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.
Most of us can identify with this scenario because we struggle with effective prayer. 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. … For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds” (Matthew 7:7-8). 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.
Second, we struggle to know when to pray. People often describe receiving “promptings” from God, or “burdens” to pray. We’ve all had times when someone pops into our mind, seemingly out of nowhere. And, we all have burdens from time to time. The problem is that we don’t see them as promptings to pray and burdens to pray about. 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 ways to help us cultivate more effective prayer lives:
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Joel Lindsey is the lead pastor of Grace Church in Racine, Wisconsin. He is the co-author of For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel with Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter. Joel and his wife, Melissa, have three sons—Eli, Beckett, and Schaeffer.