As my grandchildren visit me this weekend, I am reminded of how dangerous the world can be for toddlers. When children first learn how to safely cross the road, we tell them to stop, look, and listen. Instead of looking at their friends playing and all the other distractions, we want them to look . Instead of listening to the kids who may be calling their name, we want them to listening for cars. In the same way we need to stop, look, and listen to God. Instead of watching for the things that may distract us, we need to look with fresh eyes at what God is sending our way.
Reality, however, is that our powers of spiritual observation are often feeble. We see, but we don’t look; we hear, but we don’t listen. In her blog, “Seeing, Creating, and Being,” Elizabeth Watts writes about the difference between seeing and truly looking:
Have you ever thought about the difference between ’seeing’ and ‘looking’? For me, seeing is active; looking is passive. Looking is like showing up, punching the clock, not necessarily engaging. Remember the scene in the hysterically funny National Lampoon Vacation movie where
schleps his family to the Grand Canyon for an
ill fated summer vacation? After an arduous journey, they arrive at the edge of
the canyon, get out of the car and look out over the view for 7 seconds at
most, jump back in the car, done—they’ve looked at the Grand Canyon. He did not
however, engage with, or experience the Grand Canyon.
Seeing speaks to understanding, illumination, discernment, and wisdom—seeing past stereotypes, cliches and preconceptions. Do you see? To ’see’ is to look past the obvious, the expected; to take the time, to pay attention.[i]
Seeing goes beyond just getting a look at something. Listening is more than hearing. Not long ago, I was told about an incident where one of my children said something to me, then repeated it again, and I just walked away. They were standing so close to me that I must have heard their voice, but apparently my mind was somewhere else and I wasn’t listening. Like my children, God would probably say that too often I have something that looks like a hearing problem, but in reality it’s a listening problem.
In Isaiah 55:2[ii], God says through the prophet: “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?” In the early verses in this chapter, God is not really talking about bread and water, but about spiritual nourishment. Too often we run after spiritual experiences that do not satisfy. Like Chevy Chase’s character we run to church, stand there staring at the Maker of the Grand Canyon for a few seconds, and then pronounce ourselves done. Yep. We’ve seen the Lord. We’ve heard from God. We’re done now—we can go home. But are we really satisfied? Have we really experienced anything if we only hear from God but don’t listen to Him? Have we really known God if we are reminded about Him in church services but never lovingly look into His heart?
Too often, our prayer lives leave us like people who have eaten at many French restaurants—plates full of beautiful food but portions so small that you’re still hungry when you leave. We may pray beautiful prayers, but when we’re done, we just don’t feel satisfied. Do you want to be satisfied in your spirituality? In this passage, God tells us how we can “eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance (v.2). The Lord gives us some hints about how to fill your spirit up with His love. Take a look with me at some of the verbs that we find in this chapter:
In verse 2 God says, “Listen carefully to me.” In the following verse He says, “Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live.” As I’ve already said, there’s a big difference between hearing and listening. The difference is inclining. Every one of us is spiritually hard of hearing. In order to hear from God, we need to lean in, cup our ears, stick that old-fashioned listening trumpet out and say, “Eh?” Too often our prayer time is spent telling God everything we want or need. We don’t give enough attention to listening.
We also don’t give enough attention to observing what God is doing around us. In order to understand God, we have to see what He is trying to show us. Verse 4 says, “Behold.” Verse 5 says, “Behold.” Believers need to observe what God is doing in life situations, look for lessons from nature, and watch for sign posts along the road that point the way to God’s will. This is what the Lord means in verse 6: “Seek the Lord while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near.” God-sightings don’t usually just happen. You have to seek the Lord on purpose. This means seeking the Lord himself, rather than just His blessings. Jesus said, “…Seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” In other words, seek God, and the rest will take care of itself.
So how do you seek God? You’ve got to clear out all the wrong desires from your heart and simply listen to Him. Without asking for anything, complaining about anything, or even telling God anything—just listen. Listen for His words, His thoughts, His ways. For thousands of years, Christians have practiced this kind of listening prayer. Some have called it Contemplative Prayer. Others have labeled it Centering Prayer or by some other name. Simply put, listening prayer is quieting your spirit before God, putting your own ways and your own thoughts aside, and inclining yourself toward the Lord. Verse 7 says, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” The goal is thinking what God thinks, instead of what you think.
This concept of listening prayer is foreign to many people who have always believed prayer to be about talking to God and telling Him what you want or need. But think of it this way: telling God what you want all the time is unnecessary because He already knows what you want. Also—which is more important? Getting what you want or getting what God wants for you? What you need in prayer is less of your thoughts and more of God’s thoughts. In verse 8, God says, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.” Listening prayer is forsaking your thoughts, and trying to hear God’s thoughts instead. It means actually getting quiet during your quiet time. It means leaving the world and its distractions behind and returning to God.
Verses 10-13 describe the soul that is nourished by this kind of prayer, that listens to God, beholds the things He has to show, inclines itself to Him, forsakes human thoughts and ways, and returns to Him. Isaiah uses words like watering, sprouting, and bearing fruit. He describes all of creation breaking forth with song and celebrating. It is the blessed state of those who truly seek God.
In this environment, refreshed by listening prayer, the final instructions in Isaiah 55:12 are: “For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace.” Contrary to popular opinion, the contemplative person doesn’t walk around with her head in the clouds. He does not sit idly by and meditate while life happens around him. Instead, God’s word commands the person who listens to God to “go out…be led forth!” There is a mission for these kinds of Christians who have learned to stop, look at what the Lord is doing, and listen to the voice of God. Their mission is peace—to seek it, to find it, to share it with the world.