I was looking for an open checkout lane in Home Depot, wrestling a cart with one arm and holding my 18-month-old daughter in the other. She’d been sick with a fever all day, so I’d been carrying her through the store. Suddenly, she jerked upright and started shaking. Her mouth opened and closed as if she couldn’t breathe; she gagged, arched back, flattened against me. Her lips crunched into a tight O and went blue around the edges. For ten minutes, she was totally vacant and unresponsive.
I had the presence of mind to make sure she wasn’t choking and to ask a worker to call 9-1-1. Mercifully, as soon as the paramedics arrived, they assured me it wasn’t too serious: a febrile seizure, caused by her temperature spiking. Within 15 minutes, my daughter just wanted to drink some water and go to sleep. The episode ended with relief, and a bit of an emotional hangover the next day.
But in that waiting period, when my daughter’s convulsions had given way to terrifying blankness, I was reduced to the prayer equivalent of wordless gasping. The only actual word that came to mind was Please, Please. The rest was barely directed, visceral emotion.
My experience was short, but I know people who’ve endured much longer periods of pain or grief so intense they rendered the person wordless. I also know both children and adults with special needs whose caregivers teach them of God’s love, not knowing how much they might ever understand or be able to “converse” with God verbally. But extraordinarily, Christianity reveals a God whose understanding of his creatures extends even to wordless prayers.
The key passage that points to these truths is in Romans 8:
We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. . . . Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom. 8:23, 26–27)
Paul describes not a thought-out, verbal prayer, but a visceral groaning—and yet this prayer is heard and even matched by the Holy Spirit. Thinking about the glories of this passage, we see three comforts for when we’re reduced to wordless prayer.
1. He Hears Wordless Prayer
The simple fact that God hears wordless prayers—all wordless prayers, from all people—is wondrous in itself. Consider the closest abilities we have:
- If we’re in a crowded or cacophonous space, we can generally distinguish someone’s voice, but only if they call our name or flag our attention.
- We can generally “read” others’ nonverbal cues and guess if they’re feeling happy or sad, interested or bored.
By contrast, God “hears” every wordless prayer, every thought and yearning, from every person as they happen. Every inward movement of our soul is perceived by him, even ones we haven’t mapped with language or directed to him.
‘He who searches hearts’ can’t fail but to hear us when we’re too overwhelmed for language.
Even when we’re in too much pain or anguish to speak words, let alone call God’s name or prepare a statement for him, he hears our wordless prayers. “He who searches hearts” can’t fail but to hear us when we’re too overwhelmed for language.
2. He Understands Wordless Prayer
God can comprehend our nonverbal prayers. As David prays, “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether” (Ps. 139:4). He knows it altogether: total knowledge of prayers not yet spoken.
The truth is deeper still. In another psalm, a grinding lament, David acknowledges that “all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (38:9). He knows “the tumult of [his] heart” (38:8) is as legible to God as the words David pens to reference it. If God can read the declarations of the heavens and the “speech” of the day and night (Ps. 19:1–3), he can easily interpret the feelings of the soul.
In Romans 8, we “groan inwardly” in sad harmony with the creation, carrying pain so deep that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought.” But even then, the Holy Spirit himself “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”! He meets us in the maelstrom of our own hearts, and God groans to God in the non-language of our pain.
This itself is better news even than David had in his pre-Pentecost life. If he trusted that God could read the movements of his heart, now we have God within our innermost souls, guaranteeing our being heard and known. When I was panicking with my unresponsive daughter in my arms, God himself was bringing those prayers to God.
3. He Honors Wordless Prayer
Language is a gift that separates humans from animals and adults from children—the ability to illumine the world and express our thoughts and wishes with words. Indeed, we Protestants place a special emphasis on the power of words in the most crucial spiritual realities. Protestantism was founded on, among other things, the need for hearing and understanding the key truths of the faith, which means giving more honor to what is expressed in language than what is not.
The truth that God honors wordless prayer doesn’t diminish the glory of the understood word, but expands it: God’s understanding and grace are such that he gives honor even to prayers not expressed in words. In Romans 8, the Father receives the groanings of the Holy Spirit as prayer. How comforting that even our groans aren’t lost to God, in the same way David knows that God remembers “my tossings . . . [and] my tears” (Ps. 56:8).
My prayers in the moment with my daughter, such as they were, weren’t in vain. Nor are the groans of people in too much anguish to think clearly, those too burdened by sorrow to put sentences together, or the yearnings of children or adults with mental disabilities. All of us are heard and understood by God; in Christ, by the groanings of the Holy Spirit, all our prayers are honored. Even the ones we don’t understand ourselves.