How to Pray in the Storm
Reaching out to God in turbulent times
What do you do when you’re suddenly in the path of a tornado?
I found out on June 29, 1998, as I huddled in the darkness of the basement, our house shuddering from the force of the wind as it cut a swath through the northern Des Moines metro area. In only minutes, the sky went from a serene blue to an angry charcoal. Rain, whipped by nearly 100-mile-an-hour winds, plastered shredded leaves to the sides of our house and poured through an open window. Broken glass sliced through my office as the window casement was wrenched away. Trees snapped off 15 feet above the ground or were torn out by their roots. My neighbor’s camper landed upside down in someone else’s backyard. Shingles sailed by like flocks of Frisbees.
As the thunder and lightning escalated, the power went out, and the entire house began to tremble. Sirens started to blare. I headed for the basement, and a scene from the movie Twister flashed through my mind—the scene where a man is ripped out of a storm shelter and sucked into the mouth of the monster wind.
What do you do when your house may be leveled by a storm, when you might die? You pray. And not a neat, textbook prayer. You pray in desperation and beg God to spare you and your family. You plead with Him to preserve your house and stay the force of the storm. You cry, “Have mercy! Have mercy!”
When Storms Threaten
Storms swirl into our lives in many forms: a doctor’s grim diagnosis, a financial disaster, a slick road on a dark street, a teenager’s tragic choice. Storms bring us to our knees, cowering in the dark basement of our fears. And so we pray.
When the tornado struck, I had been studying 2 Chronicles 20. Now my Bible falls open to that chapter, the pages permanently wrinkled from the ferocious rain that streamed into my office that day. I realized I had a lot in common with King Jehoshaphat and the nation of Judah. They, too, were standing in the path of a storm.
An angry alliance of Judah’s enemies was marching inexorably toward Jerusalem, determined to destroy the nation. The word came to Jehoshaphat: “A vast army is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Sea” (v. 2). The enemy horde was already on the west side of the Jordan, only 40 miles from Jerusalem!
Significantly, Jehoshaphat didn’t spend any time consulting with his generals. He knew that Judah had no military defense against such a foe. No, “Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast” (v. 3).
God’s response to Jehoshaphat’s desperate prayer was gracious and powerful. Looking at desperate times through the lens of the king’s example, I began to discover some principles of prayer for the storms that lie ahead.
Measure the storm by the character and promises of God.
Jehoshaphat brought his people together in grave recognition of the nation’s peril. But then he led them to focus on Almighty God, claiming His power and promises.
First, he focused on God’s attributes.
O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you.
When we gauge the fury of the storm by the power of Almighty God, the storm is absolutely dwarfed!
Next, Jehoshaphat reminded God of His promises to His people.
O our God, did you not drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend? They have lived in it and have built in it a sanctuary for your Name, saying, “If calamity comes upon us, whether the sword of judgment, or plague or famine, we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us and save us.
Jehoshaphat echoed the words of King Solomon, who prayed to dedicate the temple a century before. The night after that ceremony, the Lord appeared to Solomon and made a promise that His people have been claiming ever since. It must have been on Jehoshaphat’s heart in the middle of the storm:
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
—2 Chron. 7:14
Centering our thoughts and emotions in the Scriptures will help us pray through the storm. For years, I have printed four-by-six-inch cards with passages about God’s wisdom, sovereignty, mercy, faithfulness, and goodness. His Word, hid in my heart, helps me ride out storms in confidence.
Our son Zach joined the army (right before the tornado) to finance his college education. At the time, the world seemed to be at peace. But in the months since, the U.S. military has been embroiled in one regional crisis after another.
At times I am overwhelmed with fear for my son. Often, the Lord brings Psalm 91 to my mind, a song of God’s protection. The familiar words quiet my heart: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. . . . For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (vv. 1, 11).
Then I am able to pray through the psalm, personalizing it for Zach, and once again entrusting my son to my faithful heavenly Father.
Demonstrate helpless dependence on God.
Judah’s assembly was an eloquent testimony to their dependence upon the Lord. Whole families stood together, babies in arms, praying and fasting (v. 13). They knew God was their only hope. If He didn’t intervene, they would be destroyed.
Jehoshaphat ended his prayer with this humble statement: “We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (v. 12).
The storm forces us to this place of dependence, confessing that nothing else has the slightest chance of saving us—not our possessions or our connections, not our personalities or our education. Not our religion or our luck. Letting God know we know that He is our first, last, and only option is a good thing.
While it is true that we can pray from any position, our posture can mirror the attitude of our hearts. Sometimes I feel the need to pray flat on my face. Other times I stand with hands raised to heaven. Similarly, when we say no to food or to sleep for a time, we remind ourselves—and God—that we are counting on Him and Him alone.
Corporate prayer, fasting, and confession allow us to say, while the storm rages around us, that our hope is in You, Lord. Only You.
Wait for God to communicate.
When Jehoshaphat finished his prayer, there was nothing more to say. While the enemy army drew nearer, “all the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the Lord” (v.13). They simply waited.
And God spoke through a man named Jahaziel (v. 14).
The Lord’s communiqué matched their situation perfectly. They were fearful, so He comforted them.
Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s… Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you.
—vv. 15, 17
They didn’t know what to do, so He gave them explicit instructions.
Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem.
Prayer was never intended to be a monologue. Learning to practice “listening prayer” has transformed the lives of many of God’s children and prepared them for gathering storms ahead.
So how does God speak? Well, certainly through His Word. He might communicate through the counsel of a friend or through circumstances. Sometimes He even speaks to us through dreams. He might also bring impressions to a yielded mind. For years I have depended upon semi-annual prayer retreats, where I withdraw for a day or two to pray and to listen.
The night after the tornado, the Lord communicated with my wife, Dionne. While we were thankful that God had preserved our lives and home, we were still very discouraged. We had been trying to sell our home for months, and one disaster after another had prevented it.
In the aftermath of the storm, our property looked as if it had been shelled. A dozen of our huge trees were shattered, the remains littering every part of our acre lot and crushing our neighbor’s fence. Our roof was damaged, and the back wall of our garage hung by a few nails. Who would want to buy our house now? We went to bed very depressed.
That night Dionne could not sleep. She got up, grabbed a Bible, and headed for the living room. Desperate for a word from God, she prayed for God to speak.
The Lord led her to Is. 43:1–3:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
The next night, 24 hours after the tornado, we sold our house!
Respond with courageous obedience.
Obedience may not always require courage, but in this case it did.
“Early in the morning they left for the Desert of Tekoa” (v. 20).
Only hours before, the Israelites had been paralyzed with fear. Now, in obedience to the Lord, they rose early to meet an army bent on their destruction. But rather than lead with their best soldiers, “Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness” (v.21). They marched forward, praising God with triumphant words from Psalm 136: “Give thanks to the Lord… His love endures forever.”
Did you ever think of worship as an act of courage? In my first year of seminary, a student was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. One of our professors broke the news to us, and before he led in prayer, he said, “In times like this, I don’t know what to do but worship.”
Worship takes courage because it is the ultimate expression of trust. When you stand in the path of the storm, when circumstances are close to destroying you, when you look around and see nothing but chaos, to worship is to say, “My God is bigger than this. I trust Him and His promises more than my eyesight, more than my perception of reality.”
So we worshiped and prayed. Weeks later, we rejoiced that God had chosen to heal our friend.
The summer of our Iowa tornado, Paul and Jule Becker were in the middle of their own storm. Jule was fighting a battle with cancer that had lasted, to that point, seven long years.
As I prayed for Jule with a friend, we sensed God was leading us to organize an intense time of prayer and fasting for her. Her team of intercessors already numbered in the hundreds. In obedience to God’s leading, people all over the world determined to fast and pray, worship and wait. God preserved Jule’s life for another year. But in the end, with great grace and dignity, Jule went to be with Him.
The howl of the wind and the crash of the thunder may threaten to dislodge us from the habits of obedience we normally practice: worship, witness, stewardship. To keep our footing will take courage—the courage to obey even in the darkest hour of the storm.
Expect God’s best.
The Lord exploited the diverse factions of this conglomerate army. Some believe He also intervened with angelic warriors.
As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men . . . who were invading Judah, and they were defeated. The men of Ammon and Moab rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another.
The invaders were routed. The voluminous provisions they brought became an abundant overflow of God’s blessing. “There was so much plunder that it took three days to collect it” (v. 25).
And it all happened without a single weapon being raised in Judah! God’s people prayed a desperate prayer, and He delivered them through the storm.
Sometimes God’s best is victory over the enemy. For Jule, God’s best was not physical healing but homegoing. Either way, God carries us through the storm, connected to His love and buoyed by His faithfulness.
When my wife was a little girl, her parents were missionaries to Jordan. Violence permeated that part of the world then, just as it does today.
One frightening day the political climate turned stormier than usual, and a mob of angry men swirled together. They stood shoulder to shoulder, many men deep, locked arms, and began to march with murderous resolution toward the mission compound where Dionne’s family lived.
The compound was walled on all four sides, but that day the gate was open, and Dionne and her younger brother were playing in the courtyard.
As the mob came nearer, the children were hustled back onto the porch. The family watched in horror as the men marched in rank through the open gate, across the courtyard, and directly toward the front door.
Just as the first group of men reached the front step of the porch, Dionne remembers a dazed look coming over their faces. Suddenly the lead men veered left, marched to the side wall, and clambered to the street. All the men behind followed suit, scrambling over the wall like a stream of fire ants.
Weeks later they received a letter from my wife’s grandmother in Chicago. The Lord had awakened her in the middle of the night and told her to pray for her family in Jordan. Gripped by a sense of imminent danger, she dropped to her knees in earnest intercession. Finally the burden lifted. She was writing to discover what crisis the family might have faced.
The date and time of her prayer matched precisely the date and time of the threatening mob and their sudden detour away from the family.
There are storms coming—that much is certain. Christians have no special immunity from the fury of the tornado. But whether the storm passes us by or visits us with crushing force, prayer is our refuge under the darkening sky. In desperate times, prayer connects us to the God of the storm. The same Jesus who brought peace to a boatload of terrified disciples still reigns today. And the wind and the waves still do His bidding.