By Jason Gaboury

Listening Prayer in an Age of Distraction

In an age of distraction, an age of dopamine fueled attempts to hack our attention and reshape our habits, we need the discipline of listening prayer. But why do we need it and how do we do it?

Why We Need It

Whether we recognize it or not, whether we like it or not, we’re a generation discipled by machine. Like this, buy that, be afraid, be outraged, check the status, snap a photo, send an emoji—we process hundreds of such commands every day without a moment’s reflection on how we’re being shaped by them.

Dr. B.J. Fogg, founder of persuasive technology said, “We can now create machines that can change what people think and what people do, and the machines can do that autonomously.” There’s a reason why every app on your cell phone signals you to ‘turn on notifications.' There’s a reason why every social media site offers the ability to like, love, share, and comment. There’s a reason Amazon recommends, “people like you also enjoyed…” Even as I type these sentences, a buzzing in my pocket signals me that it’s time to pick up my phone again. These tools are changing us.

The Christian discipline of listening prayer enables us to step off the treadmill of constant commercial bombardment and into the presence of God. In listening prayer, we participate in the kind of discipleship Jesus modeled in Mark 1:35: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”

Jesus made a habit of breaking away from the crowds, needs, demands, controversies, and conflicts that accompanied his ministry so that he could listen to the Father. If Jesus needed to enter into quiet spaces in order to attend to the Father’s voice, how much more do we need this practice?

Two Ways

Historically, Christians have recognized two distinct “ways” of attending to God in prayer—the way of words and the way of silence.

The evangelical tradition tends to emphasize the way of words. We use the way of words when we meditate on the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, or another passage of scripture. Journaling one’s thoughts and feelings after or during a quiet time of prayer and ‘listening’ to scripture is another way to cultivate an awareness of what God is saying to us through his word. Other kataphatic (with words) ways of listening prayer include meditating on the words of a worship song, lectio divina (divine reading), or imaginative prayer exercises.

Other church traditions have emphasized the way of silence. There is an often-repeated story about Mother Teresa. When asked what she said when praying, Mother Teresa said, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.” The interviewer turned the question around, “What then does God say to you?” Mother Teresa smiled, “He listens.”

The goal of listening prayer in the apophatic (without words) way is to still the mind and heart in the presence of God and allow the truth and beauty of who God is to fill the space. Those who practice the way of silence discover the incredible freedom of being loved without performing, of worship without words, and of attending to God’s presence in the ordinary everyday tasks.

Getting Started

Mother Teresa’s prayer life was not like two awkward adolescents, silently self-conscious, fearful of saying the wrong thing, and so holding back. It was more like the attentive stillness you find as young couples gaze into one another’s eyes. Just as a young couple is intentional about times and places to meet, things to talk about, or hobbies and activities to share, listening prayer takes intentionality.

To practice listening prayer, we must prepare a time and place where we can be present to God. I like to set out my prayer book, journal, bible, and sometimes a candle the night before I come to prayer. Preparing the space in advance helps me be attentive to God and develop the habit of listening to him. It also is a practical way to express our desire for God. We love God by preparing time and space to listen for His word.

Begin listening prayer by attending to God’s words. Read a prayer, Psalm, or short piece of scripture. Repeat the sentences and meaning back to God as though God has just spoken those words to you. Once you’ve done that, ask, “Was there more?” Repeat this process. Let the words, ideas, images, and meanings capture your attention. When you’re confident that you’ve ‘heard’ all that you can from that sentence, phrase, prayer, or Psalm, pause and imagine that you’re speaking these words to Jesus. Without taking your attention off of Jesus’ loving gaze, notice the sensations, emotions,and impressions hat stir in you. Ask Jesus if there is something he would like to say. Then, sit and listen for a minute…maybe two. Write down anything meaningful from that experience so that you can reflect on it later.

It takes time and practice to expand the amount of time for listening prayer. Don’t be discouraged if you can only spend a few minutes at first. Consistency is more important than intensity. Over time,you’ll develop increased ability to listen to God’s voice.

Lifelong Listening

More than 30 years ago, Richard Foster wrote, “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” His words have only grown in relevance. We are discipled by machine into lifestyles of anxious consumption, constant comparison, and cutthroat competition.

And yet, God speaks. God longs for relationship with you. God’s love for you can drown out our inner restlessness, anchor us in love, and form us into a people “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:7).

Can you imagine how learning to listen to God in prayer might transform your life or make you more able to be a blessing to others?

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Jason Gaboury serves as regional director for InterVarsity’s undergraduate ministry in New York and New Jersey.

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