When God Prays for You
January 31, 2008
Listen to this Sermon
Many years ago when I pastored a church in suburban Los Angeles, I attended a weekend youth leaders’ conference featuring messages by a pastor from a large church in a nearby city. The night I attended the pastor preached on Acts 12, the story of Peter’s miraculous deliverance from jail. I have forgotten everything about the message except for one story he told about a terrible automobile accident involving his wife. When he got to the scene of the wreck, his wife was unconscious and in critical condition. Because the paramedics did not know if she would make it, they allowed him to ride in the ambulance with her. On the way to the hospital, as he looked at his wife and knew that she might soon die, he said he tried to pray but no words came out. Overcome with emotion, he threw himself over her body and began to weep. The only words he could say were, “O God. O Jesus. Oh God. O Jesus.” Looking back on that terrible moment, he said he felt as if it had been the first time he had ever truly prayed in his life.
When he said that I remembered what happened when our first child was born. After several years of trying, we were delighted when Marlene finally became pregnant. The pregnancy was not especially difficult, and we looked forward to the day when our first child would be born. We ended up having to wait almost ten months, but at last labor pains signaled that the blessed event was only a few hours away. After a long, hard night of labor there were some problems. The doctor came in about 5:15 AM and said, “We’re going to take that baby now.” It wasn’t a question, it was a statement of fact. The room exploded into activity, and within 30 seconds I was alone. I didn’t even have time to pray with Marlene. As they rolled her away, I saw the fear on her face and felt so helpless. When she disappeared behind the door of the operating room, I bowed my head and tried to pray but no words would come out. That had never happened before. Always I could find words to frame my thoughts. But suddenly I could not pray. It was a combination of fatigue from the long hours at the hospital, shock from the doctor’s announcement, the look on my wife’s face, and the unspoken fear that something might happen to the baby or to her. Sitting alone in that confused, exhausted, frightened state, I bowed my head and tried to pray. No words came out. Nothing. No thoughts even came to my mind. I could not think of any Bible verses. All I could do was to stammer out “O God…O God…O God…Lord Jesus, have mercy.”
A few minutes later (though it seemed like an hour), a nurse said, “You can come in now.” There was my wife, in pain but still conscious, and there on the table was a brand-new baby boy. I knew that God had answered my prayers even though I couldn’t put the words together. Looking back now, I understand what that pastor meant when he said he felt like it was the first time he had ever truly prayed.
I learned something profound from that experience. The more something means to you, the harder it is to pray for it. The reason we can pray so easily for others is that we’re not that deeply invested in them. It’s relatively easy to say a brief prayer for people in Thailand or Botswana or Latvia. After all, you don’t know them personally and you’ll probably never meet them and you don’t have any personal investment in them. It is much different when you try to pray for those who are closest to you. The more you care, the harder it is to pray. When it comes to those things in life that really matter–your husband, your wife, your children, your loved ones—those things are hard to pray for because they are close to your heart.
It is precisely at this point that our text becomes so crucial. Romans 8:26-27 assures us that when we can’t pray, the Holy Spirit prays for us. When we can’t find the words, the Holy Spirit speaks to the Father with groans that can’t be put in words. And when we aren’t sure how to pray, the Holy Spirit prays for us according to the will of God. This is a wonderful promise of God because as we go through life, we face many situations where we simply don’t know how to pray. In those moments we can be sure that God the Holy Spirit is praying for us.
I. Our Weakness
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for” (Romans 8:26a).
The word “helps” is a rich word that pictures someone helping another person carry a heavy load. Picture a man trying to drag an enormous log, but it’s so heavy he can barely move it. Then along comes Paul Bunyan who picks up one end and together they carry the log down the road. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. He continually comes to us and helps us with our heavy load.
We need the Spirit’s help because we are so weak. The word “weakness” is the same word used for sickness in James 5:14. It refers to those moments in life when we are physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Circumstances have combined to push us over the edge. But it refers to more than momentary difficulty. Weakness is our condition on the earth. We are inherently weak and unable to help ourselves. Some of us realize that, the rest of us try to muddle through on our own.
Here is the proof. We don’t know how to pray as we ought. Literally, this means we don’t know what to pray for. And this is one of our chief problems in prayer. How many times have we tried to pray and we didn’t know what to ask from the Lord? This happens often when we are faced with a crisis or when we try to pray for someone else. In the first place, we don’t know the future so we can’t tell how things will turn out. Second, we don’t know what is best for us. We may think we want a new job because we can’t stand our boss, but when we get a new job, we also get a boss who is ten times worse. On a deeper level, married people may dream of being single again (or single people may wish they were married) but when you are, you discover that you exchanged one set of problems for another.
And so it goes. We don’t know what to pray for because our vision is so limited. We see only a tiny fraction of the universe and our perspective is inevitably tainted by selfishness. How can we be sure that what we are praying for is what God wants? Ecclesiastes 6:12 says this very poignantly, “For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow?” The answer is, we don’t know what is good for us. When we were little, our mothers said, “Eat your broccoli, it’s good for you.” But we’re not so sure anymore. In fact, we’re not so sure about anything.
A friend gave me a tape of a speech Gary Olson made in April 1998. Gary was a former elder of the church I pastored in Oak Park, and for many years was the head football coach at Oak Park-River Forest High School. He made the speech eight months after his heart surgery in 1997 and a year and a half before his sudden death in November 1999. On the tape Gary is giving a short talk to a group of Christian coaches on the subject of handling the hard times of life. He began by mentioning his lung cancer in the early 1980s that led to his coming to Christ. Then in 1989 his wife Dawn was in a terrible accident that nearly took her life. Gary stepped down from coaching for a while so he could help her. The hardest blows came in 1997. In August of that year he collapsed during football practice and was taken to the hospital where the doctors discovered he had an enlarged heart. A few days later he had surgery to replace a defective heart valve. At about the same time he faced a crisis in his family. A month or so later his mother suddenly died of a brain hemorrhage. It seemed almost too much to bear. On the tape he said that he had called his pastor and asked, “How should I pray?” His pastor told him to pray “Lord, have mercy. God, have mercy. Jesus, have mercy.” I was his pastor and also a very good friend. I smiled when I heard him tell the story because I had forgotten that phone call. Then it all came back to me. My answer was off the top of my head, but in retrospect it was perfectly biblical. There are many times in life when the only thing we can do is to cry out, “God, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Jesus, have mercy.”
II. The Spirit’s Help
“But the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26b).
We need the help of the Holy Spirit because we don’t know how to pray. Paul says the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that cannot be expressed in words. (Literally it is “wordless groanings.”) In those moments when we cannot pray, the Holy Spirit prays for us. It also means that when we lift up our feeble and even ignorant prayers to God, the Holy Spirit takes them and translates them into the language of heaven.
No one knows exactly how this happens because it is a ministry that goes on between the Spirit and the Father. But I imagine it is something like this. We may pray for a new job but the Holy Spirit speaks to the Father like this: “Father, he thinks he wants a new job because he is weary of the pressure. But I know it is your will that he learn to depend entirely on you. So Father, please don’t give him the new job right now. Give him supernatural strength and please send a Christian along to give him some encouragement.” And because the Holy Spirit always prays according to the will of God, that’s the prayer that is answered.
Matthew Henry says the Holy Spirit “excites praying graces.” He makes us want to pray, he teaches us how to pray, and he helps us as we pray. And when we can’t pray at all, he prays for us to the Father. What a blessed promise and encouragement this is. Sometimes we are so confused, so worried, so hurried, so harried, so pressured, so ill, so distracted, so tired and so weary that words will not come. Often the best prayers are unheard and even unspoken. They arise from a broken heart to God who hears the groanings that cannot be put in words.
III. Our Confidence
“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).
How do we know that God hears those inarticulate groanings that come from deep within? Verse 27 declares that God constantly searches our hearts. Because the Father knows what the Spirit is thinking, there is perfect intimacy and perfect harmony. There is no contradiction between the Spirit in our hearts and the Father in Heaven. When the Spirit intercedes for us, he always intercedes according to God’s will. So when we pray, we say what is on our hearts. And the Spirit says to the Father, “What he really means is this…If he knew better, this is what he would ask for…She wants to be like Jesus and this is what she really needs.”
God already knows our deepest desires. Sometimes we talk about having an “unspoken prayer request.” In the old days, during a prayer meeting, the leader would ask, “How many have an unspoken prayer request?” Almost every hand would go up. Unspoken prayer requests are things so close to our heart that we cannot speak of them without weeping. They are deep and precious and private. Verse 27 reminds us that there are no “unspoken requests” with God. The old gospel song says, “Jesus knows our every weakness.” And he does. He knows what we need before we ask him.
There is great encouragement in our text though we may not see it at first. Our suffering, our uncertainty, our struggle with prayer, our doubt and confusion, and our worry over the future reveals our weakness. It strips away the mask of self-sufficiency and displays our utter helplessness. It forces us to confront our own inabilities. We are forced to say, “I’m not as strong as I thought I was. I’m not invincible.” And the Holy Spirit comes alongside to help us in our need. The Spirit who is himself the third member of the Trinity prays to the Father (the first member of the Trinity) in the name of the Son (the second member of the Trinity) for us in our moment of weakness. It is God praying to God in God’s name on behalf of God’s children! What an amazing thought this is.
In your weakness, when you feel desperate about the things that truly matter to you, and you don’t know what to say, and all you can do is cry out “O God!” the message is, “Don’t worry. That’s enough because there is Someone who is praying for you.”
We know that Jesus is in heaven praying for us (see Romans 8:34). But Paul goes a step beyond that. When you come to the moment of complete exhaustion and can no longer frame the words, you don’t have to worry. The Holy Spirit will pray for you. In your weakness he is strong. When you cannot speak, he speaks for you.
When we lean against the wall of desperation, crying out to God, when we whisper, “God, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to pray about this,” the Holy Spirit comes alongside and says, “Don’t worry. I’ll pray for you.” And he does.
Martin Luther’s Comment
As I studied this text I got some help from dear old Martin Luther. Writing almost 500 years ago, he commented that it’s a good thing if you occasionally receive the opposite of what we pray for because that’s a sign the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. We may be praying, “Lord, do this and this and this.” Meanwhile the Holy Spirit is saying, “Lord, what he means is this. Don’t pay any attention to that. He said thus-and-so. If he saw the bigger picture, he’d really ask for such-and-such.” As we pray from our weak and limited perspective, the Holy Spirit takes some divine White-Out and “corrects” our prayers, so to speak, so that God’s will is always done even in our most wrong-headed prayers. Since the Holy Spirit knows what God’s will is, and since God searches our hearts, he is able to pray for us in ways that always correspond with God’s will. One sign that this is happening is that we pray for one thing and God does the opposite.
Does that mean our prayers are in vain? Not at all. Does it mean we shouldn’t pray? Not at all. It simply reveals our inherent human weakness and the limitation of our perspective on life. We see the part, the Holy Spirit sees the whole. We see one little piece, the Holy Spirit sees the big picture. We pray according to the little bit that we see, the Holy Spirit prays according to his perfect knowledge.
What should this text do for our faith?
It should encourage us to pray with great confidence. God is not judging your words but listening to your heart. We pray to a God who can discern the prayer within the prayer. He hears the words we say and he also understands the heart cry and the hidden desires that lie underneath our prayers. He can give us the substance of what we ask for even while refusing the form they take. That is, he can say yes to our deepest desires even while he says no on the surface. Thus, we get what we truly desired even though it is not what we asked for. These words of Henry Viscardi bring the truth home in a powerful way:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of others.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men, most richly blessed.
Romans 8:26-27 tells us that when we are so discouraged, when the pain is too deep, the disappointment too profound, the sense of loss so overwhelming that we can’t put it into words, the Holy Spirit says, “My child, I understand. Let me take over. I’ll talk to God for you.” And he prays for us with groans that words cannot express. Even when no one else cares or knows or understands, even when we can’t understand anything around us, even when the present is bleak and the future a dark mystery, the Son in heaven and the Holy Spirit on earth are interceding for us. We are being prayed for by the #1 Prayer Team in the universe. One is above, one is below, and we’re right in the middle. That ought to encourage us.
God has given us the gift of prayer. It was never meant to be a burden but rather the source of unlimited blessing for us and for those around us. And God has made it possible for us to pray about anything, anytime, anywhere. When we can’t pray, when the words won’t come, when we don’t know what to pray for, God has given the Spirit who prays for us. What an honor, what a privilege, what a gift. And what a God who would make such provision for us.