In fact, at times, they can be downright overrated.
Consider a woman whose husband has just died. Neighbor A drops by the house and because of her own awkwardness with tragedy, fills the air with supposedly comforting verbiage.
She tells the neighbor that God has perhaps, spared the widow's husband from even worse suffering he might have endured had he lived, that he's better off in heaven, that she and her husband will look in on her from time to time and that she only needs to call for help no matter the hour of day or night, that she'll feel better soon, and blah, blah, blah, blah.
You can be certain that the widow is praying that God will send this neighbor with all of her words away soon...preferably to somewhere inside the Arctic Circle.
Later that day, Neighbor B comes to see the widow. When the widow greets the neighbor at her door, Neighbor B may have a casserole or a dinner in hand, but she makes no move to barge into the house. And she remembers that this visit isn't about her or about befouling the atmosphere with words designed to insulate her or her neighbor from the reality of what's happened.
She says simply, "We're thinking of you. Here's a little something. Call if you need anything." Struck by Neighbor B's few words, the widow may invite her in.
With that, Neighbor B sits down and asks how the widow is faring in the midst of her trauma.
The words that pass between them are few.
There are long silences.
Some of the widow's sentences trail off into whispers and unspoken words that shout volumes of feeling, grief, hope, and longing.
Neighbor B bravely endures the silences. She senses how much her neighbor needs them, even though she wishes that there were something she could say to banish the hurt.
One year later, the widow, still dealing with her grief, but in a different place with it, tells Neighbor B that their virtually silent conversation immediately following her husband's death was exactly what she needed. It had been a still island of hope and comfort in the midst of a chaotic ocean of grief.
Words aren't everything.
I bring this up because presently in this series, I'm addressing the myths about prayer that sometimes keep people from praying or from experiencing prayer to its fullest.
Myth #2: "I don't ever seem to find the right words to pray."
But even in prayer, words aren't everything. So, let me say a few words about words and prayer.
First: God isn't necessarily impressed by lots of words when we pray. My wife and I once attended a kickoff meeting for a major ecumenical outreach in our community. There were all sorts of community leaders, not just from the churches, but also from government, business, and academia.
It was a great event until one of the local pastors was asked to come forward and lead us in prayer. For whatever reason, the man went on and on and on and...well, you get the idea.
Was God impressed? I don't know. Maybe. Perhaps that preacher's long-winded style didn't seem wordy to him or to God. But it sure did to me and my wife.
It may have been unfair, but right then, I couldn't help remembering Jesus' words condemning religious leaders who, "for the sake of appearance say long prayers" (Mark 12:40).
You and I can't fool God. He knows us inside out. If we think that wordy prayers make us look good to God, we only fool ourselves. If we say them publicly in order to impress others, we're trying to please the wrong audience anyway. In prayer, God only wants "truth in the inward being," down-in-the-gut honesty. (Psalm 51:6)
God is less interested in the word counts of our prayers than in how much we count on Him when we pray.
Second: God can fill our silence before with prayer--with meaningful communication--even when we are clueless about what to pray. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to all who follow Him. About the Holy Spirit and prayer, the Bible says:
...the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. [Romans 8:26-27]Comedian Woody Allen once said that 90% of life is about showing up. I can tell you confidently that 100% of our praying is about showing up, about approaching God and wanting him to work in the lives and circumstances about which we pray. You aren't required to have the right words, just the right attitude, the willingness to let God in and do His will. God will take our wordless sighs and turn them into custom-made prayers from our spirits to God's Spirit!
Don't be afraid to silently open your heart and will to God. Take some time soon to simply let that be the content of your prayer. As was true between the widow and Neighbor B, you may experience more honest communication between God and you in the silence than you ever could in words.
To read more on this subject, check out:
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 2
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 3
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 4
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 5
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 6