In Romans 8, Paul talks about our struggles in prayer. The Amplified Version says: “the [Holy] Spirit comes to our aid and bears us up in our weakness, for we do not know what prayer to offer nor how to offer it worthily as we ought, but the Spirit Himself goes to meet our supplication and pleads in our behalf with unspeakable yearnings and groanings too deep for utterance” (8:26).
Just before this, Paul has said that the whole creation groans, in hope and frustration, because of the Fall (verse 22), and that we “groan inwardly” because we’re weighed down by the heaviness and bondage of life in these bodies (verse 23; 2 Corinthians 5:2, 4).
So there’s a kind of prayer that’s inarticulate, wordless. It puts us in a position of weakness, but it also connects us with all of creation. And the Spirit Himself meets us and moves in us with groanings.
The best-known example in Scripture occurs when the Israelites are slaves in Egypt. We read, “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant . . .” (Exodus 2:23-24, NIV). The Lord says to Moses, “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites” (6:5, NIV; Acts 7:34). They may not have the strength or even the faith to pray, but it doesn’t matter. God hears their groaning, and counts it as a prayer. It’s as if, sometimes, faith begins as pain.
Later, throughout the period of the judges in Israel, “the Lord had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them” (Judges 2:18, NIV). In the Psalms, we read, “‘Because of the oppression of the weak and the groanings of the needy, I will now arise,’ says the Lord” (12:5, NIV) and “The Lord looked down from His sanctuary on high . . . to hear the groans of the prisoners” (102:19-20, NIV). And Jesus Himself, on one occasion when He heals a deaf man, looks up to heaven and sighs or groans before saying, “Be opened” (Mark 7:34; compare 8:12).
In addition to groaning, there is crying — both tears and calling out, not words but a loud cry of pain. God hears Abel’s blood crying from the ground (Genesis 4:10), and the outcry against the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20-21; 19:13). When Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert and run out of water, and Hagar gives up, the angel of the Lord says, “God has heard the boy crying” (21:17, NIV) — not an eloquent prayer, but wailing. The psalmist says, “He will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help” (72:12, NIV; compare Exodus 22:23, 27). The Lord raises up a king because, He says to Samuel, “I have looked upon My people, for their cry has reached Me” (1 Samuel 9:16, NIV). David testifies, “. . . the Lord has heard my weeping” (Psalm 6:8, NIV), and believes that the Lord prizes his tears, storing them up in a bottle (56:8). Even Jesus, we are told, while He was on earth, offered prayers “with strong crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7, Amplified).
There is a balance here. When the disciples come to Jesus and say, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1, NIV), He doesn’t tell them to lie down and groan, or to start crying. He gives them the Lord’s Prayer; He teaches them words and attitudes. Paul says, “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind” (1 Corinthians 14:15, NIV); Jesus instructs our minds. And yet, even with the Lord’s Prayer, as Paul says, we don’t know how to pray as we ought.
I suggest that there are times when something is being birthed in us, and we have no words, but we are interceding. When Nehemiah, far away in exile in Susa, heard about the miserable and ruined condition of Jerusalem, he says, “I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” (1:4, NIV). From the dates that he gives, we know that this period of “some days” was four months long, roughly from November to March. At the end of it, he prays an eloquent prayer, in which he says, “Today, give me favor with the king” (verse 11). So he’s praying for four months, but, so far as we know, it’s only on the last day that he has any words. What does he pray with until then? Tears. Groans. Cries. Pain.
It’s often pointed out that the Book of Esther never refers to God, but the Jews — like Nehemiah — mourn and weep and fast (Esther 4:3). Only the fourth verb is different: where Nehemiah prays, Esther’s earlier contemporaries wail. Perhaps they lack the faith to pray, and perhaps their deliverance is one source of Nehemiah’s faith.
To be sure, not all pain is counted as prayer. The Lord warns some that they will cry out to Him and not be heard: His enemies (Psalm 18:41), those who rebel against His word (Deuteronomy 1:45) and break His covenant (Jeremiah 11:11; 1 Samuel 8:18), and wicked oppressors (Micah 3:4). He especially hears the righteous (Psalm 34:15, 17). In the Book of Job, it is axiomatic that He will not listen to the cry of the godless or the wicked (27:8-9; 35:12-13). Yet there is a sincere repentance that creates an exception (Hosea 8:2-3; 7:14): the Lord hears the entreaty of wicked King Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:33) as well as the weeping of good King Josiah (34:27). Always, we are brought back to Daniel 9:18: “We do not make requests of You because we are righteous, but because of Your great mercy” (NIV).
Throughout the Old Testament, there is an uncertainty — a sense, sometimes aggrieved and sometimes despairing, that one’s groanings and cries and tears have so far fallen on deaf ears (Job 23:2; 24:12; Psalm 6:6; 102:5; Jeremiah 45:3; Lamentations 1:21; 3:8). In the New Testament, this is transformed, because Jesus hangs on the cross and is not delivered. His pain is redemptive, and believers’ pain is so much His that we can be said to “fill up” or “complete” His afflictions (Colossians 1:24). Some, at least, are granted “the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, NIV). Surely this number includes not only eloquent martyrs but many hidden “little ones” who groan with the pain of all creation.
I am brought to these reflections, in part, by observing my wife’s experiences following a stroke and severe aphasia. During her weeks in hospital, I often felt that my prayers were ineffective as I stumbled through the day. Not so with hers. Though she lacked all words at first, her complaints seemed to be a cry in the ear of God. For some time she was consumed by her own pain, but gradually she took in those around her. On good days we might visit another wordless patient, and they would embrace and weep together and hold hands. Then my wife would beckon to me to pray, and I would add words, declaring again the great and precious promises of God. But all the while I suspected that the words I prayed, like those we preach, are more obedient “foolishness” than persuasion (1 Corinthians 1:21), and that the real work of prayer lay in the loving, hopeful pain-sharing.
We love to quote the words of the Lord in Isaiah 57:15: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite [Hebrew dakka: contrite, crushed, pulverized, shattered, broken](1) and lowly in spirit” (NIV). But how does He dwell in such a vessel? Frequently, as pain.
We are not heard for our perfect words, or our many tears, or our deep groans. We are heard because God listens, and because He Himself stirs even our yearnings and cries. So we don’t give up; we say with David, “All my longings lie open before You, O Lord; my sighing [or “groaning”] is not hidden from You” (Psalm 38:9, NIV). And Isaiah assures us: “the Lord longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion. . . . How gracious He will be when you cry for help! As soon as He hears, He will answer you” (30:18-19, NIV).
(1) Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (1907), rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 193-94.