“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs that cannot be uttered.” Romans 8:26
This verse is a favorite for many Christians, but before we delve into the particulars let’s begin by noticing an important admission by Paul: he did not know how to pray as he should. In any list of “the most important Christians of the first century” I would wager Paul is going to make the top three. So here we have one of the greatest Christians, the author of nearly half the documents in the New Testament, who often in those documents enjoined us to “pray constantly” admitting that he’s really not very good at it.
Prayer is a basic tool of the Christian trade, so this rather stunning admission may sound akin to your thoracic surgeon telling you he’s not very adept with the scalpel. But there is one important difference: prayer is much more mysterious and vastly deeper than thoracic surgery. Prayer is at once amazingly accessible and tremendously baffling. Pray openly and honestly because God invites it, but never for a moment believe that you have become skillful. Even Paul felt inadequate. So what should we learn about prayer from this verse that will encourage us to pray?
First, this verse answers an important question: How important is prayer to God? Prayer is so important that one part of the Trinity is devoted to listening to our prayers and “bringing” them to God. We must not trip over any thought of a reluctant God not wanting to hear our prayers. Paul’s point, and the truth of this verse, is that God wants to assure us of His intense interest in hearing and responding because He loves us. You may not pray as you should, but the problem is not with an uninterested God.
Second, the Spirit’s intercession for us transcends definition. The word for intercede can mean to plead. The Spirit pleads our case. The word for sighs can be used of someone who is in distress. These word pictures are beautiful images not concrete descriptions. Just as Paul’s journey to the third heaven gave him insights which “cannot be told or uttered” (2 Cor. 12:4) this revelation of prayer leaves him struggling for words. The picture Paul paints for us here is of the Spirit genuinely longing to hear our prayers and earnestly seeking an understanding of them that is greater than our own. He also appears to be working our requests into God’s great providence (note: “the Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God” in 8:27).
Third, we must not conceive of this work of the Spirit as something external to us. In other, words, do not think of your praying alone in your room, prattling on about this and that, and then having the Spirit hear in heaven and somehow “translate” your incompetent utterings. No, that simply won’t do! Particularly in Romans 8 Paul has driven home the point that as Christians we walk according to the Spirit (8:4), are now “in the Spirit” and “the Spirit dwells within us” (8:9), “are led by the Spirit” (8:14), and experience the Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (8:16). Paul would have us understand that the Spirit, who is in us by birthright, is deeply involved in our prayers and, in some manner, shares in both the origin and reception of them. He is praying with you.
So what do we do with all of this mystery? A concrete testimony is appropriate. Harry Fosdick, one the greatest preachers of the 20th Century, suffered a deep depression as a young minister. Of this “horrid experience” he wrote, “I learned to pray, not because I had adequately argued out prayer’s rationality, but because I desperately needed help from a Power greater than my own. I learned that God, much more than a theological proposition, is an immediately available Resource; that just as around our bodies is a physical universe from which we draw all our physical energy, so around our spirits is a spiritual Presence in living communion with whom we can find sustaining strength.”
None of us can comprehend Romans 8:26, but we have enough light to be comforted by a thrilling truth. Prayer is a chief expression of an intensely personal relationship between you and God. Never let your lack of understanding, or even your feelings of ineptitude prevent you from praying. He understands you better than you understand yourself. Take anything to Him. Hide nothing. What good would that do anyway?
Your prayers are not orphan sobs in the darkness. You are a daughter or son of the Father, in Whom you are in constant contact. Pray, not because you fully understand it, but because you desperately need to, and the Spirit desperately wants to help you.
Dr. Terry Ellis
March 6, 2011