For years I believed that I needed to make God listen to me. We have this unfortunate tendency to overlay the image of our parents onto our beliefs about God. So just like my father, I imagined God as benevolent but distant and preoccupied. But also like my father, once you got His attention, it was a laser focus where you would discover all your previous misconceptions. This was both good and painful. Having a bonified genius for a father had its benefits and drawbacks.
The only fight I remember my parents having on a regular basis was the one where my mother was trying to get him home from work. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to come home, but he was a physicist and once his brain was advancing in a direction, it was like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around on a dime to get him to abandon his project. He did not begrudge coming home; it just took a lot to get his attention.
I was in awe of his intelligence as a child. I remember asking him for help as a freshman in algebra. He looked at my little math problem and told me that I didn’t need the formulas in the book; I could create my own formulas for each problem. He proceeded to do just that, doing something incomprehensible on the page and coming up with what turned out to be the right answer. Needless to say, I did not ask again. And my prayer life was filled with a dread that I wouldn’t get what God was trying to say.
A decade later, I was making an attempt to contact God. I really needed him to hear me. I became an expert in praying. I read books, researched the Bible, and developed some dramatic strategies in order to be heard. I was quite frustrated because no matter what I did, my external circumstances did not change. I could not seem to get God to listen! I was about ready to give up when one night I had a dream, a real God dream.
In this dream, I am watching my mother in the kitchen of much of my childhood. I loved that kitchen. It had yellow bamboo print wallpaper on one side and on the other, the same print but with ferns. Artistically it appealed to me. I loved that kitchen because that is where I was most likely to get the attention of my father, during my mother’s hard-won family dinners. I will always be grateful for her efforts. They later bore wonderful fruit in my own large family.
My mother is on the phone. It is the seventies, so the phone has a long cord which stretched all the way to the table. My dream mother is having the same old argument with my father. She nags him. She uses her prodigious powers of guilt. She gets mad.
In the midst of this, I hear a loud voice say, “I am not like that.”
The next day, in contemplation of that dream, I realized for the first time that God was telling me that I did not need to perform, emotionally manipulate, or otherwise try to make God listen to me. He was right there, listening all the time. In fact, He was as close as my heartbeat. He was not preoccupied, nor was He too busy with more urgent matters. I was important to Him, and when He had something to say, it wasn’t incomprehensible. I had fallen into the trap of praying dear heavenly version of my earthly father. And as my internal reality began to change, so my external circumstances began to shift as well.
That began a small revolution in my prayer life. I now understood that my prayer life could be an expression of who I was before the Lord, rather than an attempt to be someone else that God might listen to more. This was radical for me. I was very good at pretending I was very, very good to my parents. My anxious mother could not handle my emotions and my brilliant father simply didn’t respond to them. But slowly, surely, I learned that God is bigger than my worst version of my self. I love that so much. Why?
To be authentically ourselves before the throne, that is freedom and acceptance indeed.
Often, people will envy my freedom to be with God. I know that, like I did for years, they carry around a huge burden of guilt, worry, and inherited emotional baggage. After all, if you are used to emotionally distant, needy, controlling, or neglectful parents, how could you not? We carry all the dysfunctions of our family systems from our earthly family right into our heavenly one.
Learning that God does not operate through the lens of our dysfunctions was so freeing, that gradually I learned to first identify then remover the carefully constructed masks of perfectionism and codependence paired with an overwhelming need to please.
Have you developed prayer “techniques” that you believe will make God listen? My gentle suggestion to you is that God is not like that. Jesus is not like that. He is listening right now. He is loving you right now. Now tell Him what you need to say, not what you think He will listen to because He hears your heart as clearly as He hears your words.
But without faith, it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Hebrews 11:6
Here are some of the better books on how to feel heard. Leanne Payne is in part responsible for the freedom I experience in Christ. She understands how our culture pushes God out of our experiential knowledge of Him. If you are a serious student of knowing God, this is a profound edition. Of course, I may love her extra because she was an English teacher.
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