W ords and stories have always been how I make sense of the world. I have a fuzzy, red, Winnie-the-Pooh journal filled with my first-grade scrawl as well as notebooks brimming with high school angst. I enjoy reading and writing, so it makes sense that prayer as a practice and as a spiritual discipline should feel natural to me. Prayer, after all, is composed of words. However, that has not always been the case—and sometimes the words don’t come easily.
There are times I do not know how to pray, particularly when my spirit is overwhelmed or when the Lord feels distant. And there are times when I am praying for someone else, but I am unsure where to start. If I don’t know them well, how should I pray for them?
Prayer is a practice of intimacy. If we feel distant from God, or we are praying with someone with whom we don’t have an intimate bond, how should we begin? Fortunately, we have tools to help us. Here are three ways to help you pray when you don’t know what to say.
Pray with a mentor
In Philippians, Paul exhorts the church to “join together” in following his example and to “keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Philippians 3:17). Paul reminds us that living in faith is a communal activity! This is an exhortation to have people in our lives who we join together with and people we keep our eyes on. (Likewise, we are to become people who others can actively follow.)
One of the women whom I follow is my aunt. She is a woman with a fierce prayer life, and I am honored to have her mentorship. Not only do I ask her to pray for certain things, but I also ask her how she prays. What is she praying about? How does she pray over those in her care? While many of us know we should pray, there are times we find ourselves at a loss with the how. Her first piece of advice for me was to start with the Psalms.
Pray the Psalms
David, one of the most prolific authors of psalms, had an intimate relationship with the Lord. But there were times that even he had to remind himself to praise the Lord—and times when he was very honest about his feelings. In Psalm 103, he reminds himself to praise the Lord and forget not all his benefits. If you need to remind your soul who the Lord is, and why you should praise him, Psalm 103 is a great place to start.
In these troubled times we are living in, Psalm 91 helps us pray for those in our care. It is a psalm of assurance. Whether you are praying over a friend, your children, or someone you are mentoring, insert their name into Psalm 91: “[Name] dwells in the shelter of the Most High and they rest in the shadow of the Almighty. [Name] says of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’” Of course, you can pray this psalm for yourself, too, if you are in need of assurance of God’s protection and sovereignty.
Praying Psalm 144 will help you take an offensive position in your prayer life. It starts strong: “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield in whom I take refuge, who subdues people under me.” The psalm continues with poetry that you can pray over your children and the young people in your church. Verse 12 says, “Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants, and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace.” What a beautiful, strong image to pray over the rising generation. Verse 14 says, “There will be no breaching of walls, no going into captivity, no cry of distress in our streets.” What a fantastic thing to pray—no breaching of walls and no violation, whether that be physical, emotional, or spiritual.
When you are praying over someone going through a challenging time, try using Psalm 62. Like verses three and four say, the enemy wants to topple us and there will be times when we feel assaulted on every side. But, as the psalmist writes, our souls find rest in God! What a great thing to pray over someone: “[Name] finds rest in God; their hope comes from him. Truly, he is their rock and their salvation; he is their fortress, and they will not be shaken.”
These are just a few specific psalms that you can pray, but there are many other psalms that may capture exactly how you are feeling or may be a comfort to you when you don’t know what to say.
Pray Scripture over others
Lastly, let’s talk about praying with someone else. Here are some tips from my aunt for when you are praying for another person, especially a new believer or someone you don’t know that well.
- Just listen to them. People often would like prayer for something specific.
- Don’t feel the need to immediately start praying out loud. Tell them, “I’m going to pray quietly for just a minute.”
- When you do start praying out loud, pray Scripture over them. Praying the Word of God is a powerful tool. Let the Holy Spirit do the work. Praying in faith is not the same thing as having the gift of knowledge. That doesn’t have to be your gifting to for you to pray Scripture!
Above all, be respectful of the person you are praying with and for. Romans 12 reminds us to live in community with one another and outdo one another in showing honor. Let’s honor our brothers and sisters when we pray for them.
Hopefully these tools will help you find the words, even when you are unsure how to pray. Remember Jesus’s words on prayer: God isn’t looking for beautiful speech, and God doesn’t need us to babble on and on (Matthew 6:5-14). Prayer is a way for us to be intimate with our Lord, to praise him, and to come like children before him, expressing our needs and requests—aloud, in our hearts, through Scripture, or with and for each other.