“For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but [the] Spirit [of God] intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26; RSV)
Have you at times in your life, known this witness of St. Paul of “sighs too deep for words”? Times when you just flat-out collapse, failing to find words to bear the heavy freight of life’s struggles … Times when you just come to the end of yourself? … A time when someone asks you to pray, but you don’t even know where to begin? … And so, what strange comfort it is to hear that even the esteemed Apostle Paul confesses such times when he himself – like us – doesn’t know how to pray. We think that ease and fluency at prayer comes with great spiritual achievement and intense faith. But here, one of Christendom’s greatest representatives witnesses how he finds it impossible at times to pray as he ought. (In this our summer series on the book of Roman, think back a couple of weeks, where St. Paul also creates “solidarity of faith” with us – confessing the civil war of failed will-power that goes on within us every day. Cf. Rom. 7:15f.)
“With sighs too deep for words …” Inarticulate prayer.
So, what is the Bible teaching us here? What is St. Paul “unloading”? … Could it be that the truest prayers do not easily find words? Could it be that prayer that bubbles-up to fall “trippingly from the tongue” is neither rooted very deep nor ascends to much effect? The truth is this: the more real the need to pray, the harder it is to express that need. Jacques Ellul, the 20th century French theologian has perhaps the best one-word-definition for prayer: “Help!” … “With sighs too deep for words …”
My friends, if there is any one theme that binds all of Holy Scripture together, from Israel’s family tree in Genesis to St. John the Seer’s vision of the future in the apocalypse of Revelation, it is this: that bios (“life”) can only be understood fully in relation to Theos (“God”). In this relationship, there’s often little language but a sigh or a cry. As a mother interprets by some secret wisdom of her own the meaning of her child’s feeble cry, and hears that cry before anyone else … so God looks into our hearts and understands the need for which we can find no words. As St. Paul counsels us: “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15b-16).
And as children of God, come join us for worship this weekend, as we hear again God’s Spirit speaking to us through St. Paul witness as well as in the well-beloved assurance of the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).