For When You Can’t Pray

Have you ever been through times in life when it felt like the world might come crashing down? When it’s so hard, you aren’t sure which way is left, which way is right, and what’s headed your way tomorrow? When it feels overwhelming and it feels like you’re just gasping for air, struggling to breathe?

Psalm 61_1-2

Well, I’ve been there. When we’re facing a hard time, how often is prayer the first thing, the very first thing, we do? Well, let me be honest with you. If I’m really down, I don’t feel like praying. I don’t feel like reading my Bible. My words to God, if I even have any, are more like cries for help. (That too, is a prayer- a prayer for help!) Sometimes, during hard times, that’s been all I could muster. I may ask questions, express doubts, frustration… but pray?

Psalm 77 says:

I cried out to God for help;
    I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
    at night I stretched out untiring hands,
    and I would not be comforted.  (NIV)

The Message says it this way:

77 I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might,
    I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.

Have you ever cried out to God for help? Yelled?

God can take it. He can take our yells. He’s heard it all before, and He isn’t going to be shaken by our cries.

2-6 I found myself in trouble and went looking for my Lord;
    my life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal.
When friends said, “Everything will turn out all right,”
    I didn’t believe a word they said.
I remember God—and shake my head.
    I bow my head—then wring my hands.
I’m awake all night—not a wink of sleep;
    I can’t even say what’s bothering me.
I go over the days one by one,
    I ponder the years gone by.
I strum my lute all through the night,
    wondering how to get my life together.

Did you ever feel like your “life was an open wound that wouldn’t heal”? Maybe it’s just me, but I have, more often than I wish were the case or that I care to admit. I can certainly relate to the psalmist’s words. 

Do you know what that feels like? An open wound is exposed to getting hurt repeatedly, getting bruised and further wounded. How can such a wound heal with constant exposure? Maybe it’s hidden, maybe it’s not, but eventually a wound that doesn’t heal can’t be hidden forever. Nothing seems to help (“I would not be comforted.”) And if one’s entire life feels like an open wound, well, then you have some idea of how hard that can be, how depressing that is, how difficult it can be to see any positive side or truly hear any well-intentioned words, or even pray. Yes, praying should be the first thing we do, but pain doesn’t necessarily operate rationally, and deep wounds can be loud enough to drown out other voices.

Well-meaning words like “it will turn out alright”, or when people try to help, but don’t know how, also just don’t make it through the darkness. Or, it may feel like adding insult to injury. We may hear the words, but in the midst of the pain, can’t, or don’t, believe them.  

And sleep? For me, difficult times DO keep me up at night. I may not fall asleep until some people are probably waking up. For me, night time is the only time of day I can be alone, it is quiet, and I can take the time to process and think, and since I’m already an introvert, that time is even more necessary for me. It also means that the thoughts and wheels are turning, the emotions are swirling, and that makes it hard for me to let that settle so I can actually sleep.  

Also, like the psalmist expresses, in really painful times, “I can’t even say what’s bothering me”. I’ve wondered, too, how can I get my life back together. What about you – ever been there?

7-10 Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good?
    Will he never smile again?
Is his love worn threadbare?
    Has his salvation promise burned out?
Has God forgotten his manners?
    Has he angrily stalked off and left us?
“Just my luck,” I said. “The High God goes out of business
    just the moment I need him.”

Well, I’ve asked questions like those above. I’ve asked: Is God even there? Does He even care about all of this, my life, me? Where is He? I have wondered at what seems like no answers at all. Is God even listening? 

These questions put “me” at the center of it all. Of course, I know, and you probably do too, that it’s not about “me” (it’s not about you, either).

Intellectually, we know that it’s not about us, but in the midst of the pain, all we can see is the pain.  

11-12 Once again I’ll go over what God has done,
    lay out on the table the ancient wonders;
I’ll ponder all the things you’ve accomplished,
    and give a long, loving look at your acts.

13-15 O God! Your way is holy!
    No god is great like God!
You’re the God who makes things happen;
    you showed everyone what you can do—
You pulled your people out of the worst kind of trouble,
    rescued the children of Jacob and Joseph.

After crying out to God, after well-intentioned words from others, after lack of sleep, after thinking about what to do, after contemplating life, then the psalmist remembers what God has done in the past. He “ponders” God’s deeds. He lays them all out on the table, as if they are objects he can view, and takes a good long look. All of this happens, though, after he has cried out to God, and spent some time mourning, seeking, contemplating.

I may not be able to pray, or may be too distressed to explain my situation, but I can remember what God has done. Many of us CAN say “God is good” in the midst of difficulties, because we know His character doesn’t change even during challenging circumstances. Intellectually, we know He is holy, there is none like Him, but getting from point A (the inability to pray) to point B (truly believing God’s goodness) isn’t necessarily instantaneous, as we can see; there is a painful journey to get from Point A to point B, and it may take some time.

16-19 Ocean saw you in action, God,
    saw you and trembled with fear;
    Deep Ocean was scared to death.
Clouds belched buckets of rain,
    Sky exploded with thunder,
    your arrows flashing this way and that.
From Whirlwind came your thundering voice,
    Lightning exposed the world,
    Earth reeled and rocked.
You strode right through Ocean,
    walked straight through roaring Ocean,
    but nobody saw you come or go.

20 Hidden in the hands of Moses and Aaron,
You led your people like a flock of sheep.

In the verses above, the psalmist is remembering the parting of the waters, as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. The oceans trembled, the clouds exploded, earth reeled and rocked. He is recounting God’s deeds and takes hope and courage from the remembrance.

Jesus also experienced distress and extreme anguish (his sweat was like drops of blood). I know I’ve been upset, but it can’t compare to this: Jesus was preparing to carry the weight of the world’s sin on his shoulders. 

41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.  – Luke 21; 41-44

Jesus asked God to take that cup away from Him. Even Jesus asked God to take something difficult out of his life (just like we do). You know, I like verse 43. Why? Because we can see Jesus’ humanness. It was so distressing, Jesus had need of an angel to come and strengthen him; the task was gargantuan. Can you imagine? No… I really can’t. But also, God was there to help; he saw the tears and anguish and sent help.

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). – Mark 15:33-34

Jesus cried out to God in those moments of excruciating physical pain, impending death, and isolation from God. Jesus, who was human, experienced something the rest of us humans will never have to experience. Yes, life is hard and painful, and it may feel like we’re going through hell, but Jesus did go through hell for us so we wouldn’t have to.

For those times when we can’t pray, it helps to read the Psalms and to find words there. For those times when we can’t pray, remember that Jesus too cried out to God in distress and anguish. I am thankful knowing this about Jesus: he was also human, like us. This is something that gives me hope and encouragement as I reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice during Lent. My prayers may be absent, and I may not even know what to say, but even a cry for help is itself a prayer. 

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