When We Don't Know How To Pray

On September 6th Sunday I preached from Matthew 7:17-18 on prayer. This was a kick-off for the “Sermon on the Mount Study” beginning on Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. Also on Wednesday evenings a 6 p.m. a study on prayer – the “War Room” - will begin for a new ladies class. This blog and a number of blogs to follow will focus on this important subject of prayer.

In the same way, too, the Spirit comes alongside and helps us in our weakness. We don’t know what to pray for as we ought to; but he same spirit pleads on our behalf, with groanings too deep for words. And the Searcher of Hearts knows what the Spirit is thinking, because the Spirit pleads for God’s people according to God’s will.

We know, in fact, that God works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. Those he foreknew, you see, he also marked out in advance to be shaped according to the model of the image of his son, so that he might be the firstborn of a large family. And those he marked out in advance, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.                               (Romans 8:26-30, Kingdom New Testament). 

The versions differ as to whether verse 26 is saying in our weakness we don’t know how to pray, or we don’t know what to pray for. The New King James prefers the latter, while the New Jerusalem Bible “we do not know how to pray properly.” Moffatt has “we do not know how to pray aright,” and Barclay has “we do not know what to pray for.” The Greek allows it either way. The point is in our weakness, such as when we are overcome by grief or facing a serious health problem, the Holy Spirit is there for us, even praying for us when we can’t pray for ourselves. There is even the inference if we are praying for the wrong things, the Spirit will make that correction.

Carl Ketcherside used to tell the story of a new Christian who was learning to pray, and at last decided he was ready to lead the congregation in prayer. But when Carl called on him he got no further than “Our Father who art in heaven.” Fumbling, he started over and got no further than “Our Father” when again he went blank. Carl finished the prayer, and afterward told the brother his prayer must have been one of the beautiful prayers ever emanating from the congregation. The brother retorted, “What do you mean, you saw how I messed up. I was lost for words.” Carl explained, “Oh, I heard what you said, but I didn’t hear what the Holy Spirit said to the Father on your behalf.”

It is such an encouraging blessing to believe that God is always with us and in us through the visitation of the Holy Spirit, especially in our weakness, even to make intercession for us. Our text promises that “the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered.” It may appear odd that the spirit would be groaning, but in praying for us the Spirit takes our groanings and gives them words only God, “who knows the mind of the spirit,” understands. This really is a WOW!

It is an interesting endeavor to study the various names of, titles, and descriptions of God scattered around the New Testament. In John’s gospel, Jesus regularly refers to God in terms of his own mission: “the Father who sent me.” Here in Romans itself, God has been referred to variously as “the one who raised Jesus from the dead” (4:24; 8:11). Now, in this passage, we have an equally powerful but more mysterious title: “And the Searcher of Hearts knows what the spirit is thinking, because the Spirit pleads for God’s people according to God’s will” (v. 27, Kingdom NT). This is both a disturbing and an exciting idea.

We have already been told God will eventually judge all human secrets (2:16). Paul insisted God will reserve praise for the person who is a Jew “in secret” as opposed to mere outward qualification (2:29). But verse 27 in our passage from Romans 8 goes a step further. The word “searcher” comes from a root which suggests someone lighting a torch and going slowly around a large, dark room full of all sorts of things, looking for something in particular. Or perhaps he is searching in the dark, by listening. What is he wanting to find, and what happens when he finds it?

No doubt God, in searching the dark spaces of our hearts, comes across all sorts of things which we would just as soon remained hidden. But the things he is wanting to find above all else, and which according to Paul he ought to find in all Christians, is the sound of the spirit’s groaning.

He has just declared the world is in pain, groaning in the birth-pangs of new creation. He also said that the church shares this pain, groaning in our longing for our own redeemed bodies, suffering in the tension between the “already” or possessing the first fruits of the Spirit and the “not yet” of our present mortal existence. The church is not to be apart from the pain of the world; now we discover that God himself does not stand apart from the pain both of the world and the church, but comes to dwell in the middle of it in the person and power of the Spirit.

Paul’s understanding of the Spirit is new and striking at this point. At the very moment when we are struggling to pray, and have no idea even what to pray for, at that point the Spirit is most obviously at work. The Spirit calls out of us not articulate speech – that would be a relief, and we are not yet ready for relief in this work of prayer – but a groaning which cannot at the moment come into words. This is prayer beyond prayer, diving down into the cold, dark depths beyond human sight or knowing.

But not beyond the Searcher of Hearts. As part of Paul’s picture, not just of the world or the church, but of God, we discover the transcendent creator is continually in communion with the Spirit who dwells in the hearts of his people. God understands what the Spirit is saying, even though we do not. God hears and answers the prayer which we only know as painful groanings, the tossings and turnings of an unquiet spirit standing before its maker with the pains and puzzles of the world heavy on its heart. There is a challenge here to every church, and every Christian: to be willing to shoulder the task of prayer of this kind, prayer in which we are caught up in loving, groaning, redeeming dialogue between the Father and the Spirit.

This is what our “glorified” sovereignty over the world looks like in practice in the present age. The challenge to suffer with the Messiah in order to be glorified with him means, to be sure, being ready for all kinds of physical suffering, persecution and the like (8:35-36). That is what often comes from worshiping the true God while the world is still out of joint. But, just as personal holiness is to be seen as taking responsibility in the present for that part of the created order most obviously under our own control, in anticipation of the day when we shall “reign in life” over considerably larger spheres, so prayer, seen in the light of verses 26 and 27, can be understood as taking responsibility for that larger world itself, in advance of the new creation, and as sharing in the sufferings of the Messiah as we do so. To be sure, there are plenty of things in the world for which we can and must pray articulately. But there are plenty of others where all we can do is be still in God’s presence and allow the Spirit to groan, and the Searcher of Hearts to search for that groaning and to recognize it as what it is: suffering according to the pattern of the Messiah.

Being conformed in this way to the image of God’s Son is in fact, what God has purposed for us all along. Prayer of this kind is simply part of the “conforming’ process, as there appears in our hearts that love for God of which, as can be seen in Romans 5:5, the ancient Jewish “Shema” prayer had spoken. When we are thus marked out as God’s people, not outwardly but in the secret prayers and loves of our inmost being, we can be completely sure that God is in charge, that he can bring good out of whatever happens. Verse 28, “We know, in fact, that God works all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” is a much-loved promise for many who have learned by it to trust God in the many varied and often troubling circumstances of our lives. The world is still groaning, and we with it; but God is with us in this groaning, and will bring it out for good. There appears to be a connection between the Spirit as intercessor and all things working for good. It might be put this way as an affirmation of faith: Since the indwelling Holy Spirit helps us in our infirmities and makes intercession for us in our helplessness we can be assured that in all things, even in tragedies, God works for our good, to us who love God and who are called according to His purpose.

This belief broadens out into Paul’s climatic statement, in verses 29 and 30, God’s purpose for all his children. God chose us, we did not chose him. Paul concentrates on that which God planned and purposed for them: that they should be shaped into the pattern or model of Jesus, the true “image of God,” becoming thereby genuinely human as they join the family as younger brothers and sisters of the truly human one.

The last verse sets out the simple but profound steps by which God goes to work to call out those who, in his purpose, are now to share the image of his Son, to be among those summoned to advance his work in the world. Those who were marked out for this task in the first place have been, mysteriously, ‘called’; Paul uses “call” as a technical term for what happens when the preaching of the gospel works powerfully in someone’s life to bring them to faith, to urge them to baptism, and to flood their hearts with love for God by the Spirit. When the gospel produces faith in this way God declares the person to be indeed a true member of the family: the word for that is “justification.” And the purpose of it all, a purpose which is every bit as secure as those that have gone before, so much so that like the others it can be spoken of in the past tense, is that they may be “glorified,” sharing the Messiah’s sovereign, redeeming rule over the whole creation. Our whole passage seems designed to remind us both of the sovereignty of God and of the fact that this sovereignty is always exercised in love.

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