Prayer that surpasses words
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 NRSV
Last week at a Bible study the study leader, Jim, demonstrated something that’s really stuck with me. His wife put a glass in a shallow bowl and he filled the glass with clear water, stopping to ask each time, “Is it full yet?” until finally the water spilled over the sides and into the bowl. He was talking about how we are so blessed, how our cup is so overflowing that we drink not from the cup, but from the saucer.
This demonstration came to mind again when I was working my way through Romans 8. Romans 8 is one of those chapters in my Bible that’s almost entirely coloured-in with highlighting. It’s a cornucopia of God’s love, mercy and grace. It’s in Romans 8 that we learn we are free from condemnation in Jesus Christ (v1), that we are in the Spirit (v9), that we are heirs now (v15-16), that nothing will separate us from God’s love (v35, 37-39). An embarrassment of riches, as my celebrity crush is fond of saying. But one stands out to me especially: the promise we have that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness…that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (v26).
Have you ever felt helplessly underprayed? Your words refuse to mesh into coherence, your heart’s a mess – let’s not even get started on faith… You know you need to pray, but you don’t want to. Or you want to, but the connection is missing. Words hit ceiling; faith hits rock bottom. It’s a mess. We’re a mess.
But what if all that sighing, all that anguish and confusion and apathy and just general craziness of human existence – what if that is prayer? I think that’s what Paul means here. Prayer is not just that thing we do when we’re about to go to sleep or when we wake up, or when something good or bad happens… Prayer is all those moments in-between, too, even the incoherent ones, the ones we tend to feel so bad about. God sees our hearts; moreover, he sees our hearts in the Spirit, and it’s because of his will that the Spirit intercedes for us (v27). So it’s not that God searches our hearts passively, like flipping the pages of a book. He’s not just skimming it to determine how good or bad we’re currently being, like an interactive naughty list. God does not look upon anything without changing it, too. That’s just the nature of his being: interaction with him is change, is…prayer!
Turning to God’s face, even momentarily… Feeling a glimpse of his light, or feeling none at all… In quiet and in craziness… With or without words… These experiences are all equal to the most eloquent prayers we have ever prayed. Anger, grief, sadness, emotions raw and emotions faint – all of it is made to psalms of the highest praise by the Spirit in our hearts and the constancy of God’s love. He searches the heart… He ferrets out even the tiniest morsels of love, faith and hope in us, and doles out endless amounts of grace, love and mercy in return. Our faith in him will never be equal to his faith in us.
When next you have a bad day, and your words fall short, and your whole being falls short – or when you stubbornly, rebelliously think you aren’t so bad – both moments we need grace in – remember that he has already found in you something worth redeeming; that the redeeming is done; that the Spirit sighs what you cannot speak or sing or wail or whisper, and that this is all prayer, all good, all for him.
Prayer inspiration: Try to find a quiet moment and consciously let the Holy Spirit pray for you. Just hand over all your concerns, worries and fears to the Spirit. Don’t worry about “feeling it” or messing it up. It’s taken care of: you only need to bear witness.