“Father, please send your angels to protect my mom.” I spoke this prayer on night ten of my mom’s fierce battle with Covid. Five hours later, she was dead. Have you ever received a resounding “no” to heartfelt prayers? Have you prayed prayers for days, months, and years and seen no evidence of change at all? Prayers for the return of a wayward child, prayers for freedom from deeply rooted sin patterns, prayers for relief from chronic pain? Perhaps with David, you have cried day and night but heard no answer and found no rest (See Psalm 22:2). In such seasons, bitterness or cynicism threatens to mute our tongues. How do we pray when prayer is hard?

Three Crucial Practices

Three crucial practices help us to pray when prayer is hard: learning the language of lament, which deepens faith; leaning into community, which grows hope; and listening for God’s declaration of his unfailing love, which expands love for God and for others.

Learning the Language of Lament

When prayer is hard, learning the language of lament can help us to emerge with a stronger faith. As Pastor Mark Vroegop explains, “Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.”[i] Lament not only expresses our faith in the goodness of God, it also strengthens our faith in its expression.

Prayers of lament often process through four categories: turning to God, naming the grief, asking persistently and boldly for help, and expressing restored confidence. Lamentations, Jeremiah’s lament over the fall of Jerusalem, illustrates each of these categories.

Rather than turning away from God when relief from suffering doesn’t come, lamenters turn toward God. Jeremiah addresses his complaints to God in raw words few of us would dare to utter aloud: “You have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through” (Lam. 3:44 ESV). Lamenters name their grief, refusing to minimize their suffering: “I am the one who has seen the affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven me and brought me into darkness without any light” (Lam. 3:1). Arguing that their current experience doesn’t seem to match their understanding of God’s goodness and mercy, lamenters ask persistently and boldly for help. Jeremiah keeps crying for help, “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (Lam. 5:1). In doing so, he expresses his firm conviction that “no one is abandoned by the Lord forever” (Lam. 3:31). Not always, but often, lamenters turn from complaint, expressing restored confidence that the Lord will redeem and restore again. Jeremiah’s turn comes in the familiar assurance: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:21-22). As Vroegop asserts, lament “stands in the gap between pain and promise.”[ii]  Learning to lament helps when prayer is hard.

Leaning into Community

When prayer is hard, leaning into community strengthens our frail and vulnerable hope. Prayer was never designed to be primarily a solo activity. The Psalms were written and sung corporately. The Lord’s Prayer was given to the disciples by Jesus to pray together. When unanswered prayer mutes us, we need others to answer for us, to point us back to the God who redeems and restores.

Because being a member of the Church means we hope for one another, we must depend on the body of Christ to fulfill its calling to “Bear one another’s burdens…” (Gal. 6:2). When we are weak, we acknowledge that weakness and rely on the body’s strength to lay us on the mat and lower us before Jesus’ tender care. Dr. Jerry Sittser, who lost his mother, wife, and daughter in a car accident, explains how community strengthened him in his season of grief:

“Sometimes some members of that community [the church], even through time and space, carry others…. I remember very vividly my inability to sing and pray…in the months and, really, years after the accident. I decided to let the church sing and pray for me. I do the same for others now. I sing for them; I pray for them.”[iii] When prayer is hard, and we allow others to “sing for us, to pray for us,” our vision of hope expands.

Listen for God’s Declaration of Unfailing Love

When prayer is hard, it is often because we think God has not heard or answered our prayer.  God has spoken, “Wait,” or “Not yet,” or “No,” but we have often talked over God, refusing to listen. If we learn to listen in prayer, we will learn to recognize the song line of redemption, God singing His love over us.

We hear this song sung most loudly in Jesus’ seemingly unanswered prayer in Gethsemane. The night before He was to die on a cross, Jesus poured out his troubled spirit in prayer. As he imagined bearing the wrath for our sin and enduring separation from his beloved Father, he sweated blood. He spoke His deepest desire to God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…” (Luke 22:42). He finished the sentence, “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

How did God answer Jesus’ prayer? If we lean in and listen carefully, we notice two answers. The first and more obvious is “No, I cannot let the cup of suffering pass from you. You must die for my people’s sins so that they may become my children.” But the second answer, the one we often miss, is “I will comfort you in your suffering.” Just after Jesus’ prayer, Luke tells us, “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).

As we listen to God’s profound declaration of His love for us, our doubts fade, our hope brightens, and our capacity to love God and others expands. We become people of strong faith, confident hope, and extraordinary love.

Since that dark night three years ago, I’ve thought often about the prayer I uttered for my mom’s protection. What if God did answer my prayer? What if, as my mother slept, an angel came? What if that angel led my mother gently to her Father, where she would know a safety and security she had never known on this earth? Though I can’t say for sure, I dare to believe, I dare to hope—my prayer was answered.

[i] Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 30.

[ii] Vroegop, 28.

[iii] Jerry Sittser, email to author, 2018.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Elizabeth Turnage

Elizabeth Reynolds Turnage is a gospel life and legacy coach, author, and speaker. She helps people live, prepare, and share their legacy to bring hope to future generations. Elizabeth co-founded the Numbering Your Days Network to share gospel encouragement for aging, caregiving, legacy, grief, and end-of-life and authored Preparing for Glory: Biblical Answers to 40 Questions about Living and Dying in the Hope of Heaven, coming from P&R in early 2024. Elizabeth and her husband, Kip Turnage, enjoy feasting and sharing good stories with their large family of four adult children, three children-in-law, and three young grandchildren.