Do you remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh? He talked about it in 2 Corinthians 12. He wrote that it was “a messenger of Satan, to torment” him, and then he went on to say that “he pleaded with the Lord three times,” right? Paul pleaded and prayed for the Lord to take that thorn away! He thought God ought to do that for him. He maybe thought it would make his testimony for Christ that much greater. But God didn’t think that. Instead, he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
So, today, that same Paul, wants to talk to us about our own prayers. Prayer is an interesting thing – you would maybe agree. This idea that we can verbally or non-verbally speak to God and he hears those prayers, that’s pretty nuts! And sometimes the way God answers prayers…remember when Elijah was duking it out with those prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. For an entire day those prophets of Baal prayed shouting, screaming, cutting themselves, asking for Baal to rain fire down on their sacrifice, and nothing, Then Elijah does what? He prays – once – a short simple prayer, and fire rained down from the sky. Just incredible.
Throughout the Bible we see instances of the power of prayer – remember when Joshua prayed for the sun to stand still, and it did! – and it’s exciting and uplifting to hear those stories. But often it seems like prayers answered by God in such breathtaking fashion are few and far between. And we maybe wonder why that is…am I doing something wrong? Am I asking for the wrong thing? Did I offend God in some way? Sometimes those questions and thoughts lead us to not want to pray. After all, what’s the point if God doesn’t seem interested in what I have to say; he will do what he wants, what he wills, anyway. Maybe part of the problem is we think that prayers is all about us; a way for us to get what we want from God.
Yet, we know we are to pray. God commands it even. “Pray continually,” he says. But so often it doesn’t seem to be that simple. Jesus’ own disciples realized this. They once asked Jesus to “teach” them how to pray. Apparently, this desire to learn how to pray still exists today as there are countless books written on the topic. Perhaps, you own a few. So, maybe, praying isn’t so simple. Maybe, it’s harder than we think. And, I could ask you that age-old question, “How’s your prayer life?” But, forgive me, I despise that question. I don’t think it’s beneficial to compare our prayer lives. So, instead, whether you feel your prayer life is pretty good, or, whether you feel there is a deep need for improvement, what Paul writes and shares with us today is meant to bless us all in our conversations with God.
The first thing Paul does is he points out our weakness – it’s a pretty simple one. He writes, “We do not know what we ought to pray for.” There is no truer statement. I mean, what do I pray for at the bedside of a loved one whose health is deteriorating? Someone whom I may want to live for many more years? Continued life or swift death? How do I pray for a fractured country, for leaders and citizens whose views seem so counter to my own? What do I say to God in those moments of my own life when I really just need some help, someone to care? Often, the words that come out of our mouths seems so feeble, unconvincingly, unsure even. This is our weakness. We don’t know what to pray for.
It’s a pretty slick trick the Devil uses in these moments. He takes this weakness and uses it to make us believe we’re not good at prayer or that God’s not interested. What a way to rob us of such an incredible blessing. What a way to cut us off from God’s desire to hear, and to help, and to bless. And, it’s not hard to buy into the Devil’s lies. It’s not hard to let our prayer life slip into apathy because we don’t know what, or how to pray, or even why we pray. It’s not difficult to mouth the words of a prayer, or to wander off in the mind, while reciting a prayer memorized long ago. It’s pretty easy to set aside God’s desire and command for us to pray. But Paul doesn’t bring up our weakness to lead us into sin, despair, and doubt, no, it is to assure us that even in our moments of weakness, we have the “Spirit himself there to intercede for us with groans that words cannot express.”
How strange and yet how comforting: God prays to God for us, the Spirit to the Father. He sees through the fog of our emotions to what we truly need. He has the words we have lost, and the words are expressed here with groans that reach heaven’s ears. I think, though before we get too much further, that we need to understand why the Spirit intercedes for us and groans on our behalf. In verse 27, we are given the reason: “the Spirit intercedes for the saints.” The only reason you and I have an invitation to speak with God and the only reason his Spirit groans on our behalf is because he invited us to speak. God gave us access to himself. How though did we come by this access to God? Jesus
Did you know in the Gospels that the only time we know of that Jesus prayed to God and didn’t call him “Father” was on the cross? There when he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” There Jesus lost that relationship with his Father, so that you and I could have a relationship with God as our Father. Jesus was forgotten so we could be remembered forever and heard forever. This is an important point.
It is only the saints, only believers in Jesus, who can lift their voices to God. Unbelievers do not have the courtesy of God’s open ear. Suddenly, prayer really does become infinitely harder, because it requires a Savior, someone to give us the access denied to us by our own sin. And, maybe, that is what makes prayer so difficult. It’s that we still sin, and that sin makes that conversation between us and a holy and just God rather awkward, because the moment we open our mouths to speak to him, we must admit that we are unworthy to call upon his name. And so, sometimes, all we can say, all we can cry out is “Lord, have mercy.”
I see some children/teens here today. I bet at numerous points in your life you’ve done this: “Mom!” or “Dad!” You’ve cried out to a parent. Why do you do that? It’s obvious. You need them for something, so you call for them. And guess what, they answer. Especially if they hear in that voice a cry of pain or sorrow. Well, our heavenly Father is all ears. He hears nothing else in heaven and earth except our cries and our prayers, and he drops everything, he comes running, especially when we are in pain, especially when we need his mercy.
But, sometimes, there are those moments when we don’t know what to say. When we aren’t sure what to cry out, and our weakness leaves us speechless. It is in that nothing that comes from our mouths that the Holy Spirit is everything. He grunts, and he groans; he intercedes for us. If you’ve ever watched a parent with a younger child not yet able to talk. That child often communicates with grunts and groans, and, very often, the parent knows exactly what that child wants just from the grunts, just from the groans, while others unfamiliar with the child might have no clue what that child wants – the parent knows!
This is the Spirit’s work in our prayer life. He takes our wordy prayers, our nonsensical prayers, our silent prayers, our unsure prayers – our grunts and our groans – and he groans with us. He puts his prayers to the Father inside our own, and he groans so loudly the celestial courts shake with his request. The Spirit does this by placing within us a deep, longing to do God’s will and see his glory. In every prayer, then, the Father hears us praying for what is both truly best for us and pleasing to him, and the intercession of the Spirit is answered as “God works all things for our good.”
So, let us pray. For our time in prayer is our time with our Father. We may not always know the specific thing we should pray for here and now, but let that not deter us from grunting and groaning knowing that in our weakness God’s grace is sufficient as his Spirit groans with us…for us. And, in those quiet, sometimes loud, moments of prayer we have an opportunity to experience a powerful confidence that God is handling our lives and this world for our benefit, for our good. A good that ends in that eternal glory for which we long. God’s good will be done. Amen.