Words escape me just now.
I have spent the past few weeks immersed in the life stories of my Ugandan students, listening, reading, and responding to their experiences of pain and trauma, survival and redemption. Even as I walk through my routine of homeschooling and hospitality back home in Scotland, the echoes of their ongoing stories continue to reverberate through my soul.
They have survived genocide and rape, bullying and witchcraft. Some have witnessed their parents butchered, their siblings shot, their husbands poisoned to death. Others carry the scars of intense hunger and severe beatings, crippling poverty and abusive families, obstructed justice and oppressive social systems.
Despite attacks from every angle, these valiant men and women have carried on working, ministering, leading, and serving. On the surface they are strong and capable, but just beneath their wounds lie festering and vulnerable. Their safety and survival have depended on the ability to stow away their painful baggage. But I have assigned them to pull it all out and put it into words.
Words offer a healing release, except for when they won’t come.
Sometimes prayer is merely a groan, a feeling felt in His presence, a desire placed in His hands.
Some traumas run too deep to put into words. Some experiences are too painfully fresh to be able to stand back and formulate into rational sequences of sound. They can only be relived in images and sensations, imaginations and dreams.
And so they remain locked inside the soul, expressing their presence through irrational behaviors and unexplainable tears. Left alone they slowly suck life out of the spirit, leaving little behind but the empty shell of a once vibrant person.
I am like a deaf man, who cannot hear, like a mute, who cannot open his mouth; I have become like a man who does not hear, whose mouth can offer no reply. I wait for you, O LORD; you will answer, O Lord my God.
I have been there myself, walking around in my shell of a body, mechanically interacting with the people and events around me while feeling spiritually and emotionally trapped within invisible walls. Comforting comments bounced. Listening ears walked away empty. Without words to bridge the gap between my inner experience and my outer reality, I carried on a lonely, dual life, one of external performance and internal anguish.
I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart. All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.
But the beautiful thing about God is that He is not limited to words. His Spirit passes through the walls of language and location and time. He is able to enter the world of our memories and emotions and commune with us there, too. He sees the images that haunt us. He hears the silent screams that reverberate through our souls. And He knows the longings that we haven’t figured out how to express.
Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Prayer doesn’t have to involve carefully crafted words or even coherent sentences. Sometimes it is merely a groan, a feeling felt in His presence, a desire placed in His hands.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
And yet prayer is also the outlet for our pain, the bridge that once again connects us to Someone outside of ourselves. It is us laying bare our broken, messy selves before God’s holy, penetrating gaze, knowing that our only hope lies in communion with Him.
Even apart from words, we can invite God’s Spirit to come into our most privately held grief and pray the right words for us. Sometimes even His intercessions go too deep to be able to express with words. He cries along with us, compassionately expressing our pain with groans of His own.
That is where I find myself now, groaning along with the Spirit on behalf of my students. Some things I have words for, specific prayers on their behalf and written replies to their assignments. But for the most part I agonize in God’s presence over all they have endured, longing for the redemption of their pain.
Thankfully, God doesn’t need my words.