When I need to pray the most is usually when my tongue tucks its tail and runs away. I’m left wordless. Rather than a prayer warrior, I feel like a prayer deserter.
It happened when I stood with a young widow beside the open casket of her husband. The church was awash with tears. Hearts lay broken in pieces all about me. Death, in all its fierce ugliness, struts about the room. And I stood there, searching my mind for words to talk to our Father about the pain and loss. Yet those words, so needed, seem to have fallen through an unseen hole in the bottom of my mouth.
It happened last week at work. The wife of one of my customers is strung out on meth, has shacked up with another user, and abandoned her husband and three-year-old daughter. He's trapped in a vortex of love and disgust, hatred and agony. It feels like his heart will explode every time his daughter asks, "Daddy, when's Mommy coming home?" What do I say to God? Where have all the words gone?
What can we do when our friends beg for our prayers, but we don’t know what to say? Maybe we’re so mad at God we don’t want to talk to him. Maybe we’re so confused we don’t have a clue how to arrange words into a religious-sounding plea for help. Maybe we’re just run down by life, and praying feels like one more task we don’t have the heart to do.
I don’t know if there are any words in the Bible that are truer than these: we do not know what to pray for. The apostle says that to the church in Rome: “We do not know what to pray for as we ought,” (Rom 8:26). Standing beside coffins, in unemployment lines, in jail cells, in lonely bedrooms, with crying children, with aging parents—we do not know what to pray for.
So thank God for Paul’s words after this: “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
How strange and yet how comforting: God prays to God for us, the Spirit to the Father. He sees through the fog of our emotions to what we truly need. He has the words we have lost, and these words are in the language of groans that reach heaven’s ears.
Of course they reach heaven’s ears, for those ears are always pressed against our hearts. God in Christ is as close as our skin. He stands with us at those funerals, in those jail cells, with those we love, as the constant presence of compassion. As the Spirit intercedes for us, Christ too prays on our behalf. As he hung dying on the cross, he interceded to the Father for us. And as we bear his crosses even now, and as we die our own deaths, he still intercedes to the Father for us. Heaven can’t stop talking about us.
Sometimes all we can say is, “Lord, have mercy.” The Spirit takes those words, bathes them in the blood of Jesus, and they expand to fill heaven and earth. The Father is all ears. @@He hears nothing else in heaven and earth except our cry for mercy.@@ He hears as a mother hears her child in distress, drops everything, and comes running. Mercy is what he does best. Mercy is all he desires to give.
And sometimes all we can say is nothing. Yet in that nothing the Spirit is everything. @@He transforms our tears into oceans of prayer.@@ He groans so loudly the celestial courts shake with his request. And our Father hears, loves, acts. He shows mercy. He gives us what we need.
Prayer, it turns out, is yet one more gift of Christ. We pray yet it is Christ who prays in us. And when we don’t know how to pray, Christ prays in us through his Spirit, who is never without words to speak on our behalf.