Praying When It’s Hard: Praying Through Confusion

March 30, 2021

I have found over the years that prayer can be a mixed bag – sometimes it can be easy, straightforward, and abounding in grace.  Other times, many times in fact, it can be difficult, confusing, and bring forward even more questions along the way. It is easy to keep going when prayer showers you with immediate results, but it is so much harder to keep going when it challenges you and leaves you wanting. 

Soon after my oldest received his first pair of hearing aids, we got into a regular routine of speech and occupational therapy. Due to a late diagnosis of hearing loss, he had some communication and fine and gross motor skills to catch up on. When I would pick him up from daycare, he would ask me which we were going to. If I said “occupational therapy,” he would rejoice. If you have ever stepped foot in an occupational therapy center, you would understand why. It has a trampoline. It has obstacle courses. Occupational therapy is meant to help children improve their fine and gross motor skills. It is not easy but it is fun and the results are tangible, and he absolutely loves every minute of it. For example, just last week he was working on throwing a bean bag into a bucket while standing on an unsteady surface. You can literally see the results of your efforts – if you keep trying, the bean bag will eventually make it in the bucket. 

If I said “speech therapy”, however, he would look dejected. “Mom, I don’t want to go. It is too hard.” I did not blame him. Learning to listen to new sounds and form them with your own mouth was incredibly hard. It’s not always fun, and it takes a lot of time to see the fruits of his hard work. They are hardly ever as clear as a bean bag sailing into a bucket. Despite his personal frustration with it, however, regular speech therapy was needed to help him communicate better with his family and friends. 

Prayer can sometimes feel like “occupational therapy” did for my son – there is an easy and constant line of communication going between you and God. Grace is abounding everywhere. Right in front of you, bean bags are sailing straight into buckets. But sometimes, maybe even more often, prayer can feel like “speech therapy” did for him – too much effort for what feels like too little and too slow of a reward. 

Like speech and occupational therapy were for him, prayer for us is necessary when it is easy and when it is hard. In fact, prayer when it’s difficult and things are incredibly confusing is often the time when it is most necessary. Like language and speech, prayer is an essential part of how we communicate with God. Though we are tempted to give up when prayer is difficult, imagine what it would look like if that’s exactly when we showed up even more. Despite our fears, prayer does not require us to be “good at it” or even to understand all the fruits of it. Prayer just requires that we keep showing up.

There are two things I lean on when prayer feels confusing.  First is a prayer from one of my favorite spiritual writers Thomas Merton.  I love that his prayer talks about this need to just keep showing up even when the response is unclear. Perhaps this prayer might help you as it has me when you are feeling unclear of your direction.  He prays: 

 

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though

I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

 

The other helpful tool I use when I am praying through confusion is making a list, a few lists in fact.  I take a moment to list all the points of confusion and uncertainty that I have right then in that moment – all the anxiety and fears both big and small. I make a list of what I am certain about next to what I am uncertain about. I write what brings me peace and what brings me frustration. Then, I take these lists to prayer and offer them to God. The truth is, I often do not know what I am doing, but I am honest about that with God. I hope and trust that the intention is enough at the moment. I name my feelings as I offer these lists to God, my consolations and my desolations. These lists are ones I can come back to often, always noting how they alter or change. The progress is often painfully slow, confusion sometimes increases instead of decreases for a while, but the fruits always come. What would your lists say right now? What confusion, uncertainty, peace, and frustration do you have to bring to God?

I have been awestruck watching my son over the last few years. He has put in tremendous effort even when he was tired, even when he was dejected, even when he felt like he could not do it. At times, he would say “Enough!” He would take out his hearing aids and throw them to the ground done with all of this. But then, he just kept coming back. Time and again, he came back. He put the hearing aids back in and he tried again. And slowly, ever so slowly, the work paid off with an abundance of unexpected grace. 

In many ways, I think that my answer from God, my response in prayer when I feel like I have none, is him. Because of his effort, I have gotten to communicate with and know the most extraordinary little boy. I have been a witness to the tremendous fruits of persistence, and I know with all my heart that there are tremendous fruits waiting for me if I persist in prayer. They are waiting for you as well. So let’s keep going together.

Photo by Dan Carlson on Unsplash.com

Gretchen Crowder is the Director of Campus Ministry at Jesuit Dallas and an adjunct faculty member for the University of Dallas. She has a B.S. in mathematics and an M.Ed. from the University of Notre Dame as well as an M.T.S. from the University of Dallas. After teaching mathematics for almost a decade, she fully embraced her passion for ministry. She resides in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three sons.

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