Helpless? That’s Great!

Anyone can recommend a new book; I love to point out an old one you would enjoy reading.

These days, with the internet and the abundance of on-line sources for used books ( is my favorite), a book published a half-century ago is as easy to purchase as one just off the press, and at a fraction of the cost.

Thirty years ago, while browsing the Lifeway Christian Store (then called “Baptist Book Store”) in Jackson, Mississippi, I came across a stack of books on prayer written AND AUTOGRAPHED by Catherine Marshall. “Adventures in Prayer” listed for $2.95, if you can believe that. I bought the entire stack of a dozen or so.

My plan was to use them in pastoral counseling, and that’s what I did, for a while. The problem is, once people saw how wonderful were Mrs. Marshall’s insights–and then realized they held in their hands an autographed copy of her book–they conveniently forgot to return it. So, my plan to keep circulating those books to many readers gradually fell prey to human frailties.

The book is hardbound and short, less than 100 pages. Chapters have headings like: “The prayer that helps your dreams come true,” “The waiting prayer,” and “The prayer of relinquishment.”

My favorite, however–the section which has pulled me back to this book again and again over the years, the insights that drove me to the internet to purchase a used copy last week–is the second chapter, which Catherine Marshall calls “The prayer of helplessness.”

Reading about the numerous suicides on a certain bridge in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Marshall writes, “Each person must have felt helpless. And I have thought, ‘If I could speak with such persons at the zero hour, I would try to stop them with the thought that helplessness is one of the greatest assets a human being can have.'”

She continues, “For I believe the old cliche’, ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ is not only misleading but often dead wrong. My most spectacular answers to prayer have come when I was so helpless, so out of control as to be able to do nothing at all for myself.”

“The Psalmist says: ‘When I was hemmed in, thou has freed me often.’ Gradually I have learned to recognize this hemming-in as one of God’s most loving devices for teaching us that He is real and gloriously adequate for our problems.”

After sharing a couple of illustrations from her personal experience, Mrs. Marshall asks, “Why would God insist on helplessness as a prerequisite to answered prayer? One obvious reason is because our human helplessness is bedrock fact. God is a realist and insists that we be realists too. So long as we are deluding ourselves that human resources can supply our heart’s desires, we are believing a lie. And it is impossible for prayers to be answered out of a foundation of self-deception and untruth.”

Here’s a story on “the prayer of helplessness” from early in my pastoral ministry…

The manager of the TG&Y store called our church office. Jim Sowerby had an employee named Dorothy who was in a bad way and he thought the pastor might be able to help. He gave us the break room in the back of the store and I listened to Dorothy pour out her story.

Two years previously, Dorothy was divorced from her husband due to his drinking problem. She and her two children were living with her mother and step-father, both alcoholics and close to losing their home. “I have no idea where we will go,” she told me. Foreclosure was scheduled in three weeks.

I told Dorothy I did not know the answer either, but I knew who did. We prayed together and Dorothy committed her life to Jesus Christ. She and the children began coming to our church and she was baptized. I chatted with her periodically about the situation, but nothing was opening up. We kept praying.

The morning of the foreclosure arrived. I told Margaret, “Get ready. We may be having Dorothy and her children moving in with us by nightfall.”

When I walked into the church office that morning, the secretary handed me a note to call Dorothy. “Oh my,” I said to myself. “I don’t know what to tell her. I have no answer for her.”

“Pastor,” an excited Dorothy said, “you’ll not believe what happened. Last night, my husband called me. He’s gotten saved and quit drinking and has re-enlisted in the army. We’re going to get married again. I’m leaving on the bus this afternoon.”

I was stunned. I’d had answers to prayers before, but nothing this dramatic and nothing this last-minute. God was teaching this young pastor–I was 28 at the time–that all those things we’d been saying about the sufficiency of the Lord and the trustworthiness of His word were true.

Catherine Marshall gives us her own prayer of helplessness:

“Lord, I have been so defeated by circumstances. I have felt like an animal trapped in a corner with nowhere to flee. Where are You in all this, Lord? The night is dark. I cannot feel Your presence.

“Help me to know that the darkness is really ‘shade of your hand, outstretched caressingly;’ that the ‘hemming in’ is Your doing. Perhaps there was no other way You could get my full attention, no other way I would allow You to demonstrate what You can do in my life.

“I see now that the emptier my cup is, the more space there is to receive your love and supply. Lord, I hand to You this situation: __________________, asking You to fill it from Your bountiful reservoirs in Your own time and Your own way.

“How I thank You, Father in heaven, that Your riches are available to me, not on the basis of my deserving, but of Jesus and His worthiness. Therefore, in the strength of His name, I pray. Amen.”

A scripture…

Jehoshaphat prayed, “We do not know what to do, Lord. But our eyes are on Thee.” (II Chronicles 20:12)

That’s the idea.

10 thoughts on “Helpless? That’s Great!

  1. Brother Joe, I thought about this very feeling when you were speaking in Long Beach about “not knowing what to ask God for.” I learned the hard way that – at least for me – it turned out best that I just turn everything over to Him, because He certainly knows what’s best for me better than I do. I always thought I knew what the solution to the problem was, and that’s what I prayed for…but none of them ever worked. Then in desperation I told God, “I’ve tried everything…and now I must turn it all over to You.” And things almost took an immediate turn for the better. How much time and pain I would have saved myself if I had just done that from the very beginning. Thank you for all you do, Brother Joe, for so many.


  2. Helplessness is our reality in Christ.I wonder about how to do His work on our church or my family. Time and again I feel the pressure of plans, programs and other human fixes for Spritual issues. Just like JV posted it’s the point of whole hearted submission when relief comes. Helplessness is the place where true Trust can be unchained from worry and anxiety and allowed to blossom the glorious thing that it is.

    “Oh for Grace to Trust Him more”

    Now if I can just find a copy of “Adventures in Prayer”.

  3. Note to Kellie – Copies of “Adventures in Prayer” are available at the website mentioned by Brother Joe in his newsletter above. I ordered a copy myself.


  4. I found the book at our local library and started reading it yesterday and I can already highly recommend it. Wow, it really hits the nail on the head in so many areas for me.

    I even got a specific word from God for my life from it, so I would certainly say thanks for the recommendation Bro. Joe.






  6. I am in a helpless state today. This was a great reminder. The ‘darkness’ being the shade of protection from the Father’s Hand is a wonderful comfort to me this day.

    I covet your prayers and those of any readers.

    The MRI is at 8a.m. The blood work was Friday. The bone scan is Wed.

    The fear is not from God….I keep reminding myself.

    I’ve been down a similar road before. I truly relate to Jesus’ garden prayer…’Lord, if it be Thy will, let this cup pass from me’…knowing what is ahead.

    Thanks for the good word.


  7. These comments on the ‘helpless’ condition remind me of one of my favorite verses from ‘The Message’ where Rev. Peterson interprets one of the Beatitudes as “You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope, because when you are there, there is less of you and more of God.”

  8. Hi, Joe. Just a note to inform you about Jim Sowerby that you mentioned. He and Marlene moved to Florida, and separated to my shock and dismay, but Marlene died shortly after that time. The last time I heard from Jim, he was living with his son on the East coast, but it has been several months since I have heard from him. He and his family would appreciate our prayers for them. Thanks for reminding me of old friends. Hugh Martin.

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