It was another one of those nights, the ones when I would watch the sky turn light again having still not managed to drift off to sleep. It felt like I had all the time in the world, the minutes trickling by slower than I thought they could, and yet, as I tried to turn to God in the sadness I was feeling, I could barely find a single word to pray. I wanted to call out and ask God to lift me out of the well of self pity that I seemed to have fallen into, but I just couldn’t find the strength of the desire in my heart to do so. I felt guilty, then, for my lack of effort to pray, and that only made things worse.
You might have had the same experience, or maybe not, but I’m guessing that you’ve experienced a number of times in which you felt overwhelmed, and just couldn’t find the words to pray. I struggle with depression, and this seems to very often make prayer feel like an impossible task. But we all have our own struggles, and I imagine we all have times when our prayers just feel inadequate and somewhat pathetic.
But the truth is that God doesn’t need us to pray long and eloquent prayers, his answering of our prayers does not depend upon how nice our prayers sound and how many words we use to pray. Instead, God delights to hear us utter even the shortest of prayers, he sees the longing in our hearts, whether or not we are able to communicate our need, and he rejoices when we come to him resting upon the promises that he has made.
The other day, I was reading through a passage in the gospel of Matthew with a friend from church and I was struck by an example of prayer that God gives to us in the person of person. When I read about Jesus praying, I often imagine him stood for hours and hours before his Father, praying endlessly and pausing only for breath. But let me show you the scene in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-42), the very hours before Jesus is taken by the authorities and makes his torturous journey to crucifixion. This is his simple prayer: ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’
When I feel overwhelmed, I may have hours to spare but no words to speak; the prayers I finally utter are often the shortest prayers. But the answers can be some of the biggest that God has given me. In Gethsemane, Jesus prays a short prayer, and says the same prayer three times over. These are some of the most desperate, heartfelt and powerful words spoken by Jesus on during his time in this world.
A few times, the only prayer that I managed was ‘Help me!’ But God is gracious and He loves to answer prayers such as this. When we depend upon Him desperately, he longs to demonstrate His love to us. God answered these prayers abundantly. He has not made my life free from pain, but that is not what he promises. He has not taken my depression away, but in a life of ease I can see that I would forget to depend upon Him.
God has brought me back to the promises that he Has made. He has, again and again, surrounded me with his people, worked through my church family to lift me out of the pit of self-inflicted loneliness. He has, in many ways, brought my outlook on the world back into perspective. And He has given me, as he does all of us, hints and tasters of life as it was made to be and life as it will be in heaven.
The same truth can encourage us as we seek to pray for the world. As we look at the suffering, the poverty, the inequality and the devastation we can be left feeling utterly defeated. We look at such a powerful force as climate change and wonder how we could ever pray when we are up against so much. We hear of the oppression present throughout many nations of the world and wonder what there is to say – what can be prayed for when a situation looks so bleak? Such massive issues can overwhelm us. But when such a prayer as ‘Help me!’ can be answered so abundantly in our own lives, when we come to God, dependent upon Him, crying out ‘help them, Father’, we know that God hears.
Simplicity can be good. When we pray with boldness, though our words might be true, we are putting our trust in our Heavenly Father. And these bold prayers can be some of the most powerful and transformative. We may not see our prayers answered instantly, we might never even see God’s compassionate response to our prayers for the world during our time in this world. But God hears our prayers, and as we come to him again and again, just as Jesus uttered the same prayer over and again in Gethsemane, our dependence upon him grows, our hearts grow in compassion of Christ, and we see God doing wonderful things.
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