Updated: Feb 23
If you’ve ever tried to spend any time in prayer, you may have been self-conscious enough to whisper, “I feel so dumb talking with no one here.” You may also have wondered, “Why would God ever want to hear from or speak to me?” Here is a picture: have you ever admired someone you were acquainted with, but not actually friends with, and thought, “If only I could talk with this person, get to know them and let them know me?” This is God’s heart for you.
There are many obstacles to prayer, but in the following paragraphs we want to deal with what we have personally seen to be some of the biggest challenges, especially for those new to prayer:
Identity Issues: You don’t see yourself as spiritual, or you feel fake.
Distractibility: Your own thought life is too big a distraction to overcome.
Relational Issues: The idea of having a relationship with God seems unattainable or unreasonable.
If any of these resonate with you, then read on…
I’m not religious.
Don’t believe that being spiritual is entirely foreign to you. We always have a spirit about us determining our up or our down, our meanness or our patience, our anger or our indifference. Beyond this, we needn’t believe relating with God means having to attend to religious duties or be in some way pious. God knows we are but men (lit. mankind). He knows we have passions, impure thoughts, struggles and personal failures. He’s not looking for people to jump through hoops of observance, nor fill squares of religious servitude. God is after your heart.
I feel like a fraud, a hypocrite.
Don’t believe you have to give God “Sunday school" answers either. Are you afraid, scared, bitter, angry, lonely? That’s okay. Do you feel passionless, faithless, shame-filled, enraged, cheated, betrayed or used? Let him know. In fact, let him have it. Hit him with the realities of what you feel. We’re talking broad shoulders here. God is not only big enough to take it, He prefers you engage him at these points. He is not sin-filled, petty, easily offended, quick to anger, vindictive, nor judgmental. In short, He’s not like us. He is loving, caring, and wants to enter into our hurts, wounds and pain, to help and to heal. God is not ashamed of you. He loves His creation. He understands we are embattled.
The truth: honesty is an inroad by which God can strengthen your heart. Honesty helps us cry out to Him. If we don’t embrace the realities of our condition, we are deceiving ourselves. If we believe that we have to work hard to show others that we have it all together or that we are “cured” of human realities, we are actively working to deceive them (though many will see through the charade). Relax and get in touch with what you are and where you are, but the goal is not to stay here. It is more important that you eventually realize and live out of who you are as God reveals to you who you really are in Him.
I get sidetracked by all I have to do.
Have you ever tried to pray only to be distracted by all that screams for your attention? Coursework hangs over your head, a phone call needs to be made, you need to pick up something at the store, a bill needs paid, etc.. Don’t see these thoughts as interruptions; rather, see each as one more thing you can take to your Father. He cares about your whole life, your whole week, your whole day—that definitely includes everything on your plate right now. Don’t reject a thought just because you view it as unspiritual. The spiritual is greater than the physical because it encompasses the physical. Your life and physical needs are relevant to who you are spiritually every moment that you live.
Jot down such “distractions” on a to-do list. In fact, consider each remembrance a gift from God rather than a distraction. Be grateful for the things that come to mind. Understand that their “urgency” need not take you from God’s presence. Talk to Him about each entry. Take to Him the stress or worry associated with each one. You are with God, the One who has finely tuned the universe. The worlds in our solar system do not move apart from Him.
I get thrown by bizarre and twisted thoughts.
Welcome to the human race! This is not abnormal nor uncommon. It may not be in line with what God designed (and that is what distresses us, because we sense instinctively that this is not what God intended for us to experience), but it is not rare by any means in the human experience.
Paul writes, “But remember this—the wrong desires that come into your life aren't anything new and different. Many others have faced exactly the same problems before you” (1 Corinthians. 10:13 TLB). God wants us to know that we are not alone in this. We are not failing in some unique and singular way—the way that we fear. The New Living Translation (NLT) puts it this way: “But remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience.” You are not alone.
Every true thought, every noble idea, every bit of courage and fight we have within us comes from God: “Whatever is good and perfect comes to us from God above, who created all heaven's lights. Unlike them, he never changes or casts shifting shadows” (James 1:17-18 NLT).
So where do these disturbing thoughts come from? Scripture is clear: they come from the “father of lies”, the one who seeks to steal from us our God-given identity, to kill all life within us, to destroy our sure hope. He is the enemy of our souls, the evil one. God tells us not to fear our adversary. In fact, Satan fears God, trembles and quakes at the name of God Most High. Our enemy fears the Son of God who appeared for the specific purpose of destroying the devil’s work in our lives. Jesus’ power in us is greater. Darkness has never been able to swallow light. Rather, light has always exposed what previously lay unseen in darkness.
“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9 NIV).
Does the fact that you have such thoughts mean you are completely defeated already? Not at all. We suffer ever more when we imagine we are the source of these thoughts, that these thoughts originate in us. “Well, naturally they come from me!” you may think, “They’re my thoughts!” Certainly we can be dragged away by our own evil desires, but is every morbid thought really your thought? Just because it passes through your mind, does that mean it originated in you?
In times of war, false relays go out—messages designed to look authentic, messages designed to throw the enemy into distress and confusion. Truth and love, faith and hope, grace and peace, patience and trust are the former communications, the standing orders, the true and unchanging message that keeps us unmoved in our determination. These keep us focussed and in the fight.
So what is our strategy in this war? All such thoughts have to be exposed. To expose something means it is brought into light so that it is no longer hidden or obscure. Only then can it be taken captive.
Taking a thought captive does not mean that such thoughts don’t continue to come. It means you take them to God as they come. “But God cannot tolerate sin!”, someone may protest. Let’s also consider the source of that thought as well, because it, too, is a piece of misinformation needing to be exposed and taken captive.
What do you mean?
Jesus, the sinless Son of Man, actually became sin and was nailed to a cross. In Christ, sin was condemned in sinful man. Mankind was not condemned; sin was condemned! Christ took the sin of the whole world—including every lie ever bought into by human society—and took it upon Himself. In that selfless act, Jesus, as man, returned dignity to the whole of mankind. Even today, He remains our sole advocate.
Lies keep so many pinned down. Be courageous and be free. It goes without saying that we have to be free in order to assist in setting others free. God loves you and cherishes you, no matter your momentary situation, slave or free.
Just as such thoughts passing through our minds are not sin in themselves, neither are temptations to sin. To be tempted and to resist such deceitfulness and persuasiveness is to suffer. To suffer is not to sin. How could it be? Neither is suffering the same as being punished by God. You may take punishment from the enemy, but what else should we expect in time of war? Victory is assured, and mankind will one day judge angels, fallen and otherwise. That is the elevation and honor given man because of Christ. By Grace and Truth we endure and overcome. Love suffered long for us; Truth reveals Himself to us.
Now, to give into a temptation, that is sin, but even then, is sin your undoing in some final, fatal way? Not in the least. Sin has been overcome by Christ, remember? So we simply call that spade a spade. We label it “sin.” We acknowledge it to God and others. By bringing it into the light and declaring it taken up by Christ, we turn the tables. Remember, only when lies are brought into the light do you have the opportunity of asserting your advantage in Christ. Sin is a lie acted upon. Respond with truth.
Confessing sin is not the same as saying, “I'm a loser.” To say that you are bad is to “confess” your humanity. God made us good, but mankind fell. There is no longer anything truly good in any of us…not until we are in Christ. Then, we are declared righteous in Christ and by Christ. None of us are worthy in and of ourselves; yet you were worth it to Him, or He never would have given Himself in exchange for you. Christ paid the ultimate price for you and me. His sacrifice makes us worthy. In fact, Paul said that nothing good dwelled in him apart from Christ. He referred to himself as the “worst of (chief among) sinners.” But Paul never spoke about who he was in Christ that way. It was no longer Paul sinning; it was sin at work in Paul. Paul’s sin-identity was gone, replaced by a Christ-identity. Let God change your identity by changing your heart. “I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” (Isaiah 44:2)
How in the world do you listen to God?
First, simply ask God to reveal His heart. Read through a few chapters of Scripture in context—from a letter, an account, or a psalm—and then read through it again. Mark your Bible (underlining some truth, highlighting key phrases, etc.) Then pick out that most significant phrase, the one that jumps out at you the most. Hear what God is saying, contemplate it. Meditate on what he was saying to the original hearers. Then pause, consider and ask God what he is saying to you. Listen for a reassuring, kind, compassionate voice. Listen for the intensity of passionate love, for the concern of a loving father, for the sure hope of a joy-filled spirit. When you hear it, stay there awhile. If you are willing to repent (to have a change of heart), God is faithful.
If what you hear is harsh and condemning, closely consider the source of the tone you hear. Be assured it is not from God—not if you have surrendered your life to Him. God desires intimacy. “His anger lasts only a moment, but His favor lasts a lifetime.” It is the adversary who stands as accuser and condemner.
What does intimacy with God look like?
Sometimes we feel God is distant, but the Scriptures tell us He is never far from each one of us. So cry out to Him. Ask Him to search you and know you. Ask Him to reveal your heart. One way God does this is through journaling. Journaling your thoughts (using a journal or notebook) in a constant fashion without pausing to scrutinize your thoughts (or worry about proper spelling or grammar) will lay things out in a way you can see. As Patti Cepin writes in her guide book, Learning to Love the Master, “God already knows what you’re thinking. You might as well know too.“
Journal to God by writing out your frustrations and feelings, but also include your love, gratitude, and worship. You do this by responding to key things He’s shown you during your time alone with Him. Now you have complete intimacy—you are able to see just how He is at work in you as prayer emanates from both your heart and the tip of your pen. When you respond to His Word this way, by first writing out a passage of Scripture prominently at the top of your journal page, you are now dealing with Truth.
I just seem to hit wall after wall, failure after failure.
Don’t make the mistake of believing that difficulties mean God is against you, nor that it is somehow a sign of personal disfavor with you and who you are. Those feelings, no matter how strong, are not in line with the truth and, therefore, simply not from God. God holds the believer blameless so that we can live a blameless life. Such feelings need to be worked through, usually with the help of those who know and love you, and sometimes through professional clergy and counselors. We are of a fallen race, but we have been redeemed.
God is for you. This Son of God and Man died for all mankind. As men and women created in His image, we are His favored race. Worship in your heart over His goodness and over all He has done, over His promises and all He desires to do in and through you. We invite you to believe in Jesus, to trust in His Name, to hope in His promises, to rest in Him, to walk with God-given peace within.
To willfully reject God’s gift is loss. To humbly receive it is everything. Always remember: God is greater than your heart.
🌵 Doug is Navigator staff assigned to military ministry in the Desert Southwest. He lives with his wife Beth Ann in Tucson, Arizona.
For further reading, we recommend "How to Spend Extended Time in Prayer," a downloadable pdf and Navigator Discipleship Tool: