The Welcomed Prayers of Distraction and Interruption (or How to stop beating ourselves up when we pray)

How many times do we beat ourselves up when we become distracted and our mind wanders when we pray? 

I’ve had countless conversations with people who have said essentially, “When I pray I start out well but then my mind wanders and I start thinking about some trivial thing…and then I feel really guilty for not being able to pray. What should I do?” 

I struggled most of my adult life with this issue. About a year ago I had a conversation with someone which led to a significant shift in my approach to prayer. He helped me see that my times of distraction and interruption in prayer can actually be a good thing. While I would never classify myself as ‘Expert Pray-er’ I find this has helped cultivate further intimacy and works better than guilting myself to pieces while I am trying to pray.

Instead of beating myself up for being distracted and interrupted with trivial thoughts, I now welcome the distractions, attempt to be present to them and pray for whatever person or situation I’m thinking about – no matter how random it may seem. When my mind wanders to things that seem “unspiritual” I am beginning to ask, “God, why did you give me this thought and how do you desire for me to respond to this person/situation? Is there anything you want to teach me right now?” 

For example:

  • if I am praying and my mind wanders to a co-worker who is hard to work with, I can pray for that person and ask for help in being patient and kind with him.
  • if I am praying and my mind wanders to focus on an interaction I had with a neighbor or a conversation I had with a friend over lunch, I can be fully present in that thought and pray for that person.
  • if my mind wanders and I begin to worry about the project due to my boss on Monday morning and I start to be anxious, I can confess my worry and ask that God would give me faith to do the best work I can the next few days.
  • if my mind wanders to the show I was watching last night on TV I might ask the Lord to reveal to me how I should best spend my time at home tonight.
  • if my mind wanders and I begin to be concerned for a friend who is struggling with significant health issues, I will take that as an indication this would be wise to pray for their situation at the moment.
  • if my mind wanders to feelings of anger or resentment or selfishness, I might ask “God, what does this reveal that you would want to change in me?”

As I’m prompted to pray for these people (some of them who just “pop into my head” for no particular reason) I sometimes find it appropriate to approach those people later and mention to them (in a non-weird way) that God brought them to mind and it was a trigger to prayer on their behalf. This is done not to brag or to seem super-spiritual, but with the intention of encouraging others. I tell them that while they came to mind it wasn’t just a nice thought, but it was a signal to intercede on their behalf – whether specifically or generally.

I try to follow a few principles:

  • When the thoughts are from the Lord, follow them.
  • When you are uncertain about the thoughts, pray for them. God listens to even the smallest of prayers that are prayed with hearts of humility and a desire for Him to be honored.
  • When the thoughts are rooted in things that dishonor the Lord, confess them and ask the Lord for help.
  • Rather than fight the thoughts, roll with them and see where God might meet you in them.

As you pray this week and your mind wanders, stop beating yourself up and be present – even in the distractions and interruptions. Welcome them as a way to be present and turn them into prayers. God listens to ‘unfocused’ prayers as well.