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 it’s impossible to accept.
We could spend a few moments reflecting on the view of
public worship that it 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 it is ‘intelligent’ i.e.
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
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 the 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 as 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 know our own minds,
receives the intercessions of the Spirit. Is the Sprit an intercessor, as is our Great
High Priest? Perhaps he is. Perhaps 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
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 are these word:s ‘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.
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