Prayer has always been difficult for me. For years, I struggled with feeling overwhelmed by everything in my life and in the world that I wanted to pray about. It seemed like too much. I didn’t even know where to start, so I usually just didn’t start at all. I thought that in order to pray effectively, in a way that was worthy of God’s attention, I should be dedicating hours to prayer everyday, and since I couldn’t do that, I didn’t pray much. Eventually I started using a list of things to pray about that a friend from church had created. It was a good list, and I thought it would help me stay on track, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was very legalistic about it, thinking I had to pray for each and every thing on the list, saying the same words about the same topics every time I prayed.
Little by little, over the past couple of years, I’ve begun to experience breakthroughs in the area of prayer. The same friend who created that list told me during one of our conversations that the point of the list was to give ideas for things to pray about on days when we want to pray but can’t think of topics. It’s a starting point, but it’s not the whole story. We should tell God what’s on our heart, praying about what the Holy Spirit brings to mind. It’s supposed to be an active conversation with a real Person, not a list that we woodenly run through so we can stop feeling guilty about not praying.
So I started praying from the heart. I knew I could no longer ignore important issues such as the salvation of my kids and loved ones, or my own need for strength and empowerment in parenting, just because the thought of praying was intimidating. There were also specific issues, unique to our family, that I wouldn’t find on a list and needed to bring before God. I still didn’t have hours to dedicate to prayer, but I would try to spend 10-20 minutes at a time praying about my kids, marriage, and parenting. I would pray while I was driving or cleaning, usually talking out loud whenever I could in order to keep my mind from wandering.
This was definitely an improvement, but I still found myself bound to the idea of needing a good chunk of time to pray about each situation. I’d often repeat the same things over and over again- sometimes using the same words, sometimes just the same ideas expressed in different words. And because I felt the need to pray elaborately and laboriously over each issue, I didn’t really pray about anything other than my immediate family. I felt like my kids and marriage took priority and I didn’t have time for other things. In fact, even when I’d see people on social media requesting prayer for something, I’d almost never pray about it, because I thought, “I don’t have time for a 5-10 minute prayer right now.” (Of course, since I was on social media in the first place, clearly I did have time for more worthwhile pursuits, but that’s a different topic.)
I truly believe all of this was the work of Satan to make me less effective in prayer. Scripture is clear that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). The passage goes on to give us the details of how we can do this: “Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand firm…. Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:13, 18).
I began to realize that prayer doesn’t have to be long and complicated. Prayer can even be one word: “Help.” This one-word prayer is no less valid than praying all day about a situation. We don’t even have to specify why we’re asking for help if we can’t at that moment. Psalm 139:2-4 says, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.” God knows what’s going on. He knows what we’re thinking. He wants us to express our dependence on Him, and to seek His strength and wisdom, but He doesn’t need us to explain the whole situation in order for our prayers to be effective.
One great example of both long and short prayers is in Nehemiah. Nehemiah was an Israelite living in captivity in Persia. He was in a fairly high position as cupbearer to the king. He had heard a report that the city of Jerusalem was in terrible condition, and he desired to return to the city to help rebuild it. He knew that getting permission from the king to do such a thing might be risky and dangerous, since the king had already commanded work on rebuilding the city to stop. So he prays extensively and elaborately for days, fasting, mourning, weeping, and asking that God would give him success and grant him mercy in the sight of the king (Nehemiah 1:4-11).
The time came for Nehemiah to make his petition before the king: “Then the king said to me, ‘What are you requesting?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it” (Neh. 2:4-5). Take note of that little phrase between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s reply- he prayed to the God of heaven. This couldn’t have been a long prayer. The king was sitting right in front of him, waiting for an answer. This was a quick, silent prayer- probably only a few words, perhaps asking God for help or courage. God does give him favor in the sight of the king, and the king grants his request.
Sometimes we are so distressed, or things in our lives are so complicated, that we don’t even know how to pray. God’s got us covered there too. Romans 8:26-27 tells us that the Holy Spirit intervenes: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” The Holy Spirit redeems even our weakest attempts at prayer by giving us the words to say, bringing Scripture to mind, comforting us, and interceding for us according to the will of God.
Today I was reading in Amos, one of the minor prophets. Verse 13 of chapter 4 stood out to me: “For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth- the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!” In context, this verse is emphasizing God’s power and dominion to the people of Israel, who have abandoned their faith in Him and are headed for judgment. But it also reminded me of the fact that when we pray, we are talking to God- the Creator of the universe, the One who could tell us our own thoughts before we think them. Does it even make sense that our prayers would always have to be long and perfectly detailed? I don’t think so. If we had to pray for 3 hours about each situation to make sure God knows exactly what’s going on and what we think we need, He wouldn’t even be worth praying to.
These days, I’m trying to pray about a lot more things. I still pray for longer periods of time when I can. But I also pray short prayers. A sentence here and there. One minute praying for that person, two minutes praying for that situation. Sometimes only a few silent words, like Nehemiah, in the middle of a tough parenting moment. I think this is what Paul means when he tells us to “pray without ceasing” in 1 Thessalonians 5. Be in prayer all day long, about anything and everything, whenever you need to for however long you need to. Long prayers are good. Short prayers are good. It can be elaborate and lengthy if we have the time and are moved to pray that way. But it can also be simple and short. It all counts!