How to Pray When You’re Distracted

In the early seventies, I resolved to spend more time praying for people I met as I traveled. At first, it was great. Then, no matter how hard I tried to pray, I would start to doze off or I became distracted as my mind wandered down a hundred different trails. Thankfully, I learned an important lesson that helped me not give up!

Exerting the Will to Pray

I came across a pamphlet by J. Sidlow Baxter, titled “Will and Emotions”. As I read, my heart was filled with hope.

Baxter became a minister in 1928, full of great intentions and high expectations. He rose at 5:30, determined to spend 1.5 hours in prayer and Bible reading. Initially, it was great, but then he encountered opposition as the demonic sabotaged his time with the Lord.

Because prayer is a discipline, things don’t magically improve. It is easy to allow the tyranny of the urgent to usurp that time with the Lord.

Sid experienced that and dithered between trying to pray for an hour or putting his time to “better use” by accomplishing work piling up on his desk.

Then one day as he struggled, the enemy said, “Look here, Sid, don’t you think the Lord knows all the busy occupations which are taking your time? … even if you can’t pray, don’t worry too much about it. Look, Sid, you’d better face up to it. You’re not one of the spiritual ones!”


He felt like a dagger had been plunged into his bosom.

He allowed the Lord to search his heart and quickly realized the part of him that wanted to pray was his intellect and will. While the part of him not wanting to pray was his emotions.

He learned he had a choice: either allow changing emotions to drag him around or exert his will and pray by faith.

Dear Heart, the enemy will attempt to control your feelings and turn you from intercession.

Distraction Can be Overcome

I learned an important principle from Baxter. Becoming a person of prayer involves total commitment as we die to our feelings.

Dear Heart, the enemy will attempt to control your feelings and turn you from intercession.

But take courage! When the kingdom of darkness opposes you, you know you are moving in the right direction.

If you stand strong in the power of the Lord’s might, you will experience a breakthrough as the Spirit transforms you into a mighty warrior.

Determine to never give up on prayer. It is worth it.

Let me quote from the onion skin parchment paper I typed Baxter’s words on, which I found still tucked in my old prayer notebook:

Lessons from Baxter on Prayer

“Will, are you ready for prayer? And Will said, “Here I am, I’m ready.” So Will and I set off to pray. But the minute we turned our footsteps to go and pray all my emotions began to talk: “We’re not coming, we’re not coming.”

“Will, can you stick it?” And Will said, “Yes, if you can.” So Will and I, we dragged off those wretched emotions and we went to pray, and stayed an hour in prayer.

If you had asked me afterwards, “Did you have a good time?” do you think I could have said yes? A good time?

No, it was a fight all the way!

What I would have done without the companionship of Will, I don’t know. In the middle of the most earnest intercessions, I suddenly found one of the principal emotions way out on the golf course, playing golf. And I had to run to the golf course and say, “Come back.” And a few minutes later I found another of the emotions; it had traveled one and a half days in advance and it was in the pulpit preaching a sermon I had not even yet prepared. And I had to say, “Come back.”

I certainly couldn’t have said we had a good time. It was exhausting, but we did it.

The next morning came. I looked at my watch and it was time. I said to Will, “Come on, Will, it’s time for prayer. And all the emotions began to pull the other way and I said, “Will, can you stick it?” And Will said, “Yes, in fact I think I’m stronger after the struggle yesterday morning. So Will and I went in again.

The same thing happened.

Rebellious, tumultuous, uncooperative emotions. If you had asked me, “Have you had a good time?” I would have had to tell you with tears, “No, the heavens were like brass. It was a job to concentrate. I had an awful time with the emotions.”

This went on for about two and a half weeks. But Will and I stuck it out. Then one morning during that third week I looked at my watch and I said, “Will it’s time for prayer. Are you ready?” And Will said, “Yes, I’m ready.”

And just as we were going in, I heard one of my chief emotions say to the others, “Come on, fellows, there’s no use wearing ourselves out: they’ll go on whatever we do.”

That morning we didn’t have any hilarious experience of wonderful visions with heavenly voices and raptures. But Will and I were able with less distraction to get on with praying. And that went on for another two or three weeks. In fact, Will and I had begun to forget the emotions. I would say, “Will, are you ready for prayer?” And Will replied, “Yes, I’m always ready.”

Suddenly one day while Will and I were pressing our case at the throne of the heavenly glory, one of the chief emotions shouted, “Hallelujah!” and all the other emotions suddenly shouted, “Amen!”

For the first time the whole territory of James Sidlow Baxter was happily coordinated in the exercise of prayer, and God suddenly became real and heaven was wide open and Christ was there and the Holy Spirit was moving and I knew that all the time God had been listening.

The point is this:

The validity and the effectuality of prayer are not determined or even affected by the subjective psychological condition of the one who prays.

The thing that makes prayer valid and vital and moving and operative is my faith takes hold of God’s truth.

Brothers and sisters, soon now we shall be meeting Him. When you meet Him, and I speak reverently, when you feel His arms around you, and when you embrace as well as adore Him, don’t you want to be able to look into that wonderful face and say, “Lord, at last I’m seeing face-to-face the One I have for years known heart to heart?”


Dear Heart,



But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith,

praying in the Holy Spirit,

keep yourselves in the love of God,

looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

Jude 1:20-21

Baxter’s full sermon can be found here.

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