“We Know Not What we should Pray for as we Ought” What Does that Mean?

Prayer is a subject that gets attention. One would think that with all the attention there would be some logic. Riiiight.

I recently listened to a sermon on the necessity of prayer to keep your life from falling apart. At one point the preacher said he wanted to keep praying so his life would stay together, he wouldn’t fail his calling, so that his church members didn’t have to be embarrassed to see their disgraced pastor walking down the street.

Now, I can sort of see the point. Not disgracing the ministry is a legitimate concern, but should it be the basis of our prayer life? Is avoiding embarrassment the point of prayer?

He also went on to say that prayer is what makes a ministry successful, that if you pray you will get converts and if you don’t your life will tank.

Again, I cannot argue against prayer aiding the ministry, but did not Jeremiah and Ezekiel pray for Israel? Didn’t Paul pray for Israel and yet repeatedly were met with failure? When Christ prayed, “Take this cup from me” it was not removed.

If our motivation for prayer is: “help my physical experience to be better,” and that’s it, we have some problems.

Romans 8 talks about prayer and the famous phrase about how we don’t know how to pray. I have heard this used to teach that

1) praying really isn’t all that big a deal anyway since we don’t know how to do it.
2) don’t expect answers to prayer because you don’t know what you’re doing
3) yes, Paul says we don’t know how to pray, but he meant sometimes we don’t know how to pray.
4) prayer is really hard, even Paul doesn’t know how to do it, what chance do you have?

I’ve rarely been comfortable with the applications I’ve been handed out of Romans 8:26.

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say, “we don’t know how to pray.” Sure we do, the Bible tells us. Remember the disciples’ famous question, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Did Jesus answer with, “Sorry, no can do, you don’t know how to pray and I’m gonna leave you there.” No, He taught them to pray.

Paul does not say we don’t know how to pray, he says we don’t know what to pray for as we ought. But the Spirit helps us in this infirmity by interceding. There are two phrases about the Spirit’s involvement with our prayer

1) The Spirit helps our infirmity–the infirmity being that we are fleshly minded and desire fleshly results, which leads us to not pray for the right things, as James says, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” In order to pray for the right things we must use the spiritual mind we’ve been given not base prayer on our physical desires.

2) The Spirit intercedes with groanings that cannot be uttered. This means either the Spirit does prayers for us that we don’t know about, or it may mean we are in a state of prayer that defies words. Perhaps it is both as I have heard both expressed by commentators.

One thing it means is that we need the Spirit to help us pray. I can’t imagine denying this point. The reason why is because we don’t have a clue what’s really going on and most of our concerns are physical.

Right before this verse Paul’s context is hope. In order to understand a passage you have to use its context. “hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.”

Hope is all about the unseen; which leads Paul into prayer and how we don’t know what to pray for as we ought, which is why we need the Spirit. The Spirit is not seen. Most of our prayers are looking for a see-able answer. If we always got a see-able answer we would not have hope, nor need the Spirit!

God has big things in mind. Eternal things, things we can’t see yet. It’s part of the weakness of the flesh that only the Spirit can answer. It’s what Romans 8 is about.

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