Some Christians are up in arms about people who advocate seeking stillness in prayer, accusing them of pantheism, heresy, sorcery, and other things. It’s true that some kinds of misnamed “prayer” involving visualization are closer to occultism than genuine prayer, but is simply seeking to achieve inner quietness in prayer unreasonable? This ministry recently received a letter in which someone described the difficulties they were having in prayer:
How do you empty your mind of the noise of your own thoughts, clamoring, jangling, huge bright pictures that never stop so you can be still? I sometimes spend hours trying to clear my head prior to prayer . . . only to never achieve stillness. Any suggestions?
We pray for lots of reasons. We bring our requests, hopes, and longings before the Lord. We ask for His direction and wisdom. We seek to express thanksgiving and adoration to Him, acknowledging and expressing our faith in His goodness, holiness, and love.
Regardless of our specific reasons, I suspect that freedom from distractions—including distracting thoughts—was a reason so many godly men spent time in desert solitude following their calling: Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul, and Jesus Himself (Matthew 14:23; Luke 5:16; John 6:15).
It’s probably impossible to completely free our minds of competing thoughts and “mental static.” Even if we were able to empty our consciousness of competing thoughts, subconscious images and memories—like the hallucinations we see and hear when we are falling asleep—would begin to appear. However, it is reasonable to seek to redirect our thoughts.
The writings of some of the ascetic saints of the early centuries of church history are interesting because of the ways they sought quietness in prayer. But achieving perfect stillness isn’t necessary. God is concerned with the intent of our heart. The apostle Paul writes:
The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27 niv).
Although prayer is partially voluntary, there is also a supernatural element that is empowered by the Holy Spirit Himself. God communicates to us in prayer, but we must be willing and ready to listen. Our ability to hear His still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-13) may be affected by the attention we give it.