The Practice of Christian Prayer in a Multi-tasking Age
We live in an age in which multitasking is the norm. Much of our technology these days, especially computers and smart phones, are actually designed to help us do many things at once. Computers allow us to have several programs open and running at the same time. Thanks to smartphones, we can now drive, listen to music, talk on the phone, have a text conversation, and be running any number of other applications simultaneously. But while multitasking is now normal life for most of us, substantial research suggests that multitasking simply doesn’t work. We used to believe that it would allow us to be more productive, but we now know that it doesn’t. Our brains are indeed capable of doing more than one thing at a time, but there is a cost to pay. Trying to do two or more things at the same time means the efficiency and quality with which we accomplish both tasks will decrease. One recently published book succinctly gets the point across in its title: “The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing it All” Gets Nothing Done.”
While these findings have broad implications for how we think about and use our technology, the point I want to make in this post is that it also has implications for our spiritual disciplines, and particularly our prayer life. We cannot exclusively multitask our prayer life if we hope to glorify God and experience the blessings of prayer. We need to have times devoted to focused and uninterrupted prayer.
It is indeed a wonderful truth that Christians have access to God and can pray, anywhere, anytime, no matter what we are doing. In light of that reality, some books and teaching on prayer encourage Christians to multitask their prayer: that is to pray while they are doing other activities, such as driving, walking through a park, cooking, etc. To be clear, I don’t see anything wrong with this encouragement, and myself often pray while I am driving. That being said, we need to be careful that this does not become the primary or exclusive way that we pray. Multitasking prayer is attractive (particularly to Americans) because we are all so busy, and if we are not careful we may find that the only time that prayer happens in our lives is when we are also doing various other actives. We may find that we spend little to no time where we are singularly focused and engaged, body and soul, on communing with our Heavenly Father through prayer.
Why is this a problem? Because, of the myth of multitasking. If you pray while you are doing something else, your prayer life will suffer. When you pray while multitasking, you simply cannot focus completely on what you are saying and who you are saying it to. You will inevitably be distracted, and these distractions will keep you from fully engaging with God through prayer, and thus keep you from fully experiencing the promises that God attaches to prayer. Consider the directions that the Westminster Larger Catechism gives us on how we are to pray:
WLC Q. 185. How are we to pray?
We are to pray with an awful apprehension of the majesty of God, and deep sense of our own unworthiness, necessities, and sins; with penitent, thankful, and enlarged hearts; with understanding, faith, sincerity, fervency, love, and perseverance, waiting upon him, with humble submission to his will.
I won’t take the time to unpack this answer, but I believe it is a faithful summary and excellent guide to the practice of prayer. If this is indeed true, I hope we can understand why consistently multitasking our prayer is problematic. Can we possibly pray this way, with “enlarged hearts,” “fervency,” “perseverance,” and an “awful apprehension of the majesty of God, and a “deep sense of our own needs,” while we are doing two or three other things? It is not possible. To be able to pray in this way demands our full attention and energy. Prayer is a great privilege and blessing. God attaches great promises to it. But to do it well, to do it in a way that glorifies God, we must engage it with our whole selves, heart, mind, emotions, soul, and strength. Multi-tasking our prayer will not allow us to do that.
Could it be that one reason why our prayer lives seem so shallow and weak, why we experience so little of that “peace” that Paul speaks of as a result of prayer (Phil 4), why we don’t sense God’s sustaining presence and love for us (Psalm 55:22; 1 Pet 5:7), is because we are trying to multitask and squeeze prayer in with the other activities of our busy lives? Could it be that that we don’t have the experience that God is a refuge for us because we are not truly “pouring out our hearts” before him (Psalm 62:8), but only coming to him while we are distracted by other actives we are trying to accomplish at the same time?