Prayer is not a phone conversation

Child's hands folded together in prayer. Black and white photo

God possesses an infuriating manner of not answering prayers sometimes. Especially if the answer is “no.” Or “you decide.” Often, I arrive at the point where a decision simply has to be made and God hasn’t delivered a scroll from heaven with his decision, so I do what I think best. And immediately I have an overwhelming sense of peace that tells me he wanted ME to decide all along. I also have a simultaneous irksome annoyance accompanied by the thought, “Why didn’t you just SAY so?”

God is in the business of teaching us to think on our own and act on his behalf without having to tell us every moment of every day what we should do. Should I eat the blueberry or cherry poptart, God? And if you don’t tell me by 8:30am when I walk out the door should I just not eat or should I grab both and hope for more clarity sometime through the morning?! What is my default position if I don’t hear from you in a way that’s clear to me, or in a manner that’s timely enough for my needs, or if I simply don’t hear from you at all?!?! HELP!!!!


Prayer is not like a phone conversation. That’s important to keep in mind. People make that comparison all the time, and it’s misleading at best. Lots of people pray rarely and it’s usually because they get used to not hearing back right away. Or in the same way. Or at all. Their conclusion is that God isn’t really in the business of answering their prayers. That would be a false conclusion but the useless analogy that prayer is like a phone conversation has set everyone up recurring epic disappointments. Prayer is rarely like a phone conversation. It was never meant to be.


Prayer is like leaving a voicemail. You go to God in prayer and tell him what’s on your mind. How your day went, what emotions you felt, what you could use help with, what you are thankful for. Relationship with God is just like relationship with anyone – so don’t be surprised that communication to God looks a lot like communication to each other. It’s based in our experiences, it overflows of self-expression, it gets what’s on the inside into words. But God doesn’t always pick up the phone right away. He might not even need to reply at all, if he trusts you’ll take the right steps without him micromanaging your day!

While communication TO God might look like communication in other relationships, communication FROM God often looks different. God responds in his own time and in many different ways:

Realize God responds in his own time: I used to get frustrated spending an hour praying because I’d walk away with a sinking suspicion that I did all the talking. Then I read a book by a minister (maybe Jonathan Martin’s How to Survive a Shipwreck? Honestly can’t remember…) who says, “Let’s be honest – when we pray, we usually do most of the talking.” And I thought, “YES! He gets it! I’m not alone! Something you’d never hear in 99% of churches but it’s so true!” It’s okay if you spend an hour talking to him and he doesn’t get back to you right away – because frankly, he knows WHAT you need to hear but also WHEN you need to hear it!

Realize God responds in many different ways: God relates to each of us in different ways. God isn’t to be stereotyped – he is the most creative (and weird) being in the universe. And he knows each of us personally (he made us, after all) and relates to us in a way that is uniquely “us”. He made us and our personalities; he knows how we communicate and how to get through to us. His ability to communicate is far greater than our ability to receive. If you TALK to God for an hour, he might not TALK back at all – he’s going to respond to you in a way that’s uniquely yours and his, a way rooted in your growing experience of him.

Realize God trusts you: God wants US to make decisions for HIM, decisions that reflect him and his heart to the world. He simply won’t manage every little detail of your life, from what you wear to who you help out financially; from what college degree you get to which church you’re going to attend. Don’t get me wrong. He CARES about all of these things – and he’s always excited to be invited into these places – and sometimes he’ll give you his opinion or make the decision for you. But he’s not ALWAYS going to dictate what you have to do – he will, more often than not, say, “You decide. I taught you how to be like me. Pick anything that is in accordance with loving me and loving your neighbors.”

Realize God doesn’t answer every prayer. The old montage that “God answers every prayer” is unequivocally false. It’s predicated on the (false) assumption that every prayer request is a yes or no; therefore if God doesn’t tell you yes than the implied answer is no, even if he didn’t tell you no. It’s also built on the ideas that we are entitled to answers to every prayer (false), that God needs to answer every prayer (false), or that we can’t do anything apart from him (only moderately false). Yes, he is our inspiration – he is our power – he is our enabler. If he didn’t keep me alive or sustain the universe, if he hadn’t given me a great model or wise instruction, if he didn’t give me his Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts – then everything I do for him might be utter failure. But he has done all those things. And because he has laid the foundations of our lives, we have been charged to go out and do his work, be his feet, serve his kingdom without checking in on every single detail (“Should I breath now? How about now?”). The parable of the talents is great here – the master gave the servants everything they needed to succeed and then went off where they couldn’t ask him every single minute what they should do. God didn’t walk away – he’s always there – but he wants you to grow and that often means kicking you out of nests or leaving you hanging or letting you make your own decisions.

Challenge: Spend time praying – but then, hang up the phone after leaving your voicemail and start going about your business, with this one difference: keep your awareness (your eyes, your ears, your mind, your heart, etc) on alert watching for his responses throughout the day. If you leave someone a voicemail, they might get back to you at any point in the day; and they might get back to you in any manner: text you – call you – email you – facebook you – snapchat you – find you in person – etc etc etc hallelujah amen! God is much the same. He may not respond right away or in the same way, so prayer is a discipline that starts with us putting in time to communicate with him but then continuing through the day “keeping our eyes to the hills to see where our help comes from.!! What a blessing prayer can then be! (Instead of the rote, drudgery many of us make it into!!!)


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