Knowing how to pray is one of those things you think should come naturally, right? Especially if you’ve been a Christian for a while?
But if you’re like thousands of other people who’ve landed on this post, I bet you’ve run into the same problem: you can’t focus. You don’t know what to say or even where to start sometimes. Knowing how to pray just doesn’t come naturally for everyone.
I’ve been praying in some capacity since I was a teen. I remember curling up in my bed at night when my life felt confusing, asking a big mysterious God for guidance and strength. I drifted in and out of a youth group and felt guilty for my lack of commitment, although I wasn’t even sure what “commitment” to him should look like. Finally I promised this God that I would go to church when I went to college.
I kept that promise and my life turned upside down. After deciding to follow Jesus I never looked back. Early on I learned that if I was going to keep this up, prayer was going to be an essential part of my life.
But here’s the thing. I suck at praying.
I say that a little tongue in cheek because at least I’m trying, and I’m pretty sure God listens to whatever jumbled mess of thoughts I throw his way. But let me give an example of what my mornings can look like…
My alarm goes off, I grumble, hit snooze a couple of times.
I finally turn on my phone and start rifling through emails and notifications, to wake up my brain. I start thinking about my day.
Depending on the day, I either read some of the Bible or go work out. Or put it off and sleep more.
At some point I turn to God like I know I should (and want to):
“Good morning God, thank you for the beautiful sunrise, thank you for guiding our family…oh I wonder how Jonathan’s cough is this morning. I’ll need to give him his medicine, but first I’ll need to make breakfast…oh no, I hope we’re not out of bread…oh sorry God, I mean, uh, please help Jonathan feel better…is he well enough to go to the library? Ugh, I really need to deposit those checks on the way home, Marc needs to sign them before he leaves…oh hi God, sorry, ummmm where was I? Ugh, I’m so tired, can’t focus…”
I could blame the stage of life I’m in, but the truth is I have always struggled with this. I’m a Type A, always planning, always ten steps ahead of where I’m at.
I have difficulty being in the moment.
When I pray, I just can’t focus.
Some people naturally pour their hearts out to God every time they turn to him. Others have to learn it through practice and habit. Guess which category I fall into.
I’ve made the mistake of assuming that knowing how to pray is a skill that everyone should know automatically, but it doesn’t quite work that way. As someone constantly grappling with grace I know that my prayer life is not something to be ashamed of, but it reflects a weakness in character that needs strengthening.
Over the years I’ve learned that there are a lot of ways to connect with God in a meaningful way. I may not be the 21st century Psalmist, but I can pray faithfully and powerfully even with my disjointed, distracted train of thought. If you relate to this, I hope you don’t feel guilty. Just know that God is listening, no matter what you try. And if you feel like you don’t know how to pray, don’t worry. It’s never too late to learn.
How To Pray When You Just Can’t Focus
Here are some simple tips about how to pray and connect with God if you struggle with consistency and focus. Also be sure check out the free journal I developed as a result of the popularity of this post, which is a part of my free resource collection.
Pray out loud
Yes, even when you’re by yourself. Or not by yourself. When I was a college student I would pretend I was on my phone while I prayed during my walk to class so people wouldn’t think I was crazy! I think of the story of Daniel. A Babylonian law forbade anyone to pray to any god but the king, yet Daniel continued to pray visibly and loudly enough to get arrested. Why didn’t he whisper or do it in his head? (See Daniel 6.) I find that when I make my thoughts verbal, they’re less likely to trail off.
No need to come up with eloquent words when they’ve already been written. Don’t turn on music and zone out; say the words and mean them. I’m a fan of old-timey hymns with rich lyrics as opposed to saying “hallelujah” over and over. Get a songbook/hymnal, or print out some lyrics and try it!
Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord —Ephesians 5:19
Start with the Lord’s Prayer
Sometimes there is great value in ritual. It can keep us on target. Jesus’ disciples were with him constantly and must have seen his relationship with his Father, and yet they still asked, “how do we pray?” Jesus laid a foundation in Matthew 6:9–13:
This, then, is how you should pray: ’Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
When I don’t know what to say, I know I can’t go wrong with honoring God, asking that his will be done; asking for what I need, for forgiveness and for help through my weaknesses.
Imitate great prayers in the Bible
Just as Jesus set an example in prayer, so did many other people in the Bible. Pick one. I love Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1–10 for starters.
It’s Lent as I write this so fasting is on a lot of people’s minds; however, it doesn’t have to be a special occasion to get your heart and mind spiritually focused. I know that whenever I have practiced a traditional fast by giving up food, the hunger is a constant, humbling reminder that my strength comes from God alone. That helps me focus.
This tip is for you, parents—yeah you who don’t have more than five quiet minutes to yourselves ever. You’re probably already aware of this, but praying doesn’t have to be a formal event. God’s listening all the time. Say a quick thanks, a shout out for your friend, praise, or a request for help whenever you think of it. Nehemiah did it constantly, if you want inspiration.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. —1 Thessalonians 5:16–18
Pray with your kids
This seems obvious, but is it? I regularly forget to even pray at meals. Yet I nonetheless try to have regular times throughout the day. This practice not only for them—it helps me too. We pray when we load up the car (usually because this is stressful and I need the reset button). We pray at the beginning of our school day. We pray whenever someone is scared or sick or is being disciplined. We pray when kids throw fits and we pray when Mommy throws fits. We pray when something awesome happens and we want to thank God. We pray as a family at bedtime. These are quick and may or may not always be super heartfelt, but you know what? They add up. And what’s more, you’re teaching them how to pray!
Pray with your spouse
Sometimes this overlaps with the praying with the kids thing, but we try to spend at least some time in prayer together daily. Want to try something super humbling? Stop to pray in the middle of a fight.
Go for a prayer walk or drive
I did this a lot more before I had kids and when they were stroller size. Just thinking about it makes me want to get back in the habit. There is something about being outside that clears the mind. When you’re out walking you’re less likely to be distracted with your to-do list. Plus, there’s nature.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. —Psalm 19:1
Pray the Psalms
I remember the first time I read through the book of Psalms; I was completely bored. Yeah, really. At that time I was trying to absorb the knowledge that the Bible offered, and I was falling asleep getting through this very long collection of poetry. But years later, I love the Psalms because they have guided me in prayer on so many occasions. You know those times when your mind is a flurry and you’re either sobbing uncontrollably or you’re so numb that you can’t even do that? You want to pray but you don’t even know where to begin? Pray a Psalm. A couple of my favorites include Psalm 23 and Psalm 63.
Friends, I don’t call myself a prayer warrior, but even as I write this I feel empowered because I know that in spite of my weaknesses, I do speak and God hears my prayers. If you have a hard time focusing, I hope this lists empowers you too.
If you found these tips helpful, check out the free prayer journal in my free resource collection, which spends a week going through the teachings of Jesus.
Do you know how to pray when you’re having trouble focusing? What do you do?