Monday, January 9, 2012

We Don't Know How to Pray

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.Romans 8:26-27
Yesterday in worship, as we were sharing our celebrations in preparation for our prayer time, one of our folks gave thanks that he was leading in a family football pool organized by another member of the church. This led me to share my dismay that it appeared that the Steelers would be playing our Patriots next week. “I’ll be praying for Tim Tebow,” I said, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Obviously, our worship service is fairly casual.

It was all in good fun. Though I did worry a little that someone might think I actually prayed about football games. And I worried a little more after Denver pulled off what seemed a miraculous win.

But in a larger sense, it got me thinking about prayer. It is the most common and probably also the most misunderstood of Christian practices.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul makes an amazing confession. He says that we do not know how to pray.

Although the Gospels had not been written when Paul wrote his letters, it is almost certain that he would have known the story of the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. And he would have known the prayer that Jesus taught them, which we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” And he would have known all of the Jewish prayers by heart and used them daily.

But Paul is talking about something that is much deeper than the words we use. He is talking about the nature of prayer itself.

In his wonderful sermon on this text, Paul Tillich explains that, “According to Paul, it is humanly impossible. This we should never forget when we pray: We do something humanly impossible. We talk to somebody who is not somebody else, but who is nearer to us than we ourselves are. We address somebody who can never become an object of our address because he is always subject, always acting, always creating. We tell something to Him who knows not only what we tell Him but also all the unconscious tendencies out of which our conscious words grow. This is the reason why prayer is humanly impossible.”
From this insight into the impossibility of prayer, Paul gives us a mysterious answer. God intercedes for us. It is God to whom we pray, and it is God who prays through us. Paul gives us a picture, which is absurd if we take it literally, but profoundly true if we understand the symbolism. God intercedes for us before God. Through us, God speaks to Godself.

Like most pastors, I work hard to craft a pastoral prayer for Sunday worship. I want it to be profound and poetic and moving. Parts of the prayer are intercessory, meaning that in a formal sense we “intercede” for one another before God.

But in a deeper sense, the language of public prayer is for the congregation rather than for God. What we hope is that the words we use will help individuals open themselves to God in prayer. The words themselves are not the prayer; they are the invitation to prayer. The real prayer is what happens “when the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

1 comment:

  1. wheels53vb@aol.comJanuary 9, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    Hey Bill (et al);
    I read (and re-read)your quotation from Tillich' sermon and am left a bit "empty" as well as a bit confused. WHY is it that some folks seek to 'dismantle' commonly held concepts until like "Humpty-Dumpty" there isn't a prayer (sorry @ that [pun] I couldn't resist) of it being re assembled as it had been before and THEN, offering an alternative which is extremely remote from the original concept. I apologize for my seeming disrespect, here, but religion and particularly faith and it's supporting structures, (of which I hold prayer as one of the most important, nay; central) are NOT places where I require intellectual challenge(s) (nor welcome them, honestly).
    I agree with you that 'public' prayer is 'constructed' for the audience which is to hear it and that the author is concerned with the impression which his/her words will make upon that audience. However, if you will indulge me for a moment, I'd like to share a somewhat different perspective; When one prays to God, The Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. . . wouldn't even the simplest of people wish to present their Acknowledgement(s), thanksgiving(s) and petitions in a form which reflects God's 'status' relative to that of the supplicant?
    Are we not addressing a (THE) elder, superior being and, therefore, desirous of making the very best impression upon Him? Thoughtful selection of one's words and their order/organization seems to me to be only natural and appropriate given the situation. This, for me, holds true whether I am praying aloud- in-public or silently, alone by myself
    Certainly, it is agreed that Our Heavenly Father knows our hearts and minds without benefit of our prayer if one faithfully accepts God's Omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. So perhaps one might, therefore, question the actual need or requirement for prayer. It is my belief, however, that if one accepts that there is a god and that one orders his/her life as one subject to that God's sovereignty, then prayer, as a form of obeisance is obligatory. Further, that that obligation be a presentation of "first-fruits" as it were; the best that one can give, even unto the form of the prayer and the language used therein. No?
    It goes without saying that because God IS, by His very nature, aware of our circumstances, individually, at any given point, that our 'unspoken' prayers; those sighs too deep for words, are perceived by our steadfastly loving,
    Heavenly-Father, God without the necessity of our intention or action.
    However, I have a 'truck' with the notion that our prayer(s) aren't "real" prayer and that only those which pass between The Father and His Holy Spirit (and Our intercessor) are. Perhaps, I am reacting to "something which wasn't truly there" in your Blog (OR Tillich's sermon, for that matter), I'll allow for that possibility.

    Respond IF you've a mind to do so. If not, Shalom be, unto you and ALL.--WVB