Last night I went for a walk along the bayou near our street, trying to decompress and straighten out my mind. There, in the humid twilight of a Houston summer night, I found myself in a familiar place: struggling to pray.
It’s not that there’s too little to pray about; if anything, there’s too much. It’s not that I didn’t want to pray; three minutes earlier I had shelved my phone, unbolted the front door, and turned left down the sidewalk with prayer as the clear intention. But though my needs and my aims should’ve formed a smooth path to God’s open throne room, I found myself once again stumbling over whatever it is that gets in the way of prayer.
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How do we pray when we have nothing to say? How do we find our way through the labyrinth that prayer can become? Even as tomes of anxiety fill the libraries of our hearts, why do we so often struggle to string together three sentences of prayer? What can we do when our thoughts, like knots in a shoelace, grow tighter the harder we pull them toward prayer?
What do you do when you don’t have a prayer?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions. Even when I do have an answer or two, I don’t have the inner strength or daily wisdom to apply them consistently.
But I do keep learning, slowly but truly, that when I don’t have a prayer, four others offer me theirs: the Savior, the Spirit, the saints, and the Psalms.
Jesus prayed often during his life on earth. He rose early and prayed in the darkness (Mark 1:35). He prayed that Peter’s outspoken faith wouldn’t fail (Luke 22:31-32). He prayed with trinitarian profundity as the last supper came to a close (John 17). He prayed with blood earnestness in Gethsemane’s garden (Matthew 26:39, 42, 44). He prayed. And he is praying still.
Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).
Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us (Romans 8:34).
Our Savior’s perfect sacrifice, his priestly role, and his heavenly position at God’s right hand all prepare him to serve as our permanent advocate (1 John 2:1). When our prayer-weary hearts don’t know how to proceed, Jesus intercedes.
When we don’t have a prayer, the Savior offers us his.
Encouraging as it is that the resurrected Christ constantly advocates for us before his Father, the Son of God is not alone in his intercession. The Spirit of God also intercedes for us, Paul writes:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
With an earnestness that overwhelms the limits of language, the Spirit of God joins the desperate groanings of our death-bound bodies (Romans 8:23) and our sin-cursed world (Romans 8:22) and groans before God on our behalf (Romans 8:26). Indeed, the very reason we find ourselves crying “Abba! Father!” is that the Spirit has made his home in our hearts:
And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6).
Though it seems that prayer should be light and easy, we (like the disciples) often find it heavy and hard (Luke 22:45). Yet this weight of prayer, which every Christian carries, is never carried alone. Our ignorance and impotence in prayer are overmatched by the Spirit’s help “in our weakness” (Romans 8:26). The Spirit’s prayers always align with the Father’s will for us (Romans 8:27b), and the same Father who knows his Son’s voice deciphers his Spirit’s groans (Romans 8:27a). The Spirit knows what we need, and the Father hears what the Spirit prays.
When we don’t have a prayer, the Spirit offers us his.
With the entire Trinity devoted to these intercessory exchanges on our behalf, surely we need nothing more. Yet the eyes and ears of God the Father are tuned intently to even more pleas: the prayers of our fellow Christians on our behalf.
When we struggle to walk the path of meaningful prayer, we often turn in on ourselves. We trip up, guilt up, and give up, or we stumble forward joylessly, eventually veering into a meadow of distraction or wandering along a side road of discouragement.
As we collapse or stumble or wander, we often get self-focused and forget another overpowering reality: Other saints are praying for us.
Even if they aren’t praying for us in the moment, they have before and they will again. And God hears their prayers (2 Corinthians 1:11; 1 John 5:16). Further, God answers prayer in his own time and in his own way, knowing what’s best for his children, so all the past intercessions and supplications of your fellow Christians on your behalf remain before the eternal, all-knowing eye of God, like a bottomless inkwell ready to soak his ready quill as he authors answered prayers into each paragraph of our lives.
Who knows whether God has been waiting to answer some seemingly long-lost prayer at this very moment, when you need it most?
When we don’t have a prayer, the saints offer us theirs.
When our souls shrivel and our words run dry, the Savior, the Spirit, and the saints send out a steady stream of nourishing prayers to renew us. But there’s yet another source of help whose rope reaches the deepest pits of prayerlessness: the ancient prayer journal we call the Psalms.
I want to express spontaneous praise to God; I want to pray regularly for other people; I want to humbly confess my sins; I want to mourn my own brokenness and the brokenness of the world. But I don’t do these things well on my own. I need the Psalter’s help, and the Psalter stands ready at all times. No matter my situation, mood, or level of focus, the Psalms rise, or sink, to the occasion.
Of course, there are many other non-scriptural prayers written throughout the ages by God’s people, and Christians are wise to utilize these diverse collections. But the Psalms are the perfect and timeless prayerbook of the saints. I don’t just pray the psalms because I want to; I pray the psalms because I need to.
The Psalms bring the prayers of the Savior, the Spirit, and the saints cascading into the freshest prayer pool the heart can find.
When we pray the Psalms, we pray along with the Messiah as his royal ancestor David expresses prayers that find their truest expression in the voice of Christ (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46). When we pray the Psalms, we echo the prayers of the Spirit, because the Psalms are inspired Scripture, which means that the Spirit himself breathed out the psalms we pray (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). And when we pray the Psalms, we repeat the prayers of the saints who’ve gone before us, harmonizing our hearts with theirs in the great symphony of the redeemed.
When our souls run dry in prayer, we can drink deeply from the Psalms, and when we do, we find ourselves strangely satisfied and thirsty all at once.
When we don’t have a prayer, the Psalms offer us theirs.
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Christians often pray alone, and often struggle in prayer alone. But no praying Christian is ever truly alone. We may walk a wilderness path, but there’s a clear stream flowing amidst the rocks, beckoning us to drink in faith. Pause and listen carefully, and you’ll hear it bubbling up, night and day, with the prayers of the Savior, the Spirit, the saints, and the Psalms.