Saturday, 6 October 2018

When words fail us

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 wordless groans. Romans 8:26

Do you ever find it hard to know how to pray? You know you ought to pray. Indeed, you genuinely want to pray. But for various reasons you just don’t know how to put your prayer into words.

I’d be surprised if your answer was No. Setting aside the question of praying in tongues, I’m pretty sure that this is a difficulty most Christians struggle with.

There could be many reasons.

Perhaps you’re going through a time of crisis - a serious health issue or a family problem. You may even be in a state of shock, unable to think straight, never mind put your thoughts into words.

Or perhaps you want to pray for someone or something that you have prayed for dozens, even hundreds, of times before. Somehow just repeating the same words seems feeble, and there comes a point where, in all honesty, you wonder if really you’re just going through the motions.

Or perhaps you want to pray for a situation you have no personal knowledge or experience of. I am sure that just recently we have all wanted to pray for the victims of the Indonesia tsunami - but how exactly do you put your prayer into words? “Lord, bless the suffering people of Sulawesi”, however heart-felt, seems hopelessly vague. Or you hear news of some terrible persecution of Christians on the other side of the world... Or you feel as a responsible citizen that you ought to be praying about Brexit, and for our government... I could go on.

Well, if this is indeed our experience, Paul has encouraging words for us. He presumably shared the problem, for he uses the words “we” and “us”, and he tells us that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”

I’m not sure I understand fully what Paul means by that expression. But I find it intriguing, don’t you? Putting it simply, he seems to be saying that our deepest and most powerful praying may well consist of... groaning! Yes! not polished, beautifully structured prayer, not triumphal faith-filled prayer, and not prayer in “unknown languages” or “tongues”, but groaning payer.

Does that come as a surprise? It shouldn’t really, because whatever precisely “groaning” means, it certainly has to do with pain. And Paul is acutely conscious that just as Jesus the Son of God endured terrible pain in purchasing our salvation, so we too as his followers are called to share his pain.

Groaning, in fact, is a key thought in this passage: in verse 22 we read that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pain of childbirth right up to the present time”; and in verse 24 that we too “who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship...”  (The same thought is expressed in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, by the way.)

Fact: our fallen world is a groaning world, and boy don’t we know it as we look around us. And even we who are part of the church, the very body of Christ, and assured of eternal salvation, also have plenty of groaning still to do. The world is waiting for the day of redemption - and we are waiting with it.

Did anyone ever tell you that the Christian life was easy? that it’s victory and rejoicing all the way? Well, forget it! Oh yes, there are times of joy and triumph, thank God for that - but the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, and it’s a way he tells us to follow him in: “take up your cross and follow me”.

Not, of course, that when you find it hard to know how to pray, you should force yourself to groan - that would be artificial. But take Paul’s words in the sense that even the weakest, the most stuttering, the most fumbling, garbled and repetitive prayer, is taken by the Spirit and presented to God as a perfectly formed intercession.

According to the next verse, “the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with God’s will.” True, we may not know what God’s will is - but there is someone who does, and he lives right inside us!

Put it like this: the God who is within us - the Holy Spirit - prays to the God who is above us - our loving heavenly Father. (And, of course, there is only one God.)

Isn’t that encouraging? Let’s never weaken, then, in this wonderful duty and joy of prayer.

Holy Spirit, thank you that you know my heart, and that you can turn my wordless groanings into powerful prayer. Amen.

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