Is there anything as privately mortifying as realizing that in the midst of a prayer your mind has wandered off and you are now thinking about a work issue, your grocery list, or even something as trivial as a new hairstyle? It is probably with a sense of chagrin that you immediately begin to mentally course-correct, struggling to get back into the prayer zone. In a way its like cheating on a diet; once we have left discipline behind, it seems harder than ever to return to it.
Why is prayer so hard at times, when we love God so much and our heart’s desire is a close relationship with Him? Perhaps because we are human and we are dealing with our limited, earthly, susceptible minds. C.S. Lewis, author, theologian and Cambridge scholar, understood the challenges of prayer. He noted in his book “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer,” that the difficulty of prayer is that “by the very constitution of our minds as they now are . . . it is difficult for us to concentrate on anything which is neither sensible (like potatoes) nor abstract (like numbers). What is concrete but immaterial can be kept in view only by painful effort.”
Prayer is a dichotomy — concrete and immaterial, abstract yet defined, invisible yet powerful. While our souls yearn to immerse in prayer, our increasingly limited attention spans too often give in to issues competing for our mental energy.
My mind sometimes wanders during prayer. Here are some ways I stay the course as much as possible — I hope they help you, too!
Realize Who You Are Praying to — The Creator of the Universe
Picture the planets in our galaxy, spinning soundlessly and perfectly in their orbit in deep space. Then, picture the bottom of the sea, where fantastical creatures roam, and then allow your mind to soar to icy mountaintops, shrouded with clouds and mostly inaccessible to man. We are praying to the one and only Creator of all this, and heaven too. We are communicating with the Almighty. As Jeremiah 10:12 reminds, “But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.”
We often drift off in our prayers because we forget exactly Who we are praying to, and the completeness — the sheer enormity — of His divine nature, His divine authority. We would not be here without God, and neither would our world. When we forget to acknowledge God’s power and authority, we lose our focus and begin going through the motions in prayer, praying because we are supposed to, and not because we are seekers of the divine.
Before you pray, try setting aside one minute to acknowledge God’s amazing power and almighty authority. Sometimes I read the first chapter of Genesis before prayer, to remind myself that I wouldn’t even be here without God authoring my life. Genesis 1:1-3 reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Once you have that measure of understanding of God’s power, followed by that sweet gratefulness just to be in His presence, your prayers will be centered, deeply personal, and full of worship and praise.
Set the Stage for Meaningful Prayer Time
While all our on-the-go prayers are important to God and undoubtedly heard by Him, it is helpful to have dedicated prayer time where our hearts, minds, and spirits are exclusively focused on Him. We bring our petitions for our needs or the needs of others, pour out our deepest feelings, and praise God’s glory during prayer time. Importantly, we also confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. It is hard to do any of these things if you haven’t “set the stage” for your moments with God. This can be as simple as choosing a room or corner of a room where you don’t feel distracted, and gathering everything you need — a Bible, a prayer app, or a devotional — whatever helps you reach deep, meditative prayer where you aren’t just speaking, but also listening.
Think of how Jesus Christ prayed — not making a show of it in public, as many of the Pharisees did, but quietly, alone. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went to a solitary place, where he prayed,” Mark 1:35 reminds. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus enters into what was probably his most serious time of prayer, feeling anguished, alone, and very, very human. He prepared his prayer space even then, while struggling under so much pressure, specifically going to the Garden and asking his beloved disciples to sit and keep watch. Mark 14:32-34 reads, “They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’”
Jesus was entering into the events preceding his crucifixion, and took his prayers to his Father very seriously. Shouldn’t we? If we prepare even a little bit for prayer, our minds will be encouraged not to wander — and we have given the act a supernatural significance, reaching into Heaven itself, as Jesus taught us.
Let Prayer Be an Act of Obedience and Discipline
We have probably all had those times when prayer just flowed. This can be one of life’s biggest gifts, when we are reaching out to the Lord organically, with the words and feelings just flowing, and we sense His nearness — He is reaching back to us. What a blessing! Our minds do not wander in these moments, because the Holy Spirit is indeed guiding us in prayer. The giving and receiving with the Lord is as natural as breathing.
Have you ever considered, though, how very important your prayers are when you are struggling through them? Think of it this way: some people are just easy to talk to, and the conversation flows. Other people take more effort to converse with, but how appreciative you are when someone who doesn’t know you well, or doesn’t know quite what to say, makes the effort anyway. You feel special, and know the conversation means more because of the effort it cost that person.
We are human, and sometimes our prayer well feels very dry. We feel distracted and antsy, and perhaps our faith is even ebbing a bit. How much the Lord must love it during these times when, as an act of obedience and discipline, we kneel in prayer, fighting our wandering minds and reaching out in an open, receptive way. Perhaps, when we truly have nothing to give, we can be very honest and say, “Lord I have nothing to give today, and I feel like my mind is wandering — please bring me near, and let me simply rest in You.” Your honesty, longing, and love will surely be honored by God, who just wants to hear from you, His beloved child, no matter what frame of mind you’re in.
Hebrews 12:11 teaches, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." What does this mean, when applied to prayer? That while obedience and discipline in prayer is hard, and concentrating our minds to be calm and centered is indeed a challenge, we will have the payoff of true peace — as good and faithful servants who dearly love the Creator of all things created!
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Deirdre Reilly is a writer and editor, and her commentary has appeared on various websites including CBN.com, FoxNews.com, and others. Her new book, “The Pretend Christian: Traveling Beyond Denomination to the True Jesus,” details her own personal journey through doubt and fear into true belief. You can connect with Deirdre via www.deirdrereilly.com, or follow her on Twitter at @deirdrewrites.