“You’re not listening to me!” My daughter Emma and I were talking about a touchy subject: Why God commanded Israel to kill her Canaanite enemies.
“Don’t say I’m not listening to you, Dad. I am. You just keep repeating the same thing, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
She was right. I had assumed that a simple model of communication—which I had learned about in college as a speech major—was sufficient. The model works accordingly:
- I (the sender) have an idea (what the Greeks called logos);
- I use words (rhemata) to express my idea;
- you (the receiver) hear my words (rhemata) and now have the same idea (logos) that I have.
But conversation doesn’t work that way. Conversation can’t be reduced to a sender transmitting ideas to a receiver. There are too many variables that create interference: poor diction, nonverbal communication, ambient noise, personal histories, cultural differences. Simply repeating the same words over and again—and believing that misunderstanding lies exclusively with the receiver—is a naïve approach to communication. It can also lead to a frustrating conversation.
All this led me to think about prayer, which many evangelicals describe as conversation with God. Is it?
To be honest, most of my prayers are a monologue. I tell God what’s on my mind, and then my prayer time is done. The communication flows one direction. And most of the time I don’t even verbalize my prayers. I simply offer words in my head. Of course, that’s not an obstacle for God. He already knows my thoughts (Ps. 139:4). And if God can read my mind, I don’t have to worry about him misunderstanding me.
But if the self-revealing God of the Bible is a sender and not just a receiver, how does he “talk back”? Some say he puts thoughts in our head. Others say he directs our attention to certain parts of Scripture, where he will then communicate to us more directly. While it’s possible that God can communicate to us in these ways, it’s not how he does it in the New Testament.
God’s Verbal Communication
The Bible doesn’t use language of conversation in connection to prayer. Instead, it most often describes prayer as praise, lament, thanksgiving, confession, and petition—unilateral actions.
But it’s not always one-way communication. After Jesus prays for the Father to glorify his name, a “voice came from heaven” and said, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again” (John 12:28). Some in the crowd interpreted the sound as thunder, while others said it was the voice of an angel (v. 29). Jesus didn’t specifically identify God as the source of the sound and simply referred to it as “this voice” (v. 30). Yet other times a heavenly voice was interpreted as coming directly from God (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Rev. 4:1).
When Paul prayed for God to remove the thorn from his flesh, the Lord responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8–9). Whether Paul heard an audible voice or simply sensed God’s response in some spiritual or mental way, we do not know. But it is possible God spoke to him verbally. After all, Paul heard a heavenly voice speak to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–6). And of all the New Testament examples of God talking back, Paul’s experience in Jerusalem comes closest to prayer as a dialogue (Acts 22:17–22). Paul was praying, and then Jesus commanded him to flee Jerusalem in order to escape persecution. Then Paul basically responded, “Leaving Jerusalem won’t be enough. I will be recognized by people in synagogues all over the region.” Jesus answered, “Go! I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”