When Prayers Become Gibberish

Sometimes the Words Are Hard to Find.

Cali Yee / 9.23.21

One would think that a dictionary or an encyclopedia would inspire words to fully describe our feelings or our needs. But oftentimes, especially for me right now, our brains are too busy processing the highs and lows of life to form coherent sentences. What we wish were words instead come out as groans or sighs — too exhausted and in need of a nap. 

This often happens to me with prayer.

My mind loves nothing more than to draw a complete blank when someone picks on me to pray aloud. Praying aloud falls right below my greatest fear of spiders. The pressure is on. I’m too tempted to try to speak with flowery language; it’s my vain attempt at sounding poetic and intelligent to the other people praying with me. By the time I say “amen,” sweat has gathered on my brow.

I don’t like to think too much about my personal prayer life either. I don’t keep up with it, it’s practically nonexistent, and I always get distracted when I pray – especially when I’m praying a prayer I’ve memorized since kindergarten. And when it comes to praying before dinner, I often forget. I’m too busy shoving the salad into my mouth so I can move on to the best part of the meal: the garlic bread.  

I know I’m not alone in this. When we do remember to pray, we often feel immense pressure to triple check everything we need to say off our lists:

  1. Thanksgiving and gratitude (which, if we’re honest, is pretty hard to come by these days)
  2. Praying for family, friends, and those people who come to mind who can’t get their act together (they really need it, of course)
  3. Asking God for what we want (while also praying that He forgives us for those snarky online comments — and not eating more vegetables)
  4. Thanksgiving again (because that’s what Jesus did, right?)
  5. Amen (whatever that word means. Seriously, someone tell me …)

We think that maybe we would be better Christians if we could just have a consistent prayer life. God should be the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to sleep. As if when or how much we pray will make us more worthy of God’s love. 

Prayer can sometimes feel like another way we strive to measure up, another way that faith becomes a game of keeping score. It’s like realizing, at the end of a long day, that you have to put clean sheets on your bed; an overwhelming chore to add to your list when all you want to do is weep or rant or sleep. But why can’t prayer be all of those things?

Tish Harrison Warren, in her new book Prayer in the Night, writes about what prayer was for her in the darkest of times:

In that moment in the hospital, I was not trying to “express my faith,” to announce my wavering devotion to a room full of busy nurses […] Through prayer I dared to believe that God was in the midst of my chaos and pain, whatever was to come. I was reaching for a reality that was larger and more enduring than what I felt in the moment.

If prayer is only about us and our expression of faith, then it has become nothing more than an attempt at proving our own faithfulness. Prayer isn’t about our faithfulness or strength of belief. It reaches for help that is outside of ourselves, help that is stronger than our belief. 

Prayer is not something to check off our list. Nor is it a requirement, a chore that we have to complete at the end of the day. It is a way we can be held by God, when we are too tired to hold ourselves up. And when we are at our lowest, when we feel completely unworthy and broken, we need prayer to be what it actually is: a cry for help. A plea for God to rescue us from our helplessness and save us from our despair.

And in those moments – when words are hard to find, when all we can do is weep – God hears us. He hears our wails and groans, especially the ones where we sound like a blubbering mess. He understands the unspoken prayers of our hearts that we didn’t even know were there.

We don’t need a dictionary to give us the words. We don’t need to be able to form coherent sentences. All we can do is fall at the capable hands of a God who understands our silence and our gibberish. For the One who created us knows our needs better than we could ever express.