What is Prayer? 7 Things to Pray When You Don’t Know What to Pray

Man discovering what is prayer
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What is prayer? Have you ever come before God wondering what you should pray? Feeling devoid of emotion and strength? Feeling as useless as a glove with no hand to fill it? You wonder if you should beg and plead with God for the object of your prayer, or if you should stand quietly in His presence and accept His will.

Recently, I found myself at a crossroads in a particular situation. I had been praying and praying about this situation. In fact, I took 40 days and prayed evening, morning and at noon about the situation, in accordance with Psalm 55:17 and Daniel 6:10. I thought God was very clear in the beginning; but, as the situation progressed, I became very unsure. I found myself at a standstill when approaching God during my prayer time; I found myself wondering what to pray.

This pause, these moments of indecision, were creating a small chasm in my relationship with God. A chasm that was being filled by doubt, discouragement and despair. But, in an effort to fight for my relationship with God, it was in these moments that I pressed forward and asked for His guidance and direction in knowing what to pray.

What Is Prayer?

Prayer is the lifeblood of our relationship with God. It replaces the face-to-face communication that the first family once had with Him in the Garden of Eden. It’s our power source; it’s where we find strength. Even in the moments when we are unsure about what to pray, it is important that we still muster up the strength to fall into the arms of God.

Prayer is so much more than a moment in time; it’s a conversation. It’s a learning experience. This explains the way that we can pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17 NKJV). It’s asking God for a Schwinn bicycle and expecting a shiny, red gizmo with shiny, silver spokes but getting a box full of bike parts accompanied with an instruction manual instead. So, when you find yourself facing a moment of doubt or discouragement (and we will all find ourselves there at one time or another), when things don’t seem to be working out as they should, when you think you’ve followed God’s appointed path but you don’t see Him working things out, what should you do?

1. Pray for God’s Presence

The safest place we can find ourselves is in the presence of God, for it is there we can most clearly hear His voice. In fact, Moses received the instructions for his mission in God’s presence (see Exodus 3:4). As he carried out this mission — leading a group of stubborn, former slaves with poor sense of [spiritual] direction, he knew the importance of continuing on in the presence of God. In fact, he knew it was vital to him being able to carry out the mission.

Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people. And He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:13, 14 NKJV).

This is an amazing promise: When we are in God’s presence, we find rest for our souls. We are able to take a spiritual break because we don’t need to plan out all of the details of our lives. We can rest knowing God has worked out our salvation for us. We can rest in this assurance: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9 NKJV).

In fact, when we don’t know what to pray, simply being in a state of prayer will bring us into God’s presence. Ellen White assured the young by saying, “Prayer, whether offered in the public assembly, at the family altar, or in secret, places man directly in the presence of God” (The Youth’s Instructor, February 15, 1900).

2. Be Still in the Presence of God

Once we have found the perfect place, how should we act in God’s presence? Psalm 46:10 advises us to quiet our drive for activity: Be still, and know that I am God (NKJV).

The best way we can conceptualize being still is by physically staying in one place. But to be spiritually still means to bask in the presence of God with a full appreciation of who He is.

There was a time in my life I had a looming prayer request that felt like my shadow, as it was with me at all times. At this time, I thought praying was like placing an order for fries — the ticket was sitting back in the kitchen, but I hadn’t gotten my food yet. I continuously brought the request before God. I journaled the prayer. I fasted and prayed. I even brought two or three together in His name. And although I saw small progress, I never noticed any significant change as a result of my prayer.

Eventually, my focus on my prayer request began to wear me down, causing me to have pent-up frustration toward God. I became so focused on the request that I hardly paid attention to the Grantor of the request. In the midst of being miffed, I shared my feelings with a friend who, after listening to my complaints, asked me, “Have you ever tried spending time with God without asking Him for anything?”

Well, what’s the point of that? I thought to myself. That’s like sitting on Santa Claus’ knee as a kid and not asking for a present. However, his words, eventually, rang true for me. As simple as it sounded, I had never done it before.

This is what it means to be still in the presence of God — enjoying God for who He is instead of what He can do. Being still in the presence of God is carving out a time each day where we simply learn to love and appreciate God as a friend and a Savior, realizing that if we were to walk away from our prayer life with a closer relationship with Jesus and nothing else, He alone would be enough.

3. Praise God in the Middle of the Storm

I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1 NKJV).

When in doubt about what to pray, praise is always the right answer. We have the tendency to be fair-weather Christians. We’d prefer to bless the Lord in the good times but let a word of complaint continually be in our mouths. I’ve learned, during the past few months, that the reason we withhold our unconditional praise is because of our lack of unconditional trust. We have become so comfortable with the concept of God as our Friend that we’ve forgotten He is the omnipotent, omnipresent Creator of the Universe. If we would take time to remember how He’s worked in the past, it would be much easier for us to remember who He is.

I love the way God reminds Job of His credentials to run the universe in Job 38–41. He poses the question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4–7 NKJV) And, in an instant, I turn God’s questioning from Job to me.

4. Trust that God Is Sovereign

When we acknowledge who God is and what He has done, we are able to praise Him through the storm, and even praise Him for the storm because, ultimately, He is sovereign over all of the situations in our lives. He is not surprised at the way things are turning out. The loss of a job or the death of a dear family member did not take Him by surprise. This is not to say that He is not understanding or compassionate. The psalmist explains, “His understanding has no limit” (Psalm 147:5 NIV). Nonetheless, He is not oblivious to the things that are happening; in fact, He knew they were coming. He knows the beginning from the end, and we must learn to acknowledge that and praise Him through the storm.

You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; for you created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created (Revelation 4:11 NKJV).

When we find ourselves at a standstill and don’t know what to pray, we should take time to acknowledge to God that we know He is totally and completely able to care for us. Many of us are used to setting goals and working hard to accomplish them. We’re not accustomed to taking “no” for an answer, and we pride ourselves in having pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But being in relationship with God allows us to call “shotgun” and take our places in the passenger seat.

Initially, the feeling will be most uncomfortable and we’ll attempt to grab the wheel and put the car into drive. But once we realize that God is adept at doing His job, we will realize the privilege we have to allow someone so loving and with so much foresight to take control of our lives. It’s especially important, when we don’t know what to say, to pray a prayer of trust. It is in these moments that we should let God know we are willing to trust Him with complete and total control of our lives.

5. Acknowledge that Life Is a Series of Spiritual Battles

The Apostle Paul gives us insights into what’s really going on: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NKJV).

As Christians who live in this world, but not of it, it’s easy to become sucked into the trap of lumping all the goblins, witches and warlords into the category of fantasy books and teenage-vampire-heartthrob movies. However, to do this is to lose sight of the real, live battle that wages on around us. Paul is quite clear to identify the spiritual fight in which we are engaged, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Even Peter gives explanation for the hardships in our lives when he says, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy” (I Peter 4:12 NKJV).

I mention the hardships in life because, most often, when we stand in prayer not knowing what to pray, it is in a moment of hardship or in the midst of God’s silence. It’s seldom in a moment of God’s goodness, mercy and blessing that we feel as though God is silent; it is usually in the midst of trials. So, in these moments, when you’re unsure of what to pray, pray a prayer of acknowledgment of the spiritual battle that wages around you. Thank God that it’s a battle that He has already won. As Peter advises, rejoice in the midst of your trials and suffering that you’re taking part in Christ’s suffering.

6. Thank God for Fighting for You

Growing up, one of the great benefits of having an older brother was knowing that he was fighting for me. I never worried that a negative word would be said about me in his presence without him defending me. And we know that Jesus is a friend who sticks closer to us than a brother (see Proverbs 18:24).

Whenever I’m in the middle of a particularly fierce storm, I love to visit the verses mentioned above in Exodus 14 and II Chronicles 20. When facing a brutal enemy or a troubling situation, it always gives me a sense of peace and calm when I realize I don’t need to worry about fighting my battles because God is fighting them for me.

And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace” (Exodus 14:13, 14 NKJV).

Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this great multitude, for the battle is not yours, but God’s. You will not need to fight in this battle. Position yourselves, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord, who is with you (II Chronicles 20:15, 17 NKJV).

When you don’t know what to pray, thank God for fighting your battles for you. This will help you place your problem in perspective when you compare it to the size of your God.

7. Hold On

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:9 NKJV).

As a prayer warrior in training, I know the most tempting and appealing thing to do, when I don’t know what to pray, is to let go; but this is the moment when I know I must hold on.

I am currently pushing through a trying time in my life. One evening, as I was having worship, Isaiah 40:31 flashed in my mind; the words were beautifully appropriate and spoke to my situation. But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (NKJV).

Rest assured that in the moments when you’re at a loss for words and don’t know what to say, God knows your heart. The Holy Spirit can turn even your most primal cry into beautiful words that move God’s heart (see Romans 8:26).

Most often, when we don’t know what to pray, it is because we are in the middle of distress, indecision and unrest. It is because we want God to come down and be a part of our human story. We want our God to be as real as our pain.

Psalm 66 assures us that God is a God of action! It is here that we see an active God who quickly jumps off the sidelines and onto the court — like a zealous parent, eager to get into the action at his son’s basketball game. Isn’t that what we all want? We want a God who gets involved. We want a God who will fight our battles. We want a God who is in control.

Our God is all of that, and more! When we are in the middle of life’s storms and we don’t know what to pray, we can rest assured that our God, the God who specializes in giving beauty for ashes (see Isaiah 61:3), hears every moan that passes through our lips and counts every tear. His ear stretches past audible limits and enters our hearts. When we acknowledge to God our inability and inadequacy to approach Him in prayer, He can pick us up and take us where He wants us to be.

This article first appeared in Vol. 104 Issue 11 Lake Union Herald

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