Words are supposed to help us. But sometimes, words are horribly inadequate conveyors of meaning, hope, and help, and at their worst, can be dangerously destructive. In particular, words seem most inadequate in times of overwhelming loss and pain. The very gift of communication that was intended for us to connect with other human beings becomes like a wall that closes us off from others, because sometimes, words are simply not suitable vehicles for communicating our pain to another. When we feel as though our life is being ripped apart, when we’ve lost almost everything that was once precious and dear, when we struggle each day not to live but just to survive, when the pain is deeper than we ever imagined it could reach and lasts longer than we ever imagined it could go, when Satan seems to be seeking to destroy our very souls, when God no longer seems close, compassionate, and caring, when we try to look into our future and simply can’t see one, when a dark curtain seems to hang over any hope of a better tomorrow, when in our heart of hearts we wish the Lord would take us home. In times like these, words simply fail as they buckle under the weight of our pain.
We experience a simultaneous and contradictory longing. A part of us wants to use words to unburden our souls and share our pain with others who can help us bear the burden. Yet the other part of us is afraid. Afraid that trying to put the pain into words will only cheapen it, lighten it, distort it, and fail to communicate our true heart. Afraid that the words we receive in response will be cheap, light, distorted, and fail to evidence the ability to meet us in our pain. Afraid that we will be misunderstood. Afraid that we will only burden others. Afraid that it will only make things worse to speak. Afraid that all our fears will be proven right.
Proverbs 25:20 relates a painful experience: “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” It is far too easy for us to do this to each other. There are countless reasons why someone might try to “cheer up” a heavy heart, some good and some bad. We may genuinely think we’re being helpful by trying to focus on the positive, or give hope, or encourage. Or, we may be uncomfortable with pain and tension in our own life, seeking to use humor and frivolity to cover over it, and therefore relate to others in the same manner. Or, we may just lack compassion and the ability to truly listen. In any case, Scripture makes clear that singing songs to a heavy heart is not helpful, but in fact, quite hurtful. It’s like taking someone who is already suffering and shivering in the cold winds, and rather than giving them a warm blanket for comfort and protection, tearing off the coat that was the only comfort they had against the stormy gale. We make things worse. We’ve all been on the receiving end of this, and unfortunately, we’ve probably all been on the giving end of this as well. Perhaps Job understood this better than any of us ever will, being battered by the harmful words of his friends whose faulty theology drove them to speak things that were not true about God or appropriate to Job’s particular situation.
This fearful prospect of what our words can do for evil may tempt us to respond wrongly on both sides of the equation. On one hand, as the one in pain, we may close ourselves off from everyone so that we won’t be further wounded by their misguided words. We cover our gaping wound with a Band-Aid lest others unwittingly pour salt in our bleeding flesh. We stay away because we can’t handle getting unintentionally kicked while we’re already down. Or on the other hand, we might fail to speak at all to our friends in pain, terrified that we’ll say something stupid, insensitive, inaccurate, hurtful, or unhelpful. While this is an unfortunate possibility, we must offer more than silence (though at times, not less). We must listen, we must empathize, we must weigh our words and our timing, but yes, at some point, we must speak. Yes, words can bring damage, but they are also a means of blessing and healing that we must seek to speak over our friends. Proverbs 16:24 teaches that “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” The book of James teaches that our mouths are a strange paradox, in that both blessing and cursing can flow out of them. But if the fear of speaking harmful words causes us to say nothing, we fail to exercise God’s means of our bringing blessing to one another, to bring sweetness to each other’s souls and health to each other’s bodies.
While words can fail in our relationships with each other, there is another sense in which words fail in times of deep pain and anguish, this one related directly to our relationship with God. When words fail, sometimes the only adequate communication consists of moans and groans, literally. This is not merely my own personal opinion, but the very words of God in Scripture. Sometimes pain defies words as we seek to come to God—“When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:3-4). Moans and groans reveal our utter weakness and fragility as fallen human beings. The times I have moaned on my bed in pain, both in times of intense physical pain and times of intense emotional pain, have been the times that I’ve felt the most utterly destitute of any resources of strength or ability in myself. I am so weak that I cannot even offer coherent and cohesive words of prayer to God, but can only moan in my pain, trusting and looking to Him to transpose these moans into intelligible prayers for help, strength, and assistance. I am so weak that I not only need Him to answer my prayers, but I need Him to construct the very human words of the prayers themselves from my weak moans. And thankfully, this is precisely what He promises to do in Romans 8:26, as the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with groanings too deep for words.
So how do we seek to relate to God and others when our pain is too deep for words, especially if we are struggling to believe the reality of His goodness, love, and care in the midst of our adverse circumstances? A few closing thoughts:
- Take comfort in the compassion of God to translate your groanings into prayers. He does not demand our human ability to offer amazingly crafted words of prayer in order to reach His ears and move His hand. He does not stand with folded arms and tapping foot until we can pray correctly. Rather, He rushes to our aid, reading our hearts and taking upon Himself the task of praying for us when we know not how. Moan with a Godward heart, and He will hear.
- Remember the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). While we simply cannot wrap our minds around the necessity of our sufferings in God’s eternal plan, we can know this: God does not look down on us from distant ivory towers. Rather, He entered into the squalor of the human ghetto called Earth and took up residence on the roughest block. Jesus understands your suffering. He understands your suffering because He suffered, that your sin might be paid for, and that you might be relieved of everlasting suffering in hell and know everlasting bliss in His coming kingdom.
- Hang onto the words of God. God is never a bad counselor. God is never an insensitive friend. God is never unwilling or unable to shoulder the weight of your burden. He knows exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to say it, and He has said it all in His Word. His Word is our only hope in our affliction. His Word gives life to the soul that clings to the dust. His Word strengthens the soul that melts away for sorrow. His Word comforts us in our affliction. His Word makes us hope. His Word gives us life when we are severely afflicted. His Word gives us hope when we rise before dawn and cry for help. His Word gives light to our path (Psalm 119). Hear God speak His words to you by reading His Word. And use His Word as a means of speaking to Him in prayer, making His words and the words of His people in history your own words back to Him.
- Don’t give up on opening yourself up to other believers. Yes, sometimes their words will hurt you rather than help you. Yes, sometimes you will be misunderstood. Yes, sometimes they may fail to understand you and relate to you. But the fact remains that we are a spiritual body. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’’’ (1 Corinthians 12:21). God purposes to build you up through His body, so don’t give up on His people and neglect His means of grace. After all, Jesus had more reason to keep to Himself than anybody. Who could help and encourage the very Son of God in His darkest hour in Gethsemane? Yet in utterly shocking fashion (as are so many of Jesus’ words and actions), He does the unimaginable. He tells Peter, James, and John that His soul is very sorrowful, even to death, and invites them to remain and watch with Him while He prays (Matthew 26:38). And as we know, they failed to encourage Jesus, they failed to pray for strength against their own pending temptation, and they failed to even stay awake! Yet none of that kept Jesus from seeking to invite others into sharing His suffering, and as weak human beings, how much more must we seek to invite others to aid us in our suffering.
So let us press on in hope that we are being carried along by the triune God. And let us look forward to the day when words will never again fail us, when we will perfectly communicate with one another and perfectly communicate with our God, in a perfectly wonderful new heavens and new earth. Come, Lord Jesus!