“A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until, in the end, he realized prayer is listening.” (Soren Kierkegaard 1813-1855)
Sometimes we think we have to talk at God, and we forget that prayer is a conversation where we also need to listen. But I for one have a hard time being still and just listening. My mind wanders to the grocery list, to what somebody said to me, or to some work or financial worry. This is not something new. While our present world arguably holds more distractions, there are recorded instances through the ages of Christians having struggled with wandering thoughts during prayer.
We get some providential advice on this via Eberhard Bethge (1909 – 2000). Bethge was a German theologian and a student of Dietrich Bonhoeffer* in the Confessing Church during the Nazi reign in Germany. Bethe reports that, upon his complaining to Bonhoeffer about this problem, Bonhoeffer told him that when your mind wanders, let it wander, don’t fight it. Follow the thought stream to where your mind ends up, and then take that matter and bring it back to prayer. Stop struggling for silence and trust that the Lord is directing your thoughts to what you need to be bringing back to him in prayer.**
*Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) was a German Protestant pastor, theologian, and founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential. Apart from his theological writings, Bonhoeffer was also known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. Bonhoeffer was accused of being associated with the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was hanged on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.
**Bonhoeffer himself wrote about this in his book Life Together And Prayerbook Of The Bible: “If we find ourselves in this situation, [referring to wandering thoughts] it is often a help to not frantically restrain our thoughts, but to calmly draw into our prayer those people and events toward which our thoughts keep turning.” [Adapted]