In the psalms, relationship with God happens out loud. More than 95 percent of the psalms express or invite audible words. Most are spoken directly to God, though often psalms speak to others, inviting them to join in. Some even gives “voice” to the inanimate creation.
So when we read, we hear what’s written, because so much of it is actually happening out loud.
I cry out to you.
Hear the sound of my voice.
With my song I give thanks.
Shout for joy.
Incline your ear to me, and hear my words.
My tongue will sing aloud.
Open my lips.
Consider my groaning.
Let the sea roar. . . . The trees of the forest sing for joy.
I will call on him as long as I live.
I entreat your favor with all my heart.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
I will tell what he has done for me.
Prayer is verbal interaction. In the mere handful of psalms that have no obvious verbal cue, a psalm might speak about human destinies in relation to God (e.g., Ps. 1), or God himself might be the one speaking (e.g., Ps. 110). Our audible response is then the most natural thing in the world.
Talking to Someone You Know
In the verbal actions of the psalms—rejoicing in who God is, asking for needed help, expressing heartfelt thanks—we’re talking to someone. It’s fair to say that having a “quiet time” is a misnomer. It’s more of an out loud, “noisy” time.
When you talk aloud you express the reality that you’re talking with someone else, not simply talking to yourself inside your own head.
“Silent prayers” aren’t wrong, but they are the exception. Even in Scripture’s silent prayers, the essentially verbal nature of prayer is still operative. Prayer expresses blunt, head-on, heartfelt need, gladness, and gratitude. Earnest silent prayer expresses desires in subvocal speech (to give it the technical name). Words could be spoken out loud—but perhaps the situation doesn’t warrant it or the state of mind doesn’t allow it. So when the servant of Abraham sought a wife for Isaac, he later told her family that the pointed words he’d said to the Lord were “speaking in my heart” (Gen. 24:45). When Hannah cried for a son, she was “speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard” (1 Sam. 1:13). Nehemiah was put on the spot mid-conversation with King Artaxerxes. Before answering the king’s question, he “prayed to the God of heaven” (Neh. 2:4), a silent pleading for wisdom and favor. And Isaiah said, “O Lord, in distress, they sought you; they poured out a whispered prayer” (Isa. 26:16).
If silent prayers are the exception, then spoken prayers are the rule. Both in Jesus’s teaching and example, a praying person talks candidly and out loud with the Father—and seeks privacy to do so. “Go to your room and shut the door,” he tells us (Matt. 6:6). If others can’t hear you, you’re more likely to talk straight and you won’t be tempted to mouth prayers fabricated to impress. Jesus sought privacy for himself: “He went up on the mountain by himself to pray. He would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Matt. 14:23; Luke 5:16). Why? He was talking it out with his Father. But his disciples listened in on some occasions: “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’” (Luke 11:1). Something about the candor, focus, directness, and scope of how Jesus sought his Father struck them. And when Jesus walked off into the olive grove that final Thursday night in order to pour out his heart’s distress, his disciples overheard his fervent plea and submission (Matt. 26:36–44). As subsequent Scripture reflects, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7).
You and I can do the same thing. Our relationship with God isn’t meant to become so interiorized that we lose the words of direct speech. Close the door, take a walk, get in the car—and speak up. Of course, in group contexts throughout the Bible and in public gatherings, God’s people naturally pray and sing aloud, just as they hear Scripture aloud. We naturally do the same in corporate worship, when we join in the Lord’s prayer, or in small-group prayer.
The standard practice for both public and private prayer is to speak so as to be heard by the Person you’re addressing. Prayer is verbal because it’s relational. It’s not a psychological experience. It’s not contemplative immersion in an inner silence beyond words. It’s an honest verbal conversation about things that matter, talking with someone you know, need, and love.
Super-Spirituality Beyond Words
I’ve known many (myself included) whose relationship with God was significantly transformed as they learned to speak up with their Father. Previously, prayer fizzled out amid the internal buzz of self-talk, distractions, worries, and responsibilities. The very things we most need God to deliver us from hijack our attempts to seek the God we need. It’s easy for prayer to become a kind of muttering to oneself, a bucket list of requests, with little connection to who the Lord is and what he’s up to. It’s easy to slide into thinking of prayer as the evoking of certain religious feelings, or a set of seemingly spiritual thoughts, or a vague sense of comfort, awe and dependency on a higher power. It’s easy for prayer to meander into vague pieties, and to become virtually indistinguishable from thoughts. Sometimes prayer is confused with the act of stopping to ponder quietly and collect yourself. Sometimes prayer becomes a superstitious rabbit’s foot, a ritual to keep bad things away and to ensure good things.
Then there are the teachings that call for “centering prayer” or “the prayer of silence” or “contemplative prayer” or “listening prayer.” The idea is that God is most truly known in experiences of inner silence. There is also the repetition of mantras, even using biblical words as incantations, attempting to bypass consciousness, seeking to induce a trance state or mystical experience. But the Bible never teaches or models prayer either as inner silence or as mantra or as an altered state of consciousness. In fact, on the surface such teachings align with Buddhist and Hindu conceptions. They are psychological techniques designed to evoke an “oceanic experience,” feelings of oneness and peace. They don’t involve a conversation between named parties who have something important to say to each other. The gods of silence and incantation have no name, no personality, no authority, no stated will, make no promises, and do not act on the stage of history. Sure, such private spirituality can produce inner ecstasies and inner peacefulness (I experienced that firsthand as a budding Hindu in the years before coming to Christian faith). But such spirituality doesn’t create interpersonal relationships—with God and others. Mystic inner silence does not traffic in interpersonal love, loyalty, need, mercy, honesty, tears, just anger, forgiveness, anguish, purpose, and trust. It’s a super-spirituality, beyond words.
Our Verbal God
Jesus and Scripture speak and act in sharp contrast to the spirit of the age. In person and in print, the Word expresses a humanness that walks on the ground and talks out loud. Jesus gives a richer joy and a richer peace than the unnamed gods of inner silence, inner ecstasy, and inner tranquility. The contemplative tradition tends toward an elite, strenuous, privatized spirituality that is impossible for garden-variety people. But Jesus speaks with pointed immediacy to the weak, the addicted, the outcast, the immoral, the disillusioned, the embittered, the remorseful, the hurting. And he brings elites—powerful, rich, educated, spiritually refined, self-confident—down to earth.
God also reminds us to be quiet. Be still. Slow down. Stop. Take time to reflect. Ponder. But the purpose isn’t to learn a technique for accessing an inner realm of silence where we transcend the sense of self and experience a god-beyond-words. The true God quiets us so we notice him, the God-who-speaks-words. When we notice him, we notice what’s going on around us, and we notice what’s going on inside us. So we become more honest. This true God is profoundly and essentially verbal, not silent: “God said . . . and it was so. . . . In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” So we listen to him. We take the time to hear his words of grace and truth. We consider Jesus. And we pay attention to what’s going on in our lives, seeing the world and ourselves in truer colors.
Then we can pray more intelligently and more candidly. We can think straight, and feel honestly, and choose well. There’s great benefit in turning off the noise machines, the chatter, the music, the crowd noise, the busy, busy, busy, talk, talk, talk—whether it’s playing inside your head, or all around you, or both. But your goal isn’t to go down the paths of wordless interior silence. Turning off the distractions isn’t actually prayer to the living God. It’s not how to know Jesus deeply, or how to relate to our Father, or how to “experience” the Spirit. Do be quiet, and for the right reasons—so you can notice and listen, so you can find your voice. This living God is verbal and listens attentively to you.
Our understanding and practice changes as we begin to talk aloud to the God who is here. He’s not silent or inactive. He listens. He cares. He acts. We begin to deal with him person to person. The pious verbal tics, the pseudo-lofty language, and the vain repetitions of God’s name lessen. Then you start to sound like you know what you need, and know who you’re talking to, and mean what you say. Many other ingredients also contribute to wise, intelligent, purposeful, earnest prayer. But out-loud prayer becomes living evidence of an increasingly honest and significant relationship. As you become vocal, your faith grows up.
God wants to catch your ear in order to awaken your voice. When you have your “quiet” time, or as you walk outdoors, or during your commute, may the decibel level appropriately rise to joyful noise and cries of need—and may you trust that God listens to the sound of your voice.
Editors’ note: This adapted article originally appeared in the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation’s (CCEF) Journal for Biblical Counseling (JBC). You can download the article for free. To find out more about the ministry of JBC, check out this video from David Powlison.