How to Pray When You Don’t Feel Like Praying: Ruth Bethany
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Anger, apathy, and even constant consumption can sap our desire to be with God. Ruth Bethany gets real about how to pray when you don’t feel like praying.
How to Pray When You Don’t Feel Like Praying: Ruth Bethany
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Season 1, Episode 18: How to Pray When You Don’t Feel Like Praying
Guest: Ruth Bethany
Air Date: January 7, 2023
Ruth: I have to remember that the greatest demonstration of the love of God—that He is, indeed, for me, not against me—is that He did not withhold His Son for me; He didn't withhold Him. That helps me trust Him when I feel like He might be withholding something in this world; is that: “Before I even knew I needed Jesus, You put into motion giving Jesus for me because You loved me.”
Shelby: Somewhat anxious—always authentic—this is Real Life Loading… I’m your host, Shelby Abbott. Our desire with this podcast is to help guide you toward the life-changing power of Jesus for relationships in a constantly-shifting culture. We're called Real Life Loading…—dot, dot, dot—and those three dots at the end of our title describe being in process—we haven't arrived—we're very much in a state of loading. It's my job to be a trusted friend, to come alongside you, and help you walk closely with God, in the humor and hardship of life.
Well, today's date was kind of hijacked by a controversial event in America's history recently—but I've always thought of January 6 as my birthday—and I've thought of it as my birthday, because it's my actual birthday.
And today, I'm really grateful to have, as my birthday guest, Part Two of my time with Ruth Bethany. If you didn't get a chance to hear Part One with Ruth, definitely go back and check that episode out. But to kick off the start of 2023, I'm thrilled to have my friend as a guest, once again, on Real Life Loading… Ruth and I are going to talk about how to process the feeling of prayers being unanswered; and how to avoid distractions; people pleasing; and apathy when praying. You ever struggle with that?—me too. Well, let's hop in.
Shelby: How do you process prayers not being answered, like unpack when we come, face to face, with things not working out the way we want them to in connection to prayer; because that's a very, very common thing that Christians experience. And then, they go: “Well, my prayers must not be listened to by God,” or “They're just hitting the ceiling,” or “Maybe, God's not real”; and then, people go to darker places. Can you unpack that for us?
Ruth: Yes, yes. It's such a valid thing to press into, and it's really hard. It's really hard to bring a longing or a desire—and it could be even for a good thing—like I think about even praying for my grandmother, wanting her salvation. That's a good thing—that's like of the will of God—and how painful it was. I remember prayer being even painful to ask God again. I was like, “This is actually just giving me a glimpse of God's heart towards the lost,”—like in terms of how He yearns—this is a shadow of it. I keep thinking about Psalm 62:8—it talks about pouring out; it's this call to pour out your hearts to God—“Trust in Him for He's a rock and a refuge.”
When I think about the unanswered prayer—it can be quick; because we're in an instant-gratification culture—is to just, like: “Alright, one and done; I'm done.” But again, the foundation of prayer is relationship; and so, even an unanswered prayer, I'm meant to still pour out to God; and that's, actually, where life is found. So even if it's saying to God: “I'm disappointed,” “I don't understand,”—that's what God invites; because that's what prayer is: it's relational.
Shelby: Yes, that's a good prayer.
Ruth: It would be weird—like you brought in the friend analogy—it would be weird if you had someone really close to you, and you just didn't even tell them what grieved your heart; and they want to know. And how much more does God? And so that invitation to pour out our hearts to Him, even in the disappointment of unanswered prayer.
There's also a forced humility that happens, that we have to kind of grapple with, in saying, “God, You are God; and I am not.” And sometimes, that's a blessing; we feel the blessing of that truth. And sometimes, it can feel so frustrating; it's like: “God, I'm in this place because You are not moving in the way that I think You should, or that I want You to,” and “I am having to humble myself before You, and say, ‘You are God, and Your ways are not my ways, and Your thoughts are not my thoughts.’” And so having to just kind of enter into that can be—it's necessary as we grapple with unanswered prayers—but it's also really hard, sometimes, to acknowledge that.
I think one of the passages of Scripture that has been, I would say, an anchor or a post in the midst of any unanswered prayer—or prolonged, like when you're praying for something over many, many years—is the truth in also Romans 8: 32, where it says: “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”
And I keep thinking, “God, You might be”—in my mind—"You might be withholding something from me,”—you know, whether it's a change in circumstance or whatever it may be—but I have to remember that the greatest demonstration of the love of God; that He is, indeed, for me, not against me—is that He did not withhold His Son for me; He didn't withhold Him. That helps me trust Him when I feel like He might be withholding something in this world; is that: “Before I even knew I needed Jesus, You put into motion giving Jesus for me because You loved me.” Even Jesus giving Himself for us because He loved us.
And so yes—I would just say—yes, in all of that, just:
- He invites us to pour out our heart, and the disappointment and the frustration.
- He invites us to humbly acknowledge He is God, and we are not.
- And then, He invites us to remember that He did not withhold His Son.
Shelby: Yes; that's always the anchor we could come back to in the midst of the storm. It's always where we can go. If He didn't give us Jesus, then the chaos would actually be chaos. But our chaos in life is not chaos to Him—because we could always come back to: “Well, I, at least, I know that God gave me His Son; therefore, He won't withhold anything that's necessary in my life right now.”
Everything else is mashed potatoes and gravy—like the meat is the gospel—but everything else is mashed potatoes. So we're dealing with mashed potatoes and gravy, all day every day. Let's not make them the main course, which is I think exactly how you would put it, right?
Ruth: Yes; exactly. Yes, yes, yes; mashed potatoes/gravy; yes. [Laughter]
Shelby: I love mashed potatoes anyway. [Laughter]
So obviously, there are—for a young person—there are, obviously, tons of challenges in prayer. When you think about prayer, you think about: “Well, it's hard, because I get involved with like daydreaming,”—or kind of like what you mentioned—"I'm not feeling like prayer works,” or “…prayer matters,” or “…that God hears me.”
And also, when you do pray—like when we're in a group setting—we rehearse the prayer in our mind before we say it out loud, which is ridiculous; because God could hear the prayer in our mind before we actually say it out loud. How do you help a young person move into those challenges when they seem to be so prevalent amongst, well, pretty much everyone?
Ruth: Yes, yes; I think like a big one that comes up a ton is that daydreaming—you know, I try to pray—and then, my mind is like going to all the things. Something that's been really helpful to me—and this is, again, informed by Scripture—where, in
1 Peter 5:7, it talks about: “Casting our cares to the Lord,”—or anxieties to Him—"because He cares for us.”
Again, that's an open invitation that, whatever is filling my mind, I can give it to the Lord—I can kind of cast it to Him; I can throw it to Him—and so, practically, for me, it helps me a lot to say those things out loud; or to write them out, as a way of like releasing them—not just, intellectually, knowing them in my mind—but actually, saying, “God, this is on my mind; and so I'm going to give it to You.”
Or even writing down—if certain thoughts come up, and you're trying to pray—is actually just having a journal next to you, and putting them there; and to have that be a way, like: “This is me casting my cares to God,”—whatever comes to mind. Sometimes, I mean, journaling/prayer journaling has been really helpful in terms of, for me, at least, having there be a stream of thought. There's an engagement with the writing; or again, even praying out loud if you're by yourself. That might feel weird to you; but I would just say, “Embrace the weirdness. It won't feel weird forever. And it can be this way of like, ‘No, I'm actually in a conversation with God.’ It can help with the stream of thoughts and to know that God is not surprised by our human nature.” And so it's not like/He's like, “Oh, man, there's/she's jaded.” No, that's not his posture towards us. It's one of warmth and love.
I think a big thing I've been thinking of this generation is just being aware of even how much we're consuming, and how consuming can cultivate what we crave. It can impact even how we relate with God; because it's like, “Oh, instant; I'm supposed to be able to do instant and not…”—it's uncomfortable then to be in any kind of stillness with God, when that's actually really good.
I would just say, “Like even press into what feels maybe dis-comforting; and just be aware of: ‘What am I consuming?’ and ‘How is that impacting how I view God?’ and ‘How is that impacting how I view even praying to Him?’”
And then, even—yes, that whole thing about not praying the right things—because that is a real thing in terms of group prayer.
Shelby: For sure; yes.
Ruth: Honestly, I think it really does reveal how we care more about what other people think. And so with that, again, I'm going to be like: “Embrace the discomfort, because it's going to be a death to yourself, and your flesh of wanting to please other people, and sound good,”—but that is not the goal of prayer—it's connecting with God.
And I would just say: “You learn so much through prayer by the act of praying,” like there's a transformative part of that. And so even just embrace the discomfort, and wonder: “Yes, Lord, what might You root out as I just, even by faith, pray out loud when I don't feel like it?” or “I'm terrified that it can be a way of killing the idol of pleasing people, that hinders connection with God in the group context.”
Shelby: That's so good; that's really good.
Often, the things that we struggle with, those are the very things that God wants us to specifically address. So like daydreaming: “What are you daydreaming about?” Well, do you think God doesn't care about those things either?
Even if it's like something you're wrestling with, in terms of like sin: well, God wants to address that in your life so that He could turn those things around. Behind the—[whispering] “ I got to figure out the right thing to say so that people, you know, don't think I'm weird,” or “I'm not sounding spiritual here,” —well, that, in and of itself, is revealing something in your heart. I love that you're like kind of drawing attention to: “The very thing we're afraid of is the thing that God wants to use in our lives.”
Yes, even like seasons of not feeling it—there's been plenty of times—I think every Christian goes through that, right?
Shelby: Like there's tons of seasons, where like I just don't ever feel like God listens to what I'm saying; or doesn't care what I'm saying; or my prayers are too little, so it's not that big of a deal that I actually pray them.
Well, just like anything—if you want to get good at a sport, or an instrument, or like medicine, or you know anything—you got to practice, right? You got to actually do it, and you become more comfortable and more confident in it. God could use that to strengthen those muscles.
Ruth: Yes, yes; and He really does.
And even like the not feeling it: this is where it's like, even inviting the Lord, like, “What is there/like kind of what is underneath that?” Not—and some of it could just be a season—but sometimes it's even, I think:
- “I fear You in a distorted way. So what does it look like to see God, actually, as my loving Father? What hinders me from seeing Him that way?—that I wouldn’t want to approach Him?”
- Or maybe, it's even self-reliance, like, “I don't like praying, because I kind of like being able to do stuff on my own.”
I would just encourage exploring the “not feeling it”; and see if there/and again, bringing the Lord into that, relationally through prayer, but just exploring that.
And I feel like God is—He's kind, and He's committed to us—and His Spirit within us can reveal some things that are behind that “not feeling it.” And sometimes, it can just be apathy; but sometimes, there could be other things that's connected to how we actually view God.
Shelby: Lean into it; that's good.
[Three Dots…Three Thoughts]
Shelby: And now, it’s time for “Three dots…three thoughts” on Real Life Loading… We’ll get back to my time with Ruth in just a second, but this is where I share three simple ideas that could potentially change your life—they probably won’t—but they could.
Thought 1: “Most young people I know, when they go to buy a package of hot dogs, they buy the cheapest pack they can find, like the Walmart® brand or something like that.” But this is a mistake. I have a friend named, Kayla, who would call herself a hotdog expert, as she's tried nearly every brand out that exists out there in the grocery stores; so she knows what she's talking about when she says that the best brand you can get is Hebrew National®. Now, I—98 percent agree with her—to say that only Nathan's® Famous brand hot dogs give them a run for their money.
So next time you hit up the grocery store, and want to buy a pack of hot dogs, pick either Hebrew National or Nathan's Famous; and trust me, you'll never go back to cheap hotdogs again.
Thought 2: “If you're like me, and you've already failed at one or several of your New Year's resolutions, I'd recommend that you go back and listen to my bonus episode with Dane Ortlund that we posted last week.” In that short conversation, we talked about New Year's resolutions and, maybe, trying a different approach to goals for the year. Check it out wherever you get your podcasts.
Thought 3: “Since it's my birthday today, I actually want to break precedent and let you in on a little secret. I want to tell you what I wish for every year when I blow out my birthday candles.” Ready? Here it is: every year, I wish that I would walk with God for one more year. You know, sometimes thinking about running a spiritual marathon, and walking with God throughout our entire lives, can be overwhelming; I've certainly felt that.
But one of the things that I've told students, over the years of doing college ministry, is this: “If you want to walk with God in 50 years from now, just walk with God today. “Tomorrow has enough trouble of its own”: see Matthew, Chapter 6. So let's just concern ourselves with today: smaller goals, achieved incrementally over time, turn into lifetime goals accomplished. Walk with God today; and when you wake up tomorrow morning, walk with God tomorrow.
When I blow out my birthday candles tonight, I'll wish to walk with God for just one more year; and when next year rolls around, I'll wish for the same. Let's commit to walking with God, together, one step at a time.
This has been “Three dots…three thoughts” on Real Life Loading… Now, let's get back to my conversation with Ruth Bethany. She's going to answer some listener-submitted questions from you all about the topic of prayer, that will be super helpful for all of us as we think about talking with God. Let’s hop back in.
Shelby: I know that you reached out to a number of different college students, and you asked people online: “What were some topics or questions when it comes to prayers?” The first question that I want to address: “Explain why we pray if God already knows what we're thinking and what we need.” That's a great question; that’s a really good question.
Ruth: Yes; it's like it boils down to, like, “What's the point?”
Shelby: “Why do we do this?”; yes.
Ruth: “What’s the point? He already knows; then why do I need to do this?”
Again, it goes back to relationship. We are made to be in active relationship with God. I love that, even when Jesus teaches on this—and even talks about: “The Father already knows all of your needs before you pray”; that Jesus said that as an encouragement to pray. It was in the context of saying that the pagans—they babble; they use all of the words, hoping that they can be heard by God—and He's like, “You don't need to do that. You don't need to babble. You can just be honest with God; because He hears you, and He knows what you need.” I just love that for Jesus/He's like: “That should propel you to pray, and to commune with God, and be in relationship with Him.”
But I think it reveals, again, a cynicism within our heart; we're like, “Well, if He already knows, kind of what's the point?” The point is: “Relationship”; you know? [Laughter] That's what we were made for. That has been helpful for me to remember from Jesus—it wasn't this encouragement to actually move towards God.
Again, it's/we talked about the context of friendship—that it's one thing—this analogy breaks down, because they all do [Laughter]—but with God, you think about: if you have a really close friend; and maybe, they heard your parent passed away, or something really significant happened. They heard about it from somebody else, but they knew that reality: they knew this ginormous thing happened in your life that really matters.
It's one thing to know that your friend knows; it's another thing to actually experience with-ness in the need; and then, what is on your heart and mind. Obviously, God—He does know all things—but it's way different to know that He knows than to actually bring Him into that need, and say, like: “God, I, ultimately, need You, even beyond the need,” and “I also need to be reminded: ‘You know what I need more than even I know what I need.’” And so, yes, I think it's an encouragement to move towards Him.
Shelby: That's good.
Okay; another question was: “How do we actually hear from God in prayer?—or after we've prayed, how do we know, like if God has answered?—or how do we hear from him?”
Ruth: Yes, so I feel like this is, in some ways, a two-part question. “How do we know that He's heard us?” And again, I'm going to keep plugging Scripture, because that's how it is for—
Shelby: Yes! “Keep doing it!” [Laughter]
Ruth: Woohoo! Because it does/it really helps.
I think about Psalm 116:1 and 2, where I love this—because the psalmist says—"I love the Lord, because He hears my voice”—it even goes on—“in my prayer for mercy.” The psalmist is praying in the midst of trials; but he says: “Because He bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath.” So if you just want even a prayer Scripture—
Psalm 116: 1 and 2—that is just knowing He bends down to listen, and He does hear our prayers.
But then I also think, I mean, if you write prayers—and this is another thing I would encourage—God answers our prayers. Again, it could not be in the way that we think; but he answers I think far more than we're aware of. We're such forgetful people or just be like moving on to the next thing.
Keeping, for me—things that I'm praying about, written down—I'm way more aware of like: “Oh, God, You, actually, answered that,” or “You moved in a way I wasn't expecting, but now I see You are infinitely wiser than I am.” I can see that because I wrote it down. That's one way that I've actually seen God answer prayers. And it's actually helped me see when I can be/I can forget; and then, I just pass by, like, “God, You actually answered this prayer.” And so that's/yes, I would say that.
And then, listening to God: I don't give God a lot of time to speak to me. He can speak to us in so many different ways; Scripture being one of them. But one thing I have done in times of prayer is I actually—out loud, in the name of Jesus—I'll ask Him to silence all other voices; that I just want to hear His—so whether that's an over-analytical mind; whether that's even the voice of the devil; or other voices: the world, my flesh—even asking in the power/yes, the power of Jesus to silence all other voices. That has been huge in terms of, then, creating a safe haven for the voice of God to speak, whether it's through Scripture—predominantly, through Scripture—but even other ways. And just being okay with stillness, too; you know, just like being okay in that.
Shelby: That's great; that's really, really good.
“How do you”—here's another question that came in—“How do you cultivate intimacy with the Lord in prayer rather than only giving requests?”—which is/this is something I struggle with quite a bit: I come to God with my laundry list of things that I want, and I need to alter the way I think about prayer. “How do you cultivate intimacy with the Lord when you just want to ask him for stuff all the time?”
Ruth: Yes; I say this—because I think we win whenever we pray—so whatever that looks like, even if it is coming to the Lord with a bunch of requests—that is moving towards God in some way, and that's a win.
Actually, one of my prayer mentors, Colleen/she taught me a lot about the importance of praise and thanksgiving in the context of prayer. And how, when we spend time praising God for who He is—that is informed, again, through Scripture—it can even impact how we view our requests, as we get to know the nature of God and praise Him for who He is. That has been huge for me.
And so looking—again, Psalms are/those are easier things to/passages of Scripture to pray through—or even, it's fascinating to look through the New Testament and just see Paul's prayers, throughout Ephesians, and Colossians, and Philippians—even Ephesians 3:14-21 is a beautiful prayer, and much of that is praising God for His nature, connected to requests.
I would encourage people to go through Scripture, and say, “What is true about God in this Scripture?”—and then—“What would it look like just to adore Him through those truths?”—even reminding, like, “God, how have I experienced this?” “How/what would it look like to rest in faith in this nature?—that You are a loving God, who's abounding in steadfast love and mercy, and your faithfulness knows no end, and You are kind in all Your ways.” Yes, Psalm 145: that's full of adoration to God. So use Scripture as a way of even helping you know how to praise God, and how that could inform prayer, and not just be all of these requests.
But then, it will help when you even bring your requests to Him; because it'll be remembering: “God, I just read that You are kind in all Your ways, so I can trust You, even with this request that I'm bringing before You.”
Shelby: Yes, because requests/bringing requests to God—He wants us to do that—and it's not a bad thing.
Shelby: If it turns into that only though.
But yes, it's like I'd imagine a young person—wrestling with: anxiety, and depression, and mental health issues—reading the Scripture, and going, “Okay; if this is what You're actually like, God, let me just default to that and believe the best about You; because that's what the Scripture says. I'll ask for healing, and guidance, and direction in the context of knowing that You're good; You're loving; You care about me; You listen.” That, ultimately, begins to change your relationship with God. It goes from Santa Claus to actual intimate relationship with the Creator of the universe/Creator of my soul, and that's a healthy thing.
Shelby: I love that you're talking about this in the context of: “All prayer is good prayer; it's a win every single time. But how can we shift prayer in a way that makes it more of a robust, healthy, deep, intimate relationship as opposed to just bringing my laundry list of things to him?” So love that: very, very good.
I want to end with this question, Ruth—this show is called Real Life Loading…—dot, dot dot—the dots communicate the fact that we're in process, and things are kind of a bit of a question mark in some areas of our lives. I wanted to ask you [Laughter]—even though I may be able to figure out the answer, knowing you for the last several years, and Adam, your husband—“Where is your life, right now, in a state of loading?”
Ruth: That's such a good—yes, we're currently/right now, I'm in Orlando, Florida—we just moved here in August, so it's—
Shelby: —after how many years in Blacksburg?
Ruth: —I mean, including my undergrad, 16 years.
Shelby: Sixteen years in one place; and now, you've uprooted and moved.
Ruth: Yes, and we don't know what is next. We really—everything—we just felt like the Lord was inviting us to put everything on the table, in terms of our family and ministry. We still want to do ministry, but we were just sensing a shift—I could not even tell you: “These are the five things that we're praying about considering,”—it was just: “We need to go to Florida and spend time, seeking the Lord, for what is next.”
And so that is a—when you said, “the question mark”—I was like: “That's it!” It's like: “What is/what's next?” I don't know the answer; and so it's this waiting on the Lord. It’s—I can’t force Him to move faster—and waiting/and experiencing that waiting on the Lord is a good and active thing.
But that's our question mark/is kind of: “What's next for our family?” And trusting the Lord that He will make known what needs to be known, when it needs to be made known, and that His goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life—and just resting in that truth, whether I'm in Virginia, in Orlando, or wherever we're going/I don’t know—that it won't be void of His goodness and His mercy following us all the days of our life. So that's where I'm resting, in the midst of a very big question mark. [Laughter]
Shelby: Honestly, Ruth, I love that answer. I love it because I think, a lot of times, it's okay to be in process and live in the question mark because living in the question mark communicates a sense of neediness. And neediness always drives you to the foot of the cross if you're willing to listen to what Jesus is calling you to do in life.
So yes, I know that's true about you guys. I know that's going on in your lives right now, and I love that you answered honestly. Thanks; thanks for being real. [Laughter]
Ruth: Shout out for being real. [Laughter]
Shelby: Shout out for being real!
Ruth, you’re a delightful friend. Thank you for being with me today. I love Jesus more because of you and Adam, and I can say that with honesty.
Ruth: Well, thanks Shelby; likewise. This has been so sweet to have this time with you, and thanks for inviting me.
Shelby: Of course!
Ruth lives her life as if she actually believes that: God is real; He listens; and He moves in ways that she may not understand; but regardless of how He moves, she's trusting Him; because she believes He's good, loving, and completely in control. I love that about her and her family. And I'm super hopeful that you've gained some clarity about prayer today, that may have been somewhat of a mystery before you got to hear my conversation with her.
If this episode with Ruth Bethany was helpful for you, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend. And wherever you get your podcasts, it could really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading…, if you'd rate and review us. It's especially easy to find us on our social channel; just search for Real Life Loading…, or look for our links in the show notes.
I want to thank my producers, Josh Batson and Bruce Goff. I’m Shelby, the birthday boy, Abbott. I’ll see you back next time on Real Life Loading…
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