When You Don't Know How to Pray

“We don’t always have the presence of mind to figure out what to say to the Lord when we are spinning.”

It was a beautiful Friday evening at sundown, and I was out walking my dog, reflecting on all that was behind and all that lay ahead. I had just finished a grueling two years of school to obtain my Masters in Nursing, and was looking forward to my interview for my dream nursing job the upcoming Tuesday. I had the weekend to decompress and prepare. My husband and I had made a lot of sacrifices for me to go back to school, so to be on the brink of next steps felt exciting and hopeful.

Then my cell phone rang. It was a hospital staff person calling to inform me that someone very close to me was in emergency surgery. I knew it was for a self-inflicted injury. All the rumbling fears I had had about the situation in the past week had become a terrible reality. I scrambled to get a flight out of state to get to this person’s bedside for the weekend. It was a weekend of shock, some relief, as well as incomparable grief and stress. As my loved one recovered, I went through fitful sleep in a chair at the bedside, and then I flew back home on Monday to prepare for my interview the next day. My heart was full of pleas to the Lord, yet at the same time at an absolute loss even for internal words to lift up to Him.

There are certain situations in life—some as extreme as this, others not so dramatic yet still confusing in their own right—where we simply do not know how to pray. Life doesn’t always prepare us for these kinds of moments; we don’t always have the presence of mind to figure out what to say to the Lord when we are spinning. The confusion can be compounded by an additional layer of guilt that we “ought” to know how to pray. We may feel that we ought to start off with the right kind of praise and thanksgiving, the right phrases to express our faith in His sovereignty, the appropriate articulation of our needs and our submission to His will. It is so much pressure in times of crisis to try and be strong when we feel so very weak. Praise be to God that Scripture actually shows us the liberating truth about God’s grace when we don’t know how to pray.

He already knows we struggle with this, and He gives us a solution.

We groan, and He gives His own Spirit to intercede for us.

Likewise the Spirit also helps us in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the heart knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
- Romans 8:26-27

Do you notice that the Spirit Himself doesn’t even turn to words? Even the Spirit’s intercession is comprised of groanings, because He knows our depths; He actually understands what it feels like when words are not enough. I find such comfort in knowing I can just bring my groaning, and it’s enough. I can lean on His Spirit to groan the “right” way on my behalf.

It was all I could do that weekend, was to groan. The only other words my heart could wrap itself around were the lyrics to the hymn, ‘It is Well With My Soul’. One of my friends had emailed them to me, and so I groaned and I sang the hymn over and over in my heart. That was all I could bring to the Lord.

Fast forward a few weeks. I took a Sunday “off” from attendance at my previous church because they were having a Sunday service at the beach. I was feeling a new wave of grief and didn’t want to be a downer, so I chose to be anonymous at a different, much larger church that day. The sermon was about anxiety, and how we could trust the goodness of God in times when life was making us deeply anxious. I understood a bit of that struggle. The wise preacher directed us to the cross—seeing God’s goodness in how He Himself entered into our suffering, seeing how He walked in our shoes and ultimately brought victory even over death.

After the sermon finished, they called believers forward to receive the Communion elements. We returned to our seats with crackers and grape juice in hand. I bowed my head, and the praise band began to play that old, familiar hymn.

It is Well With My Soul.

I was overcome by the most intimate, tender mercies of our God. He had heard all my groanings for His nearness, His comfort, His hope, His restoration, His compassion, His peace, His redemption. He heard my groanings. It was enough; it is enough to bring our groanings to the Lord when we don’t know how to pray.

It is well with my soul.