Prayer—A Treatise On Human Incompetence
Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. 27 Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
Some of you know I celebrated a birthday this last week. My wife and I went out to dinner, just the two of us, to a pretty fancy restaurant. This restaurant offers a free dinner if you come in on your actual birthday. We went to the same restaurant on my wife’s birthday and received the same deal. But the place is pretty expensive, so even though we received a free meal the bill was quite high. We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.
One category on the menu that can really get you is the wine list. I thought one glass of wine with dinner would be appropriate but as I perused the options I was reminded that this establishment was not shy about its prices. I had to be very careful here. I found the cheapest glass of wine and ordered it as if it were my preference. To which the very courteous food server responded, “Very good sir.” ‘Look at me’ I thought with my wife observing in admiration, ‘I did very good.’
We enjoyed an intensely delicious meal after which we received the bill which strangely resembled a mortgage payment. I apparently accidentally ordered the wrong glass of wine. A little embarrassed I asked the waiter to double check, which he graciously did. After my perceptive and attentive wife confirmed that I did in fact say “Twomey” rather than “Roth” I thanked the waiter, paid the bill and became, once again, reacquainted with the reality that I know nothing about wine and that it is moderately irresponsible for me to hold a wine list in my hand.
I share this little story because I think most of us have a general notion of our own limitations in a variety of areas in life. I would never fix my own brakes nor would I perform surgery on myself. And when my mechanic or my surgeon seeks to explain what they’re doing to my car or my body, I generally arrive at the conclusion (after a little courteous head-nodding) that I am entirely at their mercy.
We Know In Part
As a pastor, having been educated both experientially and institutionally in the field of ministry and theology, one would think that I have my field of expertise and that I can confidently tread the waters of the ministerial enterprise of being a Christian and helping others along that path. And I won’t pretend that, at some level that is not the case. But it does seem that every step forward I take (have ever taken) in the landscape of Christian maturity and piety, I come to see another acre of unexplored territory.
How emphatically true Paul’s words are, “For we know in part…” (1 Corinthians 13:9). I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I am not remotely suggesting that the knowledge of God and the things of God are so vast that it becomes a meaningless gesture to take those steps forward. The verse does say “we know”. And I don’t think it is a stretch to say that that knowledge, as minute as it might be when one contemplates the infinite breadth of the Godhead, is true knowledge and the most precious treasure contained in our souls.
But what the Apostle Paul seems to be saying here is that our prayer list is like a wine list and we really don’t know what to order. We may know how (pos in Greek) to pray, but we don’t know “what” (ti in Greek) to pray. Now our initial response to such news may be to simply disengage in prayer. Why would I bother praying when I really don’t know what to pray for? But these two short verses should encourage us in just the opposite direction.
Prayer and Magic
We may all have various explanations as to why we engage in the sin of lethargy when it comes to prayer. Maybe it’s our schedule, maybe we’re shy, embarrassed, inarticulate, confused, distracted, etc. But maybe we just think it doesn’t matter. We expect prayer to be magic and because it doesn’t appear to magically work, we have grown cold in the exercise of it. Can you imagine how active your prayer life would be if it were magic? You could go from house to house healing people, feeding people and solving people’s various problems. We could all be Dumbledore!
But we seldom stop to consider how self-deifying (making ourselves God) such a notion actually is. Someone might say, how could it be wrong to heal, to feed and to solve problems? Certainly as human beings we should do what we can to minister in these areas within our own limited capabilities. But it is quite beyond us, even if we had the power, to have the wisdom of God when it comes to having the final say in governing the course of human events.
Of whom but God can it be said, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4)?
Or what created being could righteously call “for a famine” (2 Kings 8:1)? If prayer were magic and you were given the autonomous power to “form light and create darkness…make well-being and create calamity” (Isaiah 45:7) how would you wield such power? For what would you pray? If God called for a famine could you, with the same wisdom, authority and end game in sight, call for its end?
Helps In Our Weakness
Perhaps we can begin to see just how weak we are in this category. And how unreasonable our complaints when our prayers are not answered in the manner in which they are submitted. Again, our natural inclination might be to cease in prayer altogether—which would be, and has been, a monumental error. Because it is with our weakness in mind that the Apostle Paul writes of the Spirit who “helps” synantilambanomai.
There is tremendous force in this word “help”. It carries the idea of the Spirit taking part in our burden. The word was used of assistance offered to an infant unable to support himself or the sick “tottering and hardly able to walk.” It doesn’t require deep examination to see the (what is called) the economic relationship of the Trinity working in harmony on the part of the children of God. It is by the blood of Christ that we approach the Father and it is by the intercession of the Spirit that our prayers are, as it were, refined.
The passage begins with the word “likewise” hosautos, beckoning back to the universal and collective groaning of creation (verse 22) and our own groaning (verse 23) in anticipation of our final resurrection (verse 23). We read now of a groaning extending to our prayers. What do we make of this groaning? What is taking place here?
The noun “groanings” stenagmos merely means to sigh, as one oppressed. It is the word from the Septuagint found in Exodus 6:5 where God “heard the groaning” of the enslaved Israelites. Paul adds to the description the notion that the groanings “cannot be uttered” alaletoios. I think it would be a mistake at this point to draw the conclusion that God is operating via some secret language, e.g. the “tongues of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1) that is utterly disconnected from rational thought lest we draw the conclusion that God is entirely unknowable (which itself would reveal something we can know about God—that He is unknowable—hence a self-refuting position).
Going down that road would leave us at the mercy and direction of impulses or “passions” epithymiais (2 Timothy 3:6). Or we may fall into a George Benson epistemology where we try “to talk it over but the words get in the way.” If we dispense with knowable, godly thoughts and propositions we are left at the unpredictable dispatch of temperament, caprice and whim. Truth, beloved, loves a definition, and anyone who is not willing to at least make an effort at offering a definition is (whether wittingly or not, I won’t suppose to say) prefers the water remain sufficiently murky.
It must be briefly stated that this passage is not addressing the gift of tongues. Time does not allow a thorough examination of that subject, suffice it to say for now that the gift “tongues” was not, even in the New Testament era, universally given to Christians, “Do all speaks with tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:30)? the implied answer being ‘no’. But this passage addresses the condition of all believers.
Enough of what it is not, what do we make of these groanings? Similar to the groaning of creation and the inward groaning of the believer due to his fallen estate, we have the Spirit induced groanings which proceed from the believer in prayer. Whether we are praying for the weak, the sick, the unregenerate, the poor or the proud or the wealthy, we reach the end of ourselves to sufficiently vocalize what must truly take place.
Could not the most brilliant scribe in all of Israel have written, and offered, a beautiful, poetic and (even if not a prophet) relatively accurate prayer to God for deliverance from slavery? I would say ‘yes’. And yet in writing it, would he not have eventually, if he were a wise man, come face to face with his own inadequacy? Would he not then groan? If a child finds him/herself in danger and screams (because of the great fear and/or limited vocabulary) unintelligibly, that doesn’t mean there is no describable problem? Certainly not! It merely means that they/we currently have not the ability to express it.
But the mother knows the voice of her child. And when the cry for help comes, it is the mother who will properly evaluate the nature of the cry and the proper course of action in response.
It is just here that the “intercession” hyperentynchano takes place. Intercession means to plead for someone, to intercede on someone’s behalf. The passage is not easily worded, but for the sake of simplicity it unfolds in this way:
· We don’t know what to pray. This is the current weakness addressed.
· Because of the Spirit’s work, the believer will pray, but the prayers are subject to human fallibility and amount to groaning.
· The Holy Spirit intercedes in such a way as to present our prayers to God according to God’s own will.
Thomas Schreiner expresses it well:
The Spirit fills this lack by interceding for the saints. Indeed, verse 27 indicates that he intercedes for them according to God’s will, that is, he articulates the will of God in his intercession. Believers are weak in that they are unable to enunciate fully the will of God in their prayers. The Spirit compensates for their deficiency.
Perhaps it is easiest to understand that in the same way that Jesus intercedes (Romans 8:34) and presents us holy to the Father by His own blood, the Spirit intercedes and articulates and presents our prayers in such a way that they conform to the will of God.
Searching and Knowing
The passage speaks of God who “searches” the hearts of men and “knows what the mind of the Spirit is.” What does God find when He searches our heart? It might be easy to answer with the typical Calvinistic truth, that He finds a great deal of sin. I am always a little concerned when someone finds comfort with the words “But God knows my heart”. As someone once said, “that God knows our hearts…that’s the the bad news.”
It would appear, at least in this passage (and in much of Romans) that Paul highlights the heart kardi as that aspect of man that is under the operation of the Spirit of God. In Romans 1:21 he describes the natural rebellious man have having a “foolish” and “darkened” heart. A similar thought is conveyed in Romans 2:5, where wrath is being stored up due to an “impenitent heart.”
He then begins to explain that true circumcision of “a matter of the heart” (Romans 2:29). Later he will explain that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). In Romans 6:17 Paul is thankful that his readers have “become obedient from the heart.” Earlier in this very chapter Paul will make the distinction between those who walk “according to the flesh” versus those who walk “according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).
All of this to say that when God searches the heart of a Christian, though He will certainly find sin, He will also find a heart cultivated by the labor of the Holy Spirit yielding an unutterable longing to conform to the will of God, in our lives and in all of creation. This was the work of the Spirit in that hour we first believed, placing our souls in the hands of Jesus and the Father as the Savior of our souls and Master of our lives. It is the first (first in priority and often first chronologically) prayer of those who are the objects of God’s grace. And when God searches the hearts of the elect, this is what He will find.
And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought (1 Chronicles 28:9).
It may be a profitable endeavor for us to ask ourselves if this is what God finds when He searches our hearts. Not to suggest a theology of perfectionism, but a theology of confession of sin and sincere faith in the One who delivers from sin and leads us in life by the wisdom of His counsel.
The Father knows, by the effective work of the Spirit who belongs to Him and He knows the “mind” phronema of the Spirit. This is not the normal word for mind nous, but a word which means mindset or way of thinking. In other words, the Father knows what the Spirit has in mind—what His holy and sanctifying intentions are.
We pray with the general notion (though it may appear specific to us) that we are to subject all things to Christ, put off the old man and put on the new, glorify God in our thoughts, words and deeds and tend to the needs of our neighbors. We are a temple under construction and when in our prayers we order wooden pillars, the Spirit submits a request for granite. When we ask for ease, the Spirit intercedes, elevating the petition to strength and long-suffering. We ask for wood, hay and straw, but when the Spirit flies to the Father on our behalf the words are transformed to gold, silver and precious stones.
How much greater than magic is the gift of prayer. To list the tome of passages which elevate the value and power of prayer would be an endeavor pushing past the length of any single sermon, but James says it succinctly:
The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:16)
The Father is engaged in a divine, powerful and perfect work in the lives of us individually and the creation as a whole. One of the means by which God accomplishes this work is through the fallible prayers of saved sinners, presented to Himself in their perfection through the Spirit of God.
I pray for my wife, my children and our church. But I continually walk away from those prayers with a sense of deficiency, as if I haven’t the wisdom to say the right things or make the proper requests. But what if I knew that every time I prayed some shortsighted, inadequate prayer for my children that the Holy Spirit took that prayer and edited it to perfection and presented it to God to the eternal benefit of my beloved quiver full of arrows…would I not engage in that activity with renewed vigor?
We are told that we have not because we do not ask (James 4:2). In light of this passage, have we ever truly considered what we don’t have because we don’t ask?
Questions for Study
- What does it mean that we “know in part?” What human limitation is addressed in these two verses (pages 2, 3)?
- Have you ever thought that prayer should be like magic? What would be the problem if that were the case (pages 3, 4)?
- How do you see the Trinity at work in this passage (pages 4, 5)?
- Discuss what the “groanings” are and are not. Why is this an important issue to understand (pages 5, 6)?
- Explain the intercession of the Holy Spirit when it comes to our prayers (pages 6, 7).
- When God searches your heart, what does He find (pages 6, 7)?
- What is the mindset of the Holy Spirit? What is He doing? What are His intentions (page 8)?
- Why should the knowledge contained in this short passage be a great incentive to prayer (page 9)?