My friend Madison once told me how in prayer, she’ll request signs from God — really specific signs. “God, if I’m supposed to make this choice,” she prayed, “let me pass a dog on my way to campus tomorrow. Not just any dog, a Dalmatian.”
Ever since then, when my family and I are facing a tough decision, our inside joke has become, “Where’s the Dalmatian?!?” We may laugh at the randomness of Madison’s approach, but I think asking for a sign from God is something that we all do from time to time. In my experience though, prayer rarely works that way.
In the first book of Kings, we read the story of how Elijah expected to hear God’s voice in a big spectacular way, but instead, he heard God through a “light silent sound” (1 Kings 19:11-12). In my own life, that seems to more often be the case of how I witness God’s presence at work. It’s not the in-your-face messages and directions we seek, but rather the soft, subtle hints scattered throughout our everyday lives. With that being said, I now offer to you (and myself) some suggestions on how to redirect your prayer life toward an awareness of those understated influences rather than being on the lookout for that Dalmatian.
Pray for patience
Applying for a new job, seeking a relationship, trying to sell my house, deciding my career path. The list of anxiety-producing forks in the road goes on and on. In any one of these cases, I might create a self-imposed deadline like If nothing changes by the New Year then I will … fill in the blank with your own ultimatum. When I feel myself growing impatient, I often reflect on Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In this story, the father exercises patience as he awaits the return of his younger son. Perhaps the father prayed in his son’s absence for a sign from God as to whether he had taken the correct parenting approach. In the end though, it was his patience that paid off. His son returned! Praying to Jesus for this same patience in our own lives can often do us some good.
Pray for inspiration and creativity
Hopeless situations can many times benefit from a creative solution. Jesus’ disciples felt they had no good solutions when they were faced with a hungry crowd and only a few loaves and fishes in hand. They took their problem to Jesus who came up with a miraculous solution and fed everyone in the crowd. Through our prayers, we can present our dilemmas to Christ and be open to a creative solution, something we may never have thought of on our own. Receiving such a miracle in return is unlikely, but praying for inspiration, a stroke of creativity, or even simply a change of heart can be just as effective.
At one point in my career, I was desperately trying to find a new job. I was teaching at one university, but I wanted out. I felt like I had applied to every institution within a reasonable geographic range yet nothing was happening. I continued to pray, as I often do, requesting that God put me where I need to be. While this was going on, my girlfriend (now wife) Lisa and I took a day trip to Grand Rapids to see a touring exhibit. We happened to park in front of Grand Valley State University’s engineering lab building. Up until that point, I didn’t even know that university had an engineering college. I said “When I get home, I’ll look online and see if they have any open faculty positions.” Not only did they have an open position, but it was in my field. Three months later I was GVSU’s newest Visiting Professor of Engineering. All along, I had been praying to get one of the jobs I had already applied for. In the end, a creative new solution was really what I needed.
Pray for wisdom
Wisdom is an underrated virtue in our contemporary world. Knowledge is quite common today. Statistically speaking, we live in a time of historically high rates of formal education. But wisdom is something different altogether. Wisdom is slowly gained across a lifetime of experience, humility, grace, and counsel from others. In the spirit of seeking wisdom from our elders, take the lead from St. Anthony and pray his prayer for wisdom when you’re faced with a decision.
Seek out silence
If wisdom is a rarely sought commodity in our world, so too is silence. St. John of the Cross is credited with the quote: “It is best to learn to silence the faculties and to cause them to be still so that God may speak.” We as a people aren’t good at silence. I know I’m not. Every moment of my day is filled with noise – the radio in my car when I’m driving to work, music on my computer in the office, and the constant chatter of the television in the background when I’m at home. Do yourself a favor and seek out silence; embrace quiet and solitude. Go for a walk in the woods, sit on a park bench, attend Eucharistic Adoration or show up to Mass a half hour early. My favorite spot for quiet time is on our back deck, on those cool clear nights in spring or in late fall, especially on a night with a new moon. (We live away from the city where the sky still gets pretty dark.) Looking up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, one cannot help but feel God’s presence at the majesty of his creation. Sit, be still, and give God a chance to speak.
All of these suggestions take time. And the scale of time that God works in is usually much different than our own. But one can get better at prayer through practice. Little by little, if you incorporate these tips into your daily prayer life, before you know it, encountering Dalmatians on your path will take on less significance. But for those still seeking a sign, might I suggest rerouting your commute to take you past more firehouses.