What to pray when we don’t know what to pray

Have you ever had a heartache so deep or a circumstance so overwhelming that you just didn’t know what to pray? You go before God and try to bare your heart to Him but the words just won’t come? It seems when you start to pray the hurt is so deep that all you can do is weep, or the trouble is so great that every time you start to pray, you begin to worry and fear. And it seems the only thing you can think to say is: “God, I don’t know what to do!”

Did you know that God is ok with “I-don’t-know-what-do” type prayers? He even has an example of exactly that kind of prayer in His Word!

Last week, we talked about Jehoshaphat, king of Judah and how he had a huge army making its way to his kingdom to fight against him. In fact, it was two nations plus their allies. (2 Chronicles 20:1). There was no way that Jehoshaphat with his much smaller army was going to defeat such a large foe and they were only two days’ march away. His situation was desperate and he did not know what to pray. So, here’s what he did….

He acknowledged the power of God

On the king’s command, all of Judah gathered themselves together to ask help of the LORD:

And Judah gathered themselves together, to ask help of the LORD: even out of all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD. (2 Chronicles 20:4)

The king’s prayer is one of the most beautiful in Scripture.

2 Chronicles 20:5-7
(5)  And Jehoshaphat stood in the congregation of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the LORD, before the new court,
(6)  And said, O LORD God of our fathers, art not thou God in heaven? and rulest not thou over all the kingdoms of the heathen? and in thine hand is there not power and might, so that none is able to withstand thee?
(7)  Art not thou our God, who didst drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and gavest it to the seed of Abraham thy friend for ever?

The structure of his prayer is interesting. It is a series of rhetorical questions rather than declarations. He did this as a show of respect to the LORD. Of course, the answer to each question was a resounding “Yes!” But the king is approaching the Lord, not as a king himself, but as a humble subject of the King of kings and in addressing a superior power, the custom in that day was to phrase your statements in the form of questions. By doing this, Jehoshaphat acknowledged that the God of Heaven was the supreme power and that he and his nation were at the mercy of His goodness.

It’s not that God does not know these things about Himself, or that He needs us to acknowledge these things because He is somehow in need of our assurances. God is a King, not a beggar. But it is required of us to acknowledge the greatness of God and it is helpful to us to remind ourselves of Who our God is.

He acknowledged the need

2 Chronicles 20:8-12
(8)  And they dwelt therein, and have built thee a sanctuary therein for thy name, saying,
(9)  If, when evil cometh upon us, as the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we stand before this house, and in thy presence, (for thy name is in this house,) and cry unto thee in our affliction, then thou wilt hear and help.
(10)  And now, behold, the children of Ammon and Moab and mount Seir, whom thou wouldest not let Israel invade, when they came out of the land of Egypt, but they turned from them, and destroyed them not;
(11)  Behold, I say, how they reward us, to come to cast us out of thy possession, which thou hast given us to inherit.

(12)  O our God, wilt thou not judge them? for we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee.

We are to make our requests known unto God. All of them. Again, this is not inform God. He is not ignorant of our needs. He knows them before we even venture to ask. We make our requests known to God to acknowledge our need of Him. It’s pride that will not make a request known to God and it’s unbelief that thinks “My request is too great or too small for God to handle.” God knew what was facing Jehoshaphat and God knew the king’s armies were no match for the armies of his enemies. Jehoshaphat made his needs known to God as acknowledgement of his own weakness and God’s greatness. When Jehoshaphat’s father Asa faced a similar situation, Asa turned to his allies instead of God. This was an insult to the Almighty because Asa turned to the arm of man instead of to the arm of God. He put more trust in power he could see and no trust in the invisible God of heaven. Jehoshaphat wisely looked beyond his earthly circumstances and turned immediately to his God. Every time we turn to our own resources before we turn to God, we grieve Him. Worse yet, we insult Him by acknowledging an earthly power over His. We are to make our requests known to Him first.

The most wonderful part of Jehoshaphat’s prayer is the very last phrase: “neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee.” What more eloquent way to recognize his own need and God’s greatness? The king was saying: “I don’t even know what to pray to You, Lord, let alone what to do!”

Jane and I have four children, all grown and on their own. Still, it warms our hearts when one of our children contacts us and asks us for help and advice. How much more do “Lord-I-don’t’-know-what-to-do-please-help!” kind of prayers warm the heart of our heavenly Father!

When God answered, he accepted God’s plan

2 Chronicles 20:14-16
(14)  Then upon Jahaziel the son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph, came the Spirit of the LORD in the midst of the congregation;
(15)  And he said, Hearken ye, all Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem, and thou king Jehoshaphat, Thus saith the LORD unto you, Be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude; for the battle is not yours, but God’s.
(16)  To morrow go ye down against them: behold, they come up by the cliff of Ziz; and ye shall find them at the end of the brook, before the wilderness of Jeruel.
(17)  Ye shall not need to fight in this battle: set yourselves, stand ye still, and see the salvation of the LORD with you, O Judah and Jerusalem: fear not, nor be dismayed; to morrow go out against them: for the LORD will be with you.

Sometimes when we pray and God answers, we don’t always like the answer He gives. We might not put it in so many words, but in our heart we think: “That wasn’t what I wanted,” or “That wasn’t what I was expecting.” When God answered Jehoshaphat he gave him great words of comfort:

Be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of this great multitude; for the battle is not yours, but God’s.

Then He followed up with some unconventional instructions: set yourselves, stand ye still. In other words, “Get ready for the fight, but don’t do anything.” That seems like an odd command to give a standing army. For us, it’s often hard to follow the command: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a). When God answers, don’t balk at what He says. Trust him.

He gave praise to God for what he would do

2 Chronicles 20:18-20
(18)  And Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground: and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell before the LORD, worshipping the LORD.
(19)  And the Levites, of the children of the Kohathites, and of the children of the Korhites, stood up to praise the LORD God of Israel with a loud voice on high.

Jehoshaphat had learned the hard way what happens when you engage in a battle of your own doing. In the previous chapter he’d allied himself with king Ahab (against prophetic advice) and almost got himself killed. So, when God told him to set the army in order and do nothing, he knew to do exactly as God ordered and instead of second-guessing God, he worshiped Him.

It’s OK to come to God without the words to say. It’s OK to tell God “I don’t know what to do. Please help!” God loves those kinds of prayers. It is often in those prayers that escape words that God shows Himself greatest.

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