The Spirit intercedes? We understand all these words. We have a good understanding of how they go together in the sentence that they form. But what exactly does it mean to say that the Spirit intercedes? This may seem like a set of idle questions, mere theological speculation. It may seem like over attention to word play in the scripture text, chasing a rabbit that will lead nowhere. But, in fact, it is a core reality of faith. We don’t know how to pray.
That is a bold statement that you could probably refute by naming many prayer warriors in your congregation. But again and again, when congregations are asked what they struggle with most, prayer is at the top of the list. It began with the first followers of Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” We can analyze that request all we want, but the truth is, prayer escapes us. Oh, we can bow our heads and mumble some words. We can follow the lines on our bulletin or screen. But when it comes to the satisfaction of a well-grounded and satisfying prayer life, most will confess to being less than content.
So, what grace does Paul provide here to tell us that when we struggle for words, the Spirit is there? And that the words don’t matter all that much in the end? Or rather the words don’t lead. The heart leads; the spirit leads; the words follow. That’s Paul’s point.
Then, to add to the joy and the blessing, Paul says that the Spirit leads with love. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Nothing, that’s the response to such a question. Nothing in this world, or beyond it, can cause Christ to stop loving us, stop calling us, stop leading us. Nothing. In all these things, we are more than conquerors. What things? The things that work to convince us that we aren’t loved, that we aren’t worthy of love, that we can’t experience and know that love. All those things. Paul names them as “hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword.” Quite a list, don’t you think? And most of it doesn’t seem to apply to the average person in the pew. At least until you think a little more deeply and recognize that the sword might be the sword of the tongue that James talks about. Persecution is rampant in our society, evidenced by the number of young African American men killed week by week, the Jewish cemeteries and synagogues defaced, and the women abused by those who are supposed to love and care for them. Persecution is closer than we realize.
Whether the hardship and distress is personal or societal, that it exists is undeniable. But can we take Paul at his word and claim the victory that he offers in the love of Christ? What about that often misused and misquoted verse “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his promise” (8:28)? Preachers, please take a moment and discuss this verse. It isn’t a prosperity gospel promise— love God and everything will go well with you. It isn’t a measuring rod to determine the size of your faith, meaning that if there are bad things happening, you must not be faithful enough, you must not be one of the called. In fact, it has nothing to do with the circumstances of your life at all. It isn’t, in the end, about you. This is a statement about God.
The promise here is that there is nothing in your life that God can’t take and bring a blessing for you or for others. In all things, notice the in. This isn’t a declaration that all things are good. “It’s all good” is a mantra that no one really believes, no one who has lived anyway. Paul isn’t spouting this feel good statement. But, he is standing firm on the belief that even the bad that happens, even the brokenness within you, even your worst experiences can lead to something amazing, if you are guided by the Spirit, that same Spirit that intercedes for you with sighs too deep for words.
Here is the conquering. Here is the victory. Not in the perfect life. Not even in the overcoming of evil or the vanquishing of sin. The conquering is in allowing the Spirit to lead, to intercede for you in your prayer life, which is your whole life.
This is the secret to the prayer thing that everyone struggles with. Prayer is a time, we think, a moment or more in our lives when we stop and close our eyes and bow our heads. Prayer, we think, is the words that we say or the posture that we take. Prayer is the obedience, we think, to giving God a part of our day. The routine that we follow even when we don’t feel like it. That’s prayer. And of course, it is. All of that is indeed prayer and necessary for a vital prayer life. But a life of prayer is something so much more than just that, more than just those moments when we stop. It is more than just those closet moments or those kneeling moments, or those tears or laughter moments. A life of prayer is just that, a life. It is all of life. Constant prayer doesn’t mean mumbling prayer words all the time like a computer subroutine running underneath everything else we do. No, it is living in the constant awareness of the Presence. It is knowing that the Spirit is interceding in our lives, even when we’ve forgotten to bow our heads and fold our hands. It is inviting that Presence, leaning into that Presence, longing for that Presence, trusting in that Presence, even in those moments when we don’t feel it because that’s when faith kicks in and tells us that even the unseen is real.
The gift you have to offer today, preacher, is the gift of unending prayer—the gift of a life rich with the Presence of God. Don’t stint on telling this good news. Because even the ones who aren’t asking how to pray better are asking how to pray.