For the month of January 2021 my church is focusing on prayer. Through intentional prayer we give ourselves a “time out” to hear God’s voice and draw closer to Him. Hearing God’s voice can be difficult. Thoughts and distractions often invade our minds and snatch away our prayers. In this post, I share a chapter from my out of print book, When God Gives a Time Out, that deals with this issue.
There is a wonderful spot in New Salem, Massachusetts called Bear’s Den. Two small waterfalls cascade around a large boulder, and built into the boulder is a natural granite chair. When I lived in New Salem I would sit in that granite chair and listen for God. That place was full of natural beauty but I especially liked the sound of the rushing water. When I first arrived at the waterfalls, I always was surprised at how loud the water sounded. By the time I was ready to leave I had become so accustomed to the sound of the water that I no longer heard it. At first, I heard the sound of the water whether I tried or not. Later, I had to focus my hearing to be able to hear the sound of the water.
This “disappearing water sound” reminds me of how easily the voice of God gets tuned out in my life. For those of you who are not the outdoorsy type just think about how loud your dishwasher sounds when you first turn it on. After a while, you go about the house and don’t even realize when it stops running.
We stop hearing the falling water or the dishwasher partly because that is how the human brain works. Our brains (specifically, a part of our brains known as the reticular activating system) screen out background noise so we can focus on the task at hand. Screening out falling water and dishwashers can be handy, but screening out the ever-present God is always a tragedy. Because God can, and usually does, speak past our physical ears, our brains’ reticular activating system is not really the problem. The real culprit is our short attention span and our spiritual attention deficit disorder. We have trouble staying focused on one thing for very long, even things we need or enjoy, like the falling water or the voice of our Heavenly Father. Our attention shifts so easily.
Marketing firms have made a science out of catching people’s attention. Research indicates that Americans are getting shorter attention spans and marketers know this. Commercials are becoming more image-driven as so many companies strive to make an impression before the remote control goes “click.” Americans and their children are being conditioned to take in an image or information quickly and move on. Not only are we consumers, we are now super efficient consumers who take in as much as possible in a short time. No wonder we have an attention deficit problem.
This pattern affects our relationship with God. In fact, you probably have felt the effects of our attention deficit culture during your prayer time. Does the following sound familiar: One day, you are actually disciplined enough to have an hour of “time out.” You take a few minutes to open your Bible and ask God to speak to you through His word. You read a chapter of scripture and see a couple of interesting verses after which you ask God to help your children, your spouse and your church (Most people stop their time out here). Feeling you want to really hear from God you leave your prayer line open and sit quietly, waiting for whatever God may say. About ten minutes later you realize that you haven’t been open to God, you’ve been thinking about whatever task you need to begin after your prayer time concludes. A little disappointed with yourself, you press on with the remaining thirty minutes and let God know that you are listening again.
Twenty minutes later the following thought fills your mind: “I wonder what happened to the credit card bill that I misplaced the other day. Can I get another one issued? Did I check under the pile of papers on the counter?” Once more you realize that you are not praying, listening, or connecting to God in any way. Frustrated that you were not praying or listening to God, you leave your quiet time early so you can at least get something done.
Oh yes, another devotional time ruined by an invasion of the prayer snatchers. Although the prayer snatchers have invaded Christian minds for centuries,[i] the American way of life leaves us particularly vulnerable to an invasion of these life-draining aliens. We want to listen to God and when we actually carve out some time to connect with Him, thoughts, alien to God and the purpose at hand, invade our heads and take our prayer time captive. Our devotional “time out” may have started well as God spoke to us through our Bible reading, but before God could elaborate and clarify what this word meant for our lives we are thinking about finding that lost credit card bill! With a short attention span, these prayer snatchers invade our mind and distract us from hearing God’s voice.
How do we turn the invasion back? Prevention through a good defense is probably the best answer. Actively trying to cultivate a regular Sabbath time as written about in the previous post acclimatizes our minds to being open for an extended period of time. It is harder for the prayer snatcher to invade when our minds are in the habit of focusing on God. This habit doesn’t develop if we give up on a time out because we were invaded the first several times we tried. No, habits take a while to develop and eventually the invasions become more infrequent (However, these prayer snatchers are a tricky sort so we are always susceptible to a surprise attack).
Meditation is a helpful discipline to train our minds to have a longer attention span. I don’t mean emptying your mind in an eastern religious sense, but readying your mind to receive what God may say to you. Meditation is intentionally focusing your mind to train your attention span. Meditating on a scripture, promise, or attribute of God to get your mind accustomed to extended focus may be helpful. Meditation may starts out feeling very unnatural-like an extended forced thinking. With practice you may develop a general ability to open your mind to God for an extended period of time. As with all habits, building up an acute and extended focus through practicing meditation takes time. This focus is also a means to an end. I know many non-believers who can focus their minds on the word “Ohm” for hours. They may have more attention span and more ability to focus than most people, but they do not have more of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Meditation in a Christian sense builds our minds’ defenses against the thought invasions and towards extended focus on God.
Another preventive measure is using your short attention span and thirst for novelty to help instead of hinder. Go to a new or inspiring place for a time out. For instance, after going three straight weeks to my waterfall I went to a scenic lookout. The overlook impressed me with the power and transcendence of God. Another time, I may go into my room and be impressed with the closeness and intimacy of God. I also like to read a chapter of a Christian book or listen to a podcast during my time out so that I can get a fresh perspective as God speaks through a fellow believer. By trying new places or things in our quiet times we are attempting to walk up to the river anew so we can hear the water as we did at first. Of course I don’t mean new in a heretical sense, I mean new as in looking at the same diamond from a different angle. The market research gurus tell us that attention spans are slightly longer for new things. We can focus on God longer, and prevent the invasion of the prayer snatchers, if we shake away from the same old routine. This change up may entail not journaling for a while because it has become ritual. We may need to fast to break free from our routine or pray with someone as part of our time out. “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” and that is why sometimes we need to trick our flesh. When we break free from our routine, it is harder for the prayer snatchers to invade and easier to keep our focus on God.
What is one to do in the middle of an invasion? Is there any way to turn back these pernicious thoughts once the invasion starts? A method that works for me (recommended by Richard Foster)[ii] is lifting up the invading thoughts to God. Here’s how it works: You are praying or listening for God and you start thinking about that credit card bill. As soon as you realize that you are being invaded, turn the invasion over to God. Pray about what you are thinking or feeling. Your prayer may sound something like this: “God, I keep thinking about this bill. I know my finances are in your hand. Help me to find this bill and turn over the problem to you. Take this thought from my mind and hold it for now. Bring it back when I can deal with it effectively. As for now speak because your servant is listening.”
You have engaged the invading thought. You have lifted it up to God, and now you are ready for whatever comes next. This method is effective for several reasons. Because you have actually engaged the thought, it doesn’t just keep banging on the door in the background of your mind. However, aliens in your house are very distracting if they stay; so you ask for God’s help in dealing with the problem. Not only does lifting the thought up to God keep your focus on God, but it actually asks God to bring His power to bear on the problem. Lastly, this method leaves us open to more possibilities. Perhaps God is the one bringing this thought into your head. He often speaks to me in this manner. If you give an invading thought to God to hold and He keeps returning it to you, perhaps He is speaking to you. If you continue to be invaded by credit card thoughts, then meditate on that thought. Ask God what about the bill is really getting you worried. Is the bill itself the issue or finances as a whole? Perhaps God brought the invading thought as a goad to speak to you about the larger issue. Perhaps He wants to guide you in that area. By lifting up the invading prayer snatcher to God, you can discern if the thought is a distraction or if it comes in peace (or from the Prince of Peace to be exact).
What frustrates us all is when we actually show discipline in our life and carve out a Sabbath time, or monkishly practice God’s presence, or journal, and that time out gets invaded and wasted on thoughts alien to our God connection. We are not helpless, however. We can build up our defenses to prevent the invasion of our time outs, and we can call in God’s heavy artillery. Whatever method we decide to employ is a means to an end–hearing God’s still small voice. Instead of invasion, we will enjoy a time when God’s voice is just as clear and soothing as when we first walked up to that cascade of living water.
Questions to Ponder
How often do the prayer snatchers invade your quite time?
Can you identify certain situations that invite invasion?
How do you think you could best train your mind to prevent invasion and stay open to God?
Invasion of the Prayer Snatchers-Endnotes
[i] William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley(Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 34.
[ii] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988) p30.