One evening when I (Kyle) was in seminary, I went with some classmates to a professor’s house. The professor was talking about a pet peeve: when people pray to the wrong person of the Trinity. After a short rant, he suggested we close in prayer. No one spoke a word! After a minute or two, everyone started laughing because we knew what was going on. We had become so self-conscious about praying correctly that no one wanted to pray.

It is all too easy to focus on praying the right way to the detriment of actually praying. But this is where prayer goes to die. If prayer becomes a place to pray about what we think God wants us to pray about and not what is on our hearts, then we simply won’t do it. In the words of Dominican priest Herbert McCabe, “People often complain of ‘distraction’ during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and ‘religious’ to want it.”

When prayer becomes a kind of performance, it is easy to interpret experiences like having our mind wander as failures. But McCabe touches on something profound. Because we have the Spirit of God in our souls, mind-wandering should not be seen as a random act of an undisciplined intellect. Our minds wander because, in Jesus’ words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). When we come into God’s presence in prayer, we do so with the Spirit present to the deepest truths of our hearts. We should not be surprised that the truth of our hearts begins to percolate and rise to the surface.

Instead of seeing a wandering mind as a failure, then, we should see an opportunity to pray about the deep longings of our souls. We are tempted to do the opposite: to stop praying and start chastising ourselves over an inability to focus or a failure to pray the “right” way. In these moments, we pause our talking with God because we do not think these are the kinds of things God wants us to talk about. They are our problems. They represent our wandering minds and hearts toward idols, worries, and loves. When these thoughts arise, it helps to pray, “Father, look at this. Look at what my heart does in your presence. Lord, deep in my heart, I long for control to calm my fears and anxieties. Lord, help me trust you with these.”

When we pray, we have to avoid trying to fix our lives or giving ourselves a pep talk on how to rightly talk with God. That is not what prayer is, and this is not where our hope is found. Prayers become boring and lifeless when we wrestle with ourselves in our guilt, anxiety, fear, or shame rather than bring them to God.

Kyle Strobel and John Coe, Where Prayer Becomes Real, Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2021. Used by permission of the publisher.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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Where Prayer Becomes Real: How Honesty with God Transforms Your Soul
Where Prayer Becomes Real: How Honesty with God Transforms Your Soul
Baker Books
224 pp., 12.39
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