It affects us all. The stresses and the pace of life in our modern world can put a strain on our minds and make it extremely difficult to focus when we settle down to pray. But there's hope! Connection and meaningful prayer can be regained by applying a couple of simple tools.
Sometimes things converge in life to provide answers to questions you didn’t recognize that you had. For me, this happened recently in regard to prayer, or more specifically, a difficulty that I was experiencing related to prayer.
Like many of you, prayer is not something new for me. Walking and talking with Jesus has been a continual part of my life since I entered into a relationship with him as a high school senior.
That was in 1986, so, it’s been a while.
Since then, I’ve read myriad books on prayer, taught about prayer through many years of youth ministry, written about it, and led more public prayers that I can count. During those years I’ve enjoyed incredible seasons of intimacy with God through prayer and have seen many things that seemed to be clear and direct answers to specific prayers. But in recent years, something emerged in my life that has made the process of prayer truly difficult at times.
For the vast majority of my life, I only understood anxiety in the abstract. Having a melancholy, artist’s soul, I’ve had ample experience with depression throughout my life, but never anxiety or panic. Anxiety and its bastard child the panic attack, only became experiential for me in the past 6 years. It emerged from a series of bad experiences, touched off by an extremely difficult business partnership and subsequent business challenges and stresses. And though nearly all the forces that initiated the anxiety have been removed, the conditioned, subconscious responses I developed during those difficult times remain. And therein lies this new challenge to prayer.
Which is an ironic twist, because one of the most helpful tools for combating anxiety is prayer. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve quoted
Philippians 4: 6-8, either in a sermon on worry, in a conversation with an anxious friend, or to myself when something was bothering me.
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
But what came along with anxiety for me – and maybe you can relate – is a mental state that I can only describe as Adult-Onset-Mental-Mania. I don’t know if that’s actually a thing. I’ve never historically suffered from something like Attention Deficit Disorder, but since the days of high anxiety, my thoughts seem to run in hyper mode, flitting from one random subject to another, creating an endless stream of questions to consider, problems to solve, and catastrophic – albeit irrational – outcomes to avoid.
I can usually keep the monster in its cage when I’m focused, either on work, or being creative in some way. It’s when I disengage, spool down, and get quiet that the beast breaks free. It’s when its time to sleep – or pray – that it leaps forth with its relentless “hey…Hey…HEY, What about?!” And voila! Custom-made prayer barrier.
Ultimately, the challenge isn’t the anxiety in itself. It’s the manic thoughts and mental images, flashing from one subject to another, that makes it nearly impossible to focus. So much so that if a transcript of my prayers were to be read out loud by, say, Gilbert Godfrey, it would sound a lot like a crazy person talking to his invisible friend. “Father, thank you for your grace and kindness. Thank you for the cross and the resurrection that bought our freedom and made it possible for us to have a relationship with you.
…’why isn’t the most recent video I did getting engagement? I knew I should have cut it by 5-10 minutes! But it’s getting kind of ridiculous isn’t? Pastors are doing their sermons via TikTok. I mean, how it that conducive to spiritual growth?’
“Oh, sorry, Lord! I do thank you for all the ways that you bless my life and ask that you please continue to guide me in the pursuit of being more and more like Jesus, and in blessing others and pointing them to you. May…
’what if this volatile political situation REALLY DOES turn into civil unrest or even a civil war?
Can we grow enough food to take care of our family?
What if the water and power go off? Ok, we have water in the creek. But what about power…I guess solar is an option. How do you set up a solar system anyway?
Why do both male and female caribou have antlers, but with whitetail deer, only the male have antlers? I wonder how they make those deer antler chandeliers?’
“Oh, sorry, Lord!”
That may be funny to read, but it’s not at all funny to experience because it makes meaningful praying – and by extension – meaningful connection with God extremely difficult. And over a long period of time, it can create very real feelings of spiritual isolation, or worse, that God has somehow abandoned us or just doesn’t care to listen. That’s a deep, dark hole that can be hard to claw out of.
So, some time ago I set out to discover practical ways to combat this dynamic and regain a vibrant prayer life I’ve experienced so many times in my relationship with God, and that actually works to reduce/remove anxiety as the passage in Philippians describes.
The first and most powerful tool I’ve discovered for focusing my mind to pray is to physically write my prayers in a journal. At the beginning, this felt like an extremely laborious process, mostly because it took SO LONG to actually write out what I could simply “think-pray” in a matter of nanoseconds. The act of writing forced me to focus and slow my brain down to walking speed, which allows me to be engaged and thoughtful about what I’m praying.
Which is exactly why it works.
The other great benefit of this controlled manner of praying is that the slower pace actually makes space for the Spirit of God to whisper to us in response to what we’re praying. I have lost count of how often I’ve been writing a prayer – usually ranting about some “injustice” I’ve endured at the hands of someone else, etc – and had the Spirit remind me of an applicable scripture passage, or gently ask a convicting question like, “so, that response that you made to that social media post, do you think that was reflective of the heart of Jesus?"
Many folks resist the idea of journaling or writing out their prayers because they don’t want someone else to read them. Don’t let that keep you from using this technique. If your prayers contain things that are potentially harmful to others or scare you for other people to know about you (and who’s aren’t to some degree?) simply destroy them. If you write your prayers long-hand, burn them when you’re done. Some people do this as a symbol of release and acceptance of the answer God provides. If you use a computer to write your prayers, simply delete the text or the file when you’re done. The point isn’t the writing, it’s the focused prayer process that results from the writing.
However, if you can abide keeping a record of your prayers, there are some pretty great benefits. Most importantly, it allows you to go back and relive moments of your spiritual journey and to see God at work in your life over time and how he responded to your prayers. The other benefit is that it leaves a record of your journey for those who love you, which can be a beautiful treasure when you’re no longer physically present with them.
The second technique for dealing with the anxious mind in prayer is repurposing the mental mania into an impromptu prayer list. What I have started doing is, rather than becoming frustrated that I can’t focus on what I want to pray about due to the distractions, I let the flow of consciousness inform my prayers. For whatever reason, what my mind is pouring forth holds some relevance to me, otherwise it wouldn’t be emerging. So, as I’m going through the day, or when I lie in bed and my mind is running 1000 miles a minute, rather than trying to pray against the flow of consciousness, I just go with it. If my mind wants to express concern about the political climate, I ask God about that. If it wants to wander onto why the latest video isn’t performing well or getting engagement, I simply put that before God. Being who he is, chances are, he has some pretty good ideas about anything we’re concerned about.
The point is, rather than fight the mental flow, try to harness it. If, like me, your mind tends to have a running monologue when you’re doing mindless tasks like mowing the grass, washing the car, or sorting buttons, use that as a catalyst to pray. Interestingly enough, that’s a way to actively pursue a rarely discussed admonition from scripture.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says: 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
So, try setting aside the time to intentionally write out your prayers. And, rather than fight it, let the mental mania that can stem from anxiety be a prompt to pray, and just pray about whatever emerges.
In time, what we may discover is that praying intentionally through writing, and continually through what the mind is bringing forth minute by minute, will yield the the fruit that Philippians 4 promises: “peace that transcends all understanding.”