If you’re like me, one of the constant struggles in prayer is to keep your attention focused. Unlike in personal, face-to-face conversation with other human beings, when we’re talking to God it’s easy to drift off mid-request and shut down the communication. When praying before bed, I confess, I have been known to drift right off to sleep in a pause between phrases. Not the greatest sign of piety and reverence, to say the least.
Now, I am the last one to imagine that as long as someone else is falling off a cliff it’s okay if I do too. Peril is peril, alone or in company. However—small comfort though it is—it’s worth mentioning that I am not the first person to have trouble concentrating during prayer. I suspect it’s been common since sometime around the exit from Eden.
Take just one example. In the mid-1500s, John Calvin wrote the following about God’s people’s struggles in prayer: “Whoever engages in prayer should…not, as commonly happens, be distracted by wandering thoughts… For no one is so intent on praying that he does not feel many irrelevant thoughts stealing upon him, which either break the course of prayer or delay it by some winding bypath” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xx.5). Calvin suggests (rightly) that when we come to God in prayer, we ought to do so wholeheartedly, realizing our need and, fittingly, keeping focused on God who will alone supply our need.
We are just like the folks of the sixteenth century, or the first (remember poor young Eutychus, in Acts 20, who fell asleep and right out the window while Paul was preaching). We are weak, and our spirits are often feebler in prayer than we’d like.
Probably there are many things we might suggest to help us keep focused in prayer. None of them should be laid down as absolute rules. But they may prove useful if you share my difficulty in this matter. I’m open to suggestions.
Calvin mentions one suggestion that was common in his day. It’s this: consider your posture when you’re praying.
Our bodies can help lead our minds and hearts. So Calvin says the following: “God has planted in men’s minds by nature the principle that their prayers are lawful only when their minds are uplifted. Hence the rite of lifting up the hands… one common to all ages and peoples, and still in force. But how rarely is there one who, in raising up his hands, is not aware of his own apathy, since his heart stays on the ground.” Even with the common help of hand-raising, Calvin says, we are all-too-aware of our shortcomings. But by raising the hands we are reminded of our need to look up toward God
The biblical writers point in this direction quite often. In 1 Timothy, Paul mentions lifting the hands in prayer: “I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing…” (1 Timothy 2:8). Numerous references appear in the Old Testament to people falling on their face in humility toward God. And in 2 Chronicles 6, we read about King Solomon’s posture when he offered the prayer of dedication for the temple in front of all the people of Israel. The attention to detail makes it clear that Solomon’s physical posture was an indicator of the state of his heart: “He stood on the platform and then knelt down before the whole assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven.” In the great heavenly scene of Revelation 4, “the twenty-four elders fall before him who sits on the throne and worship him…”
It would be easy to go on and on. But the point is this: our predecessors have found that when their hearts are called to God in praise and prayer, their bodies could often play a part as well. If we find ourselves struggling to attend to God in our prayers, perhaps we need to get on our knees, lift up our hands, remember who we’re privileged to address, and pour out our hearts to him.