When You Don’t Know How to Pray

Have you ever found yourself speechless? Maybe you were amazed, shocked, or overwhelmed. The situation may have been good or bad. Sometimes we don’t know what to say, but sometimes we just have so much to say that we just don’t know where to start. That problem doesn’t just happen with other people, though. It can happen in our relationship with God.

When we don’t know how to pray, we have several choices. We can just stop praying altogether. We can figuratively throw our hands up and tell God we don’t know what to say, asking Him for words. Or we can turn to prayers that have been used by God’s people through the ages, such as the liturgical prayers found in resources like the Book of Common Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, or those found in the Psalms.

Lately we’ve been talking about this last option (here and here), focusing in particular on the Psalter. But just as we don’t always know what to say, sometimes the Psalms don’t really reflect what we need or want to say. This doesn’t mean that the Psalms can’t still help us in our prayer life. It just means we may use them a little differently.  

Praying the Laments

One way of approaching prayer that you may be familiar with is to use an acronym like ACTS as a guide. ACTS stands for four different aspects of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (request).

The songs of ancient Israel give us another approach. While these songs may not relate to your specific circumstances, we can look not only look at their content but also to their composition for help.

Theologians have long noted the similarities between different types of poetic compositions. For example, hymns frequently include a call to worship God, praise of God for His character and past faithfulness, and blessings or wishes. On the other hand, the laments include two main parts: the speaker’s plea and a response of praise.

We can use these two features and their various parts to structure our own prayers. First, let’s look at the various parts and features of the plea section to see how they might help us.

  1. The speaker directly addresses God based on their relationship with Him.
  2. The speaker describes the problem, often using hyperbole (exageration). The speaker doesn’t stop there, though. This “complaint” often blames God, making the situation God’s problem. God has caused it. He needs to fix it.
  3. The speaker asks God to intervene, usually using imperative verbs. At times, it the speaker seems to be demanding that God do something. We don’t usually see reverence or words expressing a submission to God’s will for all things.
  4. The speaker gives reasons that God should act. These reasons can vary widely. Sometimes the speaker describes their innocence or the fact that they have sought forgiveness and restoration for their sin. Other times, the speaker focuses on God’s character, power, reputation, or past actions as a reason that God should intervene.
  5. Finally, sometimes the speaker will vehemently express their desire for vengeance, asking God to inflict their same pain on those who have caused it.

Does any of this make you as uncomfortable as it does me? We tend to focus on God’s goodness and faithfulness. We submit ourselves to His will. We often blame ourselves for our circumstances, focusing on our own sinfulness or the reality of life in a fallen world.

That’s not what the laments do. They don’t just beg God to fix things. They blame God. They demand that He intervene and call for revenge for our pain. So, how do we use the laments if they seem so foreign from our usual approach and maybe even our theology?

Lessons from Lament

Just like the ACTS acronym give us a way to structure our prayers, the different parts of the plea can give us a structure. Whether we choose to use the same tone or not, the plea gives us five parts:

  1. Address God based on our relationship with Him
  2. Bluntly describe our problem
  3. Boldly seek His intervention
  4. Describe His character and faithfulness as a foundation for His action
  5. Specifically identify what we want Him to do about our situation

But beyond this structure, the plea of the laments offers us some crucial lessons about prayer:

  1. Honesty – We can tell God what we really think and how we really feel, no matter how ugly. We don’t have to cloak our pain in piety. We can speak the unspeakable, submitting the reality of life as we really experience it to God.
  2. God’s sovereignty – The laments ultimately hold God responsible for our circumstances, if only because He has allowed them to happen. They acknowledge the reality that since God is all-powerful, He could have prevented our pain.
  3. Trust – That trust can be found in our honesty, but it can also be seen in the transition from plea to praise.

We’ll talk about the transition from plea to praise next week, but for now we can focus on one gift that can be seen in it: things change. Our worlds may have been turned upside down. Our lives may have been irrevocably changed. But we won’t be forever stuck in the chaos or darkness. God hears. God works. Sometimes He changes us. Sometimes He changes our circumstances. But either way, we can trust Him.

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The image is by congerdesign, courtesy of Pixabay.

2 thoughts on “When You Don’t Know How to Pray

  1. Dear Jennifer, thank you for this post that will be helpful to anyone with the desire for a fruitful prayer life. Two of our books deal with prayer. First Things that Last Forever is a free eBook. PRAYERS That Bring the House Down is a collection of prayers from God’s Word that I have used over the years. I would be glad to send you a free PDF copy of the paperbacks. They might be of help if you continue to write about prayer. You can see these on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Fran-Rogers/e/B01KIPCXQK You can send me your email address on my Contact page. Blessings on this, our Lord’s Day.

    Liked by 1 person

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