When you don’t know what to pray

I’ve always appreciated the disciples’ request for Jesus to teach them how to pray in Matthew 6. These men grew up hearing prayers in the synagogue. They knew the prayers of Scripture. They even heard Jesus pray. Yet, they wanted to learn how to pray.

I don’t know about you, but I have numerous books on prayer lining my bookshelves. Each one has helped me learn about the heart and purpose of prayer. Some books focus on specific prayers of the Bible, helping me to shape my own. Some provide written prayers I can pray myself. Some give practical tips on prayer, including ways to manage my long list of requests for myself and others.

Yet no matter how skilled we might be in prayer, no matter how well we construct and organize our prayers, no matter the length of our prayers, there are times when we come to the Lord and simply have no words. We stand muted before the painful sorrows of life. We can barely breathe, much less give voice to how our heart is broken by loss or paralyzed by great fear. Prayer just seems impossible when it feels like we are drowning in despair, fear, pain, sorrow, or shame.

When I am made silent by the circumstances of life, I remember the psalmist’s words: “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Ps. 77:4) and realize I am not alone. I read the groans of David and hear them echoed in my own heart, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Ps. 6:6). And I realize that what God wants most isn’t necessarily a stream of eloquent words, but “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

That is something I can bring.

I can bring my broken heart.

And the psalmist tells us that the Lord will not despise our doing so. In fact, the more we read of the Psalms, the more we see God’s invitation to come to him just as we are. Weeping. Fearful. Lonely. Ashamed. In C.S. Lewis’ book on prayer, Letters to Malcom, he wrote about the importance of being honest with the Lord in our prayers. “We want to know not how we should pray if we were perfect but how we should pray being as we are now.” So where are you right now? What is happening in your life in this moment? What is weighing down your heart? What temptations are you battling? What is the state of your faith? These are the things we bring with us when we pray. We come to the Lord in vulnerability. In weakness. In brokenness. In need of grace. Lewis wrote: “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”

Just the simple act of coming before the throne of grace reveals the contents of our heart. The Lord sees our humble offering and if all we can muster up is the words “Help me!” that is enough. For as the apostle Paul encourages, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27).

The Puritan preacher, John Bunyan, wrote, “It should comfort your heart if the anguish of your spirit keeps your words few. The Holy Spirit stirs up your heart in groans and sighs so much the more vehement when your mouth is hindered. Though your mouth is hindered, your spirit is not.”

God knows and hears the groans of our heart. When we cry out to him and can hardly string a sentence together, he knows what we long to say. He knows the thoughts and intentions of our heart. He hears beyond the sighs of pain and the tears of brokenness. Even more, he hears the Spirit interceding for us, praying perfect and righteous words on our behalf. The Spirit takes our lisps and stutters and makes them holy.

When the difficulties of life mute us, remember it is not how well we pray, but that we pray. And may it encourage our heart to know the Spirit never cease to groan to the Father on our behalf.

Father in heaven,

I come before you broken by the hardships of life. I feel the weight of my own sin, the sting of arrows flung at me from others, and the searing pain of loss and heartache. As David wrote, my tears flood my bed day and night. All I can do is cry out to you for help. Hear me, Lord. Help me, Lord. Help me to know you are with me. Carry me through this. Comfort me with your love. In Jesus’s name, amen.

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