“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Let me help you to understand the background against which the apostle Paul makes this statement, after which I will make a perhaps surprising observation.
The letter to the Romans is A profound exposition on the doctrine of salvation. Paul helps us to see that all people are in need of redemption, “for all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God “ (Rom. 3:23). All of us are under the just wrath of a holy God (Rom. 1:18ff), unless God does something to change that problem. And He does! In mercy God chooses to freely, unconditionally and sovereignly impute righteousness to all who will trust in the substitutionary atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. By this act Jesus bore the sins of many, making atonement for them (Rom. 5:15). By this act He justifies all those that actively believe in Him and trust Him with all their life. In substituting His righteousness for our unrighteousness he makes us positionally righteous before God the Father. That is why Romans 8:1-2 is such a great truth for every Christian to embrace:
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
Once you are justified by God the Father through Christ the Son, by the working of the Holy Spirit who opens your eyes to the truth of God’s way of saving people you will never be the same!
Now here is the problem with which converted men and women frequently struggle: If I am justified by God through Christ does this mean that I am now perfect – free from sin and all that?
Well, yes and no!
Yes, because Christ has made you perfect, and should you die right now, you will be ushered into God’s presence, righteous and holy on account of Christ’s merits which have been imputed to you.
No, - although you have been justified and are positionally perfect, you continue to live in a fallen body, and in a fallen world in which Satan still exercises his destructive and deceptive rule, until Christ comes again and defeats him. For this reason you still will experience struggle with sin in every way conceivable, and that is the point of Romans 7:15-20 where the apostle Paul confesses his own struggle with sin.
Now why am I telling you all this? Wasn't I supposed to tell you about my struggles with private prayer?
I am telling you all this because this is the context in which our text is found.
And now I am going to relate this context to the problem that (I suspect) we all have with prayer.
Let me begin by giving you three propositions from this text and context before applying this to a call to persevere in prayer, with the help of the Holy Spirit, no matter how much you and I may struggle right now...
Our three propositions are these...
(i) You must pray.
(ii) You cannnot and will not pray without help.
(iii) The Holy Spirit helps you to pray.
A SURPRISING OBSERVATION!
Were you surprised that I said that you can’t or won’t pray? Where do I get that from?
(i) from Experience
(ii) from Scripture
From experience. I have told you already. I know that my prayer life is horribly stinted. I suspect that this is also true for you, unless you have received unusual grace from God in this regard (and some people do!). But the average Christian will confess that he or she struggle to pray. The world, the flesh and the devil conspire against us in this. Many Christians will confess that they are easily discouraged and distracted and that they easily give up in prayer. Most of us know and confess that we do not pray as we ought to pray.
We see this also confirmed in the Scriptures which we have read. Read Romans 8:26 again:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought….” .
The apostle Paul confesses and identifies with you and me that he is weak and unable to pray as he ought to! That encourages me somewhat, but not too much, because I know that must pray. I know that prayerlessness has spiritual consequences. But I can’t seem to pray as I ought to. I can’t get going.
This means that we are going to have to look for the ability to pray elsewhere, but before we get there allow me just to make some things clear.
- The weakness of our prayer life does not lie in the fact that our salvation from God is lacking.
- The weakness of our prayer does not lie in our justification. Remember? Through Jesus Christ we are justified; we are made right with God. We lack nothing there.
- The weakness of our prayer also does not lie in our sanctification. Sanctification is the progressive and ongoing work of the Holy Spirit after we have been justified. Many people erroneously think that sanctification is what they contribute to their salvation. I used to believe that, until I was corrected by the Scriptures. I now know that sanctification is as much the work of God in us as is our justification. There is nothing lacking here.
So where can the weakness of your and my prayer life be found?
It is found in us! Remember? We have weak bodies and weak minds. So when we try to pray in our natural strength then we shall find that we do not have it in us to pray as we ought to pray. We find that we are either too phlegmatic or too tired or too distracted. The devil too helps in this!!!
We see this in Jesus’ disciples. The disciples could not keep awake in the hour of Christ’s great trial in the garden of Gethsemane. He asked them to watch and pray with Him. Three times He came back and found them asleep. He warned them that they should stay awake at this hour, otherwise they would fall into temptation (Matt 26:41) …. AND THEY DID! (Matt. 26:56).
In ourselves we lack ability and perseverance. When it comes to prayer then we know that we are weak. We find that many days go by without any meaningful prayer work being done. And when we do it, we find it dull and we watch the clock and we cannot wait for this time to finish, so that we can scratch the quiet time off our duty list! Does this sound familiar?
The same is true when it comes to attending our corporate prayer time at church. We need to pray corporately! We cannot afford not to pray, because the work of God in and through our church is so big and so profound that all of our combined human genius will not cope with the spiritual demands before us. We must pray together corporately – as one body! We see the powerful effects of corporate prayer in Acts 4: 23-31; Acts 12; Acts 10; Acts 13:1-3 etc. You may even have been a part of a corporate church prayer meeting after which God had moved in amazing swiftness and power to answer that prayer.
We struggle to pray, privately and corporately, but the point is that we must pray. It does not help us if we do not pray. We will remain powerless as long as we fail to plead with God to help us in this work.
What then must we do against our lack of desire to pray?
THE ROLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IN PRAYER
We must rely on the power of the Holy
Spirit, and thankfully He is given by God the Father and the Son for this purpose - to help
us in our weakness!
Knowing then that it is not in you to pray as you ought, the Bible now suggests that you need to seek help from the Holy Spirit for this task.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Paul knows that the life and health of the church depends upon the power of God. The power and help of God for this great work must be solicited by prayer and if the problem is that you can’t seem to pray or simply won’t pray – then what must you do?
You must cast yourself in ALL your weakness upon the Holy Spirit!
And what will He do, once you confess your weakness and your helplessness in this matter?
Here is the promise
(i) He helps us
(ii) He Himself intercedes for us with groanings to deep for words
(iii) He intercedes for the saints (you!) according to the will of God !
This puts a fresh perspective on prayer, and I trust that you will be bold enough to test God in this matter. If prayer is God’s will (Phil. 4:6; Col. 4:2; 1 Tim 2:8) and if you know that God wants you to do this, then ASK the Holy Spirit for help!
- You must pray
- You cannot and will not pray without help
- You must ask the Holy Spirit to help you. He is the promised Helper who is sent by Jesus (Jn. 14:16) to help us in our manifest weakness. This is what makes the Christian life a supernatural life. It is meant to be lived in dependence upon God from whom we must seek our help always - and particularly in prayer.