How do you communicate with God?

pI understand that I just asked a big question, and one that will certainly not be answered in this short article or on this forum. But it is a question that I think is worth discussing, and highly relevant to our discussions here lately about community. I’ve started to realize something rather amazing. The way I communicate with God has a lot to do with the way I communicate with other people. And thus my communicating with God affects my role in the communities I am participating in. I don’t have any great theological truth to dictate to you today. Nor do I have any grand answers to what some might rightly call an unanswerable question. I do however want to present a framework for a dicussion about a topic I feel is a relevant and highly exciting part of my journey recently. In Christian terms, the primary word for communicating with God is of course prayer.

Prayer as calling God long distance

For most of my life I imagined God sitting in heaven, millions of miles away. Communicating with God was like making a long distance call on a telephone. The call went something like this: “Dear most gracious father in heaven, thank you for your great work. Help me to overcome my laziness. I am the worst of sinners but thank you for your amazing love for me. Please help my sheep to repent of being family-centered and come to the summer bible conference. Open his heart, Lord, and give him a new desire to accept my invitation. May God make America a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. I pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

This kind of repeated long distance call left me empty, weak and confused after two decades of praying this way. I realize now some reasons why. One reason is that this prayer was a one way dictation of my needs to God. By constantly telling God what I wanted and what I wanted to be accomplished, I was treating God like a big vending machine in the sky. Another reason is that I kept praying to God this way out of fear. And another big reason for my emptiness came from dictating my will to God. That gets strenuous after a while. There was no room to listen to God, prayer was just me talking to God about myself and others. So my prayer life was marked by personal ambition, fear, and dictation.

Prayer as daily communion with the Spirit

As I’ve already shared, about 3 years ago I felt the Holy Spirit come over me in an unmistakable and very tangible manner after a certain phone call. Since then, my prayer life changed almost immediately. I no longer have any specific time set aside “to pray”. No longer do I envision God in heaven miles away. Still, at first, I felt guilty for not praying to God in heaven at a specific time as I always had for decades. That kind of prayer is fine to do, but I wanted something more. So I tried to do just that. But when I did that I had a noticeable feeling that I was ignoring someone right next to me, as if I was calling my grandmother in another city only to hear her cell phone ring because she was sitting right next to me. Making such a long distance call to talk to my grandmother on her cell phone when she is sitting in the same room as me would be very rude and insulting to her.

So prayer for me has become a daily communion with the Holy Spirit. No talking or communicating was involved at first. I just sensed a strong presence of God, always very near, almost inside me. From that first moment in 2011, my mind, heart and soul have been at peace, almost consumed by an effervescent comfort, joy and love. I felt surrounded by a protective, safe presence. That presence is so beautiful and amazing that sinful desires melt away far more quickly than ever before. Brother Lawrence seemed to explain my experience exactly in his book “The Practice of the presence of God”. I could never generate such a presence myself, it just happened suddenly and unexpectedly at one of the lowest points of my life.

For example:

“God is our “end.” If we are diligently practicing His presence, we shouldn’t need our former “means.” We can continue our exchange of love with Him by just remaining in His holy presence. Adore Him and praise Him!” –The Practice of the Presence of God (Brother Lawrence) Loc. 196-97

Thankfully, these worries did not weaken my faith in God, but actually made it stronger. When I finally reached the point where I expected the rest of my life to be very difficult, I suddenly found myself wholly changed.
” –The Practice of the Presence of God (Brother Lawrence) Loc. 218-20

“I don’t know what’s to become of me. It seems that a tranquil soul and a quiet spirit come to me even while I sleep. Because I am at rest, the trials of life bring me no suffering. I don’t know what God has in store for me, but I feel so serene that it doesnt matter.
” –The Practice of the Presence of God (Brother Lawrence) Loc. 286-87

Prayer as listening and discerning

One of the biggest revelations I’ve had about prayer is that prayer is mostly listening. Yes we have words to say to God. The Psalmists show us how we can express all kinds of emotions to God (without ticking God off!) And our Lord and Savior gave us the grand examples of how to pray. But both the Psalmists and Jesus listened to God, not only dictating their will to God, but trying to discern what God would have them do, and then struggling to obey.

Here is my brief outline of ways I’ve been learning to listen to God by hearing what the Holy Spirit is saying to me. The question here is this: How do I listen to God, discern God’s voice from other voices and obey what God would have me do?

1. The Holy Spirit guides us through…
-prompting (raising questions; leaving words impressed in our mind)
-prohibiting (raising objections; sudden sense of not doing something)
-clarifying (discover the root of anger, source of confusion)

2. The Holy Scriptures guide us through…
-explicit phrases (not just one word or verse but paragraphs and books)
-self-interpretation (bible teaches about itself)
-stories (teaching us principles not always specific laws to conform to)

3. The Holy people of God (other believers) guide us through…
-perspective (speaking words that speak to us)
-accountability (calling us out)
-listening (hearing our stories)

More questions

As I said in my intro, this article is not complete. I want to share my story and find out if anyone else has anything to share about communicating with God.

How do you listen to God? How have you encountered the Holy Spirit? What is your prayer life like? What do you think it means to discern God’s will? Who determines God’s will for your life?

Some further reading

In addition to The Practice of the Presence of God, I find this article helpful:

What does the bible say about communicating with God?

Believers should constantly examine their communication. We should consider the tone of newer forms of communication such as email and text messaging. We should never allow the safety of a computer screen to lead us to harsh or ungodly words toward others. We should consider our body language and facial expressions toward others as well. Simply withholding words is meaningless when our body language communicates disdain, anger, or hatred toward another. When engaged in conversation, as we prepare to speak, we should ask ourselves these questions: it is true (Exodus 20:16)? Is it kind (Titus 3:2)? Is it necessary (Proverbs 11:22)?”




  1. Thanks, BK. Amidst life’s craziness, there is no greater comfort, joy, love, pleasure and peace in all of life safe having a sense that God is ever real and ever present with me.

    To express/explain this cerebrally I would say that it is the merciful and unilateral work of the Holy Spirit that enables me to experience God’s very self (Ex 33:14, 19; Jn 3:8), who is Christ himself (Mt 1:23, 28:20).

    It is mystical. It is mysterious. It is nothing but God’s mercy, love and grace.

  2. Joe Schafer

    Nice article on an excellent topic.

    Brian, your section “Prayer as calling God long distance” is so sad and so true. That’s the model of of prayer that was given to me. Call God and talk at him, telling him what you’re *supposed* to say (rather than what is really on your mind and heart) and then quickly hang up the phone before God has a chance to answer. If that’s what prayer is all about, then it’s not surprising that I hardly prayed at all.

    For me, everything changed when I began to understand that prayer is not a work that I had to do, but a gift that I could just receive. It started when I found the book Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight.

    From that book, I discovered that I didn’t need to generate the words or topics myself extemporaneously. I could receive them from God and from fellow believers in the church (in whom God’s Spirit dwells) by using the Lord’s Prayer, the many prayers recorded in Scripture, and prayers written by ancient and modern saints. Using prayers composed by other people freed me from the burden of having to talk, talk, talk from the emptiness of my own inner life and allowed me to shut up and listen and contemplate and rest in God’s presence and be filled and blessed.

    Not long after than, I got a psalter that is loosely based on the Order of St Benedict which takes you through all the psalms (some repeatedly) in a four-week cycle. And I purchased the Book of Common Prayer which contains daily Scripture readings and psalms (Daily Office) and weekly Sunday worship prayers (Collects) and Scripture readings (Lectionary). This helped me to tune in to the life of the church by plugging into the liturgical calendar. I became aware of the passage of time and the role of time-awareness in communing with God and his people. Books by Robert Webber, especially the book Ancient-Future Time, had a big influence on me as well.

    Paying attention to the church calendar and marking the cycles of time that God built into each day, each week and each year have been an immense help. The awareness of sacred time keeps me rooted in God and the actual events of the life of Jesus Christ, and the life of his people (ancient Israel, the ancient church, and the modern church all throughout the world) so that my spiritual experiences are not just about me, me, me but are now infused with a sense that we (all the saints) are in the presence of God together. The communion of saints that is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed is no longer a slogan or vague idea; it is part of my actual experience.

    And about five years ago, it dawned on me why the prayers being offered in ubf meetings and worship services seemed so tedious, uninspiring, and mind-numbingly dull. It was because they were extremely ubf-centric. Everything was about ubf, ubf, ubf. The content was dictated by a human being (fellowship leader, chapter director, whatever) and the agenda was to raise an army to build an empire for the glory of ubf. Sorry to say that, but it was true. We tried to use words that glorified God, but what we wanted was for God to make us successful and to bless the world through us, never through anyone else. My church was too small. Oh, yes, that little book Your Church is Too Small helped me to see that. I read that book the same day it was released by the publisher and the content has stayed with me ever since.

  3. Joe, this is a great point:

    “For me, everything changed when I began to understand that prayer is not a work that I had to do, but a gift that I could just receive.”

    This makes sense in terms of individual prayer and soul-searching, but what about for intercessory prayer? Perhaps the direction for individual prayer is very similar in that you are communing with God so as to hear or discern what he might be saying about the situation/condition of the one being prayed for. Also perhaps our role as intercessor might entail us communing with God so that he might thoroughly convince us of his power to help or intercede in the life of the one that is being prayed for. Many different ways to look at intercession than the traditional evangelical method where you repeatedly lift up pleas and petitions for someone else hoping that God will solve their specific problem.

    True story, I remember one UBF leader instructing us that when praying for someone else, you must pray with such fervor that you are literally rolling around on the ground, sweating and pleading for hours. I’m also reminded of a story in the gospel narratives of someone rolling around on the ground like a mad man, but maybe a connection is not warranted here… sigh, just couldn’t resist.

    • Joe Schafer

      David, there certainly is a lot of bad theology around regarding prayer. What you described could be a prime example. Some people use prayer as an attempt to manipulate God into granting their wishes. It’s very close to pagan religions, bringing sacrifices to an idol to gain something that the idol represents.

      I think that the best model for intercessory prayer is the Lord’s Prayer. It is a participation through the Holy Spirit in the prayer of the Son toward the Father to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Meeting our needs and the needs of others is a big part of what God wants to accomplish, and we are to join in that work. That kind of prayer draws us into fellowship with the Triune God and immerses us in the big story of the gospel.

      One of the most interesting sermons on prayer that I ever heard was this one by Greg Boyd.
      If you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, at least take a look at the “extended summary” page, which will give you an idea of what the sermon is about. But the sermon is much better than the summary.