A few years ago, I met a pastor who prayed from his heart. His prayers exuded the deep understanding and compassion of Jesus. To be prayed for by him was to enter the presence of Jesus Himself and experience His love.
But, this pastor told me, he had not always prayed or ministered that way. For years, his ministry focus was on preaching and teaching. He spent hours studying the Bible, reading books on leadership, and strategizing church growth. He kept his mental faculties strong—but almost completely neglected his heart. That is, until one memorable worship service when he stood before his congregation and had a nervous breakdown.
In retrospect, the pastor told me that the breakdown was one of the best things that had ever happened to him. God used that painful experience to help him attend to his heart and allow Him to heal the hidden brokenness and pain. And, when he returned to his congregation months later, he was a new man. No longer just a preacher and teacher, he was truly a pastor, a shepherd—one who could reach the hearts of his people and not just their heads.
Since that time I have met quite a few ministers who struggle with a similar heart-head disconnect.1 They come to the prayer retreats I lead because they know they have neglected their hearts. They know that the neglect hinders their ability to relate to God intimately. And they start realizing that this private neglect is hampering their public ministry.
“I struggle to relate to God intimately myself,” one of these pastors recently confided to me. “So how can I lead my people into an intimate prayer conversation with God?”
I empathize with these ministers. I can understand why some of them hold their hearts at arm’s length. Until God did some major work on my heart, I did not appreciate or take care of my emotions very much either.
Just the facts, ma’am
By personality, I am an analytical, thinker type. My first professional job was as a reporter for a daily newspaper. “Just the facts, ma’am,” was my motto, while anything touchy-feely perturbed me.
My background is German English—a heritage notorious for reserve and infrequent displays of tender emotions. As I was growing up, I remember seeing my mother cry only one time and my dad only twice. By the time I was a teen, I never cried either.
In my view, that was a good thing. To be honest, I was pretty proud of the fact that I lived in my head. Living life mentally felt safe, while allowing for emotions, on the other hand, seemed downright risky.
God’s first challenge
But God challenged me on that in two specific ways. The first challenge was Frank. Frank was an exuberant worshiper and lay elder in my church. One time he preached from Mark 12:30: “ ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” ’ ”2 He talked about how loving God with just one part of our being was incomplete love; God desires to be loved by every part of us.
I cornered Frank afterward. “I’m not an emotional person,” I protested.
“Doesn’t matter,” Frank said. “It still applies to you.”
The Bible is an emotion-filled book
Frank’s provocative words began a shift in my perspective on emotions. In particular, I started noticing all the emotions expressed in the Bible. To my consternation, I discovered it was full of them! One day I stumbled over Hosea 6:4, and there I found God sounding exactly like a frustrated, wounded dad: “ ‘What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.’ ” I studied further and discovered that when we turn away from God, His heart is “filled with pain” (Gen. 6:6) and He gets jealous and angry (Deut. 32:16); but when we turn back to Him, He feels delight and rejoices over us with singing (Zeph. 3:17). Among the many examples the Holy Spirit led me to, several stand out.
In Joel, I read, “ ‘Even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (2:12, 13).
I noticed God saying almost plaintively to Jonah: “ ‘But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?’ ” (Jon. 4:11, NLT).
I even saw Jesus being emotional: “ ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!’ ” (Luke 13:34).
Frank’s challenge and my new way of looking at Scripture set me on a journey that I am still walking on. I could no longer be content to live in my head alone. I had to learn how to engage my heart as well.
Changes in how I pray
As you can probably imagine, this journey has had ramifications in nearly every aspect of my life—how I work, relate, and minister and, soon, I was to realize, it would also change my way of praying.
For years, I had prayed primarily from my head. Prayer usually went something like this: I would learn about a situation and analyze the needs, concerns, and problems associated with this situation. Then I would size it up from my perspective: What did I think needed to happen in order to fix this problem? What was the logical, biblical solution to this situation? And then I would ask God to do that.
For example, when I volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center, I prayed for funding to help unwed mothers and for laws that would support life.
In the various churches and Christian ministries I worked in, I would pray for clear communication of God’s Word and ways, for more laborers, for budgets to be met, and decisions to be made wisely. For our government, I would pray that corruption and abuses of power would be exposed and dealt with. If a friend’s marriage was in crisis, I would pray that each partner would recognize where he or she had been selfish or inconsiderate (or unfaithful or whatever) and that he or she would repent and treat his or her spouse the way God intended.
My approach to pain, difficulty, and sin was to find a corresponding truth and pray for that. This included the way I prayed for myself. I would sum up my personal situation—what I needed to do, believe, or be—then ask God to help me discipline myself to live in that truth so I would, in fact, do, believe, and be what was right.
Occasionally, I wonder about those prayers I prayed. Were they effective? Well, sometimes sin actually was exposed and dealt with; sometimes good laws were passed and funding did come in; often God’s Word was preached and occasionally people responded, and sometimes I did experience spiritual growth. So in that sense, yes, my prayers were effective. But as I started pondering the heart-mind connection, I wondered if there could be more to it than that.
God’s second challenge
A few years after Frank’s message, I received another challenge to my head-only way of living and praying. My husband received a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis that resulted in 11 years of debilitating illness and his death at the age of 46.
During that season of relentless pain, struggle, and loss, my heart became overwhelmed. I hated feeling—but I could not help it. Feelings showed up uninvited.
Well-meaning people offered all kinds of answers—spiritual prescriptions, advice, explanations, and fixes. But mental understandings alone did not cut it for me anymore. Answers, even logical, biblical ones, were not enough. Just believing the right things and making the right choices would not get me through this crisis. Perhaps for the first time in my life, my feelings were more than I could manage in any kind of sustained way. Though I desperately tried to deny, stuff, or ignore the feelings, I could not do it. I finally had to admit to both God and friends that I felt—and I felt bad. I was scared, discouraged, frustrated, and lonely. And I did not like it!
However, when I did allow myself to feel and even admit those feelings to God and others, something surprising happened. Whereas before I had persevered through each day in a mechanical way, now I was feeling. Sure, a lot of it was painful, frightening, and hard but, to my amazement, I also began to feel warm and tender feelings. When I had tried to shut myself off from pain and other negative emotions, I also had cut myself off from positive emotions, such as compassion, understanding, and mercy. Gradually, as I opened up my heart to God and people, I was actually able to feel His love and care. This was a new thing—and it was very, very good.
Some people, who knew how to pray from their hearts, would pray to God for His mercy for me. They asked God to care for my heart and give me hope; they asked Him to help me feel His love and compassion for me and His understanding of what I was experiencing. This abundance of prayers actually did give me hope and helped me press into God with my heart and not just my head. And for me, this was an entirely new kind of prayer. Experiencing prayer like that made me want to offer it to others. But how? Could a person who had always lived in her head learn how to intercede for others from her heart?
Praying with your heart
This new season sent me back to the Scriptures to see what God had to say about praying with the heart. Here are a few scriptures that stood out to me:3
- “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 4:29).
- “ ‘Now devote your heart and soul to seeking the LORD your God’ ” (1 Chron. 22:19).
- “They entered into a covenant to seek the LORD, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and soul” (2 Chron. 15:12).
- “They said to me [Nehemiah], ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’ When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (Neh. 1:3, 4).
- “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, I will seek” (Ps. 27:8 ).
- “Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart” (Ps. 119:2).
- “ ‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart’ ” (Jer. 29:13).
- Solomon’s prayer: “ ‘And if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you . . . then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause’ ” (1 Kings 8:48, 49).
- Paul: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Rom. 9:2–4; see 10:1).
Differences between heart-and head-praying
So how does praying with our hearts differ from praying simply with our heads? Because we use our minds and hearts differently, the prayers we pray from each will be focused differently.
On the one hand, we use our minds to (1) discern right from wrong, (2) solve problems, (3) make judgments, (4) make decisions, (5) form convictions, (6) make policies, and (7) understand issues. So, when we pray from our minds, we are likely to pray about (1) issues; (2) behaviors; (3) justice; (4) judgment; and (5) principles, morals, and values.
On the other hand, we use our hearts to (1) love, (2) empathize and sympathize, (3) mourn and grieve, (4) relate, (5) show compassion and pity, (6) desire, and (7) dream. So when we pray with our hearts we are likely to pray for (1) people (as opposed to issues, events, and things); (2) heart healing (as opposed to behavior correction); (3) God’s love, grace, and presence to be experienced; (4) hope, peace, comfort, and mercy (as opposed to judgment, trying harder, and “shaping up”); and (5) God to be known as He truly is.
What difference does it make?
With these things in mind, how might I have prayed about crisis pregnancy centers, churches and ministries, government, and marriages? I still might have prayed for exposure of sin and conviction, but I also would have prayed for God to pour His love into the hearts of wounded people; for is not every sinner a wounded person? I might have asked God to heal hearts; to restore broken relationships; to reveal Himself in mercy, grace, and kindness. I might have prayed that the Lord would meet people’s innermost needs for security, significance, and acceptance, and that His kindness would lead to repentance—if, in fact, repentance was what was needed.
Does learning to pray from my heart mean that I no longer pray about wrongs being righted, problems being solved, sins being turned from, and all the other mind-oriented prayers I used to pray? Of course not.
God gave us hearts and minds, and I believe He intends us to use them both. But it seems as if many of us rely more heavily on the head side of praying and miss out on the heart side. I know I did!
Integrating heart and head
Learning to pray with both heart and head might not come naturally to you at first, but the good news is you can learn. And you do not have to go through a nervous breakdown or the death of a spouse to do it. But you will need to give yourself permission to feel. If that is tough for you, ask God, and maybe a safe friend, to help you. God made you in His image, emotions and all, so let Him help you accept this uncomfortable but beautiful gift.
Then, when you grow more comfortable with your feelings, invite God to help you pray with your heart. Here are some simple steps you could try. Think of something you would like to pray about. Now think about how you ordinarily would pray concerning this request. If you are like many head-oriented people, you will probably think of head-type prayers: wisdom for decision making, creativity for a project, success in a medical procedure, or healthy interaction among peers. Now think about how this prayer need affects you (or the people you are concerned about) emotionally. Feelings, such as worry, longing, helplessness, frustration, inadequacy, resentment, and so on, may rise to the surface. For a moment, allow yourself to really feel those emotions. Then consider how God might want to meet you or the people you care about at this heart level.
As you do this, you will begin to see God in a more personal way than you would have otherwise. He is not just a divine Problem Solver but a compassionate Person who wants to comfort your heart, lift your burden, and reveal more of Himself to you. You may recognize the ways He wants to use these situations to deepen His intimacy with you, nurture your trust, and bring peace to your restless heart. You will start to see that He does not merely want to fix problems. He wants to care for your heart and shepherd your soul. God wants to reveal Himself as the Father, Counselor, and Friend that He truly is. If you try these simple steps,
I believe that you will see a marked difference in how you pray—and in time, in how you pray with and minister to others.
Although my heart journey started with wanting to love and engage with God more completely, there have been unexpected side benefits. By permitting myself to acknowledge my pain and allow for a full range of emotions, including hard ones, I have become a safer, more compassionate, more approachable person. In my earlier days, people sometimes described me as “intimidating.” While it was not uncommon for people to seek me for advice, it was unusual for them to share their heartaches with me. But, like the pastor I wrote about in the introduction to this article, getting in touch with my own feelings opened up whole new ways of ministry for me. Before, I could engage intellectually with others; but now I am able to engage at a heart level too.
I am still not what most people would call touchy-feely, and I am certainly not given to emotionalism—but I am a person who has come to deeply appreciate the fact that God has made me in His image—and that includes a heart as well as a head.
1 For a Bible study that explores the importance of the heart in prayer, see Cynthia Hyle Bezek, Prayer Begins With Relationship (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2011), especially lesson 2.
2 All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are from the New International Version.
3 Emphasis added throughout.