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How to Pray When You Don’t Know What to Pray

December 14, 2023 | Rev. Brett Desper

Almost all of us have experienced times where we know that things are not right, and we know that we need to pray but have no idea how or what to pray. There are times we are experiencing pain, doubt, deep questions, anxiety, etc. that we really do not understand. There are times we look at world events and can see no clear picture of where God is in the midst of the turmoil. Perhaps we feel disconnected, maybe even exiled, from God’s presence for no discernible reason. How can we pray in the midst of any of these experiences? How can we “Sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Ps. 137:4, ESV)? I have some suggestions, both from personal experience and from others who have experienced the same.

Be Honest

This seems like an obvious suggestion, but I am continually surprised by the people I meet that are reluctant to be honest with God. If we use the scriptures as an example, there is no shortage of people who were happy to let God know exactly how they felt about things. Let God know that you are feeling lost or cut off, that you do not know how to pray. Perhaps use Psalm 27:7-9:

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, ‘Seek my face.’
My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger
O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not,
O God of my salvation!

Or, use some other appropriate passage of scripture that mirrors what you are experiencing.

Ask For Wisdom and Understanding

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5, ESV). As James suggests, ask God for wisdom and understanding. Ask God to show you what you need to know to be able to pray. I remember a teacher telling us that we should ask God to show us what he is doing in the midst of the current crisis or turmoil in the world. He suggested that we should read or listen to the news listening for the prompting of the Holy Spirit about how to pray. This led to a complete change on my attitude about crises in the world as I began to see that the hand of God was working through the response of his people to those crises.

Sit in Silence

Sometimes, we will never have the words we need to pray. We might bow our heads to pray in the midst of a personal or social crisis, and the words just won’t come. We can try to mutter something, but the words we need to really pour out what is happening in our lives are not readily apparent. In this case, I would encourage you to just sit in silence before the Lord and let the Holy Spirit pray for you. I know this may sound odd to some, but Paul assures us that “…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, ESV).

Use Others’ Prayers

In the Northumbrian Celtic tradition, there is a type of prayer called caim (or encirclement) prayer. These prayers are designed to be adapted to different situations and to remind us that we are constantly encompassed by the living God who surrounds us with His love, care, and protection. A couple of examples follow:

1) Circle (name), Lord
Keep protection near
And danger afar.

Circle (name), Lord
Keep hope within,
Keep despair without

Circle (name), Lord
Keep light near
And darkness afar.

Circle (name), Lord
Keep peace within
And anxiety without

The eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Shield (name) on every side.

2) The compassing of God be upon you
The compassing of the God of life

The compassing of Christ be upon you
The compassing of the Christ of love.

The compassing of the Spirit be upon you,
The compassing of the Spirit of grace.

The compassing of the Sacred Three be upon you
The compassing of the Sacred Three protect you
The compassing of the Sacred Three preserve you

Commit Yourself into God’s Hands

Finding yourself unable to pray because you do not know what, or how, to pray is a common experience in the Christian life. Try any of the above, but if none of them are helpful, my final advice is to trust in the God of all comfort, mercy, and grace. Commit yourself (or the situation) into his hands and trust that He is working in the situation; He is guarding you and protecting you; and He will bring you safely home.

Blessings to all of you during this Christmas season.

1 Northumbria Community, Celtic Daily Prayer, Rev. and updated ed. (London: HarperCollins, 2005), 203-4.

Rev. Brett Desper

Lecturer in Discipleship and Spirituality

Brett Desper brings 20 years of education experience and strong leadership to YTI. Lecturing in Discipleship and Spirituality, Desper is able to help […]

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