Have you experienced the strange realization that the last ten of your fifteen minutes on your knees were lost to planning your day’s activities, or worse yet, to day dreaming?
If you’re like me, you’ve given an uncomfortable apology to God, resolved to do better tomorrow, hurried on with other responsibilities, but carried a sense of guilt and frustration.
Most of us have good intentions when we set out to spend time in prayer with our Lord. We know we should pray, and we know there are things we should pray about. How can we have a meaningful prayer and stay on focus?
Deal with External Issues First
When we choose to pray is a key factor. Some people are night people, not truly alert until they’ve showered, had coffee, and are five miles from home. Trying to have a morning quiet time will probably not work for them – unless they do it after getting to work. Morning quiet times are better for those whose best work is accomplished before noon. A mom rising twice each night to feed her new baby might find those middle-of-the-night hours her only time alone with God. We each can evaluate our own make up and schedule and plan our prayer time accordingly.
The setting for our prayer can affect not only our concentration, but our heart attitude as well. If the phone rings, even if it’s not our responsibility to answer it, some people will be distracted from prayer. Others will be able to tune it out completely. Some like total silence while they pray. Some enjoy peaceful instrumental music to lift their thoughts heavenward. Others have found that recorded scripture being read in the background is helpful. If we have control over our setting, we can experiment to discover what is best.
Dispel Internal Distractions
What might block our communication with God?
Unconfessed Sin – Beginning to pray without taking care of unresolved issues is a little like trying to converse with an old friend with whom we had a long-ago falling out. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us” (I John 1:9 NIV).
Mental Distractions – One of the most common problems during prayer is suddenly remembering undone tasks. Satan can use this to keep us from praying. It may simply be a need for us to get organized. There’s a simple solution: keep a notebook beside you. When you think of something you need to do, write it down; then get back to your prayers. You need not feel guilty for the time it takes to jot it down. Enjoy the freedom of knowing you’ll remember the task later.
Unresolved Issues – I find the same thoughts repeatedly pop up in my prayer time. I’ve learned to recognize them as issues I need to attend. “If you are offering your gift at the altar (praying) and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23 NIV). By using my notebook to jot down the matter, I can resolve to deal with the issue at an appropriate time. This leaves me free to move on with the matters I sense are on God’s heart.
Areas of Weakness – Each of us has areas where Satan knows we are vulnerable. For some it is lust, others struggle against the desire for prestige. Yet others long for extravagant wealth and comfort. Many fight against feelings of inadequacy. If we’re not facing our weaknesses, our prayers can be short-circuited by thoughts of unworthiness, guilt, or greed. We can face these weaknesses, admit them to ourselves and God, and to those with whom we share our life regularly, then work together to overcome them. “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16 NIV).
Lack of Faith – Sometimes we voice something in prayer and find ourselves thinking, “I know that won’t happen. Why do I even bother asking?” I do. That’s a lack of faith. How can we pray prayers that spring from a heart filled with faith? “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 KJV). We can memorize such verses as: Matthew 21:22, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” And, “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer” (I Peter 3:12 NIV).
Beyond that, when I pray for things at the level of my faith, I find myself expecting an answer. Instead of asking for God to save my neighbor, I ask that He give me an opportunity to talk with her about Christ. Then I look forward to seeing how God will answer.
I find it tempting to pray for anything that seems good to me. I’m kept from this by the KJV rendering of Mark 11:24: “What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.” Notice the promise is not whatever our heart or mind longs for. God’s will is to give us those things for which He places in our hearts both desire and faith while we’re praying.
Another effective aid to faith is using a prayer journal. We can Record the date when we begin praying for an individual or a need. When we learn of God’s answer, we jot down the date and, if we know it, the way God answered it. There is no more effective faith builder than to look back and read of God’s work on behalf of those for whom we’ve prayed. WE also find our hearts swelling with praise to the God Who so lovingly met those needs.
Involve Your Whole Being
Perhaps one of the reasons we find our mind wandering is that, like most Christians, we pray silently. When we look into the Scriptures, it’s clear that prayer was usually done audibly. Otherwise, how would the writer know what had been prayed? Praying aloud may seem strange and awkward. If we try it, we may find our prayer time greatly enriched. Our relationship with God can be transformed by hearing our own voice formulating our prayer thoughts into complete sentences. Some of my most precious times have been when I’ve walked through a nearby forest, or strolled along a mountain trail, having a conversation with my Lord. Some are uninhibited and able to pray aloud with others around. When I’m home, with others in the house, I keep my prayers muted or whispered. How I cherish those times when the house is empty and I can talk with Father as loudly as I want.
Prayer is simply talking with God. As with any conversation, effective prayer involves both our mind and our body. When we talk with a friend, we discipline ourselves to keep focused on our friend. We think about what we want to say and present it in a way our friend can receive it.
Yet prayer involves more than just our mind and body. Prayer involves our spirit as well. The Holy Spirit is present to help us pray. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us…” (Romans 8:26 NIV) During prayer we’re moving into a spiritual realm and need to work together with the Holy Spirit so that our prayer can be effective.
Recognize It’s a Spiritual Battle
Because prayer is such an important part of our spiritual health, Satan tries to stop or hinder us. We can give him notice that this is our time with God and he is not to interfere. It’s neither spooky nor disrespectful to God to address Satan directly. “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:7-8 NIV). Notice that addressing Satan is the second in a three part process.
How Then Do We Pray?
I find it easy to slip into a pattern of asking for God’s help in areas that affect me and those I most love. Perhaps this is a universal problem. I call this “me and mine praying.” Yet we’re instructed to pray, not only for ourselves, but also for others. How can we keep our prayers balanced?
Look at the pattern Jesus gave His disciples:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:9-13 NIV).
Jesus started by acknowledging Who God is and what His purposes are. He moved on to asking for provisions. Then Jesus dealt with the issue of relationships, first with our fellow man, then with our spiritual enemy.
In other passages of scripture Jesus instructed us to “pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NIV), and “for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28 NIV). These verses help me remember to look beyond my own interests while praying.
We can learn what is on God’s heart by examining Jesus’ prayer. “I pray for them…for those you have given me, for they are yours.” We can pray for all God’s people.
We can get a clear picture of how we should pray from the Apostle Paul:
Praise God for one another – “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you” (Colossians 1:3 NIV).
Pray that we will live pure and godly lives – “We constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling” (2 Thessalonians 1:11 NIV).
Pray that God will be glorified by our individual lives – “We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you” (2 Thessalonians 1:12 NIV).
Pray for victory over sin and temptation – “Pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (2 Thessalonians 3:2 NIV).
Pray for spiritually fruitful lives – “Pray for us that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ…that I may proclaim it clearly” (Colossians 4:3 NIV).
Pray that we will continue to share Christ – “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith” (Philemon 1:6 NIV).
In order to be godly, pure and spiritually fruitful, we each have other areas of need: provision for our material needs; strength for our physical being; help in our relationships with one another; and understanding of God and His ways. It is therefore appropriate that we pray for these things also.
Your prayer time can be meaningful and stay focused when you know you’re praying according to God’s revealed will and for the things He is concerned about – every area of life.
© Beverly Caruso