Praying with the Holy Spirit: Developing Ears to Hear
In the second post of this series, we discussed the idea of praying without ceasing. This included developing an awareness of God’s presence, practicing repetitive prayer to carry in our hearts, and cultivating the prayer of our hearts, connecting with the longing desire of our human spirit for the Holy Spirit in prayer. In this third installment, we will further explore ways in which we partner with the Holy Spirit to grow in our ability to listen in prayer.
In the first post of this series, we focused on ways in which we talk to God: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Now we will shift our focus toward the other half of communication: listening. In today’s fast-paced world, most of us can honestly confess that when it comes to communication, we are much more inclined to expressing our own thoughts and ideas rather than listening. In the same way, most of us tend to find patience, stillness, and taking the time to listen to God weak areas in our spiritual lives. But in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Romans 8:26-27 NIV)
They key to becoming a good listener in prayer is to stop relying on our own strength and to partner with the Holy Spirit in prayer. When we set aside ourselves and embrace the Spirit of Christ within us, we find a new strength and ability to be still, to quiet the soul, to hit pause on our own active thoughts, and to listen to God. For me, this is where I encounter God’s presence most tangibly. I know this isn’t the same for all people, and this may be more powerful for me as an introvert, but the Scriptures are filled with passages about being still, waiting on God, seeking the Lord in the quiet of the morning, searching for the still small voice.
Some of the ways we do practice this listening prayer include meditation and contemplation, but listening prayer is certainly not limited to these specific practices. Let’s take a look at these practices and consider how you might be able to engage the Lord in the secret and quiet place of your spirit.
No, meditation is not just for the Buddhists, but it is in fact quite different! Instead of quieting the soul and seeking to be one with the universe, Christian meditation is more of opening the mind and heart to God. In Christian meditation, we enter into silence in order to remove distracting thoughts and feelings, but then allow our thoughts to dwell on a specific object. By object, I mean a certain word, idea, metaphor, scripture text, etc. For instance, on Good Friday we might have a meditation on the cross, allowing our thoughts to enter into the suffering of Christ and our own personal sin that he bore. As we enter into these thoughts, we invite the Holy Spirit to search us and speak to us.
I recently meditated on the usage of incense in worship. In my thoughts, I considered how in Revelation, the scriptures use incense to describe the prayers of the saints rising up and filling the throne room of heaven. I dwelt on the rising of our prayers and the sweet fragrance of the incense to God’s own senses, how He must delight in the prayers of His people. The Holy Spirit brought my attention to the warmth coming from the block of incense, how it required a coal in order to ignite, how that coal must keep warm for the incense to continue rising. Then we took me to a different place, considering the hot coal that burned Isaiah’s lips, and I dwelt on the sanctifying and purify power of fire as we experience through the fire of the Holy Spirit. And on and on it went.
One great way to practice meditation is to begin with a passage of scripture. Richard Foster says that “the most fundamental form of Christian meditation…is bound to Scripture,” and the saints throughout the ages would attest that meditating upon Scripture is the most central form of meditation. Meditating upon Scripture is very different from studying the Scripture. In bible study, we seek a deeper understanding of the Word through exegesis and application, drawing from our own analytic faculties. Instead, in meditation we allow the Word to speak to us. In meditation, we might focus on a story and put ourselves in the shoes of one of the characters; or we might focus on a single line of scripture and ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us; or we might even focus on a single word and allow it to sit deep within us.
It is not only acceptable but encouraged for us to use our imaginations in these types of meditations. We should allow our thoughts to inhabit the text, take a perspective, and personalize the message. Our imagination lets us bring our emotions and experiences into the Scripture, it lets us center our attention on the text, and it lets us experience the Scripture in a personal way. Now it is important for us to address that this is not a means for study, interpretation, or exegesis of the text; rather, this is the type of practice that allows our minds to unite with our hearts, drawing us into a deeper love of God through His word.
Similar to meditation, contemplation is also a practice of seeking a deeper love of God through silence and opening the heart. The difference is that in meditation we focus on a specific idea or text of Scripture, where in contemplation we simply empty ourselves of all but a longing love for God. In contemplation, we seek to completely still ourselves: to empty the mind of all active thought; to empty the soul of all feelings and desires; to let only love for God remain in our being. It is about getting ourselves out of the way so that we can experience the presence of God that dwells within us.
In contemplative prayer, we focus all of our being on love for God, beyond thoughts of the mind, beyond feelings of the soul, tapping down deep into our very loving nature of our spirits. Like we discussed in the Prayer of the Heart, we let the longing desire for God that is deep in the human spirit to reach out in love for God. The goal of contemplative prayer is to enter into the “secret place” of God, the Most Holy Place in the Spirit, the throne room of heaven, where His Holy Spirit and our human spirit touch. There is an anonymous 14th century monk who wrote one of the most compelling texts on contemplative prayer, “The Cloud of Unknowing”, and this is how he describes it:
“Lift your heart up to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart. Do all in your power to forget everything else, keeping your thoughts and desires free from involvement with any of God’s creatures or affairs whether in general or in particular…
For in the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing. You will seem to know nothing and to feel nothing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being…
Learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him whom you love. For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself it must be within this darkness and this cloud. But if you strive to fix your love on him forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation I have urged you to begin, I am confident that God in his goodness will bring you to a deep experience of himself.”
This book was a foundational text for many contemplatives and mystics that came after, including John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, and even more contemporaries like Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Keep in mind that contemplative prayer is not an easy practice and is not for the spiritually immature or believer new to prayer. It is a great place to grow once you have built a strong relationship with Christ, an active prayer life, and have practiced meditation for some time. But with all sincerity and humility, I pass on the same warning as the 14th century monk regarding his book on the Cloud:
“Whoever you are possessing this book, know that I charge you with a serious responsibility, to which I attach the sternest sanctions that the bonds of love can bear… you are not to read it, write or speak of it, nor allow another to do so, unless you really believe that he is a person deeply committed to follow Christ perfectly. I have in mind a person who, over and above the good works of the active life, has resolved to follow Christ into the inmost depths of contemplation. Do your best to determine if he is one who has first been faithful for some time to the demands of the active life, for otherwise he will not be prepared to fathom the contents of this book.”
About the Author
Kevin Cook is a 4th year student at Asbury Theological Seminary and an Aspirant for Ordination in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). After graduating, Kevin hopes to plant a contemporary three-streams Anglican Church. He and his wife Nicole attend Wilmore Anglican Church in Kentucky.
Kevin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Music and a Master of Business Administration from Florida State University. Kevin enjoys playing music and leading worship, reading fiction and spiritual classics, drinking coffee, and spending time with family and friends.
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