How to Stay Awake During Your Devotions


I believe that your daily devotions are the single most important thing you can do for your spiritual health and your long-term productivity. Since it is the single most important thing, it should come first in your day, before you work or thing about anything else.

With that said, I have often found it hard to roll out of bed in the morning and do my devotions, because I inevitably fall asleep. This is a common problem for Christians (and, sleepiness in the morning, is a common problem for non-Christians as well). For a long time, I believed that my inability to stay awake during devotions was simply biological: my body had just come out of a state of dormancy, during which I would dream (i.e., thinking, seeing, and speaking without moving my mouth). So when I would start to pray or read the Bible, my body would do the biologically natural thing and just go back to dreaming.

While the biological element is definitely there, Lee Vendon argues that there is a deeper and more powerful force at play that causes the tendency to fall asleep during prayer. Quoting from the Desire of Ages, when Jesus was in Gethsemene and had asked His disciples to pray for Him,

Rising with painful effort, He staggered to the place where He had left His companions. But He “findeth them asleep.” Had He found them praying, He would have been relieved. Had they been seeking refuge in God, that satanic agencies might not prevail over them, He would have been comforted by their steadfast faith. But they had not heeded the repeated warning, “Watch and pray.” At first they had been much troubled to see their Master, usually so calm and dignified, wrestling with a sorrow that was beyond comprehension. They had prayed as they heard the strong cries of the sufferer. They did not intend to forsake their Lord, but they seemed paralyzed by a stupor which they might have shaken off if they had continued pleading with God. They did not realize the necessity of watchfulness and earnest prayer in order to withstand temptation. The Desire of Ages, p. 688

The enemy of souls understands just how important our daily connection with God is. Satan reasons that if He can cut off the life-giving power that comes with a daily walk with Jesus, He can limit the influence and impact of Christians in the world. So Satan invests special effort into keeping Christians from being able to focus in their daily devotions. He does this by causing a "paralyzing stupor" that we need to learn to shake off in our walk with God.

The fact that Satan is at work trying to get us to fall asleep specifically during our devotions is something remarkably easy to test experimentally. The next time you think you are too tired to stay awake during your devotions, and you're tempted to think that it is purely biological, try opening Google News or Facebook. I find when I do these things, I have zero problem staying awake. The Bible, rightly studied, is no less interesting than current events or what my friends posted at 1:00 am the previous night on Facebook, and so I conclude that there are spiritual forces at work to keep me tuned out during my devotions.

Ellen White's observation is that if the disciples had continued pleading with God, they would be able to shake off the paralyzing stupor. There was a necessity of earnestness in their prayer that was necessary to stay awake. So in this post, I want to share some things that you can do, to stay awake. The first and primary thing to do is to ask God to show you where you're giving the devil an easy win in making you fall asleep ("for example, do you pray lying down in bed with your eyes closed?") As you talk to God about these things, I want to share several tips on how I stay awake when I do my devotions. Specifically, I want to share how I overcome the three biggest obstacles to starting my day:

  1. feeling too cold to do my devotions without a blanket
  2. losing my train of thought during devotions, ultimately falling asleep
  3. procrastinating my daily devotions because of #1 and #2

Exercise

During college, I felt that it was wrong to do anything before my devotions. So I would try to roll out of bed and immediately start reading and praying. I would get chilly, so I would grab a blanket to stay warm while I tried to pray and read the Bible. But as I would sit curled up under a blanket, I would often times read a few verses and then fall asleep. Ultimately, this did not enhance my spiritual life.

This morning I had a thought (and this is the thought that provoked this blog post). I had decided to go on a run this morning in order to wake up because I was feeling especially slow and lazy this morning. I was doing my run before I had done my formal devotions, but I was still thinking about spiritual things, thinking over and pondering some thoughts that God had been putting on my heart (I usually have a hard time deeply concentrating during a run, but I can still let my mind "wander" over general themes while running).

As I was running up a hill, I suddenly thought about Jesus, and how scripture says that Jesus would rise up early in the morning to pray. I asked myself, "How is it that Jesus, who was often sleep deprived (Mark 4:38, Matthew 8:24), could rise up so early in the morning."

The answer is in the first chapter of the first gospel that was written. In Mark 1:32-34, we read that Jesus stayed up after sunset in order to heal the "whole town" that had come to the house where he was staying. The next verse says

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Mark 1:35

As I was running up that hill thinking about these things, suddenly it "clicked" for me! Jesus exercised! I don't mean that Jesus put on some Nike shoes and running shorts, and queued up some techno music on his headphones for a run. I mean that Jesus, between when He got out of bed and when He started praying, put on some sandals and some non-pajama clothes, and went outside and walked to the place where He was going to pray.

Elsewhere (Matthew 14:23, Luke 6:12), we're given clues that Jesus preferred to pray in the mountains. So if the "solitary place" that Jesus went to in Mark 1:35 was a mountain, it's even more evidence that Jesus got some physical exercise before prayer. This got the blood flowing through His veins, which helped to wake up His mind as well as raise His body temperature.

Eliminate Distractions

I'm addicted to my phone. The human brain craves novelty, whereas productivity requires focusing on the seemingly mundane and boring things in life. After exercise, there's usually a period of time that if I'm not careful, I get sucked into my phone. Examples:

  1. Checking how far I ran/texting somebody how far I ran
  2. Using the bathroom
  3. Stretching
  4. Eating

It is paramount that during this post-run ritual, you don't use your free hand to waste 40 minutes on email or Twitter. Use this time to pray.

Even if you start late, leave your phone somewhere where you cannot be distracted by it. If you need to, use a Bible made out of paper to read (if you don't have one, they're not that expensive, and there are plenty of people that will give you one for free, so you don't have an excuse).

One of the things that I have to overcome daily is feeling like there are people depending on me. And when I wake up, I have the urge to check text messages or email to see if anyone texted me or needs my attention (even when my wife is traveling, I feel the need to check if she's sent me anything). Don't do this!

I find the example of Jesus is profoundly helpful here. Jesus was doing His devotions in a solitary place, and we read

Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!" Mark 1:36-37

Jesus probably was keenly aware that people urgently wanted His attention. However, Jesus effectively put Himself on "do not disturb" mode by going into a solitary place, and would not check on other people until He had finished checking in with God in His own devotions.

Write Stuff Down

The Bible is filled with prayers that people wrote down. The Psalms alone contain over 150 written prayers. Whether you type your prayers out, or whether you write them in a journal, the act of writing or typing will help your brain to keep going and prevent it from wandering off.

One thing that I find helpful when I write prayers down is to try to avoid just asking for stuff. Sometimes, our prayers are too "gimme gimme." Consider reading a section of the Bible (say, a Psalm for example), and write down your response. Writing a response to a Psalm can be especially powerful since the Psalms already are written in God-approved written-prayer templates.

Get More Sleep

In college I did an experiment to see if God would wake me up in the morning for my daily devotions. At the time, I didn't have any good Bible verses for it, but I later came upon this verse in Isaiah 50:4, that has become a personal favorite:

The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
     to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
     wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
Isaiah 50:4

Isaiah realized that God gave Him important daily work, namely to sustain the weary with the instruction that God had given Him. Isaiah received this training morning by morning, and Isaiah sais that it was God that woke Him up.

I have, over the years, told people to pray this prayer before going to bed, namely to quote Isaiah 50:4, and ask God to wake them up when He wants them to wake up.

In my personal walk and in the stories that I've heard from others, every single time this prayer is made, God wakes people up before their alarms and gives them plenty of ability to get out of bed. The times where people were faithful in waking up, they had wondeful devotional experiences. However, I will admit that there have been times that I have clearly felt God waking me up, and I rolled over in bed (God have mercy on me!)

Now, that being said, it is presumptuous to stay up until 3:00 am playing Starcraft and then ask God to wake you up in the morning to have quality time with Him. Actions like that pretty much say to God, "I'm not all that interested in spending time with You, and would rather play Starcraft. However, I know this is important to you, so I guess if you wake me up I'll participate (sigh...)." Don't get me wrong, God might still slap you awake at 5:30 in that instance, but don't be surprised if your decision to not go to bed at a decent hour results in you gradually being less interested in waking up for devotions. I find that it is easier for me to find the willingness to get out of bed at 5:00 in the morning for devotions if I was intentional about going to bed at 9:00 the night before.

Sometimes, the decision to get more sleep is as simple as telling friends at 8:30, "Guys, it's been a lot of fun, but I've got an appointment with God at 5:00 am, and I need to be well rested." Stuff like that usually prompts other people to get serious about their devotional life as well (and can be a good witnessing opportunity for non-Christian friends at college campuses).

Pray Together

If everything else on this list doesn't work for you, you can consider getting a prayer partner and praying together on the phone in the morning. I've done this several times in my life with great success. In college, I would have several guys who would drag themselves out of bed at 6:30 in the morning to have Bible study and prayer time in my room before we went to breakfast. It's not as ideal, since personal devotions are crucial for a daily walk with God, but if you're having a hard time building a habit of doing any sort of prayer or devotions in the morning, this is a good way to start forming the habit.