I had a conversation today with someone who could hear me, but wasn't listening. Although she was physically present, I didn't have her attention. It hurt to watch her eyes flit around the room, as if seeking a more interesting conversation.
Sometimes I wonder if God gets bored with my prayers and cries. Of course, I know that's not true, but still, there are things I've been praying for years. Does he hear? Is he listening? The "right" answer is yes, but how can we be sure?
God Sees and Hears
Because God understands our doubts and fears, Scripture is full of examples testifying to the reality that he hears us. Psalms provides multiple affirmations of this truth. For example, Psalm 4:3 says, "The Lord hears when I call to him" (NIV). Psalm 5:3 tells us, "Lord, you hear my voice" (NIV). Psalm 6:8 contains the psalmist's certainty that "the Lord has heard my weeping." While these psalms are a comfort to those who belong to the Lord, Psalm 59:7 reproves unbelievers who mockingly ask, "Who can hear us?"
Even with these assurances, God knew we would need more. One of the first names God revealed for himself is found in Genesis 16. God had promised to make a nation of Abram's descendants, but ten years passed and Sarai was still barren. At Sarai's insistence, Abram had relations with her servant, Hagar. Hagar became pregnant, but when Sarai mistreated her, she ran away. The Lord met her in the desert and prophesied about the son in her womb. In her amazement that God would take notice of a mere slave, she called him El Roi, "The God Who Sees Me" (Genesis 16:13).
The reality that God sees us isn't the only truth he revealed about himself in this passage. In a book where names often reveal eternal significance, God gave this child a special name. He told Hagar her baby's name was to be Ishmael, which means "God hears." God not only sees us, he hears us too.
Two words. God. Hears. No qualifications. No restrictions. No exceptions. God hears. But then, of course he hears. He's God, after all. But is he listening?
Is God Paying Attention?
It's one thing to hear, it's another to listen. How many husbands have nodded blankly as their wives spoke, without really listening? How many mothers have been driven by frustration to ask their children, "Are you listening to me?"
Several types of behavior let us know others are listening to us. Their body language: eye contact and posture cue us to their attention. Or their verbal responses indicate agreement, disagreement, or questions. And their follow-up actions communicate that they didn't just hear what we said, they acted upon it.
Since God is spirit, we don't have the benefit of body language cues or verbal responses. And God doesn't always give us what we ask for. So how do we know he is listening? One way is through the experience of others recorded in his Word.
For example, when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, he gave them a challenge. "Call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by setting fire to the wood is the true God!" (v 24).
Baal's prophets called on their god for hours with no response, while Elijah mocked their efforts. "You'll have to shout louder," he scoffed, "for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!" (v 27).
In contrast to Baal's lack of response, Yahweh, the God of Israel, not only heard and listened to Elijah's prayer, he answered it with fire.
While Elijah and others in Scripture confirm that God hears our prayer, you and I don't always experience an immediate response as they did. Many of us have learned to recognize three types of answers to prayer: yes, no, and wait. We love it when God says yes. We'd rather not hear no, but at least it's a response we can recognize. Then there's wait, an answer that is often communicated by silence—a silence that can cause us to doubt if God heard us at all.
But faith takes God at his Word—his written Word and his living Word. Faith remembers God's faithfulness to believers in biblical times, and recalls his faithfulness in our own lives. When the enemy whispers in our ear that God doesn't hear us, faith shouts that God not only hears, he has already responded to our hearts' cry by providing his Son to meet our deepest need.
But if God is always listening to our words and to our hearts, what is he hearing?
Did He Hear That?
I'm comforted by the assurance that God hears and listens to me—until I think about all the careless words that pass my lips. It's one thing to know he hears my words of gratitude and praise to him, or my words of encouragement to others. But what about my complaints and grumbling? Or my bitter attitude and words of unforgiveness?
In Matthew 12:36, Jesus said, "You must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak." Even when we don't have the words, God hears us. Psalm 139:4 tells us, "You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord."
He hears our words and our tones. He hears our hearts and our thoughts. He hears our attitudes and our motivations. He hears when we're not fully honest with him and with others. He hears things we'd rather he didn't hear. As the psalmist put it, "Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?" (Psalm 130:3).
Thankfully, Jesus died for all our sins—thoughts and words, actions and attitudes. The record of our sin has been paid in full. We have the assurance that God hears us, not for the purpose of punishing us, but with the goal of making us more like his Son.
I need to know that when I'm conversing with someone, they're really listening. It's even more important for me to have that same assurance with God. Because I am his child, I can rest in his sovereignty, trust in his care, and know that he hears and he listens.
Ava Pennington is the author of One Year Alone with God.