When words fail

Words.  I make my living by them.  And I teach others to do the same.

That’s a large part of what it means to be an academic, an author, a teacher, a preacher.  As an academic, you learn to use long and often awkward words that stand in for complex ideas.  You become fluent in your profession’s jargon; you dissect the words of others.  As an author, you write in different voices, depending on your audience.  The technical piece that will be read by scientists and theoreticians must be different than the popular piece that will be read by the rank and file of the church, and you must speak both dialects.  As a teacher, you often try to translate the complex ideas into simpler, most digestible words.  You may do the same as a preacher, as you use words to teach and persuade, to convict and encourage.

And as one involved full-time in the training of Christian therapists, I am helping teach students all these uses of words, including the art of using words to heal or bring about reconciliation.

I believe in the creative power of words.  The creation of the universe itself was accomplished through the Word of God.  Our human words have at best a derivative power, but that is still enough to either rend or mend relationships.  People may say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”–but do they really believe it?  Although we can help others with words, we can also wound them, and the scars can run far deeper than those inflicted by sticks and stones.  It’s no wonder that James can describe the tongue as a restless and poisonous evil (3:8).

Because of what I do, people expect the right words from me.  Words to explain, or comfort, or encourage, or inspire.  Words that get the message across in a way that won’t be rejected.  Words that restore the peace.

But sometimes, words fail.  Or, put differently: sometimes, I need to let my words fail, instead of trying to find a way to use them to cover over my shortcomings.  Not every idea can be explained.  Not every question requires a clever answer.

And not every prayer needs words.

Paul writes passionately about an essential tension in the Christian life, in which we faithfully stretch our imaginations forward, hoping for the day in which our salvation will be complete and our bodies redeemed.  We are to anticipate the promised future with patience and confidence, trusting in what God has already revealed to us through his Spirit.

And yet, Paul says, we still groan as we await that future.  In our weakness, there are times when we want to pray–when we need to pray–and words fail.  Here’s Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Paul:

the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along.  If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter.  He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.  He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God  (Rom 8:26-27, The Message).

My vocation–a calling in the truest sense of the word–involves using words, and using them well.  I believe God has gifted me in that way.  (Or, it could in part be a response to childhood trauma–as when I was bumped from the lead role as “Mr. Dictionary” in my elementary school play because I couldn’t memorize my lines fast enough, and was demoted to “Mr. History” instead…)

But that gift can also be an occupational hazard, spiritually.  I have learned to use words as a calming salve, and sometimes that’s what’s needed.  But I can also be too quick to salve my own conscience.  I want to skip the wordless groans, to jump straight to the place where I feel more comfortable, more in control–the realm of words.  Pious-sounding words.  Lofty words.  Theologically-correct words.  But words that screen me from really wrestling with the reality of my own sin, that shout down the Spirit and hide my shame from God.

God wants me to pray.  He wants me to use words to ask, to intercede, to confess, to praise.  But does he want my words if I use them as a shield between us?  I live in the tension, as Luther has said, of being simultaneously justified yet still a sinner.  And inarticulate groaning is sometimes the only proper response.  Again, Paul:

For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help!  I realize that I don’t have what it takes.  I can will it, but I can’t do it.  I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it.  I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway.  My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions.  Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time  (Rom 7:18-20, The Message).

Paul puts words to the condition of groaning, of being sinful and broken people in a sinful and broken world, who nevertheless live in hope–because we see the advance signs to God’s healing and restoration, both within us and without.  I imagine that even though Paul can and must express this truth verbally, the groaning within him is often deep and inexpressible.  Mourning comes before dancing.  So sometimes, I need to shut up and let the Spirit do the praying, not because I have no words, but because I have too many, and lean on them too readily.

It’s time to be silent now, and to lean on God instead.