“…I never discovered the secret of how to hear God. Neither did I meet anyone else who had learned this art. Prayer, for me, was like a telephone conversation where one person did all the talking. I was that person. I seem to remember being taught that prayer was the way man communicated with God. Bible reading was the way God chose to speak to man. Whether I was actually taught that or not, this was what I believed and each day I would make time both to talk to God and to try and listen to him by reading the Bible…Yet prayer somehow created a hunger. It was though a whole piece of the jig-saw was missing.”
I believe that God led me to this book. At a time when I was (unconsciously) beginning to ask “how does God speak?” I suddenly came eye-level with Listening to God on my parent’s bookshelf. Immediately, I took it and read it, and my prayer life bloomed. It was probably the novelty that jolted my walk so much; I had simply never encountered mysticism before. A couple of years later when reading it again, I recognised that my daily devotional habits still reflect much of what I learned from this book. It was also the book that served as a stepping-stone into traversing all things contemplative and charismatic.
Listening to God is enthralling. Huggett’s purpose is dual; to explore what it means to listen to God, and to draw the three threads of conservative-evangelicalism, contemplation and the charismatic together into one rope. My other reviews show that I share her conviction that the latter goal is an over-arching move by God of late. Particularly of note is that Huggett spells out her journey semi-autobiographically; following her path from conservative-evangelical to an absorption of mystic and Pentecostal practices gives a groundedness, fertile for sympathy. It also allows her to warm the reader’s heart to the experiential, encountering nature of prayer whilst her discussion remains very, very practical.
Returning to the book with more of a critical eye, it is apparent that Huggett advocates many questionable practices. “Questionable” should be taken literally; it does not mean wrong. At times, Listening to God has Buddhist undertones, although such a charge falls short of her subtlety. Her flowery language often disguises a lack of clarity, and the accuracy of such writing varies. Most of it missed my heart, but there are numerous and penetratingly profound shots, such as her illuminating the degree to which personality, rather than theology, accounts for many differences in devotional practice. She encourages the use of imagination in prayer that is borderline (or straightforwardly?) idolatrous, and at times seems to unjustifiably value contemplative praying over petition. She paradoxically seems to exemplify a piercingly self-reflective understanding of the dangers of contemplation whilst simultaneously dancing absent-mindedly with these dangers. Her writing wavers between affirming a very high view of Scripture, and plainly not being careful enough. The book is a sort of well-intentioned synthesis of soundness and naïve over-eagerness.
Although her dual-purpose is clear, both prongs unearth a question that drives most of the book and requires serious meditation: just how explicitly must Scripture advocate a godliness-producing practice before one is free to adopt it? That is, how much room is there for creativity and experience to guide our devotional rhythms? The Bible is, ironically, rather quiet on the specific constituents of a “quiet time”. Is it simply our adopting a secularly Greek notion that identifies contemplation as thinking that interprets the blessed one of Psalm 1 “who meditates on [God’s] law day and night” as just a thinker? Does this impoverish our understanding of meditation?
Like so much Christian discourse about controversial topics, Listening to God is unlikely to change minds but rather to affirm one’s pre-existing convictions. Huggett finishes with perceptive encouragements and challenges to the charismatic, contemplative, and, as spelled out here, the evangelical:
“If you are an evangelical, and you are coming to the end of this book thirsting to hear God’s voice more adequately, the first thing to do is to be grateful for the tools which your background has, in all probability, placed at your disposal already: a thorough working knowledge of and love of the Bible…it is the touchstone of all our listening. Having said that…some evangelicals are rather like the bee I watched the other day. It perched on the outer petals of a peach-coloured rose, crawled right round the perimeter, presumably appreciating its fragrance, but flew away without bothering to penetrate the heart of the rose where the pollen collects…If we would learn to listen to God more effectively, we evangelicals must learn that listening to God involves much more than cerebral activity. It demands a living response: obedience. And it demands attentiveness to God at many levels: intellectual, emotional, spiritual, volitional…The evangelical who is anxious to listen to God more attentively may have other disciplines to master. We in evangelical circles are not very experienced at keeping quiet. We have to learn to “be still”, to know that God is God. We have to learn “to be” and not necessarily to achieve. We may even need to be persuaded that God is prepared to speak to us in unexpected ways, through nature, other people, our imagination, as well as through his revealed Word, the Bible.”