How Habits Can Help Us Pray

I stumbled into the practice of the best practices of habit formation backward as I began to make more space in my life for prayer. I found the connections between spiritual practices and habit formation after the fact, reading books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits when certain prayer habits had already taken root in my life.

As I read these books on habit formation, I couldn’t help thinking that I really could have used them as I was getting started with a more regular prayer schedule. As a disclaimer, it would be a mistake to reduce spirituality to a simple habit-based schedule, nor do I limit my prayer to certain times or practices.

One of the reasons I struggled to make space for prayer was my lack of habits to add order to my life. Habits aren’t the silver bullet for prayer or other spiritual practices, but they offer a useful place to make space for prayer on a smaller scale than say a more rigid monastic community.

Here are a few ways that habits can help you make more space for prayer.

Set a Time and a Space to Pray

This is nothing new or revolutionary, as Christians have been praying at set times for centuries, to say nothing of the Jewish roots of Christianity. A set time for prayer in a specific place makes it significantly easier to pray since my body now seems to almost know instinctively what will happen next at specific times and places.

Begin Small and Grow in Prayer

I began to pray in silence for just a few minutes. That grew to five minutes, and then over time I experimented with ten, twenty, and even thirty minutes. Habits are more likely to stick if you can start small, keep consistent, and then increase the time for the habit.

It helped that I invested time in learning how to pray, such as the practice of centering prayer where a simple word offers a way to refocus my intention to be present for God.

I used to think of myself as a failure if I couldn’t pray for a long time, but James Clear emphasizes in Atomic Habits that it’s far more important to keep a streak going for a habit than to skip it if I can’t do it perfectly. If I only pray in silence for a few minutes one day, that at least maintains the routine of praying daily and makes it easier to begin again the next day, hopefully adding more time.

Give Yourself a Prompt to Pray

A prompt is a reminder or cue that helps me remember what I intend to do. For instance, I leave my running clothes out in the morning as a reminder to run–that also makes it easy to choose to run.

Leaving my prayer book out helps me remember to pray each morning, while driving my car in the morning also helps me remember to spend some time sitting in silence. The “prompt” is as simple as turning my car on and then sitting in silence for 5-10 minutes. It took discipline to make prayer a habit in the car each morning, but now, it is far more automatic and requires less willpower.

Make It Easy to Pray

Closely related to the prompts or cues pray, making it easy to pray ensures that I remove any barriers or distractions. For instance, I don’t have to look for my prayer book because it’s already out. I don’t have to force myself to choose a time to pray because I have chosen some simple cues.

I sit in silence when I turn the car on in the morning, or I open my prayer book before I begin my work in the morning. It’s not hard to pray at these times, and while these aren’t the only times I pray, I have set moments throughout the day where I make it as easy as possible to choose prayer.

I’ve already made the choice to make space for prayer, so it’s not major decision each time I think of praying.

Consider Your Motivation to Pray

My motivation for prayer called for deeper scrutiny than I had imagined. I share in Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that I had prayed because of fear, duty, guilt, and obligation. I imagined that God was disappointed in me because I was such a slacker who never prayed enough.

I hadn‘t considered that God was already present and loving, accepting me as I am and craving an intimate relationship with me.

Moreover, the simplicity of the Christian contemplative prayer tradition pulled me away from a performance mindset where I tried to demonstrate my piety or commitment. While silence or centering prayer aren’t the only ways I pray, they have been the most healing for me as I learn to turn to God in faith, waiting patiently in silence for the Lord.

While habits aren’t essential for making space to pray, they can make it significantly to find space each day for prayer. I have found that the best habit formation practices have a lot in common with the schedules of monks and nuns, and it seems that they may have a thing ten to teach us about making space for prayer and work.

If you aren’t sure where to begin with prayer, it may help to rethink your spiritual practices as habits that can start small and grow over time.

 

Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

The Trouble with Offering Religious Goods and Services

I write books about Christianity, prayer, and spiritual practices, so you could say that my books could be considered religious goods in a consumer society.

When I sit down to write these books, I’m always trying to think of ways I can minister to and help my readers. However, drawing a line between helping readers and telling them what they want to hear can prove challenging to authors.

Staying positive, giving a “Rah, rah, you can do it!” message of abundance and prosperity may sell well. Honestly, there is a positive element to the Christian message that can take on a life of its own at times, but there are two big caveats that I’ve found in genuine Christian spirituality:

  1. Abundance and joy is preceded by a surrender or death to certain priorities or ways of living.
  2. Abundance and joy rarely look the way we imagine they will look.

While writing Flee, Be Silent, Pray, I was constantly trying to avoid a consumer-focused sales pitch for contemplation:

  • Cure your anxiety!
  • De-stress!
  • Find inner peace!
  • Find security in God!

These are all results that come over time in contemplative prayer, but they are not necessarily guaranteed, especially in the short term.

Contemplative prayer can offer a deeper, more foundational fix to these issues by addressing them as part of the larger picture of prayer, identity, and surrender.

When Jesus spoke of the life he offered, he certainly used terms that we would associate with abundance–springs gushing with water or trees that are plentiful with fruit. He also warned that our lives must go into the ground and experience a kind of “death” in order to produce fruit.

There really isn’t a program other than surrender and sacrifice to a loving but unseen God. It’s not easy, and oftentimes it’s counterintuitive to wait in silent expectation.

The sales pitch, to use consumer language, for contemplative prayer is summed up more or less in the word surrender. It’s much easier to add something than to give something up! That’s what makes consumerism so powerful.

When Thomas Merton shared the writings of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila, both offer a demanding path forward that involves sacrifice, discipline, and purity of heart. Yes, they wrote of the deep love of God for us, but they also oriented their lives around this pursuit.

We need contemplative prayer because it offers a simple yet structured way to become present for God each day. Silence and resistance to distracting or afflicting thoughts through a prayer word can open up a space for God that we didn’t even know we could find.

Arriving at this point is hardly easy going. It’s costly. It’s a leap of faith. It calls for the disciplined pursuit of God through surrender and silence.

Far from providing yet another spiritual good or service to acquire, contemplative prayer in silence before God will challenge us to surrender what we have.

Our hope is that what God gives us in return will far exceed the worth of whatever we can purchase on our own.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash