Does God Speak to Us when we Pray?
A friend had highly recommended True Devotion to me last year, but it wasn’t until I began reading for an essay on my theological training programme that I actually read it. The essay was entitled “Discuss whether we should expect God to speak to us when we pray”, and Allan Chapple’s book was highly stimulating and profoundly helpful in helping me to answer this question.
Allan Chapple writes in the introduction that True Devotion is a book about “how God’s Word shapes and rules our devotion to him” (p.1). He does this positively in Part I, outlining a “gospel spirituality”.
However, Chapple also seeks to engage directly with the recent trend in some evangelical quarters to seek a spirituality that is informed by a wide variety of theologians and writers, and which draws in particular on Catholic traditions and practices. And so Part II is a sustained critique of what Chapple calls the “mystical way”. He opts for what he calls “critical openness” (p.6) in evaluating such practices. It was here that he engaged with my essay question.
As I read charismatic Christian writers discuss the question of whether we should expect God to speak to us when we pray, it became evident that the writers’ spirituality was often to a large degree informed by the kind of mysticism that Chapple was engaging with. For them, “listening to God” by listening to inner promptings often went along with a kind of silent, wordless “contemplative prayer” drawn largely from medieval Catholic practices.
One of the striking things to me, therefore, in reading True Devotion, was that the question of whether God speaks to us when we pray is by no means a new question. Chapple examines the biblical evidence for silent, wordless contemplative prayer, and concludes that “the Bible gives not the merest hint of this practice” (p.147). Furthermore, he demonstrates that such prayer can “deflect us from the word” (p.148); and although it is often claimed that the reformers ignorantly rejected spiritual practices such as this, he demonstrates that they knew this kind of spirituality and believed it was harmful. He also documents how the Quaker movement of the seventeenth century emphasized a kind of “listening prayer”, based on hearing God through inner promptings; and he shows how the puritans responded by presenting prayer as a dialogue where God speaks to us in the Bible, and we speak to him in prayer.
Strikingly, however, what Chapple does not do is question the personal experiences and testimonies of modern day Christian writers who have heard God speak to them outside the Bible. Instead, he explores the reformed category of “uncovenanted blessings” (p.129). That is, he argues that although God can give these experiences to his children, that does not mean there is any expectation that all Christians can and should experience these things. And therefore, “he has given us no instruction to seek them” (p.129).
So, should we expect God to speak to us when we pray? Chapple’s pithy answer is that “There is a dialogue with God that should be an essential part of our daily life – but it happens with prayer, not in prayer” (p.115). That is, God speaks to us in the Bible, and we speak to him in prayer. And, realising that this can end up seeming rather a cerebral practice, he includes a helpful chapter towards the end, entitled “The Missing Link” (p.193). This “Missing Link” is the somewhat lost art of Bible meditation, the middle ground between Bible reading and prayer. He hopes that reviving Bible meditation might show that gospel spirituality in fact fulfils what the mystic was looking for all along. “If the Bible itself had been more than a book to be analysed”, he writes, “that is, if the word of God had really seemed to be God speaking! – would we feel any need to listen for God’s voice as we pray?” (p.219).
Indeed we would not. I was both challenged and encouraged to keep seeking the voice of God in the scriptures, be changed by his word, and respond in prayer.
All quotations taken from True Devotion, Allan Chapple (2014, Latimer Briefing 17).
Toby Martin is a trainee pastor at Grace Church, Boroughbridge, and is currently in his first year of study on the Crosslands Seminary Course.