How To Stay Focused When You Talk To God.
Have you ever struggled to stay focused while you pray? I often begin to pray with great expectations of unhurried, undistracted time before God. But, inevitably, my mind dredges up urgent requests, inconsequential facts, or mundane tasks that seem to demand my immediate attention. Then, having been sidetracked by the temporal, it seems even harder to concentrate on the eternal.
We might be tempted to think that such distractions are simply symptoms of the frenzied times we live in. But saints throughout the ages have wrestled with wandering thoughts during prayer. F. W. Faber, a 19th-century hymn writer, wrote about his struggle with such "unmannerly distractions."
Ah dearest Lord! I cannot pray,
My fancy is not free;
Unmannerly distractions come,
And force my thought from Thee.
My very flesh has restless fits;
My changeful limbs conspire
With all these phantoms of the mind
My inner self to tire.
I cannot pray; yet, Lord! Thou knowst
The pain it is to me
To have my vainly struggling thoughts
Thus torn away from Thee.
The disciples also struggled to stay vigilant in prayer. When Jesus took them to the garden, He asked them to keep watch with Him. When He arose from prayer and found them sleeping, He said to Peter, "So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt. 26:40-41, RSV).
What can be done to overcome the flesh in prayer? What can we do to stay attentive during communion with the Lord? Here are a few suggestions to consider.
Jesus gave His disciples specific instructions on how to pray: "But when you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets, will reward you" (Mt. 6:6, LB).
"Shutting the door" is one of the most important keys to undistracted prayer. I must find a quiet place, free from distractions and interruptions. But shutting the door means more than barricading myself in my bedroom. When I spend time in this secret place with the God of the universe, I close the door on everything that would disturb or hinder me. I set my heart’s attention on the living God. This is an act of the will, a decision to be quiet, to listen, and to be sensitive to the Spirit and His presence.
When I shut the door, I recognize the high privilege and blessing of intimacy with my Lord. I am not in a hurry, but have made a commitment to slow down and allow myself to experience His peace and rest. Shutting the door insulates me from the world and enables me to focus on the Lord.
Eugene Peterson’s translation of Mt. 6:6 in The Message captures the essence of shutting the door:
Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won't be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.
George Mueller, a great man of prayer, wrote that he would often spend up to a half hour suffering from wandering thoughts before he really began to pray. Then he made a simple discovery that helped him eliminate distractions during prayer.
I saw that the most important thing was to give myself to the reading of God’s Word, and to meditation on it... Now prayer, in order to be continued for any length of time in any other than a formal manner, requires, generally speaking, a measure of strength or godly desire, and the season therefore when this exercise of the soul can be most effectually performed is after the inner man has been nourished by meditation on the Word of God, where we find our Father speaking to us, to encourage us, to comfort us, to instruct us, to humble us, to reprove us... Thus there is far less to be feared from wandering of mind than if we give ourselves to prayer without having had time previously for meditation.
Reading the Bible provides spiritual nourishment and is the best preparation for communion with the Lord. Listening intently to God’s Word is a major part of prayer. Through the Scriptures, God speaks to us. When we read His Word before we pray, our hearts are prepared to respond in prayer to what He has already shown us.
One of the quickest ways to eliminate distractions in prayer is to pray out loud. The act of speaking forces us to articulate our thoughts, anxieties, and requests more clearly. Praying out loud also causes us to slow down. It has been said that the average person thinks at about 1,300 words per minute but can only speak about 50 words per minute. If your heart is heavy with the pressures of life, your thought life may be an ongoing flood of anxiety. Speaking your prayers instead of just thinking them allows you to address one issue at a time and can help stem this torrent of anxious thoughts by bringing them before the throne of grace one by one.
Often as I read Scripture, I find myself praying several verses for myself or for others. I enjoy praying through the psalms, particularly Psalm 145. It helps me to praise God for His attributes and graciousness toward us. For example, verse 14 says, "The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down." Verses such as these help me battle distraction by taking my thoughts off myself and fixing them on God. As I pray sections of this psalm and other Scriptures back to the Lord, I rarely have wandering thoughts.
We can also emulate the prayers of the New Testament. Paul’s prayers for believers in his epistles have transformed my intercession. Paul prayed the following for the Colossians: "We ask God to give you a complete understanding of what He wants to do in your lives, and we ask Him to make you wise with spiritual wisdom" (see Col. 1:9). This is just one verse out of the many great prayers that can be found in the epistles (see Eph. 1:17-21, 3:14-21; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-12; 2 Thess. 1:11-12). Jesus' intercession in John 17 is another passage I often use as a model to help me pray for family and friends: "Lord, keep them in Your name. Keep them from the evil one. Sanctify them in the truth. May Your love be in them. May they behold Your glory."
Paul admonished the Ephesian church to "speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:19-20).
Spiritual songs help me focus in several ways. If I'm struggling to keep my mind on prayer, a favorite hymn or praise song draws my attention back to spiritual things. Hymns and songs enable me to express my heartfelt worship and praise to God. If I'm anxious or worried, praise before prayer helps settle my soul. When I bring hymnals and chorus books into my quiet times with God, I can reflect in prayer upon the truths eloquently described in these songs. They become a rich source of devotional material that enhances my prayer times.
When one of Jesus' disciples said, "Lord, teach us how to pray," Jesus responded by providing His disciples with a model of prayer—known as the Lord’s prayer—that contained six main elements. The first three relate to God: He is our Father, our King, and our Master. The last three concern us: our daily bread, our forgiveness, and our protection from temptation and evil. These elements can be prayed simply with few added thoughts, or amplified with scriptures, hymns, or songs. This pattern of prayer can take a few minutes or a few hours. The Lord’s prayer helps me focus on the essentials. It helps me to remember that my prayers do not always have to be long to be good.
Scripture encourages believers to "devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful" (Col. 4:2). Thanksgiving has the power to transform our attitudes and perspective. Choosing to give thanks helps me remember God’s blessings and faithfulness instead of just dwelling on the difficulties in my life. Those who are truly thankful for gracious acts cannot help but express their thankfulness earnestly and repetitively.
A few years ago I began to ask the Lord to show me His goodness. I realized that often I did not acknowledge God’s hand in my life. I was oblivious to His loving attention to me, and, as a result, I did not have an attitude of thanksgiving—especially in my prayer life. Slowly, I have been able to come to the Lord with a more thankful heart. I am now more likely to recognize and give thanks for small blessings, the ones that can be easy to miss or take for granted: a friend who calls to encourage, a new thought from Scripture, protection while driving, a sense of His presence. There are countless opportunities to thank the Lord as we remember His goodness toward us. Recounting God’s goodness is a good antidote to restlessness in prayer.
Writing out our prayers also helps keep us focused. It is often easier to maintain our concentration if we are doing something physical such as writing. As with speaking our prayers aloud, writing them down slows our thoughts and helps us concentrate on one issue at a time. Another great benefit of recording our prayers is rereading them later. Writing down our prayers not only helps eliminate distractions, it also creates a unique written record of our struggles and God’s faithful responses.
I greatly enjoy praying while walking. Something about the active nature of walking helps me concentrate as I pray. Most of the time, very few things disturb me while I am on a walk. I feel very comfortable with any silences while I'm praying, and I'm not bothered by any physical distractions that a room might bring—such as dust! As I observe and enjoy God’s creation, I tend to have a more relaxed conversation with Him.
It is much easier to stay alert when praying conversationally with a friend. I must listen attentively to her thoughts if I am to add my requests to hers. I need to be mindful to pray for our mutual concerns and for her personally. Some of my richest prayer times have been with others.
God has called us to pray. He is well able to direct our time. We need to come with an open and loving heart, ready to let God set the agenda through His Word and His Spirit. As we begin to use these simple methods of focusing our attention during prayer, we'll experience deeper freedom and joy while communing delightfully—and undistractedly—with our Lord.