When You Don’t Know How to Pray…

All of us have room to grow in our prayer lives. We aren’t, if we are honest, nearly as faithful, as fervent, or as frequent pray-ers as we ought to be. And we know it. We read statements from the Bible like, “pray without ceasing,” (1 Thess. 5:16), and it seems like an absolutely unattainable goal. We are, nevertheless, moving toward it.

As we mature in our faith, our prayers become more specific. More meaningful. More heartfelt. More… everything. But not yet. We certainly aren’t there yet. And one of the ways we know we aren’t there yet is that there are times – many times – when we just don’t know how to pray.

These aren’t times when you are looking for some kind of “time filler” in your prayers, as if praying longer prayers necessarily makes you more spiritual. Neither are these times when you are called on to offer some kind of prayer in public and you find yourself tongue-tied. No, these are times of such sorrow, such grief, such anger, such mourning – these are times when you don’t know what to pray because words fail you.

These are times sitting by the hospital bed.

These are times looking of deep despondency.

These are times watching the continued stories of violence and bloodshed.

These are times of anxiety, trouble and sorrow so deep that you are just prayed out. You don’t have the words any more, and even if you did, you aren’t sure if they’re the right words to pray. What do you do in times like that? When you just don’t have the words to pray?

At the risk of being overly simplistic, let me offer one suggestion:

Turn to the psalms.

Let the psalms be the vocabulary of your prayers.

When you read through the psalms, you find a level of honesty and vulnerability that can make you at least a tad uncomfortable even when reading it. These are the expressed deep longings of the heart and soul; they are the cries of the mistreated and marginalized; they are the pleas for justice and they are the desire for things to be different. They are the calls for the Lord to rise up and be active and to no longer allow evil have its sway on earth. These are the words we need during our own distress.

And what a gift these words are! For in these words, we find a kind of permissiveness to our own feelings of despair and lament. We find, in God’s own Word, the invitation to come to Him and to lay ourselves bare, just as centuries of believers have done before us. We find the psalmist giving voice to that which we are too unsure to say ourselves and therefore becoming our own voice in the moments we don’t know what to pray for any more.

But not only that. Not only do we find our own voice. We find a renewed confidence in God, for there is a hinge point in most all of these soul level verses. There is a moment when the psalmist, despite the circumstances that have brought him to his knees, casts his eyes upward and sees there a God who has not abandoned His people. Who is both his judge and advocate. Who will, in His time, make everything as it should be and call for an answer to all the wrong that has been done.

And what a gift that is, too! As Christians, we do mourn. We do lament. We do feel all the sadness that comes in a broken world… but we don’t stay there. Our faith takes us beyond and points us forward to a time when it won’t be like this any more.

We need this vocabulary, too – the vocabulary of rightly placed hope. Of knowing that even as all the people and places we have placed our confidence in fall, there is yet God who remains the same. And the psalms show Him to us.

So, Christian, if today you are at the end of your prayer rope and you don’t have the words any more… rejoice, because God’s Word can do the talking for you.

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