All of us who pray have wondered, at some point, if we were talking to ourselves. According to a 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll, 92% of Americans believe in God, although other surveys show that for some this belief is not exactly rock-solid, and for others this “God” is really “something out there,” not necessarily the kind of loving, powerful Being who listens to prayers and helps us out. Still, in the 2010 poll, 83% of respondents said they believe that “God answers prayers.”

What people mean by that is probably at least as varied as what they mean by “God,” but here are a couple of options. First, if I pray for my Great-Aunt Matilda’s piles, I can conclude my prayer’s been answered if the next time I see her she’s in a better mood. This is God “answering” intercessory prayer, or to be precise, God answering yes. There’s been research on whether the ailing who are prayed for are more likely to be healed, that is, if prayer is “answered.” The problem is that this research doesn’t recognize the possibility that the answer could be no, or not yet. What if the way it works is that we make our requests, and the answer is, I love you? Regardless, faith tells us that we are never talking to ourselves, even—disturbingly—when we think we are.

The second way we might wonder if our prayer is just bouncing around our own head is when we move from monologue to dialogue with God. This is a move toward spiritual maturity, but growing up is risky and the risk here of talking to ourselves is very real. If I ask God, “Why do I always act like such a jerk around my boss?” and I get an answer, how do I know it’s God? Especially if the answer is, “You’re not a jerk, she’s being unreasonable,” I’d do well to be suspicious. If it’s “You’re not a jerk, she’s a bitch,” I think I can be sure.

But a loving God is bound to be reassuring at times, especially with those who are hard on themselves. The line between mysticism and madness can be a fine one at times. How do we distinguish between the voice of the Spirit and our own imagination? The answer, I believe, is that we don’t. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back, clarifies:

When somebody’s praying, they’re using their own psychological capacities …[My subjects] were training their imagination. And what they’re really doing is learning to take seriously the thoughts and images that they might otherwise dismiss as just theirs. So they’re paying attention to their inner experience. That changes the way they trust their inner experience, how real that inner experience becomes for them, it allows them to take the prayer process more seriously…

It’s not a choice between God’s voice and my imagination. It’s that if a relationship is to develop, my imagination and my attention to my inner experience are tools God will use to make that happen. In The Sacred Gaze, I have a chapter on how to learn to trust this. It’s important, because if I never listen to God, then I really am talking to myself.