All things were clear in the Garden of Eden.
Every word was spoken and received as it was intended, and every expression was unmasked as Adam and Eve walked and talked with God. They knew perfect communication with their Creator.
And then, with one awful choice, sin pierced the world like a bullet through glass. Everything shattered. Shame and fear fractured Adam and Eve’s ability to talk with God, driving them into hiding at the sound of his footsteps (Genesis 3:8).
Prayer and brokenness have been entangled ever since.
The Brokenness of the World
I recently got to spend time cuddling our good friends’ beautiful newborn boy. It was a sweet day full of pictures, smiles, hugs and adorably teeny clothes. But it was also raw and achy. Their little son shares a birthday with his big brother, but his brother isn’t here to celebrate; he died suddenly in his sleep two years ago.
How do you pray when one of your babies lives and another dies, with no explanation or guarantee it won’t happen again?
When our friends laid their firstborn in a grave, they had no words left. They could barely breathe, much less formulate coherent prayers.
But that didn’t stop them from praying. Their prayers were muffled sobs in the middle of the empty night, agonized screams in the shower and stunned silence in a noisy crowd. They gasped God’s promises aloud, word by faltering word, and held onto Scripture while waves of horror tried to sweep them away.
In those early days, my friends offered every movement and breath as a prayer to the God who promised to hold them through their nightmare. Even now, with a healthy new baby, they still often struggle to find words that communicate the longing they have for their family to be healed and whole.
The jagged edges of this broken world slice into our tender souls, introducing fear and pain before we even learn how to speak. We grow familiar with heartache, suffering, death, injustice, man-made atrocities and natural disasters. It can be overwhelming and make it difficult to know what to pray for. So sometimes we’re hesitant to pray anything at all.
But our communication with God isn’t the only casualty of the choices Adam and Eve made in the Garden of Eden.
The Brokenness of Others
As soon as sin came on the scene, it created a divide — not just between God and humankind, but also between individual people. Conflict and self-focus immediately began to shape Adam and Eve’s relationship with each other (Genesis 3:16-17).
Communication between individuals continues to be impacted by sin — even within the body of Christ. This can be especially harmful when prayer is involved. Have you ever known someone who shared gossip under the guise of a “prayer request,” elaborating on salacious details out of supposed concern for those involved? Too many people have been hurt by things wrapped in spiritual sounding language, myself included.
Several years ago, someone professing to speak under the influence of the Holy Spirit offered to pray for me. Then, with others listening in, she spent several minutes listing my perceived sins as well as unhealthy behaviors she thought I was engaging in. I was then challenged to confess to things I hadn’t done.
It was a humiliating and frightening experience. And it honestly took awhile for me to trust anyone to pray for me again, or to feel comfortable praying in a group.
Sadly, I’ve met many others who struggle with similar trust issues because of ways they’ve been harmed or misled by people claiming to speak for God; many of them even wonder if they can trust God himself. How can we pray when prayer feels unsafe?
We can begin by telling God that we’re afraid to pray and by acknowledging the wounds caused by people claiming to speak on his behalf and with his authority. People’s brokenness doesn’t shock God; he can compassionately handle our fear, anger and mistrust of others.
But as agonizing as it can be to experience the brokenness in others, perhaps the most painful place we encounter the effects of sin is within our own hearts.
The Brokenness in Ourselves
Jeremiah 17:9 (NLT) bluntly describes our sinful nature: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?”
It’s uncomfortable to face our destructive choices and patterns, so much so that we sometimes ignore their reality. King David did this in the wake of his most infamous sin. For several months after he stole another man’s wife and had him killed, David went about his daily business, seemingly unaffected by guilt or consequences — until the prophet Nathan showed up and rebuked him to his face (2 Samuel 12:1-12).
Devastated when the truth of his actions caught up with his heart, David cried out to God: “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins. Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night” (Psalm 51:1-3, NLT).
Few things are more sobering than when the reality of our rebellion catches up with our hearts and we see its destructive ripples. In such excruciating moments of self-awareness, we can feel paralyzed and wordless. How can we pray when all we want to do is cry and disappear? How can we call out to God in repentance like David when all we want to do is hide like Adam and Eve?
We can pray in the midst of our brokenness because God invites us to come to him when we’ve created a mess, when we’re reeling and when our world seems desperately out of control — and he makes a way for us to come and be understood. He accepts and transforms even our most garbled attempts at prayer.
Broken Prayers Made Whole
We don’t have to find words to express all the ways we struggle with the brokenness in the world, others and ourselves, because this promise is true:
“For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will” (Romans 8:22-27, NLT).
All creation is broken. Humankind is broken. Even our prayers are broken. But the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf with his own wordless groans, and our Father understands. Even after everything David did and endured, he was still confident of this: “The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust” (Psalm 103:13-14, NLT).
Yes, we are broken people in a broken world, but first — and most importantly — we are children of a tender heavenly Father who welcomes every unsteady step toward him and every babbled or broken expression of our hearts.
Your Turn to Talk With God
As you think about what it looks like to pray as God’s child, ask yourself these questions and then talk honestly with God about your answers:
When have I felt too broken to pray?
How would talking with God as his child — who is welcomed, loved, and understood in my weakness — change the way I approach him when I’m hurting?
What is one area where I need to trust the Holy Spirit to pray and groan on my behalf?