“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get.”
Matthew 6:5 (Common English Bible)
“In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.”
Romans 8:26 (Common English Bible)
The Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, creates a vivid image of inadequacy that unsettles the heart of a lonely individual in the short story, White Nights: A Sentimental Love Story From The Memoirs Of A Dreamer.[i] The protagonist moves from day to day in a stale and unprofitable life that lacks any meaningful connection to another. All that changes one night on a bridge when his life intersects that of a woman crying. A gentle expression of concern plunges into an experience of such previously unknown intimacy of conversation that he asks of the woman if he might return the next night, “I can’t help coming here tomorrow. I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can’t help reliving such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experienced.”[ii] Jesus points to someone praying and dares to insist, “Don’t pray like that!” and Paul writes that no one really knows how to pray. From the mouth of Jesus and the writing of Paul, we learn that our prayers can be inadequate.
The prayers we utter may be flawed, but prayer remains mandated by God. Prayer makes us conscious of the presence of God and reminds us that sin and death are still at work in our lives. Prayer directs our steps and enlightens us, and changes us. Prayer expands our vision beyond ourselves – makes us something bigger than we are. The paradox is that the very thing Paul tells us we don’t know how to do is the very thing we must do. God intends it. What are we to do? Paul helps us here. Moving beyond the shattering recognition that our prayers are flawed, Paul declares that we are not left alone in our stumbling. Moving us toward Dostoyevsky’s bridge, our prayers intersect with the very Spirit of God. It is an encounter of intimacy that is found in attention to the Scriptures. As our hearts are steeped in the story of God, we are led to see the world through the eyes of God. Minds and hearts are transformed by this new intimacy, which makes us co-creators of God’s Kingdom. The Spirit takes up residency within us and makes our prayers for us.
It is the ultimate paradox – where we are the weakest, God’s power is the strongest. Unable to pray, as God would have us pray, the Holy Spirit, who knows no weaknesses, searches our hearts and makes the prayers that are most urgent on our behalf. Finally, it is an act of grace. Where we are inadequate, God completes the work of prayer – and it is work because changes in attitudes and behaviors are a direct outcome of prayer. It is dangerous work because it risks conversion from seeking God’s blessings for our own small projects and wants and needs to becoming caught up in God’s hopes and dreams for the world. The Spirit’s prayer on our behalf results in an interruption of our lives and attaches us to God’s redemptive work in the world. As we look back on the shape and character, and sense of urgency that many of our prayers of yesterday had, we realize how flawed our prayers really were. They were about us, not God. They were about our individual pursuits, not about a life in a relationship with God.
What remains for us is to take the time regularly to read Scripture and immerse ourselves in the great story of God in the pages of the Old and New Testament. Then we reflect deeply upon what we hear in the reading and ask God what we are to do. It is not time that we find. We never find time to pray in the crush of daily life. We must take the time. Just as surely as we take the time to place a call to a loved one in the midst of an overscheduled day, block out an evening for a child’s game, or linger in bed a few additional minutes to watch a beautiful sunrise out our bedroom window, we take the time to be with God in the pages of the Bible. This intentional time of reading the Bible and prayer doesn’t further deplete our energy – it restores it! Without “God time” each day, the energy for life runs down. Yet, the marvelous discovery that waits to be experienced is that we no longer pray for God’s divine help in our lives. Day upon day of prayer will demonstrate that divine help has always been present.
[i] Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, London: Folio Society, 2021, 3-48.
[ii] Dostoyevsky, 11.