Is it hard to stay focused when you pray? Are you distracted by recent conversations that insist on being rehearsed? Agitated by the thought of duties that demand attention? Distressed over problems that lie unsolved in your mind? Do these raise angry thoughts? Impure thoughts? Thoughts about wrongs you’ve suffered?
Such is the lot of all Christians. By the very nature of modern life, we function in a distracting environment. Moreover, we live in a world where God seems, publicly at least, to be held at a distance, if acknowledged at all, and this can have a dulling effect on us. Add to these the fact that our mere humanness makes us subject to temptations — the insatiable thirst for experiences to satisfy our senses, the restless passion to acquire things, the selfish impulse to be dominant in our personal world.
If you’re seeking control over wandering thoughts when you pray, you may find it helpful to follow an established pattern in prayer. Here are the five elements that make up well-rounded prayer. Try using them, taking only a few minutes with each as you pray. Giving your prayers order and moving them along will help you to keep focused.
1. ADORATION. In adoration, we come before God with a keen sense of his majesty, his holiness, his infinite greatness. The Virgin Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” We may say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.” Or, “Hallowed be thy name.” Adoration takes us into the inner sanctuary of worship.
2. CONFESSION. In a collection of prayers that he published before was 30 years of age, John Wesley gives this helpful pattern: “Heal, O Father of mercies, all my infirmities (_____), strengthen me against all my follies (____), forgive me all my sins (_____). Wesley left the blanks so that anyone using this prayer could personalize it. Prayer should always have a place for self-examination, but examination made with full confidence in God’s forgiving and sustaining mercy.
3. PETITION. In petition we bring personal needs before our Father. This follows naturally upon confession. Often petitions grow out of issues we have addressed in confession — having to do with our infirmities, our follies, our sins. Or they may arise out of legitimate daily needs, however large or small. George Buttrick wrote, “No situation remains the same when prayer is made about it.” But our prayers should not bog down in petition.
4. INTERCESSION. This means praying for others — family, friends, associates, neighbors, our church, other ministries, civic leaders. The efficacy of intercession is one of the profoundest mysteries of the spiritual life. Its effects are often imperceptible. Answers on occasion may be instant, but not always. And it never functions like a vending machine from which we always get in that instant whatever we order. Intercession saves our prayers from becoming merely “want” lists. In this exercise, keeping a prayer list helps. James Hastings wrote, “It would not be unfair to estimate a person’s religion by the earnestness by which he longs for the welfare of others.”
5. THANKSGIVING. This matches adoration. In adoration, we worship God for who he is; in thanksgiving we praise him for all his benefits. It is good to let our spirits soar in thanksgiving. Remember the smallest mercies, and give thanks. Remember the largest blessings, and give thanks. Give thanks especially for the gift of redemption through Jesus Christ — the greatest blessing of all — our salvation!