If we pastors give people the opportunity to really talk about their faith and really listen to what they are saying, we will always discover some interesting things. In most settings, the discussion will eventually get to prayer and there will be some really powerful comments about prayer. But at some point after the saints tell their prayer victory stories and the new believers tell their stories about learning to trust God in prayer and the more emotional ones telling just how wonderful prayer makes them feel, someone in the group will hesitantly and haltingly tell their story, a story about the time (or times) they prayed and God didn’t listen to them. When asked how they know that God didn’t listen to them, the answer is obvious to them–they know that God didn’t listen because he didn’t answer.
There are many ways of dealing with this individual. We can remind them that no matter what we feel, God hears us. We can quote a lot of Scripture verses that tell us to pray and keep praying. We can talk about how their doubt obviously gets in the way. We can have the successful pray-ers tell some more of their stories.
We can do all of those things–and as a pastor, I have probably done most of them at some point. But probably what is needed most in a setting like that is for us to really listen to what the person is saying. This is more than just a theological question–this is a deep-down problem and maybe even a crisis for the person. Their faith tells them to pray and when they pray, it feels like God isn’t listening.
And, after they have found the courage to share this story, if I or anyone else tries to fix things with another story or a call to have faith or a veiled attempt to shame them for their lack of faith, we haven’t listened. And if people can’t find other people who will listen to them, it is harder for them to find God listening to them. To paraphrase I John 4.20, “If my brother whom I can see can’t listen to me, how can I believe that God whom I can’t see is listening?”
There is no question in my mind that when a person feels that God isn’t listening, the problem lies within them. They aren’t being totally honest with themselves or God; they are not being truly open to hearing God; they only want to hear one thing; the message that God wants them to hear is too painful or different for them to hear–these and other reasons easily explain why they think the God of all love and grace who listens perfectly isn’t listening. It is their problem, not God’s.
But it is their problem–and my task isn’t to defend God. My task is to listen to them enough so that they can hear themselves and understand what is going on in their spirit and mind. My task is to listen to them using all my skill and patience so that they can learn to listen to themselves. And in being listened to, they learn to listen to themselves. And when they learn to listen to themselves, they can then learn to listen to God, who has been listening to them–and us–all along.
I have discovered that just as we struggle to listen to others, so also we struggle to listen to ourselves. Often, we are no better at listening to ourselves than we are to others. We don’t hear ourselves say that we are tired or anxious or afraid or excited or whatever. We don’t hear ourselves say that we really want X but will pretend to want Y. And when we don’t listen to ourselves praying, we can’t really believe that God is listening to our prayers.
And so when people tell me God isn’t listening, I need to listen. In some ways, I become the physical embodiment of God, using my listening to help them as they grope their way to understanding that God is listening–and answering–no matter what they think. As they are heard by a physical being, it helps them hear themselves and that opens the door to them understanding that God hears them.
Listening and being listened to may be among the most important things in life–and one of the hardest to actually do.
May the peace of God be with you.