Does Your Mind Wander in Prayer?

This past weekend I participated at a conference on prayer with my colleague David Talley. One of the questions I was asked during a Q & A time had to do with mind-wandering during prayer. Does your mind ever wander when you’re trying to pray?  Here are ten suggestions that might help you when your mind starts to wander in prayer.

When your mind wanders in prayer…

1. Don’t worry. It’s not strange for minds to wander during prayer. You are not unspiritual if your mind wanders. Mind-wandering on its own is not sin.[1]

When your mind wanders in prayer…

2. Simply resume praying whatever you were praying when your mind started wandering. Pick up where you left off.

When your mind wanders in prayer…

3. Talk to God about the content of your mind-wandering. Since I walk for prayer in the morning, I sometimes get distracted by things I see in my neighborhood. “That’s interesting. My neighbor is getting ready to replace his roof.” But instead of getting frustrated that my mind wandered into thinking about my neighbor’s roof instead of praying for Uzbekistan, I sometimes will pray: “Lord, I ask you to bless all those living under that roof. Bring peace to that house. Draw them into relationship with yourself.” Does God care about your mundane thoughts? Absolutely. God wants you to bring him into every area of your life.

When your mind wanders in prayer…

4. Do an inventory on whether you have forgotten to whom you are speaking. This is the God of the universe, the Creator of all that exists, the God who has forgiven our sins through the atonement of Christ, the One who will come as Judge of the living and the dead. Perhaps your view of God is too small, and you need to allow the Scriptures to broaden your understanding of who God is. Take a moment and consider this possibility.

When your mind wanders in prayer…

5. Open your Bible and pray through a passage of Scripture. If you don’t know where to start, here are a few passages that will work well for a prayer time: Psalm 1, Psalm 46, Psalm 139, John 14, John 15, Romans 8, Ephesians 1, James 1, and 1 Peter 1.

Praying through Scripture will not only help you focus, it will redirect your prayers so that your prayers are more in line with the kinds of things God wants you to pray about.

When your mind wanders in prayer…

6. Plan ahead for your next prayer time. Planning ahead could be as simple as taking a few moments before you start to pray to consider what you need to pray about. During one period in which my prayer life was lagging, I received help by writing down a short list of things that were on my heart to pray about before I left on my morning prayer walk.

When your mind wanders in prayer…

7. Draw upon a prayer list. I sometimes draw upon a modified prayer card system, which is somewhat different than a simple list of requests. (Note that I only pull out my prayer cards about one day out of every three.) But if your mind is wandering, drawing upon a list can help you focus.

When your mind wanders in prayer…

8. Write a prayer. Writing a prayer will concentrate your thoughts and eliminate fluff.

When your mind wanders in prayer…

9. Talk out loud. Now, if I’m completely honest, I must confess that my mind can wander even when praying aloud. (Maybe this is evidence that I’ve perfected the art of mind-wandering in prayer!) Before most people started to carry cell phones, when other walkers caught me talking out loud, they sometimes looked at me as though I was losing my mind. Now people just assume that I’m talking on the phone! Since no one cares anymore about people speaking aloud in public, go ahead and do it.

When you mind wanders in prayer

10. Allow your mind to wander. Let me explain. I am not advocating general mind-wandering during times of prayer. But there is a type of mind-wandering that is a central part of every effective prayer life. It might be better described as thinking in the presence of the Lord. As you consider important issues, you are all-the-while connecting with God about what you are thinking about. You see, prayer isn’t simply trying to fill in as many words as you can think to say in a half hour. It is important for you to stay sensitive to where the Holy Spirit might be moving your mind as you pray—so that your prayers increasingly align with God’s will.[2] So a bit of spiritually-oriented mind-wandering is actually a good thing, especially when praying for guidance during decision-making, or seeking discernment about how to pray about a complicated topic. It is a good thing to ask God to guide your mind during prayer. But Spirit guidance requires you to do some thinking in the presence of God—a bit of spiritual mind-wandering, if you will.

This morning on my prayer walk, I had already decided that today was the day I was going to write this post. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—I experienced an unusually difficult time with my mind wandering. What did I do about it? I told God that my mind was wandering. (I think he already knew…) Then I talked to him about the various topics my mind was getting pulled to think about. When I realized that I was really having a problem with mind-wandering, I took out a set of prayer cards that I often (not always) use for prayer. I even thought in the presence of the Lord about whether any of my wandering notions might be from the Lord (and decided they weren’t; my mind was simply wandering). But I didn’t worry about my mind-wandering. I kept coming back to what I had been praying about before each time my mind started to wander. (Despite my earlier suggestions, I didn’t pray through any Scripture or write a prayer. I find it a bit difficult to read, write, and walk at the same time!)

At the end of my time with the Lord, I realized that I had done what I needed to do by repeatedly turning my heart toward a gracious and loving Lord—who delights that I desire to spend time in his presence, despite my wandering mind. In the end, maybe this morning’s time of prayer wasn’t so bad after all.

[1] I know I wrote that mind-wandering in prayer is not sin. But it could become sin if it became an excuse for negligence and laziness. Still, simple mind-wandering is not itself sin, unless the content of the thoughts is not God-pleasing.

[2] For more on praying in the Spirit according to the will of God, see chapter 7 in my book: Walking in the Spirit.

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