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Hearing God's word and whisper for global justice

Pete Greig, author and founder of 24/7 Prayer, shares some practical advice with us on how to hear God as we pray.

Written by Pete Greig | 03 Sep 2023

A Bible lies open on a table with a view of water stretching to the horizon as the sun sets.

God's Word is a helpful place to start when praying. Credit: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

The driver who’d seen my thumb and swung into the lay-by offered to take me all the way from Bordeaux to Paris. For a hitchhiker, this is a dream-ride and I settled in for a long journey discussing the pen of my aunt and the price of local cheese in my best schoolboy French. It all seemed to be going rather well until our conversation turned towards homoeopathy and the geology of Scotland (a country my driver apparently loves).

Eventually, he drew a deep breath and cleared his throat. ‘Zee Anglais,’ he said, ‘are zee worst speakers of ma language in zee world…’. He paused to let his words sink in. ‘And you, mon ami, are zee worst Englishman I ‘av ever heard speaking ma language.’

The British education system had, it turned out, prepared me with commendable zeal and focus over three long years for quite extensive discussions about stationery and affordable dairy products, but had somehow left me woefully deficient in the realms of alternative medicine, tectonic plates and, well, actually almost anything else.

The most important conversation of our lives – the one we call prayer – can sometimes be a lot like that awkward exchange on the way to Paris. We feel self-conscious and tongue-tied, as if speaking a foreign language – especially when praying about big, hairy, confusing subjects like systemic injustice and global poverty.

Feeling ‘overwhelmed’?

Tearfund’s research backs this up precisely. One study discovered that 65 per cent of us describe the prospect of praying about global poverty ‘overwhelming’. And, of the whopping 27 million people in the UK who pray, 71 per cent report doing so for their families, 40 per cent for healing and their friends, but just 24 per cent pray about global issues of poverty, injustice and environmental crisis. In other words, we’re pretty fluent in prayer for our own felt-needs, but when it comes to the greatest, most urgent needs of our time, we struggle, we stutter, and honestly, mostly, we don’t pray at all. Things get badly lost in translation.

This is one of the reasons I am grateful for One Voice in Prayer. A bit like Google Translate, it makes praying for global issues a little less intimidating by supplying me with conversation-starters to talk with God about things that really matter.

[One Voice in Prayer is Tearfund’s weekly prayer email. If you don’t already receive it, you can sign up to do so here.]

Prayer as a two-way conversation

This idea of prayer as a two-way conversation in which God speaks as well as listens is not unfamiliar. Jesus said: ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.’ (John 10:27) But all too often, when it comes to global injustice, we stop listening. Our prayers become a monologue – a shopping list of things we want God to do.

‘The mission of Tearfund (and of every Christian) is ‘to follow Jesus where the need is greatest’. But how do I know where that actually is?’

The mission of Tearfund (and of every Christian) is ‘to follow Jesus where the need is greatest’. But how do I know where that actually is? Which of the million problems in our world is he asking me, personally, to address? And how does he want me to pray when I get there?

One of the keys to making prayer less overwhelming is, I believe, to spend more time listening and a little less speaking. Three things go wrong when we fail to listen: firstly, our prayers become transactional rather than relational – I talk at God, instead of with him. He doesn’t expect me to stand at the door of heaven knocking until my knuckles bleed. Prayer for justice is a slow, painful conversation with the Lord who is already there in the midst of the suffering.

Secondly, when I fail to listen I get guilty and exhausted because it’s utterly impossible to keep up with all the world’s problems in prayer.

Thirdly, when I talk without listening my prayers become my own personal, subjective perspective (which may not be the same as God’s!).

So, let me suggest three practical pointers, drawn from my book How to Hear God, to help you grow in your ability to discern the voice of God:

1. God’s Word in the Bible

God speaks first and foremost through the Bible, so we must begin our search for his voice within its pages. I do not apologise for stating the obvious here. One of the most surprising responses to How to Hear God has been the reaction to its most uncontroversial premise: that scripture is God’s primary means of guidance and self-disclosure. It turns out that many Christians today are more attuned to prophetic encounters in worship than to the daily discipline of discerning God’s Word through reverent, diligent reading of Holy Scripture. To paraphrase the pollster George Gallup, the Bible may well be the best-selling, least-read book in the UK today.

When debate about immigration was filling headlines in both America and the UK recently, I quietly posted Leviticus 19:34 on social media: ‘The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native-born. Love them as yourself.’ You wouldn’t believe the outrage this simple, unadorned verse provoked amongst supposed Christians! I was reminded of Mark Twain’s wry observation that ‘It ain't those parts of the Bible I can't understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.’

I remember meeting Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, at the Houses of Parliament. He pulled out a Bible from which he had carefully cut every single reference to social justice, poverty and the poor. There was hardly anything left! The late, great Ron Sider reminded us that ‘God's Word teaches a very hard, disturbing truth. Those who neglect the poor and the oppressed are really not God's people at all—no matter how frequently they practise their religious rituals.’

So, we must begin by listening to God’s word about injustice in scripture with a willingness to be challenged.

‘Prayer for justice is a slow, painful conversation with the Lord who is already there in the midst of the suffering.’

2. God’s whisper in silence

When praying for justice, I try to begin by sitting quietly, wordlessly holding the situation before the Lord. In these moments of stillness I may sigh deeply, allowing the situation to affect my own heart and becoming aware, as I do so, that God is neither distant nor dispassionate. This is an expression of lament.

I am learning to listen for the ‘still, small voice’ of God in the quietness. (1 Kings 19:12) For instance, as I sat in silence recently feeling overwhelmed by news of conflict, I was reminded of Jeremiah 31:15: ‘Rachel is weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ The despair I was feeling found a focus in that verse.

3. God’s Word for in the wider culture

Having listened to God’s Word in the scriptures and his whisper in the silence, I also try to keep my eyes and ears open to anything he may be saying through the world he’s made. The great theologian Karl Barth argued that we need ‘the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.’ And Jesus urged us to read ‘the signs of the times.’ (Matthew 16:3) The facts are our friends.

What might God be saying to us as Christians through contemporary justice movements? How might he be speaking through mainstream music, movies and art? I stood, a while back, in London’s Tate Modern gallery, dwarfed by a tower of radios playing at the same time. This extraordinary, noisy creation, by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles, is titled Babel. It was easy to hear the Holy Spirit speaking about the chaos of contemporary information overload and the dangers of our desire to compete with God himself.

Ultimately, I hear God’s word for those on the margins from those on the margins. Tearfund does a brilliant job recounting such stories of hope from around the world, but we don’t necessarily have to travel far to find the voices of those who are disregarded, despised or oppressed. And in learning to listen carefully and prayerfully to their lives, God himself speaks.


Pete Greig is the founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement, Senior Pastor of Emmaus Rd church and an Ambassador for Tearfund. His latest book How to Hear God: A Simple Guide for Normal People explores the themes of this article in greater depth.

Pray with us

    • Start by spending time in God’s Word. Let him speak to you through the scriptures.
    • Take some time in stillness, holding the situation before God. Let him speak to you in the quiet.
    • Look around you at what is happening in the world. Let him speak to you through the things around you. Lift them up to him. He hears and is enough. 

Written by

Written by  Pete Greig

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