Christians struggle how to understand prayer. Many people think of prayer as a token to the great vending machine in the sky, which is clearly wrong. Some people think of prayer as a particularly holy work for those who can muster enough faith for it. People present God with lists of requests, sometimes demands, or try to bargain with God, while others insist that prayer for physical things is (not only ineffective but also) merely selfish, so they upholster their prayers in pious verbiage to protect it from encountering anything hard (or real). Some people say prayer is a conversation between a Christian and God, but the obvious objection is that unlike in human conversations, (most) Christians don’t hear audible responses to their prayers. Some Christians create a model of “holy” conversation by pointing to God’s revelation (Scripture and creation) for God’s part of the dialogue, while others just think prayer is too one-sided to be a conversation at all. Is prayer a conversation?
Prayer may be a more normal conversation than we think, it’s just that we’re all basically deaf to our God’s voice. We won’t always be so (John 10:27), and even being deaf is an improvement: we used to be dead (Ephes 2:1) until Christ made us alive (Ephes 2:4-5)! But Jesus is not weak: he can make even the dead to hear his voice (John 5:27). God certainly can be heard, but perhaps before the final judgment he is using his “inside voice” so as not to destroy all sinful things quite yet (Hebr. 12:26-28). In this state of having been rescued but still being transformed, our experience of seemingly one-sided prayer communication is perhaps not the best final judge of the realms of possibility.
In the meantime, just as one uses visible means to communicate with deaf people, so God uses visible creation and his written word. But God is not limited to our external senses. Jesus also promised that the Holy Spirit would “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26). I find that this can happen in response to prayer: when I pray about something, sometimes I will right then remember a passage of scripture which responds to my concern, or which challenges me in another area which I have been successfully trying not to think about. (The ability of such thoughts to take apart my carefully crafted self-deceptions are part of what makes me think those thoughts didn’t come from me!) I do not hear audible voices in response to my prayer, although I did once get a distinct and specific answer to prayer in words not found in scripture. That was only once, but it was so unexpected at the time that it changed the course of my life.
So while I’ve had experience of unanswered prayers, I’ve also had experience of God answering prayers in ways that seem to be “conversational.” We need to remember that “conversation” is a metaphor, just as God’s “voice” is a metaphor: apart from the incarnate body of Christ, God has no literal physical voice. The point of the metaphor is that prayer isn’t automatic (like a token for a vending machine) nor manipulative (as if God owes me), but it is a specific dialogue (carried on with our words, God’s Word, and surprising things that we remember and think about in times of prayer and having prayed) between our selves and our Maker.