Praying When We Don't Have the Words

By Mark D. Roberts

June 14, 2015

Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.”

Psalm 5:1


What is prayer? The most basic answer says that prayer is talking to God. Sometimes we talk to God through singing. Sometimes we talk silently with words that are not actually expressed. But, for most of us, most of the time, prayer is talking to God.

Yet, there are times when our words fail us. These may be times of ecstasy when we cannot find words to communicate our joy (for example, 1 Peter 1:8). More commonly, we run out of words in times of turmoil and struggle, times when we feel discouraged and hopeless. Can we pray in times like these, without words?

Yes, says David in Psalm 5. This psalm begins, “Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.” The noun translated here as “sighing” appears one other time in Scripture. In Psalm 39:3 it is rendered, “The more I thought about it.” The Hebrew-English dictionary defines this word as “murmuring, whispering, musing.” Given the dire situation of David in Psalm 5, the New Living Translation prefers “groaning.” Yet, all of the possible translations suggest a non-verbal sort of communication, whether in pain (groaning), exhaustion (sighing), or quiet reflection (musing).

So, prayer is more than saying words to God. It is opening our inner life to God. It is pouring out our heart to God because he is our refuge (Psalm 62:8). In times when we have spent ourselves, our prayers may come in the form of sighing. In times of agony, our prayers may sound like groaning. In times of exultation, they might sound like cheers at a football game. Yet, no matter the sounds we make, or even when we make no sounds at all, God not only “listens” to our prayers, but also helps us to pray “with groaning that cannot be expressed in words” (Romans 8:26).


Can you think of times in your life when you prayed deeply and truly, but without words?
Have there been times when your prayers were like sighing? Like groaning?
How have you experienced the help of the Holy Spirit as you pray?


Gracious God, thank you for the gift of language, for the opportunity to speak to people and even to you. How amazing to think that I can talk to you and you actually listen to me!

Yet, I also thank you for listening when I cannot find the words to say, when my grief is unutterable or when my joy is unspeakable. Thank you for hearing my sighing and groaning, and even for helping me to pray when I cannot find words to offer to you. Amen.

P.S. An earlier version of this devotion appeared at The High Calling as “Praying When Words Fail.” This material is used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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