Praying in the Spirit

Have you ever stopped to consider just how strange prayer is? Have you considered the implications of the fact that we, through our prayers, have the ability to interact with the God who is sovereign over all of the universe? It is a profound thought that God even changes the future (so to speak) based on our prayers.

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Of course God does not need our prayers to accomplish His will, does He? He could rule this universe perfectly well without any input from the beings He created to inhabit it. Yet in His sovereignty He decided that this is how the world would operate. In some way He operates in such a way that He takes into consideration the needs and desires of His people. God does not answer every prayer. It is strange to think that in many cases godly men and women are praying for things that are exactly opposite. While the farmer prays for rain to water his crops, a pastor prays for sun during the church picnic.

Let’s stop for just a moment to consider how the world might be different if God answered every prayer, if indeed such a thing were possible. Imagine, for a moment, that you were present when Joseph was being assaulted by his brothers. There is little doubt that you would drop to your knees and ask that God would save him; that God would send someone to rescue Joseph and return him to his father. Or imagine that you were present with Mary and Martha when they were praying for their brother, Lazarus. You would have been beside them, praying over the inert form of Lazarus as he drew his last breath, begging that God would restore his health. Or what if you were present at the cross? Would you not have been praying for God to send the legion of angels to deliver the King from His cross?

What if God had answered your prayers? In each of these cases God knew exactly what had to happen in order for Him to accomplish His eternal purposes. As mere humans our ability to pray effectively is always limited by our limited knowledge.

Do you ever wish that you were better at praying? Or do you ever find yourself wishing that you had more confidence in your prayers? This lack of confidence seems to be especially difficult in my life. I often find that I really have no confidence that my prayers really make a difference or that God is even interested in hearing them. I sometimes feel like I am praying only for my own benefit and really am almost praying to myself rather than to God. I pray selfishly, even considering my own needs and comfort when praying for others.

In recent days I have been reading Praying Backwards by Bryan Chapell. It has a snappy title that refers to something I discovered not so long ago: while we often end our prayers “in Jesus name,” in reality we need to begin our prayers in His name, acknowledging that it is only through the blood of Christ that we have the ability and privilege to approach God.

The fourth chapter of this book discusses “Praying in the Spirit.” This is a topic I have studied in the past and have even written about, but for some reason it has not been absorbed into my heart the way it should. One of the clearest teachings of the Spirit’s role in prayer is found in Romans 8:26-28, where Paul writes, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Last year I wrote about the final part of this passage, “for the good.” I wrote:

God’s desire for His children is that they more and more become conformed to the image of His Son. So when God tells us that He will work all things for our good, He indicates that all things work to make us more like Jesus. Those who have been believers for many years will know that this is not always a gentle or fun process. Sometimes God has to use radical, terrifying or even sorrowful measures to help us change. Sometimes we work in concert with God in our sanctification, but other times He has to reach down and force the issue. My pastor is fond of saying that “God is less concerned with your comfort than your character” and this is exactly what Romans 8:28 tells us. God will work for the good of His purposes, not necessarily our purposes.

In reading Chappel’s book, and his explanation of these verses, God spoke directly to my heart (not a phrase I use often or lightly) about the words that precede those ones. When I feel weak in prayer, the Holy Spirit is there, helping me. Even when I do not know how or what to pray, the Spirit knows, and stands between myself and the Father, presenting to Him prayers that express what is best. Where I am limited by limited knowledge, the Spirit is not. He takes my prayers and conforms them to the Father’s will before bringing them before the Throne of Grace. When I pray in Jesus’ name, humbling myself before His sovereignty, I offer my will and desires to Him, and truly seek “the good” that Paul speaks of. I acknowledge that in my humanness I would make a mess of even the most trivial decisions, and trust that God knows best.

Chapell provides a helpful illustration. “I have enjoyed watching a baker decorate a cake with an icing pipe. The icing is globbed into the tube as a yucky, unformed mess. But that’s not the end of the process. Attached to the end of the pipe is a decorator tip. When the baker forces the icing through the tip, the mess gets shaped into intricate designs that make the cake beautiful. The Holy Spirit similarly helps my prayers. I glob my desires into my prayers. I do not intend to make a mess of things, but with my mixed motives and limited vision, I have no assurance that my prayers match God’s design. In fact, I would hesitate to pray at all if my prayers were God’s only direction for accomplishing his purposes. Were my prayers truly capable of binding God’s hands, I would be dangerous. My finite, fallible will cannot devise the best course for the universe. Still, I pray because I believe the Holy Spirit works like that decorator tip. He forms my prayers into God’s beautiful design for all things” (page 73).

That is a beautiful assurance and one I have long been seeking. While it does not remove my responsibility to seek to pray for things that truly are “for the good,” I also know that my limited vision and human selfishness will not interfere with presenting to the Father prayers that are powerful and sweet. A useful illustration for this is the power of water as it flows through a sluice, heading towards a dam. The water flows with greater and greater power. Where the water I send out is barely moving, the Spirit narrows it, presenting to God a stream that is able to cut through steel.

God has shown me, through His Word, that I can have confidence in my prayers, even when I feel like they are going nowhere and accomplishing nothing. I do not have confidence in my own earnestness or ability. I have confidence that before my prayers reach the Father, they are mediated by the Holy Spirit, whose groans and utterings are made in the full view of His sovereignty, eternity, and omniscience. The Holy Spirit presents prayers that are fully conformed to the will of God, even when I cannot.

I have not yet completed this book. I am reading it slowly (for me), savoring it. I should have a review in a few days. For now, you can check it out at Amazon. Praying Backwards