You’ve probably been there, like I have. You settle in for some time with God, but your brain feels more like a pinball machine.
Shoot, I gotta call that person . . . Man, that thing yesterday at work really messed with me . . . This coffee tastes good. I need to put that on the grocery list.
Mental distraction brims over into an inability to think on spiritual things. To be present with God, making space for Him.
What can you do about it?
1. Acknowledge and explore it
Why am I distracted? Am I having my basic needs met, like sleep, food, exercise, and clear space in my day to think? Have I been able to process recent events that matter to me—or seem to matter to my brain?
Could it be the physiology God created for you is trying to tell you something? (Read: The brain’s often exhausted too, like the rest of our bodies.)
If you need a few minutes to settle your mind, set a timer on your phone and let your thoughts wander aimlessly. So often our brains have little time to breathe, with the endless barrage of information we get. When we sit down with any amount of unscheduled space, that’s when the brain attempts to catch up on processing.
Notice how your non-stop thoughts are appealing to your brain. Is there a fantasy? Are they circling on a need that you wish could be met right now—like comfort, security, approval, or power? Is there anything in your circumstances that’s making you crave something . . . or has non-stop thinking become your natural security blanket?
Commit the “holes” you’re feeling to God, and meditate on verses that direct you toward His complete comfort, security, acceptance, and power: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).
2. If your heart’s troubled, explore your emotional static in place of your next prescribed devotional
In fact, what if you set your scheduled devotional activity aside for that distracted day, and process what’s happening with God instead? Sometimes I like praying the ancient Prayer of Examen at the end of my day, to notice God’s presence and how He’s interacting with the experiences He’s orchestrated for me.
So carry your deepest questions and heart’s cry into the sanctuary, as a chance to know God—to explore what He’s doing in your drifting, depressed, and hurt days.
Consider praying through questions and verses like these:
- Where am I at today, Lord? What emotions am I feeling? (1 Kings 19:9)
- What would you like to talk with me about? (Psalm 139:23-24).
- What do I long for? How are you speaking through my desires and/or pain? (Mark 10:51)
- What do you want to do in me? (Psalm 86:11).
Are you worried? Anxious or stressed? Angry? Grieving? Bitter? Aimless?
Get honest with God. Then preach to your soul: Find Scriptures to specifically counter head-on lies or stresses with which you’re dealing. As Eugene Peterson wrote, “All [true] prayer, pursued far enough, becomes praise.”
3. If it’s your to-do list or ideas you can’t stop from coming, keep a list
. . . in your journal or on a notepad beside you. Come back to them later, now that they’re secure and won’t run away. For the to-do list: Pray for wisdom over your tasks–that you’ll let God’s voice and priorities run your day. Don’t simply pray to “feel peace”, but commit to live from a place of peace created by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
And for those creative ideas that keep coming in: I get this. Creativity is how I’m wired, and it naturally flows from my worship and time with God. Life-giver/Ultimate Creator=ideas flowing from the pores. We co-create! So I take a few minutes to indulge that happiness with Him, then mentally set those aside so my outward pursuits don’t supersede our relationship.
4. Get artsy
Drawing a verse or Bible story or Scriptural concept, painting while listening to worship music, or adult colouring books (there are tons specifically for Scripture meditation and even a Bible for artwork in the margins!) sometimes help us focus on worship. You can turn some of these into Scripture art for your home that inspires you with beauty and reminds you of truth that never runs dry.
5. Get moving
I like going on a run, walk, bike, or hike while praying or listening to a podcast or worship music, or even uttering prayers while doing stretches and gentle workouts.
If you’re feeling easily distracted, use your hands to do something quiet and mindless: Crochet. Open pistachios. Brush the dog. Talk to God about each of the things that are distracting you. Press your thoughts through the sieve of prayer—into communion with God, no matter what’s rushing by on the outside.
6. Meditate on one verse to quiet your soul
Turn the verse over in your mind with eyes closed, breathing deeply. Think through each word, which word(s) stick out most, which thoughts make you pause, and why. If you want, jot down observations or mental images that apply to your life or open up your understanding of God.
Ask good questions. Author Sharon Brown utilises questions from Scripture: Like God’s for the abandoned, pregnant Hagar (“Where have you come from and where are you going?”) to Jesus’s for the disciples (“What are you looking for?” and, “Who do you say that I am?”).
7. Keep a spiritual book by your side
Keep a spiritual book you’re interested in for days when you can’t focus. I’ve liked Paul E. Miller’s A Loving Life, and both Timothy Keller’s Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism and The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms—to name a few.
Sometimes reading others’ thoughts about God serves as the perfect starting point or “appetiser” for my spiritual meal with God.
8. Do something different
Try to avoid getting too prescriptive in your times with God. You wouldn’t always go on the same date with your spouse; you wouldn’t always try to have great conversations with a child in the same place.
There are different ways—“love languages”, even—that each of us are wired to best commune with God. Think about what qualifies in your mind as a “good quiet time,” and why you believe this. Prayerfully compare this with Scripture’s idea of being with God. Do you connect with God most through service? Activism? Contemplation? Intellect?
To make our time with God nourishing, and therefore appealing to our whole selves—rather than something else to check off our daily list—we need to see God as the can’t-turn-away beauty and attraction and high point He is. Do we structure our times with Him to reflect how fulfilling, creative, and engaging He is with our real lives?
Enjoy your next time alone with Him.