God, to enjoy God.

 Genuine contemplative prayer was like an underground spring for early Alliance leaders. This prayer of silence enabled the believer, according to Simpson, to enter into “deep communion too sacred for speech where the heart of love sinks into the heart of God in unutterable oneness, worship, and stillness.”15 He also wrote that in contemplative prayer we come to the end of our words and enter a deepening communion with God:

The deepest kind of prayer is often voiceless. It is communion. It does not ask for anything, but it just pours out its being in holy fellowship and silent communion with God. Sometimes it is an infinite rest to cease all our words and just lie still and rest upon His bosom. . . . There are moments too sacred, too divine for our interpretation. There are joys as well as groans which “cannot be uttered” . . . we should know the depths and heights of silent prayer and divine communion.16

 While this may seem like standard fare in the historic Roman Catholic tradition, this dimension of contemplative prayer is least understood in Protestant traditions. Many Alliance people need to return to their roots of contemplative prayer. There are fears of eastern mysticism, religious emotionalism and blind experientialism. These fears are well founded. There is a fine line between godly listening and the perilous possibility of the occult.

 Still, this understanding of rest and intimacy offered by Christ was viewed very differently from the stillness required by Buddha.17 Alliance leaders clearly distanced themselves from the Nirvana of the Buddhist which they viewed as a kind of self-annihilation. Simpson differentiated between peace with God which results from the atoning and justifying work of Christ and the peace of God which results in an inner sense of rest as the outgrowth of a deeper life with God and the holy practice of quietness and stillness.

The fifth phase in listening prayer is to enter into contemplation. Gaze upon God in love. Hold the awareness of God’s near presence. Enjoy God. Commune with your living, risen and ascended Lord Jesus. Drink in the Spirit’s presence and power. Linger in satisfied silence.

6. Receive Grace and Express Gratitude

 Contemplation is not an end in itself but a beginning. Enjoying the afterglow of God’s coming and receiving whatever benefit God chooses to extend often follows. Simpson wrote with excitement:

The best thing about this stillness is that it gives God a chance to work . . . and when we cease from our works, God works in us; and when we cease from our thoughts, God’s thoughts come into us; when we get still from our restless activity, God worketh in us both to will and do of His good pleasure, and we have but to work it out.18

 Personal benefits of grace can include self-knowledge, fruits of the Spirit or freedom. Receiving grace results in savoring the gifts God brings and expressing gratitude to God for who He is and for what He is doing.

The sixth phase in listening prayer is to receive grace and express gratitude. Enjoy the afterglow of God’s coming to you. Receive whatever benefit God chooses to extend—knowledge about yourself, fruits of the Spirit, freedom. Savor these gifts God brings. Express gratitude to God for who He is and what He is doing.

7. Listen Specifically and Move to Action

 Listening prayer has as its specific goal listening for action. Internal activity leads to specific listening and external action. Essentially, we ask Paul’s question, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10).19 Typically, evangelicals are task-oriented. They are justifiably committed to the task of the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations. But without the preliminary dimensions of transforming listening prayer, action can become alienated from the heart of God, skewed from a biblically informed mind and centered around building a personal kingdom. Early Alliance spirituality, however, understood both sides of contemplation and action.

The seventh phase of listening prayer is to listen specifically and move to action. Listen for guidance, direction, answers and insights for your life, family and ministry. Move beyond yourself to fulfill the task God gives.

B. Practical Examples for Listening Prayer

 The culmination of listening to God is effective ministry. In March of 1958 the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, was overwhelmed with the discovery of people as inseparable from God and from one another while he was standing in the middle of a shopping district in Kentucky. William Shannon notes that Merton’s contemplative insight illustrates the need for the movement from contemplation to action.

This experience, which was profoundly contemplative, took place not in the monastery but on a street corner in a busy city. Merton’s reflections show how profoundly he came to see the responsibility of contemplatives to understand what is going on in their own times and to respond to historical needs out of a contemplative perspective.20

 Listening prayer is not an end in itself. Listening to God has as its goal ministry to people. The contemplation of God moves us into action. Experiencing the love of God moves us toward love for people. Listening prayer moves us into ministry. We ask ourselves not only what God is saying to us personally, but what God is asking us to take from this time with God into our world: to our spouse, our children, our colleagues, our friends, our neighbors, our society, our world.21 Listening prayer is the launching pad for effective service.

 In early Alliance spirituality, intimacy with God was also inextricably linked to fruitful ministry. Deeper life in God was described in both contemplative and active dimensions. Both aspects of stillness and power were frequently used in discussions of the Spirit-filled life. Simpson himself “was a man of action whose life represents an integration of the contemplative and active dimensions of the Christian life.”22 He was aware of imbalance in either direction:

There is a subtle danger, however, for intensely spiritual minds, to carry the internal side too far and to lose the perfect balance of character which includes the active and the practical, as well as the inward and the spiritual sides of our being. Mary and Martha together form the perfect combination; sitting at the feet of Jesus, and also serving with busy ministering hands; “not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord.”23

 Pardington commended the quiet and seclusion found in monasticism, but equally believed that spiritual absorption could lead to the neglect of one’s duty. The promise of the divine presence was for ordinary people, “not alone for the cell and the cloister, but for the office and the busy marts of trade.”24 Simpson also cautioned against a monkish way of life that isolated one from the responsibilities of practical Christian living.25 Pardington promoted an ideal combination of both contemplative and active aspects within a Christian as the mystic-missionary, while Simpson has been described as an evangelical “Pauline mystic.”26 Listening prayer was historically the basis in the Alliance for activity in intercessory prayer, speaking to others, sermon preparation, leading services, the ministry of healing, the academic environment, public conventions, and missionary service.

1. Intercessory Prayer

 Times of listening prayer can lead into intercessory prayer. In prayer we pass a person or situation into God’s all-knowing, all-capable, all-caring hands, and listen for an answer to the questions, “Lord, is there anything You would like me to do for this person to show them You are in control or that You care? What can be done in this situation?”

 Pardington provided instruction for intercession that flowed out of listening prayer. He taught that as believers patiently wait upon the Lord in silence, they soon become strangely sensible of a new life enkindling their whole being. Spiritual desires begin to well up in the heart. The mind becomes centered upon some subject which they may not have thought of before. They find themselves getting hold of God with a new sense of access. Longings and yearnings take possession of the heart, while words flow spontaneously from the lips in the ministry of intercession.27

 Listening to God in prayer formed the energy, ideas and direction for the work of intercession. While stillness was considered the deepest form of prayer, intercession was viewed as the highest. Deep attentiveness to the still, small voice of the Spirit within gave direction for intercessory prayer.28 Pardington wrote, “Meditation is the seed; communion is the blossom; and prayer is the fruit.”29

2. Speaking to Others

 Listening prayer was viewed as essential in knowing what tailor- made message needed to be spoken to another for their encouragement. Pardington felt that a believer may be ready and willing to speak God’s message to someone, but may not know just what that message is. God thus awakens the believer  in order to whisper heart messages into his inner ear.30 The movement from the internal to the external was the normative order:

God starts at the center and works outward. . . . When the heart is prepared He can reach the ear; when the ear is prepared He can reach the tongue; when the tongue is prepared He can give the message; and when the message is received He can sustain through us him that is weary.31

3. Sermon Preparation

 Simpson’s method of sermon preparation included a prayerful reception of listening prayer through hushing his spirit and ceasing to think. Then in the silence of his soul, he would listen for the still, small voice of God in order to receive messages to preach. This, of course, did not replace serious biblical and exegetical preparation, but was combined with it.32

4. Leading Services

 Josephus Pulis was a recovered alcoholic who served as an elder in the First Alliance Church and as a member on the Board of Managers for many years. His primary ministry was to serve as assistant to the manager in the chapel of New York Christian Home for Intemperate Men. He believed that silence increased one’s receptivity to the gentle ways in which God comes through instinct, intimation and intuition. It was his custom to engage in silent meditation for a half hour prior to leading daily morning and afternoon services. This method of quiet preparation would lead into a ministry of anointed power.33

5. The Ministry of Healing

 Kenneth Mackenzie, another first-generation Alliance leader and theologian on healing, thought that divine healing was most effectively appropriated through stillness. In uniting spirit, soul and body, many physical ailments were often diagnosed as spiritual maladies, especially the lack of stillness of soul.34

 Sarah Lindenberger played a leading role in a home for healing. She believed that a personal knowledge of God acquired through stillness was more effective in ministry than just intellectual Bible study or worked-up prayer.35 Moreover, without the practice of stillness of soul, one’s ability to work effectively for God would ultimately fade. Providing a healing home as a retreat center institutionalized stillness by providing “a quiet resting place where people could come for careful and thorough Biblical teaching in the things of the Spirit.”36 In this setting of physical quietness and rest as well as spiritual reflection and prayer, numerous people were healed.

6. The Academic Environment

 The early years of the Missionary Training Institute in Nyack, New York provided the academic environment with regularly scheduled times of silence. Students were encouraged to observe a “Quiet Hour” intended for quiet meditation and prayer. Public “Quiet Hour Services” included five to ten minutes of silent prayer. These intentional structures were put in place to foster time alone with God. The geographical location itself was an ideal spot for communion with nature and with God. Nurturing spiritual vitality, mental vigor and physical well-being promoted a holistic integration for Christian life and service.37

7. Public Conventions

 Early Alliance public conventions also incorporated a “Quiet Hour Service” which was followed by two hours of messages on the deeper life. This organizational method was based on the underlying belief that as believers spent time waiting upon God in quietness and silence, it instilled an expectation of God’s presence and activity and increased a responsiveness to the preached Word of God.38

8. Missionary Service

 Pardington wrote how waiting upon God in quietness and solitude also transformed and motivated people into missionary service:

William Carey saw God and left his shoemaker’s bench and went to India. William Cassidy got a vision of God and went to China. . . . Hundreds of notable consecrated young people at our Missionary Institute have received a vision of God and today are in the uttermost parts of the earth, working for the evangelization of the heathen and the speedy coming of our Lord.39

 The point of these extensive historical references is to underline the consistent pattern that contemplation led to action through listening prayer. The norm for early Alliance spirituality was always to precede ministry with prayerful listening to God. Ministry could not be effective without listening. Effective ministry flowed—and continues to flow—from a posture of listening prayer.40

C. Listening to God Today

 A hundred years have passed from the early days of the Alliance. Insights once learned need to be relearned and expanded in contemporary ways. Key areas that need contemporary development are: the phenomenology of listening to God, a well-formulated theology of listening to God, practical examples of listening prayer, true listening prayer being informed by the Word of God, “boundaries” in listening to God and how to make the transition from contemplation into action.

1. The Phenomenology of Listening to God

 How does God speak to the child of God? Christians will sometimes say that God speaks to them by the Holy Spirit or by the Word of God. When asked to explain what they mean, they usually do not provide any convincing insights. They may say that God spoke to them through reading the Bible, hearing the preaching of the Word or having a verse of Scripture underlined to them by the Holy Spirit. They may add that understanding how God speaks majors on combining God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, godly people and circumstances.41 There is, however, something more to listening prayer than these aspects.

 During listening prayer we can become suddenly aware of a flash of revelation, an insight in the form of a picture, an inner inaudible prompting, a thought that comes to mind, a word or phrase of Scripture that is continuously repeated, a prophetic word which begs to be uttered, a growing conviction or awareness of what needs to be done, an increasing consciousness of what God desires that just does not go away. We just know.

 John Powell asks a series of rhetorical questions: Can God put a new idea directly and immediately into our minds? Can God give us a new perspective in which to view our lives with its successes and failures, agonies and ecstasies? Can God put new desires into our hearts, new strength into our wills? Can God touch and calm our turbulent emotions? Can God actually whisper words to the listening ears of our souls through the inner faculty of our imaginations? Can God stimulate certain memories stored within the human brain at the time these memories are needed?42

 The following list describes over thirty ways God can communicate or speak with us, an enumeration of the multiple contexts in which God’s message may be conveyed to us. We open up all the vents of our soul to hear God speaking to us. This list is only a beginning, for God can choose to speak to us any way God wants! As needed, God will confirm His speaking through a combination of various multiple means or an increasing unfolding. There are also boundaries or parameters, so we do not go astray. God can and does speak to us in multi-level methods as we open up all the vents of our soul to listen.43

a. Bible—the purposeful, meditative spiritual reading and application of the Scriptures, and can include using the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.44 Lectio divina or divine reading is sometimes described as “reading with the mind in the heart.”45 The written revelation of God’s Word is combined together with the way the Holy Spirit quickens particular portions as a direct word in a present circumstance.46

b. Preaching and Teaching—public presentation of the Word of God, applied by the Holy Spirit to the individual.

c. Verbal Communication—an internal, inaudible message through a word or words spoken through the still, small voice of God, or perhaps, on occasion, the audible voice of God. This communication could be a specific Scripture, a statement, a question, a command. The “still small voice” in First Kings 19:12 (KJV) can also be translated “the sound of gentle stillness” or “a gentle whisper”; the Hebrew is literally “a voice, a small whisper.”

d. Mental Pictures—inner picture-images or symbols, or messages as parables; a picture flashed across the inner screen of our mind.

e. Encounter—a phenomenal experience with God without words, but leaving an overwhelming message or strong impression.

f. Vision—a series of pictorial messages or visual images, literal or symbolic, while awake.47 Visions may require some additional reflective and prayerful interpretation to discern their source and meaning.

g. Dream—a series of pictorial messages or visual images, literal or symbolic, while asleep. There are two formats of dreams—dreams arising from the subconscious mind that God uses to convey a message, and dreams that are directly heaven-sent from God. Dreams may require some additional reflective and prayerful interpretation.

h. Intellectual Reasoning—cognitive, mental processing and evaluating of data leading to clear conclusions, like connecting pieces of a puzzle.

i. Imagination—inner images or concepts creatively conceived or formed through guided imagery.

j. Intuition—knowing spontaneously the right thing to do or say.48

k. Conscience—knowing right from wrong. See Romans 2:15; 9:1.

l. Thoughts—ideas or principles, words or pictures that grow with increasing awareness, clarity, unfolding, intensity, conviction or volume in the mind.

m. Emotions—a gut-level feeling, desire, impulse, impression, arresting concern or insistent nudge.

n. Memory—the remembrance of an event, thought or Scripture previously learned. See John 2:22; 14:26.

o. Common Sense—the ordinary use of rational, good judgment through experience and logical thinking.

p. Observation—a quickening of insight when observing or reflecting on people, art or inanimate objects. For scriptural examples of listening to God by observing inanimate objects, see Jeremiah and the potter’s wheel in Jeremiah 18:1-10; Amos and the plumb line in Amos 7:7-8; and Saul and Samuel’s torn cloak in First Samuel 15:27-28.

q. Liturgy—a ritual ceremony or observance that emphasizes or drives home a certain reality or truth. The practice of the Lord’s Supper is a profound example of this means of God’s communication to us.

r. Nature—the silent shouting of God’s creation, or inner messages that occur through ordinary created objects such as a flower or a tree. See Psalm 19:1-4.49

s. Circumstances—confirming situations and events that all seem to point in the same direction often combined with a profound sense of inner peace. See Colossians 3:15.

t. Signs and Wonders—external, more dramatic, supernatural and visible demonstrations of God’s love and power to help, heal, care or deliver.

u. Pain—physical suffering serving as God’s megaphone to gain our attention or teach some lesson.

v. Angels—messengers from God.

w. Theophany—a visible manifestation of God bringing a message. See Exodus 3:1-6.

x. Tongues and Interpretation—a spontaneous message from God in an unlearned language with interpretation in order to speak incisively to a situation, or bring immediate and profound comfort and peace to a person in distress.

y. Word of Wisdom—an appropriate, instantaneous insight for a particular occasion, to make a right decision, to discern good from evil, or to resolve, help or heal a particular situation or need.

z. Word of Knowledge—a fragment of knowledge or disclosure of truth implanted by God—not learned through the mind—about a particular person or situation for a specific purpose.

aa. Prophecy—a timely message or utterance through an individual from God to strengthen, encourage or comfort that person or that group of people at that particular time. See First Corinthians 14:3.

bb. Music—meditative or worshipful music that brings stillness, a sense of God’s presence or a spirit of praise.

cc. Meditation—memorization, repetition and prayerful rumination of Scripture texts.

dd. Devotional Classics—a holy, super-slow reading of spiritual writings.

ee. Journaling—writing down times of communion or conversations with God.

ff. Soul Friends—spiritual mentors, godly friends or spouses who provide spiritual direction and counsel.50

gg. Collective Voice—the united voice and decision made by a group of believers.

 What are the top three ways God frequently uses to speak to you? Which one is a current area of spiritual growth?

 Not all of these ways of hearing God are necessarily God speaking. The rival voices we hear could be from our own self or from demonic sources. Nevertheless, God speaks in many ways if we will open up all the vents of our soul to listen. The secret is to sift through the many potential voices and hear the one thing God is saying in that present moment in whatever way God chooses to speak. However, Leanne Payne warns that we cannot turn listening prayer into a message-on-demand:

As we simply allow time and space for God to speak, we learn both how easily and wonderfully the word comes and the differing ways it comes. . . . [I]t is with our wills . . . that we deliberately (consciously) open the eyes of our hearts and minds to receive the word God sends.51

 Pardington described the phenomenology of listening to God through an analogy of the physical ear:

In like manner, there is a spiritual sense of hearing; and upon this inner organ the holy accent of the voice of the Lord falls. Perhaps it is not so much a voice as a touch; a strange sweet sense of the contact of the Spirit of God with our spirit. Just as one can detect the presence of another in the room when he does not see him, so the believer whose inner spirit is sensitive and responsive knows the Master’s voice when He speaks.52

 Pardington also taught how to distinguish, through regular practice and through trial and error, the voice of the Lord from other voices, from oneself and from the voice of God’s enemy. The voice of the enemy produces restlessness and prompts a great hurry to decide. The voice of the Lord produces rest and peace and gives time for one to think the matter over before coming to a decision. In ordinary affairs of life God may guide through the unconscious control of one’s mental faculties. In more important matters, God will let His voice be heard. A quiet hour can begin with meditation on a passage of Scripture followed by the cultivation of the spirit of recollection. When God first speaks, we may not recognize God’s voice; but if we patiently listen with a spirit ready instantly to obey, God will teach us the accent of God’s voice and thus we will learn to walk by the Spirit.53

 Listening to God, ultimately, is more than hearing a voice. It is an awareness that our thoughts and feelings are coming from God.54 It is tuning into a multi-level mode of communication with God all day long as well as intensified as the present moment demands. It is an entering into a presence.55 Ultimately, listening to God “is not a method, but a walk with a person.”56

2. The Beginnings of a Theology of Listening to God

 Listening prayer begins with the true self focusing on the true God as the object of one’s contemplation. C.S. Lewis warned against egoistic subjectivism, when self talks to the self: “The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’ ”57 Undergirding listening prayer is a biblical theology of listening to God.58

a. God has spoken through the Bible—2 Timothy 3:15-16; Hebrews 4:12.

b. God has spoken through Jesus Christ—Matthew 17:5; John 1:14; Hebrews 1:1-2.

c. God is still speaking—Acts 9:11-15; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Revelation 2:7a, 11a, 17a, 29; 3:6, 13, 22.

d. God desires and invites people to listen—Genesis 28:16; Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 33:3; Matthew 11:15; James 1:5; Revelation 3:20.

e. God is displeased when people refuse to listen—Zechariah 7:11-13; Acts 28:26-27.

f. God makes the logos word a rhema word: the written word becomes a specific word for that situation—Habakkuk 2:1; Matthew 4:4; Romans 10:8, 17.

g. God’s voice can be known—Exodus 33:11; 1 Samuel 3:8-10; 1 Kings 19:11-12; John 10:3-5, 8, 14, 27.

h. God’s speaking is to lead to obedient action—John 2:5; Hebrews 3:7-8; James 1:22-25.

i. God communicates what to do and say when people listen—Isaiah 50:4-5; John 5:19; 8:28; 12:49-50.

 Essentially, God’s voice sounds like God’s character which is most clearly revealed in God’s Word. As we better understand God’s Word and God’s character, we get to know the divine presence speaking more clearly. God’s voice will never contradict God’s Word.

 Many do not hear God speaking to them because they do not ask God questions that prompt a response, they do not expect God to give them any answers, they do not take time to listen, or they do not plan to obey what God tells them to do. Many do not connect the issues of their life or the world situations with God, yet this connecting is the normal interaction between God and the child of God. “To listen in prayer for the voice of the Lord is to find the mind of Christ; it is to gain transcendent wisdom, a wisdom that includes understanding, guidance, knowledge, exhortation, and consolation.”59 God is speaking; we can listen. We ask with Paul: “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10, emphasis added).

3. Practical Examples of Listening Prayer

 Theology moves into practice. God is trying to gain our attention. We need to put our ears on. Both Old and New Testaments provide biblical illustrations of listening prayer.

a. Samuel—“Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).

b. Mary—“Mary . . . sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (Luke 10:39).

c. Paul—“What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10).

 Contemplative-active prayer is an Alliance heritage. These Alliance roots can be applied to today.

a. Intercessory Prayer—“God, how do You want me to pray? What can be done in this situation? Is there anything You would like me to do for this person to show them You are in control and that You care?”

b. Speaking to Others—“God, what tailor-made message needs to be spoken to someone for his or her encouragement?”

c. Sermon Preparation or Teaching—“God, what needs to be said now? How do You want me to say it?”

d. Leading Services—“God, what do You want to happen today among these Your people?”

e. The Ministry of Healing—“God, how do You want us to specifically pray for this person?”

f. The Academic Environment—“God, teach me how to be a whole person—balancing spiritual vitality, physical well-being, social development, psychological maturation and academic growth.”

g. Public Conventions—“God, cause me to be drawn into silent waiting and expectation in order to increase my response to the preached Word.”

h. Missionary Service—“God, where do You want me to go? Where do You want this person to serve?”

 Listening prayer can further be applied in addressing contemporary questions. Begin by asking God questions! Come to God with a blank slate. Listen for answers! Always keep your ears open toward heaven. Plan to do whatever God tells you to do!

a. Relationship with God—“God, what’s the next step in my relationship with You?”

b. Character Development—“God, what’s the next step in the development of my character?”

c. Family Life—“God, what’s the next step in my family life?”

d. Ministry—“God, what’s the next step in my ministry?”

e. Bible Reading—“God, what are You saying to me today? What are You saying to me through this passage?”

f. Church Leadership—“God, what is Your vision for our church? What are You up to? How can we join it?”

g. Scripting Difficult Relationships—“God, what do You want me to say, and how do You want me to say it? Give me the opening line. How do I start this conversation?”

h. Other Questions—“God, what’s the next step in my vocation? In my dating relationship? In my education?”60

4. Listening Prayer Informed by the Word of God

 Listening prayer is also informed by the Word of God. Many commands throughout the Scriptures guide us. For example, the Gospel of Matthew records the high standards of discipleship in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (5-7); the great commandments to love God and to love others (22:37-39); the call to meet the social needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the needy, the sick, the imprisoned (25:34-40); the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (28:18-20). Throughout the New Testament are “one another” commands intended for people-to-people ministry within the family of God. “The more learned we are in sound doctrine,” Leanne Payne observes, “the greater our understanding of the Scriptures will be, and hence, of our listening to God through them.”61 If we are to do God’s specific will, then we must first know God’s general will.

 In understanding the sacrament of the present moment, we learn to ask how we are to take all of these commands and directives of Scripture and apply them to ourselves and to our present moment now. What does God want us to do right now, this very moment? How can we carry out these timeless and authoritative directives specifically in our community and throughout our world? How does God want us to pray for this person? What phone call must be made right now? What conversation is to be initiated?

 We have to acknowledge that we are far removed from the Bible in time, distance, language and culture. While the Bible is relevant for our lives today, how we apply biblical truth comes by listening to God in the present moment for that particular person or specific situation. “Listening to God is not about newness but about nowness,” says Joyce Huggett. “It is receiving the applied Word in whatever form God chooses to make it known.”62 Sunder Krishnan has said, “Praying with a mind well-furnished with the plans and purposes of God revealed in the Scriptures is essential for an effective ministry of prayer and action, which unleashes the power of God into the human predicament.”63

5. “Boundaries” in Listening to God

 Opening all the vents of the soul to listen to God necessitates certain boundaries.

a. The “self” must be focused upon the Triune God of the Bible.

 Listening prayer begins with the true self focusing on the true God as the object of one’s contemplation. As already noted, C.S. Lewis warned against egoistic subjectivism, when self talks to the self: “The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’ ”64 We focus upon the Uncreated Creator, the Trinitarian God of both Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and evidenced through the Holy Spirit.

b. The “mind” must be filled with the Word of God.

 Whatever a mind is filled with will result in the product. The more we understand the Scriptures and sound doctrine, the greater will be our listening to God through them. If we are to do God’s specific will applied in the now, then we must first know God’s general will already revealed. Moreover, as the mind is anchored and renewed by the Word of God, we are more able to test and approve what God is saying (Romans 12:2).

c. The “channel” must be wholly sanctified in Jesus Christ.

 Some people listen to and speak for God through a rusty pipe. What they hear God saying comes out cloudy and murky and usually requires some sorting out. There may be a genuine flow of God’s living water coming through them, but it is mixed with themselves.

 Other people are guilty of projecting their well-wishes upon others. They mean well, they have good intentions and they sound spiritual, but their words are not God speaking. They may be expressing their own agenda, because they have not died to their own agenda nor allowed God’s true agenda to emerge.

 Others who claim to speak for God have literally crossed the border into witchcraft. These people cannot be persuaded otherwise, for they believe God has spoken to them and to disagree with them, they feel, is to disagree with God. Supernatural guidance, however, is not the same as divine guidance.

 Moreover, we cannot turn listening prayer into a message- on-demand. Nor can we dictate to God which method or combination of methods we want God to use to speak to us. Certainly, a recognition of these dangers provides cautionary boundary lines for the maturing believer. Jesus announced the key: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). Like the hymn “Channels Only,” the “channel” must be wholly sanctified in Jesus Christ in order for God’s power to flow through to others.

d. The “test” of authenticity that we have heard from God must be confirmed through checks and balances.

 God will often confirm and verify the divine speaking to us through various means. Sometimes, however, time alone proves its authenticity. We learn to walk by faith and take risks for God without all the answers or total understanding.

 Learning to hear God speak is a trial-and-error growth process. It is grown sheep, and not lambs, that clearly hear God’s voice. Yet even while we are growing spiritually, God will ensure that the divine message is understood and followed.

 Sometimes people hear from God in a Swiss cheese format. What they perceive is from God, but the insight itself has some holes in it which need to be filled in with the insights of others. What they heard from God is not wrong, just incomplete, improper in that particular setting, or inappropriate at that particular time. This principle underlines the need for other gifted persons within the body of Christ to contribute their part to the whole.

 God speaks to us on various levels of intensity for different situations. As needed, God will confirm His message through multiple means, increasing unfolding, and/or through others, e.g., new ministries are confirmed by church leadership. The more important God’s Word to us, the greater measures God will use to make sure the divine speaking is clearly heard, understood and obeyed.

e. The “goal” of listening prayer must be for Christian living and effective ministry.

 Guidance, direction, answers and insight are given by God for the sake of building up ourselves in our most holy faith, building up the body of Christ and extending the kingdom of God.

 Our first priority and posture before God is to be like Mary, who was absorbed in listening at the feet of Jesus, rather than to be like Martha, who was busy doing and telling Jesus what her sister should be doing (Luke 10:38-42). Likewise, we do not consume ourselves telling Jesus what other Christians ought to be doing. Rather, our priority is in listening to God—taking in and reflecting upon what God would have us be and do.

 In interpreting God’s Word, we follow a threefold process of observation, interpretation and application. This same threefold process can apply to hearing God speak. At first God communicates to us some insight—what is the content of the message being revealed? Then we continue to listen to God for the practical understanding or increasing unfolding of that insight—what does that message mean? This is then followed by our obedient outworking—what does my response need to be now? Listening prayer is not complete until all three steps are fulfilled. Just as being busy doing for the Lord is not enough on the one hand, merely receiving and experiencing insight from the Lord is not enough on the other.

Listening prayer is a reflective kind of prayer with a purpose to hear from the Lord for specific action. We ask with Paul: “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10).

6. Making the Transition from Contemplation into Action

 Making the transition from contemplation into action is difficult for some.65 The goal for those in ministry is to approach all that we do from the center of our union with God.66 From that center we set specific listening and action as our goal. David Hassel asks, “Could it even be that, deep within, we each feel God quietly encouraging us to stretch our lives out to others?” 67 The feeling grows from within that we want and need to do something for God and for people. It is God calling and leading us to an outward journey of faith.

 Passing through an apprentice stage of development in listening prayer equips us to effectively listen when a specific occasion arises. We need only to look heavenward, pause for silence, breathe a prayer to God and listen quietly for direction. How do we respond to the person at the door or on the phone? What do we underscore to this couple sitting in front of us for marriage counseling?68 How can we pray for this person who is sick?69 To what sphere of social ministry is God calling this local congregation? How can a small group pray on target for various needs that emerge? What is God calling our church to do within our community and our world? These answers are found through listening to God through prayer. The more profound the need, the longer the time needed for careful listening.

To walk in the Spirit, listening, is to live in the present moment, looking to Christ, practicing his presence, moving in tandem with God. It is to live from the locus of the true self as the old one is being crucified. This is the center where we are in union with Christ, that completed self that hears and obeys God.70

 From that center of deep heart-awareness of God and His people, the indwelling Trinity’s presence permeates and “rises slowly through the contemplative’s whole being so that his or her arms can go out in self-forgetting welcome to God and his world.”71


 Listening prayer is essential for effective ministry. A mind attuned to the Word of God, an affection leaning on the heart of God and a will listening to the Spirit of God lead the believer in Jesus Christ to hear from God. Hearing from God leads the ordinary believer to minister the grace of God into needy lives and a needy world. Listening to God in order to do ministry is the normative pattern of the Christian life and was the historic practice in early Alliance spirituality.


1  Thomas Keating, “Centering Prayer,” The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, ed. Michael Downey (Collegeville, MI: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 138-139.

2  A.B. Simpson, The Holy Spirit or Power from on High: Part I. The Old Testament, hereafter cited HS:OT (New York: The Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1924), 160.

3  A.B. Simpson, The Holy Spirit or Power from on High: Part II. The New Testament (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1896), 73.

4  Comparative, contemporary analysis on listening prayer is drawn primarily from Joyce Huggett, Listening to God, hereafter cited LTG (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986), 53-74.

5  Also see Leonard Doohan, “6 Aids to Blocks to a Leisured Approach to Prayer,” in Leisure: A Spiritual Need (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1990), 77-85.

6  G.P. Pardington, The Still Small Voice: Quiet Hour Talks, hereafter cited SSV, (New York: Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1902), 113.

7  Charles de Foucauld quoted in LTG, 117.

8  SSV, 123-124.

9  A.B. Simpson, “Breathing Out and Breathing In,” in Hymns of the Christian Life, rev. ed., hereafter cited, HCL. (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1978), 251.

10  See Leanne Payne, Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal, hereafter cited LP. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 130-132, 135-138. Payne affirms this by calling God “the Objective Real.”

11 HS:OT, 161.

12  Richard W. Bailey, “The Alliance’s Theologian,” The Alliance Witness (8 October 1986): 24.

13  See SSV, 122-123.

14 HCL, 217, 235, 239.

15  A.B. Simpson, Higher and Deeper (South Nyack, NY: The Christian Alliance Publishing Co., n.d.), 40.

16  A.B. Simpson, “The Secret of Prayer,” Living Truths 4 (March 1904): 121; quoted in Dwayne Ratzlaff, “An Old Mediaeval Message: A Turning Point in the Life of A. B. Simpson,” hereafter cited OMM, in The Birth of a Vision, eds., David F. Hartzfeld and Charles Nienkirchen. (Beaverlodge, Alberta: Buena Book Services, 1986), 176.

17  For example, see A.B. Simpson, The Four-Fold Gospel (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., n.d.), 65-66.

18 HS:OT, 162.

19  I expand this dimension of listening prayer within the Alliance in the next major section.

20  William H. Shannon, “Contemplation, Contemplative Prayer,” The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, ed., Michael Downey (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 209.

21 LTG, 207.

22 OMM, 186-187.

23  A.B. Simpson, “Editorial,” Living Truths (July 1906): 385; quoted in OMM, 187.

24SSV, 17.

25  A.B. Simpson, “Editorial,” The Christian Alliance and Foreign Missionary Weekly 12 (February 16, 1894): 1; and A.B. Simpson, Practical Christianity (Brooklyn, NY: The Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1901), 61-62.

26  A.E. Thompson, “17. A Pauline Mystic,” in A.B. Simpson: His Life and Work Revised Edition (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1960), 171-183.

27 SSV, 12-13.

28 OMM, 176.

29 SSV, 107.

30 SSV, 167-168.

31 SSV, 170.

32 OMM, 170.

33  See Robert L. Niklaus, John S. Sawin and Samuel J. Stoesz, All For Jesus: God at Work in The Christian and Missionary Alliance Over One Hundred Years (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1986), 124, 271.

34  Kenneth Mackenzie, Jr., Divine Life for the Body (NY: The Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1926), 145-147.

35  Sarah Lindenberger, Streams from the Valley of Berachah (NY: The Christian Alliance Publishing Co., n.d.), 124.

36  Sarah Lindenberger, “The Work of Berachah Home,” The Christian Alliance and Missionary Weekly 4 (21-28 March 1890): 207.

37 The Nyack Schools of The Christian and Missionary Alliance (1914-1915) Catalogue Nyack-on-Hudson (n.p., n.d.), 7; and Manual of The New York Missionary Training Institute, Nyack Heights, Nyack, New York (1911) (n.p., n.d.), 8, 26.

38  George Pardington, Twenty-Five Wonderful Years 1889-1914 (NY: The Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1914), 78-80.

39 SSV, 75-76.

40  Our local ministerial almost entered into a frightful expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars without so much as an ounce of prayer regarding the endeavor. Fortunately, we were later clearheaded enough to humble ourselves, admit our folly, rescind former motions and learn from our experience. Now we are committed to an unfolding vision that is emerging through listening prayer.

41  See Charles Stanley, How to Listen to God (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), 7-18.

42  John Powell, He Touched Me (Chicago: Argus Publications, 1974), 70. Emphasis his.

43  Though these concepts are not unique, this listing is original with me. There are probably an unlimited number of ways God speaks to us. Any attempt to categorize and describe the phenomenon of listening to God tends to fall short, because there always remains a mystical element.

44  The use of the five senses was particularly incorporated by Ignatius of Loyola.

45LTG, 159.

46 LP, 178.

47  Leanne Payne defines a vision as “a heightened consciousness of another realm. . . . A realm that is ordinarily unseen is extraordinarily present to the senses.” LP, 185. The word “vision” is understood in a variety of ways. One way to categorize visions is to differentiate between literal visual appearances or apparitions of God or angelic beings, pictures or images that appear within the imagination, and abstract concepts that develop within the intellect.

48  Simpson wrote, “The thoughts come as our own . . . a sort of intuition that it is the right thing to do. . . . It is not so much the Spirit speaking to us as the Spirit speaking with us as part of our very consciousness, so that it is not two minds, but one.” A.B. Simpson, Walking in the Spirit (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., n.d.), 39; quoted in OMM, 175.

49  God spoke to our family in July 1995 through the demonstration of the power of God. A tall, thick tree blew down in our backyard during a violent windstorm. A tree that had stood for years, around 30" in diameter, was snapped off in a few seconds. Some would have viewed this as a natural phenomenon. Others would have felt helpless over the destructiveness of nature. My wife and I both felt that God used it to speak of the overwhelming power of God in a specific situation we were facing at the time.

50  God often speaks to me through my wife. I have learned to pay close attention to what she is saying, for God may be using her words to get through to me.

51LP, 159.

52 SSV, 56-57.

53  See SSV, 56-64, 93-94, 97-107.

54  Frank Wallace, “6. Surprise Discoveries Start with Listening,” Encounter Not Performance (Australia: E. J. Dwyer, 1991), 43.

55 LTG, 33, 185-186.

56 LP, 121.

57  C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964), 82, hereafter cited LM. See also LP, 209-218.

58  Again, this listing is original with me. The Scripture references are not intended to be proof texts, but representative, guiding and supportive verses.

59 LP, 125.

60  Some of these contemporary questions are from Bill Hybels, Honest to God? Becoming an Authentic Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), 24-26.

61 LP, 253. See also page 27.

62 LTG, 91.

63  Sunder Krishnan, “First Principles Forum,” Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, February 1997.

64 LP, 82.

65  This is not a primary concern for Ignatian spirituality which has always emphasized contemplation in action beginning with its founder. The Society of Jesus emphasizes that the primary means to deeper union with God is achieved through purity of heart and accompanied through service to others. See Robert J. Wicks, ed., Handbook of Spirituality for Ministers (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 223-224, 278.

66  See Joyce Rupp, “17. Rediscovering God in the Midst of our Work,” in Handbook of Spirituality for Ministers, Robert J. Wicks, ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1995), 259-273.

67  David Hassel, “5. Prayer of Apostolic Contemplation-In-Action: Welcoming Christ and His World,” in Radical Prayer: Creating a Welcome for God, Ourselves, Other People and the World (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 71, hereafter cited RP. Hassel correlates and differentiates the secular, religious and apostolic contemplative, the latter reflecting contemplation-in-action. See RP, 62-80.

68  Henry Nouwen writes that it is “possible to experience the relationship between pastor and counselee as a way of entering together into the loving silence of God and waiting there for the healing Word.” See Henri M. Nouwen, “Silence, the Portable Cell,” Sojourners (July 1980): 22.

69  The Christian and Missionary Alliance is not a Pentecostal denomination, but it believes in divine healing. Its Statement of Faith reads: “8. Provision is made in the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ for the healing of the mortal body. Prayer for the sick and anointing with oil as taught in the Scripture are privileges for the Church in this present age.” This emphasis is based on Scriptures such as Matthew 8:16-17 and James 5:14-16. I made a hospital visit to a parishioner in his late seventies who had experienced a heart attack. While driving to the hospital, I asked God how to pray for him. I sensed very clearly that this was not his time to die. I prayed for a quick recovery and added years to his life. He was very soon out of the hospital, unbelievably back in church the following Sunday and claims today with tears in his eyes that his recovery was a miracle.

70 LP, 148.

71 RP, 80.

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