I ONCE HEARD praying for other people likened to plunging into deep water from a high cliff: you have to wait to bottom out before you get your bearings and know where the surface is. Only then should you start to kick.
I’ve found it to be true that it’s best to not always pray just what immediately comes to mind. We may need to wait and see what God prompts, which may not necessarily seem to make much sense.
Having said that, like many things in the Christian life, there’s another equally valid approach: Don’t stop to work everything out in your head. Just pour out your heart to God and trust Him to put your maybe stumbling words in the right order. After all, God isn’t a lock-box for which you have to get all the numbers in the absolutely correct sequence in order for it to open up.
The key thing, of course, is context—knowing when which approach may be more appropriate. That’s why even more than a practice, prayer is a posture. A kind of leaning in to God at all times, open to hearing His direction. Attitude more than aptitude.
It’s so important to have a sense of where God is in regard to a situation or circumstance because that orientation will shape how we respond, for good or otherwise. Consider Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus from house arrest in Rome. He didn’t moan about his captivity. He didn’t blame the Romans for his situation. He described himself as “a prisoner of Christ” (3:1, emphasis added), and repeated that just in case the Ephesians missed it, calling himself “a prisoner for the Lord” in the next chapter (4:1, emphasis added).
This wasn’t just “que sera sera” theology, accepting everything that comes along as God’s will. Paul knew that some things happen for other reasons; writing to the church in Thessalonica, he lamented that “we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18).
Knowing why things are the way they are can help us not just endure, but embrace, hardships. Remember how Joseph looked back on all the trials he faced after his jealous brothers sold him into slavery. When they were reunited with him years later when he was the number two guy in Egypt, they feared he might take revenge.
His answer: “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen. 45: 5-7).
It’s also worth remembering that your current situation could actually be an answer to one of your previous prayers, just not in the way that you had hoped or expected. Another reason to pause before praying.