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Toward Wholeness Blog

How to pray when it’s all “too much”

There are times when the load of life is crushing.  You’re failing in a grad program that you love and are terrified at the future void that’s hanging over you.  Your husband has left you for another woman, or another man.  You’ve learned that you have clinical depression and that the road of recovery will be slow and arduous, and you’re trying to figure out how you’ll cope in the meantime.  There’s a certain sin in your life that makes you feel like you’re in the movie “Groundhog Day” as the pattern of indulgence, guilt, shame, repentance, and then indulgence again, recurs with sickening familiarity.

“This is my life” you say, punctuating the observation sometimes with a question mark, and other times with an exclamation point and an expletive adjective.  You don’t know which way to turn, don’t know the next step, don’t even know if you want to take a next step.

Been there?  Here are some things to remember:

#1You’re not Achan. (He was the guy who caused the defeat of Israel in Joshua 7.  You can hear my sermon about him here )  Whenever I preach about Achan, I worry about the people sitting in my congregation who fit in these categories above, worry that their thoughts will immediately run to the question, “Am I the problem with my family, my company, my …?” They’ll run there because, for some of us, our fallen nature falls into shame and condemnation first – seeing ourselves as the root cause, not only of our own problems, but of everyone else’s as well.

If you’re feeling that way, stop it.  Conviction comes from God, but not condemnation.  Our weaknesses and infirmities don’t hold the whole community back; it’s our arrogant, willful, continuation in sin that holds the community back.  When you’re drowning in the overwhelming stuff of life, the last thing you need, is some sort of feeling that you’re ruining the lives of others.  You’re not – so don’t think that way.

#2 You need “Prayer without Words”. You’re not sure whether you’re angry, or desperate, or hurt, or all three.  You’re not sure what kind of guidance to ask for, so interwoven are the trials and tribulations you find yourself in for a season.  You’ve no idea what the “next step” is – no idea how to move forward.  Paul says in Romans 8:27 that, “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”  This means there’s a kind of praying that’s “too deep for words”.

One of the ways this kind of prayer is practiced is described in “Beginning to Pray” by Anthony Bloom, a man whose resume (surgeon/minister, conscripted by the German army during French occupation, monk) qualifies him to write on the subject.  He advocates for silence, simplicity, and what’s called “The Jesus Prayer”.  As this essay says:

The prayer is drawn from Gospels, from passages where people called on Jesus for mercy: the ten lepers  who cried, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13), the Canaanite woman who said , “have mercy on me, O Lord, son of David.” (Mt15:22), and blind Bartimaeus, who said,  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47). In Jesus’ parable, the publican “would not even lift his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13). These requests for mercy aren’t like a criminal begging a judge for lenience, but are stories of people in need asking for the Lord’s tender mercy.

Practically speaking, this means that when we don’t know what to pray, we can simply pray the prayer on the plaque above, or we can pray this:

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!” or even simply,

“Jesus” – repeating the name of the One who is our source of hope, over and over again.

Though this “Jesus prayer” has been used historically as a means of learning to pray without ceasing (by making this prayer the “screen saver” of your mind, so that it goes there when you’re mind is free) – I’ll share that this prayer, especially just calling out the name of Jesus over and over again in rhythm with my breath, is stabilizing when my world is collapsing, life giving when I’m feeling overwhelmed.  This is because, beyond the simple repetition of Jesus’ name, the Bible teaches us that Holy Spirit is taking our “showing up” and translating that into prayers “too deep for words”.

Such praying has been a part of great saints through the ages.  I wish I could say I pray that way all the time, and perhaps someday I’ll get there.  But I can say I pray that way when I don’t know how to pray, and the days when I don’t know how to pray are as common as Seattle clouds.

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