The Language of Prayer
What is the language of prayer? Paul says we don’t know how to pray (Romans 8:26-28). With our imperfect communication we do the best we can, but fall short of reaching God. There is logic in this, since we know that even our highest and best thoughts of God are incomplete shadows of God’s reality. Paul says that’s alright because the Spirit intercedes for us “with groanings which cannot be uttered.” The Spirit translates our poor attempts into God-language.
This is all well and good, but it still doesn’t address the question: what is the language of prayer? What is our language of prayer? We cannot concern ourselves with God-language since we can’t speak it. We can only stumble along in our language—but what is that language?
What is our language of prayer? I believe it’s the language of poetry. Many of us have an innacurate concept of poetry. We think of poetry as lines of text with an equal number of syllables, ending with words that rhyme—sort of Roses are Red language. This is one kind of poetry, but not the only kind. Poetry is much more varied than that, but at its root it is rhythmic language
The rhythm of poetry is not sing-song, but a flow. One word leads to another, one line to another, until we are caught up in this flow of language. When we reach the end, there is a feeling of completeness, but also a desire to know more, to experience more fully. Good poetry tells us enough so we understand, but not so much that our understanding is complete. Our imagination supplies the final details. Poetry is understanding without overstatement. Above all, poetry creates images. Because the language of poetry is vivid, pictures form in our minds. We see what the poet is trying to say.
Read any of the great prayers of the Bible. Moses praising God for bringing Israel through the Red Sea and destroying the Egyptian army (Exodus 15:1-19). Hannah thanking God for the gift of a son—a son she will return to God (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Solomon dedicating the temple as God’s dwelling place on earth (1 Kings 8:14-54). Mary’s prayer (the Magnificat) thanking God for his grace in choosing her to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55). Either version of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 or Luke 11:1-4).
In each case the language is poetic, vivid. The pictures are clear. They engage our imagination. We catch glimpses of God acting on behalf of God’s people. We get a sense of God’s greatness, God’s power, God’s holiness, but we can also see God’s mercy, God’s lovingkindness, and God’s grace. This is a God who cares about humanity, a God who chooses to be involved in our lives.
The psalms are poems. Many of them are also prayers. For me, none is more beautiful than Psalm 139. The psalmist says God knows him intimately. He cannot escape God even if he wishes to. God is so integral a part of his life that he cannot even have a thought that is unknown to God. All this is said in far more beautiful language than I have used here, the language of vividness, the language of imagery—the language of poetry.
But what about us? Most of us are poor poets indeed. We may be able to create simple rhymes, but to create images? To express ourselves in language that soars, with the Spirit’s help to God’s throne? How can we do this?
We return to Paul. Our prayer language is passionate. It’s vivid. It’s poetic. It expresses our wants, our needs, our concerns—imperfectly, but clearly enough for the Spirit to understand. Then the Spirit does the rest.