When I was growing up, my dad taught me to sail our small Sunfish sailboat. We took month-long summer vacations, and we always camped on lakes. So we could ride the wind every day.
I probably sailed with him for a hundred hours before I faced the wind on my own. During those hours, my dad would have me either manage the sail or handle the rudder. Of the hundred hours sailing, I bet his actual instruction time totaled one hour. Two at the most.
He might say, “Pull in the sail a bit,” or, “Turn a little more to the left” (yeah, I know, starboard and port, but my dad didn’t care much about proper terminology). Those short comments took mere moments to say, and he didn’t make them often. Mostly we just sailed together. For hours and hours. And bit by bit, gust by gust, wave by wave, I learned seamanship.
Instead of lessons, we mostly just chatted.
He would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d say, “Be a pirate” (of course) and he’d heartily agree (“Yo, ho, ho”). He’d ask why I had yelled at my sister, and I’d ask why he got angry at my mom. We’d talk about books we were reading, sermons he was preparing, what girls I was interested in, and what it would be like to sail across the ocean.
Our relationship with God can be like that. Conversational.
Would we want it any other way?
When we imagine “hearing God,” we mostly picture God telling us what to do. We ask for guidance—directional answers—but it means we’re asking for lectures: Do this and don’t do that. God wants conversations with us far more than he wants to lecture.
Jesus once said, “If you earthly fathers, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your kids, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).
Think of your fondest memories of your fathers. How many of those memories are the times your dad lectured? Why do we think a good relationship with God would be any different?
My earthly father made boatloads of mistakes, but he also did tons of things right. My favorite memories of him are discussions around the dinner table, phone calls, and sailing.
He did give advice, and occasionally (albeit rarely) I even asked for advice; but he always loved to talk with me. About life. About ANYTHING: movies, friends, spiritual quandaries, and jokes.
If our best memories of our earthly fathers are conversations not sermons, why do we think our heavenly Father (who is better than the best earthly father) wants mostly to lecture? “Will not our heavenly Father give good things to us when we ask?” Would we want it any other way?
We most frequently seek God’s voice during times of crisis. “I’m in trouble; I need direction!” The thing is, until we have learned to recognize his quiet voice in the humdrum of life, what chance do we have of distinguishing his voice in the maelstrom of crisis?
Let’s learn to sail our boats in a gentle breeze before raising our sails in a hurricane. We think we mostly need guidance, but mostly we need conversation.
Besides, the best guidance is in conversation
My dad did teach me sailing, but I never felt our sailing adventures were classroom instructions. I doubt if one percent of my discussions with dad—one hour amidst one hundred—was directional. Directions did come (“Let out the sail a bit, I see a squall coming”), but they were gusts in the winds of conversations, punctuation marks in the midst of chapters.
My ability to sail grew through persistent conversations, sometimes boring sometimes exciting. My dad and I went through life on the seas together. It was in those communal adventures that he taught me to navigate. He never once used a whiteboard, flipchart, or PowerPoint to abstractly teach me seamanship. He taught me through a shared daily life on the waves.
On our trips together, I’d make mistakes (as would he), and the boat would capsize. We’d right it together, we’d laugh (most of the time), and we’d drag our soaking wet bodies back onboard, to match our wits against the wind and waves once more.
Through it all, I learned to sail. His guidance was vital but mostly unnoticed. Within a year—at eleven years of age—I was sailing the Great Lakes alone, beyond sight of land, amidst the wake of freighters, capsizing, righting, laughing, and testing my strength and courage.
Even now, when I sail as an adult, his conversational guidance is with me when I face a squall.
So how do we have a conversational relationship with God?
It’s perfectly normal to talk about “normal” stuff with our friends; why not with God? He isn’t less of a person, he’s more of a person. He isn’t less interested, he’s more interested.
And he has a better attention span.
I set aside a daily time for prayer and study, but my best conversations with God take place throughout the day, when driving home from an appointment, waiting in line at the supermarket, or thinking of how to express a point in the blog. I say to God,
- My last lunch meeting didn’t go well. I said something more harshly than I meant to. Why do you think I said it that way? What is going on in me to explode like that?
- I’m tired. I feel like my daily mantra is: Too much to do, too little time to do it. What will it take for me to let go of my life? What does it mean to be satisfied in you alone?
- God, I felt alive when I gave that talk on friendship. How can I help others find friends? How can I walk in a friendship with you?
The best relationships with God are conversational. Yes, he wants our petitions and praises, but mostly he wants relational exchange. In the Garden of Eden, we know very little of Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. Except this: he walked with them in the cool of the evening.
Which is a Hebrew metaphor for God having a conversation with friends.
[This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Hearing God, to be released in April 2015.]