The Apostle Paul speaks for all of us when he writes “for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” I imagine we’ve all had certain times or seasons of life when we simply didn’t know how to pray, or whether to pray at all. An experience where there are no words right there to express what is going on. Or a situation when it is unclear what one is supposed to desire or ask of God. Or maybe an extended period of time when the energy for the effort to even try prayer just isn’t present. To all this Paul’s words provide some assurance that we are all on common ground. None of us know how to pray as we ought. Not me, not you, not the Roman Christians receiving this letter in the first century, not the Apostle Paul himself.
I’ve had a recent experience of not knowing how to pray as I ought that I’m still trying to work through and learn from. It happened at Community Meal several weeks ago. A lot of what I do at Community Meal is sit down and talk with people and hear about some things going on in their life. Occasionally it feels appropriate to offer a prayer for someone right there at the table if they are going through something especially difficult. So this particular time I was talking with a woman whose son had recently been put in jail. She felt that he had been treated very poorly by the police and that the charges against him were unjust. She was angry with the police and anxious about the upcoming trial where she would testify on her son’s behalf. After hearing more about her situation I offered to pray for her and her son, which she welcomed. Not knowing quite what to say, and not wanting to pray anything too specific, or make any requests that God might not answer and thus disappoint her and me, I focused on praying for peace for them and that they would be able to accept whatever came about. This is a wonderful prayer in many circumstances and one I’ve found helpful for myself many times, and it was what I had to offer in this case. I then asked her if she would like to pray. She knew exactly what she wanted to pray for. She prayed for justice to be done, for her son’s innocence to be validated, for her own words in court to be heard and prevail, and for them to be delivered from this trial. As soon as she began praying her words reminded me of one of the many Psalms that cry out for a similar kind of deliverance against one’s adversaries. I wasn’t sure what my prayer reminded me of.
In reflecting on this since I’ve been considering how our two different prayers for that situation related to each other and what I could learn from her prayer. And in this the eighth chapter of Romans has emerged as an important scripture. When Paul mentions this statement about not knowing how to pray as we ought it is in keeping with a general theme throughout the letter. And this is the theme – things are not as they should be. The world, as it is, is out of joint, out of sync with God’s intentions. Jews, Gentiles, men, women, all of creation is living within a certain brokenness of relationship with the steadfast love of God. A brokenness that one can simply call “sin.” We’re separated from each other, separated from ourselves, and separated from God.
None of this comes as much of a big surprise. We know this because we experience it everyday. We see it around us, we hear about it on the news, and experience it within ourselves.
The surprise comes in the way that we begin to come back in step with God, reconnected with the divine energy that has always been there. The way that we learn how to pray. This is what Paul is working with in chapter eight. In verse 22 of that chapter he says “we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” I think one of the last times I gave out a good groan was this past weekend when I arrived up at my folks house and got out of the car and noticed a bulge in one of the sidewalls of the front tires. I gave out a hearty, deep groan at the realization that I would need to buy two new front tires in the next couple days before heading back to Cincinnati. Here the groaning is much heartier and deeper. It says that the whole world is groaning in labor pains, something more visceral than any groan I’ve experienced.
The remarkable thing about this world-groaning is that it’s not just a sign that there is something wrong and ill at ease, but that it itself is a sign of God’s abiding steadfast presence. When Paul says, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought” he goes on to say “but” the very Spirit of God intercedes for us with “sighs too deep for words.” The deep sighs of the Spirit and the deep groans of our own spirits are here directly linked. God’s Spirit groans along with us and even through us. It’s as if Paul is saying — if you don’t know the words to say in prayer, just be quiet and listen. And you’ll hear a deep groaning coming from the world that is itself a prayer to God. If you can allow yourself to groan along with the Spirit, then you have begun to pray.
I’m struck by the way this is presented as being pre-speech, preceding any words that may form on our lips to express ourselves in prayer. This passage could have said that the Spirit teaches us words to say when we want to offer ourselves to God, or that the Spirit will provide someone who will come along and speak the words we need to hear in a certain situation. These are both good gifts of the Spirit that we need. But that is not the concern here. The initial prayer act that puts our spirits in sync with the Spirit of God happens through “sighs too deep for words,” and that’s all that needs to happen for prayer to be prayer.
This is not the first time in Scripture when the unarticulated groan is presented as an act of communication between humanity and Creator Spirit. It plays a central role in the formative event of the Israelite people, when they were delivered out of the slavery of Egypt in the exodus. After being enslaved by the Pharaoh and all his taskmasters, the book of Exodus says, “The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them.” (Exodus 1:13-14) Having no one to defend them the Israelites do the only thing they feel they have power to do. It is described in 2:23:24. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” This is a God who from the very beginning has always been present wherever there is a groan and a cry that goes out. Taking notice and then taking action. When God calls Moses to deliver the people out of slavery God says this: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry.” (3:7) It goes on to say, “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me…so come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (3:9). Later when the Israelites are freed from Egypt and are receiving the law that would teach them how to live as a free people, they are reminded of the power of the cry. One of their laws states, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry” (Exodus 22:21-22). There is no favoritism in who gets the ear of God. Whenever a sigh or cry too deep for words goes up, the Spirit is already at work.
So I think that part of what caught my attention in the prayer of this woman at Community Meal was that I sensed that I was in the presence of the cry, and I wasn’t ready for it. I was trying to come up with a way to offer words that asked for something, but not too much. Words that gave comfort, but also hope. Words that recognize that God is present with us but doesn’t always bring about the results that we would like to see, so we shouldn’t get our hopes up too much. And she just let out a groan, pretty much bypassing all my careful calculations of what made for a good prayer at that moment and letting whatever words formed in her mouth be what she had to offer.
There are many ways to pray, but maybe one way that we need to explore more is this kind of prayer. Call it the prayer of desire, the prayer of longing, the prayer of outrage, the prayer of mourning. We are fairly good at living out of our thinking, rationalizing mind but may miss out on what originates in the gut – the place of labor pains and the place where we have silent longings seeking expression.
I think this is a fairly risky form of prayer. It makes us vulnerable. If we’re going to feel the feelings of God in our gut, we’re going to feel sorrow, and anger, great loss, and passion. And our words aren’t going to be able to contain the depth of the Spirit’s sighs through us. But I’m not sure we have much of an alternative if we want to stay alive. Wendell Berry puts it ever-so-gently when we says, “If you’ve lost the ability to be outraged by what is outrageous, then you are dead. Somebody ought to come and haul you off.” The options to avoid these prayers are that we pretend the groans aren’t there and close ourselves off to them, or we turn up the volume so loud with all the other noises we let into our life that we lose the ability to hear them. Either way, a part of us has died and a channel of God’s Spirit is closed off.
The Psalms are the collection of works where the groan and the cry of a people come to find expression in words. Psalm 42 says that “deep calls to deep” and is itself an example of what this might sound like. (Read vv. 1-3). These are brutally honest statements that often remain unresolved. Psalm 86 says “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.” Jesus has the Psalms on his lips during the agony of the cross. He voices one of the most haunting lines in the Psalms, Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He also voices Psalm 31 – “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” And there is almost always a recognition of God’s steadfast love. Psalm 86:11,13.
Some of these expressions will fit into our own experiences, and sometimes we’ll have to borrow other words from other places, or wait until we have our own words, or be content to not have words. Sometimes we’ll have the privilege of being the one who gives words to another’s groan. Sometimes we’ll take on the longings of a whole cluster of people in our prayers of intercession – for immigrants, the working poor, the sick, those affected by war.
In doing this we have faith that we are not only praying with our desires, but that it is actually the desires of the Spirit praying through us.
There’s a hymn that we’ll sing together soon that I first want to meditate on the words. As you hear these words, and as we sing, do so in a spirit of prayer. Feel free to call to mind, or to gut, the groans that you hear around you and to offer them silently to God.
This is the hymn:
Through our fragmentary prayers, and our silent heart-hid sighs, wordlessly the Spirit bears, our profoundest needs and cries.
Deeper than the pulse’s beat, is the Spirit’s speechless groan, making human prayers complete, through the prayer that is God’s own.
Let our jabbering give way, to the hummings in the soul, as we yield our lives this day, to the God who makes us whole.
Search and sound our mind and heart, Breath and Flame and Wind and Dove, let your prayers in us impart, strength to do the work of love.