Jesus told us, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
Now, he said this as a corollary to avoid being showy and “like the hypocrites” when you pray (Matthew 6:5). Still, this verse has been taken as a manifesto to be undistracted in prayer behind a closed door. This isn’t a bad idea. It worked for two thousand years. Not so much anymore though.
For two thousand years, the most private and undistracted place was behind the closed door. Now, the noise has relocated indoors. If our computers and devices are near, it’s the worst place to try to pray. Walking through Times Square is less distracting than sitting alone in a room full of technology.
This loss of private prayer is affecting the church.
The Christian Prayer Life
It’s been said that if you want to humble any pastor, ask him about his prayer life. The sad truth is that most Christians, even pastors, spend more time reading articles, watching ESPN, or playing games on their smartphones than they do in prayer.
When I compare my prayer life with that of the spiritual greats, I wonder sometimes if I actually know the same God.
The Gospels are full of accounts of Jesus’s immense prayer life. Paul’s prayer life bleeds through every part of his letters. James, the most prominent pillar of the early church was called “the man with camel’s knees” because of the price his interminable prayer life exacted on the skin of his knees.
The writings of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Irenaeus are bathed in prayer. One wonders if Augustine or Aquinas ever stopped praying. Luther prayed three hours per day. Calvin prayed during five set-apart times of the day. George Mueller prayed two to three hours a day and recorded more than fifty thousand answered prayers in his journals. Hudson Taylor awoke in the middle of the night to pray from two to four in the morning so that he wouldn’t be disturbed!
Struggling to Pray
I struggle to pray for seven minutes in my workspace. I have to set a timer, and if I don’t set my phone to do not disturb, good luck. I have to put my computer to sleep to avoid googling the first question that comes to mind.
Oops, I forgot about the tablet. Looks like my friend is in Chicago for the day. I should text him about my favorite coffee shop there! Wait. Do not disturb on.
I’m doing what Jesus said, right? I’m closing the door, and then trying — in vain — to close all the digital doors that hijack my brain. Why is it so hard?
Times Are Changing
You see, for eight hours a day I plug my mind into the machine and jump from task to task, interfacing endlessly with the devices in front of me. Day after day, year after year. How can I expect to sit in this same space and turn it all off after so much conditioning? I can’t. I have to change my environment.
The problem is, where in the first century the room behind the closed door was private, in the modern era it’s often the most distracting place to pray.
In the first century, people spent much of their time outdoors when they weren’t sleeping. Outside, you faced distraction. You saw the people you’d known your whole life. You saw the market — the center of ancient civic life. But today, if you go outside in a major city, suburb, or small town, you’ll likely find next to nobody walking around. If you see anybody, chances are you don’t know them.
So why not pray outside? Go for a prayer walk. Yes, even in a Northern winter. As the Norwegians say, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.
Same Message, Different Means
Outside, you’re alone, but behind closed doors, your devices will chime ad nauseam with that constant nonsense, helping your brain from fix to fix until you’ve neither prayed nor even enjoyed the time you’ve spent distracted.
Pray without distraction. The message is the same, but the means have reversed. One of the best ways to close the door in the 21st century is to open the door and leave your home to go on a prayer walk. This is the opposite of shutting yourself in a room, but it accomplishes the same purpose in our era.
Leave the phone at home, or on do not disturb in your pocket. Pray. Start small and soon you may find it rewarding to walk for twenty or thirty minutes while you pray. You may enter into a communion with God you haven’t felt in years. You won’t be nearly as distracted. The fresh air and exercise will do you good too. Plus your mind will unplug from the noise. Turns out the dopamine-obsessed monkey on your back doesn’t like the weather.