Distraction in prayer tripping you up? What follows is an excerpt from the book When Prayer Is a Struggle: A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer by Kevin Halloran. Pick up a copy of the book to read the chapter titled “I Can’t Focus” which shares practical strategies for focusing in prayer.
Focus is essential in all areas of life—not only prayer. How would you like seeing your Uber driver reading a book while driving? Or maybe you’d prefer your surgeon to be sending texts during an operation? Obviously not. And yet we allow distractions to steal our attention—with results that are often subtler than a fender bender or a botched surgery.
“With the ever-present distractions in our lives, we are quickly becoming a people of shallow thoughts, and shallow thoughts will lead to shallow living,” writes blogger and author Tim Challies. “There is a simple and inevitable progression at work here: Distraction —> Shallow Thinking —> Shallow Living.”
While many people claim they don’t want shallow lives, allowing constant distractions to creep into their lives betrays this claim. Tim Wu, author of the book The Attention Merchants, shares this sober warning: “When we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or by default.” While that may be an over-statement for believers (because we can’t forget grace!), you get his point. We will one day face judgment for what we have done with the time and talents God has entrusted to us.
Perhaps the worst effect of letting distraction derail our prayers is the message it sends to God: my trivial thoughts and anxieties are more important than You are. God doesn’t appreciate your half-hearted attention any more than my wife enjoys knowing I’m paying more attention to the TV than to her during an important conversation. Let us resolve to honor Him by disciplining our minds to pray faithfully.
WHY ARE WE SO DISTRACTED IN PRAYER?
Since a proper treatment requires a proper diagnosis, let’s look into why it is so easy for us to be distracted. Let me offer six suggestions.
- We Have Competing Desires
Desires drive our lives, whether we realize it or not. When your mind wanders to your to-do list, your hobbies, your anxieties, or something else instead of focusing on God while you are praying, your desire for those other things overrides your desire for God.
The fear of missing out (which is abbreviated as FOMO) stirs up desires in us to be cool, to keep up with the Joneses, or to be in the loop with the latest news out there. When you are praying, FOMO might whisper to you that checking what’s new on social media or your favorite website is better than connecting with God. It might cause you to overload your schedule, to the detriment of your prayer time, because there are simply too many exciting opportunities to pass up.
The only thing we should fear missing out on is God’s will for our lives. Our world is flooded with information, opportunities, and the “next big thing”—which will be yesterday’s news in a few months (or sooner). Our lives are as they should be only when God is our greatest desire (see Pss. 37:4; 73:25–26).
- We Never Focus on Focusing
Many of us haven’t actively diagnosed our lack of focus and haven’t sought to grow. The ability to focus is like a muscle that can be strengthened over time. Have you ever exercised it? You’d be surprised how productive it is to spend fifteen minutes thinking through your common distractions and how you can fight them.
- The Pressures of Life Weigh upon Us
You have work to do, bills to pay, and family to look after. You have a car that needs repair and a relationship that does, too. Maybe you bring burdens home from work with you as well. All of these pressures can make focusing a challenge. (And, unfortunately, they can choke out faith as well—see Mark 4:18–19).
- We Are Lazy
Maybe you put off dull tasks until a time when you feel more like doing them, but that time never seems to come. Do you avoid important things because you don’t want to exert mental energy on a hard task or decision? That’s called laziness, my friend. And when you add up wasted chunks of time over several decades, it amounts to . . . well, something we will probably want to put off thinking about.
- Using Technology Conditions Us to Be Distracted
Technology used to feel like a neutral tool. However, it’s becoming clear that tech giants will use any means of enticement to keep you constantly using their products so they can gather data on you and then sell it.
And not only do we have outside forces vying for our attention, but we also battle internally with sinful hearts that enjoy distraction. Studies show that the typical person checks his or her phone every twelve minutes—about eighty times per day. When our phones aren’t physically near us, we feel separation anxiety. A phone has become almost an additional appendage of the human body, which transforms us into distraction addicts. (Go ahead; see if you can go an hour without thinking about your phone.)
Have you seen the viral video of the girl who fell into a fountain at a mall because she was texting as she walked? Me too. And I’ll admit I chuckled. But digital distraction has a dark side, too. Think of all the people who die because of car accidents that are caused by texting and driving. Or think of the kids who are injured because their parents were paying more attention to their phones than to the kids’ safety (which is unfortunately a documented phenomenon).
Don’t hear me wrong—I’m not saying that being distracted from or during prayer equals homicide or child abuse. My point is that negative physical effects of technological distraction are a lot easier to spot than negative spiritual effects. For that reason, we need to maximize the benefits we get from technology and mitigate the aspects of it that hinder our relationship with God.
- We Can Lose the Ability to Focus
We may struggle to focus while praying simply because our bodies and minds can’t focus like they used to. Scripture tells us our mortal bodies are wasting away (see 2 Cor. 4:16)—which may result from illness or simply aging. While overcoming physical weakness will always be a challenge for us, we can rest in the words of Psalm 73:26: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Read the whole chapter on prayer and focus by picking up a copy of When Prayer Is a Struggle.
 Tim Challies, The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 117.
 Tim Wu attributes this observation to William James in The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 7.
 See Cal Newport, “A Lopsided Arms Race,” chap. 1 in Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio, 2019).
 See SWNS, “Americans Check Their Phones 80 Times a Day: Study,” New York Post, November 8, 2017, https://nypost.com/2017/11/08/americans-check-their -phones-80-times-a-day-study/.
 See Erika Christakis, “The Dangers of Distracted Parenting,” The Atlantic, July/ August 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/the-dangers -of-distracted-parenting/561752/.
Here are a few more thoughts on fighting distraction for prayer: