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Prayer as Listening to God: Key Questions

Saturday January 13 2018

Prayer as Listening to God: Key Questions

Last week I wrote about the importance of letting passages from the Bible dwell in our hearts and minds, so that we can allow God to speak to us through the scriptures. In the next three weeks, I’ll write posts on practical ways to do that, but before I do, I want to address an important question someone posed on Facebook last week as a response to my post from last week.

Here’s the question: “How does one check that what one ‘receives’ through bedtime meditation on, say, the Lord’s Prayer, as its meaning is really what Jesus intended the meaning of the Prayer to be rather than eisegesis of it?”

Eisegesis means a reader imposing his or her meaning on the text.

The original meaning and intent of a passage of scripture matters. I would never recommend that meditative approaches to the Bible should replace deep, serious study of the Bible. We must study carefully, and rely on others who do it.

Careful, deep, serious study of the Bible includes looking at the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, along with examination of the historical setting, consideration of what we know about the author of each text, and observation of the way each passage fits into the whole of that biblical book and the Bible as a whole.

All of this serious study needs to be done in conversation with Christians today and from the past. Many Christians don’t know Greek or Hebrew or the details about the history of Israel, but we can rely on those who do.

However, even if we got the intent of the author correct, even if we knew exactly what Jesus intended when he said something to his followers, how would we be sure that we had heard what God intended for us to hear today, in our cultural setting and in the specifics of our lives?

The Christian church has a long history of careful and deep study of the Bible, coupled with pondering and reflection on biblical passages. I am advocating rediscovery of the latter without abandoning the former.

Let me zero in on the first few works of the question posed on Facebook: “How do I check . . .?”

Let’s imagine I am meditating on Ephesians 5:21-33, the passage about husbands and wives. As a wife, maybe I am struck by Paul’s instruction to respect my husband, and maybe I come up with several ideas of how to do that better. My sense of how God is guiding me parallels the love passage in I Corinthians 13. So, I can “check” my own application of the passage against other parts of the Bible.

I can also talk to my own husband along these lines: “I’ve been pondering Ephesians 5, and I think God is telling me to work harder at respecting you in these ways. What do you think?”

I might talk with other wives about what I am hearing God say.

Let me give you two extreme examples that show why checking matters. Imagine that as I am pondering the passage, I come to believe that my husband isn’t loving me in a way that’s consistent with Paul’s instructions in verses 25 to 29. Suppose I start thinking that because he’s not living up to the Bible, God is calling me to kill him. (For the record, my husband is one of the most loving individuals I know, so this scenario is totally imaginary.)

A second extreme example comes from the true story in Under the Banner of Heaven, a book by Jon Krakauer. He describes two brothers who believed that God was calling them to murder a woman and baby. I found  it one of the most upsetting books I had ever read, because it portrayed so vividly the certainty of the men that they had heard God’s voice.

These are extreme examples of eisegesis. If I – or the men in Krakauer’s book – checked our interpretation against the rest of the Bible (which prohibits murder) and Christian history (which also prohibits murder), and if we talked with others about our interpretation, we would (hopefully) not receive any encouragement or confirmation that God was speaking to us in that way.  

The purpose of meditating on the Bible is to hear God speak to us. Most often, God’s voice speaks of love for others and for ourselves, a voice calling us to rest in God’s love and peace, and to work hard at extending love to those near and far, even those who hate us or with whom we are angry. We can miss that that call to love when we focus solely on intellectual approaches to the Bible, despite their value.

We can also hear God’s voice inaccurately, which is why we especially need to check what we are hearing. When God’s voice contradicts the overall message of the Bible, Christian history, and the voices of people we respect, we need to move very slowly in new directions. However, God does still speak in new ways, so we need to remain open to that as well.

(Next week: lectio divina, one way to approach scripture with an intent to listen. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Lenten Devotional - downloadable

Lent begins on Valentine’s Day this year. If you’d like an unusual devotional for Lent, check out the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.



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