How should I pray when I'm feeling confused?

For GQ - 20061114

Ever faced a tough decision and not known how to pray about it? Have you found yourself confronting a nagging issue you want to deal with but felt like you don’t have a clue where to begin in prayer? Praying in the midst of confusion can become an opportunity to draw near to God and deepen your relationship with him.

If you find you just don’t know how to pray about something, you’re in good company — many of us face that situation regularly. And you’re in a good position — God doesn’t expect us to always know what to ask for.

It’s okay to admit our confusion

We gave this question to Mary Anne Voelkel, former Prayer Coordinator for InterVarsity. She replies, “The verses in Romans 8:26-27 suggest that none of us ‘know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit helps us in our weakness.’ Confusion is actually a helpful problem which reminds us of something that is always true: We are always dependent on God and need to ask him to help us and show us how to pray. With humility and confidence, we can invite God into our confusion and ask him to help us discern His mind and will and heart. He loves to do just that!”

Too often, we are reluctant to come before God when we don’t have everything figured out. We may find it hard to admit that we’re totally dependent on him. “I don’t think we have to be afraid of not asking for the ‘right’ things,” says Mary Anne. “Our loving heavenly Father knows what we need even before we ask (see Matthew 6:31-33). However, just like any loving father, God loves us to seek him and to ask, because he so deeply enjoys relating to us!”

Untangling the confusion

There are several reasons you could be confused about how to pray. Lorita Boyle, Urbana 06 prayer coordinator says, “I try to discern if the root of my confusion is in me, or if I’m confused about who God is. For example, do I truly believe God is good and wants what is best for me? We can always ask and pray for clarity in the midst of the confusion. But basically, we first want to know what it is we’re feeling confused about — is it about life, faith, or a relationship with a friend? Most often a ‘feeling of confusion’ surrounds a particular question related to life, relationships or direction.”

Terry Morrison, Director Emeritus for InterVarsity Faculty Ministries, suggests going to the Bible to pray God’s Word. “Start off with some chat with the Lord about how you feel confused and not sure of what to pray,” suggests Terry. “Then pray some of Paul’s prayers. Using Ephesians 1:15-23, for example, you can start giving specific thanks for the people around you and pray for them, asking for God’s empowering presence and especially for him to give you knowledge on how to pray. Be reassured that God’s Spirit prays for us, especially when we are confused on how to pray” (see the link to Romans 8:26-27 above).

Learning to pray means learning what kinds of things are most important to God — what really matters that is worth praying for. We can always pray for the important things, such as to be pleasing to God, and for God to encourage and protect those we love. “As we get in the habit of that kind of prayer,” says Terry, “it’s easier to just bring our confusion to God and say, ‘Lord, please take it from here.’” A good angle for learning to pray is to study the prayers of key people in the Bible. One excellent book for that is Daring to Draw Near by John White (IVP).

Take time to discern your confusion

Mary Anne takes her times of confusion seriously enough to pursue the cause patiently over time. “It helps me to write out, journal-style, all the aspects of my confusion and all the things I am feeling,” she says. “I group the things that seem to go together into columns, or if there are just many things swirling around in my head and heart, I write them all on different sections of a single piece of paper. As I write the words or phrases to express each aspect of the things that are confusing to me, I might also draw some kind of a stick figure to symbolize each one or add a bit of color to express my feelings about them. When everything is ‘out there,’ I begin to bring it all to God in prayer, one piece or section at a time. I talk to him about each aspect, and ask him to illuminate my darkness and bring clarity. Sometimes I need to confess sin or my mixed motivations.”

This process can take some work and some time. “I always ask God to suggest scriptures to guide me and my prayers, and often a passage or phrase of scripture will come to my mind,” says Mary Anne. “If I don’t know where to find the text, I look it up in a concordance. Then, I meditate on the text and pray it back to the Lord. If no scripture comes, I ask God to speak to me in my daily readings over time and show me what he wants me to see about the issues that have been confusing me.”

And if the confusion remains? “I keep bringing that journal page to God until he gives me light and discernment,” says Mary Anne. “And of course you’re not alone in seeking clarity. Ask to pray with a mature friend. Take time to listen to God together for helpful scriptures. While it will take time, keep looking to God for clarity.”