Many things can get in the way of praying. But one of the most common obstacles is boredom. Prayer can sometimes seem tedious. Our prayers often sound the same. They begin and end the same way. They seem to be composed of the same requests uttered day after day in the same words. We don’t necessarily need to be troubled by the fact that we get bored when we pray. Prayer is an interchange, not a performance. It doesn’t have to be interesting to be effective. What is more, there are many factors that influence the way we feel, none of which necessarily have any bearing on the actual outcome of our prayers. We may be tired or sick. We may be afraid. The fact that we state our requests unimaginatively means nothing to God, who doesn’t analyze their style but searches the heart (Romans 8:27).
Yet the monotony we feel during prayer is sometimes of our own making. We may be bored because we are only praying one kind of prayer. Or it may be because it is the same prayer over and over again. The vocabulary that the Bible uses to speak of prayer is often more expansive than our practice. There is a variety reflected in Paul’s command in Ephesians 6:18 when he urges believers to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” There are many different situations that prompt us to pray, and we can do so with a variety of types of prayers. One of the things that makes the act of praying interesting, for lack of a better word, is the situation or occasion that prompts it. Just as our lives are filled with great and small traditions, we might also say that there are also great and small prayers. It is unreasonable to expect every prayer to be a transcendent experience.
Sometimes our prayers are urgent. We turn to God in a moment of great need. In those moments, we reach for God the way a drowning swimmer reaches for the outstretched arm of a lifeguard. We have skin in the game. Those are often the times when we feel God’s presence the most. We can say with the conviction of the psalmist, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears” (Psalm 18:6).
At other times, the situation that moves us to pray is mundane. We say grace before a meal or at the beginning of some task. We run through the names on our prayer list and generally ask for God’s blessing on their lives. We are not too specific because we are not aware of any remarkable need.
The more ordinary the context, the less emotionally charged the experience. But it isn’t necessarily the point of prayer to have an emotional experience. Most of our lives are made up of ordinary days. Just as an athlete’s regular training outside the game produces the muscle memory that will enable them to perform in the heat of competition, the habit of ordinary prayer trains us to respond prayerfully in the moment of crisis. Ordinary prayer sanctifies the mundane and makes the benign beautiful. There is nothing wrong with these “bread and butter” prayers. The Bible is full of such prayers. It is our inattention that creates the problem. When our prayers become so common that all we are doing is making religious noise, it ceases to be prayer.
Occasional prayers are a little different. As the label suggests, they are prayers suited to a particular occasion. Invocations and benedictions are an example. Occasional prayers are often a feature of the church’s great traditions. We open and close special services with such prayers. Invocations and benedictions are located at the opposite ends of a task or an endeavor. When a church service begins, sometimes the pastor or worship leader will offer an invocation. This is a kind of invitation offered to God, although we shouldn’t think that He needs permission from us to be part of the service.
Nor should we think that He is somewhere outside the building waiting to be let in. In a way, an invocation is a reminder to ourselves that God is already present as much as it is an invitation to God. A benediction is a blessing. It asks God to bless what we have done or to continue to help us. Although benedictions are viewed as prayers, often they are not addressed to God at all but to the congregation. They are promises addressed to God’s people. One does not need to be ordained to pray an invocation or benediction. Nor are they necessarily reserved for church service. When my children were small, my wife Jane and I would pray the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24–26 over them when they went to bed at night. Many benedictions are scattered throughout the Scriptures, but writing your own can be especially meaningful. Think about how you want God to bless those for whom you pray and put it into the form of a promise. A good way to formulate your benedictions is to use the language of Scripture’s promises.
The Bible employs several terms to speak of prayer. The most basic is “ask.” It is the general word that Paul uses in Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” A prayer is simply a request. But Paul’s inclusion of two additional terms expands the definition. Paul speaks of “prayers” and “petitions.” If there is a difference between the two, it is a difference in perspective. The term prayer looks at it from God’s direction. It was the term commonly used to refer to a request addressed to a deity. This language reminds us of the relational dynamic that provides the context for our request. We are coming to God, who is greater than we are. In a sense, it is a word that puts us in our place.
A petition, on the other hand, looks at prayer from our angle. A petition expresses what we want. The Greek word speaks of beseeching or begging someone. It is more than a request; this is an earnest request. So, the first principle to help us stay interested is to have clarity about what we are doing and what we want. What exactly do we want? What are we asking? It is shockingly easy to pray absentmindedly. Our petitions are not petitions at all. They are not specific enough. We ask God to bless us but in a very general sense. So general, in fact, that God could not answer them if he were limited only to the specifics we share.
Fortunately, God is able to see past our vague requests to the real needs that lie beneath them. But it is hard for us to stay attentive without a concrete sense of what we need. It is not selfish to think about yourself and your situation before you pray. It only makes sense that we should have our problems in mind when we pray. They are the concerns that motivate us to go to God in the first place. But it is possible that in the process, we may magnify those concerns so much that they drive God from our minds. Sometimes when we pray, we are only worrying out loud to God. God hears even these prayers, but they don’t bring us much comfort.
Praying is spiritual, but it is also a cognitive act that requires focused attention. Everyone knows the frustration of having a conversation with someone who is distracted. Perhaps it is because their mind wanders, flitting from one topic to another. Or it may be a result of multi-tasking—the one with whom we are trying to converse is doing something else at the same time. Their attention is divided. Prayer is no different. Conversation with God, just like a conversation with any other person, requires that we concentrate on the topic at hand and on the one to whom we wish to speak.
A meaningful prayer experience, then, requires some forethought. First, what is the subject that we have come to God to talk about? Second, what exactly do we want to say? If we had an appointment with our employer that we knew would cover important topics related to our job, we would spend some time thinking in advance about what we planned to say. The same is true when we have a serious talk with a friend or a family member. We choose our words carefully so that we can express ourselves in just the right way. We do this, in part, so that they will not misunderstand us. But only in part. We choose our words carefully because we have something we want to express. This is what makes the conversation important to us.
Although there is no danger that God will misunderstand us, there is a possibility that we may come to him without having much to say. Perhaps the reason we have trouble focusing during prayer is that the conversation isn’t important. Our thoughts are muddled because we haven’t given much thought to what we are trying to say.
Although words are primary, especially where prayer is concerned, we do not communicate with words alone. Gestures and body motions are also a kind of language. The technical word for this is kinesics. A wink, a nod, a slight gesture of the hand all indicate something. Posture, gestures, and various actions are part of the nonverbal vocabulary some use to talk to God. The difference between these holy kinesics and ordinary body language is that God does not need such signals to understand us. They are for our benefit. Things like posture and gestures can sometimes help us focus our attention when we pray. They may enable us to express ourselves more fully, not because God needs more clarity but because we do. They can also serve as reminders both of our purpose in prayer and the promises that shape it.
Maybe the real problem with my praying is that what I have been calling tedium is actually familiarity. I have come looking for a burning bush only to find a quiet room and a comfortable chair. God does not have to announce his presence with a flourish. Our momentary conversation does not have to be dramatic. Perhaps it is enough just to say my piece and then go my way.