When Praying Hurts
From Gospel Translations
How to Go to God in Suffering
My desire to pray when I’m suffering can swing wildly in a single day — and sometimes within the hour. Through the severe trials in my life — losing a child, having a debilitating disease, losing my marriage — prayer has been both arduous and exhilarating. Exhausting work and energizing delight.
In relentless suffering, I can struggle with prayer. More accurately, I don’t want to pray. When I haven’t seen any change, it can feel pointless to pray. So, I avoid it. Or I pray mindlessly. As my motivation fades, my heart slowly drifts from God. When that happens, I first need to recognize the battle raging inside me. Only then can I admit my wandering heart and cry out, “Help me to want to pray!” After that, I follow the Puritan admonition: “Pray until you pray.” I pray until I’m truly talking to God again.
Other times, I want to pray, but I just can’t do it. Praying feels impossible when I’m overwhelmed by pain. I’m either too exhausted, too numb, or too desperate to focus, and I can only manage to plead, “Help me.” I don’t know what I need, or even how to articulate what I’m feeling. In those moments, I can rely on the Spirit with his groans too deep for words. God knows what I need, and the Spirit will intercede for me (Romans 8:26–27).
Still other times, my prayer life blossoms in suffering. I see God provide for all my needs. I sense his presence and pour out my heart to him throughout the day. I find that life with God, even when everything is falling apart, can be a place of joy and abundance. Such connection with God in the storm has led to exquisite intimacy, a mystical communion I will never forget, not because my circumstances were good, or even changing for the better, but because God felt near.
At a Loss for Words
There are also times when I want to pray, but words escape me. When I don’t know what to ask or say, I borrow the wisdom of others. Many mornings, my prayer time has begun with quotes I’ve pinned to my bulletin board to realign my heart. For example:
Lord, do thou turn me all into love, all my love into obedience, and let my obedience be without interruption. (Jeremy Taylor)
Lord, please lighten my load or strengthen my back. (Puritan prayer)
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. (The Serenity Prayer)
Everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds. (John Newton)
These words have helped me focus as I add to them my own petitions. I might ask for rescue from my trials, wisdom for my decisions, strength for the day ahead. God’s provision doesn’t always mirror my requests, yet his grace unfailingly meets me. When I ask for a changed situation, I often receive a changed heart. When I ask for wisdom, I often have to proceed without clarity. When I ask for strength, I often still feel weak and uncertain. I have had to move forward in faith, trusting that God will provide what I need. Yet it is trusting God with the unknown, not leaning on my own understanding or even knowing where I am going, that has anchored my faith in him.
Besides our pressing needs, what else might we pray for in suffering? The acronym T.R.U.S.T. encapsulates what I need in suffering — what we all need — but often neglect to ask for:
Turn me from temptation. Revive me through your word. Use this pain for good. Show me your glory. Teach me your ways.
Turn me from temptation (Luke 22:40; Luke 11:4).
Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray that they wouldn’t give in to temptation. Heeding his words means praying before we are tempted, which requires that we know what might derail us so we can be on the lookout for it. While each person’s struggle is unique, in suffering I’ve been tempted to
- stop talking to God and subtly move away from him,
- want certainty more than I want Jesus,
- harbor bitterness toward those around me, even God, and
- run from pain rather than staying dependent on God in it.
Revive me through your word (Psalm 119:25).
God has restored me countless times through Scripture. I’ve come to the Bible feeling hopeless and weary, unsure of how I can even make it through the day, and he has revived me through it. God has spoken directly to me through his word, giving me exactly what I’ve needed: reassurance when I’m doubting, comfort when I’m crying, peace when I’m panicking.
But first, I need to open the Bible, which in suffering can feel uniquely challenging. I often resist it at first, as I imagine it will taste like cardboard. So I pray for motivation to read, and then I specifically ask God to give me spiritual eyes to see his truth in it (Psalm 119:18). And then, miraculously, the words become sweet (Psalm 19:10).
Use this pain for good (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28).
Knowing that my pain has a purpose makes it easier to endure. Even when I can’t understand how God could use it for good, I can be confident that he will. I know that God will never allow me to suffer needlessly, and that he has precisely measured out my trials so that not a single drop of my suffering will be wasted. While these truths are unchanging, my prayer is to glimpse what God is doing through my suffering. I’ve seen God use my pain to draw me closer to him, to comfort others with the comfort I’ve received, to increase my endurance and faith, and more.
Show me your glory (Exodus 33:18–19; 34:6).
Seeing God’s glory means seeing, with the eyes of faith, his indescribable beauty and his invisible attributes. His love and faithfulness. His goodness and compassion. His mercy and grace.
When I ask God to show me his glory, part of that request is to see and experience his love. I don’t want to know just intellectually that he loves me; I want to experience and sense his love in my daily life. God demonstrates his love in myriad ways — this prayer is asking him for spiritual sight to see them.
Finally, when we see God’s glory, we know that he is with us. His presence is unmistakable. And that awareness is our greatest need in suffering.
Teach me your ways (Exodus 33:13; Psalm 25:4–5).
We don’t know the ways of God. His thoughts are so much higher than ours, and nothing can compare to his wisdom. Our perspective is partial and imperfect, while God’s view is unlimited and eternal. So when we ask God to teach us his ways, we’re acknowledging that we don’t know what’s best for us and are relying on the one who does. He alone can prepare us for what lies ahead. We need wisdom for our decisions and direction. Do we act now, or should we wait? Do we need courage or patient acceptance? Do we need lighter loads or stronger backs?
The work of prayer aligns our hearts with God and teaches us to trust him for all our needs. In prayer, we ask God to open our eyes to the realities before us — his presence in our lives, his provision for all our needs, and his purposes in our pain. Our deepest need is to find our rest and fulfillment in God alone, and suffering offers a unique opportunity to do that. And when we do, we learn that God really is enough, and that a life of dependence is a life of unending grace.