Even after a full night’s sleep and morning coffee, your devotionals can feel like more of a circus than a quiet time.
In one survey after another, distraction ranks as the biggest challenge evangelicals face when it comes to prayer. Statistically that means the next time you sit or kneel with the intention of talking to God, you’ll drift into moments where you wonder what life might be like on other planets. You’ll resurrect an old argument you once had with someone, wishing you’d delivered a coups de grace punchline like, “You can’t handle the truth!” You’ll make a mental note to watch Shark Week. You’ll obsess over the scratch on your car door and in which parking lot it might have happened. You’ll fantasize about finding Aladdin’s lamp. You’ll think about how you would look bald.
These and many other bizarre intrusions happen when we don’t want them. It’s as if a spider monkey suddenly appears in our heads, climbing on furniture, smashing dishes.
The “monkey mind” syndrome proves our thoughts still need some measure of discipline. Many of us give up, and resign ourselves to a lousy prayer life.
But don’t. It’s worth your time to build up inner life habits and enjoy a deeper, richer fellowship with God.
The Bible confirms that one of the biggest areas of concern is our mind. Proverbs 23:7 testifies to the importance of our thoughts by saying, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” (NKJV). Your thoughts are more than just a rudder. Your thoughts are you. The ability to set them, to focus, is key to almost any successful endeavor of life.
In a chapter dense with concerns about our relationship with the Holy Spirit, Paul reminds us of the important role of mindset:
Romans 8:6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
In Colossians, Paul says,
Colossians 3:2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
Granted, mindset and focus are not synonymous with spirituality. Otherwise, any fifty-cent guru could call himself spiritual with or without Christ, or the gospel, or the Spirit. Regardless of how we discipline ourselves, real spirituality only emerges based on our point of reference—“The Spirit,” Paul says, or “the things above.”
Still, a focused mind is like a serving plate, presented to the gospel in order to receive its daily and manifold blessings. But like young children, we hold out our dinner plates under the serving spoon, only to suddenly move it so the portion lands on the floor. God understands these tendencies, and the ease with which we’re distracted. No Father ever was more patient, more gracious in the face of missed opportunities, wasted food, and ignored blessings.
We need time. Mindset is a muscle that requires exercise.
Consider a few suggested strategies:
First, try dealing with distractions of the self-inflicted variety—things you’re unconsciously doing that undercut your ability to concentrate. Leave your cell phone and all electronics out of eye and ear shot during your devotionals. We can scarcely complain about monkeys when we keep including them on the guest list. In my early morning quiet time with God, my cell phone sits upstairs, dark and unloved. I also let my laptop “sleep in” every day.
Deal with sudden bursts of photographic memory, like when you sit down to pray and remember with crystal clarity everything that needs to go on your grocery list and all your chores for the day. Writer Phil Yancey talked about how he eventually kept a tablet and pen nearby him during prayer time, so he could jot down these notes as they came up. It was his way of dispatching each monkey. He figured if it was captured on paper, it needn’t occupy any further space in his head. Focus would return to God.
Set a reasonable time limit for yourself. If you have a fifteen minute mind and spirit, than at the sixteen minute mark and beyond, the monkeys start swinging in on vines. You’ll find you have diminished energy to ignore them. Until you develop your devotional life, you might need to stay within a shorter time allotment rather than battling stray thoughts, losing to them, and dealing with the resultant discouragement. God can keep piling on the spiritual food all day, but our plates are only so big. Everybody has their limit.
Use the Word of God as your focal point. I pray in and around Scripture. If I branch off on a thought, and after a few minutes my prayer becomes stale, I return to the Word that originally spawned it. When you’re overly aware of “trying” to pray, it’s time for re-ignition through some refocus.
Use audible prayer as a way to bring focus to your pain or praise or intercession. Sometimes keeping all the conversation in your head will feel like you are swimming in a fog, where distractions lurk aplenty. But collecting these interior feelings and packaging them into words will turn that fog into a projectile.
Pray slowly, so you don’t lose valuable energy firing off ten scattered words when you only needed three really powerful focused ones to encapsulate what you feel or think. Jesus warned about the nervous energy that causes the gentiles to multiply empty phrases “for they think they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7).
Not all thoughts or impressions that come upon you during prayer are mere human distractions. Prepare yourself for the reality of a God who not only hears, but joins and participates in your prayer. Jesus talked about the possibility of having one’s personal worship interrupted as you “remember that your brother has something against you” (Matt. 5:17). That remembrance would no doubt be due to the Spirit’s influence, leading you to repair a relationship. How would one know the difference between the Holy Spirit and the monkey mind? Aside from more profound insights, look at the destination: The Spirit will take us to love, holiness, and praise to God. Monkeys, on the other hand will take you to Cancun, karate fights, and Jurassic Park.
What if after all our efforts to the contrary, stray thoughts still manage an appearance? Gently return from them. There’s no need for flailing fists and shotguns. Don’t waste time beating yourself up over this strange mischief.
Prayer is not performance anyway. It is a function of relationship with God. No grades are assigned after the final amen.
Learn more about Word and prayer in my new workbook, Presence: Praying the Scriptures to Encounter the Glory of God.