When Words Fail


“The new normal.” “Unprecedented/uncertain/challenging times.” A pandemic tends to expose the shortcomings of our common language. How do we describe a thing that is affecting us in ways that most of us haven’t experienced in our lifetime? We use tried and true clichés. We use unfamiliar terms like “social distancing” which quickly become familiar, then overused and tiresome. For the sake of clarity and communication, we need these common descriptors, but it seems like these words fail to appropriately describe what we are actually experiencing and especially what we are feeling deeply inside our spirits.

What does a new normal mean to us in unprecedented/uncertain/challenging times like the ones in which we find ourselves? I confess that I have a strong disdain for clichés, I try to avoid them at all costs when I speak. My current least favorite happens to be “it is what it is.” This saying has became the lazy answer for almost everything that we can’t explain or put words to. The “new normal” functions much in the same way. We simply have no way to predict what tomorrow looks like, even when things are “normal”; yet we know that when something like a pandemic or a terrorist attack happens, we will experience more unpredictability than what we have become accustomed to in our daily routines. The disruption of our routines can be deeply unsettling, causing anxiety—even grief—a sense of loss that is difficult to put into words. So we say things like “we are all just going to have to adapt to a new normal.” Think about that statement and the reality of its meaning. The truth we knew yesterday is no longer true. How we function today has to be different from yesterday. Innocence is lost. We mourn the old (if we have time) and try to embrace the new; while we can’t actually share a literal embrace with another person to comfort each other in this “new normal.”

I haven’t gotten sick yet, no one within my closest circle has either. I see the suffering created by the Corona virus in the world around me. And yet, this virus and it’s effects on my world have revealed something in my spirit. Something I have found difficult to put into words. Frustration, anger, sadness, loss, fear and anxiety, suspicion of others… just to use a few descriptive words. I don’t like the fruit it has produced in me, I know that. And still, those words don’t seem adequate. Sometimes words just don’t. 

Believers often joke about the shortest verse in the Bible. Everyone knows it and can quote it. “Jesus wept.” Have you ever thought about the gravity of that two word verse in John 11:35? Words failed the creator of the universe. God, wrapped in human flesh, was overcome by the emotion of seeing the pain and suffering of His friends and community. He knew what he was about to do. He knew why He had allowed the death of Lazarus to happen. He knew everything; and yet He could not and did not speak. He wept. He wept because it hurt. Jesus was human. He is the God who understands all the pain and suffering human beings experience. He understands the limitations of our human languages. He understands weeping simply because the grief is too much to bear and words fail.

In Romans 8:22-27, Paul speaks three times of “groaning” when words fail. Creation and humans groan in hope for something better. A world without pain (and viruses); a world that is yet to come. Paul then turns the reader’s attention back to the world as it is, a reality that often leaves one speechless. In times when a believer’s words fail, they know that the only outlet for what is happening in their spirit is to pray, yet they don’t know what exactly to pray. How can you pray about something that you can’t put into words? The Holy Spirit communicates with the human spirit. Many believers understand the role of the Holy Spirit to communicate the things of God to us. It is how we hear God. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Spirit also speaks to God on our behalf. Amazingly, there are times when words fail for the ultimate communicator, and even the Holy Spirit resorts to groaning. These deep, wordless groans are beautiful, they are understood by God. He understands the depths of what words cannot express. He hears and understands the unspoken and the unspeakable. When words fail, our triune God does not, even in unprecedented/uncertain/challenging times like these. So when you are overwhelmed, allow yourself to inwardly groan trusting that the Son identifies with the human side of your inexpressible feelings, that the Holy Spirit communicates the incommunicable to the Father on your behalf, and He is faithful to minister to your soul in times of trouble (and viruses).