when our prayers don’t add up

Written by Susan Stilwell

Susan Stilwell is a wife to Steve, mom to Scott and Sarah. After that, she writes, teaches, blogs and speaks. If you want to see her get really excited, ask her about her travels to Israel! One of Susan’s favorite things to do is to chat over coffee. And don’t forget your smartphone and laptop — this former programmer is full of helpful hints! You can connect with Susan on her websiteTwitter, or Facebook.

July 27, 2013

prayers, add up, math

“The words started out comforting enough,” Cheryl told me. “My friend told me how sorry she was that I’d lost my job. But then she proceeded to tell me that I must be praying wrong. And that if I was praying in faith and trusting God to provide for us, I’d have a job by now.”

I sipped my coffee and tried to hide my shock and frustration. I wanted to believe the best about this other friend, hoping she meant to encourage Cheryl. To be perfectly honest, I also wanted to chew her out for being insensitive.

“Sometimes I wonder if God has forgotten about us,” Cheryl sighed.

Losing her job was hard and the long wait made it even harder. Now Cheryl wondered if she’d brought it upon herself because of a lack of trust. Or worse, for praying wrong. Like there’s a prayer formula—some sanctified combination of words—that gets God’s attention and propels Him into action.

We all wonder that from time to time, especially if we’ve been praying about something for a long time. Of course, there’s no such prayer formula, but I sometimes pray in a formulaic fashion. When I have a need, I figure out a way to meet that need, and then I frame my prayers according to my solution. It looks something like:

My Need + My Answer = What I ask God to do.

The only problem with my prayer math is that it’s mine, not God’s. I’ve simplified my situation down to a first grade addition problem with an easy solution. God’s math, however, is more like a college-level quadratic equation with a dozen variables.

I looked across the table at Cheryl, her cheeks flushed as she tried to make sense of her situation. She’d been praying for a job because she needed the income to provide for her family. As I thought about their tight financial situation, it hit me:

God hadn’t answered her prayer for a job yet, but He had taken care of her underlying need: provision for her family.

“Cheryl, I’m no expert on prayer but I don’t think you’ve been praying wrong. And we both know God hasn’t forgotten you. Yes, things are tough, but can you think of some of the ways God has provided for you the past few months. Even one or two little things?”

It took a little time, but slowly she began to see some of the ways God had blessed her family. A neighbor dropped off a box of clothes her children had outgrown. They had been relatively healthy, so there weren’t unexpected medical bills. Cheryl had learned how to “coupon” and was teaching her kids to hunt for bargains.

As Cheryl realized her prayers hadn’t fallen on deaf ears, her countenance lifted. She may not have had a paycheck, but she saw how God’s provision extended beyond their checkbook.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. Romans 8:26 NLT

We agreed that a job would definitely help, and we’re still praying for the right job at the right time. But we also agreed that God is always working, even when we can’t find the words.


  1. Patricia W Hunter

    Fabulous post, Susan. Several years ago, after I’d been diagnosed with RA, a friend suggested that I might have unconfessed sin because that was the root cause of auto-immune diseases. That really stung. It wasn’t the encouragement I was looking for and actually made me fearful of telling anyone else about my diagnosis, but I eventually realized that though she was way off base in her assessment, she had my best interest at heart.

    Oh, to know that the Holy Spirit prays for us when we are without words. If the only prayer I can find words for is the LORD’s prayer, then Jesus tells me that is more than enough.

    • Susan Rinehart Stilwell

      Wow, Patricia. I’m so sorry you had to process such hurtful words. And I totally understand how it would make you hesitant to share your struggle. But you’re so right — the Holy Spirit can do a mighty work in us, even when we don’t know what to do with ourselves!

  2. Diane Bailey

    Susan, This is a wonderful testimony. You are such a great friend to Cheryl and to so many. True friends are difficult to find, and when we find one we stay through thick and thin. You know I’m crazy about you, my friend!

    Great post!

  3. Cathy Baker

    Great post, Susan. Your wisdom always sink deeply into this soul.

    Thank you for introducing me to this site!


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when our prayers don’t add up

by Susan Stilwell time to read: 3 min