The Apostle Paul writing to the church at Rome, makes an intriguing assertion:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” [Romans 8:26-27 NIV Emphasis mine]
This leads to a bit of a conundrum.
The same Paul urges believers to “…pray continuously…” [1 Thessalonians 5:17 NIV], but how can we when we don’t know what we ought to pray for?!
What’s a disciple to do?
The original Greek helps us in this passage from Romans. The word translated as “know” is another example of one of those cases where there are two different words in Greek which are translated by only one in English. There is a word for knowing which means the kind of knowledge that comes from experience, learning or training — if you know how to fix a flat tire it’s only because you were shown or taught or learned by trial and error how to do so. The other word for know is for knowledge which is instinctual and doesn’t have to be taught or explained. I don’t believe anyone ever had to explain to you how to drink, even as a baby you just “knew”. Similarly, breathing is an essential piece of knowledge that Is essential for survival - happily that knowledge is instinctual and is “built-in” to all of us.
It’s this second, instinctual kind of knowledge that Paul is referring to in our prayer lives. We don’t have a built-in instinct for what we “ought” to be praying for. What we do know is that God very often accomplishes His purposes through the prayers of His saints and therefore we should be trying to ascertain what God’s purposes in any situation are, so that we can pray appropriately.
Seems like a “Catch-22”!
If you will allow me to switch from Greek to Latin for a moment, our English word “intercede” comes from two Latin words, “inter” which means “between” and “cedere”, “to cut”. So when you “intercede” you literally are cutting in between the entities which are communicating.
Over time in English, intercede has come to have the sense of “advocate” - “to speak on behalf of” but it is the original meaning of cutting in between which is expressed in the Greek word. In everyday Greek it is usually used of someone who is in trouble and the intercessor cuts in to help on their behalf.
Quite literally the Holy Spirit cuts in line during our prayers and does a two-way interpretation of the conversation. He translates our utterances into a form which is acceptable and conforming to the Father’s will, and translates the Father’s will and purposes into a form that we can understand. So over time and with continual experience we come to “know”, in both senses in Greek, what it is we should be ceaselessly praying for.
So if we want to ensure that our prayers are not useless recitations that go no further than the ceiling, we need to make sure that the Holy Spirit is present in all our conversations. Jesus has made that easy for us by giving us His spirit which lives in us all the time - so long as we are prepared to surrender our wills to His. That way He can intercede the moment you are moved to prayer.
If you want to know what God’s will is, do as Paul suggests and pray continuously and you will be delighted to learn (“wordlessly” as Paul asserts) what it is you ought to be praying for! May you delight in the law of the Lord this week.
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black