A guest post from David Powlison, with further thoughts in response to my post on Hearing, Praying, and Speaking the Word.
Many years ago I worked through the psalms looking for the vocal cues. By my count, more than 95% of the psalms portray or invite audible words directed to God. You “hear” what is written, because so much of it is out loud: crying out, the sound of my voice, songs, shouts, the tongue and lips, asking God to listen, groaning, roaring, seeking, calling on, making requests, and so forth. In the mere handful of psalms with no vertical verbalization, the psalm speaks about people in relation to God (e.g., Ps. 1), or speaks from God (e.g., Ps. 110), or speaks to other people (e.g., Ps. 49). An audible response is then the most natural thing in the world.
In the verbal actions of the psalms—rejoicing, asking for help, and expressing thanks (cf. 1 Thess. 5:16-18)—we talk to someone else, in this case, God himself. It’s fair to say that having a “quiet time” is a misnomer. We should more properly have a “noisy time.” By talking out loud we live the reality that we are talking with another person, not simply talking to ourselves inside our own heads. Of course “silent prayers” are not wrong—1 Samuel 1:13, Nehemiah 2:4, and, likely, Genesis 24:45—but they are the exception. And even in such silent prayers, the essentially verbal nature of prayer is still operative, though the speaking is “subvocal.” Words could be spoken out loud if the situation warranted or the state of mind allowed.
In Jesus’ teaching and example, a praying individual seeks privacy so he or she can talk out loud with God. “Go to your room and shut the door” (Matt. 6:6). That’s so other people won’t hear you, so you can talk straight, rather than being tempted to perform. Jesus “went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matt. 14:23). He “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Lk. 5:16). He’s talking out loud. And when Jesus walked off into the olive grove that Thursday night in order to pray, his disciples could overhear his fervent, pointed words (Matt. 26:36-44).
We can do the same sort of thing: close the door, take a walk, get in the car—and speak up. Of course, in group contexts throughout the Bible, in public gatherings, God’s people naturally pray and sing aloud, just as they hear the Bible aloud. We naturally do the same in corporate worship, whether in liturgy, in led prayers, or in small-group prayer. And even moments of silent confession and intercession, though subvocal, remain essentially verbal in character and content.
So the standard practice for both public and private prayer is to speak so as to be heard by the Person with whom you are talking. Prayer is verbal because it is relational.
I’ve known many people whose relationship with God was significantly transformed as they started to speak up with their Father. Previously, “prayer” fizzled out in the internal buzz of self-talk and distractions, worries and responsibilities. Previously, what they thought of as prayer involved certain religious feelings, or a set of seemingly spiritual thoughts, or a vague sense of comfort, awe, and dependency on a higher power. Prayer meandered, and was virtually indistinguishable from thoughts, sometimes indistinguishable from anxieties and obsessions. But as they began to talk aloud to the God who is there, who is not silent, who listens, and who acts, they began to deal with him person-to-person. It’s no gimmick or technique (and there are other ingredients, too, in creating wise, intelligent, purposeful, fervent prayer). But out loud prayer became living evidence of an increasingly honest and significant relationship. As they became vocal, their faith was either born or grew up.
What about teachings on “centering prayer” or “the prayer of silence” or “contemplative prayer” or “listening prayer,” or the notion that God is most truly known in experiences of inner silence? Or what about the repetition of mantras, even using Bible words, attempting to bypass consciousness, seeking to induce a trance state or mystical experience? The Bible never teaches or models prayer either as inner silence or as mantra. That’s important to notice: “The Bible NEVER teaches or models these ideas or practices.” On the surface, such teachings align with Buddhist and Hindu conceptions and practices, and are designed to evoke oceanic experience. The god of silence has no name, no personality, no authority, no stated will, makes no promises, and does not act on the stage of history. Such private spirituality can produce inner ecstasies and inner peacefulness (I experienced that first hand in the years before coming to faith). But it does not create interpersonal relationships—with God, with others—of love, loyalty, need, mercy, honesty, tears, just anger, forgiveness, purpose, and trust. It is a super-spirituality, beyond words. Jesus and Scripture speak and act in sharp contrast. The Word in person and in print 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.
Of course, God tells us to be quiet and be still. But it’s not that I learn techniques to access an inner realm of silence where I transcend my sense of self and experience a god-beyond-words. The true God quiets us so we notice him. This 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. And we can think straight and feel honestly and choose well. There is 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. When this is what “centering prayer” actually accomplishes for a given person, then he or she is moving along Christian paths, not down the paths of wordless silence. But turning off the distractions is not 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 learn to talk. This living God is highly verbal and listens attentively. He made us in his image, but as dependents. We learn to listen to audible Scripture, and so learn to speak audible prayers.
He 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 rise to joyful noise and cries of need—and may God listen to the sound of your voice!