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What Is Contemplative Prayer and How Do I Pray That Way?

What Is Contemplative Prayer and How Do I Pray That Way?

Contemplative prayer focuses on one word that is repeated throughout the prayer. This form of prayer mimics a meditative, centering practice due to the one-word focus and repetition.

The purpose of contemplative prayer is to draw close to God and make one better able to hear God’s voice by eliminating distraction and reducing anxiety. It is sometimes referred to as a breath prayer or listening prayer.

What Is the Contemplative Prayer Controversy?

Some theologians believe that the contemplative practice of repetition, the focus on breathing, and the contemplation of images or icons seek to empty the person’s mind and then usher the individual into an altered state of consciousness—like New Age meditation. These scholars warn of deception and express concern that this practice may offer a spiritual experience—one that may not be with the one true God.

Henri Nouwen and others like Rick Warren, Larry Crabb, and Beth Moore would disagree. They believe ‘being still’ is an important spiritual discipline so one is able to draw close and hear God.

John Ortberg, author and teaching pastor at Willow Community Church, states, “It is one thing to speak to God. It is another thing to listen. When we listen to God, we receive guidance from the Holy Spirit.”

Focus on the Family maintains, “There is nothing unbiblical or anti-Christian about solitude, silence, and contemplative prayer. Not, at any rate, as they have been practiced within the context of Christian history. As a matter of fact, these disciplines are part of a time-honored tradition. They've been central to the church's spiritual life for centuries.”

There are some contemplative prayer advocates who believe that humans have divinity within, and it can be reached through contemplative prayer, making the cross of Jesus unnecessary for union with God. This is, in effect, praying to yourself as if you are God and is not in line with Christian theology.

There are good arguments for and against this type of prayer. But it appears that if the contemplative prayer practice follows certain guidelines and maintains biblical content, it could be an effective and powerful personal prayer time for the seasoned believer.

Newer believers, those who aren’t as familiar with God’s word and character, may want to grow more spiritually mature before attempting it.

How Does God Communicate with Us?

God communicates with His people in many ways: His word, the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-31), dreams (Genesis 37), visions (Genesis 15), His voice (Exodus 4), a burning bush (Exodus 3), a talking donkey (Numbers 22), and through His messengers the angels (Luke 1).

Peter, Paul, and John each had personal prayer experiences:

Perhaps the way we hear from God is less important than the idea He communicates with us through His word and other means. Experiences outside of the Bible must be tested against what we know of His character and what is stated in His word. If the message conflicts with His word or character, the message is not from God.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8).

Author and Pastor Tim Keller argues for contemplative prayer by intersecting theology, experience, and prayer. Keller says, “Biblical mediation means first to think out your theology…Second it means to work in your theology…Third it means to pray up your theology.” He goes on to say that if you do those things, “your theology will intersect with your experience.”

How to Pray a Contemplative Prayer

Before beginning your prayer, ask yourself, “Do I know God well? Do I know His word and His character?” To know Him well is to know His voice and not be fooled by an imposter. It is being able to discern what is of God and what is not.

If you have studied Scripture, know the Lord, and know what you believe, you are ready for contemplative prayer.

Keeping the cautions in mind while following Tim Keller’s prayer protocol, here’s my recommendation for how to pray a Christian Contemplative Prayer.

  1. Find a quiet and comfortable place to read and to pray—a location free from interruption or distraction. Just as Jesus did when he removed himself from the crowds in order to pray (Mark 1:35).
  2. Choose godly content that brings glory to Jesus: a word, Scripture verse, godly quality, or chapter from the Bible.
  3. Close your eyes. Fill your heart, focus your mind, and feed your soul with the Scripture that relates to the chosen word, principle, or characteristic.
  4. Read it, ponder, and reflect.
  5. Use your concordance to find similar and overlapping verses.
  6. Again, read, ponder, reflect.
  7. Apply it by asking, “How would my actions, attitudes, or relationships be different if I put this verse or characteristic into practice?”
  8. Pray in Jesus’ name. This is done with the understanding that we can enter the throne room of God with our requests and petitions because of the cross. Pray with a humble countenance in the knowledge of who God is and who you are.
  9. Now is the time to listen—the time to move from your head to your heart. Be still, be quiet, just be. Wait. Keep your eyes closed, your body still, and your mind on Jesus. You may (or may not) sense a message from the Holy Spirit. This message or word must line up with God’s character and the Bible or it is not of God.

So often, we study Scripture with only our minds and pray without listening to the promptings of the Spirit. When praying, talking, and listening to God, believers should never empty their minds but maintain mindful focus instead.

Meditation in Eastern religious practices encourages emptying of the mind; Christian mediation should not. Be intentional and concentrate on the Lord, His character, and His word. As Keller describes, merge your theology with your experience in prayer. Be prepared to experience a heart change from the one true God.

It appears the biggest argument against contemplative prayer is the exercise of repeating a word or phrase in order to empty the mind. This is a concern as it might make room for Satan to move in.

We are meant to fill our minds with the things of God, not empty them. God wants us to be wise. He created us to feel and to think.

This type of praying has the potential to be a powerful experience. It could reduce the typical distractions many of us experience during prayer since it requires and develops concentration.

Contemplative prayer is a personal prayer to a personal God. But it must be done wisely with faith-filled intentionality and a biblical focus.

"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority." (Colossians 2:8-9)

Lori Wildenberg, speaker, parent coach, and author of five parenting books including: Messy Journey: How Grace and Truth Offer the Prodigal a Way Home and The Messy Life of Parenting: Powerful and Practical Ways to Strengthen Family Connection. For more information go to 


This article is part of our Prayers resource meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Visit our most popular prayers if you are wondering how to pray or what to pray. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray.

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