‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’ Romans 8:26-27
Yesterday I finished another book by one of my favourite authors of historical detective fiction, Edward Marston. It was one of his ‘Railway Detective’ series set against the background of Victorian industrial expansion. We all have our favourite authors and most Ministers have their favourite theological authors, those whose Biblical commentaries they pick off the shelves when grappling with a text of scripture. Mine is the Australian Leon Morris, so I start today’s message with a quote from his commentary on today’s Epistle, Romans 8:
“It is easy to become discouraged in our praying because we are conscious that we do it so badly, but we are not left to our own devices. The Spirit intercedes for us.”
There are not many of us who would give ourselves 10 out of 10 for our praying. We might feel we don’t pray often enough, long enough, carefully enough, correctly enough, spiritually enough or well enough. We worry that God won’t hear us if we get the words wrong or if our mind wanders. In todays reading St Paul wants to put our hearts at rest and encourage us to pray resting in and relying on the understanding and power of the Holy Spirit. The evil one would love us just to give up and sometimes whispers in our ears ‘Why bother to pray, it won’t make any difference and why should God bother listening to you?” Paul’s words are designed to send that nonsense packing and to liberate us to pray in the knowledge that we are talking to our Heavenly Father who loves it when His children spend time with Him and is profoundly not bothered if we get the words wrong or even the subjects wrong. He has got taken care of that in a wonderful way that not only helps our practical praying but also takes us to the heart of God the Holy Trinity.
The Spirit’s strength and our weakness
A few weeks ago I had a flat tyre on the A303. Jacking up the car and changing the wheel is something I used to do…..but don’t fancy attempting now. The RAC was called and with the engineer’s powerful jack, pump and torque wrench the job was done in no time. What seemed impossible to me was straightforward for him. I needed help from someone who had the knowledge and ability to get the job done.
That’s exactly what the word ‘help’ means in v 26. It is only used once elsewhere in the New Testament when Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to come and help her get the meal ready. It speaks of a closeness of understanding and working together to make things happen. Paul tells us that is how the Holy Spirit feels about our prayers. He wants to help us in our weakness to pray for the things on God’s list and on ours and to pray about them in the ways we already know and in new ways that wouldn’t naturally cross our minds.
We often start by praying for people we love and their needs as we understand them. God knows them and their needs even better than we do.
The Spirit’s sighs and our words
There are times when we pray and feel that our words simply run out. There may even be occasions when, as we have been praying for a person or situation which troubles us very deeply when we feel our tears have been cried out. Romans 8:26 tells us that the Holy Spirit takes our unspoken words, our deepest unformed thoughts, adds His own perfect understanding and prays them in ways we don’t need to understand but which will be heard perfectly by God the Father.
Let me make this very practical. Suppose you are praying for a member of your family who is in great need. Perhaps their marriage is in trouble, or they are very unwell. they have lost their job or are in a situation which seems unremittingly dark with no clear way out. You simply don’t know what else to pray for them. Be still, find a quiet place or go for a walk holding them in your mind’s eye. Ask the Holy Spirit to pray with you, through you and for you, then go back to life knowing that all you should have prayed has been prayed and prayed in the very throne room of heaven within the counsel of the Holy Trinity.
Just a few verses later, Romans 8:34, we are told that Christ intercedes for us, praying for us not in judgement but in love and in the triumph of His death and resurrection. That’s quite a thought isn’t it? We always have two people praying for us, even when we feel at our lowest ebb or imagine nobody knows or cares: God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Leon Morris finds it encouraging that St Paul puts himself alongside the Christians in Rome as being in the ‘Us’ who need the help of the Holy Spirit as we pray rather than as the great Apostle standing above us as the one who has got it right. Perfect prayer is not something that we ever pray by ourselves, but, as with every area of the Christian life, it is the gift of God; something He does and from which we benefit.
As I write this I’m aware that for some of us we may just need to take a first few steps in praying. In which case, the advice of the Lord Jesus is the best place to begin: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father.” (Matthew 6:6) Take a notepad and biro, then you can right down all the distracting thoughts ‘I must order some more washing powder, I must phone the vet’ etc. Start with the Lord’s Prayer and just talk to your Heavenly Father knowing that you are not alone and that if and when words run out the Holy Spirit has got it covered.
The Very Revd Robert Key