When You Just Can’t Pray

Sometimes silence is the best you can do. Maybe you want to pray and just don’t know how. Maybe the press of life is so bad that you’re not even sure you want to pray. Either way, the prayers won’t come. You’re stuck. Now what?

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According to Alan Torrance, this is where we need to understand the priesthood of Christ. That’s the core argument of a paper he recently presented at the first Los Angeles Theology Conference. Torrance argues that we focus too much on the priesthood of all believers, shifting attention away from Christ as the one mediator between humans and God, and placing the individual at the center of his/her own spiritual life. As he says early in the paper:

The priesthood of Christ was replaced by a quasi-democratic focus on the priesthood of all believers. The impact of this on the shape of evangelical worship…has been immense. As a result, the focus in the practice of worship and in our understanding of prayer was transferred to the individual, to the self. I become my own priest, the sole mediator of my own worship.

In other words, when I am my own priest, I am solely responsible for making sure that my offering of worship is adequate, leaving me wracked with questions about the quality of my own spirituality: did I pray earnestly enough? did I worship sincerely enough? did I repent contritely enough? And what about those times when I’m not even sure how to pray and worship, those times when I’m overwhelmed by the tragic realities of living in a broken world, shattered and unable to serve as my own priest. What then?

Torrance describes his own experience with such a situation, and in the process he helps us see why the priesthood of Christ matters.

In January, 2008, my wife Jane died of cancer. She was the most wonderful, Christian woman, wife and mother. Watching her die in pain as the cancer spread throughout her body was hard and seeing our children witness her gradual disintegration not only physically but mentally as the cancer spread through her brain was extremely hard. There were times when, in my grief, I really struggled to find the wherewithal to pray and, indeed, to know how to pray and what to pray for. In sum, I did not know how to pray as I ought. In the depth of that valley the continuing priesthood of Christ became more relevant than I can begin to articulate – the fact that as I held Jane in my arms, the risen, ascended priest of our confession was present by the Spirit interceding on our behalf meant that we could repose in his presence and know that communion that is the beginning and telos of everything.

The prayer I held on to during that time and, indeed, two years later when I succumbed to severe, clinical depression was the Lord’s prayer recognizing that this was indeed the Lord’s prayer. I was not left to pray on my own ‘My Father, who art in heaven far removed from where I am.’ The sole Priest of our confession was present by his Spirit praying ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.’

To discover the significance of the continuing priesthood of Christ is to discover the Gospel in a manner that stands to transform every facet of our lives and, indeed, of our worship.

According to Torrance, we go astray with the priesthood of all believers when we think it means that we alone are responsible for our spiritual lives, mediating our own access to the Father. That’s a mistake. The priesthood of all believers emphasizes that we need no mediator other than Christ. He is the one who intercedes for us, accepting our faulty and broken attempts at worship, and presenting them to the Father as acceptable sacrifices. We are sub-priests at best, our acts of worship empowered by the Spirit and mediated by our High Priest, Jesus Christ.

When you just can’t pray, all is not lost. We have one who prays for us, kneeling by our side, interceding with the Father, saying what we can’t.

The theme of the Los Angeles Theology Conference 2013 was “Christology, Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Theology,” and it featured papers from people like George Hunsinger (Princeton), Oliver Crisp (Fuller), and Peter Leithart (New Saint Andrews College), along with a number of excellent breakout sessions. The papers from the conference will be published by Zondervan in a book that should be available for pre-order from Amazon in March. So keep an eye out for that.

LATC 2013 was terrific. So, if you have the opportunity to attend next year’s conference on the Trinity, please do. You’ll thank me later.




  1. Kelly says

    Thanks for the post. I like the idea of a balanced approach. If focus too much on one characteristic we have an unbalanced view. We need to look more to his priestly side as part of that balance. I have been off balance in that. Thanks for the reminder…

  2. margie sanford says

    The Lord has used your blog today to reach my heart. Good theology is practical. I’ve been struggling to know how to pray about my circumstances. This has been a great comfort. Thank you.

  3. Rachel L. says

    I do struggle with prayer sometimes and this post has definitely made me think. I am reminded that it is not just me praying, but Christ interceding for me. Thank you for your post.


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