When it's Too Painful to Pray

This is a repost from an article I wrote a few years ago under the most intense sorrow imaginable. I pray God could use it to give words to pain many feel in light of the Nashville Covenant School shooting. 

There are moments of pain that make praying difficult. The difficulty is not from a lack of faith, but from an abundance of sorrow. Crying out to God in the midst of pain often lacks cogency and clarity. It is hard to keep a train of thought when your thoughts are scattered in so many directions.

I have been in that season for the last two weeks. My son, Kaleb, came into the hospital for headaches and blurred vision. We were here several days, treating what appeared to be a severe sinus infection. However, in the blink of an eye, our son who was playing Uno one second, was unconscious the next. He went from watching a movie with me on Friday, to unresponsive most of the day Saturday, and out completely on Sunday. It took five long days before we saw any evidence of our son being able to hear us or comprehend our words. We soon learned that Kaleb has fungal meningitis, which has caused tremors, seizures, and even a stroke in his little body. This is so hard to watch and endure as parents.

Groanings Too Deep for Words

Praying has been hard the last two weeks. My faith has not wavered. My trust in God has not given way. This encourages me, because as John Newton said, "When faith endures the fire, we know it to be of the right kind." I know my faith is a tested and tried one, and it is still standing. Praying has been hard, not because of my questioning of its importance and effectiveness, but because collecting my thoughts into coherent petitions has felt like trying to make snowballs out of dry sand.

I believe this is exactly what Paul is talking about in Romans 8:26. In this passage, Paul writes, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." Have you experienced a weakness of the flesh or spirit that made you unable to pray as you ought? This is what I have experienced in recent weeks. The good news for me, and for all who have familiarity with this phenomenon, is that while we struggle to pray, the Spirit himself is interceding for us. With groanings too deep for words, we offer our feeble, disjointed prayers before the Lord.

The Prayers of the Saints

While my prayers during this time would likely not be added to the Valley of Vision collection, the prayers of other Christians over us and our son have been sources of encouragement. My prayers have felt incoherent, but the prayers of Scott Marlow, Beth Bowman, Tim and Amber Davis, Mike Sherwood, James Ulmer, Tim Lance, Kathy Gallagher, Koy Lafferty, Daryl Vandergriff, Alex Perry, Brett Perkins, and others have caused my heart to leap within, crying out, "Yes and Amen!" These are just the prayers that I have heard, which put to words things I have struggled to articulate. They strung together petitions that my heart resonated with, but my head could not collect words for.

These brothers and sisters in the Lord have ministered to us, especially to me, through their prayers. The prayers of His people, over His people, are a sweet fragrance to the weak.

Jesus, Our Intercessor

As a pastor, I have struggled with my struggle to pray. I should be better than that. For several days I wondered why I did not have the energy or words. Finally, I realized, this is what Romans 8:26 is talking about. This is the weakness described in the well-known, often quoted verse. I am experiencing in reality what had always been merely a theological belief.

I have also pondered the sweetness of other Christian's prayers. These believers have helped me to pray by letting me simply agree with their prayers. I've had the opportunity to say things I've had difficulty saying, by simply letting someone else say it.

Lastly, I'm reflecting on the fact that my hope, peace, and righteousness are not a result of how prayerful I am during trials. It actually has everything to do with the finished work of Jesus for me. Jesus purchased the strength I need in my weakness. Jesus ransomed my life back into a communion with himself. In Christ, I have a constant intercessor who always pleads for me. He is with me always (Matthew 28:20). Where can I go for help when it's too painful to pray? I will let the Hebrew writer answer that question:

"14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." - Hebrews 4:14-16

He knows our weakness. He intercedes for us. We can draw near to the throne of grace, with confidence, because it is Jesus who mercifully and graciously meets us there. He doesn't wag his finger shamefully at the weak and weary, instead he invites us to come to him, and he'll give us rest (Matthew 11:28). Rest purchased by the blood of the Lamb.

Erik is the Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries, an organization which exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. He is married to Katrina, and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.