The (Foreign) Language of Prayer

Written by Madeline Robison
Published on September 22, 2020

Our son, Brent, is about to turn thirteen and is officially in the eighth grade. 

I don’t know if I am more proud of him for who he is becoming or for his steady math grade through our at-home schooling attempts. 

It’s a toss-up.

The scwabble stritcher

When Brent was right around four years old, he had the sweetest voice with such innocence and purity to it. It was almost lyrical. Now, he has grown into this man-child whose voice is so deep that I expect to turn and see a lumberjack when he talks from somewhere behind me. 

In his toddler years, Brent had trouble pronouncing certain words. He couldn’t always say what he really meant. I wrote some of his toddlerisms down and couldn’t help but smile when I came across them the other day. 

Three of my favorite sayings from that era were:

  1. “I have too many hands.”
  2. “Wet’s go to the scwabble stritcher.”
  3. “Is Daddy going to be in the carwash again?”

Reading those is practically time travel. I remember not only how he sounded, but also, the multiple times he said them. 

I always knew exactly what he meant.  

Number one—he had too many things in his hands to be able to pick up and put away another of his toys. Number two—”Let’s go to the cattle sculpture,” a fabulous life-size sculpture of a cattle drive that graces the southwest edge of downtown Dallas. Number three—”Is Daddy going to be in Washington, D.C. again soon?”

God as our simultaneous translator

This simultaneous translation is second-nature for any parent who spends time with his child. 

An eighteen-month-old asks for “bee-bees,” and while the rest of us look around utterly bewildered, the mom or dad reaches for blueberries. A fifteen-month-old says “ee-maw,” and right on cue, we see one of the parents get out the oatmeal.

There’s a wonderful familiarity and intimacy that comes for both parent and child when the child can say seemingly indecipherable things, maybe not even generally recognizable as English, and the mom or dad repeats to the child (in real English) exactly what the child is saying. You can just watch the twinkle in the little one’s eyes when he knows you understand him!

Somehow, that knowledge—that all parents do this—gets lost on us when we think of our heavenly Father and prayer.

Do we know that our heavenly Father understands us in the same way that any attentive, ever-present parent understands his own child?  

Do we really know that? 

Do we know that he cherishes the intimacy that comes with knowing us well and communicating with us? Or do we feel tongue-tied and at a loss for “the right” words, so much so that we allow that to keep us from reaching out to him in prayer?

Prayer is one of my favorite topics. Over the years, through reading about prayer and talking to hundreds of Christians about it, I’ve learned the sad truth that many committed Christians are afraid to pray. Many Christians say they don’t know how

They speak of not wanting to “mess up.”

God deems us worth it, even if we are not worthy of it


God is our Father, our heavenly Father

No matter what kind of earthly father we have or had, no matter whether our relationship with him was or is exemplary or disastrous, our heavenly Father is good (Nahum 1:7). He doesn’t think of us in terms of “messing up” when we talk to him. He thinks of us as his children, made in his image, worth his love even though we are not worthy of it.

He knows us (Psalm 139:1–2). He loves us (Ephesians 2:4–5). He has promised never to leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6).

His lovingkindness is from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 103:17). He loved us enough to move Heaven to earth in the form of a babe, just to have a relationship with us (John 3:16).

That very babe called God “Abba,” an intimate form of father that suggests closeness more than just familiarity (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).

Jesus shared an intimacy with God because, among other things, he approached him with the wide-eyed wonder and devotion of a child whose doting parent is a hero in his eyes. Jesus approached him with the heart-held conviction that God the Father understood him fully. 

We are not (and never will be) comparable to Jesus. But because God is God, we don’t have to be. He completely understands each of his children, not just the one who was without sin, not just the one he sent that we might come to know him better (I John 3:16; I John 4:10).

A prayer gift

It is true that God understands what we are saying whether or not we make sense or have the “right words,” just like any good parent of a beloved child. 

But God takes it a step further: when we pray, our heavenly Father understands not only the words we pray, but also the words our hearts mean. 

When we are too tired, afraid, confused, or sad—he understands. He knows what is in our hearts, whether or not we voice it effectively (I Samuel 16:7; Psalm 38:9).

We are sinners. Amazingly, he understands and loves us anyway (Romans 5:8).

Here’s another remarkable thing: God knew that we won’t always have words in the midst of our deepest grief, pain, confusion, waiting, wanting, and longing, so he gave us a prayer gift. He ascribed to the Holy Spirit the job of interceding on our behalf, when words fail us.

Romans 8:26 (NASB) says: “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” 

Are you getting that he desires to hear from you and that it’s not about perfection

It’s about presence: our presence in his. 

Don’t let prayer be a foreign language you are afraid to learn, let it be the outpouring of your heart to our good, good Father. No matter what comes out of your mouth—or from the groanings of the Holy Spirit—he knows what you are saying. And we are called to be obedient by saying it.

So you see, it is impossible to “mess up” this prayer thing except in one way: not praying at all. 

Our heavenly Father desires a relationship with us, not a grammatically-pristine, theologically-organized dissertation. He longs for simple fellowship. He longs for words and communication—the foundations of every healthy relationship. 

He cares more that we talk to him than he does about how we talk to him.

Once we understand that and begin acting on it, we can all work on the next thing that makes him happiest: when we listen to him.

Now, go eat some “ee-maw.” Maybe even take it to the “scwabble stritcher.”


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Madeline Robison

Madeline Robison has been caught up in the power of words – written, spoken, and sung – her whole life, which led to her studying French and Linguistics at her alma mater, Vanderbilt University. A seventh-generation Texan, she returned to Texas once she graduated, and a few years later she met and married her favorite person in the world, her husband Brian. They’ve been married twenty years and are grateful to be parents of four wonderful kids, one of whom has been in Heaven with Jesus since she was four years old. The Robisons are members of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, where Brian serves as an elder and Madeline has served as a deacon. She loves Buc-ee’s, Luccheses, homemade soup, baseball, 80s music, travel, and George Strait. She has recorded three albums of hymns in Nashville and will launch her new blog, madelinemama, in January 2020.

Read more about Madeline

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