Q: Dear Rabbi Gellman, I’m a junior at Mercy High School in Middletown, Connecticut, and my theology class reads and reflects on your articles. I have a question myself: How do you know if God is listening to you when you pray? Thank you.
— from M
A: In my experience and from my reading of the Bible, there are two ways we can know that God is listening to us: your conscience and your angels.
Your conscience is basically God’s voice in your moral life, or your moral compass. Just like a compass points to the magnetic north, your conscience points to the moral north. It points to what you know you ought to do. When we drown out our conscience with impulsive, greedy or cruel behavior, we lose the moral direction of our life and we make it impossible to hear God. I tell little kids I teach that their conscience is their inside voice. This is what the Bible has in mind when it teaches us in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
“For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”
God speaks to all of us through our inside voice, and that is the first way we know that God is listening to us. We know the right thing to do. That is on God. Doing the right thing — that is on us.
The second way we know that God is listening to us is the angels God sends to us to carry messages about our lives. I know this sounds spooky, but the Bible speaks about angels and I believe the Bible — and I have also been visited by angels.
There are two kinds of angels. One is the kind with wings who help God. The post-biblical books settled on basically four ministering angels: Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Raphael. Nobody sees these guys. They are too busy in Heaven. However, the Bible also speaks about angels who are actually just regular human beings save for one thing — they are carrying messages from God. In Hebrew, the word for angel is malach, which means a messenger. Angels are human messengers from God, but they do not even realize that they are angels, and they have no halos and no wings!
Now here comes the tricky part. It is hard to recognize a human angel. You just can’t know until later in your life if you were visited by an angel. Then you look back and you see that the person who told you that you would be a good doctor was really an angel from God who changed your life. Your angels might tell you that the person you like likes you, and then later you marry that person; or that you could invent something great and then you become an inventor; or that you could be a good soldier or mother or father or athlete or carpenter or leader, and then all those things come true because you listened to your angels. In the Bible, Abraham was visited by three men who were really angels (Genesis 18:1-16); Jacob wrestled with a man who turned out to be an angel (Genesis 32:25); and Joseph was redirected to find his brothers by a man wandering in the fields who was actually an angel wandering in the fields (Genesis 37:15).
The only way to hear the angelic messages God is always sending us is to listen to everyone very, very closely. In Hebrews 13:2, we are reminded of this angel truth: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
So, dear M, I hope you see that in the end, the opposite of your question is the one that really matters. The question is not whether God is listening to you; the question is whether you are listening to God.