Our heavenly Father, we thank thee for—”
“You’re welcome,” God interrupts.
I stop, stunned. “You . . . you spoke to me!” I gasp, blinking in shock.
“Yes,” God responds calmly. “Didn’t you speak to me first?”
“Well . . . yeah, but . . .”
“But . . . but I didn’t expect you to answer me!”
“What’s the point of prayer if you don’t expect me to answer?” God asks.
“I . . . it’s . . . just that I’m not used to you actually responding to my prayers!”
“Is that it?” God asks. “Or is it that you just don’t listen for my response?”
“I’m not accustomed to hearing voices in my head,” I say, a bit defensively, I suppose.
“And you’re really not doing that now,” God answers—accurately, of course. “Let’s be clear about this. You’re writing. You’re listening to me with your imagination—writing what you think I would say if I were to respond audibly to you. And you’re also very aware of that person who is ‘listening’ to us both—the reader. But that doesn’t mean you’re not really hearing me. In fact, I think you are listening to me quite carefully at the moment. And I like that, because you usually don’t.”
“I . . . I what?” I choke. “Now, wait—”
“If you’re going to write this, be honest with yourself. I’m certainly going to be honest with you. And here’s the problem. Much of the time you don’t really listen to me at all. Most people don’t when they pray. They just talk at me. They tell me all their problems, give me their wish lists as if I’m some celestial Santa Claus, then go on their way without waiting to hear my response to them.”
“Uh, maybe that’s because . . . most of us don’t know how to listen to you?” I suggest.
“You do,” he tells me. When I fake astonishment and false humility at this, he adds, “I’m not talking about hearing an audible response, and don’t go thinking I’ve given you some special power. Anyone can hear me if they just will. You don’t need to experience an angelic visitation to hear me; you simply need to listen—and not with self-focused superspirituality—just with quiet attention. I wish I could get that across clearly to all of my children. You do know how to hear me, whether you feel like you’ve heard my voice much recently or not. That’s why you’re writing this book—and why I’m letting you do it.”
I contemplate this, trying to come up with a properly reverent response. “I do consider it an honor and a privilege to be writ—”
“Enough of that. Let’s get back to the point,” he interrupts. “The fact is that all those who really know me do know how to hear me—if they want to let themselves hear. My sheep hear my voice, you know? Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear. A lot of this ‘Oh, I can’t hear God!’ moaning that goes on among my people is really a cloak for the fact that they are just too busy or too angry or too in love with the world to want to hear me.”
“Lord!” I say with just a touch of (very respectful) protest. “This is . . . harsh! People who have picked up this book want to be comforted, not scold—”
“You don’t think it’s comforting that I am always here, listening?” God asks me, and now his tone is tender as well as urgent, embracing as well as bracing. “I am the lingering listener. I hear every prayer of every heart, waiting for my people to seek me, to talk to me, to enter into true relationship with me! That’s why I made you, don’t you realize that?”
“I know that’s what you’ve said in your Book—”
“And there’s another thing. Haven’t you ever wondered why people whine about not hearing my voice when I have laid out so much for you right there in black and white? Think of it this way: I listen to you speak, I write you a letter, I wait to hear from you, and I long to answer your questions. Now if you would only open up to me and let me be for you who I am!”
“But, Lord,” I reason aloud, doubt about this whole project beginning to chill me, “how can I be sure what I hear is you? I mean, all of this might be coming straight from my imagination with absolutely no contact from you at all!”
“Is that what you believe?” God asks me.
I respond slowly: “No,” I say, and it’s not. I do believe the Lord speaks to me, that I can hear his voice, that I’m seeking to obey him, and that I am trying to write under the inspiration of his Spirit. Even so . . .
“Just for the moment,” God says softly, “why don’t you let your doubts go and just talk to me?”
“Okay,” I respond. And here goes . . .
“You want to write a book that helps bring comfort to people by connecting or reconnecting them with me,” he says.
“I do,” I agree.
“And yet there are times when you yourself question my comforts and long for something more in life than what you experience daily.”
“Well, yeah.” I have to admit this is a part of my reason for writing these words. I want to grow closer to God, to experience a deepening of relationship to him. Oh, let’s face it. I want to be blessed! Don’t we all?
“Yes!” the Lord answers me. “Yes, you all do! That’s why you talk to me. That’s the nature of your prayers. ‘Bless me, Lord, bless me!’”
“Umm . . . is . . . is that bad?” I ask.
“Of course not!” God responds. Do I hear a smile in his voice? “That’s exactly what I want to do! I want to bless you! I want to allow you to experience the fullness of my blessings! I want to be in constant contact with you! Paul had it right when he said in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, ‘Pray without ceasing.’ I like that! I want to be in that constant relationship with you. And now—” God pauses, listening to my thoughts. “You’re puzzling over a question.”
God is right. (Well, of course he is!) What I’m puzzling over, however, is not a question I would necessarily put to him directly. It’s something in the way of a criticism, actually. That’s kind of embarrassing. But I realized long ago that I could keep no thoughts from him, so . . . “Well . . . Lord . . . um . . . if you really want us to remain in that close contact with you, then—”
“Then why don’t I give you exactly what you want?” God fills in for me.
“Uh . . . well . . . yeah. That’s what I was thinking . . . as you know. But, I mean—you’re God! You can heal every disease, save every life, rescue every drowning man—”
“Grant every wish, fix every lottery, yeah, yeah, yeah,” God responds.
I get the sense that my musings haven’t pleased him—like I’ve missed a lesson somewhere that I should have learned by now. Still, since we’re talking . . . “I realize I’m pushing it, but wouldn’t that be granting blessings to us all?”
There’s a pause. Has he stopped talking to me?
“No,” God answers me firmly. “No, it wouldn’t. It would be cursing you with meaningless bounty. Believe me, you wouldn’t consider it a blessing at all after a time. You want to know how I know?”
I smile. “I figure because you know everything!”
“Because you don’t appreciate your blessings right now,” he says, cutting through my cockiness.
I gulp. “Well—”
“I have surrounded you with blessings that you take completely for granted,” God says, and his tone isn’t accusing, it’s just . . . righteous. “I have blessed you with life. With an abundance of good things. Food, shelter, peace, a wonderful loving wife, a family that loves you, opportunities for service, gifts and skills, a great education, a marvelous nation to live in during a time of constant near-miraculous invention, far too much sugar, far too much emphasis on personal pleasure, far too much period. Oh yes, I’ve blessed you. But like every generation before you upon the earth, what you want is more stuff, not more me. And again, like every generation before you, what you fail to understand is that I am the blessing, not just the source of it.”
Um . . . what can I say to that?
“How about ‘Thank you’?”
“Thank you,” I say weakly, but I know it’s not enough. I feel like crawling into a hole and—
“Why would you want to run away from me when I’ve just told you that what I want is you?” God asks me gently.
“Because . . . I’m ashamed,” I answer honestly. “When I think of my blessings . . .”
“What?” God asks me. “What do you think?”
“I . . . want to praise you!”
“That sounds about right,” God answers, and for a moment I simply praise him for all he has blessed me with—not the least of those blessings being the opportunity to write these words of praise. As I start to turn my thoughts to other things, he says, “Are we done already?”
“Uh . . . done what?” I ask.
“You mean, have I finished praying?” I ask, feeling a little guilty.
“Have you finished talking to me? Are you feeling ‘all prayed up,’ as some people say? Because I’d love to talk more.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, since you’re here and all.”
“I’m always here.”
“Yeah,” I muse. “Well, okay. I’d like to ask you about some other things. That blessing thing—and other questions . . .”
“All right then, but some of these might sound impertinent!”
“Do you think I haven’t heard far worse down throughout the course of human history?” he asks.
Does God joke? I wonder.
“Did I not create you in my own image,” he asks, “and isn’t humor a part of your nature?”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“Have I answered your first question?”
“About whether you hear my prayers? Yeah, I think so—”
“Then answer one for me. Are you going to keep listening, now?”
Gulp! I get the point of this. It’s one thing to ask if God hears my prayers. It’s quite another to say I’m always going to be listening when he opens the channel of communication first!
The fact is, I don’t always listen to God, even though I know better. I have the scars and bruises to prove it. And I’ve been around churches and Christians from birth, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe these behaviors in others. I’ve known a few folks I thought remained in constant contact with the Lord, but the truth of Scripture prevails: “All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way” (Isa. 53:6). I’m afraid my own problem traces to a lack of prayer—of substantial prayer, not those pious-sounding prayer speeches we often pray in church (and which I’ve been guilty of praying myself). My own questions for God most often come from a lack of honest prayer—those times when I actually give attention to what my heavenly Father is trying to tell me. Jesus said that when we pray, we’re to go into our prayer closet and talk to God privately. I think he was trying to tell us that this is where we can not only talk but listen, and so allow God to reshape our thinking.
I was taught to pray early—so early I can’t even remember it. I was a preacher’s kid, so it was expected of me. My family had daily devotions at the breakfast table, and my father called on each of us to close these sessions with prayer. Which meant that about one day in five I was called upon, and so I developed a rote prayer that popped out of my mouth automatically. It was kind of like pushing a button and getting a tape-recorded message. It started like that prayer with which this chapter begins: “Our heavenly Father, we thank thee for . . .” We all have prerecorded messages ready—when someone greets us, when the phone rings, when someone bumps into us or we into them, when somebody sneezes or says thank you. One night when I was about thirteen, my parents were out doing church visitation, and I was home alone. The phone rang, and when I answered it, somehow the wrong button got pushed. I answered, “Our heavenly Father, we thank thee for—” and then I stopped, embarrassed. “What?” said the voice at the other end of the line, and I cringed, for it was a sweet little lady from our church, who probably regarded me as a good little boy (I had her fooled, at least). I mumbled something, took her message, and got off the phone quickly. I’d learned a lesson though: what I called “prayer” wasn’t. What was it? Good question.
It may have been around the same time that I learned another lesson from God about prayer. This time I really was praying for something, earnestly, silently—something I wanted for Christmas, I think, but I can’t remember now what it was. We weren’t well-off (preacher’s kid, you know), and the only time we got any really big presents was at that blessed celebration time of the Lord’s birth. (Strange—he has the birthday; we get the gifts.) So I was lobbying heaven for stuff. I was really trying to make my case, making this gift sound really good to God, when I overheard this thought tracking through my head: “How do I get God to give me what I want?” In that moment God spoke to me, saying, “Do you really think I can’t hear you trying to manipulate me?” I heard no condemnation there, just a simple question from the Lord whose arm I was trying to twist. Ever since then I’ve known that silent prayer is dialogue with God—if you listen.
I love Ephesians. It may be my favorite book of the Bible (well, along with Acts, and John, and Jonah, and the list goes on!). The third chapter is a particular favorite. Paul begins to pray—publicly, so that the readers of this letter will overhear his conversation with God—and suddenly Paul interrupts himself to explain his credentials for saying these things and to launch into an excited, emotional praise to God for giving him, “the least of all the saints” (v. 8), the gift of being allowed to do ministry! I’ve often thought Paul never quite got that vision of Stephen going down under the rocks—or his responsibility for it—completely out of his mind. God had restored him, but I don’t think Paul ever forgot his sin. Having established the purpose of his prayer to those he was praying for, Paul launched into it. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father . . .”
What’s the posture of your prayer? When I was a child I knelt beside my bed, and that posture is still an effective way of reminding me whom I’m addressing. At other times, the only appropriate prayer posture for me is flat on my face. When my wife and I were missionaries in Ogbomosho, Nigeria, we went to visit the seaun (that means “king”) of the city. He greeted us with a handshake, offered us a warm Coke (that’s how they drink it in Africa), and asked us to sit down. He had all these sofas surrounding the walls of his throne room. A moment later I was reminded that, to the people living in Ogbomosho, this was the king. A man came in to speak to him, and he dobalied before him. That is, he fell flat on his stomach, nose to the floor, arms extended before him. Now that is how you greet a king, I thought—then blushed to realize how little honor and respect I have sometimes shown my King when coming into his presence.
Then again, body posture isn’t everything. When I was in college I played the evil King Claudius in Hamlet. In that play, Hamlet wants to kill his uncle Claudius, who has murdered his father, stolen his mother, and taken over the kingdom. Hamlet finds the evil king kneeling in prayer and puts away his dagger. He will not stab him while he’s praying, for fear he’d send him straight to heaven! All right, so Shakespeare’s theology may have been faulty. But the irony of the scene is this—and here I think the bard got it right—while Claudius is praying, he’s not really praying, and he knows it. He mutters, “My words fly up—my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” His words serve as another reminder to me that it isn’t the posture of the body but the posture of the heart that concerns our God.
Back to Ephesians. After Paul speaks of the posture of his prayer, he goes on to talk of its promise: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (3:14–15). Do you see the promise I see? When we pray, we enter into the presence of the Father—the Maker—of all.
Think for a moment. We live on a planet that is ninety-three million miles from its star. The sun’s light takes about eight minutes to get to us. The nearest neighboring star’s light takes four years to reach us—it’s that far away. Yet it and our sun are only two of two hundred billion such stars in our galaxy! Consider the immensity of God’s creation! But, to go beyond that, our galaxy, unimaginably vast as it is, is only one of millions of such galaxies. How many? Scientists used to think about a hundred million. I honestly can’t imagine that high. But then they put the Hubble telescope up and discovered they were off a bit: now they think there are five hundred million galaxies—five hundred million, each containing one hundred to three hundred billion stars each. Mind-boggling. C. S. Lewis said that if you can imagine all of that (impossible!) and then imagine it all the size of an acorn in the palm of our God’s hand, then you might begin to approach in some small measure how truly great and awe inspiring our God really is. And that’s the promise in Ephesians: this God, the Creator of all heaven and earth, gives us personal attention whenever we pray. Wants to give it to us! Seeks us out! And we wonder if he’s able to hear our prayers?
Verses 16–19 give us the content of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, and others, who would be reading his letter:
That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.
Now, I may be wrong, but I see a pattern here—a pattern worth examining. I’ve sat in a lot of prayer meetings and listened as God’s people created laundry lists of prayers. They were all important requests, of course, but unrelated to one another. This verse is no laundry list from which God might pick and choose which requests he will answer. Paul was praying publicly, remember; he was teaching his readers as he shared this prayer, and what he lays out here (under the inspiration of the Spirit) is the learning curve for the mature Christian. Do you see it?
First, that God will initiate faith in all of Paul’s readers. Salvation is by grace, we remember—God’s Spirit quickening us to believe—not the result of any good works we might actually accomplish in our own power. Every spiritual insight we have, God has given us.
Second, that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith. Salvation is by grace through faith—our faith response to God’s free offering. Paul longed to see everyone make this decision. It is the central goal of evangelism. In Paul’s prayer, this is a starting point, not the end event!
Third, that we be “rooted and grounded in love,” and wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all actually were? I grew up hearing table talk about all the fights and frustrations within churches, not just in my own, but in those in neighboring towns and throughout my home state as well. As I got older, I heard the same kind of discussions concerning churches nationwide, then worldwide—the bickering and backbiting of the blessed. Through my young eyes, I saw very little “rooting and grounding in love” among Christians. Once I was grown and realized how hard it is to actually become this way, I still found myself longing for a fellowship of the saints where love prevailed over judgmental attitudes, self-centeredness, spiritual pride . . . oh, why even go on down that road? Anyone who’s been part of a church knows what I mean. And if Paul is laying out a pattern for spiritual growth, then a lot of church folks are stuck back at salvation, never having advanced past the first grade to real love. And that’s terrible, since it seems we need to get this loving ground under us before we can go on to the next point.
Fourth, that we might be able to comprehend—with all the saints!—what is “the breadth and length and height and depth.” I really think Paul was trying to express the total dimensionality of the faith here. Maybe he was pacing around his prison cell as he dictated the letter. I picture him gesturing like a child singing that old song: “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” There is, of course, that fountain, and it is deep and wide and broad and tall and long and every other dimension we might imagine. But I don’t think we can learn all this without first being grounded in love.
If we Christians did all learn it, the results would be incredible. We could then know the love of Christ, which goes way beyond all human possibility of so-called knowledge. Paul wanted always “to know him,” and this is what he’s praying for—that all his readers might come to know Christ not just in forgiveness but in fullness.
Paul knew how to pray. Paul knew that God was listening to this prayer and that God would answer this prayer—at least, insofar as his readers would allow themselves to be blessed by God. But how many of us actually allow ourselves to grow up in Christ to the place where we can experience the fullness of God? I’m afraid that the answer is not many, or else I think we’d be making a much bigger impression on our world for Christ Jesus.
I think we’re hung up somewhere. I think we’re hung up on getting God to give us what we want instead of letting him give us himself. I think we’re hung up on our frustration about that. When it comes right down to it, I don’t think we’re really well grounded in love—love of God, love of others, love of our forgiven selves.
Long ago I heard a preacher joke that seems to apply here: A new preacher came to the church and preached his first sermon. It was on love. All the people loved it and told him so. The next week he preached on love again. The folks smiled and nodded and thanked him at the door. The third week he preached on love again, and people began to talk. When he preached on love the fourth Sunday in a row, the deacons came to see him. “Don’t you know any sermons about anything but love?” they demanded. “Sure,” he replied. “When you start doing that one, we’ll move on to something more.”
Want to move on to something more with God? Talk to him—personally—and listen to him. Let him love you and let your love for him grow, and more dimensions of God’s wonder and majesty and fullness will expand in your heart daily. I’m right here beside you, praying for that myself.
God is the lingering listener. We all love to be listened to. We want others to hear what we say. The simple truth of honest prayer is that God lingers to listen to us. He’s always there, always ready, never cutting us off before we’re finished, never looking at his watch, never seeking an excuse to run away. And he will linger eternally, listening.
• “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
• “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2).
• “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).
• “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14).
• Read also Psalm 4:3; Matthew 11:28–29; and John 13:34.
Then they will call on me, but I will not answer;
They will seek me diligently but they will not find me,
Because they hated knowledge
And did not choose the fear of the Lord.
They would not accept my counsel,
They spurned all my reproof.
1. Are you honest with God when you pray? Are you honest with yourself? Do you enter into conversation with him as if with a good friend, ready to listen as well as talk, or do you have a memorized prayer ready to pull out and recite at a moment’s notice?
2. We all believe that prayer works. A common cliché one hears around churches is “Prayer changes things” (although that’s not in the Bible. I’ve had people ask me for its reference!). The question is, What does it change? Whom does it change? How does prayer work?
3. Can you hear God’s voice? Can you give a specific example of when you have heard—or felt—God was speaking directly to you? Did you listen? Are you still listening?
4. Do you feel too guilty to talk honestly with God? If so, you’re probably in need of the next chapter.