At a recent teaching session on prayer, someone asked the speaker whether he would be dealing with the issue of how the Holy Spirit guides us when we don't know what to pray. His basic reply was "No". He then went on to say that listening is not part of prayer, in fact it is a category error to try to connect the two. Praying is essentially about speaking, not listening. We can see this from Luke 11:2 : "When you pray, say: . .". He then mentioned in passing Ephesians 6:18 ("pray in the Spirit"), but admitted that he does not know what it means. However, it does not mean some sort of clear Holy Spirit guidance in prayer neither does it refer to praying in tongues. He accepted that sometimes a verse of Scripture may come to mind while we are praying, but that is simply because when praying we are spiritually more receptive - when it happens this is not part of praying but merely something else happening alongside praying. (I hope I have not misrepresented what he said.)
Using Luke 11:2 to assert that praying is speaking alone is astonishingly poor exegesis. The most that can be drawn from this statement is that prayer normally involves speaking (so is silent prayer legitimate?). If the claim of speaking alone is valid, then we would have to accept that using the words Jesus used is alone valid i.e. prayer must consist solely of reciting the Lord's Prayer. However, most evangelicals would be horrified at this idea. So if our Lord was not specifying precisely what we should say, then perhaps neither was he insisting that prayer is speech alone.
Look at it another way. Let us suppose that Jesus wanted to teach us about posture in prayer. If he had said "When you pray, kneel" would that have meant that prayer consists solely of kneeling without any speaking? Or if he had said "When you pray, close your eyes" would that mean that we must not put our hands together? Of course I am joking; Jesus is more likely to have said "When you pray, stand with your eyes open and your hands raised to heaven" - this seems to be a more biblical prayer posture. We teach children to pray in a particular way to reduce distractions, then simply continue the same way into adulthood. However, I digress! Logically, what I am saying is that "When you do X, do Y like this:" does not require the meaning "When you do X, it consists solely of doing Y like this:".
Luke 11:2 does not begin to bear the meaning attached to it by some people. When poor exegesis is used to support an idea, then we should be suspicious about the truth of that idea and ask about the underlying assumptions.
Is this just an argument about semantics - the meaning of the word 'prayer'? Of course, if we define prayer as speaking to God then by definition this does not include listening. We may then legitimately ask whether listening to God should accompany prayer. This would expose the real underlying issue: some people do not believe that God still speaks to his people. If he does not speak, then there is no point in us listening. The real issue is a form of cessationism, not the meaning of a word.
I say 'a form of cessationism', rather than 'cessationism', because historically many evangelicals have believed that God can speak to them while still maintaining that the supernatural gifts have ceased. So one can be cessationist without being spiritually deaf! However, in recent decades the evangelical church seems to have largely split into two camps: 'gifts, including hearing' and 'deaf cessationist'. Those who are deaf think they are normal, and describe hearing as 'illuminism'. Those who can hear think they are normal, and may sometimes describe spiritual deafness as 'unbelief'.
Does God still speak to his people? I do mean speak, not merely point out parts of what he has already written. It may be that God has for some reason decided to use his written word like a foreign phrase book, but if so one might expect him to warn us about this in that written word. I believe that God still speaks, and therefore it is worthwhile to listen. Why do I believe this?
All through human history God has spoken to his people, so it would be extraordinary if he has decided to stop without telling us. There was a rather quiet gap between the time covered by the Old and New Testaments (roughly, between some of the minor prophets and the gospels), but this quietness from God is rightly regarded as an anomaly.
Sometimes he spoke directly, as to Abraham and Moses. Sometimes he spoke through prophets. Sometimes he spoke through the existing written word, as during the time of the rebuilding (Ezra and Nehemiah) when they discovered that they should have been keeping the festival of tabernacles. All three of these methods co-existed. This continued into the New Testament. God spoke to Cornelius, and told him to send for Peter. God spoke to Ananias, and told him to go to see Saul of Tarsus. Ananias answered back; they had a conversation - was this prayer, or is that just a semantic question?
We know about these incidents because God has recorded them for us in his word. Should we regard them all as examples of things which no longer happen? If so, how do we know which parts of the Bible teach us about the normal Christian life, and which parts only apply to the distant past? Our only guide is Scripture itself. We know that some parts of the Old Testament do not apply directly to us, because Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf. Can we do the same to parts of the New Testament too, in effect dividing the church age into two slightly different covenants? Only if Scripture tells us to, and it doesn't.
We now have the benefit of the written New Testament, so we no longer need authoritative apostles to teach us doctrine and morality. Apart from that, we still need to hear from God. If you doubt this, go through the New Testament and find all the places where God spoke to his people. Then divide them into two groups: those things which we can now find from Scripture, and those things which Scripture cannot tell us. You then have to decide whether all the things which Scripture cannot tell us (such as where to go to or avoid for evangelism, a specific warning about trouble with the authorities) are now things we do not need to know, even though the people then did need to know them.
It seems obvious to me, and not denied by Scripture, that we still need all three modes of God speaking to his people: directly, via prophets and via Scripture. Those who listen find that this is exactly what happens.
It is sometimes claimed that the opening two verses of the book of Hebrews confirm that, having spoken through his Son, God now has nothing further to say to us. We simply use the written record of the life and sayings of Jesus. Could these verses really mean that?
It is a principle of biblical understanding that a passage cannot mean something now which it did not mean when it was originally written. A meaning may be extended, or applied to the changed circumstances of today, but basically it must mean what it meant. The original recipients of the book of Hebrews could not have understood it to mean that God has become silent, because at the time they received it God was still speaking directly to his people. Instead, they would have understood it to mean that God's revelation of himself and his plan of salvation took place dimly through the prophets but now has been perfectly revealed in the person of Christ. Thus it is reasonable to conclude that there is no further covenant to come, no new revelation for salvation; we stay with the Gospel of Christ until he returns. It does not mean, because it did not mean, that God no longer has anything at all to say to his people. Just as throughout the period of the Old Covenant God sometimes spoke to encourage, direct or warn his people (yet without changing the covenant) so now throughout the period of the New (better) Covenant he still speaks to his people for the same reasons. This cannot undermine Scripture, as it contains no new doctrinal revelation.Relationship
Evangelicals quite rightly make much of the idea that the essence of true Christianity is a relationship with God. How do we establish and maintain a relationship with anyone? It is obvious: by communication. Imagine how difficult it would be to get to know someone with whom you could not hold a conversation. You can speak to the person, but he will not speak or write to you. All he will do is give you a big book, and from time to time he will in some unspecified way draw your attention to a few sentences in the book. To make matters worse, you know he could speak to you yet he seems to choose not to. Would this be a satisfying relationship? You know the book in detail, but somehow the person seems far away.
Then one day you discover that other people also know this person. They too have the big book and sometimes feel drawn to particular sections in it just like you do, although some of them don't seem to know the book quite as well as you. But unlike you, they say that he speaks to them. He sometimes does it when they speak to him, so they can have a brief conversation. They seem to know him in a way that you do not, yet sometimes they seem not to know quite as much about him as you do. How do you react? You have several choices:
What about people who can't hear, despite trying? There is provision for them: some people can hear something from him and pass it on to others. So in the end the only people who hear nothing are those who won't listen. Sadly, they often tell others that he can't speak so there is no point in them listening.
Once it is accepted that listening to God is worth doing, and that a natural time to do this is when speaking to him, then the question as to whether this is prayer or not is simply semantic nit-picking.
Finally, 'praying in the Spirit' does not necessarily mean praying in tongues although it might include that. It does not mean praying in some strange ecstatic state. It does mean praying under the guidance of, and in the power of, the Spirit which presupposes that we have heard from the Spirit and know what he wants us to pray. That is why it is important to make space in a prayer meeting for God to speak to us. This need not be a particular alloted time, but it should be a shared understanding that the Spirit may wish to say something to confirm or divert the course of the meeting.
back to Bible home, becoming a Christian, received the Holy Spirit?
updated 5 August 2008: add comment on Hebrews