Prayer in the Spirit
by Ted Schroder
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Romans 8:26,27 NIV)
There are many times in life when, because of our limited understanding of our situation, our ignorance of our condition, our tendency to self-deception, an awareness of our shortcomings, and the overwhelming problems confronting us, when everything seems to be against us, that we do not know what we ought to pray for. When you attempt to pray about your situation you are unsure whether to pray for deliverance, a miracle, a windfall, remission, a change in the behavior and attitudes of others, or whether you ought to pray only for strength and courage to endure whatever life has in store for you. We do not know what we ought to pray for. We do not know what is best for us, what is right for us, and we may pray for the wrong thing. We can be so confused and frustrated, so depressed and discouraged, that we cannot get the words out. We get tongue-tied and we are tempted to give up. We have prayed and prayed and nothing different seems to happen. Prayer becomes an exercise of the will, a self-centered obsession with our problems, a form of spiritual worrying rather than prayer in the Spirit.
St. Paul speaks out of personal experience. He was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment him. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
The apostle was in trouble because of his weakness, his thorn in the flesh; and he acts in a very natural way in terms of human reason. He felt that this would cripple his work, put a limit upon his efficiency, so he prays three times for the Lord to remove it. But the Lord tells him that he is praying the wrong prayer. God was not going to deliver him from his problem. Then he begins to look at his situation in another manner. He begins to see that the Lord can accomplish more through his weakness that he could through his strength. He could not glory in his accomplishments, but in his weaknesses and God’s grace, to enable him to have the strength to carry on.
We are prone to take the easy way out in our prayers. Our default position in prayer is for the removal of obstacles in front of us, or in us, so that we can sail straight forward to fulfill our agendas. But God may wish us to pray about some other way we should proceed. He may wish us to wait, to be patient, to endure, to be still and listen.
In Psalm 77 the writer was complaining in his sufferings.
“I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord……
Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”
Circumstances were against him. He is jealous of the serene and healthy lives of others, so he begins to blame God. Then he pulls himself together: “And I said, It is my own weakness,” meaning that he should not be saying such things, that he was speaking foolishly. So instead of continuing to harbor such thoughts he says, “I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.” In other words, he begins to remind himself of God’s faithfulness in the past. Before we rush thoughtlessly into prayer we need to examine what God is doing in our lives, and not let an obsession with our weakness control us. It is better to acknowledge that we do not know what we ought to pray for. Do not be afraid or shamed to admit our lack of direction.
Paul does this in Philippians 1. He is in prison and using the opportunity of confinement to write his famous letters to the churches and to witness to his fellow-prisoners and the whole palace guard. He recognizes that what has happened to him has served to advance the gospel, for Christ is preached. Yet he does not know whether Christ would be better exalted by his life or by his death. He does not know what to pray for: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.” (Philippians 1:22-25)
At first he is in difficulties as to what to pray for. He was possibly suffering ill-health, and had become old before his time. What shall he pray for? Shall he pray to the Lord to take him out of it all, to be with Christ, which is far better? So much seemed to argue in that direction. But then he remembers that it would be better for the Philippians that he should remain alive, that he might still teach, and guide, and help them. He does not know what the disposition of his case will be. He does not know what to pray for. In such a case it is better that we should acknowledge the perplexity and take it to God, tell him that we do not know, and leave it entirely in his hands. That is far wiser than forcing ourselves to a decision, or rushing to offer a prayer that seems to us to be natural.
Even Jesus experienced this challenge. “Now is my heart troubled and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” (John 12:27) In his time of human weakness, when his heart is troubled, he asks, “What shall I pray? Shall I ask the Father to save me from this hour?” Instead of taking the easy route by praying that he might be spared suffering and the Cross, he asked for strength to endure it.
We may fail to find the words to express our present dilemma. The Spirit comes to our aid and intercedes on our behalf. God knows exactly what is happening in our hearts. He knows all about our fears, our anxieties, our hopes, our desires. He understands us better than we understand ourselves. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) “And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Romans 8:27) We are being assured that the Spirit comes alongside us, takes up our worries and begins to act on our behalf with in us. This is the will of God for us, it is part of God’s plan. God allows us to be tried, he allows things to take their course, even when they are difficult for us. But he also sends his Spirit to act on our behalf, to help us in our difficulties.
“God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.” (The Message)
Prayer in the Spirit is resting in that assurance, and knowing that God is working for us and in us at all times.
August 2, 2009
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