Prayers without Words
A meditation on Romans 8.18-27
"We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves .... the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought."
It is as necessary for the Christian to pray as for a child to prattle to its parents. And it is as vitally important for the child of God to make known its wants as for the human child. In consequence of this need to communicate with his Father, the Christian is reminded that he may "pray without ceasing" and that while watching and working, he may take time off from service to go aside to pray. But just as an observant mother will know, at times, what the unspoken desire of her child is (or will be) so there are occasions when our moods are of more moment than our words. As there maybe words without prayer, so contrariwise there may be prayer without words and it is to the Christian's advantage that the Father of love and compassion understands more perfectly than any man or woman, the unspoken (and sometimes unspeakable) desires of His child.
The devout Christian often prays most deeply when he does not speak at all. Occasions arise from time to time when be is far too full for words. Like the dull moving of deep waters "too full for sound or foam" the Christian's heart is deeply moved, and it is the very depths and fullness of these hidden tides which make his lips so hopelessly inadequate to utter all he feels. There is much truth and fitness in the poet's expressive words: Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.
This inability to give utterance to the deep things of the spirit is not just the same thing as the handicap of a small vocabulary. It is not really the difficulty of the tongue tied or those who find it difficult to express their thoughts through shyness. The lips of ordinary folk may find it difficult to formulate prayer. Practice may make perfect. The human metal may not have been refined or be able to take literary polish. Quickness of thought and nervousness may make the framing of prayer impossible. Yet these inhibitions do not stop a soul praying in its own way. The downcast eyes, the upraised touching hands, the reverential posture may say more than a host of words. When personality is deep and emotional desire is strong and the lips are trained ordinarily to express the rising or falling mood, it will be the deep swell of some more acute crisis that seals the lips, and bars the outward expression of the worded prayer.
These deep felt motions may come late or early in the Christian live. Indeed, it may be in such a storm that the spiritual life of a Christian begins. Words may be few - or absent because the issues are so great. There is a prayer where words are few, when penitence first stirs the sinful heart. Perhaps it needs the smiting hand upon the breast to emphasise the unuttered pathetic plea. Or if lips speak but seven words they may contain more prayer than reams of polished phrases. "God be merciful to me a sinner" is a prayer of fundamental depth. It comes from the deep places of an unregenerate but humbled heart and mounts up to the high courts of Heaven. The God of all love and grace, the God of heaven and earth, bends down to hear that prayer, while angels of light rejoice together as they hear the sinner's prayer. Ten thousand words could say no more at such a time than ten mere syllables have said. It is not the ample articulation of the lips, but the inward chastening of the heart which best expresses the deep inner need. A groan, a sigh, a tear, has greater worth than all the verbiage of a lexicon.
Provision has been made by God to meet that need. A Saviour and a sacrifice for sin stand ready to move at its call. No cry, however short, can escape the human heart for relief from sin that will go unheard, or unanswered. Thank God for the sinner's right to speed his penitential call right through to the courts of heaven, not because it is a galaxy of words, but because it is true prayer, and voices his intense needs. Most Christians may look back to that supreme moment at the penitential crisis of their lives and call to mind the great relief when contact with the Lamb of God was made. No spate of words, but precious blood, gave solace in the deep distress. The wordless prayer of which we write lies further on the Christian's path. It is the token of maturity and rich growth in grace. It tells of days and years of God's creative work in tempering and refining the metal of the inner self. It speaks of yearnings and desires, fostered by God that reach up and out for holiness and truth. It shows developed sensitivity to the "absolutes" - to utter sinfulness and complete sinlessness. It has grown to hate the one and love the other. Loathsome sin is now more loathsome still; and holiness has become an increasing delight. What cause can seal the lips and tie the tongues of Christians so far grown in grace? Ought they not in weal or woe to find cause enough to pray and praise with heart and voice? Why should the lips of saints at any time fail to voice forth their prayer or praise? It is the strong flow of the deeper tides within the heart that seals the lips. At times when the good gifts of God have been profuse and ample store of grace has stirred the depths, the very volume of the gratitude may be too deep to find expression other than in the words "thank God, thank God, thank God". The repetition of the two short words may wing more praise to heaven than strings of loftier sounds and God will know how much of gratitude is meant.
More frequently the deep tides flow when other causes operate. More often it is sin and sorrow which stirs the depths. We may have listened to creation's groans; we may have felt our lack of strength to ease or aid when suffering called, and this, reacting back upon our own tense heart, has loosed wild notions and desires too deep for words.
This is the sphere the Apostle's words explore. Creation groans in travail to be set free. Creation is bound in chains of vanity - vain hopes, vain works and vain pursuits. The grace grown Christian views the havoc of human sin where countless thousands mourn. He sees aggression down the years, ride roughshod and unchecked, leaving behind it trails of blood and broken hearts. He sees the profiteer take his filthy gains while starving children cry for bread. He sees the sanctity of wedlock and home dishonoured; he sees wealth squandered in gambling and drink; he sees the bloom of health fade as disease saps the strength. He sees the whole world treading its dead-end trails. He sees pompous little men rise to power only to fall again. He sees men barter life for some small wealth, some little pedestal, some tawdry name, and as, for ages, fathers did, so children do today. The dictum of the ancient sage upon their pointless pursuits was that it was vanity through and through. "Vanity of vanities, it is all vanity." And vanity it is and was from morn till night, for rich and poor, while ages come and go. No child of God can see the naked world and be unmoved. He knows the whole creation had been committed to this vain life, by Divine intent. He knows creation groans in pain and anguish day and night, but never finds relief. He witnesses the frustration and futility of universal life, and knows that no man can emancipate himself, much less his kin. He knows relief will come some day - some better day - but it is today that often weighs upon his heart! He knows that he and other sympathetic souls must stand idly by and only watch as wild humanity grows wilder still. He hears their deep universal groan, and as they groan, he does the same. "Oh if only something could be done! If only men could hear and turn away from sin" he groans within himself. Men, without hope, groan and groan again - he cannot help but do the same, though hope lives in his breast. "... not only they but ourselves also groan within ourselves waiting for ... redemption" (Rom. 8.23).
No man with the "Christ" spirit in his heart can hear this universal groan without groaning too. And when the spirit is of ample growth, the groaning will be ample too. His growth in Christ will be the measure of his sympathy for a world chain-bound in sin. The pity for Jerusalem that swept the Master's heart was a like pity that will often weep over a world, self-doomed to death. The Christian who is much grown like Jesus will be much touched, like him, with human woe. It thus befalls that every convulsive pang this sad world feels sends sympathetic pain into the Christ-like heart, and wrings from it both sigh and groan. But the Christian sufferer is helped by hope - that blessed hope - that deliverance one day will come. Hope salves the chafed spirit and helps him wait with more patience for that better day. Expectation relieves the acute tension of the strain, but expectation is not redemption nor release. What we long for has not come. It is, as yet, but a sure hope. At most this hope brings an easing to the aching heart but leaves it still to groan. But we have other help at hand. "Likewise the spirit also helps" us in our lack of strength. It helps the Christian when his heart is, over-wrought with sympathy and pain, too full for words or speech. It helps him when some acute spasm of world distress wrings from him sigh or groan. And when that sigh or groan escapes, He who has trod this path before, accepts it as a prayer. The Eye that never sleeps will read the anguish of his soul and understands the language of these wordless sighs. He knows the sorrows of the world more deeply than His followers do. He tasted their sorrows to the point of death in order to become a sympathetic High Priest. He came to earth to cause men to know that God was sympathetic too. From the beginning of sin's awful reign God's sympathy for sinful men began to operate. The spirit of compassion was manifested to Mother Eve. This Spirit of compassion was the Spirit of the Oath bound Covenant. That same Spirit of the Covenant under-lay the gift, by God, of His dear Son. And it was the compassion expressed in that Covenant which took Jesus to His death. It is the same spirit of that Covenant, the desire to bless that throbs in every Christian heart. This is the Holy Spirit of the Living God - it is the Spirit of His Christ. It dwelt without measure in our blessed Lord. It dwells in varying degrees in every other child of God. It emanates from God and it enters into us. From this almighty fund of sympathy comes our help in time of need. It helps us when we hear the world's deep groans. It helps us when we see its sinful plight, it smoothes for us the difficulty of "desiring to bless". It "helps our infirmities" - our 'asthenia' - our lack of strength, our inability, when the skill of our hands is unequal to 'desire of our heart'. This weakness is what makes us groan, and say with warmth, beneath our breath "If only I knew what to do or how to help them in their sore distress." At such times, in such a state, "We know not what we should pray for as we ought." We yearn to bless but we axe too inexperienced to bless. We desire to bless, but we have no power with which to bless. The pent-up sigh, the unspoken groan tells what we would do, if hand and heart could work in step. And from its lofty throne above the eye that searches every heart takes note of what it sees, and He who has the power to bless looks down and says, "That child of mine desires to bless; he has in him the spirit of my purposes. He only needs to bide my time. I see at times the tension of his soul - I hear again the groaning of his, heart. This spirit of compassion is what I want to see. This anguish of soul endears him to my heart. It compensates for all his weaknesses."
Thus the falling tear, the aching heart, the stifled groan that sees the world's distress, becomes a prayer of greater worth than ten thousand ostentatious words. The spirit of compassion thus evinced wins the Divine acceptance for the child - it makes intercession for His saints in accordance with His Will. The world around us is in dire distress today. Its sorrows deepen like a flood. The sluice gates of evil are unlocked. The universal groan goes up from all the earth, louder and deeper each passing day.
"Who will break our bonds? Who will smash our chains? Who can set us free?" What child of God can hear this cry and not feel his pulse-beat quicken or his heartstrings quiver? What "hopeful" saint can see the "hopeless" mass, and not yearn for its release.
This is a day, beloved in the Lord, when growth in Christ-likeness may go on apace. The 'Image of Z His Son' may be wrought within at speed. The circumstances are full ripe for the Spirit of God - 2 the Spirit of His Covenant - to work deep and strong. Compassion for a sinful world can transform the wakeful heart. He who understands His purpose may co-operate with God. The compassion of every soul should be white hot then the hammer of discipline and anvil of sorrow will do the rest. May God speed this work of Grace, for the day of Redemption draws nigh.
When hearts are fraught with pain as humanity mourns, there may rise a prayer for God's Kingdom to come without the breathing of a word. As we pray thus for God's Will to prevail, the depth of sigh or groan will be the measure of our transformation into the image of God's dear Son.
Prayer is the
simplest form of speech,
That infant lips can try;
Prayer, the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.
Prayer is the Christian's vital breath
The Christian's native air,
His watchword at the gate of death;
He enters heaven with prayer.