Martin Luther once wrote, "I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
I have long been convicted over this quote for a variety of reasons. First, I am absolutely amazed at Luther's discipline to pray for three hours. It is tough for many people to pray in a concentrated manner for just a minute. Second, Luther's love for God is apparent. For him, to commune with God was the top priority of the day. All else was second. Third, I really like the calmness by which Luther approaches his day: one thing at a time with God at the center of it all. There is a calmness and flow that I think is so rare today.
But one dimension I think is worth exploring is Luther sees prayer as a means of being able to accomplish all he is going to do for the rest of the day. In other words, Luther realized his productivity and prayer life were intimately connected.
If you're like me, I sometimes want to dive immediately into my workday. Prayer, while very important, feels almost like an impediment for getting things done. I mean, there are pressing deadlines and emails that need to get sent! There are people to be visited! I have to read my Bible and prepare the sermon!
(By the way, if you want a virtual assistant to handle those crazy tasks, click here to have a free, twenty minute consultation with me and we can get you started).
I wonder, however, what our days would look like if we spent time quietly in prayer? While Productivity is not the chief goal of prayer, but a beautiful byproduct of communing with our God.
But, I believe that in order to receive that byproduct (or grace), there is a certain quality of mindset and prayer that must be achieved.
What Doesn't Work
Hear me out: anytime spent in prayer is good. But I think to truly experience the peace of mind through prayer that leads to productivity and focus requires discipline. There are a few types of prayers that I find myself praying that actually don't transform me or give me time to really experience the beauty and depth of prayer.
1) The Autopilot Prayer
I am a big fan of scripted prayers. In fact, I use The Valley of Vision in my prayer life frequently. I am not talking about those kinds of prayers. I am talking about the kind of prayers that you mumble before you eat (or as you already have Chick-Fil-A halfway in your mouth). Or maybe you say a quick prayer before you travel and it is the same prayer every time. The problem with this sort of prayer is it almost functions as a magic talisman rather than true communing with God. Prayer that is done on autopilot is seldom the kind of prayer that deeply engages the heart, soul or mind.
2) The Arrow Prayer
I use arrow prayers all the time--these are prayers I pray right before I am about to on stage, speak with a client, have to send a tough email, or am preparing to do a complicated task. These are quick prayers that typically go something like, "God, I am nervous about this task. Will you please help me?" These are necessary prayers and we see them used in Scripture (I am sure Daniel shot a few up to God right as he was going into the den of lions). However, the prayer is far too short to be the kind of prayer that sets the tone for your day.
These are not the types of prayer that lead to a productive day if this is ALL you do. They are quick bursts of gasoline on a fire--not a sustainable flow of fuel for the day.
3) The To-Do List Prayer
This is the type of prayer where you simply pull out your list of things to pray for and go down it until you are done. It isn't bad to have a list (I do). But it is FAR too easy to just read off the list like you are telling your spouse what to get at the grocery store. In fact, this is a problem with prayer models that use acronyms like A.C.T.S or whatever. They quickly become just a thing to check-off before moving on to the next step.
What Does Work
I have found a few things help me pray longer and feel more refreshed after prayer. Keep in mind that these are not magic. These steps do not guarantee you'll be more godly. God doesn't love you more if you do these steps. However, I think there are some good principles here that will help you get more out of prayer.
First, when you sit down to pray, make sure you take a few deep breaths. This helps for a variety of reasons: it functions as a trigger to let your brain know that you are getting ready to spend time with God, it slows down your heart rate, and it primes you to focus.
Second, when you close your eyes make sure to settle into your surroundings. This means before you start praying, take a minute or so to listen to the sounds around you and to sense how your body feels. This is helpful so that you aren't distracted by other noises when they occur. You are familiar with what is around you and how your body feels currently. This will help you pray longer.
Third, when you get distracted in your prayer, don't get discouraged. Rather, simply draw your attention gently back to prayer. When you realize you've gotten distracted you can simply label your thought by saying "Thinking" or if you have a strong emotion, "Feeling" and then moving back to prayer. This technique is used in traditional meditation practices but I have found it helpful in prayer because I get off-track so easily (thinking about the rest of my day, plans, fears, stresses...whatever).
Fourth, spending time quietly before saying anything and simply thanking God for meeting with you in prayer has been great. It helps me realize that God is really with me. My prayer is not a performance or a monologue. Sometimes I will sit quietly, just enjoying the reality that God is with me. Sometimes I will feel nothing, and that's ok. I simply thank God that he is with me and has given me the chance to engage with him.
Fifth, turning off my phone and putting it far away from me is one of the best things you can do. The temptation to continually look at my phone while praying or even seeing a notification pop-up on my phone is an immense distraction. This goes the same for your computer as well if you are at your desk. Turn it off. Don't let anything distract you.
Sixth, it may be helpful for you to practice praying a set amount of time at first. If you are struggling to maintain focus, it will probably take some time to discipline your focus enough to pray for a sustained time. So try praying for five minutes straight at first. Then work up to ten, then 15 and then 20. From there, try longer sessions like 30 minutes to 45 minutes.
Seventh, make sure to let nothing disturb you during this time. Lock your door. Turn off your ringer. Tell your assistant to not schedule anything for this time. This is YOUR time with God. This is the time to get prepared to meet your God and enjoy him. Take that task seriously.
So How Does Prayer Help Productivity?
First, I think it helps put things in perspective. You aren't endlessly having an inner dialogue about your problems or concerns. You are reminded that God is sovereign over the situation.
Second, it helps get the problems out of your head. For me this is a huge reason I like to pray--it helps cage my crazy thoughts and prayer helps me organize what I have facing me.
Third, it gives me peace. It reminds me I am not in control of the world. I have a part to play but at the end of the day, I am not God.
Fourth, it gives me focus. I have trained my brain to be able to focus on the task of talking with God and when I am finished, my brain feels focused to tackle the next issue and the next. Prayer is great training for the brain.
Fifth, it makes me more aware of the present moment. In prayer, I am forced to be completely present with God. My task is not to let my brain wander off. So as a result, I become more present and aware of right now. I carry that mindset into the rest of my day.
Sixth, it gives my day organization. I know that my task every day is to pray. My day is structured around prayer. When I finish praying, I feel accomplished--not only because I prayed but because I communed with the Father.
One Final Thing
It can still be tough to pray when you have a daunting to-do list ahead of you. I know. I've been there. When I was in ministry I felt on the verge of burnout because I let these tiny tasks eat at my time--including my time with God.
I started Ministry Assistant Services for this reason: to help you reclaim your time for effective ministry (like praying!). My team of ministry assistants can help take those tasks that are eating up your time and can get them done while you are focusing on what the job God has called you to do. You can click here to schedule a free, twenty minute consultation with me.
Of course, I want you to use our services. But more than that I want you to have a sustainable ministry and a deeper walk with God. I don't want you to burnout. I want you to thrive. So I would encourage you, even if you NEVER use our services, make sure you find someone to take those tasks off your plate. Don't let your walk with God suffer.