“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4
The scripture above was Jesus’ response to the devil’s first temptation in the desert. The devil knew Jesus’ intention for a 40-day fast in the desert was to commune with God the Father. So right away, the devil presumes on the humanity of Jesus and his hunger for bread and for power. The devil knew Jesus had the power to change his circumstances and thought he could derail the Son of God from His heavenly purpose on earth.
It’s interesting to know that Jesus, being a good Jewish boy, refuted the devil’s temptations with the Hebrew scriptures. While I thankfully cannot say that I have personally heard or seen the devil, I do know what it’s like to be distracted from prayer. I also know and believe that I can live without bread, but I couldn’t survive without my daily dose of every word from the mouth of God.
For years, people have asked me how I survive, and even thrive, in the midst of the struggles I have witnessed. In the past 30 years, I’ve personally struggled with chronic illness, disabilities, death of family members, economic loss and the accompanying psychological, emotional and spiritual sense of grief and loss. Somedays life just sucks.
But I hang on and this scripture has become my life’s mantra:
“I will call this to mind as my reason to have hope; The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases and His mercies never come to an end. They are renewed every morning, so great is His faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:21-23.
As I share my strategies for coping in my “Breathing Underwater” book and retreats, I am often asked how I pray, and in particular, how I know that I am hearing the voice of God. I do have some wild stories of God speaking to me, like the time I heard the Lord tell me to write a check even though there was no money in my checking account.
My son was a baby and we were living in a tiny apartment, struggling to live on my husband’s church ministry salary. After I paid all the bills and there was no money left, I realized that I was going to run out of groceries and diapers before the next paycheck arrived. I sat outside the grocery store and panicked. What was I going to do? I didn’t want to ask the church or anyone else for money or diapers. After a few minutes of anxious worry, I decided to pray.
Over 25 years later, that prayer time is still vivid in my mind. I thanked the Lord for His promises and provision. Then I told Him that I needed some groceries and diapers. I asked for the wisdom to know what to do. I got an answer.
I heard an interior voice, like a clear and strong thought in my mind, saying, “Go get what you need and write a check in faith. Money will be in your account before the check clears.” I grappled with this idea, because clearly the bank and the grocery store would not see writing a check in faith as a religious matter, but rather a legal matter, especially if it bounced.
But the interior voice was really clear, almost audible and I had a profound sense of peace. So, I shopped for basics and wrote the check with some trepidation. Of course, this was in the days when checks didn’t clear for days and you had time to deposit money to be sure a check cleared.
The very next day, a check arrived in the mail from an unexpected insurance claim settlement. It more than covered the amount I had spent in the grocery store. I promptly deposited it, praising God that He cares for every detail of our lives and that He makes His will known in simple and profound ways.
Another more profound experience of hearing God’s voice happened during one of my daughter’s brain surgeries. It was an emergency surgery and the tensions were high. As I prayed in the waiting room, a picture of the operating room and the surgeon’s hands appeared in my imagination, along with a sense of urgency. I knew God was telling me that there had been a serious problem that threatened Johanna’s life. But I was to remain calm and pray for Johanna and her neurosurgeon.
At the same time that I was getting this word and image, Johanna’s godmother was driving to the hospital to meet me. When she stopped at a red light, she heard the Lord tell her that Johanna was suffering a life-threatening bleed in her brain and there was need for intense prayer.
Moments later, that seemed like hours, the neurosurgeon appeared in the waiting room. As our eyes met, I knew he had something to tell me. The doctor conveyed that indeed, Johanna had suffered a catastrophic bleed in her brain and he thought she had died. But in fact, she miraculously survived and was placed in a drug-induced coma to give her brain time to heal.
Visibly shaken by the news, Johanna’s godmother and I grabbed the neurosurgeon’s hands and asked if we could pray. I still remember that prayer too. It was filled with tears of supplication and gratitude. It was a grace-filled moment that led to a three-month miraculous recovery which changed my perspective on life and death forever.
Once when I was sharing these examples of hearing from God, my husband joked with the audience (especially about writing checks in faith), that I was a “trained professional and they shouldn’t try this at home.” But I admonished him for his joke encouraging others to take the time to listen for God’s voice and to learn to recognize the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Still, there was an honest truth in my husband’s joke. I have been trained to hear God’s voice by spending years studying scripture, journaling insights and listening in prayer.
It’s not magic or even an exercise in making one’s mind blank. In fact, my prayer life is a clear balance of contemplation and action, of working out anxiety and yielding in surrender. Rather than transcending the circumstances, I ask the Lord to meet me in my circumstances and help me to elevate my mind and heart to God.
For over 30 years, I have kept the same basic rhythm to my prayer life. I spend time praising God and asking for His help in every circumstance I and others are facing, either with my own words and songs or by reading the Psalms. The Psalms cover every human emotion imaginable. When I am at a loss for words, I find them in the Book of Psalms.
I also spend time praying for others’ needs. I usually do that while I am walking and use rote prayers, like the rosary to keep me moving at a faster pace.
I read the scriptures every day. In the Catholic Church, the same readings from the Bible are read at Mass in every Catholic Church throughout the world. The liturgical cycles and seasons move with the ebb and flow of life. I love that. It keeps me grounded in God’s Word.
I spend time reflecting on the scriptures, examining my heart, my actions and attitudes, repenting and surrendering to God. I write down verses and insights in my journal. I also write down what I think God is saying to me.
I started journaling in my prayer time around 35 years ago. When I wrote my first letter from God in the first person, I was more than a little uncomfortable. What if it wasn’t really God speaking to me? Am I just crazy?
Over the years, I’ve learned that all of the above is true. Sometimes, I have written down words that I supposed were from God, that in retrospect, appeared to be colored by own pain, desire or even lack of sleep. But the more I listen, the easier it is to discern God’s voice from my own distractions.
Through years of daily prayer, I’ve learned not to get hung up on words and visions, but rather just keep my eyes the Lord, being faithful to daily prayer and living a life consistent with Biblical principles and the traditions of the Catholic church.
The more we listen for God in prayer, the easier it is to hear and recognize His voice. In a grocery store, a surgical waiting area or facing the sunrise on the front porch, God’s word guides us and feeds us like our daily bread.
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.