The Nobility of Barren Prayer
by Dana Candler
Artists and Authors
Adapted from the book Deep Unto Deep by Dana Candler
“Sing O barren, you who have not borne! Break forth into singing, and cry aloud, you who have not labored with child! For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 54:1)
We have been invited to know and to experience the depths of joyful communion with Jesus in prayer and to discover the beauty of Jesus and the deep things of God by His Spirit (Jn. 14:23, 17:26; 1 Cor. 2:10). As we position ourselves to know this fellowship with God, seeking Him in devotion and prayer, one of the very hardest and most common things that we encounter are the times of dryness and emptiness we experience.
When we come before Him, we hope for encounters of delight and exhilaration, yet instead we find ourselves watching the clock for when the hour will be through. Instead of tears, we feel barrenness. We sit in our rooms or in our place of prayer, and we wait. We read the Word, saying it back to Him in prayer. We pace. We sing. We watch. We lift our voice. We lift our hearts. And we feel nothing. We see nothing. According to all natural conclusions, nothing seems to be happening. The aridity we experience in these times of prayer is enough to greatly discourage and even keep us from pursuing Jesus wholeheartedly, unless we understand what is transpiring in His heart as we lift our voice and set our gaze upon Him. We have to know just what He feels in these seemingly barren days.
In our weak devotion, the Lord is so moved by us. Our small choices of voluntary love—as we seek Him in prayer and hunger after Him with thirst to know Him—delight His heart. He says, “O my dove, . . . let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (Song 2:14).
Though we might conclude nothing is happening, the perspective of these prayers from the Eternal Eyes is that they matter. Oh, how they matter! They hold inestimable worth as we make our way up the mountain of the knowledge of God. These seemingly meaningless days are the pages that fill the book of our relational history with Jesus. Though we consider them too ordinary, or even empty, there is nothing ordinary or futile about drawing near to God. He is the God who hears prayer and draws near to all who call on Him (Ps. 145:18; Jas. 4:8). He has designed our pursuit of knowing Him to not only include times rich with experience and emotion but also all the times of emotionless dryness and stillness. They, too, are part of the journey. These times feel barren to us, but they are not. They are far from fruitless to the Ancient of Days, and He does not forget or disregard one moment of their composition. Soon we shall reap a harvest— for if we sow to the Spirit, surely we will reap of the Spirit (Gal. 6:8).
The Lord does not despise our weakness as we so often imagine. He is not caught off-guard by our frailty. Conversely, as the Bridegroom and the Shepherd of our souls, He loves and enjoys the process of our finding our strength in Him and learning to lean into Him. It is in our weakness that His strength is made perfect, and it is out of weakness—completely dependent upon Him—that we are made strong (2 Cor. 12:9; Heb. 11:34).
In the times that feel barren as we seek the Lord’s face—setting aside our busyness and distractions and pursuing Him wholeheartedly—the grace that God wants to impart to our hearts is the eyes of faith to believe in the power of these exchanges with God, even when it feels so futile (Heb. 11:6). He wants us to lay hold of the confidence that He calls these feeble reaches powerful and that, with His matchless wisdom and grace, He will bring forth fruit from what we esteemed too weak to matter.
The Lord invites the one who is barren—the one who has not yet known what it is to bear fruit and reap the harvest of labor—to lift her voice and sing (Isa. 54:1). He reveals how deeply He values this song, though it arises from the midst of emptiness. Prayers lifted to the Lord and songs sung to Him from our place of dryness are desired by Him. He is not waiting for us to bear fruit and experience what we would call “victory” in prayer before we lift our voice. He calls it a victory when we willingly lift our voice to Him in love from the wilderness of our barrenness.
The Wisdom of the Waiting
So often in these times of barren prayer, the accusation that arises is that we are doing it wrong. We conclude that if we were doing it right, He would come and we would experience more of God. The dry emptiness confirms to us that we must have somehow missed it. We feel the sting of rejection when we compare ourselves to others and draw false conclusions that God is meeting everyone else but not us. We wonder what we are doing wrong. Should we change what we are praying or the passage we are reading in the Word? We consider that perhaps our method of prayer is wrong or that we should find a new approach. Maybe then He will draw near to us with His presence?
Again, to our vulnerable and prone-to-rejection hearts, the Lord wants to impart courage and perseverance to continue in the process of pressing and reaching for Him, confident that He hears, He is moved, and He will answer.
Not only are things happening in His heart as we lift our voice in prayer, but things are happening in our own hearts—more than we realize. These cries offered to the Lord are shifting our deepest affections, and incrementally winning our passion over to Jesus.
In my own journey, I recall the fight to believe devotion to God in prayer was wisdom.
I remember being lonely, driving aimlessly down roads that were not yet home, soon after turning eighteen—after I’d hugged my parents goodbye and braved the new horizon of on-my-own. As I drove down unfamiliar roads, with tears rolling down my cheeks—a mixture of longing for God and missing the comfort and safety of home and family—I would pray over and over:
Cause this heart to love You.
Cause this heart to love You.
Cause this heart to love You.
At the time, I had no idea the value of those years and prayers and how they were setting the trajectory of my entire life.
Over twenty years later, I remember that young girl, vulnerable and desperate, praying her heart would find its passions all centered and burning in the one Treasure: the person Jesus, Himself (Matt. 6:21). Tears often well and spill relentless as I feel and know the burning of affection within that familiar flame of deep and tender fellowship and love for Jesus. What were once only dry and arid prayers—what felt like digging a well and never striking water—are now a flowing exchange of joy and communion with the Lord. In these times I pray:
You really did it. You answered the feeble prayers of a scared, young heart with the nod of Your own agreement—answering me with the very desire of Your heart: that I would know and love You. You gave me the gift of hunger and then gave me the grace to embrace that ache and persevere in seeking Your face. You’ve caused my heart to not only love You but know You, to yearn for and be fully satisfied in You.
Though the depths of His love and the vastness of His beauty assure me I have still only begun in this glorious pursuit of knowing Jesus, I know He answers when we cry out to Him, asking to direct our passions toward Him (Prov. 3:5–6; 2 Thes. 3:5). I know He rewards those who diligently seek Him (Heb. 11:6). I know He takes the driest prayers and dignifies them with answers so beyond what we could ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
Had I known in those early years what I know now, I would have pressed in all the more, compelled by wonder at the paradox that such arid prayers to God could matter so much. I would marvel at how God answers our seemingly empty and ordinary seeking of Him with the glorious discovery of His beauty and with the sweetest things available to the human spirit in communion with Himself (Jn. 14:23; 17:26; Eph. 3:16–19).
I have seen the nobility of prayer, though seemingly barren at times. The Lord takes our prayers to know and love Him seriously. Even more amazing, He takes them personally. He is the God who hears and answers the prayers of those who wait upon Him. Even when our prayers feel empty and barren, He is on the other side of them with a heart that is moved and a readiness to reward those who diligently seek Him (Heb. 11:6).
When was a time you felt nothing in prayer but saw God move?
For more from Dana Candler, we recommend Deep Unto Deep, which has been newly revised and updated. It’s available at the Forerunner Bookstore.