How to Pray When You’re Overwhelmed

Three Heart Attitudes God Desires in Our Prayers

I almost drowned once. It was at a friend’s birthday party, of all places. I think I was six. Thankfully, I was rescued, but I still remember that sense of helplessness as I was engulfed in the water and knew I couldn’t swim.

(Days later, I remember telling my sister, “I should have just gone down to the bottom and walked back to the shallow end of the pool.” Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy when you’re drowning.)

Do you know what it feels like to drown?

I’m guessing you do. Maybe you didn’t slip into the deep end of a pool, but you’re over your head in responsibilities. In grief. In fear. In need.

How do you even pray then?

One of the reasons I love the book of Psalms is the transparency of the psalmists—not necessarily to their friends, but to God. They were not afraid to bring their raw emotions to the Lord in prayer.

And what’s more is that they give us words to not only voice our emotions to God, but to cycle our emotions from where we are—the reality of how we feel—to where we need to be—the reality of who God is and the difference that makes in our present need.

Take Psalm 61, for example. The psalmist—in this case, David—was overwhelmed.

In terms of descriptiveness, overwhelmed is one of my favorite words. In one word, it captures the sense of helplessness and desperation that accompanies the realization that you are in over your head.

In terms of experience, however, overwhelmed is one of my least favorite words. There are few emotions more paralyzing or more terrifying.

How do we pray when we’re overwhelmed? Psalm 61 gives words to our need:

From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.—Psalm 61:2

The rock that is higher than I. Isn’t that what you dream of when you are drowning? Safety. Refuge. Something solid. Somewhere above the waves.

To pray these words requires three attitudes of the heart:

Pray with submission: Lead me…

Lord, my way isn’t working. Lead me. However, whenever, wherever, in whatever way and by whatever means You choose.

Pray with faith: …to the rock

Lord, I’m sinking, but there is a rock higher than I. You are the Rock. I believe that You are here, that You care to rescue me, and that You are enough.

Pray with humility: that is higher than I.

Lord, I can’t make it on my own. I can’t pull myself up to the rock. And I don’t have to. I ask you to lead me up—to the rock, to Yourself.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always pray this way when I’m overwhelmed. Usually, I thrash for a while first. I try harder—either to swim where I’m at or make it to shore. I grasp for lower, slippery rocks of safety or comfort.

But when I surrender in humble trust, I find God’s everlasting arms underneath lifting my spirit out of what I was sure would be my watery grave and setting my feet on a solid rock. (Sometimes I even think He says what the lifeguard years ago said when she recued me, “She’s so cute.” For like my rescue to the lifeguard, our rescue is quite simple for God, and He delights in doing it.)

I don’t know how deep you’re in today. Or how far above you safety feels.

But I do know that God is our Rock. That He hears the cries of His own. That He responds to a submissive, humble, faith-filled prayer.

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.

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