Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: You decide it’s time to pray, so you close your eyes. Fifteen seconds in, out of nowhere, tomorrow’s to-do list pops up and your thoughts are off on a tangent. Before long, you realize what’s happening, and by sheer force of the will, you get back to business. Before you know it, it has happened again. Now you’re definitely not praying, but doing a confused mix of worrying and problem solving.
Then the guilt sets in. What’s wrong with me? you think. I can’t even sit down and pray for five minutes without getting off track. Something is definitely wrong with me. I bet my pastor doesn’t have this problem. I am the worst pray-er in the world. Is “pray-er” even a word? What do you call someone who prays? What am I even talking about? Forget it, I’m going to bed.
Most of us can identify with this scenario because we struggle with effective prayer. I think two main culprits lead us astray in our prayer lives.
First, we have a hard time believing our prayers matter to God. Prayer challenges us theologically, we know that, but the question we have trouble wrapping our minds around is this: Does prayer accomplish anything?
According to Jesus, prayer definitely matters: “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
But how does prayer work? Since God is going to work out His purposes however He wants, it seems that our prayers wouldn’t affect God’s plans at all. This is one of the mysterious components of prayer. Our prayer actually does matter, because in His mysterious, but sovereign, wisdom and power, God chooses to use our prayers to accomplish His will.
In other words, a Christian’s prayers are useful and powerful because God infuses them with power and uses them to accomplish His purposes. We can trust that in prayer we have fellowship with God, and that fellowship is a time of growth and of learning His will as we ask, seek, and knock at the door of God’s heart.
Second, we struggle to know when to pray. People who have healthy prayer lives often describe receiving “promptings” from God, or “burdens” to pray. Don’t be scared off by the spiritual language. Think of times when someone pops into your mind, seemingly out of nowhere. This is an example of what people mean when they say they’ve received promptings to pray. Burdens, on the other hand, are the things that weigh heavily on us and keep us up at night. We all have burdens from time to time.
So, the problem isn’t that we don’t get promptings and don’t have burdens. The problem is that we don’t see them as promptings to pray and burdens to pray about. When someone pops into our minds, more often than not we ignore the thought. On a good day, we may e-mail, text, or call that person. While there’s nothing wrong with that response, rarely do we take the prompting as an opportunity to stop what we’re doing and pray for the person. The same is true with our burdens. Our minds are frequently preoccupied with a conflict with our spouse or a bill that needs to be paid. Instead of seeing a burden to pray about, we see a problem to solve. Part of having a healthy prayer life includes recognizing when God is drawing us into prayer.
Keeping these two obstacles in mind, here are three things I think can help us cultivate more effective prayer lives:
1. Create space for prayer.
You can’t create intimacy with God; you have to make room for it. Set aside a designated time for prayer. The Gospels tell us that Jesus liked to pray in the morning. Maybe that time will work for you. Get up early and dedicate that time for prayer. Start small, by giving 5 or 10 minutes to the Lord. Once you get a handle on that, move up to 20, 30, and so on. Praying throughout your day is more likely to happen when you’re also being intentional about setting aside time specifically for prayer.
2. Don’t make praying the focus of your prayer.
Many of us sit down to pray, and our primary thought is: “I am now praying. Praying is good.” But focusing on the fact that you’re praying is like trying to drive while looking at the windshield instead of through the windshield. In prayer, don’t focus on the conversation you’re having, focus on the person with whom you’re having it.
3. Don’t give up.
If you’re praying and your mind wanders, don’t give up. Don’t ignore the thoughts that come in. Many of us assume that the “pop-in” thoughts are distractions, but what if these are the things God wants us to stop and pray about in the first place? Instead of giving up, offer even your distracted thoughts to God in prayer.
Hopefully these tools can help you cultivate a healthier prayer life.