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

Better to Have Imperfect Spiritual Practices Than No Spiritual Practices

There is one significant disadvantage to learning spiritual practices and disciplines from the likes of Thomas Merton.

While Merton hid out in an abandoned tool shed to pray each day or ventured off to his hermitage for days at a time, most of us can hardly string together 10 minutes of silent prayer before an inevitable interruption comes along. It’s easy to become discouraged when comparing our time for prayer to someone who dedicated large blocks of time to it.

I can get caught up in the challenges of pursuing solitude in a family of five in a relatively smallish house with thin doors and bedrooms clustered closely together. Even if I carefully plan my time, a child will pee on something other than a toilet, the pharmacy will take longer on a prescription, extra homework will show up unbidden, or a work project will take hours longer than anticipated.

These aren’t things that can generally be put off until later, and so plans and disciplines need to be adapted or dropped for the day. The perfect version of a spiritual practice isn’t a guarantee most days for a parent, and it’s not like Thomas Merton has a wealth of experience in this department, even if he frequently complained about how busy the monastery kept him.

[As a side note, Merton complained about his packed schedule to the point that he likely was sent off into the woods by himself to tag trees. I know about this because he cheerfully documented these romps throughout his journals in great detail.]

This week I was practicing silent breathing and centering prayer while driving around town.

That’s not the ideal situation for that practice, but it’s the time I had while navigating an unexpectedly full schedule.

At another point, I was praying the divine hours in the pharmacy pickup line.

That’s not my preferred place to pray the hours, but it was better than not praying them at all.

It’s easy to turn to our phones for podcasts, social media updates, emails, text messages, or videos to pass the time.

What can you do with five minutes in the pharmacy line?

What good will ten minutes of imperfect silence in the car really do for you?

What I’ve found is that doing spiritual practices imperfectly is still better than not doing them at all. When anxiety, sloth, and lack of discipline show up in my life, I can always trace them back to a schedule that filled up and completely crowded out spiritual practices like praying the hours or centering prayer in silence.

By hanging on to these imperfect practices, I kept myself somewhat stable and maintained the habit of making space for them.

On the following day I wasn’t juggling a mountain of unexpected projects, and so I could maintain a certain level of continuity with my spiritual practices.

I still wouldn’t say that they were on par with the quality of Merton’s reflections in the hermitage, but of course he would scold me for even suggesting that one person’s contemplative practices could be compared to another. Perhaps that is the most significant reason to accept “imperfect” spiritual practices in the first place.

 

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)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Why Evangelicals Lack Compassion for Doubters and Doubters Lack Compassion for Evangelicals

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When my faith hit rock bottom at the end of seminary, I became spiritually despondent. I also became very, very angry that the religious practices and beliefs I’d been given let me down.

As I voiced my doubts and anger, I received some pretty strong pushback from evangelicals who had no tolerance for my doubts and felt personally attacked. On the other side of that time in my life, I can see with greater clarity some of the reasons why we struggled to show compassion to each other.

How Do You Grow Spiritually?

In evangelicalism, there generally isn’t very much language or conception of spiritual formation or practice. We have tended to focus on “saving” and then preserving the soul. You save your soul by making the proper profession of faith and then learning more biblical truth. You remain “in Christ” by safeguarding that truth.

If you look at the broader Christian tradition that stretches back to the early church and desert fathers, there was a greater emphasis on solitude and prayer. This tradition had been preserved by the monastic tradition, and its influence has increased and decreased over the years. As the church grew in power and influence, it’s not surprising to see those spiritual practices decrease.

As our access to monastic and desert father writings has increased, we can read that the three words that drove their spirituality were: “Flee, be silent, and pray,” as Nouwen writes in The Way of the Heart. Most importantly for our discussion about doubt and compassion, Nouwen notes that solitude (the fleeing and being silent parts) grow compassion in us as we encounter the love and mercy of God.

If we contrast the evangelical and the contemplative approaches to spirituality, we can see that one is focused on preservation while the other is focused on surrender. When I was trying to defend, preserve, or guard my spiritual life, I had little time or capacity for others unless they could help defend or teach the truth.

The surrender of solitude has forced me to face my darkest thoughts, resentments, and failures. When I resist solitude, it’s often because I’m resisting these dark sides of my life. I can only find relief and freedom by surrendering to God’s mercy, and that makes it significantly easier to show mercy to others.

Within the evangelical mindset, I learned to defend my faith from my own doubts and from those who would cast doubts on my faith. There was no room for failure. It was an all or nothing mindset. Without a more robust language of “spiritual practice” to provide an actual grounding for my faith, I had placed my confidence in study and orthodoxy. After immersing myself in study throughout my undergraduate and seminary years, while also going all in with everything the church asked of me, I saw just how fragile my faith had become, and I was angry.

I had invested years of my life into the study of scripture and defending particular viewpoints of the Bible. When those defenses fell apart and I realized that I was still just as far from God as when I started out, I had a “burn it all down” mindset toward theology and the church systems I’d given so much of myself to.

The hardest part of this is that the people in the systems of church and theology didn’t do anything malicious to me. They were just passing along the best things they could to me. We were all acting in good faith.

We all also lacked the very practices that could cultivate compassion in us. We were both trained in systems that valued conformity and checking particular boxes. As I left the conservative system, I just replaced it with a more progressive one but maintained the same mindset that lacked compassion or any kind of meaningful spiritual practice.

As I enter into completive prayer, I have to face my dark side and the only way out is to accept God’s mercy.

I am finally seeing the evangelical subculture with more compassion and grace because I can see how badly we both need the same mercy from God. I still have my insecurities. I have plenty of rage for the evangelical captivity to politics and cultural influence. But I at least can detect when I’m moving toward an unhealthy place.

When I sense myself moving toward my unhealthy stress points of anxiety and fear (hello, enneagram 9’s!), I now have spiritual practices I can turn toward with hope. Under the mercy of God, I have found the great equalizer of humanity, and that has helped me start to become kind to others, even the ones who would rather excommunicate me for my doubts.

I Tried Quiet Prayer Once and It Didn’t Work

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How many things in life work great the first time around?

Is there anyone who can just pick up a worthwhile discipline or skill after reading a book and trying it once?

Can you learn to paint, knit, sew, or cook with one shot?

Can you remember the first time you tried to ride a bike? I was taking spills all over the school yard for weeks until I caught on and learned how to balance myself. I eventually spent hours riding down a small hill that would have been terrifying at first.

This past summer I started running regularly. I had been somewhat active in the winter by taking the occasional long walk, but running was a different animal altogether.

I huffed and puffed, forcing my aching legs to keep going a little further before taking a walking break. My runs were something like 60% slogging along and 40% walking at first. I eventually started to run a little bit more evenly and started eliminating the walking breaks.

At a certain point around the middle of the summer, I realized that the first 25% of the run will just be miserable. I’ll start to find my stride about the mid-way point, and then the last 25% will require a bit of intention to keep my pace.

Finally, this September, I started to feel strong and confident during my runs. I didn’t even need headphones in order to play distracting music. Sure, the first bit of the run was still hard, and I had to be intentional about pushing myself to finish strong, but I finally reached a point where I felt strong and confident enough to run at a steady pace without slowing for a break.

If I had stopped running after the first day or even the first month, I would have told you that running is difficult and miserable and no one should ever try it.

If I stopped running today, I would genuinely miss it. It has proven an important way to start my day, and I have seen the benefits in my mental and physical health.

Over the past year, I’ve also taken my exploration of Christian prayer into a deeper pursuit of silence, waiting on God and letting God show up in whatever way God wants. There have been times when I’ve just watched my mind unwind with worry and rambling ideas. Other times I have experienced genuine peace and awareness of God’s love.

Then again, there are plenty of times when it has just felt like I sat by myself for 20 minutes repeating a word to myself like “beloved” or “peace.”

I have long practiced short stretches of silent prayer, say for about five minutes, at the end of my daily Examen. I’ve also meditated on scripture. This pursuit of God through silence and waiting is really, really biblical since the Psalms constantly tell us to wait on the Lord. However, I feel like I’ve been trained to demand.

I’m a recovering anxious American evangelical who loves quick fixes and spiritual growth charts.

Silent prayer feels like: I want my gold star for praying, Jesus. You’ve got 20 minutes to pay up…

This journey into silence is not easy for me. My mind is rowdy and difficult to tame.

I find myself slipping back into bad habits, comparing myself to others and wanting what God hasn’t given to me. Contentment and faith gives way to envy, greed, and discouragement as I look at all of the other people who appear to have it together.

I keep reminding myself of that runner who huffed and puffed along the bike path a few months ago who could barely string together 20 minutes of sustained running. That guy felt so weak and pathetic. He didn’t see how things could get better.

Honestly? I never saw things get better. The improvement in my running was so gradual that I couldn’t see it happen. I couldn’t control it.

My growth as a writer was like that too. Suddenly, one day I started writing markedly better manuscripts compared to the drivel I used to submit to my editor. Yes, there are always revisions, but the process is less painful.

I’ll be the first to tell you that prayer isn’t quite as difficult as it used to be. I can now sit for twenty minutes in a row with a relatively focused mind. Sometimes I sense God moving, and sometimes my mind does all of the heavy lifting.

It’s a long-term process that you can’t plug into to your life for predictable results every time. Prayer isn’t a life hack or commodity that you can install in your smart phone for an instant solution to a problem.

There’s a whole industry that promises quick, cheap, simple serenity or spiritual enlightenment. Just read the book, try something for five minutes a day for a week, or install an app in your phone, and you’ll make amazing strides in your spiritual life!!!

God’s love is a free gift that we can never earn, but each day feels like a knock down, drag out struggle to find it and experience it. My life is so full, my mind moving so fast that it’s hard to slow things down for God to settle in.

I can’t track my progress. I don’t get stickers every time something good happens while I pray.

But it sure seems like any kind of meaningful development in a lasting practice calls for this kind of dogged, determined pursuit for what matters the most.

It’s galling for the American in me to come to terms with a lifelong approach to discipleship, what Eugene Peterson called a long obedience in the same direction. Each day I’m training myself to believe that I am loved by God and that this love can gradually change me into the kind of person who is also able to extend a kind, gracious, patient love to people who would rather just grab the quick fix.

This is the first time I’ve ever practiced such intense, expectant waiting. It’s no wonder that I feel like I’m not very good at it yet.

 

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 $9.99 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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