Praying When Life Gets Hard

Praying in Difficult Times - How can you talk to God when your heart is breaking?

By Nancy J. Nordenson

In a dimly lit hospital room, I stared out the window into the early morning darkness and waited for the drips of IV fluid to begin the contractions that would birth my lifeless midterm baby. My sorrow was lonely and deep. I wanted to pray, but there were no words to voice the thoughts that swirled in my mind. 

When life is hard, prayer is hard. Grief, illness, depression, and anger invade our lives and hang on with tenacity, stealing our desire to pray and our belief in prayer just when we need them most. Physically and emotionally weary, we struggle to move from "Dear God" to "Amen."  Simply getting through the day becomes our goal, leaving the luxury of connecting with God for better times.

I find it difficult to meet the expectations of Scripture regarding prayer. I fail to pray "with thanksgiving" (Phil. 4:6) when the situation I've prayed about for so long is only getting worse. How many of us pray "without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV) when waves of grief knock us over, pull us down, and hold us under? When disappointment and anger over dashed plans and failed relationships consume our thoughts and our unquiet hearts, where do we find the emotional energy to pray?

But God commands that we pray. He didn't make prayer optional; He doesn't hand us a signed excuse, releasing us from  prayer, when life becomes difficult. God must have known that the process of thinking thoughts to an unseen "Something" might seem inadequate in the face of our own suffering, that spending time alone in our room, praying the same thing yet again, might seem better spent pacing. He must have known each of us would come to the difficult day when, faced with the urge or challenge to pray, we would instead say, "I just can't," and go no further.

In obedience to God's command, prayer must become what Oswald Chambers called "an effort of the will." When life is difficult, any effort can seem like too much. But if we explore ways of praying that may be easier with limited physical and emotional strength, we more readily may set our wills in the direction of prayer.

Find a prayerful place.

Jesus often went to solitary places to pray, such as the mountaintop, the lake, and the garden (see Matt.14:23, 26:36-46, Mark1:35; and John 6:22-24). We can’t always arrange a trip to a mountaintop, but we can find somewhere appealing to pray. Slip into a church sanctuary, and look at the cross or stained-glass windows. Spend a quiet hour at a museum. Create a prayerful place in your home by lighting a candle or placing your chair by the window. Or simply go for a walk.

Use others' words.

When our prayers need words we can’t seem to find, we can use someone else’s. The Bible is filled with prayers. Consider the petitions of Moses as he struggled to lead God’s people. Listen to the kings of Israel as they prayed for help in battle. Borrow the words of the psalmists as they prayed for deliverance, protection, and forgiveness. In the New Testament, meditate on the words of Jesus and the apostles.

For example, consider the prayer of King Jehoshaphat. A messenger greeted him with these words: "A vast army is coming against you" (2 Chron. 20:2). The future of his kingdom was in peril; he and his people were trapped by mighty opponents. The king listened to this message and then prayed: "We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you" (v.12). I've borrowed these words of the besieged king when I've felt overpowered by circumstances outside of my control. His prayer is like a flare shot up to the God who rescues.

Consider using other written prayers as well, such as the words from hymns or from a book of prayers.

Meditate on Jesus' life.

Jesus had a hard life. Can we find something in His life that mirrors our own difficult times? The gospels tell us about the time He prayed alone at night, so full of emotion that He sweat drops of blood. We can read about the betrayal by His friends and the religious establishment. We can wonder how He must have suffered over being misunderstood by His family.

Did He feel sorrow when He was rebuked rather than praised for performing a miracle? What was He thinking as He wept over His friend Lazarus's grave. How did He find the strength to put one foot in front of the other on the way to His own crucifixion? Can we relate to His cry on the cross, "My God, why have you forsaken me" (Matt. 27:46)?

Feeling scared and cowardly when I needed to be calm and brave, I thought about Jesus entering Jerusalem for the last time before His death. Even knowing what was ahead, Jesus walked right into His crisis. Horribly unfair things were about to happen to Him. Humiliation and death awaited. If He could walk into that, then with His strength, I could walk into the experience I was facing.

As we meditate upon Jesus' life in this way, we connect with Him and share our experience with Him. This, too, is a way of praying.

Pray a repeated phrase.

It can also be helpful to pray often using the same few words. These words can be prayed aloud, whispered, or said inwardly while engaged in another activity.

There is no magic in the repetition of these words. Rather, what you're seeking is a continual prayer, a constant reminder of the truth to which you so desperately need to cling, a focus for unfocused thoughts. The sudden onsets of panic and grief after the loss of my baby eased when I repeated Jesus' words over and over again: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you"  (John 14:27).

Remember the Holy Spirit's intercession.

The advocacy of the Holy Spirit on our behalf is unceasing. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit prays for us when we are weak, when we don't even know how to pray or what to pray for (see Rom. 8:26:27).

Just as a bewildered plaintiff or defendant¾without ability to plead his own case before a judge and jury¾asks an attorney to speak for him, so we can entrust our cause to the Holy Spirit and remain silent for a time. This silence does not imply a lack of interest in being before God but rather a choice to be represented by the petitions of the Holy Spirit.

Assume a posture of prayer.

There is a good reason for the traditional prayer posture of closed hands and eyes: The less we see and touch, the more we focus on praying. But when our hearts and minds are racing, even this traditional prayer posture can be inadequate to help us focus. Sometimes, we may need a more intentional posture, such as kneeling or even lying prostrate on the floor. With our faces to the floor, we find ourselves in the company of others who have cried out to God from this position: Ezekiel, in despair; Ezra, ashamed and disgraced; Daniel, terrified; Jesus, sorrowful and troubled.

Write it once.

Simply thinking about our problems before praying may emotionally exhaust or dredge up resentment or anger. When I described to a friend my struggle to pray about a difficult situation, she advised me to write out a prayer that covered all the aspects of the problem. Then she suggested I read this prayer whenever I felt the need to pray, focusing my heart and mind on the words I'd already written. What a relief it was to have a plan for prayer, so I wouldn't need to search the pain daily, starting from scratch.

Show, don't tell.

When Sennacherib sent a letter to King Hezekiah threatening to destroy Jerusalem, Hezekiah read it and immediately went to the temple. He spread the letter out before the Lord and began to pray (see 2 Kings 19).

Could our prayers be supported by a visual aid as well? By using images rather than words, we can bypass the energy needed to find the words. With one action we can lay our situation before the God who sees as well as hears. Spread the stack of bills, the antidepressant prescription, or the abnormal biopsy report before Him. Tell God by showing God.

Pray with your tears.

Mary wept at Jesus' feet after the death of her brother, Lazarus (see John 11:32-33). Can you recall a time when you cried with another person? Do you remember the emotional release and subsequent bonding with that person after the tears? We can open our hearts to God and deepen our relationship with Him by crying in His presence, offering our tears as prayers. 

Express your anger.

Anger blocks communication. Are you angry at God over your situation? If so, tell Him how you feel. Follow Job's example of talking to God with honesty and respect. Talk it out, write it down, and watch for His answer.

Be silent.

Only the best of friends can sit together silently with ease. The psalmist reminds us to "be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10) and reassures us that "the LORD Almighty is with us" (v. 11). Allow yourself to sit silently in the presence of God.

Ask others to pray.

To release God's power on the battlefield below, Moses' friends helped him hold up his staff (see Ex. 17:8-13). In the same way, the prayers of others support us and release the power of God into the battles of our lives. If you don't know of at least one person who is committed to praying for you ask someone.

As I stared out the window in that hospital room, I had a definite sense of others praying for me. My loneliness eased and the struggle to pray relaxed. I didn't have to search for the words anymore; I knew the words of someone else would bring me before God.

Do you believe?

At the memorial service we held for our infant daughter, we read the words spoken by Jesus to a grieving Martha four days after the death of her brother. Jesus said to her: "I am the resurrection and the life.... Do you believe this?" Martha replied, "Yes, Lord" (John 11:25-27). Jesus then proceeded to the tomb, twice overcome with emotion before arriving. Moments later Lazarus walked out of the tomb, resurrected.

Despair and belief, sorrow and joy, death and life, waiting and rescue are the threads woven together in the fabric of this story. They are also the fabric of my story and perhaps yours. As with Martha, our hope when life gets hard rests in the way we answer Jesus' question: "I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?" If we can say yes, no matter how we choose to pray about the difficulties we face, we know that we leave our prayers in trustworthy hands.

Reprinted from Discipleship Journal, issue 116. Used with permission.