Excerpts from Thoughts on Religious Experience, adapted by Lydia Sheldon
Have you ever wondered if you’re the only one who can’t seem to concentrate when you sit down to pray or study God’s Word? Have you asked yourself why you can’t seem to pray as long or read your Bible with as much focus as others seem to be able to do?
The problem of distraction during prayer and Bible-reading is an old one. It’s not only people who are new to following Jesus who struggle against distracting thoughts. In fact, even those who have been setting aside a time to meet with God in prayer and his Word for years can struggle with being sidetracked.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, an old pastor named Archibald Alexander wanted to counsel people who were disturbed by how often they got distracted during prayer or reading Scripture. Generations later, Alexander’s counsel can help us when we’re discouraged by the fact that we can’t seem to focus very long on prayer, or that we can read the same Scripture verse ten times, each time our mind wandering to yesterday’s conversation or this morning’s breakfast. Alexander advises us to keep working at the habit of watching our thoughts. But even then, we’ll find that our thoughts will sometimes, instead of flying straight and true like an arrow, “suddenly start aside from the mark like a deceitful bow.” At that point, should we get up from our place, walk away, and give up?
You’re not the only one
Don’t give up, counseled Alexander. If you are afflicted by thoughts that seem to rebel against your best intentions—even against God—don’t despair. You’re not worse or different than anyone else who has tried to draw close to God. The fact that you’re bothered by these distracting, wandering thoughts is a good sign. You may not be able to enjoy your devotional time, but you want to. Your effort may not be successful, but it is sincere.
Alexander referenced other Christians’ complaints about distracting thoughts. Like busy flies around the Old Testament temple sacrifices, one person wrote, “are vain thoughts to our holy services; their continued buzzing disturbs the mind and distracts its devotions.” St. Bernard complained about distracting thoughts: “They pass and repass, come in and go out, and will not be controlled. I want to clear them all away, but I cannot.”
Another frustrated person described her experience like this: Even when I pray for forgiveness, I’m not really paying attention. These distracting thoughts pull me away from thinking about God so frequently that I often wonder why he would listen to my prayers at all. He sees my heart and knows how I would rather think about so many other things—anything, really—but him. I can barely hear myself pray. Why should God listen to me?
Alexander reminds us that wandering thoughts are normal. This frustration is typical for all of God’s children—even the most devout. “Their thoughts of God and of Christ, of heaven and holiness, are very unsteady and fleeting.” No matter how sincere, every Christian can expect to fight against wandering, futile—even sinful—thoughts during times of devotion. Imagine that you’re looking through a pair of glasses that were prescribed for someone else. Imagine that your hand is shaking while you hold them up to your eyes. Everything you see is blurry. You can’t focus or see something steadily. That’s like our view of “divine objects,” Alexander wrote. The apostle Paul described something similar when he said that our vision of God is dim until we see him face to face (see 1 Corinthians 13:9-12). One effect of that dim vision is the tendency to lose focus.
Not defeated by distraction
Until we see our Lord in person, we can take comfort in the knowledge that we have the gracious, generous mediation of an all-sufficient Savior to make up for all of our failings. Jesus is interceding for you, praying for you and holding up his perfect devotions in place of yours. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is working during your attempts to pray or read the Bible. He promises to strengthen you in your weakness—and in a mysterious way, we know that his “power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT).
Finally, Alexander wrote, don’t give up hope. Faithful Christians throughout the ages have struggled against this very problem of distracting thoughts and have experienced victory over them, reaching new abilities for concentration and worship. Even the psalmist, writing about how much he longed to absorb God’s Word, pleaded with God to keep him from paying attention to worthless things (see Psalm 119:37). He goes on to declare that he will never neglect God’s instructions, “for by them you have given me life” (Psalm 119:93 ESV). Deep fellowship with God lies just beyond the battle with distraction.
Keep the faith
Archibald Alexander knew well how daunting an hour—or even fifteen minutes—with God can be. He might have been shocked by the level of distraction that we fight against in the twenty-first century. If anything, the struggle for concentration has gotten harder. But God has not changed. Time spent with our Lord is as satisfying, as rewarding as it has ever been for any of his followers. Keep setting aside time for prayer and Bible reading. Keep praying and trying to stay focused. Keep taking a moment of quiet to invite God’s Spirit and enter his presence. You are keeping the faith.
Sometimes we can’t “snap out of it” the way we want to. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can’t fix ourselves, can’t make ourselves concentrate on God. But God loves to help us when we recognize our need of him. Start your fight for focus by looking to Christ and asking for his ability to concentrate, and for patience to wait for that gift. Ask Christ to pray with and for you. God will give you everything you need to keep following him.
For tips on how to fight distraction in prayer, check out this excellent article from The Gospel Coalition.
 This article is based on and adapted from Archibald Alexander’s work in Thoughts on Religious Experience. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998.
Thanks to the support of our faithful financial partners, American Bible Society has been engaging people with the life-changing message of God’s Word for more than 200 years.
Help us share God's Word where
Sign up to receive Bible-reading tips, tools and resources.