Invasion of the Prayer Snatchers

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.

(Click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” if you want to start with chapter 1 of When God Gives a Time Out.)

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.

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 10: What about Sin?

The last few posts from my out of print book, “When God Gives a Time Out”  focused on doing things to be esteemed by others.  Today’s post pauses to discuss our concept of sin. Our view of sin can hinder us from seeking  God or it can spur us on to listen.  A proper view of sin changes how we address sin in our life. We confront sin by striving towards, and guiding others towards, the only one who can change us from the inside out – Jesus Christ who won the victory over sin and death.

(Click here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” if you want to start with chapter 1 of When God Gives a Time Out.)

Christians often think of sin in a way that hinders them from overcoming sin, as well as hearing God’s voice.  When we hear the word “sin” we usually think of a particular act (usually sexual) that goes against God. In the Bible, sin has a broader definition.  Sin may refer to aiming to do right, but falling short.  Sin may be described as a “transgression,” connoting a violation of God’s laws or commands.  When the word “iniquity” is used to describe sin, an inner, sinful disposition is usually in view.  In contrast to this biblical view of sin, the popular view of sin tends to be restricted to “transgressions.” Continue reading

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 8: Image is Everything

I have been posting devotional material from my out-of-print book (2006), “When God Gives a Time Out.” Today’s post contains chapter 8, but you can read chapter 1 here: “An Introduction to Time Outs” and then catch up on the other chapters. Today’s chapter focuses on our compulsion to keep up whatever image our sub-culture most highly prizes. In so doing, we present a “false self” that inhibits our relationship with God.

Image is Everything

time out bookWhat we do for esteem depends on what subgroup or culture we belong to. This truth became clear when I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension center outside of Boston.  I was required to go to the main campus in Louisville about once a year. At the main campus I noticed many people always took up the most conservative position. They took pride in being esteemed as the most conservative. Many of my peers didn’t realize that what they were saying and doing was a knee jerk reaction to keep up their image. For a time, I looked down on my peers for seeking the esteem of men. I wasn’t so haughty when God convicted me of engaging in the same esteem seeking in a different way. Being from New England I live in a bastion of liberalism and many of my neighbors consider me a conservative. Down South, however, and especially in Seminary I took pride in being on the “cutting edge.” I thought these hicks from the Bible belt were stuck in their unbiblical traditions while I was living in a cutting edge mission area. I always spoke up for considering people who aren’t from a Christian culture and for reaching the lost. I made sure everyone knew that is what I had to do in ministry. Whether I was right or wrong was not the issue. The issue was I acted a certain way to keep up an image. I liked advertising myself as a cutting edge church planter in a mission field. This image brought me esteem from the subculture that I valued most. I realized that some of the classes I took, and the ministry tasks I chose, were based on keeping the cutting edge image that brought me the rush of esteem from my peers. Continue reading

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 3: Be careful where you are going–you may actually get there.

Be Careful Where You Are Headed – You May Actually Get There.

I am a doer.  When I first met my wife, Wendi, I was in college at the University of Maryland in the Washington D.C. area and I had a seven year plan.  This plan spelled out what I was going to achieve over the next several years.  I planned to complete my undergraduate degree with a 4.0 GPA, while interning in the nation’s capitol.  I was in a Military Intelligence Army reserve unit next to the National Security Agency (NSA) and was looking into some part time work for the NSA. This scenario would have set me up nicely to be accepted into an ivy-league law school to specialize in international law.  After law school the seven years would be completed and after taking stock, I could make a new plan.  To me, relationships were secondary to accomplishing goals.  I let Wendi know that my plan was in place and that where our relationship was going (to marriage or elsewhere) depended on the status of my plan.

time out bookI followed my plan for about a year and a half with quite a bit of success.  My plan changed, however, when God brought me to my first “time out.”  God gave me a sneak peak into what would happen if I actually achieved everything in my plan.  I asked myself, “If my wildest dreams came true, if I become a high level advisor on the national level, or if I am elected to the legislature, then so what?”  Even if I achieved all those goals, they would be gone – forgotten within a generation.  If I achieved my wildest dreams I would have achieved nothingness.  This revelation didn’t come about subtly.  It was driven home by a Bible cult that I had started hanging around with. (I describe this association more in subsequent chapters.)  God knew that I needed a LOUD wake up call.  After a short time of looking at things through an eternal perspective I knew that God was the only thing of any permanence and the only thing worth devoting my life to.  I soon realized that I wanted to devote my life to God but not this cult.  In the cult’s eyes you couldn’t do one without the other.  Rather confused and feeling that I didn’t want to follow my plan or this cult anymore, I left.  I went back home to live with my parents.  For the next couple of months I was in time out. God took away everything I was doing. I no longer had a plan except to abandon my old plan because it was worthless.  I didn’t have a clear grasp of what the Bible really said or what God wanted me to do next.   Away from college and all I had lived for, I spent the subsequent few months pouring over the Bible for myself.  I really focused on the voice of the Father and my relationship with Him grew.  This was my first time out and it felt like the hardest time of my life while I was going through it. But in hindsight, I am so thankful for that time out.  I was so focused on doing, on achieving, on following the American dream that I was actually throwing my life and relationship with the Father away.   God was trying to tell me this truth for some time, but I couldn’t hear him.  I was too busy doing stuff.  I needed a time out and that is exactly what I received. Continue reading

When God Gives a Time Out. Chapter 2

Last week I departed from this blog’s usual focus of applying the academic discipline of biblical studies to the church. Instead, I posted devotional material from my out-of-print book (2006), “When God Gives a Time Out.” I shared chapter 1, “An Introduction to Time Outs” and over the next several weeks I will post additional chapters. I pray they will be an encouragement and guide in our current circumstances.

Chapter 2: What Do You Mean “Time Out?”

time out bookI use the term “time out” because God does in concept what we see so many parents literally doing to their children. It all boils down to the fact that the child is not listening. They may be doing something they are not supposed to do or just doing something other than listening. The parent makes the child cease all activity. The child must now sit on the stairs, or in a special chair, with nothing to do except listen.

I will speak about the specific time outs God has given me in subsequent chapters. In general though, a time out is when God so controls the situation that you have no choice but to stop doing a certain thing, or stop doing everything. Something is getting in the way of hearing God’s voice and He is making you sit quietly until you are ready to listen. Are you in a relationship and suddenly circumstances cause you to cease contact with that person? Perhaps it is a time out. Have you ever had a job that kept you real busy and you either can’t do that job for a time or get permanently laid off? Perhaps a time out. Can you remember any period in your life when you were stuck or just unable to do a certain thing? Again, God may have been giving you a time out. This feeling of being stuck reminds me of how my wife would give a time out to our kids when they were toddlers. On occasion, Wendi would tell one of our children to go sit on the stair, but they wouldn’t go. She would then take that child to the stair and hold them very firmly. Of course they would struggle to break free, but they were stuck. Eventually, they calmed down and were ready to listen. God will hold us on the stair until we stop squirming. We want to quickly get out of the time out, but God must talk to us about the situation so that we are better able to deal with it the next time. God can bring you to a place where you are stuck financially. Is He holding you in a time out so that you will listen to Him concerning how you manage your money? God can bring single people to a place where they just can’t seem to get a date. He may be trying to get that single person to listen to what He was to say about relationships. Whether it is a specific area of your life, as in these examples, or your entire life, God gives time outs so that He can lovingly parent you to a place of maturity. Continue reading