When the Soul Listens
Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer
NavPress, 1999, 184 pp., ISBN 1-57683-113-2
Jan Johnson is the author of several books on spiritual disciplines and building a relationship with God, including Enjoying the Presence of God. This book is divided into four sections: Beyond Asking, How Contemplation Works, Wisdom in Contemplation, and What You're Likely to Hear God Say. Jan's purpose is to help us learn "to meet with God in life-transforming encounters in which your heart comes to rest in His presence." (26) You will find this a good addition to your normal Bible reading and prayer disciplines.
"To trust Him is to understand that total immersion in what He is doing with our life is the best thing that could ever happen to us." (7, Introduction by Dallas Willard)
"Contemplative prayer, in its simplest form, is prayer in which you still your thoughts and emotions and focus on God Himself. This puts you in a better state to be aware of God's presence, and it makes you better able to hear God's voice correcting, guiding, and directing you." (160
"For many years as a Christian, I never sought God just for God Himself." (18) "One of Jesus' greatest promises was this: 'I am with you always.' (Matthew 28:20), but we may not experience this." Contemplation reconnects us with God in the midst of life's distractions. (19)
"Contemplation is…a way to face the needs of the hungry soul through simply being with God." (20)
"At the root of these problems of disconnectedness is the fact that my spiritual life is about me and what I want. It is not centered upon God and what God wants. We understand prayer to be mostly about asking God for things, and when God doesn't seem to answer, we are wounded, disappointed, and eventually hardened toward God. Why didn't God play fair?" (22)
"It comes down to this: Either we are struggling to control our own lives--or we are learning to rest in God and take our cues from Him." (24)
"First and foremost, however, prayer is about aligning ourselves with the will of a powerful, loving God…." (24) "The spirit of Christian prayer is the attitude of surrendering ourselves to be vessels of His good purposes." (25) "As we understand prayer correctly, we move from devotion to the tools to devotion to the Master." (25)
"More and more, the issue is knowing God Himself, and learning to perceive and follow God in all His ways. My spiritual life is more about God and what God does, less about me and my strivings." (31)
"The life that God asks from us is simple. It consists of loving God and paying attention to God, and in so doing, we sense His mind and heart." (31)
Contemplative prayer helps us change our inner person, the attitudes of our heart that drive us, rather than focusing on changing our outer behavior. (34) The Pharisees focused on the behaviors themselves, but did not let God reshape their hearts. (33)
The disciplines of abstinence--solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice--help train the soul to listen to the small voice of God. (35) Over and over Scripture commands us to listen. (42)
"Waiting on God is an honorable pastime in Scripture, even though it's not popular in our typical life in the fast lane." Waiting for the Lord can be full of expectancy and peacefulness. (46) "But the point of resting, waiting, and listening is to build relationship." (47)
"Before contemplative prayer can become something we want to do, we must understand God as someone we want to be with." (50)
Contemplation is rooted in the study and meditation of Scripture. This keeps it from becoming a way to put words in God's mouth. (54) One first reads and then meditates. "Meditation invites you to settle in a verse or passage, finding words and images in which you can nest and rest. You insert yourself into the text, thereby letting it insert itself into your heart." (55)
"When we meditate, we focus on a Scripture and ask, 'What if I had been the person Jesus healed? What would that experience have been like?' Entering the text this way retrains the soul by helping us encounter God in a personal way and live in the sense that we have been spoken to personally by God." "So meditation is different from Bible study. In Bible study, we dissect the text [ask it questions]; with meditation, we enter into the text [let it question us]." (56)
"Meditation investigates, contemplation wonders." (57, quoting Avery Brooke) "The task for us, then, is to fix the eye of our soul upon the greatness of God." (57) "The more we meditate and contemplate, the more God permeates the ordinary moments of life." (58)
"Some Christians object to meditation because it uses the imagination. It is wiser, however, to give our imagination to God to be retrained by Him than to withhold it. The process of spiritual formation allows every part of our being to be embraced and schooled by God, and the imagination needs retraining as much as anything else. If we ignore our imagination, it finds entertainment of its own. When activated by the images and truths of Scripture, the imagination enables the penetrating Word of God to become active in our lives." (59)
"Contemplation comes down to this: paying attention to God." (69) "The chief end of contemplation…is acquaintance and fellowship with God." (69, quoting Richard Baxter)
"As we linger on a character quality--say, God's generosity--we long for that quality in ourselves." (69)
"Listen with the heart and mind opened wide. This invites us to be changed." (71, quoting Wendy Wright) "The world becomes less centered in us and more centered in God." (71)
· "How open to God are you? How open would you like to be?
· "You may believe God listens, but do you believe God speaks?
· "What are the greatest distractions that keep you from believing God is always present?
· "What would make prayer more attractive to you?" (76)
"The two primary tools of the contemplative way are the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude." (79) These are undervalued in our culture. "Solitude is not being alone--it is being alone with God." (80) "Solitude is not turning one's back on the world; it is turning our face toward God." (81) "Silence and solitude are outward, physical manifestations of the inward surrender of the heart. We relinquish talking, analyzing, and enjoying the company of others in order to attend only to God." (83)
"Your first priority is no longer to get what you want, but to listen to the heart of God and see what God wants. You still make requests--which are part of our relationship with God and honored by God--but surrendering to God is now the bigger issue." (85) "Listening from the heart puts…our spirit on tiptoe--alert and listening." (85)
Q. "What changes have to occur in your lifestyle to make solitude a priority in your life?" (86) "It is better to have a daily practice of ten minutes [of] solitude than to have a whole hour once in awhile." (86, quoting Henri Nouwen)
Try a retreat center or park. Or try an hour in your backyard or balcony as soon as you can. See what happens. (87)
It takes time to learn to center yourself, to bring your thoughts and attention into your heart to listen to what is happening in your soul. (90) Centering is moving to God's wavelength, thinking the kind of thoughts He thinks. Centering calms us and makes us alert in God. (90)
You can't fight distractions. Better to jot yourself a note and let them go. "Turn within, again and again, no matter how often you are drawn away." (96, quoting Madame Guyon)
"Posing questions to God helps us stay alert in the silence, and it provides structure for anyone made uneasy by the open-ended nature of contemplative prayer. We offer questions in silent contemplation, and then wait. Sometimes a thought will come, but more often the answer will surprise us, coming at an odd moment later that day…or week or year." (99)
First surrender yourself to be filled with His presence. Then ask in the right context. (99)
"The whole point of asking, seeking, and knocking in order to inquire of God (see Matthew 7:7) is to interrupt our constant pull toward independence from Him. Without the discipline of inquiring after God, we often follow the normal method of doing things, which is to size things up from our own perspective and make decisions on our own, with little thought of asking God's direction. Asking invites God into our situations, great and small." (100)
"God's pattern is to go before us, and if we inquire of the Lord, we will know how to follow." (101)
Some foundational questions:
· "What are You telling me about my relationship with You?
· "What are You telling me about how my character needs to change?
· "What are You telling me about how You want me involved in advancing Your Kingdom?" (101)
"As we wait for answers, a kind of 'simmering process' seems to go on, and it must be allowed to do its work." (104)
"Asking God questions requires an extended time of waiting for an answer." "Waiting on God is a problem only if you're in a relationship with God for utilitarian purposes--to get the prize from the vending machine. But if you're in the relationship for God Himself, waiting means you still have what you want--God--even while you wait." "Those who practice contemplative prayer get used to waiting on God in expectant alertness." (106)
"What we can expect most of all is to be loved. Love--which is the core of the good news--is the key feature of contemplative prayer." (111)
"Much of what comes to me in contemplation are clues about how to specifically obey what I already know is right." (112) "Expect your heart to change and to find the grace to obey." (113)
"More than anything else, contemplation is about creating a space in which a change of heart can occur, and then a change in our behavior." (113)
Expect to be examined and to see your flaws, your real self. (113) Let down your guard and be open to what God says. (115) Expect to see the defects in your desires, your soul's neediness, your core beliefs about yourself and God.
"You may not realize until later that day or the next the wordless communication you received." While you may hear nothing now, you may have prepared yourself to hear later. (119)
An agenda to try just for a starter: (120)
· Let go of thoughts, relax, and maintain silence.
· Be aware of God's presence.
· Surrender in the Spirit.
· Accept others. (let go of anger and resentment)
· Repent and seek forgiveness. Be willing to change
· Contemplate God. Listen and look for him to show you some aspect of himself.
· Receive (such as a sense of being God's 'beloved.'
· Praise (using praise psalms)
· Intercede (prayer for others)
If what you hear is patient or kind, it's probably God. If it's boastful, proud, rude, angry, resentful, or self-seeking, it's probably not God. (129)
"Confirmation often involves repeating what we think we heard from God to people we trust. They often confirm for us and possibly add to it, becoming vehicles for God speaking in our lives." Ask, "Does this sound like something God might say to me? Something I need to hear?" (137)
"Contemplation carries over into life. It "turns us into patient, others-centered workers that others want to have around." (139) "Listening to God makes us more likely to carry out His values in our culture." (140)
"The best way to stay on track spiritually is to understand that God is likely to say to us what He has said before to people in Scripture. God's messages as expressed in broad themes of Scripture have not changed; He is anxious for us to absorb these truths." (155)
"God confronts us." "'Have you ever heard the Master say something very difficult to you? If you haven't, I question whether you have ever heard Him say anything at all,' says Oswald Chambers." (165) "In an authentic relationship with God, we trust God enough to let Him probe us." (165)
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