God's groans

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Prayer is just about the simplest thing a Christian can do, isn’t it? It costs nothing. You can do it anywhere, anytime. You don’t have to interact with people. You don’t even need to speak out loud. You don’t need an advanced degree. Introverts can pray just as easily as extroverts. The misanthrope can pray just as much as the most exuberant people person. Yet we screw it up.

“Give thanks to the Lord for he is good”? Sometimes. “Your will be done”? Grudgingly. “Pray continually”? Hardly. “Call upon me in the day of trouble”? Maybe we do this best, yet sometimes we turn on God in that day and say, “You jerk!”

Occasions for prayer pass us by. We fill the seconds right before and after sleep, when we could say “Help me” or “Thank you”, with thoughts about the day or the need to see what happened on Facebook in the last ten seconds. Meal prayers turn into, “Come Lord Jesus, where’s the corn on the cob?” Even in a “house of prayer,” we blow it. “Our Father who art in heaven, without the approved, written consent of Major League Baseball.”

No wonder Paul talked about “hope” so much in the previous verses of Romans 8. Remember that? “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” And then he went on with our words today, “In the same way.” In the same way, what?

That takes us back to the end of Romans 7 and the beginning of Romans 8. Paul laments his sinful flesh, “Nothing good lives in me.” Then he rejoices in the non-condemnation that comes from Jesus being condemned for us. He reminds us that in Christ we have this same non-condemnation, yet because we aren’t in heaven, we fight the battle between flesh and spirit. We groan right alongside the creation and can only find joy in God’s promise to co-inherit with Christ, a future glory that surpasses all this.

What a challenge. We don’t have what we want, what we need, what God promises: the transformation of our lowly bodies into Christ’s glorious body. We aren’t yet relieved of the flesh, and because we aren’t, we struggle with hope. And prayer.

We struggle because we want success, good fortune, blessing, growth and numbers. We expect it to be easy to pray, because God will answer. He promised it. He promised to hear and answer, “Ask and it will be given to you.” Well, where is it?

We don’t expect prayer to end with us still stuck in weakness, failure or frustration. We don’t expect God’s providence to include sickness, decay, and death. And this warps our prayer life. Either we get lazy, “What’s the point?” Or we get demanding, “Your will better be my will.” Or we redefine it. We turn prayer from pleading with God into directing and commanding God.

Deep down we hate this need for intercession. We hate the whole passivity of prayer; the idea that we speak to some invisible God and, well, just wait. And trust. And hope. It’s offensive. We’re Americans. We’re not quitters or sit-idly-by-ers. We do stuff. We accomplish things. We finish what we start. We win wars. We build companies from the ground up. I wait for no man. Waiters fail. So when God says to rely on him in prayer, to let him listen and answer in his own way, in his own time, we find this unacceptable.

And so because we’ve convinced ourselves that we can own this talking to God thing, we warp it beyond all recognition. Take a crass example, the name it and claim it theology of a Joel Osteen that says, “If you believe it enough, God will give it to you.” Take your typical American Evangelical church service that includes the altar call where you pray the sinner’s prayer and accept Jesus as your Savior and ask him into your heart. Unspeakable words for the sinful nature, yet appropriated by us as if we can do the Spirit’s work. That’s us doing it, us taking the initiative from God, all so typically American: picking ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In the end it’s about power. That’s a big Bible word. The Greek word is dynamis. You hear our words “dynamite” and “dynamic” in there. Something dynamis can do things. It’s active; it’s powerful. We want that power. We think we have it. We try to seize God’s power. We’re not happy with his timetable, so we adjust it. We’re not happy with his promises, so we adjust them. And if he chooses not to do something, well, then we’ll just seize it, whether it’s faith in Christ, “I accepted him into my heart,” or spiritual gifts, “I’m going to speak in tongues or else,” or some material thing, “God hasn’t given me this or that, I’ll take it for myself.”

But this search for power and this desire to make our prayers our act of power has dangerous consequences. Notice the end of Romans 8:27, “The Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” Literally, Paul simply says that the Spirit intercedes “according to” or “in line with” God.

That’s a high standard: to be “in line with” or “according to” God. It’s a standard that I, on my own, can’t meet. Mankind hasn’t met it since the first time we acted not in line with God, back in Eden. Since then, it’s been, at best, the struggle of Romans 7. Even when I know what’s “according to” God, I don’t do it. My words and actions aren’t always “according to” or “in line with” God. My prayers even fail to stay in line with God. I don’t know what to pray for or how to pray for it. I don’t pray as I ought. I pray selfishly and sinfully. I fail to pray. I seize prayer as my power and demand that God grant my wishes, like some sort of heavenly slot machine: when I pull the handle he’d better come up all 7’s. Or else!

Here, though, Paul teaches us that even in prayer, something we do, God’s the active one, the dynamic one, the powerful one. When I seize the initiative I’m dopey and self-indulgent, spoiled and dumbfounded. I want all of God’s providence, I demand it: clothing, shoes, food, drink, house, home, wife, children, land, cattle, and on and on, right here, right now, in superabundant amounts. God wants to start with grace, grace, and more grace. God wants to start with forgiveness and Christ.

Do you see the problem? When we measure God’s love for us in things, “Lord, help me get this job,” and we don’t get the job, then we begin to question God’s love for us. Then we try to seize the initiative from God and take the power. Not that it’s wrong to pray for a job, a spouse, for success, or any of the 1st Article things God promises to provide, but we must realize that even when God deprives us of those things, he provides: he works all things for the good of those who love him.

So God starts with grace, forgiveness, and Christ. What we need the most, for my thoughts and words are not “according to” and “in line with” God all the time. Thankfully the Holy Spirit’s words and thoughts are. Being God and all, he has his finger on the pulse of the divine will. And then those words and thoughts get imputed, credited, reckoned, given to us. As much as the righteousness of Christ proclaimed in the Word and delivered in the Sacraments gets imputed, credited, reckoned, and given to us, so too God imputes the “in line with” Godness of the Holy Spirit to us. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just sanctify us, doesn’t just make us holy through word and sacrament by covering us in the blood of Christ, he sanctifies the prayers we pray. And just as much as Christ’s righteousness given to us doesn’t allow us to sin all the more, so too this doesn’t give us carte blanche to pray poorly and trust the Spirit to sort it all out. It humbles us even more.

I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess that I can barely pray. I don’t know what, how, when, or even sometimes to whom to pray. And here, as in everything, God acts, God lends a hand, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Just as much as the Father chose not to stand idly by and watch us die in our sins, but sent his Son to intercede for us by dying for us, so too the Spirit doesn’t sit idly by. He comes to our side. The Son sacrificed his life to rescue us from sin. The Spirit comes to us not only before faith to give us the Son’s forgiveness, but during faith while we struggle with our flesh, so that we can pray, through his work, as he turns our weak words into “groans that words cannot express.”

See how silly it is to usurp God’s power. We can’t even comprehend the Spirit’s words, but they are the right ones, for the Spirit “intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” According to and in line with God. The Spirit speaks to God our “Helps mes” and “Thank yous.” And God, knowing and trusting the Spirit, hears and answers. He can translate these unutterable and indescribable words. To which we sigh in relief, “Oh, good.”

Thus the Spirit keeps us in the one true faith. He keeps our prayers from wandering off and brings us back to what he brought us to in Baptism: access to the Father through the Son who made us sons of God and brothers of Christ. Paul said, “Those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”

And while we may not see ourselves as sons, the Spirit’s work includes reminding us that we are indeed sons of God, or, in Paul’s word, “saints.” The very same Gospel that promises the Spirit’s intercession first describes to us the Son’s. We can’t have the Spirit interceding for us until we have the Son interceding for us. And he does: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us…. [W]e are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Only this gives us the power and confidence to pray to our Abba, Father. Only the Spirit makes sure we always focus us on the Father and His Son. Only God’s groans do that. Thank the Triune God for that. Amen.

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