I’m going to be honest with you. I find prayer really hard. If I had to give reasons for all my tears over the past few years, most of them have come during conversations with God. Part of why I find it hard is that it hasn’t always been this way. I’ve had periods of life where prayer has been a great joy. Where I would carve out space most days to walk long stretches of sandy beaches to talk with my Creator. Where prayer brought comfort, clarity and direction.
But that hasn’t been the case for a while. Instead, prayer has been the source of deep wounds and disappointments. Over and over, I’ve found myself asking, “where are You?” and if You are there, somewhere, “why does this seem like such a one-way relationship?”
Life has a way of dealing us some rough cards at times. Even as Christians, we aren’t immune to suffering. We can be humming along high on life when suddenly we’re in a plot we can’t make sense of. The rain dumps and we’re like a piece of wet clothing that gets put in a dryer and thrown around on full speed. For some, answers come quickly. As do peace, clarity, healing and direction. But others find themselves stuck in the middle, waiting, wondering, and trying to white-knuckle their way through the mess and hold onto their faith. This is often where our questions about prayer and God get asked:
Do my prayers matter? Why does God only answer some people’s prayers? Is there some divine equation that consists of what I ask, the time I spend and the amount of people praying that gets God’s attention? If He says everything is possible, why isn’t He doing anything?
Some of Jesus’ most well-known yet confusing words on prayer were given to the disciples and a crowd of people during the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7,8).
Jesus’ instructions sound pretty straightforward: seek, ask, knock and receive. But that doesn’t always happen. So, what do we do when our asking doesn’t result in receiving or when our seeking leaves us with more questions than answers?
In his book Praying like Monks, Living like Fools, Taylor Staton explains that those three words “ask”, “seek” and “knock” are written in a Greek verb tense we don’t have a grammatical equivalent for in English. They imply an ongoing action that takes place in the present and the future. The most literal way to translate this passage in Matthew 7 is: Keep on asking, and you will receive. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. Jesus’ response to those asking without getting answers and growing weary is . . . persistence.
But persistence, by definition, is a hard slog. It’s not easy to keep coming to God with the same things for weeks, months, years, or for some, decades. When the struggle remains, the sickness lingers, the questions multiply, the heart still hurts and the desires go unmet—coming to God again and again is exhausting. Hence, many give up, others become bitter and some become avoidant in prayer. Just like love and trust, prayer involves risk. Because what if He never answers? What will I make of all His promises? How will I trust that any of what He says is true?
Unfortunately, I don’t have answers to all the nitty gritty questions around the theology of suffering. There are some intellectual answers, but they don’t hold much water when life seems like it’s in a downward spiral or when dealing with profound turmoil. What I’m here to do is offer you some encouragement for the ride.
So, what do we do when the events of our life lead us to prayer, but our prayer leaves us in the same place? How do we maintain the stamina to hold on? Here are some things that I’ve found helpful:
Be as humanly possible as you can.
We often think we must come to God with our knees on the floor, hands clasped and a softly spoken monologue of poetic praises. But God doesn’t expect this from us. The only requirement for coming to Him is that we do so with honesty. Just look at the Psalms. David’s prayers were full of grumblings, groanings, complaints, shaking fists, accusations, messy tears . . . and I’m sure some expletives got left out in translation.
If you can’t go to God with praise, go to Him with your anger, sadness, confusion and disappointment. If you can’t pray with hope, tell Him about your doubts. If you can’t pray for an hour, let it all out for a minute and then go on with your day. If you’re lost for words, pick a Psalm or a pre-written prayer that you resonate with, write it out or repeat it to God.
Don’t limit prayer to words.
The essence of prayer is quality time. Sure, God wants you to speak to Him, but He understands we experience seasons where that is hard. If you’re struggling to get out words or talking about things is overwhelming, try spending time with God in other ways. Listen to worship music and let the lyrics be your prayer. Go out into nature. Express yourself creatively through art. Write your prayers as poems or letters. Have communion. Or, in the words of David, “be still . . . “ (Psalm 46:10).
Take up the discipline of remembrance.
It’s easy to remember the things that cause us pain and suffering. As it’s said, the body keeps the score. But it’s not always easy to remember our blessings, especially during a difficult period. Yet we can often find hope for the future when we identify what God has done in the past. Pete Greig, the founder of the 24-7 prayer movement, says, “Remembering is at the heart of the Bible. You could say it’s why it got written . . . It is an essential spiritual discipline.” Take time to think about the big and small things that are going well, the blessings in your life and the lives of those around you. Write them down so you can see the list of things add up over time.
Surround yourself with people who will pray for and with you.
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, after food and water, love is the most important need we must fulfil as humans. Not only do we have greater life satisfaction when we’re connected with others, but our mental health improves and we have more resilience when we experience trials. Too often, we stay quiet and try to carry our doubts and difficulties alone. If I can give you one piece of advice that’s helped me most, it’s to find people you can trust, be open with them about what you’re going through, and let them help you carry your burdens. Ask them to pray for you and especially with you. Often people can speak hope into our situations and hearing their prayers can be a balm to the soul.
I still find prayer hard, and I’m still waiting for questions to be answered, desires to be met and healing to be had. But I’m holding onto hope that God is good, that He wants to answer us, give us our heart’s longings, and see us have joy and freedom in this life. He knows the latter can be painful and promises it won’t be this way forever.
As Staton writes, “God bends history so that the moments of greatest pain become the moments of greatest redemption, twisting the story to be sure that the pain we feel releases the power of new life, and the tears we cry become the foundation of a better world. We are promised that a day is coming when the Father himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes. But until then, we live on an in-between promise: ‘I will not let a single one of your tears be wasted.’”
If you’re wading through the mess and muddle of your story or navigating some uncomfortable twists and turns you didn’t see coming, keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. And when you’ve grown impatient with the waiting and are struggling to hold onto hope, heed the words of priest Dom John Chapman: “pray as you can, not as you can’t.”