When We Don’t Know How to Pray
By Dr. Mickey Anders
In the movie “Bruce Almighty,” Jim Carrey plays a frustrated television newscaster in Buffalo. He is relegated to human interest stories, but aspires to the anchor chair. When a series of events turn bad for him, he vents his rage on God. After he wrecks his car in the night, he stands in the street and yells up at God, “Someone here is not doing their job! And it’s YOU!”
So God, played by Morgan Freeman, decides to let Bruce have the powers of God for a week. Bruce shows the selfish nature of his character when he only uses his newfound power to benefit himself. When he begins to hear millions of prayers in his head, he dismisses them all by proclaiming, “Yes! Yes to all prayers.”
Suddenly one man’s tech stocks triple in value in a week. One lady loses 45 pounds on the Krispy Kreme diet. And thousands of people show up with the correct numbers for the lottery, which means that they each won only $17.
It turns out that saying “Yes” to all prayers made a complete mess of things. When Bruce confronts God with the chaos, God replies, “Since when do people know what they really want?”
Then God encourages Bruce to try praying himself. Obviously unaccustomed to prayer, Bruce stammers out a bland prayer. As I recall it, he says something like, “Dear God, help everyone to love each other, and let there be peace on earth.”
Then he asks God how he did on his prayer. God replies, “Great! If you want to be Miss America.” Then God encourages Bruce to try again. With tears in his eyes, he prays for the first time a very unselfish prayer for his girlfriend, and God replies, “Now that’s a prayer!”
While any modern secular movie has its weaknesses, and some may find it to even be sacrilegious, I found it to be wonderful movie. It was not only hilarious, but also portrayed some profound truths about the spiritual life.
The movie especially connects with our text for today which says, “…for we don’t know how to pray as we ought…” In the movie, Bruce Nolan generously answered “Yes” to everyone’s prayers, but that only made them more miserable. When he had all the powers of God, he lost his girlfriend, the love of his life, and found himself more dejected than ever. One of the key points of the movie is that we do not know how to pray.
Could this have been true for Paul? Surely here was a spiritual giant who knew God intimately. As a devout Jewish man, he had prayed the Psalms all his life. Surely the Psalms are good prayers! Paul once said he knew a man who was “caught up into the third heaven” when he prayed. (2 Corinthians 12:2) Surely that person knew how to pray. How can Paul declare, “We don’t know how to pray as we ought?”
But Jesus said the same thing. He heard the prayers of the most religious people of his day, the Pharisees, and pronounced this sweeping indictment against them:
“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Most certainly, I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you pray, enter into your inner room, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. In praying, don’t use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. Therefore don’t be like them, for your Father knows what things you need, before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5-8)
Then Jesus taught the disciples how to pray by giving them the model prayer, which is still not known as the “Disciples prayer” but as “The Lord’s Prayer.” When we stand before his prayer, we have to conclude, “We don’t know how to pray like that!”
On another occasion, Jesus praised one man who knew nothing about prayer and criticized another who thought he knew all about it.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: ‘God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortionists, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
At the climatic point of his life, Jesus asked his disciples to watch and pray. Then he went off a little way and prayed so fervently that he sweated great drops of blood. But the disciples went to sleep! Like us, they did not know how to pray.
The signs of our weakness in prayer are all around us. We repeat the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, but we have mastered the art of letting the words roll from our mouths without their meaning ever crossing our brain. We say our ritual grace before each meal with such magical and legalistic ritualism that it differs not at all from rubbing a rabbit’s foot.
We intended to really pray for a friend who has cancer, but we decided to just put her name on the church prayer list instead. “The church” will pray for her, but we don’t. Not really. We intended to join our Regional ministers in praying our way through the book of Acts, but then all hell broke lose at work, and we forgot.
And when we do pray, we often find that we don’t know what to pray for. Our greatest fear is that we may be called on to offer a word of prayer at church. We pray so seldom that we fear our feeble words will humiliate us before our friends. We want to pray for a elderly loved one who has suffered for months with a debilitating disease, but we don’t know whether to pray that she will live or die. We want to pray about the terrible drug problem in our county. We know we have one of the worst problems of any area in the country, but we don’t know whether to pray for longer prison terms, more police enforcement, or better education about the effects of drugs. And we throw up our hands in despair when we realize that our friends, relatives and neighbors are so weak-willed that they turn to addictive and destructive substances for a quick buzz. We do not know how to put our prayers into words.
We don’t even know how to pray for ourselves. Our lives lack meaning, but we are afraid to pray for something worthwhile to do because it will likely involve real commitment. We feel like a victim before the circumstances of our lives, but we don’t pray for a new attitude because we are too much enjoying feeling sorry for ourselves. That line from Bruce Almighty is exactly right, “Since when do people know what they really want.”
And our text is right! We do not know how to pray! But as Pastor William Hull once wrote, “The very thing that we do not know how to do is the very thing that we must do ‘just as God intends.'” (1)
Our poverty in prayer is all about us, but the Scripture offers us good news! “The Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered” (Romans 8:26). Precisely in our weakness we may discover help from the Spirit.
Paul had learned this counter-intuitive truth of God that sometimes we are strong just when we are weak. In 2 Corinthians 12:8-9, Paul declares about his thorn in the flesh, “I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'”
Where did Paul get this daring conviction about a Spirit who identifies with us and helps us to pray? The obvious answer is that he saw that very trait in Jesus, whom the Spirit reveals.
Jesus prayed for the disciples often as in John 17:9, “I pray for them. I don’t pray for the world, but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” According to Hebrews 7:25, “… he lives forever to make intercession for them.” In the same way, we can be confident that Jesus continues to pray for his modern day disciples. Jesus is praying for us!
Now here is a conundrum to baffle the mind – one person of the Trinity is praying to another person of the Trinity on our behalf. And our text says that also the Spirit is praying for us “with groanings which can’t be uttered.” Two persons of the Trinity are praying to the other person of the Trinity on our behalf!
Now if anyone knows how to pray, surely Jesus and the Spirit do! Verse 27 says, “He (God) who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God.”
Pastor William Hull once wrote, “Only God truly knows his own mind and will, thus the true impulse for prayer must somehow flow from him to him, which is exactly what these verses depict….” Commentator C.H. Dodd described it this way, “The god within us (is) interceding to the God above us.” (2)
Just how does this happen? Does the Spirit give us right words? When we run up against the insufficiency of our vocabulary, does the Spirit suddenly give us eloquent words with which we can express the real intent of our heart? Maybe, sometimes.
But our text says the Spirit prays with “groanings which can’t be uttered.” And it also says that “God searches the heart.” And 1 Corinthians 2:10 says, “For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.” Now there is good news. God knows the intent of our heart.
Our prayers don’t have to be monuments of elocution. We don’t have to have the right words to say. God searches the heart. The Spirit knows what our real motives and intents are, and then on our behalf turns our feeble prayer poverty into prayers that are “can’t be uttered.” Words can get in the way of the kind of communication where “deep calls unto deep.” (Psalm 42:7)
The spirit goes beyond praying through us but also prays on behalf of us. No words are needed between the Spirit and the Father.
“We have prayed for a thousand foolish things. Even our best friends have asked amiss on our behalf. How can God make any sense of all these clumsy efforts to pray? Only by listening not to our faltering lips but to the intercessions of the Spirit, and answering only those entreaties that are ‘according to God.'” (3)
In the end, we can only conclude with the magnificent benediction Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:20-21:
“Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the assembly and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”
1) “Prayer: Human and Divine” by William E. Hull, Twentieth Century Pulpit volume II, Abingdon, Nashville, 1981, p. 94-ff.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2003 Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.