Or for that matter, why doesn’t God speak any modern language? Why do you suppose that is? I suspect, no one knows, if they ever even wondered about it. God, however, is given credit for knowing all languages and is quoted in the Bible as speaking audibly in ancient Hebrew and Greek. In fact, even today many around the world claim that they speak to God regularly in prayer and God answers.
I concluded that God did not speak English several years ago while praying in a men’s Bible class in Baptist Sunday School. I suddenly realized that I was doing all the talking in my prayer. I was aware of no audible, or inaudible, “voice” in any language in my head, other than my own; I detected no indications of a presence other than me. Of course, my thoughts were not audible, but they were in English. Basically, I concluded that prayer was a one-sided conversation, and all effort to communicate came from my end. In my view this situation appertains to most every person who prays. Some, no doubt, do hear voices. Those who hear audible ethereal voices have serious problems and need professional counseling. Of course, it might be objected that God does “speak spiritually” to others in their prayers but that God for whatever reason has chosen not to speak to me. My contention, however, is that my situation is no different from the average person.
If people do receive answers to their prayer, as a great many people claim, could such “answers” arise from the subconscious?1 Our subconscious is aware of what goes on in the conscious mind, while the conscious mind is generally oblivious to what goes on in the subconscious. While the conscious mind prays, the subconscious mulls over the issues raised during prayer, and these subconscious ruminations return to the conscious mind as flashes of insight, which the one who prays interprets as answers to prayer. Such answers may constitute the “still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12), which Elijah claimed to hear in a cave on Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19:1-18).
If this speculation has any merit, answers to prayer do not come from outside us but arise from within us. We are not conversing with God but with our subconscious selves. Subconscious thoughts that suddenly break into our consciousness are not God speaking. It is the subconscious summoning us to what we have neglected and/or providing us with answers to problems we have worked out subconsciously. At least such an analysis might explain the awesome silence of our one-sided prayers.
The apostle Paul describes what may be a similar attitude toward the experience of prayer. He did not seem to think much of a believer’s effectiveness in prayer; he regarded the human spirit2 as simply inadequate at the business of praying:
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27, RSV).
What Paul describes seems to be a subliminal experience. I have never been aware of the Spirit in my head when I pray. Our stumbling attempts to engage God in prayer are simply inadequate. According to Paul, it is the deep sighs of the Spirit that bring our concerns, requests, and pain before God. God knows the mind of the Spirit; hence, the communication (if any) is not between God and the one who prays, but between God and the Spirit. The one who prays may initiate the process, but the Spirit intercedes.
I am not sure what to do with Paul’s early directive: “Pray continually!” (1 Thess 5:17).3 If true, we must have the subconscious capacity for prayer while we consciously tend to other matters. The Spirit intercedes, and the subconscious responds with flashes of insight, while our conscious minds meanwhile are occupied with other things.
Missouri State University
2For Paul’s references to the human spirit see Rom 1:9, 8:16-17, 1 Thess 5:23.
3This is the translation of the Revised English Bible, and the NIV. The verse is translated as “Pray without ceasing” by the Revised Standard Version, the New American Bible, and Bart Ehrman. Two rather interpretative translations that remove the idea of continually being in an attitude of prayer (which is implied in the present imperative) are Dewey, et al. (“live with reverence”) and Goodspeed (never give up praying”).