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How do I know if God is talking to me in prayer?

April 2, 2012 by  
Filed under Faith, Fr. Bartunek, Prayer

Dear Father John, I keep hearing (and reading) that Christian prayer is a conversation with God. But, to be totally honest, when I pray I don’t really hear God speaking to me. At least, how do I know it’s God and not just my own thoughts? Am I doing something wrong?

You are right: the phrase “conversation with God” describes Christian prayer beautifully. Christ has revealed that God is a real person, and that he is interested – passionately interested – in our lives, our friendship, our closeness. For Christians then, prayer, as Pope Benedict explained when he visited Yonkers, NY in 2007, is an expression of our “personal relationship with God.” And that relationship, the Holy Father went on to say, “is what matters most.”

Parameters of Faith

When we pray, God speaks to us in three ways. But to understand these three ways, we need a reminder. Our relationship with God is based on faith. Faith gives us access to knowledge that goes beyond what we can perceive by our senses. By faith, for example, we know that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, even though our senses only perceive the appearances of bread and wine. Whenever a Christian prays, the prayer takes place within this atmosphere of faith. When I address God in vocal prayer, I know that he is listening to me, even if I don’t feel his presence with my senses or emotions. When I praise him, ask things of him, adore him, thank him, tell him I am sorry… In all these expressions of prayer, I know by faith (not necessarily by my senses or my feelings) that God is listening, interested, and that he cares. If we try to understand Christian prayer outside of this atmosphere of faith, we will get nowhere.

Keeping that in mind, we can look briefly at the three ways God speaks to us in prayer.

The Gift of Consolation

In the first place, God can speak to us by giving us what spiritual writers call consolation. Through consolation, he touches the soul and allows it to be comforted and strengthened by a felt awareness of his love, his presence, his goodness, his power, his beauty…

This consolation can flow directly from the meaning of the words of a vocal prayer. For instance, when I pray Blessed Cardinal Newman’s famous “Lead, Kindly Light..” prayer, God may boost my hope and my confidence, simply because the meaning of the words nourish and revitalize my awareness of God’s power and goodness.

The consolation can also flow from the reflection and pondering involved in mental prayer. As I read and reflect slowly, prayerfully on the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, I can feel my soul being comforted by that picture of the Father embracing the repentant younger brother. That picture of God’s love comes to my mind, and gives me a renewed awareness of God’s mercy and his goodness: “God is so merciful!” I think to myself, and I feel the warmth of his mercy in my heart. That image and those ideas are mine, insofar as they arise in my mind, but they are from God, insofar as they arose in response to my consideration of God’s revelation, in an atmosphere of faith. Or, on another occasion, I could meditate on the same biblical passage and be moved to a deep experience of sorrow for my own sins: in the ungrateful rebellion of the Prodigal Son, I see an image of my own sins and rebellions, and I am repelled by them. Again, the idea of the ugliness of sin and the feeling of sorrow for my personal sins are my own ideas and feelings, but they are a response to God’s action in my mind as he guides my mind’s eye to perceive certain aspects of his truth while I listen to him speaking through his revealed Word in the Bible.

In any of these cases, my soul is touched anew, and thus nourished and consoled, by the truth of who God is for me, and who I am for him – a truth which God speaks to my soul. But the distinction between God’s speaking and my own ideas is not so clear as we would sometimes like. He actually speaks through the ideas that come as I turn my attention towards him in prayer. He speaks within my heart, within the words that form in my heart as I gaze at the Word.

Nourishing the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

In the second place, God can respond to us in prayer by increasing in our souls the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, piety, fear of the Lord, fortitude, and counsel. Each of these gifts nourishes our spiritual muscles, so to speak; they build up our spiritual faculties. They make it easier for us to discover God’s will in our lives, to appreciate and want his will, and to carry out that will.  In short, they enhance our ability to believe, to hope, and to love God and neighbor. During a time of prayer, then, when I am addressing God in vocal prayer, or seeking to know him more deeply through mental prayer, or adoring him through liturgical prayer, God’s grace touches my soul, nourishing it through increasing the power of these gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Since these gifts are spiritual, and not material, and since God’s grace is spiritual, I will not always feel the nourishing take place. I may spend fifteen minutes reading and reflecting on the parable of the God Shepherd, and no consoling ideas or feelings are stirred up; my prayer feels dry. But that doesn’t mean that God’s grace is not nourishing my soul, that he is not strengthening within me the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

When I take vitamins (or eat broccoli), I don’t feel my muscles grow, but I know that those vitamins are indeed enabling that growth. Likewise, when we pray, we know we are entering into contact with God’s grace, with a God who loves us and is making us holy. When I don’t experience consolation, I can be certain that God is still working in my soul, strengthening it with his gifts by means of the spiritual vitamins that my soul takes in whenever I have faith-filled contact with God. But I only know this by faith, because God doesn’t always send sensible consolation with this spiritual nourishment. This is why spiritual growth depends so significantly on our perseverance in prayer, regardless of whether we feel consolation.

Direct Inspirations

Thirdly, God can speak to our souls through words, ideas, or inspirations that we recognize clearly as coming right from him. Personally, I have a vivid memory of the first time the thought of the priesthood came into my mind. I wasn’t even Catholic yet. No one had told me that I should become a priest. And yet, in the aftermath of a powerful spiritual experience, the thought simply appeared in my mind, fully formed, with compelling clarity. I knew without any doubt that the thought had come directly from God, that he had spoken to me directly, giving me an inspiration.

Most of us have had some, even if only a few, experiences like this, when we knew God was saying something specific to us, even though we heard the words only in our hearts, and not with our physical ears. God can speak in this way even when we are not at prayer. But a mature prayer life will make our souls more sensitive to these direct inspirations, and create more room for God to speak directly more often, if he wishes to do so.

Jesus assured us that any effort we make in prayer will bring grace into our souls, whether we feel it or not: “Seek, and you shall find; ask, and it shall be given to you; knock, and the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). But at the same time, we have to always remember that we must live our entire lives, including our prayer lives, in the light of our faith, not only in accordance with what we perceive and with what we feel. As St. Paul said so powerfully, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000067803665 Judeen Harthun

    this is so important to learn , how God speaks to us..for me.. well, 1st I would have a thought over and over. can not get rid of it.. soon I learned if one can not get rid of it and ignore it… it is from God if it is good.. a name – pray for that person,, if it still comes call that person… you will find out they need help, bad day, lonely, so on.. then if I felt it was from God I told God 3 different people will tell me , so I know it is from you. this happens alot. they do not even know each other… teach me how to talk to you Lord and help me listen.. ask.. and you will receive.. beleive.. so it shall be done for you.. Lord help me in my unbeleif.. which is usually the problem trust.. give God creit where it is dew.. for most people will say its from the devil or you made it up.. instead of maybe it is from the Lord, test it listen pray,, God will let you know..

  • Maria

    God sometimes speaks even when we aren’t in prayer. I remember when I was irritable over something my parent was asking me to do. I was ranting to myself in my head. When suddenly, a voice in heart asked, “Would you do it for Me?” I felt a stirring in my heart. I was so moved by Him, that I said, “Any for You Lord!”
    Yet, in my stubbornness and pride, I soon doubted if it was Him. By His grace, He gradually He help me to realize the value of obedience. God is truly patient and merciful!
    Many times He will affirm things He tells us in prayer through what we read, watch or hear from other people shortly after. God in His kindness and providence knows that we sometimes need such affirmations. Yes, coincidences, so often He works in “coincidences” though at times I wonder if I’m reading too much into things.

    • Kathryn

      It is funny that I stumble on this today—I am doubting if I am hearing myself or listening to God when I pray too…God knows just when and how to get my attention!

    • http://www.facebook.com/salman.metobo Salman Metobo

      I have had the same experiences as you and I was skeptical at first but the coincidences intensified and this extended even to the times when am reading His word until I came to know it was really God speaking.for instance,many are the times I have openned random verses across different books like Sirach and Philipians or Psalms and as I read through,the other verses would affirm the very theme of the first one and a few hours after I would often come across a friend or a statement somewhere affirming the same exact theme.I remember one time I just put on some music and as I read through random verses after a short prayer to the holy Spirit,I would start to read a verse and the song would mention a similar thing,it was overwhelming!

      Another way God has often spoken to me is when I meditate on a certain part of scripture during the day and a sudden deeper understanding comes to mind,the kind that would surprise you as though it’s a very foreign but timely thought.

      Then He also speaks to the heart directly where you just know something or get a strong conviction.For instance when you feel like you have to call someone in a wee hour of the night,only to find that they were in need of your help or they were thinking of you at that time.Sometimes you might be praying then a thought about someone intrudes sharply and you have to pray for them with a concern that does not make much sense,only to learn later that that person was indeed having a rough time at that moment.

      sometimes I have dreamt about something,then it happens.These types of dreams I usually remember them more clearly than others when I wake up and they seem to stand out in a way you cant ignore.When you have bad ones,pray for the people involved for you never know.Sirach 34 has good advice about this.

      God also speaks through people everywhere in our day to day life and they might not be aware of it most of the time but on your part,you will notice and wonder how they can speak so clearly about your situation as though they were reading your heart.

      Hebrews 1:1 shows that God indeed speaks to us in various ways so be open to receive always but most importantly,be skeptical and ensure you everything is in line with the word of God.When confused,pray and talk to a priest or someone that is mature in faith to guide you.     

      • LizEst

        You are graced to receive so many consolations from the Lord.  God bless you, Salman!  Keep listening to the Lord, our God.

        ps.  Where in the world are you?

  • Sojrnr

    Some time ago I was discussing this very subject with an Orthodox Deacon whom I greatly admire. He suggested that we should be wary of feelings that seem to come from God because we weak human beings are easily distracted by our own desires. I think this is good advice. So, while I want to feel His presence I think it wise to ask for such consolation, but at the same time be skeptical–to avoid leading myself astray. Like Judeen says, give it time and the events surrounding the consolation will solidify a true consolation or word.

    • not there yet

      I think Sojrnr’s Orthodox Deacon brings up an important point that deserves further explanation.  We all know that Satan sometimes “masquerades as an angel of light”, so how can we discern with reasonable certainty that what we think we hear is coming from where we want it to come from?  If I think I hear God calling me to pray in front of an abortuary, I think I will readily heed that call.  If, on the other hand, I think I hear God calling me to commit an act of material destruction against an abortuary, I think I would have to proceed much more cautiously.  How to discern?

  • Tomaz

    Magnificent explanation! Thank you
    Pax Christi. Ave Maria.

  • Cara

    I pray every day, but I don’t get an answer every day like you would in a real conversation. Still, I enjoy the peace that comes with talking through an issue even if no one is responding, and that is why I continue to do it. My question is: If prayer is really a conversation, shouldn’t both people get something out of it? What does God get out of it?

    • fairlady68

       I have read that God does not “need” anything from us, because he is already complete in himself, but that it gives him great joy when we turn to him.  Perhaps others can say more than I can in response to your question, Cara, because it’s a good one.

    • Becky313

      God desires that we know and love Him so that we can experience and share in His love!!  Just as we mortals love to hear from our children, love to watch them grow and mature….so does God. 

      Prayer IS real conversation……..and while God may not answer a prayer directly, (or right away) the problem is more likely that we don’t understand the language God uses, and therefore need much practice!  :)

      Stick with it……..it gets better and better!!

    • Bnmward2011

      God gets our love and our praise to him.  We are born in the flesh and through free will, when we talk to God and build that personal relationship with God he gets the love that he wants from us because we choose to walk in the light and praise him and not be of the carnal mind.  We don’t deserve what God has done and continues to do for us but God loves his children and is a forgiving Father.  As for praying and not getting an answer, I don’t know about your situation but with mine more times than not I didn’t get and answer either because I was asking for something I didn’t need, or I asked something I already knew the answer to and sometimes in the past I didn’t get an answer because I was being told something I didn’t want to hear and chose not to listen.  Im not implying that these are the same reasons why you aren’t getting an answer, I’m just giving you some areas to explore in hopes of getting closer to God and being able to hear what he has to tell you.  

      I hope this helps you and I hope what I have said doesn’t offend anyone as this is what I felt I needed to say.  I came hear looking for an answer and guess I got my answer as I was not here to read or reply to comments but after reading your post I felt the need to give my 2 cents.  Praise God and thank him everyday and tell him you love him and God will bless you in ways you never knew possible.  He has blessed me truly and continues to do so everyday.  Thank You Lord for SAVING my soul!

  • Mobrien7

    Hello,

    First, I had to share this with my daughters.  Second, why on Earth would our God ever listen to me?  How can I ever thank Him?

    Mike

  • Marian

    Wow. I have never seen this express so clearly and eloquently! Thank you!

  • verserver

    Thank you, Father, for such faith-filled insights on our relationship with this God of ours whom we cannot fathom while we’re still on this earth.
    I particularly appreciate what you say about God not always sending ‘sensible consolation with’ the ‘spiritual nourishment’ He provides us.
    Please let me share the following:

    The blessings that
    You wish for me
    After what I have thus far found out
    About You, this much I know:
    Your point of view and mine
    (Whilst I am here and You are there)
    Can never be the same.
    So if You should find me clearly starting
    To ask You less of what I want for me,
    I know that You will understand.
    I’d rather that You bless me
    With gifts You think I ought to have,
    Instead of me thinking that I know
    What I think is best for me.
    Then all I’ll do is simply wait,
    Knowing You will catch me by surprise,
    As You have done so often in the past,
    And catch my heart, my mind, my soul,
    With an unmistakably subtle hint,
    Or even a sudden, shuddering, juddering
    Of my shoulders and my chest,
    In gripping throes of cleansing tears.
    And just because I can’t imagine
    What these blessings are You wish for me,
    The more convinced I am
    They count for so much more
    Than earthly wealth, or health, or glory:
    They have to do with things invisible to me,
    Beyond my store of words to tell,
    Reaching past my consciousness,
    Beyond my sense of what is real.
    They can only have to do
    With what You do in Your reality,
    All these blessings that You wish for me. 
    His blessings on us all,

    verserver

  • Jacqui

    Thank you for this post.  God is amazing!  He knows I’ve been bothered with the times like “I don’t hear Him” and “How do I know if God is saying what I think I’m hearing” and the list goes on.  I stumbled upon this website last night after prayers and this is definitely not by chance!  Yes, God speaks to me and I’m glad I’ve heard him in the 3 ways Fr John has mentioned.  Praise God

  • Mario Vargas

    I pray the Litany of Humility several times a week. I’ve experienced situations at work and in my daily life where a specific stanza would come into my mind immediately given an opportunity to exercise the virtue. I believe that this is God actually speaking to me through this prayer to either console or discipline me–yes, most especially when I fail. It gives me great comfort (because God is working in my soul) and encouragement to keep trying.

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  • terri

    It says in the holy bible to pray to no other but God in the name of Jesus Christ.God will not hear any other pyayer.

  • AGSM929

    A friend of mine gets these weekly thoughts in her e-mail and sent this one to me the other day. Ir reminds me of this post. Very beautiful:

    A woman planted a rare rosebush, fussed over it, fertilized it, watered it,
    and was incredibly disappointed when she saw no reward of her labors. The rose
    bush simply wouldn’t grow.

    Then one day she visited her neighbor and
    discovered that shoots from this bush had pushed through to the other side of
    the fence and were blooming in splendid beauty there. She thought to herself of
    some recent disappointments in her prayer life and realized that faith in God is
    much like her rose bush. You can’t always see the results of what God is doing
    in your life, but if you have patience and perseverance, you will discover that
    He was creating something beautiful in you all along.

    Hope requires
    perseverance. The rewards found inside us and that await us in heaven are worth
    any struggles we face here on earth.

    God, thank You for giving me so much
    to look forward to. Please strengthen my spirit and help me persevere.
    Amen.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QJPSTEVMQAO3LALLJEHDGQTXOI Teresa

    How to discern God speaking to you and you speaking to you. It is a dilemma. Many times I have been discouraged by my spiritual director things I felt God was asking to be or do. I get confused and discouraged and while I try to comfirm what I believe God is communicating to me through spiritual reading and asking my spiritual director I feel it is a contradiction of the spiritual reading versus my spiritual directors on issue of sin, mercy, charity and so forth. It makes it so complicated that I am in doubt a lot what God is asking me so what should I do besides pray and address some of these issues in confession. This puts me at a loss durring a time when I need even more clarity from God and the gift of discernment.

    • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Teresa – send me an email at rcspiritualdirection@gmail.com with a specific example. I might be able to assist.

  • LizEst

    Beautiful.  Thanks for sharing that.  This is my second encounter with a rose in a couple of hours!

    • AGSM929

      Roses are good, our Blessed Mother, Mystical Rose is watching over you. Peace be with you.

  • http://twitter.com/madgoogler Sweet Forlorna

    I am so happy to find this community online. Been searching for spiritual direction. For me while I mostly have an unwavering faith, it seems at times of no use as my actions do not reflect it, I feel weak, fake. I cant understand why I am still struggling with people places & things…at times so serene at others so disturbed. Through it all I never not believe, but I get a huge disconnect – and am able to make choices that hurt myself and push me further from Him.. I really want to trust in Jesus so much I stop struggling, ugh so confusing for me.

    • LizEst

      Welcome, Sweet Forlorna.

      One of the things you will see on this site is a link to Dan Burke’s new (2012) book, “Navigating the Interior Life.” I heartily recommend it (and no, he didn’t ask me to say this). In fact, it is our current book club selection. Also recommended is that you get a spiritual director. A director will really help you with all these things. To that end, Dan’s book will walk you through the steps on how to find one and what should be done in spiritual direction.

      God bless you, Sweet Forlorna. We’re happy you have joined us.

  • http://batman-news.com Pange Lingua

    This is an eloquent discussion of the ways that God speaks to us in prayer. My first experience with spiritual direction occurred during an eight day silent Ignatian retreat. I was asked to read, reflect on, and journal about Scripture passages daily; my spiritual director and I would discuss these reflections and he would guide me to passages that related to my journaling for the next day’s reflections. I have found this method of praying with Scripture to be a fruitful practice. Through it, I often receive consolation and God challenges me to live more fully as His disciple. I have also experienced direct inspiration in response to some deep spiritual questions; it was so clear and so simple and I continue to be thankful for the times God has spoken to me in this way.

    • AHD

      I find that the Ignatian way of praying with Scripture suiting my personality.
      When Jesus is so close to me that I can even feel Him holding my hands and then showing me my burning holes, saying “You have been wounded and hurt too, AHD.” It helps me to speak what’s is hidden deep, deep within me that I don’t dare to tough by myself.

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