How do we trace progress in our prayer relationship with God? An author by the name of Mark Thibodeux wrote about The Four Stages of Prayer that may give us a helpful framework to reflect on our personal answer to this question.
Firstly, talking at God. This is where all believers start their prayer life. It revolves around telling God our needs, problems, and desires. We even tell God how he can resolve them. At this level, God is nearly treated like an object, a gigantic prayer answering vending machine. Its a I-it kind of relationship if we go by Martin Buber’s categories. Sadly, many Christians stay at this stage and never move on, even after many years as a follower of Christ.
The second stage is where we talk to God. At this stage prayer still revolves around words. The improvement is that we are more aware and conscious of God as a person, usually as a friend with whom we could share our needs, desires, thoughts and ideas, and what has been happening in our daily lives. There is a greater care to treat God as a person, a friend capable of and desirous of mutual love.
The third stage is where we learn to listen to God. This of course is a natural build up from stage two, for when you are conscious that God is a personal friend, you naturally wonder if this Friend has anything to share with you: his heart – thoughts, desires, emotions, goals. The main way of course is through meditation on the word of God. Taking passages and reading and reflecting on what God may be saying to us is listening to God. There are many other ways that God speaks to us too (creation, dreams, visions, objects, events, prophecy, signs) and we should not limit what he chooses. However, the truths of the Bible is God’s main and sure way of sharing with us what is on his heart. Do not mistaken this for Bible study or exegesis and these are important, but what this is about is the experiential truth encounters with God in scripture meditation and prayer.
The final stage is being with God. This is where we go with God beyond communication to communion. This is similar to human relationships where through knowing a person more intimately there is no need to use words all the time to nurture the relationship. Presence and silence and keeping company would do. We may feel his awesome presence, his overwhelming love, or his compassion or power even though no words are exchanged and we are merely sitting with eyes closed and mouth shut in prayer. At this stage it does not mean you do not interact with God anymore with words. It is a build up of previous stages but each stage layer by layer becoming richer and richer, and deeper and deeper.
So once we know where we are, we can make it our desire and prayer to move to the next stage of prayer and intimacy. We can consciously seek to relate to God as a personal friend and share more of our life without always coming to him only when we need help. Or we may want to listen to God more attentively in prayer, meditation and all the other ways God speaks to us and learn to record what we heard in a notebook. For those who want to go even deeper they will find themselves brought to a place of helplessness and dependence – and usually silence and stillness. Better still, instead of having to go through a trial that brings you to such a place, cultivate times of stillness, silence and solitude with God. Learn to wait on God silently for 15 minutes and progress to longer periods of wordless intimacy.
What do you think of these four stages of prayer? Are they easy to relate to? Do you know of other frameworks of progression in prayer? Do share in the comment below.