It was a no-brainer. I picked up the phone, called my husband, and asked him to leave work and come home immediately. Scott met me on our front porch where I conveyed to him—through tears—the pediatrician's update that three of our children had tested positive for alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a serious genetic condition that impacts the liver and lungs.
Grief deluged our hearts that day, carrying a host of questions and unknowns in its wake. What does this mean for our children—for our family? How do we think about and plan for the future? Where is God in all of this? How do we pray?
We didn't know what to say, what to ask. But as Christians, we knew the invitation to bring everything to God in prayer (Phil. 4:6). Huddled together, eyes closed, between sobs, that's what we did.
Do questions—spoken or unspoken—travel with your grief and suffering? Maybe you're in the middle of a challenge right now that leaves you confused, asking questions with no easy answers. Or maybe you're so confounded by a situation that you aren't sure what to think, let alone what to ask God or how to pray.
Perplexing circumstances can so often leave us lost for words when it comes to prayer. Is God listening? Does He care? When the situation in front of us seems tangled and messy, how do we even start to string a sentence together?
When I'm bewildered and overwhelmed, the only one who is fully dependable is Jesus. When circumstances spin and there's nothing I can do to stop them, the only one who can change what's going on in me and around me is the Lord. And when I'm weak in the knees and feel like I've been punched in the gut, the only thing I know to do is pray.
The good news is that when you feel the same way, you can run to God too. You can bring your questions when you don't even know what to ask, confident that He hears and cares about you.
The Freedom of Prayer
I still remember where I was when, as a child, I first realized that prayer, boiled down, is simply talking to God. Buckled into the back seat of a car driving down Church Street, not far from the house I grew up in, my mom's friend Dottie explained that I could pray anytime, anywhere. As if savoring a new piece of candy, I rolled around in my mind this idea that I didn't even have to close my eyes or speak out loud. I could just think my thoughts to the Lord, and He would hear them. It was wonderful.
In an attempt to pray theologically correct prayers, sometimes I miss this same childlike wonder in my daily devotional life. But when there's a new diagnosis, stress at work, a struggling child, friction in marriage, or creeping loneliness, the last thing you or I need is to feel added pressure to figure out the so-called right words. Instead, it's helpful to remember the freedom you and I enjoy when it comes to prayer:
1. We don't have to use a lot of words.
Nowhere does the Bible say that we have to use a lot of words when we pray. Actually, Jesus taught the opposite. He said that we're not supposed to “heap up empty phrases,” thinking that we'll be heard for our “many words.” Why not? Our “Father knows what [we] need before [we] ask him” (Matthew 6:7–8 ESV).
2. We don't have to use words at all.
Using words is normal in conversation but not required in our hardest moments. Sometimes our circumstances are so intense, or our emotions so raw, that we don't even have words. We can't process what we think or feel, let alone translate it into sentences. In those moments, “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” (Rom. 8:26 ESV).
3. We can pray about everything.
In fact, we're supposed to. Paul writes, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6 ESV, emphasis mine). No subject is taboo and no question is off-limits when it comes to talking with our heavenly Father. No sin is too grievous to confess, no hardship too heavy a burden for Him, and no situation too hopeless for His counsel.
4. We can pray anywhere.
If David could call to God “from the ends of the earth” when his heart was faint (Psalm 61:2), surely we can cry out from our homes and hospital beds, workplaces and churches, city centers and mountain vistas. If Nehemiah could pray (silently, I assume) in the presence of King Artaxerxes (Neh. 2:4), then surely we can pray in an office or classroom, right in the middle of a hard conversation with a coworker or family member.
5. We can pray all the time.
Prayer is to be as regular as breathing. Paul puts it this way, “Pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17). We breathe in, we breathe out. We remember God, we talk to Him. When life goes smoothly or when it flips inside out, all the time, there's open communication with our heavenly Father.
6. We can pray honestly.
We don't have to filter or edit every prayer. Instead, in a posture of humility, Scripture invites us, “Pour out your hearts before him. God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8; see also Lam. 2:19). In our trials, we can be tempted to numb our pain with other things, but when we turn to God and tell Him all, we find safe refuge.
7. We can pray the same thing—repeatedly.
Do you remember the parable Jesus told about the persistent widow? She kept returning to the same judge asking for justice. Even though the judge didn't fear God or respect man, he was worn down by her persistence and gave in. Like the widow, we too “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1 ESV). How much more will our heavenly Father act in response to our petitions?
It's only because of Jesus' death and resurrection that we enjoy the freedom of approaching our heavenly Father in prayer. In Jesus, we have a high priest who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). His experience of suffering and temptation positions Him to help us when we are tempted in our suffering. That's why we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16 ESV, emphasis mine).
Through Jesus, we can approach God's heavenly throne without fear. We can enjoy a personal relationship with Him, and we can prayerfully bring our requests and concerns to Him.
Anytime and anywhere. Draw near.
Full of questions? No problem. Draw near.
Weary, heartbroken, bewildered, lonely, hurt? Draw near.
What are we waiting for? Draw near.
The afternoon when we learned about our children's diagnoses, Scott and I brought our confusion and fear, anxiety and sorrow, and all our questions—even the ones we couldn't put into words—to our heavenly Father. We confessed our helplessness and weakness—our complete dependence on Him. We cast our cares, believing He cared (1 Pet. 5:7). It was an unscripted, in-the-middle-of-our-mess kind of prayer. But as we poured out our hearts, laying them bare before the Lord, the Holy Spirit led us to pray that God's will be done and that He would work for His glory and our good in our pain (Rom. 8:26–28).
Since then, some days have brought more questions than answers. But over and over again, God invites us to draw near. Trials and temptations, yours and mine, invite us to draw near to our sympathetic Savior with confidence that we will be heard and helped, that we will receive mercy and find grace (Heb. 4:16). When we do, we find that God's grace is sufficient for us, and that His “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). We learn that He will be enough.