No, Prayer Isn’t Really a Conversation
By: Rodney Reeves
Even in the New Testament, talking with God is mostly unilateral. But he does answer.
“You’re not listening to me!” My daughter Emma and I were talking about a touchy subject: Why God commanded Israel to kill her Canaanite enemies.
“Don’t say I’m not listening to you, Dad. I am. You just keep repeating the same thing, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
She was right. I had assumed that a simple model of communication—which I had learned about in college as a speech major—was sufficient. The model works accordingly: I have an idea; I use words to express my idea; you hear my words and now have the same idea that I have.
But “conversation” doesn’t work that way. Conversation can’t be reduced to a sender transmitting ideas to a receiver. There are too many variables that create interference: poor diction, nonverbal communication, ambient noise, personal histories, cultural differences. Simply repeating the same words over and again—and believing that misunderstanding lies exclusively with the receiver—is a naïve approach to communication. It can also lead to a frustrating conversation.
All this led me to think about prayer, which many evangelicals describe as conversation with God. Is it?
To be honest, most of my prayers are a monologue. I tell God what’s on my mind, and then my prayer time is done. The communication flows one direction. And most of the time I don’t even verbalize my prayers. I simply offer words in my head. Of course, that’s not an obstacle for God. He already knows my thoughts (Ps. 139:4). And if God can read my mind, I don’t have to worry about him misunderstanding me.
But if the self-revealing God of the Bible is a sender and not just a receiver, how does he “talk back”? Some say he puts thoughts in our head. Others say he directs our attention to certain parts of Scripture, where he will then communicate to us more directly. While it’s possible that God can communicate to us in these ways, it’s not how he does it in the New Testament.
God’s Verbal Communication
The Bible doesn’t use language of conversation in connection to prayer. Instead, it most often describes prayer as praise, lament, thanksgiving, confession, and petition—unilateral actions.
But it’s not always one-way communication. After Jesus prays for the Father to glorify his name, a “voice came from heaven” and said, “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again” (John 12:28). Some in the crowd interpreted the sound as thunder, while others said it was the voice of an angel (v. 29). Jesus didn’t specifically identify God as the source of the sound and simply referred to it as “this voice” (v. 30). Yet other times a heavenly voice was interpreted as coming directly from God (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Rev. 4:1).
When Paul prayed for God to remove the thorn from his flesh, the Lord responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8–9). Whether Paul heard an audible voice or simply sensed God’s response in some spiritual or mental way, we do not know. But it is possible God spoke to him verbally. After all, Paul heard a heavenly voice speak to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–6). And of all the New Testament examples of God talking back, Paul’s experience in Jerusalem comes closest to prayer as a dialogue (Acts 22:17–22). Paul was praying, and then Jesus commanded him to flee Jerusalem in order to escape persecution. Then Paul basically responded, “Leaving Jerusalem won’t be enough. I will be recognized by people in synagogues all over the region.” Jesus answered, “Go! I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”
These sort of occasions in the New Testament, however, are rare—even for Jesus and Paul.
Examples of turning to Scripture during prayer are even rarer in the New Testament. That doesn’t mean, however, that Scripture did not inform the prayers of early believers.
After the Sanhedrin arrested, interrogated, and released Peter and John, members of “the Way” lifted their voices in prayer and quoted the Psalms as they talked to God (Acts 4:23–30). But what Luke describes here differs from the common modern practice of praying to God with an open Bible and searching the Scriptures to hear him respond.
In New Testament times, most individuals didn’t own personal copies of Scripture. People had to attend synagogue or go to the temple to hear it read. And worshipers would do more than simply listen; they recited portions of Scripture and sang Psalms. God’s Word was written on their hearts. That’s why early believers were able to recite passages of Scripture when they prayed. For them, Scripture was more an aid to their words to God than God’s specific answer to their immediate request.
It remains that for us today. Recently, I found myself praying during a routine surgical procedure being performed on my daughter Grace, and I recalled the lines from a song inspired by Scripture: “Lord, you are more precious than silver. Lord, you are more costly than gold. Lord, you are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares with you.” It was as if the Spirit himself was “speaking words of wisdom” to turn my heart to him and comfort me (Prov. 3:14–15).
Responses beyond Words
If we want to understand the extent to which prayer is conversation, we must contemplate the activity of the Holy Spirit. As Paul said, “We do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
It’s not uncommon in social discourse for people to respond to devastating news with the expression “There are no words to describe . . . ” Sometimes nonverbal communication speaks most powerfully. For instance, the groans of a mother whose baby has died, or of a father who lost a child in a car wreck, speak volumes. And if you’ve tried to comfort a loved one in a situation like one of these, you’ve discovered words often cause more pain. Nonverbal communication—an embrace or simply being present—is what really comforts.
Just as we sometimes don’t know how to respond to others, so we don’t always know how to pray. Sometimes when I don’t have the energy or faith to pray, all I can do is groan, knowing that God understands my frustration and pain. According to Paul, this is the type of prayer the Spirit inspires in us. Prayer, therefore, is not bound by intelligible human language. God not only understands but also inspires nonverbal communication.
And perhaps that’s how God communicates most often to us. Answered prayer—when things work out according to our requests—is a form of divine nonverbal communication. Petitioning prayer assumes God hears our pleas and will meet our needs accordingly. He may not speak back, but he does respond.
The New Testament is filled with examples of divine nonverbal communication. When the 11 apostles asked God who should replace Judas Iscariot, and the lot fell to Matthias (Acts 1:24–26). When the early church prayed for the courage to face persecution, and God shook their meeting place and filled them afresh with his Spirit (Acts 4:29–31). When God, in response to prayer, sent an angel to believers to give instructions and promise gifts (Luke 1:11–17; Acts 10:1–8).
If we approach prayer as a verbal dialogue, we’ll no doubt be disappointed. But if we realize God responds nonverbally, then we’ll begin to see his love and faithfulness in new ways. Even then, we so often misunderstand his nonverbal cues. God says he loves us, but we don’t always sense his love. Many people pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” yet continue to starve. Jesus preached, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), but where is justice? And when Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), heaven was silent. The sky grew dark, and the ground shook. God seemed angry.
The divine comeback, God’s ultimate response to evil, injustice, sin, and death—what could be called the epitome of divine nonverbal communication—is the resurrected Christ. “God has not only raised the Lord,” Paul said, “but will also raise us up through his power” (1 Cor. 6:14). We may be tempted to believe that evil, suffering, and death prove God’s silence. But these are only ambient noises, and one day they will be silenced once and for all. God will have the last word when he raises us from the dead, when we are the embodiment of answered prayer.
Until then, let us continually pray, “Come, Lord,” (1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 22:20). God understands our plight and never gets tired of the conversation (Luke 18:1–5), because he’s the one who started the conversation in the first place (John 1:1–14).
Rodney Reeves, dean of Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry and professor of biblical studies at Southwest Baptist University, is author of Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ(InterVarsity Press).