Topical Scripture: Romans 8:26-27
I hate flying. I am “altitudinally challenged.” I don’t just dislike the experience mildly. As a child, I was made to fly with my family on a friend’s private plane. I threw up, and a pattern was established. I could be the John Madden of theology–if someone would give me a Greyhound bus to travel the country, I would never set foot in another plane. How I would travel overseas, I haven’t figured out yet.
The reason is simple: I want to know why something is true before I trust it with my life. And I have no idea how a mega-ton metal monstrosity can get up to 30,000 feet and stay there.
As a small boy, I wanted to fly more than anything else in the world. I used to lay in the grass and stare into the blue sky, jealous of the birds and clouds and Superman. I once carved a set of wings out of cardboard, taped them on my arms, climbed to the roof of our house and jumped. Fortunately, it was a one-story house. I still remember how that episode ended, and fear the same result every time I step onto an airplane.
It would help greatly if I understood the principles of flight. If I knew why and how an airplane lifts off the ground and stays in the air, I would probably be able to look out the window of my aisle and stop digging my fingernails into the armrest. The more vital the subject, the more knowing why comes before knowing how for many of us.
Today Romans 8 brings us to the topic of prayer. We’re going to learn the good news that the Holy Spirit prays for us when we pray, and that his prayers are always answered. This fact provides us the opportunity to ask hard questions about one of the most significant aspects of Christian spirituality, and learn to be more than conquerors in prayer today.
Why do you need to learn to pray more effectively this morning?
Answers to prayer
Before we get to our questions about prayer, let’s begin with the clear fact before us.
Our text begins, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” The apostle has just described our hope in heaven–now he shows us our hope on earth. “Weakness” can be connected to the problems of life, but in this context it relates more to our weakness, our problems with prayer. We’ll return to these in a moment.
Whatever your questions or issues with prayer, the Spirit is living in your life and is ready to “help” you. The Greek word means “to lend a hand” or “come to the aid.” It conveys the idea of helping someone carry a burden.
Why do we need his help? Because “we do not know what we ought to pray for.”
“We” includes us all, even the greatest Apostle in Christian history.
Paul knows that we will all pray, but that we do not know how to pray effectively. We are like children who do not know what is best for us or what to ask from our Father. We don’t know the future, or much about the present. We don’t know whether this new job is best for us, or whether we should marry this person, or whether it is best that we be healed of this disease or helped out of this financial struggle. None of us knows.
So when we pray, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” The same Spirit who created the universe (Genesis 1:2), who raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11) and empowered the apostles to change the world, prays for us.
He “intercedes”–the word means to plead on behalf of another. It describes someone who rescues a person in need by advocating his cause before the authorities. He does this for “us,” for all of us, without exception.
His prayers are greater than our comprehension, “groans that words cannot express.” He is not limited to our finite minds and understanding when he prays for us.
And his prayers are always effective, because he “intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” God can only answer prayer in accordance with his will. The holy, righteous God of love cannot and will not give us better than the best. He will not give us what we ask for if it violates his will for his glory and our good.
The Bible promises that “if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). But we must pray according to his will. We don’t often know how to do this, but the Spirit doesn’t have that problem. As we pray, he prays for us. And his prayers always reflect the will of God, so they are always answered by God.
This is incredible good news.
Jesus “always lives to intercede” for us (Hebrews 7:25). He “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). He is praying for you at this very moment.
Now we learn that the Spirit helps us when we pray by praying for us as well. If you could have the holiest, most godly person you’ve ever known pray for you at all times and intercede whenever you pray, what person would you choose? The Father has provided even more for us, tasking his Son and Spirit with praying for you and me.
And when we pray and the Spirit prays for us, his prayers are always heard and answered.
Questions about prayer
This is wonderful good news, but it is also perplexing news. If the Spirit always prays for us when we pray, and his prayers are always heard, why is it that our prayers seem sometimes not to be heard or answered?
And why should I pray at all? Matthew 6:8 says that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” I’m not informing the omniscient Lord of the universe when I pray to him. Why pray, then?
Does my prayer motivate God to do something he would not have? If so, am I talking God into doing the right thing? If not, what is the point of praying?
And what about intercessory prayer and free will? Why should I pray for people to become Christians or make good decisions, if God honors their freedom and is not going to force them to trust or obey him? Let’s take our questions in order.
First, why are our prayers sometimes not answered as we pray them? Because God will always give us what we ask for or whatever is best.
Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). He is the Father–we are the children. And as our text states, we don’t always know what is best for us. Billy Graham writes in his autobiography that he was devastated when the girl he loved rejected his proposal of marriage, and couldn’t understand why God hadn’t answered his prayers. Then he met Ruth Bell and the rest is history.
Why does God sometimes heal people when we pray for them and sometimes not? The Spirit helps us pray by interceding for us in accordance with God’s will. If it is best that people be healed, they will be. If it’s best that they go to heaven rather than staying on earth, one second on the other side they’ll be forever glad God answered our prayer as he did.
That’s incredibly hard for us to understand or appreciate, but it results from the fact that God always gives us what we ask or whatever is best. One day we’ll understand why this was for his greatest glory and our greatest good.
Remember when Paul prayed three times that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh,” but was refused three times. God gave him what was even better, teaching him the critical truth that his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). God always gives us what we ask or whatever is best.
And know that he has all of eternity to hear and answer your prayers. He is not bound by time as we are. Six billion people could be praying to him at this moment, but he has forever to hear and respond to each and every request. So “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and know that God will always answer your prayer in whatever way is best. Always.
Second, why work at praying? If Jesus is praying for me all the time, and if the Spirit prays whenever I pray, why work at prayer myself? Why not pray generically and routinely and trust the Spirit to do all the heavy lifting?
Because prayer positions me to receive what God’s grace wants to give but cannot unless I’ll receive it. We didn’t build this sanctuary, and most of us had nothing to do with paying for it. But we must come inside it to receive the benefits it provides. God will honor our freedom, and will not force his grace into our lives. Presents must be opened. God wants to lead us, forgive us, and use us, but we must receive such mercy. We do so in prayer.
And prayer is the way God shapes our souls. When we pray the Spirit works on us, molding us into the image of Jesus. He transforms us, but only when we are connected with him in prayer.
We do not pray to inform God but to receive from God and to be with God. These reasons are enough to call us all to a life of prayer.
Third, what about intercession and freedom? Why pray for lost people to be saved, if God will never violate their free will? Why pray for a Christian to repent of sin or take a step of faith or change behavior in any way, if God has limited himself to the freedom he gave them in Christ?
When we pray, God does all he can to answer our prayer short of violating that freedom. If you pray for a lost person to come to Christ, God will bring Christians across his path, place Christian influence before him, and convict him by the work of his Spirit. And he will use you to answer your prayer. He will not violate the person’s freedom, but he will do everything else he can to bring him to faith.
It is the same when we pray for anyone’s behavior to change. God does all he can short of dishonoring their free will to answer our prayer in whatever way is best. So intercede for lost people to become Christians and for Christians to become Christ-like disciples, and know that your prayers are cooperating with God in shaping eternity.
To recap: When you pray, the Spirit helps you by interceding for you in accordance with God’s will–and his prayers on your behalf are always answered.
So pray continually, knowing that God will always give you what is best. Prayer positions you to receive his grace as his Spirit molds you into the image of Jesus. God will do everything short of violating human freedom to answer your prayers for yourself and others. And eternity will be different because you prayed.
Ask the Spirit to fill, control, and empower you every day. Ask him to teach you to pray and trust him to intercede as you pray. And he will, always.
R. A. Torrey was pastor of Moody Church in Chicago before embarking on a global evangelistic ministry which saw more than 102,000 people accept Christ in just the first eighteen months. He knew something about ministry and the power of God.
He said, “If anyone should ask me, ‘What is the great secret of holy living?’ I would say at once, ‘Living in the Holy Spirit.’ If anyone should ask me, ‘What is the great secret of effective service for Jesus Christ,’ I should reply at once, ‘Serving in the Holy Spirit.’ If anyone should ask me, ‘What is the one greatest secret of profitable Bible study?’ I would reply, ‘Studying in the Holy Spirit.’ And if anyone should ask me, what was the one great all-inclusive secret of prevailing prayer, I should reply, ‘Praying in the Holy Spirit.’ It is the prayer that the Holy Spirit inspires that God the Father answers” (R. A. Torrey, The Power of Prayer and the Prayer of Power [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971 (1924)] 137).
Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin was visiting President Ronald Reagan in the White House, when he noticed a gold phone on the president’s desk.
“What is that for?” he asked. “It’s my direct line to God,” Reagan replied. “How much does it cost to make a call?” Begin wanted to know. “Ten thousand dollars, but it’s worth every cent.”
Later in the year Reagan was in Begin’s office in Israel. He saw a gold phone on the prime minister’s desk. “What is that for?” he asked. “It’s my direct line to God.” “How much does it cost to make a call?” “Ten cents–it’s a local call.”
Your next call is free. The Lord of the universe is waiting on the other end of the line. Why do you need to pick up the phone this morning?