Praying in a new language

Learning a new language is difficult. Awkward moments abound. Time and time again, you will talk to someone, trying to read their body language, nodding your head with them, saying, “Ja, ja, ja,” and all of a sudden they are waiting for the answer to their question that they are sure you have understood. (Those who say that half of conversation is body language are liars.) Sometimes you will understand most of the words someone else has said, but you are missing context — and without context, you have not understood what you thought you understood. Even when you are starting to get the hang of it, and feel confident to enter the outside world and not make a fool of yourself, one unfamiliar word at a cash register will out you as (gasp!) a foreigner.

One of the difficult aspects of language learning for us has been prayer. For us, prayer in German, whether it is before meals, in church settings, or otherwise, usually doesn’t go beyond the child’s constant prayer of “thank you God for this day.” It is quite a humbling experience!

However, just as it humbles us in our inability to articulate our thoughts, it is also humbling as we stand before God to think about what exactly we are praying.

Praying in a foreign language is, by necessity, a very slow and arduous experience. Here is what I prayed at our youth group last night: “Danke Gott für deine Gnade. Danke für neues Leben. Du bist meine Hoffnung. Danke für alles. Im Namen Jesus, Amen.” This is, obviously, a very short prayer. Translated, it means: “Thank you God for your grace. Thank you for new life. You are my hope. Thank you for everything. In Jesus’s name, Amen.” It is a very short and simple prayer.

I prayed it very slowly. Let’s just say I earned every syllable. It required constant thought about what I was going to say next — even just the next word. This slow, deliberate pace forced me to actually consider what I was saying and why. Rather than just saying what popped into my mind, or repeating some verse I remembered — which are both good! — I had to actually think about God’s grace, new life, and God as my hope. God truly saved me, even though I did not deserve it. Through that salvation I can be changed, I can toss off the sinful nature in favor of the new life that has come. I can place all of my hope in Jesus, for I know he will never fail me. What Good News this is!

Today in SHAPE we read Psalm 131. Verses 1-2 said, “Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” When praying in a new language, one cannot be proud — I can’t even brag about myself! I can’t concern myself with matters too great for me to grasp — I can hardly grasp the simplest concepts in German. Instead, I must calm my soul and become like a child. And I have not felt such a childlike faith in God as when I have attempted to pray in German. The feeling of genuine helplessness requires an utter dependence on God. It forbids empty words, for you don’t even know those words. And it is driven by gratitude toward the God who knows everything about me, and still decided to give me eternal life.

How awesome is that?

(This was originally posted at The Petersen Adventures.)

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