Formations 05.12.2024: Praying When We Don’t Know How

Romans 8:15-25

As a pastor, I’ve ministered with more than one deacon who preferred not to pray in front of the church. Sometimes this was in churches where it was expected that deacons pray during the worship service on a set rotation. Sometimes a deacon would approach me privately and ask that they not be called on to pray, say, at the conclusion of a Bible study meeting. A lot of people are self-conscious about praying. Maybe they fear that they aren’t doing it right. I suspect many are just nervous about public speaking generally.

I’ve never felt like judging someone who is self-conscious about their public prayers. Praying well in public is a skill of its own. It isn’t just communicating with God; it’s communicating with God on behalf of a group, in a public setting. It’s also at least partly setting an example: teaching those gathered how to pray, or at least what to pray for.

Having or lacking the skill to pray in public says nothing about a person’s spiritual maturity or the strength of their personal prayer life. It’s simply a fact that how we pray in private isn’t the same as how we pray in public. To be honest, I’d be concerned if it were. For good or ill, praying before a congregation always has an element of performance, no matter how sincerely we pray.

But in the privacy of our own room, in the privacy of our own heart, we can be honest with God in ways that are just not possible in public. In private, we can admit what Paul writes in Romans 8:26: We don’t know how to pray as we ought. How do you pray when it feels like life is falling apart? When your kids are hurting? When the doctor gives you the news you most dreaded to hear? When you feel lost and alone?

In times like this, Paul says, we can take heart because the Spirit within us intercedes with groanings too deep for words. This same Spirit bears witness that we are God’s children when we cry, “Abba! Father!” (v. 15).

Prayer is in many ways a mystery—or at least it should be. But we can take heart that even when all we can manage is stuttering, incoherent groanings, God still hears, understands, loves, and acts.


• What is your comfort level with praying publicly? Why do you have this attitude?
• What situations have left you unsure how to pray?
• What does it mean that the Spirit intercedes for us?
• How does this intercession encourage you when you are unsure of your ability to pray?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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