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When You Do Not Know How to Pray

Jan 30, 2022
Man with head in hands

Have you ever started to pray or you are very burdened about a situation where you find that you do not know how to pray? As a senior adult pastor so many years ago, I often would sit with families who would explain exactly this problem. An older loved one would be very sick and the family would not know how to pray. Often they would ask something similar to this question, “Should we pray for God to end the suffering of this deeply loved one and take this person on to heaven or should we pray that God heal this person and extend life?” My heart would break for them as they contemplated what their prayer should be. Let me suggest that the Bible helps provide us the guidance we need when you do not know how to pray.

Helpful Bible Passages for When You Do Not Know How to Pray

In those instances of deep heartache and at other times when you do not know how to pray, three Bible passages help shed light on how to respond in prayer.

The Apostle Paul Explains the Problem

When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he suffered in prison. While there, he faced a dilemma. He understood clearly what heaven and the future was all about (2 Cor 12:1-6). God miraculously transformed him either in a trance or bodily to heaven. Yet, at the same time, God did not permit him to discuss it. However, it radically impacted him. Without any doubt, Paul understood what was on the other side of death, which for the Christian is simply a door to eternity in heaven with Jesus.

In prison as he writes to his beloved friends in Philippi, he wrestles with the awareness of eternity and the joy of living with loved ones on earth. Paul writes,

For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. (Phil 1:23-24)

Two desires which seemingly conflicted with each other. He desired to go to heaven to be with Christ; yet, he knew his presence with those he loved would be better.

This is helpful for us because it normalizes the idea that you can have competing desires which both honor God. In particular situations, you can desire one thing that is good and at the same time desire another that is also good. In addition, you may have multiple choices and just simply not know what you should desire.

Get this. You are not crazy. To have more than one desire and not know which one to follow is perfectly human.

In the instance I mentioned above with not knowing how to pray for a loved one who is very sick, you should not suffer under guilt. Having competing desire in this sense is not sin. As Paul, you understand that there are two different good options. One, your loved one could go to heaven and be with Christ. That’s incredible! Two, your loved one could stay here on earth and celebrate life on earth together with you. Of course this desire is excellent as well. Neither of these desires are sinful.

I’ve often heard families say, “Our desire to keep this person here is only selfish.” To which I would reply, “Not necessarily so.” A loved one can provide many things for a family while on earth. To want them here with you is not a mere function of selfishness.

Jesus Prays While Facing Significant Trouble

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to God. He prayed merely hours before His death on the cross. Jesus understood that He was going to be arrested, falsely accused, mocked, beaten, and ultimately murdered by crucifixion. He knew these things were only moments away.
How does He respond? He prays.

What does Jesus pray?

“Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)

Jesus essentially submits Himself to God’s will. Whatever God ultimately wants in His plan… Whatever God knows will most glorify Him…

Not my will, but Your will be done.

This prayer demonstrates submission to God’s sovereignty, providence, omniscience, and omnipotence. In praying, “Not my will, but Yours be done,” the follower of Christ submits to God’s plan. “Whatever You want, I strive to accept as my will.”

This prayer is one of incredible faith. In one sense, it is a statement of purpose. “I purpose in my heart to follow You humbly accepting Your role, submitting to Your plan, and realizing Your love. I strive to trust You.”

You seek to align your heart with God’s even when it is not easy to do so.

The Holy Spirit Prays for You When You Do Not Know How to Pray

When you do not know how to pray, the Holy Spirit prays for you. He intercedes on your behalf.

When there are no words, the Holy Spirit prays for you. He prays according to God’s will.

When you seek to trust God and His plan, the Holy Spirit prays for you. He knows what you need in the moment.

The Apostle Paul explains it this way:

Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8:26-27)


While you pray, the Holy Spirit prays with you in your weakness. He intercedes for us. God the Holy Spirit praying to God the Father on your behalf.

The very next verse reassures our hearts of this. Catch this… after explaining the Holy Spirit prays for you according to the will of God and for exactly what fits your need in the moment, Paul puts his arm around us when he writes:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)

The Holy Spirit prays for you to God in light of how things work together for your good, God’s glory, and ultimately to help you become more like Christ (Rom 8:29).

How blessed this is to know and remember.

What to Pray When You Do Not Know How to Pray

What should you pray then when you do not know how to pray? Let me suggest four things to include in your prayer:

  1. Simply explain in your prayer that you do not know how to pray. Tell God that you do not know what is best. Admit that you simply are not sure.
  2. Pray for God’s will to be done. Ask God to help your heart be submissive to His plan, His power, His authority, His wisdom, and His loving providence. Proclaim your desire to be loyal to Him even if in the moment you are struggling to submit to His plan.
  3. Admit your weakness. Ask God for strength to get through this moment. Remind God that He promised to provide you the strength to endure, and that you want to realize that strength. Exclaim your total dependency upon Him in this moment.
  4. Thank God for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Tell God how thankful you are for the Holy Spirit praying with you and for you in this same moment. Here again, you can by faith express your desire to accept what is best according to the will of God which works all things together for good to become more like Jesus. Just as Paul and Jesus both depended upon the character and plan of God, we want to do the same. Therefore, thank God for the intercessory work of the Holy Spirit in you and for you in this situation before the throne of God.

    Image Credit Samuel Martins | Wisdom for Life in Christ Together