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How to Pray When You Can’t Pray

An In Touch guide to better spiritual health

In Touch Ministries staff August 22, 2023

For some people, prayer seems to flow effortlessly, like a dove singing its morning song. Their words glide over the highs and lows of life—they don’t seem to struggle to keep a rhythm of adoration and supplication. Meanwhile, the rest of us feel as if we’re intermittently squawking at God (if we’re attempting to speak to Him at all). We long to talk with Him but all too often it can feel like a fruitless exercise.

Illustrations by Abbey Lossing

Sometimes we don’t know what to say to God simply because it’s been a long day and we feel fried. Other times, we haven’t known what to say for a long while and the lack of conversation makes the attempt to begin one awkward. No matter the reason, when we struggle to talk with God, we can look to time-tested practices handed down by fellow believers.

Getting Started

Often, one of the biggest obstacles to prayer is our expectations. If we come to the Lord with a certain outcome in mind, we may altogether miss Him or what He wants. If we think we deserve a certain experience, or even that we should be able to pray better than we can, our heart closes off. Whatever expectations we have, we can trust the Holy Spirit to help us address them. As you begin to pray, practice letting go of any expectations or judgments about what’s happening.

  • Try this approach to help you get past any false starts:

    1. First, acknowledge God’s presence—He’s with us whether we sense Him or not. Say, “God, I know You’re with me. Please help me connect with You.”

    2. Second, see how it feels to kneel or open your hands with your palms facing upward. Say, “Lord, please help me to let go of all expectations and judgments and just be with You here and now.”

    3. Finally, consider sitting in silence for a moment—up to a minute or two. And then simply speak to God in the way you usually talk and with mindfulness that He’s in the room.

If you feel awkward when you do these three things, that’s okay. Talking with God, even when you feel rusty, is always better than not talking with Him. And be encouraged: The more you pray, the easier it gets.

Lean on Other Believers

We might think that for a prayer to be genuine and effective, it must be original. But Jesus Himself offered an example to adopt as our own—the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). Nothing in the Bible suggests each of our petitions has to be a perfect one-of-a-kind creation. Nothing says our prayers won’t count unless they’re grammatically correct, theologically astute, or beautiful. While there’s nothing wrong with prayers that tick those boxes, such criteria are not the ultimate goal. In fact, that kind of expectation can distract us. Prayer should never be a performance but the opposite—a time we let down our guard and accept our true selves in God’s presence. In fact, when we finally believe prayer doesn’t have to be original, that’s when we’re able to enlist the help of other believers.

When words escape us, we can simply echo the prayers of Christians who have gone before us. Taking cues from recorded prayers—or using them word for word as if our own—has a way of removing anxieties or tendencies to perform. Rather than us forming the words ourselves, we allow the words to form us. As we repeat these prayers and commit them to memory, they become a part of us. In that way, they enrich our daily worship and allow us to have deeper communication with God.

Borrowed Prayers

Believers have been recording their prayers for centuries, so there’s no shortage of examples to follow. But don’t be discouraged if the prayer you choose doesn’t seem exactly right. What’s important is that you’re beginning a conversation with God, not that the words are a perfect fit.

  • Try starting with this selection from St. Patrick’s Breastplate, used by Christians of all backgrounds for centuries:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

The full prayer is over 70 lines, if you want something longer. But you could also try borrowing verses or choruses from your favorite hymns or worship songs, passages from Scripture (the Psalms are especially well suited), or resources like The Book of Common Prayer.

Throughout Your Day

If you think you might benefit from something more casual, consider breath prayers (so named for their brevity, which can be spoken in one breath). They are a combination of prayer and biblical meditation that allows you to bring together God’s revealed truth and your desire to connect with Him. The prayers themselves are simple phrases, usually from Scripture, that can be prayed in the rhythm of an inhale and an exhale. For hundreds of years, Christians have quietly repeated breath prayers through the day to remain present to God. Having a simple refrain to call upon helps us maintain connection to Christ and attunes the heart to hear Him knocking at its door. It serves to help us pray regardless of what we’re doing or who’s around.

In the early church, some Christians felt they needed to retreat into the desert, as Jesus had done, to maintain a vital walk with the Lord. They devoted their entire life to “praying without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:16-18), and breath prayers became part of the effort to stay connected to Jesus. This kind of prayer has been used by Christians ever since. And though not all believers today are familiar with the practice, it’s used in a wide range of denominations.

There’s nothing strange or magical about this way of praying—it simply makes use of your body’s natural inhale and exhale to help you have a more fulfilling conversation with the Lord. Numerous scientific studies have shown that breathing affects our ability to stay calm and focused. Breath prayers are useful in helping to keep wandering thoughts and other distractions at bay. The science behind them merely points to the wisdom of the Lord in how He made our bodies.

  • Try the Publican’s Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Based on a line from Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), this prayer invokes God’s lovingkindness. The Psalms are also full of phrases that make good, short prayers. Consider starting with Psalm 51:10, Psalm 70:1, or Psalm 139:23.

Be With God

Whether you’re speaking spontaneously from the heart, reciting other believers’ words, or sitting in silence reflecting on God’s nearness, the important thing is simply to pray however you can. Ultimately, the style or origin of your prayer matters far less than the fact that you are praying. Remember, conversation with God is communion with Him. And with Him is where you’ll find the life you’ve always wanted—life that’s abundantly full of peace, joy, and love.

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