Likewise, the Spirit also comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as is necessary, but that same Spirit intercedes with inexpressible sighs.
Dear People of God,
Ash Wednesday is on March 2nd, and that means we are entering into the season of Lent.
Lent means different things for different people. Many give up something in the name of self-discipline, perhaps using the opportunity to work on whatever new year’s resolutions they had set for themselves. Others add a daily spiritual practice such as scripture reading or prayer, or make a renewed commitment to self-improvement through exercise or learning a new skill. Still others (like myself) don’t do anything differently except joke that we’re “giving up fasting for Lent.”
Believe it or not, all of these are perfectly acceptable approaches to Lent, provided they are done (or not done) freely; there is no divine commandment concerning Lent one way or the other. And yet, even though there is no obligation to do anything special for Lent, it can still provide a useful excuse for us to attend to the important things we have neglected.
Take prayer for example. In a world as busy and full of distractions as ours, it is easy for us to neglect prayer for weeks or months, and Lent provides an opportunity to change that. By cutting out some of the life-draining busywork, room can be made for that which is life-giving: keeping a prayer journal, attending Wednesday prayer services, or simply opening and closing the day with prayers such as those Luther provides in the Small Catechism.
All these are good practices, and yet in them is the danger of treating prayer as just one more of the countless tasks which fill our lives. It is easy to begin to think of prayer as our work and responsibility, as though it were the means by which we aligned ourselves to God or perhaps affect God’s attitude toward us. When we treat prayer as a work we must perform, we make it into just one more item to be checked off some spiritual to-do list, turning God’s enlivening gift of prayer into yet another deadening task.
There are many promises regarding prayer that can be found in scripture, but my favorite is the one quoted above from Romans 8:26, for it turns our common thinking of prayer entirely on its head. Paul writes that what we bring to prayer is not our spiritual strength or holiness, but rather our weakness. Our problem is worse than just a lack of discipline or strength; rather, we don’t even know the right way to pray! We treat prayer as a task or a negotiation or a gift we give to God, and we miss the entire point. Prayer is not a job God assigns to the holy, it is a medicine God gives to the weak. And when in our weakness we still can’t use it rightly, God’s Holy Spirit comes to our aid, carries our burden, and prays on our behalf with “inexpressible sighs.”
This prayer of God on our behalf is far more powerful than anything we could produce on our own, and yet even our uninspired words are taken up into this conversation between God and God so that our very lives and selves are encompassed by this prayer. Even without realizing it, and even when we have nothing to say, this divine prayer surrounds us so that all of our struggles and trials are borne up to God who alone can deliver us in their midst.
One of the biblical examples Luther liked to use to draw out this point is the wordless prayer of Moses in Exodus 14. Israel has just left Egypt and is on their way toward the wilderness when they are stopped on the shore of the Red Sea. With nowhere to go and Pharaoh’s army close behind, the people cry out to God for deliverance and turn to Moses to complain: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11) Moses does not join in their crying out, but instead insists that God will be faithful. Then in verse 15, God asks Moses a strange question: “Why do you cry out to me?” This is odd; there is no indication that Moses was praying at all, and yet God questions Moses specifically. Luther describes it this way:
Thus in Exodus the Lord says to Moses at the Red Sea: “Why do you cry to Me?” That was the last thing Moses was doing. He was in extreme anguish; therefore he was trembling and at the point of despair. Not faith but unbelief appeared to be ruling in him. For Israel was so hemmed in by the mountains, by the army of the Egyptians, and by the sea that it could not escape anywhere. Moses did not even dare mumble here. How, then, did he cry?*
Luther contends that even Moses was surprised by this question from God, for he himself was not aware of his prayer. No words had come from his lips nor were uttered in his heart; his prayer was entirely hidden from his feeling and experience. So Luther applies it to us:
In temptation we must not on any account decide this matter on the basis of our feeling or of the cry of the Law, sin, and the devil. If we want to follow our feeling here or to believe those cries, we shall decide that we are bereft of all help from the Holy Spirit and that we have been utterly banished from the presence of God. Should we not rather remember, then, that Paul says that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and cries: “Abba! Father!”? That is, He emits what seems to us to be some sort of sob and sigh of the heart; but in the sight of God this is a loud cry and a sigh too deep for words. In every temptation and weakness, therefore, just cling to Christ and sigh! He gives you the Holy Spirit, who cries: “Abba! Father!” Then the Father says: “I do not hear anything in the whole world except this single sigh, which is such a loud cry in My ears that it fills heaven and earth and drowns out all the cries of everything else.”*
This is the true gift of prayer. Not only does God command us to pray and graciously promise to hear us when we do, but God also takes responsibility and prays on our behalf in such a way that God can’t help but answer. Apart from this prayer we have nothing to bring before God, but surrounded and carried by this prayer we can bear all the trials and temptations life can bring.
Whatever your practice this Lent, whether it be adding, abstaining, or no change at all, know that there is nothing you can do or say to bring you closer to God’s presence. God’s very Spirit already fills and surrounds you, holding you closer than you are to yourself. Rest in that promise of God, for God will be faithful to provide everything you need.
Your Brother in Christ,
* Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 383-284