Questions from the Parish: Is distraction in prayer a problem?

I think distraction is a normal part of the Christian prayer life.

Distraction is a normal part of the human experience of trying to concentrate on one thing. To understand distraction in prayer, we must briefly rehearse and put it in its proper theological context:

Humans are created to behold God and contemplate him forever. Our sin and our twisted desires pull us away from God. When we are redeemed and believe in Jesus Christ we are accepted and brought into fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit. A part of this fellowship is prayer. In prayer, we submit our minds and hearts to God as he teaches us to attend to our final goal and purpose: the face of God in Jesus Christ.  Distraction in prayer is bound up with the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying of our minds and hearts as we are taught by God to desire only God and order all that we do, think, and say towards God in Christ Jesus.  Distraction occurs because we are still on the way towards attending to the one thing needful. However, distraction is not, in itself, a sin. The things we are distracted by might be sinful. What we do with distractions and the feelings we have when we are distracted is what matters. Will we allow God to put to death our thoughts and our distraction and renew our minds or not? That is the question.

For me, it is easy to react to distraction in two ways: either by feeling guilty, which leads to further distraction, and usually some sort of self-inflicted sin or by giving into them totally; turning from prayer to the thoughts themselves. One remedy to this is to turn the distractions into prayer themselves, which leads us back to our primary purpose: being with God. However, sometimes our minds are so busy that our primary objective is drowned out by the distractions, even if they turn to prayer.

In these moments I try to simply surrender them to God, with a prayer like: “God I am powerless over these distractions, please take them from me.”  Additionally, I find that the guilt over distraction is more powerful than the distraction itself. In those moments I have to remind myself that God is patient and gracious and loves it when I am seeking to spend time with him.

I read somewhere that it is helpful to think of distracting thoughts as boat passing down the river of your mind; they are there, and you acknowledge them, and then you let them pass. This sometimes helps me.  But usually, I want to jump on board and go down the river with them. I have to actively surrender that desire and give the desire to get distracted to God.

In the end, our goal is to practice the presence of God, to ‘pray without ceasing” (1 These 5:17) which means constantly seeking to acknowledge and be attentive to the reality that God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

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