The Holy Spirit and Prayer
At some point in life most humans will feel a strong urge to connect with an unseen higher power. It is hard to live in this world without sensing that there is something – Someone – behind it all, that we are not alone. Rather than leave this urge undefined and our desire to communicate unfulfilled, the Holy Spirit helps us in various ways to reach out to God.
Need for prayer. The Spirit reveals in Scripture that prayer is a natural desire of man. The OT records various accounts of men both conversing directly with God and engaging Him in prayer. Certain men chosen for great challenges were given direct access, such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, etc. But others like Elijah, Daniel, Nehemiah and the psalmists demonstrate a yearning desire to pray. Ultimately, Jesus Himself shows us how vital this connection is as the Spirit documents occasions of His own prayers to the Father (Mk 1:35; 6:46; Lk 5:16; 6:12; Jn 11:41; Mt 26:36-46; etc.).
Instruction in prayer. Some of the most tender moments between godly parents and children are the shared moments of prayer. In the simplest of terms we teach our children that God is listening, that even though we cannot see Him He still hears us. And we rejoice in their pure and honest expressions as they tell God what is on their minds.
But our children are not the only ones who need instruction in prayer. “And it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples’” (Lk 11:1). This may seem an odd request, but it shows how spiritually destitute Jesus’ generation was (evil and adulterous, as He calls them). “They were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Mt 9:36). They had been deceived and misled by false shepherds (Jn 10:1-14). The disciples of both Jesus and John keenly felt inadequate to approach God, and so might we. Though it seems contradictory, we might feel it more acutely as we grow, for the gulf between heaven and earth widens as we see our weakness against the backdrop of God’s holiness.
So, what does the Spirit teach us about prayer? Here are just a few things:
1) It must not be self-aggrandizing public display – Mt 6:5-6.
2) It must not be vain repetition – Mt 6:7.
3) It must be offered in faith – Mt 21:22; Jas 1:6-8.
4) It must seek accord with God’s will – 1 Jn 5:14-15; Mt 26:39.
5) It must be persevered in – Lk 18:1ff; 1 Th 5:17.
So much more could be said about our petitions, supplications and praise that comprise our rich and varied communication with God. But this insight comes to us from the Holy Spirit by His revelation. As human hearts seek to converse with God, the Spirit is our tutor.
Help in prayer. Not all prayer to God arises from the same frame of mind, just as not all communication with our spouse, family and friends is of the same intensity or urgency. Jesus’ instruction in prayer (Mt 6:9-13; Lk 11:2-4) seems more geared to a heart of peace and stability. Jesus Himself prayed in a quite different vein during His anguish in Gethsemane: “And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. And His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk 22:44). Further, He repeated His prayer three times, “saying the same words” (Mt 26:44). This was not the vain repetition He condemned earlier but an outpouring of anxiety and stress as the redemptive plan was nearing its horrible but glorious climax.
Which leads us to a controversial passage: Rom 8:26-27. This passage has been variously interpreted with some asserting that the Holy Spirit is directly acting within our hearts to enable our praying while others stress a more outward, objective role. Note briefly three different views:
Boles: “Words are faint signs or ideas of the desires of a humble soul; the agony of the heart oftentimes is beyond the cogency of language. The Holy Spirit is able to take the … groanings of the soul and form them … so as to make them express to God according to his will our true wants. Sometimes we feel a deep need of blessings from God; the thought may be too big for utterance in our language, but the Holy Spirit knows how to present this to God for us” (Holy Spirit: Personality, Nature, Works 257).
Mott: “We are assured there will be no breakdown of communication between us and God. God knows our needs. It makes no difference that we do not know them or are unable to express them. God finds in the hearts of those led by his Spirit an inner yearning after his will prompted or inspired by his Spirit. Although we may not know what to pray, God understands our inner groanings, where they come from and what they mean … Under the influence of the Spirit we scream out in our distress: ‘Abba, Father’ (cf. 15). But suppose the Father should ask: ‘What is it, my son? What do you want?’ We would often have to say: ‘I don’t know ... I don’t understand the situation I am in’ … This passage assures us we have no need to worry about this failure … These groanings are received as evidence of a deep commitment to his will, under the influence of the Spirit, in a person unable to understand or put into words exactly what they will of God may be in the particular case” (Thinking Through Romans 113-115).
Hamilton: “The contrast is that although the sighings or groanings of the Holy Spirit are not expressed in human language, nevertheless, God who searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit … Although not expressed in human language, God knows what is the thinking, mind-set, or aim of the Spirit in his groanings or sighings … Those who interpret this passage to refer to what the Holy Spirit does in the human heart to enable the Christian better to pray are not exegeting this Scripture, but are eisegeting it (reading into it, jj) … The Holy Spirit is doing something on behalf of saints … and not doing something within them or to them. The language is exceptionally clear (Truth Commentary 512-513).
The takeaway: May we grow in our desire and ability to pray. Let us not become discouraged when life overwhelms and we are at a loss as to how to express ourselves to God. Even Jesus (Jn 12:27-29) and Paul (2 Cor 12:7-8) agonized over playing the hand they had been dealt.