“When I Talk to God, Am I Only Talking to Myself?”

~ Luke 11:1-13/Romans 8:24-28 ~

Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. How do you pray? Some people pray only in church. Some people pray every day, in private devotions or all day long – a continual “pray without ceasing” exercise. Some people pray at meals; some before bed with their children. Some pray about everything in their life no matter how mundane or trivial. Some pray only in a crisis, a cry of desperation. Some people pray for God to do things for them.

I’ve prayed such prayers. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable prayer request for a ten-year old boy.  Every night for weeks I prayed fervently that God would grant my request. And every morning when I awoke I would check to see if God had answered my prayer. I would point my finger at the clock on the dresser. “Rise,” I said, but, alas, it did not rise, the clock would not levitate at my command. And so every morning I had to deal with the disappointment that God would not answer my prayer for magical powers. Oh, I pleaded most earnestly. I promised I would never use my magical powers for bad things, only for good things. But to no avail. Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive.” Well, I had asked but I hadn’t received. And it seemed like such a reasonable request.

A few years ago there was a lot of buzz in the media that the “God spot” had been found in the human brain, the one place in the brain that specializes in spirituality. It turns out that isn’t true. Instead neuropsychologists have determined that it is a much more complex phenomenon. There is a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, they say, but it is a much more dynamic process, using multiple parts of the brain to facilitate an individual’s spiritual experience.

From one perspective that is incredibly fascinating. It’s amazing what scientists keep on discovering about the human brain. From another perspective, a religious perspective, the idea that spirituality can somehow be measured as brain activity can be quite disconcerting. Is it possible that my spiritual experiences, indeed my experiences with God, are just the result of synapses firing in my brain? Is it possible that when I talk to God, I’m only talking to myself?

Yet behind this issue of to whom am I praying, myself or God, there is this question: When I talk to God does God “talk” back? Or more to the point, how does God speak to me, how do I experience God? Now, this “experience” thing can be quite tricky, for how do we evaluate experience? How do we determine if an experience is credible or true? The thing is that when it comes right down to it a personal experience is very, well, personal. In a sense, only I can evaluate my own experience. We really aren’t in the position to critically evaluate the experience of others.

Let’s say I put on this carefully crafted tinfoil hat and besides being an antenna to receive communications from aliens in outer space, what if it said, “This tinfoil hat brings me great comfort and peace; my life has greater meaning and fulfillment whenever I wear this hat.” Well, despite your skepticism, who are you do say that it doesn’t. My experience is my experience, even if it’s from a tinfoil hat. Wait, did I just hear something?

But what’s more, everybody’s experience is different than everyone else’s. Despite similarities of experience we each have unique experiences. Let me put it this way: Everyone in this room is experiencing the same thing – a service of worship. But we are not all having the same experience. We each are having our own individual experience of this worship experience. Experience is a tricky thing.

Now a serious skeptic might say: Yes, you are just talking to yourself; your supposed conversation with God is only happening in your brain. They would be the adversaries the psalmist often talks about who continually taunt: “Where is your God?” Is God only in your head?

I think it is fair to say that one’s spiritual experience is an internal one. For the person of faith an experience of God happens inside him/her. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Consider Harry Potter’s experience. At the end of this phenomenal book series Harry has been through many incredible experiences. As noted on the bulletin cover, Harry asks Dumbledore,

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Yes; profound truths can be found in Harry Potter.

There are many ways to pray, I’d say. Some people pray very seriously, intensely. Some practice what’s called “centering prayer.” Harkening back to the desert fathers of the 3rd century, this prayer method, called via negativa in Latin, is all about emptying, detachment, a renunciation and abandonment of all thoughts and images; getting rid of all the stuff in your mind, even that of God. And it is in that place of nothingness, they say, that one experiences God. One Christian who advocated for this method was Thomas Merton who said: “You find God by giving up an expectation of finding an answer to your prayers.” Needless to say, this method requires lots of practice and time, hence is not practiced very widely.

Some practice an opposite but equally intense method. This is called (in the Latin) via imaginative. With this method you fill your mind with images – images of Jesus, images of God, images of biblical scenes. The more you experience these images the more will be your experience of the sacred. The most famous proponent of this way of praying was Inigo Lopez de Loyola, better known as Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order. In his writings called “Spiritual Exercises” he developed what has become known as “The Ignatian Exercises.” The point of these exercises is to “see” God with your mind’s eye, with your imagination. Visualize Mary receiving the news of the annunciation from Gabriel, sit with her on the bench, notice the dust particles in the sunlight, and feel the emotions Mary is feeling. Imagine all this and experience God’s presence.

Interestingly, this Ignatian way of prayer has been adopted by many Evangelicals. In her fascinating book, When God Talks Back, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann chronicles the prayer experiences of people from the Vineyard Fellowship church. There they have taken the very catholic Ignatian Exercises and incorporated them wholesale into their own individual prayer practice, only they remove the catholic imagery and substitute it with the verbal. Instead of seeing catholic images in their mind’s eye they “hear” Jesus talk to them. The more one practices it, hour after hour, the more likely one is to have an experience of God literally talking back.

  1. Color me skeptical. But then, who am I to judge? I have to say that is not my experience. But it may be some of yours. For some of you your favorite hymn (not in our hymnal however) is In The Garden. Ah, the lyrics are so familiar to many of us:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Now, I have to admit, I have issues with this hymn (Is it OK to confess that?). It speaks of a personal, private Christianity that seems antithetical to community. It seems to say that the whole purpose of faith is to have this wonderful, feel-good private god experience, one that “none other has ever known.” Songwriter Ken Medema says it better than I in the cynical poetry of his song, Those Love Songs:

You seem to like the singular pronoun,

“Me and Jesus” is the name of the game.

I heard your testimonies, I wouldn’t call them phony,

But why do they all sound the same?

You seem to have neglected the plural;

Whatever happened to the family?

Have you come to the garden alone for so long

You’ve forgotten community?

I’m sick of those “I am his and he is mine and doesn’t it make me feel good” love songs.

I’ve read the book and it doesn’t turn out that way,

We need a few more “We are His and He is Lord, He calls us to His service” work songs.

He calls us together to give our lives away.

Enough said.

How do you experience God? How does God talk to you? Even if you are not prone to dramatic “God literally talking to you” experiences, if you are a person of faith you probably can point to a moment in your life when you felt God’s presence in a special way; that, indeed, God “spoke” to you in some way. We have different ways of describing this: an urging, a peace, a profound presence, a “call.” Theologian Marcus Borg says, “I sometimes have a sense of being addressed.”

I do believe God speaks to us. I’m with Dumbledore. Even though I experience God inside my body, inside my head, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. But in my time on earth I’ve come to see this experience the way Frederick Buechner described it. In an interview he gave once (but spelled out more fully in his book, A Sacred Journey) he said:

Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you because it is through what happens to you that God speaks…. It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.

Listen to your life. It is through what happens to you that God speaks. Looking back on my life I can see how God has spoken to me many, many times, indeed, continually. When I pay attention I hear it. Buechner says that it’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher. This is where I believe our scripture from Romans comes directly into play. Paul writes: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

When we talk to God we are not only talking to ourselves. For God is with us in every breath we take. As Ann & Barry Ulanov in their insightful book, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer, says: “God hears all the voices that speak out of us.” Our conscious voices, our unconscious voices; our eloquent words of praise and thanksgiving, our inarticulate cries of anguish and fear – God hears them all. And God speaks to us in the living of our lives, and as Buechner says, “powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.” So, let us pray. Amen.

Comments are closed.