The Spirit Intercedes
Over the past weeks we’ve been exploring the central theme of Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome – the amazing gift of the grace of God, the undeserved, unearned, life-changing reality that we have been declared righteous despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, and that we have been named as beloved children of God, joint heirs with Christ, not through our good works, not through our religious observance, not through our correct doctrine, but as a gift of grace received by faith.
The start of today’s reading seems to take us off in a slightly different direction – the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words – but the way Paul writes it speaks of a connection, in his mind at least: “likewise,” he begins. In the same way.
“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought”
There is almost a sort of patheticness here – in the previous chapters Paul has pointed out that we can’t live up to God’s high calling, we can’t by our efforts live the lives of love and justice that we were created to live, we can’t enter into the presence of God by our own worthiness, but that all these things depend upon the grace of God; now he says that we can’t even pray right.
We had one job – to pray – and we can’t even do that right.
And I’d never before – I’ve often heard this verse referred to, but the vibe has always been “you know those times when you don’t know what to pray, you just don’t have the words, in those moments the Spirit of God comes alongside you and prays your prayers without the need for words” – and that’s true, of course, and what an amazing gift that is, what an incredible reassurance that when we reach the end of our prayers, of our eloquence, of our language, it’s ok because the Spirit takes it from there – that’s fantastic, and to be honest, that’s what I thought I was going to preach on today.
But it doesn’t just say “when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us”. It says, “we do not know how to pray as we ought”. No “sometimes,” or “when we don’t know,” – just “we do not know how to pray as we ought”
And so we see why this is ‘likewise’ for Paul. It’s grace, again. Just as we need the grace of God to enter into God’s presence, just as it is only by the grace of God that we can claim our adoption as children of God, so too we need the grace of God, the gift and presence and empowerment of God, even to pray.
But ‘likewise’ again: we have that grace, that gift, that presence, that empowerment.
And it might sound a bit depressing or discouraging to say we don’t know how to pray right, but isn’t just stating the obvious? Jesus’ first disciples knew it – they said “teach us how to pray” (and it’s striking that when they did it might be the only time in the whole of the gospels that Jesus actually gave someone a direct answer rather launching into a parable or asking a question in reply) – when they saw Jesus they realised that they didn’t know how to pray.
And so often we know that we don’t know what to pray for. I’m sure pretty much everyone joining us tonight has prayed about the COVID pandemic – but does anyone know what to pray? If we’re honest, don’t we always wonder, at least just a little, what we ought to pray, how we ought to pray?
We don’t know how to pray as we ought.
But that’s ok.
Because the Spirit helps us in our weakness, and she intercedes alongside us with sighs too deep, too profound, for words – expressing alongside us the inexpressible.
So if we aren’t able to pray as we ought, but the Spirit is praying for us, does that mean that our prayers are no longer important, no longer needed? That’s another theme that Paul’s returned to more than once already in the letter – if it is all grace, if we cannot earn our place before God, if we are declared righteous by the gift of God, doesn’t that just mean we can go on as we were before, with no need to change our lives, no need to grow more Christlike, no need to learn to pray?
Perhaps you remember Paul’s answer at the start of chapter 6 – “by no means!”. The fact that our salvation, our adoption, our place before God is a free gift, unearned and unearnable, is not ever to be taken as a license to not put in the effort, to “work out our salvation” as it puts it in the letter to the Philippians.
And here in our reading today, the language isn’t for a moment that of God’s Spirit taking over from us because we do not know what we’re doing. The word Paul uses here when he says that the Spirit helps us is a partnership word – it shares the same roots as words like symbiotic or simultaneous, and it’s in what’s called the middle voice – neither active “the Spirit helps us” nor passive “we are helped by the Spirit”, but somewhere between, something of both. It is literally ‘to take hold of alongside’ – if you are trying to push your broken-down car and someone comes alongside and gets down and pushes with you – it’s that sort of help.
Or to imagine – as I often find helpful – a parent and child, or teacher and student – this isn’t “oh, you won’t be able to do that, let me do it for you”, it’s “let’s see if we can do this together”.
When the Spirit intercedes for us, with us, alongside us, that is the help that she is bringing.
And – Paul goes on in language which is really grammatically challenged by his experience of God as Trinity; the Spirit who prays at our side is the God who searches our hearts and knows the will of God.
We are joined in our prayers by one who has searched our hearts, who knows our deepest truths, our secret longings, our hidden fears, and who at the same time knows the things of God, knows her own mind, knows the will of God in the world.
An act, once more, of grace, echoing Paul’s theme; giving us what we most desperately needed even before we knew we needed it.
But for all that she does replace us in prayer, but she joins with us in prayer.
Because in the end, prayer isn’t about getting it right. Paul says we don’t know how to pray as we ought, and it’s true; we don’t – we don’t really know how to do anything as we ought. But prayer is not a performance, and it’s not a test. It’s not something we only do when we are confident we have it mastered – because we never will be.
Prayer is at its heart communication, relationship, and there is no pass mark, no minimum required standard, no banding, no ATAR. We just do it, with the amazing gift of God’s grace that the Spirit is our partner, that she takes hold alongside us.
And so we can pray. Just as we can know ourselves declared righteous, justified by God’s grace; just as we can declare with confidence that we are daughters and son of God, heirs with Jesus; just as by grace we are free from sin even as we still struggle; by grace, we can pray, even though we do not know how to.
In those times when we know that prayer is beyond us, when we are just too tired, too sad, too angry; in those times when we know that the words are beyond us, when we are confused, despairing, ignorant; and in those times when we are confident that we know God’s will and feel like we can walk right up to the throne of heaven and ask.
In all times, we can pray. Because we don’t know how, but we have a partner taking hold alongside us, and she knows.