Pray with Scripture
I remember hearing somewhere that Scripture teaches us how to pray as a mother teaches a child how to talk. God speaks to us through his Word, and then we speak back to him in response, much as a child listens to his parents and then responds. As the father of soon-to-be-3-year-old who’s talking more and more, and saying some truly hilarious things, this is an illustration that resonates with me! And I find it true in my prayer life.
The point of the metaphor is that just as none of us is born knowing how to talk, none of us knows how to pray on our own. We learn how to pray, and more often by observation and imitation than by direct instruction. As I look to Scripture to develop and mature my praying instincts, I find it not only informs the content of my requests but also helps cultivate the impulses and appetites undergirding them.
There are so many things in Scripture my flesh would never think to ask for. I usually don’t ask for boldness when I’m persecuted (Acts 4:29), or interpret my grief in light of God’s honor and redemptive plan (Neh. 1:5–11), or say things like “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). But again and again Scripture rebukes my shallow, self-oriented prayers and summons them upward into the larger context of God’s glory, the church, eternity, and the advance of the gospel.
2. Pray with a Pen
I find it helpful on occasion to write out a prayer. Written prayer shouldn’t replace vocal/mental prayer—but I find it works effectively as a supplement. When you’re writing there’s a kind of mental discipline and intentionality that’s often absent in vocal communication. It’s harder to get distracted, and it enables you to channel and structure your prayer a bit more.
An added benefit is being able to go back, even years later, to see how God has answered your prayers—or, more commonly in my experience, changed what you pray for.
3. Pray with Fasting
Prayer and fasting are healthy practices in themselves, but work especially well together. An empty stomach reminds us to pray, “Lord, fill my soul!” When we’re earnest in prayer, it helps us deal with the hunger pains.
One thing I must fast from is social media. Social media changes the way our brains function. It speeds up information flow, clutters our consciousness, and reduces our ability for things like meditation, reflection, quiet. It’s not an easy transition from surfing Facebook and Twitter for hours to lingering before the Lord in prayer.
When Jesus prayed, for instance, he often went out to “a desolate place” (Mark 1:35). Like him, we need to cultivate the discipline of solitude, the discipline of stillness before God. We shouldn’t be surprised if we’re scattered and distracted in prayer if we’re scattered and distracted all the time.
4. Pray with People
Corporate prayer and private prayer fuel one another (kind of like prayer and fasting). Corporate prayer is all the more powerful if we’ve already been praying on our own; and private prayer is instructed and encouraged by how we’ve seen God at work in the prayers of others.
Not only is it harder to get distracted when you’re not out there on your own, but Christ promises his provision (Matt. 18:19) and presence (Matt. 18:20) when “two or three” are gathered in his name.
5. Pray with Purpose
Distraction flourishes with the amorphous, the ambiguous, the underdefined. I find it helps me maintain focus if I structure my prayer time in specific ways. For instance, I might structure a prayer around one particular aspect of God’s character. “Lord, today I have seen your faithfulness through. . . .” Or I might focus on a particular area of need: “Father, lately my heart has been cold because. . . .”
It’s hard to drift off when there’s a theme or some kind of orienting structure to the prayer.
Also, if you’re consistently getting distracted by the same things, you might consider praying about those very things, whatever they are, that are distracting you. Convert the distraction into an opportunity; leverage its grip on your mind and heart to intensify your prayers. “Lord, I am distracted today by ______. I give this to you. . . .”