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Praying When You Can’t

Praying When You Can’t

Every night when Mike and I tuck our kids into bed, our prayers are part of the ritual. Usually, it’s man-to-man coverage; he takes one, and I take the other. We swap out at halftime, passing each other in the Jack and Jill bathroom they share, high-fiving as we trade kids to close out the day. (Kidding about the high fives!)

Our prayers are heartfelt but at this point a bit rote.

Dear God, thank You for this day, thank You for Mommy, Daddy, Vale, and Charley — our family. Thank you for [rotating assortment of extended relatives]. Dear Lord, help Vale/ Charley to remember they are loved and protected, surrounded by Your angels, treasured and adored. Help us be the best we can be, remembering to share all we have. Now bring your peace and calm over Vale/Charley; may they rest in the knowledge that God loves them and Mommy and Daddy love them too. Amen.

I’d like to tell you that our sublime children listen carefully and thoughtfully, heads bowed in deep reverence. It’s more like nonstop interjections with spiritual concerns such as: “Do I have gymnastics tomorrow?” or “Can I get new sneakers?” or “How many dimes make a dollar?” Not infrequently, bedtime comes on the heels of an epic sibling throwdown, a Chernobyl-esque emotional meltdown, or just garden-variety bad behavior (“I’m not tired!”). On those occasions, I ad-lib. “And, God, please help Charley to remember that biting his sister is wrong,” or “Dear Lord, help Vale not to sass, to be gentle and kind with her words.” It’s prayer, with an agenda. It reminds me of the story Jesus told about how the Pharisees pray.

Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank You, God, that I am not like other people — cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’Luke 18:10-12 NLT

Gotta love this guy! Thank you, Lord, that I’m not like all those much more wretched people! We could have a good, hearty laugh at those silly Pharisees if we weren’t so often exactly like them. When we are struggling with someone, when we are in conflict or feel hurt or anger toward those closest to us, our prayers can take on that tenor. “Please, God, help Joe come to see why he is wrong”; “I pray, Lord, You would help Maggie with her tendencies toward self-centeredness and victimhood”; or “May you grant Aunt Bev a new perspective and supernatural wisdom [... so she can start agreeing with me].” Major Pharisee vibes.

If the subjects of our prayers were acquaintances or casual work colleagues, it wouldn’t be an issue. Because we probably wouldn’t be praying at all. But we often turn to prayer in desperation, when we find ourselves in conflict with the people we most care about, our hearts and souls plagued by the struggle. These are the hard cases, the most fraught situations, the ones that gnaw at us the most. In other words: family (usually). Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws — pick your poison. The long history, the shared traumas, the depth of connection, and the gravity of the emotional stakes — that’s what makes these pains so persistent and so impossible to ignore. It’s at these times we need prayer the most. And often when we find it hardest to do.

My sister is by far the most wise, intelligent, thoughtful, creative, generous, and profoundly original person I know. She is my forever partner in life. We know each other’s thoughts and ways. We know each other’s sadnesses and weaknesses. We know each other’s tickle spots and pain points. Vastly different on the surface but fundamentally alike — both manifesting the childhood we share in our own individual ways.

In her memoir, writer and Bible teacher Beth Moore said she and her siblings had “different slices of the same secrets... on our plates.”1 Annie and I have different slices of the same heartbreaks on ours.

Sometimes the way we have found each other in the hard times is God, the sixth member of our family, as my sister so memorably put it. I know when she is praying for me, and I believe she knows when I am praying for her too. The result is some holy alchemy, God bringing us together, not always by the immediate resolution of our conflict, but by stitching us back together in the most eternal way. God sends us to our spiritual room together, and we find each other in the dark. When we pray for each another, we know and believe deeply that our intentions toward each another are good, our foundation is love, we have integrity in our struggles, we are willing to look at our own wrongs, and we are committed to our relationship for the long term. For eternity.

Author Shauna Niequist wrote about conflict and prayer in her book I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet.2 Shauna and I attend the same church in New York City, and I once heard her give a sermon on the subject. She said something that changed how I think about prayer:

  • When you don’t have words, use what you do have. Pray with your imagination.

Sometimes when my feelings betray me, when I feel distant or angry or afraid to be vulnerable, when words are beyond me, I pray with my imagination. I imagine my children at peace and content. Secure. Not fighting! I imagine my husband fulfilled and at peace. I picture his face and set him in a tranquil surrounding. Or I picture my beautiful sister — serene, smiling, laughing. I picture her surrounded by nature, where I know she feels most at home and centered. Or climbing a mountain, standing at the top, marveling at the beauty, some poem at its moment of conception in her gorgeous mind.

There is no agenda to these prayers other than the joy I feel conjuring my loved ones’ joy, summoning their sweet presence in my mind. I don’t know if they can feel it, and I don’t know if it changes anything for them, but it changes me. Shauna said it’s like yoga when you breathe into a stretch and find you can go further than you thought you could go.3

Love washes over me, my heart softens, my fears dissipate. The atmosphere is changed. Words cannot express it. It is, in every respect, divine.

  1. Beth Moore, All My Knotted-Up Life: A Memoir (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2023), 14.
  2. Shauna Niequist, I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2022).
  3. Niequist, I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet, 110.

Excerpted with permission from Mostly What God Does by Savannah Guthrie, copyright Savannah Guthrie.

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Your Turn

Sometimes, we don’t have words to pray because our situation is so complicated, or because we’ve run out of words, or because we’re too upset. What do you do then? We can pray in wordless groans, in wondering and questioning, and with our imaginations? No matter how we pray, the best part is that when we bring our hearts to God, He meets us and fills us with His presence. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full