St. Paul prayed earnestly that God would “give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, [and] what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:16-18).
In the course of a workshop he was giving a group of young hopefuls, a professional basketball player offered this advice on how to make a long shot: “Keep your eyes on the basket. Visualize the shot in your mind, then take the shot. That’s all there is to it.”
This basketball player had put in thousands of hours of practice over the years. Shooting a basketball had become almost second nature for him. That’s why he could say, “That’s all there is to it.” His students, however, had far less experience or practice. They had much to learn before they could say, “That’s all there is to it.”
Likewise, it would be unreasonable for us to think that we can recognize the voice of God with little effort. It takes practice, experimentation, patience, and creativity. Prayer is an art, not a science. It’s not something we can simply read about and expect to accomplish perfectly at our first attempt. Each of us has to find the best way to pray and hear from Jesus.
There are many ways to pray, including the traditional formal prayers, intercessory prayer, meditative prayer, centering prayer, praying the psalms, singing hymns, and spontaneous vocal prayer. Different people prefer different kinds of prayer—or even use different methods at different times.
Whatever the method, prayer means talking to Jesus and listening to him. It means opening our hearts to him and asking him to reveal his love and will to us. It means telling him about our hopes and dreams and our hurts and fears, and it means asking him for his forgiveness, his direction, and his wisdom. When this is at the heart of our prayer, whatever method we choose, we can be sure that we will come to know God’s voice intimately. And knowing his voice will heal and change our hearts.
The Fruit of Experimenting in Prayer. When our primary goal in prayer is developing a relationship with Jesus, anything can happen. Some people have sensed Jesus smiling at them or holding their hand or putting his arm around their shoulders. Some have experienced a powerful rush of love from their heavenly Father, and others have been filled with a renewed hope and strength to face difficult situations. Some come to a new understanding of the Eucharist, and others feel moved to go out and serve the poor and needy.
Kevin, a boy in his late teens, is one example of what can happen when we listen for the Lord. Through his church’s youth group, Kevin had begun to pray and ask Jesus to touch his life. For a few months, he was growing more confident in God’s love for him and began to experience a new sense of peace in his heart.
Over the course of one week that he had dedicated to asking for God’s help with his family, Kevin sensed Jesus encouraging him to try to improve his relationship with his father. For years, he had felt distant from his dad, and the distance made Kevin begin to believe that his father was disappointed with him. But that night, he sat his father down and said, “Dad, I just wanted to let you know I love you.” Kevin’s father looked into his eyes for just a moment and said, “Thank you, son. That means a lot to me.” After an awkward pause, the two went about their regular routines and said nothing more that night.
The next evening, however, the father came to Kevin and said, “I love you. I know I don’t often say it. I’m not used to expressing my feelings. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” Then he gave Kevin a big hug. Kevin felt as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. For years, he had misinterpreted his father’s distance, believing that his father considered him a failure. From that moment on, their relationship grew closer, and Kevin began to feel more free and secure around his father. All this happened because Kevin turned to Jesus in prayer and asked for his help.
Test the Message. As St. Thomas Aquinas observed, we can’t always tell whether the thoughts that come to us in prayer are from God or our own minds. Yet, if these thoughts move us to greater love, compassion, forgiveness, or generosity, we can be pretty confident that God is behind them. Remember: the devil is the “accuser” (Revelation 12:10), and the Holy Spirit is your “Counselor,” “Comforter,” and “Advocate” (John 14:16).
Scripture tells us to “test everything and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Whenever you have a sense of God saying something to you, write it down in your prayer journal. Examine it. Question it. Use common sense and good reasoning to understand how you should put it into practice. If you feel you have a sense from the Lord regarding something very important or a major decision you are facing, be sure to consult with your spouse, your parents, your pastor, or someone else who can help you discern what you are hearing.
Dealing with Other Voices. Jesus is our Good Shepherd, but he knows that we are the decision-makers for our lives. He knows that it’s up to us to decide how we will live and which voices we will listen to. We all face obstacles—other voices that seek to drown out the voice of the Lord. These “voices” come mainly from the devil, our own selfish concerns, memories of past hurts, and the false wisdom of the world. Jesus wants us to become alert to these voices so that we can distinguish them from his and learn how to seek his protection and guidance.
Satan is a liar. He pretends to be our friend, but he is our worst enemy. Because he can be so smooth and influential, we need to guard our minds. Satan’s main strategy is to draw us into sin. He will whisper thoughts to us that rationalize sin and minimize its effects because he knows that sin will cut us off from God’s voice. This is one of the main reasons why we need to stay close to Jesus during the day.
When our minds are dominated by selfish interest, envy, or greed, we risk losing our sense of God’s voice. Because of our fallen nature, our natural tendency can be to focus all our attention on ourselves. Jesus wants us to be concerned about our responsibilities, but he also wants us to be concerned about the needs and concerns of other people, especially our family and close friends and the poor and needy among us.
Our hurts can also make it hard for us to hear God’s voice. The memory of past pain or sins committed against us can bind us up for years. Sometimes, we blow past situations out of proportion, but many times, the pain that we carry around is very real. If you have been hurt—however deeply—ask Jesus to help you forgive. Ask him to help you let go of any lingering resentment or bitterness. When a painful memory comes up, remember that Jesus was put to death even though he was innocent. He had every right to be angry and get back at his enemies, but he asked his Father to forgive them instead. While some wounds may take years to heal, don’t give up. Jesus is very patient and won’t give up on you.
Finally, the world is God’s good creation, but it does not have the power to redeem us or give us eternal life. God wants us to love our families, enjoy living in this world, and avoid the false wisdom of the world that tells us we can be happy without him. Jesus knows that if we immerse ourselves in this false wisdom, we cut ourselves off from his voice and risk losing the peace and security of his presence.
Prayer takes time and effort. That’s all there is to it. Yet, with ongoing experimentation and with commitment to some “trial and error” sessions, we can learn how to sense the voice of the Lord. There is no magic formula. Prayer is a learning process. However, we can all be encouraged to know that God wants to give us all “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that we might know him better (Ephesians 1:17).