Have you ever found yourself in a situation so overwhelming you didn’t know how to pray about it?
Ten years into our marriage, my husband, David, lost his job. He went to work one Monday morning and returned an hour later with a pink slip in his hand. We had two preschool aged children, a mortgage, and little savings. I worked a day and a half each week as a dental hygienist and earned enough to buy groceries, but nothing more.
The day after he was terminated, David awoke to violent stomach pains and nausea that confined him to his bed for days. Instead of job hunting, he was, well . . . I’ll spare you the details.
Two days later our car died. A friend suspected the engine had thrown a rod.
David’s doctor ordered a series of tests, but we hesitated to schedule them because our health insurance ended with his job.
As our heap of trials rose higher than the stack of bills in our mailbox, our fears grew, and our faith trembled.
You may be facing a different yet equally frightening scenario. A prodigal child. A serious health threat. A complex work situation. Maybe you’re stuck in a relationship battle with a difficult (or impossible) friend, church member, or family member, and you simply don’t know how to pray your way through.
Four Suggestions for How to Pray When You Don’t Know What to Pray
1. Pray the Promises
God has filled His Word with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of promises. Ever wonder why? So we’ll have something to hold over His head and force Him to deliver? Not at all.
Through His promises, He reveals His will and guides our prayers.
- “Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
- “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
It’s important that we study the context of a promise to discern whether the promise is unconditional and intended for everyone, like John 3:16, or one that requires certain conditions to be met. Take Matthew 6:33, for example, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you,” assures us that God will provide everything we need as we seek Him by living our lives according to His principles.
As best we knew, David and I were seeking to live a God-centered, righteous life, so we could pray the promise of Matthew 6:33 with confidence.
2. Pray the Principles
Sometimes prayer needs aren’t as obvious as money to pay bills or buy groceries. How do we pray when people we love (and who love God) are at odds with each other? Or when those in authority over us are making ungodly decisions? What happens when a situation doesn’t seem to fit the obvious promises of God?
We pray the principles of the Bible.
- We know it honors God when fellow believers work together and live in unity (Psalm 133:1), so we can pray for God’s Spirit to help His children yield their preferences to work together.
- We know God guides those in authority over us (Prov. 21:1), so we can ask Him to use their decisions to accomplish His will in our lives.
David and I knew that faith glorifies God (Rom. 4:20), so we prayed often during his unemployment and illness for Him to enable us to walk in faith.
3. Pray in Faith
Faithless prayers are useless. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Thankfully, we don’t have to know how God will answer our prayer in faith, just that He will answer. Faith isn’t being sure of the outcome. Faith is being sure of the One who ordains the outcome.
A faith-filled prayer doesn’t demand or declare what God should do. It believes wholeheartedly that whatever God does is good, right, and best.
We pray as King Jehoshaphat prayed while a mighty army descended on Judah, “We do not know what to do, but we look to you” (2 Chron. 20:12). Or as a father petitioned Jesus on behalf of his sick son, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Whether we have mountain-sized or mustard-sized faith, the object of our faith is the same—our Almighty God.
David and I knew we were powerless to untangle every knot in our family crisis, but God wasn’t. He was our strong and sure hope.
4. Pray the Prayer of Surrender
Every other method of praying pales in comparison to the prayer of surrender. It is simultaneously the hardest prayer and the easiest prayer to pray. Hard because it requires us to freefall into the arms of God and trust that He will catch us. Easy because no one is more trustworthy than He.
When we pray a prayer of surrender, we lay down our opinion about how God should answer. We yield our desire for an easy, pain-free life. Whether God’s answer takes us through the valley of the shadow of death or through flowery meadows filled with sunshine, we choose to trust that God will orchestrate our circumstances to accomplish His good and perfect will in our lives and in the world.
Jesus Is Our Supreme Example
As He agonized in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ humanity groaned at the cross that lay before Him. The physical abuse He knew He would endure would be enough to make anyone sweat great drops of blood. But He knew a far greater agony awaited Him—the unimaginable horror of bearing the weight of humankind’s sin on His sinless shoulders.
“He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Imagine a man diving into a river of raw sewage to rescue his drowning children.
“My Father, if it is possible,” He prayed, “let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39).
But it couldn’t. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).
So He prayed a prayer of surrender. “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt. 26:42).
Author Jennifer Kennedy Dean, in her book, Live a Praying Life, describes this type of prayer:
“This is not a prayer of resignation to the circumstances; it’s not throwing in the towel and giving up. [This prayer] can only come from a heart that knows the heart of the Father-Shepherd. We can abandon ourselves fully to His will because we know that His heart does not contain one thought or desire toward us that is anything less than the highest possible good.”1
God Opens Doors through Prayers of Surrender
It didn’t take me long during David’s season of unemployment to recognize that apart from God, our family had little hope.
“Lord,” I prayed one morning as I sobbed into my hands, “this situation is broken in so many ways I don’t even know how to pray. Help. Just help. Whatever that looks like, I trust you.” My prayer of surrender opened the door for God to work in our situation.
Things didn’t change overnight, but gradually David’s health got better. Our friend asked his mechanic to take a look at our car and paid to fix it. After months of searching, David found a new job. When we cashed his first paycheck and prepared to pay bills, we realized God had provided for every expense we’d incurred. God, not David’s job, was our Provider.
Jesus warned His followers, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33 ESV). To help us navigate, God gave us the precious gift of prayer. When we encounter circumstances that confuse our hearts, we can pray God’s promises, according to biblical principles, in faith. And when we pray the prayer of surrender, we can trust that we’ll land securely in the strong arms of our Father.
1 Jennifer Kennedy Dean, Live a Praying Life: Open Your Life to God's Power and Provision (Birmingham, AL: New Hope Publishers, 2011), 162.