By Scott McDermott
Learning how to pray when our life is hurting is one of the most important lessons we can ever learn in life, yet so few of us have been taught just how to do it. Personal pain is a part of everyone’s experience. As Jesus teaches, the storms of life happen to all of us (Matthew 7:24-27). At times that pain may stem from some deep personal disappointments while at other times it may come from the loss of a relationship or the loss of a loved one.
It was during a season of personal pain that the Lord taught me a way to pray that has helped me get through some of the darkest seasons of my life. These six steps proved to be transformative, and I pray they will be the same for you as you walk through your own pain. These six steps are not new. Not at all. In fact, these six steps are woven throughout the book of Psalms, one of the powerful books of prayers and songs of worship in the Bible. So, as we pray them, we follow an ancient and Spirit-inspired path to healing and restoration.
1. Choose to lift your eyes to the Lord. Here is how the Psalmist describes this: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1,2).
One can almost imagine the people of the Bible making their way up to Jerusalem for one of three annual feasts singing this Psalm. Their journey would take them along some difficult and treacherous terrain. The terrain they traveled must have reminded them of their very own life experiences. After all, life can be difficult. And yet this Psalm reminds us of something very important. Our help is not found in our own strength, it is only found in the strength that God can give. God is the one who can get us through all that we are experiencing no matter how difficult.
When we go through seasons of personal pain it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by it all. In lifting our hearts to God, however, we learn how to give direction to our pain. In other words, we overcome our problems by learning how to reach above them. And that is what prayer does. It reminds us where our help comes from. Prayer gives us the ability to reach above our problems to the One who gives us the grace to overcome them.
When we focus on God, his love, his faithfulness, and his goodness, we begin to find the hope and strength that cannot be found anywhere else. When I have sought to live into this, my prayers often begin with something like this: “Lord, I am looking to you and not to myself for all I need. You are the one who can help me. You are Lord over all my life and all my circumstances.” In doing so I am directing my life to look to God and not to myself for all I need.
2. Be honest with God. Being open and honest before God is the next step in learning how to work through personal pain. Many want to ignore this step, and simply skip to another theme, but that is not how true restoration comes. We can never overcome our pain by ignoring it. God won’t let us. Restoration only comes by learning how to unburden our hearts before God. Psalm 77 is a great example of this. At times it is filled with mighty declarations about God’s mighty activity, while at other times it is filled with expressions of anguish and distress. Psalm 77:2 says: “When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.” Deep faith is found in learning how to unburden your heart before God. How have I done this?
• I ask the Lord to show me where my heart is for that day. At times, especially during seasons of loss, I find that my heart was filled with sadness, frustration, anger, questions, and sorrow. By asking God to reveal what was deep inside, I permit God to search the depths of my heart (Psalm 139:23,24) so that nothing is hidden from him.
• I have learned that there is power in learning how to give expression to my own pain. By naming it I could better release all that I was experiencing to God (1 Peter 5:7).
• I learned that God welcomed my deep confession. After all, when we make such confessions we can feel embarrassed or ashamed, but the truth is God’s love never fails us. In seasons like this I remember saying to God: “Lord you know I am not proud of how I feel, but I want my life to be right before you.” And then I would make my deep confessions before him. In the lowest moments of life, God’s love and grace still abound to us.
3. Express your complete trust in God. One must be careful to never get stuck in step two. It is always easier to complain than believe. That is what makes this next step so important. Psalm 62:8 reminds us that we are to: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” I cannot emphasize enough how significant this expression of trust is for moving forward. I have seen it shift the atmosphere of my life and many others I have prayed with.
So, what does this step look like? For me, I have often experienced it like this. After pouring my heart out, I simply say something like this to God: “Lord I do not understand all that is happening or even why it is happening, but I want you to know this, I trust You! I trust even when I don’t understand.”
4. Release everything to God. Remember all those expressions of pain in step two? Now is the time to lift them before God. As Psalm 34:19 reminds us “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” Usually, I go back over all the things I have confessed in step two and release them one by one to God. I will say something like: “Lord, I release all of this to you. It is yours. My life and all my days belong to you. Take these areas of my life and use them to accomplish your purposes.”
5. Look for signs of God working. Even when we are in the darkest places of life, God never deserts us. God is always there and God is always working. Psalm 139 declares that God will make himself known even in the most difficult places of our lives. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” God will always be there for me.
When my daughter had cancer, we would sit around the dinner table every night reflecting on where we saw God at work that day. Some of those days were dark and difficult and yet we always found evidence of God working in our lives without fail. One day as we traveled for one of her regular chemotherapy treatments, we were over halfway on our hour drive when my daughter informed us that she had forgotten the favorite teddy bear that she brought with her for each treatment. Due to the scheduling of the treatment, we didn’t have time to turn around and get it. I can still remember how she cried.
When we got to the hospital we made our way to the treatment room and they readied her for the next round of chemo. Some time into the treatment something amazing happened. Two volunteers were working their way around this large treatment ward passing out teddy bears to all the children receiving treatment. I couldn’t believe it. I said to my daughter, “Look Bec. Do you see this! You may have forgotten your teddy bear, but God has not forgotten you!”
God cares about our every need and he will find a way to make himself known to you.
6. Take the time to praise God. When those moments occur, remember to thank God for being so faithful. As Psalm 107:1 reminds us, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Forever is a long time! Most importantly for us, it also means that God’s goodness and love will make itself known in every season of life. Even in the most difficult season. Giving thanks helps us to see the good that God is doing and helps remind us that we are not alone as we travel this road. God is always with us.
Praying this pattern doesn’t mean that restoration will come instantly. The healing of the heart takes time. As we walk this journey with this prayer, learning how to look to God, being honest with him, declaring our trust and unburdening our hearts, looking for the signs of his working, and thanking him, we can rest assured of this, God will one day bring a new day into our lives. God will get each us through our lowest moment. You can count on it! God is faithful!
Scott McDermott has been the lead pastor of The Crossing United Methodist Church in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania since 1993. Dr. McDermott has a BA and an MA in Biblical Studies, an MDiv, and an MPh. He also has a PhD in New Testament Studies from Drew University. Image: Shutterstock.