PRAYER AND THE SPIRIT*
Romans 8 is one of the most magnificent passages in the whole of Paul’s writings. But right in the centre come two verses neglected today and often absent in contemporary paperbacks on “prayer”. Romans 8:26,27 reads:- “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought:
but the Spirit itself (Himself) maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”
In times of barrenness, or of difficulty in prayer, it is all too easy to overlook God’s part in what is otherwise a human activity. The Apostle here suggests the help of the Holy Spirit in prayer. Our weakness is that we do not know what we should pray for. We are not competent judges of our condition (Matthew Henry). We are often like foolish children ready to cry for fruit before it is ripe and fit for them. Our manner in prayer also is not consistently what it should be. Our graces are weak, affections cold, thoughts wander and invariably we lack the heart to pray (2 Sam. 7:27).
It is encouraging to find that the Apostle Paul not only shared in the same weakness but had discovered a Divine Aid for his prayer life. Indeed, he refers to the Holy Spirit as the One who helps our infirmities. The word used could be translated ‘heaves with us’, or over against us’. The help given is similar to the help we might give in carrying someone else’s burdens.
This does not signify that the Spirit will do everything for us. We must stir ourselves to pray even when we do not feel in the mood for prayer. ‘We cannot without God, and He will not without us’ (Matthew Henry). What is this help? What does it mean to pray in the Spirit? How are we to understand this phrase ‘the Spirit making
intercession for us?’ He helps us frame our pleas! He indites our petitions! He prompts our requests! Christ intercedes for us in Heaven. The Spirit intercedes for us in our hearts. The Spirit, as an enlightening Spirit, teaches us what to pray for. As a sanctifying Spirit He works by exciting praying graces. As a Comforting Spirit He silences all our fears and helps us overcome all our discouragements.
This intercession which the Spirit makes is with groanings that cannot be uttered. There may be praying in the Spirit and through the Spirit where there is not a word spoken, as Moses prayed (Ex. 14:15), and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:13). Eloquence in prayer has nothing to do with this. Language may be totally limited! It is faith, fervency and feeling that is prominent.
James Montgomery expresses it perfectly:
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.
To the unbeliever or the sceptic looking on, prayer is nothing more than form or words. But God knows! For the true and sincere Christian it is the heart that matters. Our Heavenly Father knows what we have need of before we ask (Matt. 6:8). He knows what is the mind of His own Spirit in us. And as He always hears the Son interceding for us, so He always hears the Spirit interceding in us, because His intercession is according to the will of God.
‘I know that there are various expositions of this passage; but Paul seems to me to have simply meant this – that we are blind in our addresses to God . . . our minds are more disturbed and confused than that they can rightly choose what is meet and expedient… our thoughts . . . continue oppressed with darkness until the Spirit guides them by His light’ (John Calvin).
In a letter to James Wilson the saintly Samuel Rutherford gives advice to a Christian perplexed about prayer (St. Andrews, 8th January 1640): ‘Oh,’ say you, ‘I cannot pray’. I answer, honest sighing is faith breathing and whispering in the ear. The life is not out of faith where there is sighing, looking up with the eyes, and breathing toward God, ‘Hide not thine ear at my breathing’ (Lam. 5:56). ‘But what shall I do in spiritual exercises?’ you say. I answer:
Say, ‘I shall rather spoil twenty prayers, than not pray at all. Let my
broken words go up to heaven. When they come up into the great angel’s censer, that Compassionate Advocate will put together my broken prayers and perfume them. Words are but the accidents (incidental accompaniments) of prayer’.
This is the kind of prayer the Church so desperately needs today. Not clever, slick, eloquent, ostentatious utterances. But real prayer in the Holy Spirit and inspired by the indwelling presence and power of the Divine Comforter. We need to come to the place described by E. F. Kevan ‘where we find ourselves brought to silence by the very intensity of our longings’. May God give us more sighs in our praying!
J. B. Shucksmith