Today I will be traveling to Israel where I will be for 3 weeks, then on to Spain, then Greece and finally home 6 weeks from now. As you can imagine, writing Today’s Word every day while putting in these kind of miles is a bit daunting. So, here is an official “rewind,” a TW from some time ago that one of my best friends told me she liked very much. In the next few weeks I will have to do another one or two (?) of these just to stay afloat, if you don’t mind.
for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; Romans 8:26
How To Pray - Is this really the problem? Does Paul mean to say that we don’t know how to pray? It doesn’t seem so. Prayer is ultimately about communion with God. It is about all of the emotional, volitional, cognitive and embodied elements that bridge the gap between who I am and who God is. I don’t think I really have any serious concerns about how I pray. I know that the Hebrew words cover the range from growling to weeping, from shouting to dancing and from pleading to praising. The real problem is that I don’t know what to pray. I don’t really know what God is doing in the circumstances of my life, so I don’t really know what to say that will align my heart with His purposes. I am stuck with the finite version of the eternal plans of God. More often than not, I am at a loss for true perspective.
Someone is sick. What should I pray? Should I pray for healing? What if that is not what God is doing with these circumstances? Someone lost a job. Do I pray for another, or is God teaching something else? At every hand I am confronted with confusion. How can I pray rightly if I do not know the mind of God first? Do I just toss up words and add the “if it is Your will” catch-all at the end? Paul seems to say something else.
First, the Greek phrase does not include the word pos (how). Therefore, any translation that adds this thought doesn’t seem to be correct. There is also no justification for adding the “for” in a translation such as “what to pray for.” Paul literally says, “because what we may pray as we ought, we do not know.” Leon Morris comments: “But we cannot hide behind a plea of ignorance and give up on prayer. Prayer is part of the Christian life. . . We must pray aright, and since we cannot do that, the Spirit comes to our aid.” Paul’s comment is not an excuse for incapacity. It is a description of our finitude. We don’t know what to pray because in our brokenness in a broken world we cannot know what to pray. Unless God shows up in our prayers, we are simply guessing.
The Greek verb here is proseuchomai, the standard New Testament word for praying. It is a general category word, covering all the elements of prayer. Paul isn’t saying that we lack insight when it comes to intercession or supplication. He is saying that the human condition leaves us deficient in all aspects of prayer. If you have ever struggled in conversation with God, you know that Paul speaks the truth. Prayer is very difficult. Without the Spirit, there is always an awareness of inadequacy in the experience.
A lot of us recognize this problem, but now what? Perhaps it helps to recognize that the Hebrew approach to prayer almost always focuses on praise and blessing for God. In fact, most prayers in the Siddur (the Hebrew prayer book) are filled with blessing and praising God’s name, His works and His faithfulness. There seems to be a lot less concern about human needs and supplications. What comes to the forefront is the magnificence and majesty of God. Maybe these prayers don’t struggle so much with the issue of incapacity because they start by acknowledging the impossibly wide gap. Furthermore, when the prayers of the Siddur do bring needs before the King of the Universe, the attitude is always focused on the transformation of the supplicant’s heart in order to be content with the sovereign will of the King. In other words, the prayer is not so much about what we want God to do as it is about becoming pliable and accepting His purposes. Prayer is real petition, but it focuses on the degree of my contentment. God’s sovereignty always trumps my desires and I need to absorb that.
Finally, it might be helpful to see that prayer is a duty, not simply a desire. We are commanded to pray. That means we must pray in spite of our feelings about the situation. How easy it is to shed the discipline of prayer when we are discouraged or downtrodden. But prayer is not emotionally based. Prayer is the requirement to talk to Him about it. “Why didn’t you come to me sooner,” is God’s answer to our hesitancy. We need to make prayer a discipline of life. Once again, this is demonstrated in the Siddur which begins prayer at the very moment we wake and has prescribed prayers for nearly every activity in the day. Maybe the rabbis knew how quickly we lose sight of God in the hustle and bustle of life, so they built into the training process the constant reminders of Creator conversation. Paul concurs with his exhortation, “Pray without ceasing.”
In personal confession, I recognize that I do not know what to pray. That often leads me to not pray, since I can see no way out of the circumstances I face. I don’t know what to do, so I don’t know what to ask. Not knowing what to ask, I ask nothing at all. But this is a terrible and debilitating mistake and an awful display of arrogance. Who am I to know? The solution to the problem is not asking God to assist me with my solutions. I don’t have a solution. Therefore, I am left with pouring out my heart-felt struggle without an answer. That opens the door for the Spirit. All I have really done is come to the Father with these words on my lips: “I do not know what to pray, Father, but I know who You are. Let my heart be molded to Your purposes. That is enough for me.”
This isn’t the end of the story, but it is a beginning.
Topical Index: prayer, proseuchomai, Siddur, contentment, Romans 8:26