“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)
A parishioner in a former congregation talks about her struggle with prayer this way, “I have absolutely no idea what I am doing!” It is a common refrain I have heard in my thirty-six years of ministry. What I once assumed would be one of the most accessible practices of the Christian faith is, in fact, among the most difficult. Those who are honest, those who are unafraid to express the vulnerabilities of their faith, speak to me of their difficulties with prayer. I always begin by affirming how delighted I am to hear that! If anyone is experiencing difficulties with prayer, what they are telling me is that they are wrestling with it rather than abandoning prayer to the professional clergy. There are three difficulties that are spoken of most, and identifying them helps in understanding this teaching from Romans.
The first difficulty that is mentioned is, perhaps, the one that requires the most courage to confess: the absence of appetite! Simply, there are people who have no driving hunger for going to their knees or closing their eyes to speak to God. We understand them when we contrast this lack of appetite with the strength of other appetites, such as that for good food, or the enjoyment of rare and expensive beverages, or the pursuit of some interest, such as golf. A genuine appetite has about it a mighty dynamic that requires little discipline. When they turn to pray, it is often out of a perceived compulsion; a requirement to be a “good” Christian. More time is spent in guilt for the lack of enthusiasm for prayer than the practice. The duty of prayer becomes oppressive.
A second difficulty that is heard is a weakness of faith. Questions fill the mind and heart about the effectiveness of prayer. This is particularly true after prayer has been reduced to “asking” God for something. Though Jesus does encourage us to ask for anything that we might need, Jesus also demonstrates in his own life a richer dynamic of prayer—simply enjoying a relationship with God. That relationship is identical to one we may have with a spouse or a friend. We gather simply to enjoy one another, to share joys and struggles with each other. When prayer is limited to requests, it is easy to dismiss prayer when there isn’t a pressing need. God is dispensable. Absent is any notion that we are turning to God in the quiet assurance that we are drawing near to one who cares for us deeply.
Finally, the difficulty of knowing what to pray for generates hesitancy. Many days present problems and challenges to which we see no solution. In a critical moment, we are unable to discern which direction to take or course of action to pursue. We are stumped and are unable to fashion a reasonable request before God. It is here that we require wisdom that is from another source—a power beyond our capacity. These three difficulties open us to hear the gracious promise presented here in Romans: “the Spirit comes to help our weakness.” The Holy Spirit clarifies and strengthens our prayers. Additionally, prayers that may be short-sighted or are made without an understanding of God’s work are corrected. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us, and feeble efforts to pray become sufficient before God.
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To read more meditations by Dr. Doug Hood, you can purchase
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