Don’t Empty Your Mind: Addressing Common Misconceptions About Christian Prayer

Christian prayer can happen anywhere, at any time, with or without anyone else present. But it is not mindless, it is very mindful.

Prayer has become a very popular topic in recent years. So many books, seminars and retreats promise to unlock this essential aspect of our spiritual lives.

I’m no prayer expert, but if you’re a Christian there are several principles you should be aware of as you seek a deeper prayer life. There’s a lot of prayer advice that sounds good, but doesn’t come from a biblical framework. The best defense against false teaching is always a better, more thorough understanding of God’s Word.

With that in mind, here are several key pieces of wisdom that can guide you as you seek to deepen your Christian walk through prayer.

Don’t Empty Your Mind, Engage It

The idea of emptying your mind as a prayerful or contemplative process has ancient roots. But it has no foundation in scripture. Christian prayer is not about emptying your mind.

Christian prayer is sometimes loud, boisterous and often extremely celebrative. It can also be quiet, still, and even silent. But it is never empty. Not in any way.

The evidence of scripture shows us that the deeper we pray, the more our minds are engaged, not less.

For instance, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he didn’t say “first, empty your mind.” Instead, Jesus gave them a pattern for prayer that requires focused thought on God, his kingdom, how to make requests, offer forgiveness, and avoid temptation. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Other biblical examples of engaging, rather than disengaging our minds, include:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)

Christian Prayer is not mindless, it is very mindful.

Christian Prayer Is Not About Getting What I Want

It’s about getting in tune with what God wants.

Most prayer disappointments come from misunderstanding this simple, selfless premise. Prayer is how we communicate with God. Along with the other disciplines, like reading scripture, worshiping with God’s people and so on, it’s how we develop our relationship with Christ and his church. No relationship works if every conversation starts and ends with “I want…”

There must be a conversational give-and-take. We hear from God through the Bible, we speak to and with him in prayer. Out of that, we come to know God and his will better.

Here’s the Bible passage that has been the most helpful to me on this subject:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:3)

Christian Prayer Is Not About Saying The Right Words

Sometimes, it’s not even about saying any words at all.

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Romans 8:26)

It’s also not about repeating words. Ironically, before Jesus gave his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount (the most-repeated prayer of all time by Christians), he told them that simply repeating words isn’t the point of it.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 This, then, is how you should pray . . . (Matthew 6:5-9)

There’s nothing wrong with memorizing and saying the words, but the Lord’s Prayer is more of a pattern than a script.

We should strive to understand the principles behind the words instead of mindlessly repeating them.

Christian Prayer Doesn’t Require A Specific Time Or Place

You don’t have to be in a church building to pray. And it doesn’t have to be Sunday. Although there is great benefit to gathering for prayer on a weekly basis.

As Christians, we have God the Holy Spirit living in us, so we can pray and be heard at any time, in any place.

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:19)

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:18)

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Christian Prayer Doesn’t Require Any Particular Body Posture

One of the fascinating things about our regular prayer habits is that the common body position of hands folded, eyes closed, head bowed is not in the Bible. There’s nothing wrong with praying that way, of course, but it’s not required.

What are some Bible positions of prayer?

  • Face down (Luke 5:12)
  • Hands raised (1 Timothy 2:1–4, 8)
  • Kneeling (Psalm 95:6; Philippians 2:9–11)
  • Bowing (Genesis 24:52)
  • Eyes lifted up (John 17:1–2)

But there’s no requirement for any of them to be practiced, either.

Far more important than the position of your body in prayer is the position of your heart. For example, Jesus told his followers that if they came to prayer and remembered that they had sinned against someone, they should go and make it right with them, then come back to pray (Matthew 5:23-24).

Christian Prayer Is Not Individualistic

While we can, and should pray when we’re alone, most of the prayer in the Bible is communal. For example, look at the pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13) (emphasis mine)

That’s nine collective pronouns (us, we, our) in just five verses. And not one first-person, individual pronoun (me, my, mine) to be found.

Christian prayer acknowledges that we are not alone. We belong to the body of Christ, his church — past, present, and future.

Christian Prayer Is Not About Feelings

I have experienced very deep feelings in prayer. From the ecstatic to the desolate. And the Bible is filled with both types. The Psalms alone will take you on an emotional journey of prayer highs and lows.

But there’s no indication in scripture that how we feel as we pray has anything to do with the effectiveness of those prayers. If you talk to any long-time, mature believer, they’ll tell you that some of the prayers that felt the least impactful ended up being the most effective in the long run.

Prayer is about faith, not feelings.

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)

Christian Prayer Doesn’t Pretend

Again, go to the Psalms. Prayer after prayer, and song after song show us that God doesn’t want us to put on our “Sunday best” to come to him.

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)

The best prayers are raw, honest, vulnerable, and real. Often, the deepest, most vulnerable prayers are us finally admitting to ourselves what God already has known about us all along. That’s where the real transformation begins.

Christian Prayer Doesn’t Make God Love Us More – Or Less

But it does help us love God more.

If you’re praying to earn points with God, stop. Don’t stop praying. Just stop trying to earn anything from God. Grace is not earnable. God’s love is not earnable.

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)

But when we do start to understand the depth of his love and grace, we can’t help but be overwhelmed in gratefulness.

Christian Prayer Doesn’t Require Any Priest But Jesus

It’s good and helpful to connect with other believers in prayer. Communal prayer acknowledges our indebtedness to God and each other, and it gathers God’s people together in beautiful ways.

But the prayers of a pastor, priest, bishop, or any other title are no more effective than the prayers of any other faithful, believing Christian. That’s good news.

In the Old Testament, God’s people needed priests to offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the people. But, just like we’re no longer required to offer “the blood of bulls and goats” (Hebrews 10:4), we’re no longer required to have anyone but Jesus “make intercession” to God on our behalf (Hebrews 7:25).

As a believer, the Holy Spirit (who is God) lives in us (1 Corinthians 3:16). That Spirit helps us pray to Jesus (who is also God), who goes to God the father on our behalf (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1).

This can happen anywhere, at any time, with or without anyone else present.

(Photo by Don Christner | Flickr)

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