Question: I pray to God but what do I do when I feel like God’s not paying attention? Does God still speak to us like he did in biblical times?
Frank answers: If we take things to God in prayer, we expect God to be paying attention. But God’s apparent slowness to answer is known in the Bible. The prophet Habakkuk began his oracle, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2). But he discerned the Lord himself saying, “if [the vision] seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come” (Habakkuk 2:3). The Lord himself is warning that he may not give an immediate answer. Some people have prayed for years before receiving an answer. A classic example is Monica who prayed for her son Augustine for thirty years before he was finally baptized and became a dedicated Christian. Sometimes the Holy Spirit needs to work through several lives to bring about a resolution to the concerns raised by one person. It took a whole group of people unknowingly serving God’s purpose to contribute to the conversion of Augustine. He reflected on it later in his life in his Confessions.
There are ways in which God speaks to us, but we need to ask whether we are listening. The biblical figures did not always hear God when he was speaking—or they heard a voice but didn’t know it was God’s. The young prophet-to-be Samuel heard someone speaking to him three times but thought it was his priestly mentor Eli.
We should also realize that people in biblical times were more used to hearing voices than we are today. In fact, many traditional people hear voices in natural phenomena (e.g., in the wind, the trees, the water, other animals) that modern Western people, a,ienated from the natural world, cannot hear. Modern Western people are more likely to hear voices coming from within rather than from outside ourselves.
Yet there are ways in which God speaks to us through means outside of ourselves. God speaks to us in the words of Scripture, in the preaching of the ministers of the Word, and in the words of friends and counselors. But sometimes we need to remove ourselves from our busy and noisy world and go to a quiet place for prayer and meditation to sort out all the voices we are hearing. Jesus did this; so did the prophets. So did many of the great saints of the church. Ascetics like St. Jerome even prayed naked in the desert as he meditated on the words of Scripture. Their nakedness was a symbolic way of exposing themselves to God. Nakedness is about exposure and being vulnerable. Undistracted by any worldly encumbrances, the desert fathers were open to God and heard, like Elijah, God’s “still small voice” in their own minds.
St. Jerome by Jan van Hemessen (1543)
Silent retreats give us an opportunity to get away from the world and spend time sitting still or walking in solitude. Our real concerns will rise to the surface of our minds once we have stilled the mind from its many preoccupations. If the concerns that rise to the surface are disturbing, we should have a spiritual counselor to discuss with whom to discuss these things. God often gets to us through our conscience. This conversation could lead to individual confession, in which we hear the word of forgiveness that liberates us to move on in our lives in a way that we know pleases God.
If you still feel that God is not paying attention, be persistent—like a child nagging a parent. Our Lord himself tells us to be persistent in prayer, as he himself was in the Garden the night before he died. “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). The cup didn’t pass from him, but God’s will was done. This is another way to understand the words of Jesus, “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). What’s good for us is what God wants, even if it doesn’t look very good at the moment
– Pastor Frank Senn