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

I don’t remember the day of the week or the time of year, but what I do remember is the stark contrast of the moment.

On one hand, there was the clear blue sky, the gentle breeze tag-teaming with the sun to warm my skin to just the perfect temperature. Any other day it might have felt like a little slice of paradise. But this particular day there was a dark, cold feeling in my heart and a heavy weight on my shoulders.

A dear friend had shared that she had a lump in her breast and was going in for a needle biopsy. Another friend was going in the same day because there was a suspected mass in her lung and the doctors needed to investigate further. They were both going in for procedures that day, and our pastor’s wife had texted me and said she felt led to get a few women together to pray with both of them later that morning.

But I didn’t feel like a prayer warrior worthy of that invitation. In fact, I felt overwhelmed, and had absolutely no idea how to pray.

When You Don’t Know How to Pray

I knew God was capable of healing, and I knew that we were supposed to ask for the things we needed and even wanted. But I didn’t want the words of my prayers to give these women false hope if it wasn’t in God’s plan to heal them. And if I’m being completely honest, I was afraid of declaring God’s healing over them in prayer, and having him look bad if he chose not to heal. I know that sounds so arrogant – to think that somehow I need to protect God’s honor, or set him up for success. But that’s how I felt.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to pray wishy-washy prayers that left everything open-ended, or consisted only of “thy will be done” without even mentioning the deepest desires of my heart and theirs. To me, that kind of praying felt no more powerful than flipping a coin. This isn’t to say that there aren’t times to lay out a particular need and end with “not my will, but yours.” Jesus himself prayed like that in Gethsemane, so it’s worth taking note of!

But I felt like there had to be more to it, a nagging sense that God was calling me to pray with more certainty. So I stopped and simply asked God to show me what to pray for my friends. As I sat on my back porch, I’m not sure if I lifted my physical hands but I know my spiritual hands were practically touching the sky as I pleaded with God to give me the words to say that would encourage my friends. It was a “Lord, teach me how to pray!” moment, like the disciple in Luke 11.

When You Don’t Know How to Pray, Pray Anyways

I started praying for my two friends right then and there, even though our official prayer meeting was still a couple of hours away. As I began praying general, open-ended prayers, I felt something inside me shift. I started praying more boldly, and ended up proclaiming God’s total, complete healing for both women. When the time came for the prayer meeting, we all joined hands in a circle and began to pray out loud, one by one. As I listened to the other women praying, I sensed God’s presence in an almost tangible, electric way. I know he is present whether we feel him or not, because Jesus said so:

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Matthew 18:19-20 (NIV)
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But there have been certain times in my life when I’ve sensed God’s presence during corporate prayer in a uniquely powerful way that I can’t explain. Those prayers we prayed were like a swelling wave: fast-moving, powerful, ever-growing; the momentum, energy and expectation rising all the while. All of us came away feeling certain God would bring healing to both women. No, on second thought, I think we believed the healing had already happened, like when the centurion’s servant was healed on the spot in Matthew 8. After the prayer, we all spoke of a confidence God had given us that we were supposed to ask for complete healing, and we waited anxiously for the upcoming appointments.

The friend who went in for a biopsy of the lump in her breast was told they couldn’t find a lump to stick a needle into. The friend with the lung issues had a similar result: everything was completely, inexplicably normal according to her scans. 

The events of that day remain a huge prayer testimony in my life, as I’m sure is true for the other women involved. I wish I could say I’d cracked the code and that this amazing prayer story is the norm for me; that from this time on, all I had to do was ask God what to pray and -voila!-  I knew what to pray and all of those God-ordained prayers were answered in the exact way I voiced them. But that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, this kind of dramatic experience has been the exception rather than the rule in my prayer life.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I have come to believe is that if those kinds of things happened all the time I’d be tempted to rely on God as a cosmic genie-in-a-bottle and feel increasingly like I was somehow “really good at prayer;” that God chooses to speak to me in a special way and when I pray, God listens. I hate to even write those things down, they sound so smug and self-righteous (and maybe even a little blasphemous!). If you think about it, if prayer was simply a means to an end with the goal being a desired outcome, we might be tempted to look past the Giver to the gift. It would be like in a graduation ceremony where the graduate approaches the person handing out diplomas, smiles heartily and with a firm handshake takes the diploma and walks on. The giver is an afterthought. The giver pales in comparison to the thing in hand.

Related Post: The Unexpected Power of Prayer

Maybe this is precisely why the Giver didn’t design prayer as a series of transactions, but as a lifelong process of incremental knowing; a relationship built on trust and love. A relationship built on the journey of asking and being disappointed interspersed with asking and being amazed at the “abundantly more” we are given, and the creativity and sense of humor of a God who is infinitely greater than us and who loves us more than we could ever comprehend. But in his goodness, God has given me a handful of experiences that I can hold on to that remind me of what He is capable of. What He is capable of – not me.

Preliminary Prayer

The prayer I prayed back then when I wasn’t sure how to pray is something I’ve come to think of as preliminary prayer. As far as I know, Catherine Marshall coined the phrase in her book Adventures in Prayer when she asked God to reveal specific things to pray for her children.

Preliminary prayer can take many shapes and forms, and be used in so many different ways. You can do what I did and ask God to direct your prayers in a specific situation. You can follow Catherine Marshall’s example of asking God for specific, long-term prayers to pray over your loved ones. You can sit with your prayer list and ask God to bring to mind those people who need your primary attention just before a prayer time. You can even do some preliminary prayer before you create or begin a to-do list or other things that don’t seem very “spiritual” on the surface.

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4 Things to Do When You Don’t Know How to Pray

No matter what the context, the acronym A.S.A.P. can help you remember four basic steps of preliminary prayer: Acknowledge, Surrender, Ask and Pray.

First, acknowledge God for who He is: loving, wise and all-powerful. Remembering who God is and what He can do lays a solid foundation for praying with purpose and power.

Next, surrender your heart’s desire to God. Whatever situation you’re in, hold it up with open hands. Tell God you trust Him to take your story and work in it to bring about the absolute best in the situation.

Take a moment to ask God how to pray. You know who He is and what He can do, you’ve surrendered your will to His, and now you’re ready to receive any wisdom, guidance, scriptures or words. Many times when I’ve done this I’m met with silence and absolutely no hint of what God wants from me. That’s totally fine, and doesn’t mean God isn’t there, or that He isn’t at work shaping your heart and prayers.

Finally, you can go to God with your prayer…and if you’ve gone through the first three steps, don’t be surprised if your original prayer request changes in some way, or even evolves as you’re praying like it did when I prayed for my friends. On the other hand, don’t be surprised if you just go ahead and pray as you’d planned without a hint of direction. Whether you feel God or not, He is there and he is at work.

When our faith is rooted firmly in God himself and not a particular outcome, it brings a new joy and life to prayer. I hope sharing my own journey through a time when I didn’t  know how to pray has encouraged you in your own prayer adventure.

Join the Conversation

How about you? Have you ever felt like you didn’t know how to pray? What did you do? Do you have advice or tips for things that have worked for you? We’d love to hear in the comments!

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