What to Pray When You Don’t Have the Words

What if I told you groaning was one of the most sacred forms of prayer? The Greek word stenagmos means to groan or sigh and it’s mentioned twice in the New Testament (Acts 7:34 and Romans 8:26)—both times linked to prayer.

In Acts 6-7, Luke retells the story of when Stephen was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Those listening were startled with the wisdom Stephen was speaking by the Spirit. Clearly unhappy with the attention he was receiving, a bunch of people rose up against Stephen to lie about him, saying he was contradicting Moses and God.

This was a good lie as it garnered the attention of the elders and scribes and they brought Stephen before the Council. There, Stephen delivered perhaps one of the greatest sermons ever recorded—so convicting it got him killed!

There is a moment in the sermon I want us to look at. It’s in Acts 7:30-34:

“Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning (stenagmos), and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’”

Stephen was pointing back to the time when Moses heard the voice of God from a burning bush. Naturally, Moses rightly trembled in fear and turned away. God responds by saying it would be appropriate for Moses to remove his sandals because the ground he was standing on, not the bush, was holy.

God then comforted Moses that He had seen the afflictions caused by the Egyptians and that He had heard the Israelites groanings (stenagmos). This is important.

The Israelites were experiencing a kind of affliction so great, so overwhelming, that they didn’t yet have the words to articulate what they were feeling and experiencing. Yet, God’s response…is that…He hears them.

God doesn’t praise the Israelites for really taking the time to sit down, meditate, and think about how they feel. The Israelites didn’t wait until they had the appropriate words to bring before God. No, instead God hears and understands the language of their groaning, and He comes down, and saves them. God helps them because of what he saw and heard.

The Apostle Paul uses the same word, stenagmos (groanings) in Romans 8:26:

Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings (stenagmos) too deep for words.

Right at the beginning of this verse, Paul highlights that the Christian is weak—weak because he or she doesn’t know what words to employ in prayer. For Paul, this weakness a is not necessarily a bad thing. If the Christian were to get stronger, in this context, strength would imply having the knowledge concerning what to pray. That sounds like a good thing. Strength would also indicate that the one praying would have a good handle on the words they might utilize. Again, sounds like a good thing.

Instead, the Christian isn’t admonished to go get stronger. Rather, weakness is sustaining the Christian in a humble position before the Lord, which then provides the sacred space for the Spirit to help.

Humble people in need seek help. Prideful people think they can do it on their own. In prayer, prideful people think their words matter. Humble people groan for help.

For Paul, weakness in prayer isn’t a problem because humble people recognize their inability, which coupled with the help from the Spirit, provides conditions for God to receive prayer. As the Holy Spirit meets the Christian in their weakness, He intercedes for them with groanings too deep for words.

“Deep” here is used in a positive sense. Words are good. They help us communicate all kinds of things. But then there is a deeper, more intimate form of communication that humans share with God. A conversation that goes beyond mere words.

What makes these groanings so deep? Who is the source of these groanings? It’s the Holy Spirit.

When something happens in life and you don’t have the words to express the sorrow, or fear, or confusion within, you can find comfort that God cares. But how do we know He cares? Because Paul tells us there is a Trinitarian prayer taking place, which doesn’t wait for us to figure out what to say.

The Spirit intercedes on our behalf in our speechless moment, with groanings too deep for words. These groanings are heard by the Father, through the Son, as a result of the Spirit’s help. The Triune God is able to carry on a conversation that exceeds human language.

But we don’t believe this. Instead, we wait until we have the proper words (or so we think) to describe what we are feeling before we go to God in prayer. We believe that God can’t hear us until we speak. We believe that God doesn’t know until we speak. As a reaction to this fear, we don’t pray when we need Him the most.

Yet, when we are without words, it might just be the perfect time to go to God in prayer. It’s in our wordlessness that we might be in our most humble, vulnerable, and authentic posture before the Lord. 

Am I saying that words don’t matter? Nope. I just don’t want you to wait to pray. I don’t want the dust to settle before you pray. I don’t want you to feel like God needs to understand your frail and finite language, so that He can understand you.

God is endlessly resourceful in that He understands all kinds of language. Even a wordless language you and I can’t make sense of, like groaning.

You can read more of Kyle’s blogs on prayer here.