Praying and Groaning
By Paul Helm—
I don’t know how it is with you, but I cannot cope with times in services of worship when the minister or leader invites the congregation to ‘spend a few moments of quiet praying for someone in special need’. My mind starts to think about anything or nothing except a person I know of who’s in need. It’s rather like someone who says ‘Don’t think of a white horse’, an invitation that is impossible to accept.
We could spend a few moments reflecting on the view of public worship that is implied by the ‘periods of silence’ invitation, of whether it is appropriate to think of public worship as involving the sum of the private devotions of the people who are present. Ought we not rather to think of public worship (as a general rule) as common worship, as in ‘The Book of Common Prayer’, as expressing in public the common, communal needs and aspirations of Christian people? But instead of thinking out loud along these lines I would rather spend these few minutes thinking out loud with you about what I shall call “The Affliction of a Failure of Concentration.”
Here’s my suggestion – not a novel one, but still, I think, worth airing and emphasizing – that praying, and particularly that branch of praying that is called petitioning or asking, including of course interceding for others, is not primarily, or even, a matter of acquiring and processing information, and then presenting it in bite-sized pieces to Almighty God. It is not a condition of responsible and genuine Christian prayer that is ‘intelligent’ i.e. well-informed.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not against the provision of information. I have spent much of my adult life as a teacher and writer, engrossed in the world of ideas and arguments. I expect the students I teach to be able to absorb, understand, weigh and produce information. The more the merrier. But the point is that not all speech is primarily informative, and most certainly Christian petitionary and intercessory prayer is not primarily informative. Fellow-prayers in the prayer meeting may learn all sorts of things about Mr. Smith when he prays publicly. But the living God is in a rather different position from our fellow worshippers in the pew. Does he need educating? Is he ignorant of any detail? Has he overlooked any of the needs of his people?
Scripture makes clear what the answer to these questions is in a number of different ways. God knows what we are going to ask before we pray, for we are praying to the One who, as the Lord himself tells us, knows what things we have need of before we ask Him (Matthew 6:7-8). We might even wonder, if that’s so, why pray at all?
Although He warns against much speaking, Christ nevertheless exhorts us to pray. He says that men and women ought always to pray and not to faint. We are given the example of a widow who, desiring to have justice done to her against her adversary, did by her persistence persuade an unjust judge to listen to her, because he was overcome by her persistence. She went on and on. How much more, Jesus teaches, will the Lord God, who is merciful and just, listen to those who pray continually to Him. And Paul in a similar way implores his readers to pray without ceasing. If we think of petitionary prayer in purely informational terms then the question, why we should pray without ceasing, and importunately, to Him who before we ask Him knows what things we have need of, might perplex our minds. We’ll not understand that the Lord our God requires us to ask not so that by asking our wishes may be revealed to Him, for to Him what’s on our heart cannot be unknown.
So here is a paradox: we are not to pray to inform God because God already knows (as you might expect from what Scripture generally teaches about the knowledge and power of God), but we are nevertheless commanded to pray, and to pray without ceasing. But we are not heard for our much speaking. How is this paradox to be resolved? By noting and remembering that prayer is an expression of the desire by which we may receive what the Lord prepares to bestow, and continual prayer may therefore be evidence of a strong desire. So the paradox is solved once we realise that petitionary prayer has to do with desire, and such desire may be wordless, though not object-less.
So we are not to use many words in praying, yet we are to pray without ceasing, expressing in our prayers both the simplicity of our faith, and the strength of our hope, and the depth of our desire, just as when the widow, by her unremitting supplication, showed the depth of her desire to an unjust and wicked judge. But words, even unspoken words, are not necessary the means by which we expect God to be either informed or moved to comply with our requests. As Augustine puts it, “When we cherish uninterrupted desire along with the exercise of faith and hope and charity, we pray always.”
This is why even though we may not know how to pray as we ought, groaning will do, a groaning which may continue even as we walk along or drive, or rest, or are occupied with demanding duties.
So let’s think for a moment about groaning. There are situations where we do not know what to pray for. What then? Paul says, “We groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8. 23). Words fail us not only because of the strength of our desire, but because of our ignorance. For Paul, Christians in prayer are ‘infirm.’ They do not know what they should pray for. We would ask if we knew what to ask for. What then? Are we to give up altogether? Certainly not. We groan, and in those situations the Spirit groans for the people of God in their need, groans with ‘groans that words cannot express,’ Paul says. The Spirit intercedes on our behalf and God the Father, who knows the mind of the Spirit just as he knows our own minds, receives the intercessions of the Spirit. Is the Sprit an intercessor, as is our Great High Priest? Perhaps he is. Perhaps the Sprit and the Saviour each intercede for us to the Father. That’s what John Murray thought: “The children of God have two divine intercessors.” As he puts it in his rather convoluted style, the groanings of the Spirit “While far from being devoid of content, meaning, and intent, they nevertheless transcend articulated formulations.” Murray goes on to say that it is not reasonable to think of the Sprit himself as presenting his intercessions to the Father in the form of his groanings. Why not, I wonder?
Often when we pray, all the information in the world will not make clear to us what we ought to pray for. Paul’s thought seems to be that in that predicament the Spirit formulates what is best for us: “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.” According to Paul, the Spirit does not simply energise our prayers, as we conventionally think, but he is himself our intercessor. Knowing what we need he prays with groans according to the will of God. Commenting on this Calvin refers to ‘emotions of the Spirit,’ emotions prompted in us by him who knows our needs. This is one of the ways, perhaps the way, through which all things are made to work together for good, for those who are called according to God’s purpose.
The Psalmist was often in a similar predicament in Psalm 37: ‘I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you.’
So, how are we to cure “The Affliction of a Failure of Concentration,” if indeed we are afflicted in this way? Not principally by displaying our knowledge to God, but by heart-felt desire, which is one of the fruits of the Spirit. When all else fails, groaning will do.
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Utter’d or unexpress’d;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear;
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.
Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.
Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice,
And cry, “Behold, he prays!”
Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
Our watchword at the gates of death;
We enter heaven with prayer.
The saints in prayer appear as one
In word and deed and mind,
While with the Father and the Son
Sweet fellowship they find.
Nor prayer is made by man alone,
The Holy Spirit pleads,
And Jesus on the eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.
O Thou, by whom we come to God,
The life, the truth, the way!
The path of prayer Thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray.
–James Montgomery, 1818
A Regent College Chapel address, July 2012
Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Helm is the author of numerous journal articles and books. Some of his most well-know books include Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.