In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
-Romans 8:26-27 (NIV)
Demi Lovato performed her song "Anyone" at the Grammys on Sunday. Lovato has been forthcoming about her struggles with addiction and depression, and the lyrics of the song speak to the isolation she’s clearly felt:
I feel stupid when I sing
I talk to shooting stars
But they always get it wrong
I feel stupid when I pray
So, why am I praying anyway?
If nobody's listening
Anyone, please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone…
Lovato isn’t the only one who’s felt alone. But the nature of feeling alone is that you do feel like you’re the only one. You need someone. Anyone. But there’s nobody.
We can feel alone in the middle of crowds. We can feel alone while wrapped up in frenetic activity. Lovato proves that we can feel alone when millions hang on every word we sing or speak or write. We can feel alone in comfortable homes, with families who love us.
Lovato’s song resonates, I think, because human beings need to know that someone is listening to them.
Without that, we feel isolated.
Even when we pray.
See, here’s what we might not understand sometimes: If you don’t feel like the people around you hear you, then you’re not going to feel like God does either. Sure, I could tell you that God’s listening, even when no one else is. I’d be right if I told you that. But it’s awfully hard to believe that God hears from heaven when the people you share a life, an office, a school, a church, a home, even a bed with don’t seem to. It’s hard to imagine the Creator of the universe wants to listen to you if you don’t think the people closest to you do.
For that reason, those of us who claim that God hears us, whoever we are, should be the world’s best listeners. We need to do a better job of hearing those around us, and of showing them that we’re willing to go below the surface pleasantries that some feel like they never get beyond.
The climate in which we live discourages us from listening. We’re told that needing to be heard is weakness, that those like Lovato who plead for someone, anyone, to listen to them are “snowflakes” who aren’t tough enough for the real world. But all of us need someone to really hear us, even those of us who are ashamed of it.
We’re also conditioned to ignore those who disagree with us. The default in our world is to shut out contrary voices from our dinner tables, friendship circles, churches, social media, and political discourse. We too often develop opinions on privilege, racism, poverty, immigration, health care, or a host of other issues without ever listening to someone whose experience of those things has been different from our own. Instead of listening, we create echo chambers for ourselves that reflect our own voices back to us.
But James reminds us that believers in Jesus “should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Our society teaches us pretty much the opposite: Use the time someone else is talking to formulate your rebuttal. Get angry when they don’t agree with you. Cut them out of your discourse. But James goes on to connect the inability to hear each other with the inability to hear God. Those habits by which we build our echo chambers also make God’s voice sound suspiciously like our own.
Jesus never shut out others’ voices. Part of his incarnation is that he hears us. Bartimaeus, the Canaanite woman — their cries for help embarrassed Jesus’ followers, but not Jesus. He heard them. Jesus listens, without anger, without judgment, and without fail. When we needed someone, anyone, to listen, God sent him.
May his followers listen, too. May we listen to people who are different from us, people we don’t understand, even people whose lifestyles and choices we can’t condone. After all, when we’re honest we have to admit that people following Jesus can’t condone all of our choices, either! Right? And aren’t we glad that Jesus hears us even then?
I need to say something else, though. If you’re feeling that no one’s listening, I do need to tell you that God is. If you can identify with Lovato’s lament that she feels stupid when she prays, if you wonder with her just why in the world you should pray anyway, then you need to know that God is listening. Whether it feels that way to you or not, God is listening.
This is one of the places where our postmodern belief that feelings equal truth fails us. Feelings affect what we perceive to be true, that’s correct. But feeling that the ice on a frozen pond will hold your weight doesn’t necessarily mean that it will. Feeling that your new crush is the one you’ll be with forever doesn’t preclude the possibility that one day he or she may not feel the same way. And feeling that God isn’t listening doesn’t mean that it’s true. We can’t always be led by our feelings. There have to be some things that we know are true, no matter what our feelings tell us.
So if you feel stupid when you pray, then pray anyway.
Paul tells us in Romans that God is at work when we pray. No, we don’t know what to pray for. We don’t know what to say. We aren’t sure it does any good, sometimes. But when a believer prays, God’s Spirit acts. God himself, in his Spirit, takes our confused ramblings and incoherent groaning and creates from them beautiful prayers from our hearts to God’s. God listens to our prayers because he wants to. He works at listening to our prayers. Whether it feels that way to you or not, trust that he hears.
And be the Anyone he sends to hear someone else.