Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr., an Episcopal priest, is Director of Spiritual Life and Formation at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He spoke with Beliefnet recently about his book "What God Wants for Your Life."

What are some ways we can listen to God's voice besides praying?

We live in a culture filled with so much noise that the problem becomes one of God finding us. It's not that God isn't present; God finds it difficult to speak to us because of the number of distractions in the world around us.

I often recommend people be realistic in starting out, that they not try to listen to God for extended periods of time or practice silent meditation for hours on end if they've never had any experience with it. I have a friend, a spiritual director, who suggests that you buy a timed, electric toothbrush, and brush your teeth for a full cycle while praying. That way, you'll begin to get a prayer life and good dental hygiene at the same time. It's a matter of beginning modestly.

Do you have to be silent in order to listen to God? Is there any way to hear him in the midst of chaos or noise?

You definitely can listen to God in the midst of chaos and noise. But it's really silence that prepares an inner space where that can happen. There's a story told of a monk who was once challenged to go see a person of great spiritual stature. And when he arrived, he discovered that the man who had been recommended to him was a grocer who worked in a market in the midst of confusion. He felt greatly humbled by the realization that this man who worked in the crush of life was able to preserve an inner space that was attentive to God. So it's definitely possible. Silence helps to cultivate that inner space so that when it's physically lost to us, we can actually continue to listen.

I've heard that sometimes it's almost dangerous to be in too much silence just because you might invite a voice other than God's into your life, like your own. How can you discern God's voice from others?

It's very, very important to listen attentively to the sacred scriptures, practices, and history that are a part of your religious tradition because they really help give you a sense of the spiritual stream in which you live and pray. And when you do, one of the first things that happens is that you begin to ask "God-questions" instead of simply asking what I call "I-questions."

Most people, when they think about the will of God, think largely in the first-person singular. And that's an important thing to do. I-questions have a lot to do with trying to live responsibly in God's presence.

But to be confined to I-questions carries with it the dangers of self-sufficiency and pride. We can be deeply burdened as a result of feeling that the quest for God's will is all down to you or to me. When we ask God-questions, we're asking, where is God at work in the world? And how is God at work in the world? And when we ask those questions first, [it] reminds us that the pursuit of God's will is not a matter fitting God into our lives but fitting our lives into God's way in the world.

Would you say that questions are a primary way to know what God's will is? Are there any other alternatives?

One of the ways would be to really weigh what our gifts and graces are. At one extreme, some people have felt our gifts and graces are the guide to God's will. That I'm always most likely to be doing God's will when I'm doing what I do most naturally. At the other extreme, there has been a tendency for people to think that we're most likely to be doing God's will when we are working at odds with our gifts and graces. There are those who seem to be convinced that the thing God most wants from them is what they're not.

Between those two extremes is a healthier balance that I call our `natural business' which is to realize that at the center of God's call on our lives is a call that is shaped by our gifts and graces. But that does not mean that we are not called from time to time to risk those gifts and graces in service to God.

How have our views of "signs and wonders" changed from the past?

It can be argued that an emphasis on signs and wonders is a unique, particular preoccupation of Americans. We tend to emphasize the fireworks of faith as a guide to what God's will is. The difficulty with that preoccupation is that it tends to lead Christians to think in terms of success and expediency as the guides to what might be God's will. Sometimes God's will is for us to do things that are bound to fail or that contribute to an ongoing effort that isn't marked by the potential for closure.

Does the Prosperity Gospel depend too much on success? Read more >>

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  • Do you think the Prosperity Gospel movement is something that depends too heavily on understanding success as a sign of God's will?

    It can deeply undermine our ability to respond to God. My daughter read a lot of biographies of Martin Luther King and when she was playing with some children in Jerusalem on one occasion, one little boy who had a reputation for being a bully did something that was wrong. One of my daughter's friends noticed this boy's conduct and considered saying something to him but realized the other boy was much bigger and decided not to say anything My daughter went up to him, put her hand on her hip, and said, "Jamie, tell him what he did was wrong. Martin Luther King did. They killed him, of course, but he did it anyway."

    She could learn something about the art of persuasion, but you can really admire her values. King and others are excellent examples of what it means to do God's will even when that effort might not be attended by success. And it seems to me that the Prosperity Gospel is deeply at odds with a faith that has nurtured followers like King, faith that actually has the cross at its center.

    As long as there are people who enjoy a certain degree of material well-being, there will be those who want to draw a connection between their faith in God and their material well-being. But that understanding of God's will and the Christian faith is at odds with the Christian message.

    Do you think that the rise of the religious right can be misconstrued by people as a sign that God is trying to take back America as a nation?

    Yes, I do. 9/11 was something of a watershed in American spiritual experience. Americans had absorbed the conviction that God blesses those who do the right thing . 9/11 forced many American Christians to revisit that conviction. Some of the religious right understood those events to be a judgment on the United States--that what happened on that day is tied deeply to our country's lack of spiritual strength and vision.

    The only substitute for signs and wonders is to discern God's presence in the midst of tragedy and suffering as much as in times of well-being and prosperity. It's dangerous to identify the destiny of a country with God's will or to suppose that any nation is uniquely God's nation. To some extent, what God wants from us collectively as people of faith and what the fate of our nation may or may not be will always be two different things. A far better way of thinking about the question is to ask, when does our country function in a way that overlaps with or touches on God's will?

    In your book, you talk about how it's important to give names to God as a means to getting to know him personally. What are some names that you give God that makes you feel closer to him? How do you address him in your personal prayers?

    When I was younger I thought of God as "the God who moves goalposts." For that reason, I tended to see God as present where people tried hard and succeeded. It was more difficult to think of God as being present in the lives of those who failed or struggled.

    I don't see it that way any longer. Instead, I tend to see God as a contagious mercy or a loving parent.

    I have a friend who makes the observation that I almost consistently begin prayers with the phrase, `Gracious Lord' or `Gracious God.' And I probably use that phrase in part because to my mind, at the heart of my own spiritual life, is the conviction that God's work in my life and God's work in the world around me, is a work of God's grace.

    That's part of the reason that my own spiritual life is Eucharistically centered. I often tell my students that part of the reason I'm an Episcopalian is because we celebrate Eucharist on a weekly basis and a celebration of Eucharist reminds me of the two keys to all spiritual growth. 1) There is a God and 2) I'm not God. And that's a realization that gives me balance and hope.

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