Start listening to God.

When we pray, we’re not just meant to talk at God. We’re supposed to listen to him as well.

Which some of us are pretty good at. Others, not so much. We’ll do all the talking, then patiently listen for God to say something… and detect nothing. He mighta said something, but we’re not sure. Can’t tell. Why not? Simple: We got used to not listening to him.

Y’see, when we heard him in the past, it was usually because he was poking us in the conscience. We were sinning. Or about to sin. Or otherwise not resisting temptation. We figured sin would be way more fun, more satisfactory, more appropriate—everybody else is doing it—so we stifled our consciences. In so doing, we stifled the Holy Spirit who speaks to us through our consciences, and tells us, “Hey, quit it!” We blocked him out.

We’re so used to blocking him out, it’s hard to go back to not blocking him out. In fact the behavior you’ll see among many a Christian is to try to hear God when it’s convenient, and try to not hear him when it’s not. We wanna sin, so we basically try to gouge out our spiritual ears… and then wonder why they don’t seem to work anymore!

Well God can cure physical ears, so of course he can also cure spiritual ones. We need to relearn how to listen to him. So how do we start doing that? Duh: Quit ignoring your conscience. Stop sinning. Resist temptation.

Goodness isn’t the answer. But it definitely helps.

I grew up among legalists, who regularly taught us Sunday school kids God doesn’t care to answer the prayers of a sinner. Of course then they turned around and told us stories of Samson ben Manoah… who was a dirty rotten sinner, yet God answered his prayers. Why’d they never notice the discrepancy? Well, Sunday school stories edited out much of Samson’s bad behavior. Me, I read the bible. The unedited stories.

The reason Christians claim goodness is the path to better prayers, is because humans believe in karma. We think when we’re good, we merit God’s favor; when we’re not, we merit God’s wrath. We read that attitude into the scriptures, and in so doing miss everything the scriptures have to say about grace—the basis of our salvation, and the entire reason God listens to us at all, much less answers our prayers with “Yes.”

God answers a lot of our prayers with yeses. Especially when we seek his will, and pray for stuff we know he wants to say yes to! But when we don’t hear him say yes, we won’t always know he’s said it. And when we can’t hear him (’cause y’know, gouging those spiritual ears out), it makes our give-and-take relationship with the Holy Spirit feel awfully one-sided, and makes our prayer lives feel defective. Which they kinda are. But clearly that’s our fault, not God’s.

Hearing him better means striving to hear him all the time. And that includes all the times we’d rather not hear him, i.e. when we’re planning to sin, or when we’re in mid-sin. We gotta listen to him those times too. Not shut him out because we prefer sin; not resist him because we don’t care to feel guilty.

The side effect of keeping our spiritual ears open is, of course, we’re more likely to obey him. We’re more likely to resist temptation. We’re more likely to be good. Goodness and obedience is the effect. Not the cause. It’s the fruit, not the thing we gotta do in order to get the reward of more God and a better prayer life.

But most humans (not just Christians!) don’t understand how cause and effect work, and that’s why we bollix this and claim it’s goodness and obedience which lead to better prayers and greater intimacy with God. Our own lack of grace filled in the blanks. Got it wrong, but we’re wrong, so that’s no surprise.

Nope, goodness isn’t about earning God’s blessings. It is one of God’s blessings. If you’re listening, he’s gonna steer us the right way, and we’re more likely to obey him and be good. If we’re not obeying, stands to reason we’re not listening.

The fake voice of God.

Those who never bother to resist temptation are of course not gonna know how to hear God. But they wanna hear him so bad, sometimes they listen to any other voice they happen to find in their heads… and presume this voice is the Holy Spirit’s. It sure sounds like the Spirit to them. Answers questions exactly the way they expect the Spirit would.

Various “prayer warriors” like to claim this other voice, the one we’re pretty sure is the Holy Spirit’s, is really the devil. Or a devil; it doesn’t need to be Satan itself, although no doubt it appeals to some Christians’ egos to imagine Satan would rather spend its valuable time on them, and not convincing the leaders of their favorite political party that it’s okay to put refugee children in cages. But let’s not go there today.

No surprise, this other voice sounds an awful lot… like what we already kinda wanna do. That’s because it’s not the devil either. It’s a more obvious evil spirit: YOU.

And me. And every single Christian. That’s our own voice. You could call it the id. Our self-centered human impulses. Our fleshly nature. Our inner being. Whether the name comes from pop psychology or Christianese, it’s a voice we’ve invented so we can talk to ourselves… and we’ve psyched ourselves into thinking it’s not ourselves. That it is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. And he’s leading us on the path of righteousness.

But it’s not him, and it’s not doing that. We’re following ourselves. We’re projecting our own desires upon the Holy Spirit, and following that instead of his actual voice. So the fake voice of God consists of a lot of fake fruit and bad fruit. Which is fairly obvious to everyone but ourselves: We don’t actually get any better, any more devout, any wiser, any more fruitful. We never even notice we never have real God-experiences; we presume every happy occasion counts as one. We claim we hear and follow the Spirit, but somehow “the Spirit” never gets round to growing fruit in us, and correcting our wayward behavior. In some cases “the Spirit” never even brings the subject up!—he’s way too nice to mention the massive elephant in the room. Not to mention its many piles of stinky dung.

How do we keep from psyching ourselves into thinking we hear God, but really we’re just talking to ourselves? Like I already said: Start listening to that conscience. Double-check the voice which is nudging you to do better and be better, against the bible. Bounce what you think God told you, off other Christians whom you know hear God: Get some confirmation. And don’t be afraid to ask God to make it all the more obvious what’s him and what’s not.

The false inner voice is self-deceptively easy to follow. The Holy Spirit is a lot more challenging. But he leads us to truth and growth. So accept no substitutes.

Prayer.

Spiritual warfare.