When I’m sitting with people in my office listening as they describe their struggles, particularly with God, I’m often struck with the notion that how they view God and how they view themselves in relationship with God makes a big difference in how they are going to be able to overcome obstacles to their growth. Those who perceive God as loving seem far more able to access the psychological benefits that research associates with prayer practices than those who view God as distant or cold. My work is often to explore the dissonance between their thoughts about God and their experiences with God. We look at how their current experiences in prayer might actually make them more anxious. When they can name that, they seem to be able to more honestly approach God in prayer and often times report more benefits from praying than they knew before. If they can continue to pray, but begin to do so authentically, the benefits multiply.

When I discuss cases like this with colleagues who do not believe, the criticism frequently centers on prayer as a simple distraction. They argue that my clients may feel better, but that can be explained simply as a function of diversion. Praying shifts the clients’ attention off their problems which could mean that the client is ill-served because they do not address needed issues. But behavioral science experiments suggest that prayer actually helps people with focus. (see the abstract here: In one experiment participants were allowed to pray about an issue in their lives and then asked to perform a task. For participants who scored highly on a measure of religiosity, their subsequent task performance improved. In as second experiment praying about a problem biased attention in the subsequent word-search task. So praying about a problem for people who were likely to engage in religious behavior, seemed to free cognitive resources which likely would have been consumed by worry so they were better able to manage new data and attend to “problem-relevant information.” It seems for believers, prayer really helps.

So don’t stop praying, but do let yourself experiment with very honest prayer that engages the depth of your emotions as they are not as you wish they were.

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