Seven months ago, I did something I do not recommend to anyone.
I moved to a country where they don’t speak English and I don’t speak their language. Like, at all. Guatemala is a thoroughly Spanish country, and all my life, I took French in school. I think part of me assumed it would be like Europe, where everyone speaks English, even if they don’t. Lo and behold, a third-world country is not the same as majestic Europe, where education grows on trees.
So I’ve tried to get by. I’ve been learning slowly and surely, although I bet the locals would beg to differ. I came here knowing roughly four words, and now I know about twelve, but I somehow scrape by.
When I first arrived, I lived with a host family and made several mishaps early on. I once came home from the gym, sweating and hot, and found the mom in the kitchen. She turned to welcome me home and I announced, “Estoy caliente!”
She burst out laughing.
I soon learned that caliente does not actually mean ‘hot,’ but it’s a colloquial expression for ‘horny.’
Another night as we sat around the dinner table, I attempted to ask if there was more soup. Instead, I simply told the host mother that she is soup.
I have countless smaller stories of people laughing at my stabs at Spanish, but I’ve become accustomed to it. Early on, someone gave me a piece of advice I’ve taken to heart. They said that the people who will really improve their language are the ones who shamelessly try to speak it. The more you can let go of the fear of messing up, the better it will be. Sure, you’ll mess up, but it’s better than staying silent, or worse: Trying to get them to understand English.
I had initially stayed silent out of fear, but after being told that, I began just ‘going for it.’ I would shoot off all the Spanish I knew, trying to get the four words I knew to mean everything. It didn’t become much better, but I think the Guatemalans appreciate the effort. At the very least, they get to laugh at another gringo.
I was thinking about this idea of ‘shamelessly going for it’ and realized that it applies in more than just foreign languages. It applies readily to prayer.
I cannot tell you how many times, both as a youth pastor and a teacher, I’ve asked teens to pray and they instantly fall silent, shy and sheepish. I imagine their mentality is similar to mine upon arriving in Guaté: It’s better to stay silent than risk messing it up.
The problem with this mindset is, God would rather have us pray than not pray. He’d rather we take a blind stab at talking to Him than remain silent and not try at all. I think God is far more concerned with talking to His people than He is that they ‘get all the holy words right,’ as if that were a real thing.
In fact, Jesus taught the opposite many times: He condemned those who took pride in their righteous and eloquent prayers, and welcomed the lowly, humble and honest prayer.
I mean, do babies hesitate to speak before they’ve learned the language of their parents? Or do they just go for it without the social inhibitors of fear and pride? If you’ve ever been around a baby for more than five minutes, you know that they begin speaking years before they are fluent in any sort of language.
So why are we so afraid of speaking to God, whom Scripture tells us is a good Father?
The truth is, there is no special language you have to learn in order to pray well. My dad says that God cares more about the quantity of prayer and less about its quality. He cares less how you pray, and more just that you pray.
So, be like me who takes blind stabs at the Spanish language: Go before God and pray. Be honest. Be thorough. Don’t try to impress Him, as if He doesn’t know you better than you know yourself.