When God Prays for You
April 30, 2006
With this message we come to the final installment in the series called Adventures in Prayer. When we started I said that I wanted to encourage you about the boundless possibilities of prayer. It’s easy to feel guilty about our lack of prayer, and who among us would say that we pray as much as we ought? We all could pray more, and indeed we ought to pray more, but that has not been my burden because I don’t think that’s the way the New Testament approaches the subject. As I read the Bible it seems that the writers stress over and over that prayer is a gift and a privilege, not a heavy burden hanging over our heads. That’s why I’ve tried to stress the promises of prayer and to encourage you to jump in and start praying even if you don’t know all there is to know. All you have to do is ask, seek, and knock. It all starts right there.
But sometimes prayer isn’t so easy. There are moments in life for all of us when we can hardly pray at all. I have mentioned before about the birth of our first son. He was overdue in coming and 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. As they rolled my wife 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 on that experience I learned something profound. 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 carry a heavy load. Here’s someone trying to drag an enormous log but it’s so heavy he can barely move it. Then along comes a strong man 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.
Some of you will recognize the name of Dr. James Montgomery Boice. For over 30 years he has served as pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. That’s the church made famous during the ministry of Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse. For generations it has been a Bible-teaching center in the heart of Philadelphia. Dr. Boice is well known as a speaker on the Bible Study Hour, as a conference speaker, and through his many books. Recently he was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer, a disease that is almost always fatal. Two weeks ago he made a brief announcement to his congregation about his illness and the course of treatment he is pursuing. In his comments he addressed the question regarding how people should pray for him. “Should we pray for a miracle?” he asked. Not necessarily. There is no doubt, he said, that God can work miracles. But the God who works miracles could have prevented the cancer in the first place. He asked prayer for the doctors that they might have wisdom in pursuing the proper course of treatment. Then he spoke of the goodness of God, that even his cancer is for his own good in the long run. He also recognized that humanly speaking his life may well be measured in weeks, not months or years.
I was comforted and humbled as I read his words. His faith comes shining through and it shows itself in the very weakness Paul is talking about in our text. Dr. Boice does not know what God wants to do through this sudden attack of liver cancer. Perhaps God will heal him. Or perhaps he will soon be home in heaven. That God is good is clear. What he wants to do in this situation is not so clear.
So it is for all of us most of the time. Rarely can we be absolutely sure what God wants to do in a particular situation. After we have made our requests to God, especially regarding the crisis issues of life, we must cry out, “But Father, I don’t know what you want. And I want your will to be done even if it means my will is not done in this situation. I truly believe that you know best.”
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 the 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 dare not mention them in public. They are deep and precious and private. Sometimes we could not mention them without tears. 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 “Oh 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 some 450 years ago, he commented that it’s a good thing if we 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