Too Many Words! Coronavirus & Listening Prayer
“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”
When the director of the World Health Organization (WHO) spoke those words in February 2020, he was referring to an overwhelming amount of misinformation about COVID-19 — an “infodemic.” It seemed that everyone in the media, including social media, had an opinion to share, regardless of their actual knowledge or expertise.
A couple months have passed, and the flow of information (correct or incorrect) is still overwhelming. As physical distancing and stay-at-home policies have spread across our nation, the number of online opportunities to gather information has gone up exponentially. We’re literally drowning in a sea of words, looking for those bits of information that will help us make it through the present crisis.
Here’s where I’d encourage you to consider these words of Jesus:
“When you pray, there is no need to repeat empty phrases, praying like those who don’t know God, for they expect God to hear them because of their many words. There is no need to imitate them, since your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.”
Matthew 6:7, The Passion Translation
In the original context, Jesus is referring to people who thought they could get God (or the gods) to pay attention by repeating the same requests over and over again, much like the prophets of Baal did in the confrontation at Mount Carmel:
They prayed all morning long, “O Baal, answer us!” But nothing happened—not so much as a whisper of breeze. Desperate, they jumped and stomped on the altar they had made.
By noon, Elijah had started making fun of them, taunting, “Call a little louder—he is a god, after all. Maybe he’s off meditating somewhere or other, or maybe he’s gotten involved in a project, or maybe he’s on vacation. You don’t suppose he’s overslept, do you, and needs to be waked up?” They prayed louder and louder, cutting themselves with swords and knives—a ritual common to them—until they were covered with blood.
This went on until well past noon. They used every religious trick and strategy they knew to make something happen on the altar, but nothing happened—not so much as a whisper, not a flicker of response.
– 1 Kings 18:26-29 The Message
These are desperate times, and it’s all too easy for us to pray desperate prayers. Millions have lost jobs. Thousands have died. A hundred times more have been infected. All of our routines and rituals have been up-ended.
That’s why these words of Jesus are so important. Jesus gives both an instruction – “there is no need to imitate them” – and a promise – “your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.”
God already knows our needs. So we don’t need to overwhelm Him with our words. Instead, we can turn to the ancient practice of listening prayer.
How to Practice Listening Prayer
Here’s a simple way to practice listening prayer.
Find a quiet place, grab your Bible and journal, and take a few moments to slow yourself down. Take a deep breath, and prepare yourself to listen.
Choose a Passage of Scripture
Pick a passage of Scripture. Choose a chapter, a section, or paragraph from your Bible reading plan. Don’t have a plan? Start with the words of Jesus in the passage above.
To listen well, you’ll look at that passage of Scripture three different times. Each time, you’ll want to quiet yourself, slowly read or listen to your selection, ask a specific question, and then pause to listen for God speaking to you. You’ll want to write down what you hear.
The First Reading: Ask God to highlight a word or phrase
The first time you read or listen to the passage, ask God to highlight a specific word or phrase. You’re not asking for the meaning or application of that word or phrase yet, just the word or phrase itself. Again, slow down, quiet yourself, and listen. When you have the word or phrase, write it down.
For me, God highlighted the phrase “many words.”
The Second Reading: Identify what you are feeling
Read or listen slowly to the passage again. Take some time to let it sink in. Now ask God to show help you identify what you are feeling. Don’t limit yourself to positive emotions or how you think you “should” feel. Simply identify those feelings and write them down.
For me, my feeling was frustration. I’m a verbal processor. My wife tells me that, when I’m stressed, 90% of our conversation is me talking and her listening. Painful, but true. I’m frustrated by so much in this season, and I want to pour out many words!
The Third Reading: Listen for God’s invitation
Slow yourself down again. Slowly read or listen to the passage again. This time, ask God what He to show you His invitation. What is He inviting you into?
A word of advice here: Too often we view our relationship with God through the lens of obligation rather invitation. My pastor in California would say that we can recognize the voice of God because it is the voice that is kinder than our own. So, listen for the kinder voice of a good, good Father who is inviting you to something good. If you are hearing “shoulds” and “oughts,” then listen longer.
In my own reading (after pushing through the shoulds and oughts), I heard God inviting me to quiet, rest, and peace. I’ve been working harder and longer since the virus hit, and consuming far too much news. That’s taken me to places of stress, frustration and overwhelm. My Father is inviting me to quiet places, with fewer words. He’s inviting me, not to stop working, but to stop striving. He’s reminding me that I don’t have to figure all of this out – I can rest in Him, because he already knows my needs.
My coach and spiritual director, a wise mentor in his seventies, uses the phrase “living listening and loved” as his daily desire. In this world of too many words, we need more followers of Jesus who live listening, and live loved.
Richard Foster put it this way:
“The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”
In this world of many words and many worries may we be known as deep people, living both listening and loved.
David Limiero is the Senior Director of Strategic Services for Stadia Church Planting, where he leads the team that leverages platforms and processes to free up people for ministry and mission. He is also a co-founder of The Journey Appalachia, a ministry cohort program designed to help people live and lead from overflow instead of overwhelm.