How to Pray in the Trenches: Be Alert

By Mark D. Roberts

February 10, 2020

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

Ephesians 6:18 (NIV)


Years ago, when I was the college director at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I had been out late on a Saturday night leading a college group event. On Sunday morning I was scheduled to help in one of the church’s worship services. I did my part, managing to lead decently in spite of my tiredness. When it came time for the pastoral prayer, one of my colleagues stood up to lead in prayer. Dutifully, I closed my eyes and bowed my head.

a lady looking through a telescopeAs the lights in the sanctuary were dimmed and the organ played quietly, I listened to the prayer. Soon, however, my mind became fuzzy. Then I completely lost consciousness. Yes, right there on the platform—in front of a thousand worshipers—I was fast asleep. I awoke with a start, fearful that I might have slept well beyond the prayer. When I heard the prayerful voice of my colleague and the organ music playing I realized that I had escaped without public humiliation. Nobody knew I had been sleeping during the prayer!

If you were to read Ephesians 6:18 in the original language, you’d discover a phrase that would have spoken directly to my youthful, sleep-deprived self. Where our English translation tells us to “be alert,” the Greek reads literally, “lying awake.” This verb was used when someone passed a sleepless night. Later it came to have a metaphorical sense of being watchful or alert, like a guard taking the night shift. The guard needed to stay awake, of course, but wakefulness was in service to watchfulness.

Ephesians 6:18 urges us to remain watchful or alert when we pray. Yes, we do need to be physically awake to do this. But, more importantly, we need to pay attention. We need to be aware of what in our lives needs prayer. We must remember those for whom we have promised to pray. And, crucially, we must also attend to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. God will guide us as we pray but we must remain alert—ready to hear and respond as he speaks.

In my private prayers, I have found that writing down my prayers helps me to be watchful. Journaling when I pray keeps my mind from wandering and enables me to be more focused. And, quite frankly, it helps me remain physically awake when I pray. At other times, I am helped to be alert in prayer by walking. If I need an extended time of conversation with the Lord, I will often go to a place where I can walk and pray out loud.

When I’m praying with others, I try to listen not only to their prayers but also to what the Spirit might be saying to me through their prayers. I find that the intercessions of my brothers and sisters often stir up new desires in my own heart. I am encouraged to pray for needs in the lives of others, in the church, and in our world that I might otherwise overlook.

What helps me to be alert in prayer may not help you. But I would encourage to you do what does help you. And if you aren’t quite sure what that is, experiment! Ask the Lord to help you be more watchful as you pray. Learn to pay attention to the needs around you and within you, and also to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Something to Think About:

What helps you to be alert when you pray?

What helps you to pay attention to the guidance of the Spirit as you pray?

Something to Do:

Think about what helps you to be alert in prayer. Then do it.


Gracious God, thank you for the privilege of communicating with you, telling you all that’s on our hearts and hearing as you speak back.

Lord, I admit that sometimes I am not alert as I pray. I don’t usually fall asleep. But I can pray without paying attention to the needs around me or to the voice of your Spirit. Forgive me, Lord, for my “sleepiness.”

Help me, I pray, to pay attention. As I pray, may I be aware of the needs around me in my community and my church, among my friends and family. May I sense what in my own life needs prayer. And may I be quietly attentive so that I might hear you speak to me. Amen.

Explore more at The High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project:
Keep Alert…Praying!

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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