By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the perplexing of all life's paradoxes is the fact that God often answers our prayers by refusing to answer our prayers. One of the greatest examples of this in history is that of Monica praying for her son Augustine. All night in a sea side chapel on the North African coast she pleaded with God to keep her son from sailing to Italy. She wanted her son to be a Christian, and she could not endure the thought of him going to licentious Italy with its manifold and alluring temptations.
"Please don't let him go," she pleaded, and while she prayed the ship set sail with Augustine on it. God in apparent cruelty had ignored her earnest plea. In Italy, however, Augustine heard the great preacher Ambrose, and was persuaded to become a Christian in the very spot from which his mother's prayers would have kept him. God denied her request that her prayer might be answered. Sometimes the only way God can bless us is to ignore our prayers.
Paul knew what he was saying when he said we know not how to pray as we ought. We can't depend upon prayer. We need to depend upon God. Prayer is not the answer, but God is. Prayer can even be a danger to the best in life. Prayer can be a curse because we are so pathetically poor at praying. We do not know what is best for ourselves, and the worst thing that can happen to us sometimes is to get what we pray for. The Jews in the wilderness were not thankful for their daily manna, and they complained for flesh. God granted them their desire, and the result was a plague that killed many of them. Psa. 106:15 says, "He gave them their request, but sent leanness unto their souls."
What these people most needed was a good case of unanswered prayer. What a blessing if God had only ignored their foolish desire, but he gave them their request to teach them a lesson that what is most wanted is not necessarily what is most wise. Thank God He does not grant all foolish and dangerous requests. Thank God for unanswered prayer. What this world needs is more unanswered prayer which comes from the desires of men, and more answered prayers which come from the impulse of the Holy Spirit who prays always in accord with the will of God.
The point we want to make clear is that prayer, in and of itself, is not necessarily good. There is a negative side to prayer, and it is important that we become aware of this negative side. Awareness of the negative will keep us from relying on our own weakness, and guide us to rest in the positive strength of God's Spirit. In verses 26-27 Paul speaks of both the negative and positive of prayer. He speaks of the negative of self, and the positive of the Spirit, and we want to look at these two sides of prayer. First-
I. THE NEGATIVE SIDE CONCERNING THE SELF.
Anyone who pretends to be an expert at prayer is deceived, for Paul, the great Apostle of prayer, who urges us to pray without ceasing, includes himself when he says, "We do not know how to pray as we ought." Paul knew from personal experience that he did not know how to pray for what was best. He asked God 3 times to heal him and remove his thorn in the flesh, not knowing that it would have been a curse to him had God answered that prayer. Paul needed that problem to help him maintain his humility, and fight off pride. Paul learned that he knew only in part, and could never know for sure what was the best thing to pray for in the long run.
All Christians need to be aware of their limitations and weaknesses. It is presumptuous on our part to think we can tell God what is best for us. As long as we think we are wise enough, and self-sufficient enough to determine what is best, we will never cry out to God-Help! I can't pray! We need to recognize our need for help before we will surrender to the help of the Holy Spirit. Blaise Pascal, the great French scientist and theologian, revealed what the Christian attitude should be when he prayed, "O Lord, I know that I know but one thing, and that is, that it is good to follow Thee, and evil to offend Thee! After that, I know not what is better or worse in anything; I know not what is more profitable for me, sickness or health, wealth of poverty, nor any other of the things of this world."
Ignorance is one of our major limitations when it comes to prayer. We don't know how to pray as we ought, says Paul. We just do not know. This is why it is hard for us to be bold before the throne of grace. You can't be bold and zealous when you are not sure. That is why we often pray, if it be possible, or if it be thy will. In our ignorance we may plead for what is a negative thing for our life. Lin Yutang tells of how prayer is what alienated him from Christianity.
A relative of his fervently prayed for God to give fine weather for a funeral. He began to think about this, and he wondered if God was really at the mercy of everyone's wish and whim concerning the weather. It disturbed him to think of a God becoming a servant of man's desires for fine weather. The self-centeredness of prayer led him to abandon it. Both he and his Christian relatives could have benefited by an awareness of this text. If we are aware of the weaknesses of Christians, we will not let the folly of much of their self-centered prayers cause us to forsake prayer all together.
Many Christians are like little Willie. The pastor asked him if he said his prayers every night. Willie said, "No sir, not every night. Some nights I don't want anything." Without the help of the Holy Spirit the Christian is basically self-centered in his prayer life. It is legitimate to make self-centered requests of God, but much of such prayer will be ineffective because it will be based on our human ignorance. C. S. Lewis wrote, "The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted, and it an infinitely wise being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them."
This puts prayer on such a hit and miss level that it leads to discouragement, and to a tendency to forsake prayer completely. Many Christians goes through periods of forsaking prayer. As long as we continue to think of prayer as a method of getting God to do our will rather than being a means by which we become instruments of His will, we will be weak and disappointed with prayer. In our weakness, ignorance, and selfishness we even try and use prayer to help us escape the laws of God which declare that we must reap what we sow.
One of the reasons we are so poor at knowing how to pray is we don't know what we want. We are told we should want to read the Bible more, and so we pray for the Lord to help us read the Bible. But it is not a craving of our heart. It is not a deep desire, and so it is not a true prayer. Your real prayer is something like this: "Lord help me know the Bible without all the bother of reading and study, and the getting together with others to know it." In other words, our real prayer is trying to use prayer as magic. We are trying to use prayer as an escape the hard work it is to really understand God's Word.
Chester Warner said in 1939, "For religious leaders to call on men and women to pray for world peace today is comparable to a farmer praying for a harvest of a different nature from that of the seed he has sown." God does not bail us out of every jam. Even forgiveness of sin does not eliminate the often cruel consequences of sin. Criminal blunders cannot be undone by prayer. Prayer cannot change winter into sudden spring. God will not allow prayer to become a magic wand by which His universe of law and order is turned into a capricious servant of the desires of men. When we realize this, and become aware of the limitations of prayer we can make one of two responses. We can let prayer slip out of our life as being ineffective and impractical, or we can cry out to God-help! I can't pray! If we follow this ladder alternative we will enter into the other aspect of prayer that Paul describes.
II. THE POSITIVE SIDE CONCERNING THE SPIRIT.
The good news is that men do not need to be alone in their weakness and ignorance. The Holy Spirit is also a helping Spirit. He helps us overcome all of the weaknesses that make prayer ineffective. He helps, but he does not do the job for us. He is not a substitute, but a helper. He becomes our link with divine reality and intelligence so that we can pray as we ought. C. H. Dodd defined prayer as, "..the Divine in us appealing to the Divine above us." This means the Christian has two intercessors-the Son in heaven, and the Spirit in our heart.
Christ is our Advocate on high;
Thou art our Advocate within.
O plead the truth and make reply
To every argument of sin.
We don't have time to compare the ministry of these two Advocates, but basically we can distinguish them by pointing out that the ministry of Christ is external, whereas that of the Holy Spirit is internal. The ministry of the Son is primarily concerned with sin. John says, "If any man sin we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." The Holy Spirit is concerned with helping the Christian in those areas which are called infirmities or weaknesses. Not all failure to comply with God's will is sin. If it is due to weakness or ignorance, it is considered a defect rather than a sin. Much poor Christian living is due, not to deliberate sin and defiance of God's will, but to ignorance and weaknesses of the Christian makeup. This is where the Holy Spirit comes to the aid of the Christian. Without his help we could seldom do anything just right.
The gist of what Paul is saying is this: In spite of our ignorance and inadequacy in prayer we still receive the benefits of effective prayer if we cooperate with the Holy Spirit. The indwelling Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God. The result is that God works in everything for good with those who love Him, even when they do not understand what is for the best. God is answering prayer for us that we don't even know about. Prayer plays a major role in our lives even when we don't receive our answers, and it is because we are constantly receiving answers to the intercession of the Spirit. That is why the prayer, "Not my will but Thine be done," is the supreme prayer.
The manner in which these prayers are expressed, says Paul, is through groans which cannot be uttered, or as the RSV says, "With sighs too deep for words." When Monica, the mother of Augustine, prayed for God to keep him from going to Italy, her groans and longing of her heart was for his salvation. Her words were ignored, but her prayer was heard. It was the prayer of the Holy Spirit, however, that was heard. We often confuse prayer with words. We can rattle off the words of the Lord's Prayer, and not even pray at all. Prayer is not words, it is the soul's sincere desire. It is that deep inner longing of the soul. It is the aspiration of the heart to climb higher in obedience to God. Any such deep feeling for a greater spiritual life is the intercession of the Holy Spirit within us. We cannot call God Father apart from the Holy Spirit, nor can we have any deep longing to live for the Father apart from the help of the Spirit.
Fenelon said, "The Holy Spirit is the soul of our soul." We need to keep it clear in our minds, however, that the Holy Spirit does not work independent of us, but directly through us. Augustine wrote, "The Divine Spirit does not groan or intercede in an by himself, as God, as a person of the Trinity, but he intercedes by his influence upon us, and by leading us to aspirations which language cannot express." This means that if we never are eager to grow in grace, and never aspire to climb higher, and if we never groan with deep longing to be free from the limitations of our flesh and ignorance, we are quenching the Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us to want desperately what God wants to give us. We quench the Spirit when we are so busy clamoring for what we want that we never listen to the deep sighs within telling us what God wants us to want.
If we let the Holy Spirit help us, we can learn to pray with a sense of assurance that what we are asking God will be willing to grant. Paul says in Eph. 6:18, "Pray at all times in the Spirit." Jude in verse 20 also says, "Pray in the Holy Spirit." There are two kinds of prayers: Those in the Spirit, and those not in the Spirit. When we pray in the Spirit, we pray according to God's will, for the Spirit never prays anything that is not in accord with God's will. This means we must be enlightened by the Spirit of truth as to God's will in order to pray effectively. Even if we do not fully understand, Paul indicates in verse 27 that the Spirit knows us better than we know ourselves. When God searches our hearts He know the mind of the indwelling Spirit, and so knows us at a depth greater than we can even know.
If we learn nothing else from this text, we will be eternally benefited if we just learn the importance of the Holy Spirit in our prayer life. This Infinite Indwelling Intercessor is the key to assurance of salvation, abundant life, and power in prayer. Charles Finney said to the Christians of his day, "I want you to have high ideas of the Holy Spirit, and to feel that nothing good will be done without his influence. No praying or preaching will be of any avail without him."
We are hung up on a false issue if we say I wish I could pray like so and so. So and so, however eloquent, does not know how to pray as he ought anymore than the rest of us. Beautiful words and ease of flow have nothing to do with effective prayer. In fact, it is the wordless groanings of the Spirit that are most effective. The cry of an infant can be interpreted by the mother, and the sigh of the sick patient can be interpreted by the nurse. So the groans of the saints can be interpreted by their heavenly Father.
What this means is that true and effective prayer is really a matter of deep desire and longing. The Holy Spirit makes prayer very simple so that no one is left out. Back in verse 15 we see that the Spirit helps us address God as Abba Father. Abba is the first word a child would learn, just like papa or daddy in our culture. We address God in ultimate simplicity, and now Paul says our prayer content is also simple. It is simply a matter of deep desire for the fulfillment of His will. The only prayers that go unanswered are the prayers that the Holy Spirit does not inspire, and these we would not want answered, for they would be out of God's will.
In the light of our ignorance in not knowing how to pray as we ought, and in the light of the help which the Holy Spirit is willing to give if we surrender to Him, the best prayer we can pray is simply to cry out to God, help! I can't pray! May God open our eyes to see our need for help that we might open our mouth and call for help to the end that our hearts would be filled with the heavenly help of the Holy Spirit.