Missionary Diary: Praying out loud in Japanese

Church Missionary Society missionary Kellie Nicholas serves among university students in Japan. Here she offers an insight into the practical and spiritual struggles that come with praying out loud in a new language.

When I first arrived in Japan back in 2008, daily life was very challenging. I didn’t understand the language and culture, and I was greatly limited in what I could do as a result. As my language improved (very slowly) and I learned more about my new home, things gradually became easier (again, very slowly: think years, rather than months).

The right words

Praying out loud had always been something I found difficult, and my discomfort was amplified when it came to praying in Japanese.

When I was asked to pray in church and had time to prepare, and for someone to check it, I was able to do it, even if reluctantly. But really the struggle was when I was in a small group or with a friend, and we would share prayer points and then pray. In the early days, the stress of trying to understand what people were asking me to pray for was a problem. I felt self-conscious about praying when I wasn’t sure of the request, or how to find the right words to pray about it.

After more than 14 years, I still struggle to pray in Japanese.

Even as my Japanese has improved, after more than 14 years, I still struggle to pray in Japanese. Sometimes I make excuses and pray in English. Over the years, I have made renewed efforts to pray in Japanese, including trying to re-learn set patterns for prayers and even making a cheat sheet to keep in my Bible.

A spiritual battle

I have also come to view this challenge as a spiritual issue, rather than being connected to my proficiency in the Japanese language. It is mostly about my pride and the fear of being humiliated in front of other people. When you are praying with your eyes closed and head down, there are no visual clues from others to help you know if you have said something wrong, or even wildly heretical. Although I know that God understands what I am saying, no matter how I say it, I don’t want to make a fool of myself.

Recently, I became convicted that the devil loves it when I avoid praying in Japanese. It hinders ministry as it limits my ability to encourage, and pray with other people. It is also easy to become self-reliant when we avoid praying. The Holy Spirit is using this conviction to begin changing me and giving me courage to persevere with praying in Japanese.

Stumbling words

I’ve been praying more in Japanese, and although I feel encouraged, those old feelings of self-consciousness and dread still arise. I still feel reluctant to pray in Japanese. I still dread being asked to pray. And there are still times when I chicken out and pray in English (more often than I care to admit). But I pray that God will use my weakness and my stumbling words to encourage others and bring him glory.

This article was first published in Checkpoint, the CMS magazine.