The Sympathy of the Spirit with the Infirmity of Prayer
"Likewise the Spirit also helps our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered." Romans 8:26
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Romans 8:26
And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don't even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. Romans 8:26
The condition of the Church of God has ever been one of weakness and infirmity. Her brightest and palmiest days were the first and the earliest of her history. Yet no sooner were the saints of God gathered into Christian communities, and planted as churches in each province, and in every land, than the infirmity of the body began to appear, in the heresies, divisions, and parties which sprung up, while yet the Apostles lived to intercede for them with their prayers, and to teach and admonish them by their epistles. From that period until now, the history of the church of God has presented an unbroken chain of evidence to the truth of the same affecting fact. A body yet but partially renewed, a church but imperfectly sanctified, it must of necessity be so. But let us leave the consideration of the church as a society, and contemplate it in its individual relation. Each member of that church is the subject of infirmity. It were marvellous were it not so. We have seen that the present condition of the believer is a state of vanity. That it is one of hope rather than of realization. Binding in his bosom the green first fruits of glory, there yet cling to him a thousand grievous infirmities, the sighs of which, the foretastes of heaven cannot stifle. Encompassed with infirmities, weary and heavy laden, he journeys homeward, amid the fluctuations of hope and fear, joy and sorrow; sometimes foiled, then overcoming; often mourning, and anon praising; yet ever deeply conscious that the present home of his renewed and heavenly nature is a body of humiliation and death- constituting a perpetual and oppressive clog to the heaven-ascending tendency of his sanctified affections. But we need not extend our classification.
The infirmities of the believer are as varied as they are numerous. Some are weak in faith, and are always questioning their interest in Christ. Some, superficial in knowledge, and shallow in experience, and are ever exposed to the crudities of error, and to the assaults of temptation. Some are slow travelers in the divine life, and are always in the rear; while yet others are often ready to halt altogether. Then there are others who groan beneath the burden of bodily infirmity, exerting a morbid influence upon their spiritual experience. A nervous temperament- a state of perpetual depression and despondency- the constant corrodings of mental disquietude- physical ailment- imaginary forebodings- a facile yielding to temptation- petulance of spirit- unguardedness of speech- gloomy interpretations of providence- an eye that only views the dark hues of the cloud, the somber shadings of the picture. Ah! from this dismal catalogue how many, making their selection, may exclaim, "This is any infirmity!" But be that infirmity what it may, let it endear to our hearts the grace and sympathy of Him who for our sake was encompassed with infirmity, that he might have compassion upon those who are alike begirt. All the fulness of grace that is in Jesus is for that single infirmity over which you sigh.
But it is one specific infirmity of the Christian to which the passage restricts our attention- the infirmity of PRAYER. Of this, all the children of God in different degrees partake. A more holy and solemn engagement enlists not the thoughts, and feelings, and time of the believer, than the engagement of PRAYER. In proportion, then, to the spirituality of a duty will be its keen sense of the opposition it meets from either the mental or physical frailties which encompass the Christian.
The Apostle thus defines this infirmity- "We know not what we should pray for as we ought." How shall we describe it? With what feature shall we begin? There is first the difficulty which some feel in reference to the nature of prayer. Simple as prayer is, we see how even an apostle could be perplexed, for lie. includes himself in this general description of the saints. Three times did he urge a petition the granting of which would have proved a curse rather than a blessing. "What am I to pray for?" is the earnest inquiry of some. "Am I to limit my requests in petitioning for spiritual blessings, and may I include in my petitions blessings that are temporal?" "And what is real prayer?" is the yet more earnest question of another. "I fear mine is not true prayer. May I characterize by such a holy and significant term the cold effusions of my closet, the feeble ejaculations of the wayside, the wandering devotions of the sanctuary, the moanings of a spirit wounded, the sighs of a heart oppressed, the upward glancings of a mind beclouded, the breathings of a soul whose spiritual exercises are at times so opposite and contradictory? Is this prayer?"
And, then, there is the infirmity of the act of prayer. The vagrancy of thought- the coldness of affection the intrusion of low cares- the consciousness of unreal petitions, of unfelt confessions, of undesired desires, the felt oppressiveness of a distasteful task, rather than the felt luxury of a precious privilege- the slovenliness of the performance- the little solemnity of mind- all mark the infirmity which attaches to this transcendently spiritual employment.
Then as to the mode of prayer; this also is felt to be a source of painful embarrassment by some. There are many Christians who find it difficult, if not impossible to give expression to the heart's utterances, in what is termed free prayer. Compelled, through an infirmity they cannot conquer, to restrict themselves to a liturgical form of devotion, while others pour out their souls to God in unfettered breathings, in unrestricted communion, they are, at times, perplexed to know whether they are acquainted with the reality and power of true prayer. And thus many a saint of God, whose needs are not the less real, whose desires are not the less spiritual, and whose breathings are not the less fervent and divinely acceptable, may, through this his infirmity, be much cast down and discouraged. But who, whatever be his mode of prayer, is free from some clinging infirmity, interfering with the sanctity and power of this hallowed engagement? Who is not mournfully sensible, that of all his spiritual privileges, this, his highest, most sacred, and solemn, is the most encompassed with, and marred and fettered by, the deep corruptions of his fallen and depraved nature? That after all his rigid observance of the duty, his many devotional engagements, public and private, there should yet be so little felt nearness to God, so little confidential communion- in a word, so little real prayer. Oh, how much prayerless prayer do we have to mourn over! How little brokenness of heart; how little sense of sin; how faint a taking hold of the atoning blood; how imperfect a realization of God's relation to us as a Father; how little faith in his promise to hear, in his ability to aid, in his readiness to bless us! Such are some of the many infirmities associated with prayer.
But there is encouragement- let us contemplate it. "Likewise the Spirit also helps our infirmities." The word here rendered "helps," properly means to take part with. It implies, not merely sympathy, with, but a personal participation in our infirmity. The Spirit helps our infirmities by sharing them with us. Now take the general infirmities of the believer- infirmities which, unaided by another and a superior power, must crush and overwhelm- and trace the help thus afforded by the Spirit. We are taught to adore the love of the Father, from where each rill of mercy has its rise. We delight to dwell upon the love of the Son, through whose channel all redemption- blessing flows. And shall we overlook the love of the Holy Spirit? Shall we forget his affection, his grace, his succourings? Forbid it, eternal and blessed Spirit! Your, essential Deity- your personal subsistence- your tender love- your Divine power- your efficacious grace- your sovereign mercy- your infinite patience- your exquisite sympathy- all demand our
deepest love, and awake our loftiest praise. But how
is this sympathy of the Spirit expressed? Seeing the soul bound with an infirmity, all his compassion is awakened. Approaching, he takes hold of the burden. Constrained by a love which no thought can conceive, moved by a tenderness no tongue can describe, he advances, and places the power of his Godhead beneath the pressure- and thus he helps our infirmity. Do you doubt this? We summon you as a witness to its truth. Why are you not a ruin and a wreck? Why has not your infirmity long since dethroned reason, and annihilated faith, and extinguished hope, and clad all the future with the pall of despair? Why, have you ridden serene and secure upon the crest of the billow, smiling calmly upon the dark and yawning surges dashing and foaming around you? Why have you, when your heart has been overwhelmed, found relief in a sigh, in a tear, in an uplifted glance, in one thought of God? Oh, it has been because the Spirit, all silent and invisible, was near to you, sympathizing, helping, bearing your infirmities. Because around you the power of his Deity was placed. And when you have staggered, and turned pale, and have well near given up all for lost, resigning yourself to the broodings of despair, that Spirit has approached, all-loving and powerful, and helped, by sharing your infirmity. Some appropriate and precious promise has been sealed upon your heart- some clear and soothing view of Christ has been presented to your eye- some gentle whisper of love has breathed upon your ear- and you have been helped. The pressure has been lightened, the grief has been assuaged, the weakness has been strengthened, and you have risen superior to the infirmity that bowed you to the dust. Oh, it was the Spirit that helped you. Grieved, and wounded, and slighted a thousand times over though he has been, receiving at your hands the unkindest requital for the tenderest love, yet when your infirmity bowed you to the earth, and the sword entered your soul, he drew near, forgetting all your base ingratitude, and administered wine to your dejected spirit and oil to your bleeding wound, and placed beneath you the encircling arms of his everlasting love.
But we are yet to contemplate the aid afforded by the Spirit in the especial infirmity of prayer.
"We know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered." The Holy Spirit is here represented in the character of a pleader, or advocate for the saints. To form a vivid conception of this truth, we have but to imagine an anxious and embarrassed client prosecuting some important suit, or, perchance, battling for his life in a court of justice. At his side stands his counselor, thoroughly acquainted with the nature of his case, and deeply versed in the bearings of the law. He is there to instruct the suppliant how to shape his course, with what arguments to support, with what pleas to urge, with what words to clothe his suit. Such is the advocacy and such the aid of the Spirit in the matter of prayer. We stand in the presence of the Lord- it may be to deprecate a deserved punishment, or to plead for a needed blessing. "We know not what we should pray for as we ought." How shall we order our cause before the Great Judge? With what feelings, with what language, with what arguments shall we unburden our heart, unveil our sorrow, confess our sin, and make known our request? How overcome the remembrance of past ingratitude, and the conviction of present guilt, and the pressure of deep neediness, and the overwhelming sense of the Divine Majesty? How wake the heart to feeling, how rouse the dull, sluggish emotions of the soul, how recall the truant affections, and how concentrate the mind upon the holy and awesome engagement? But our Counselor is there!
"The Spirit itself makes intercession for us." And how does he this? He indites the prayer. Think not that that spiritual petition which breathed from your lips and rose as an incense-cloud before the mercy-seat was other than the inditing of the Holy Spirit. He inspired that prayer, he created those desires, and he awoke those groanings. The form of your petition may have been ungraceful- your language simple, your sentences broken, your accents tremulous, yet was there an eloquence and a power in that prayer which reached the heart and moved the arm of God. It overcame the Angel of the Covenant. And whose eloquence and whose power was it? The interceding Spirit. He also teaches us what to pray for. Many and urgent as our needs are, we only accurately know them as the Spirit makes them known. Alas, what profound ignorance of ourselves must we cherish when we know not what we should ask God for as we ought! But the Spirit reveals our deep necessity, convinces us of our emptiness, poverty, and need, and teaches us what blessings to ask, what evils to deprecate, what mercies to implore. He sympathizes, too, with our infirmity in prayer, by portraying to our view the parental character of God. Sealing on our hearts a sense of adoption, he emboldens us to approach God with filial love and child-like confidence. He leads us to God as a Father. Nor must we overlook the skill with which the Spirit enables us to urge in our approaches to God the sinner's great plea- the atoning blood of Jesus. This is no small part of the divine aid we receive in our infirmity. Satan, the accuser of the saints, even follows the believer to the throne of grace to confront and confound him there. When Joshua stood before the Angel of the Lord, Satan stood at his right hand to resist him. But the Spirit, too, is there! He is there in the character and to discharge the office of the praying soul's Intercessor. He instructs the accused suppliant what arguments to use, what pleas to urge, and how to resist the devil. He strengthens the visual organ of the soul so that it clearly discerns the blood upon the mercy-seat within the veil, on which it fixes the eye in simple faith. Oh, it is the delight of the Spirit to take of the things of Jesus- his love, his work, his sympathy, his grace, his power- and show them to the soul prostrate in prayer before the throne of grace.
Thus does the Spirit "make intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered." These groanings are those of the believer, yet inspired by the Spirit. They are the inarticulate utterances of a heart overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. No language can adequately express them. They "cannot be uttered." It is the soul's hidden communion with God. No, it is possible that even to the petitioner himself these groanings present but vague and indefinite conceptions of the heart's deep desires, of the soul's yet deeper needs. He is conscious of a need, but he can scarcely define its nature, or suggest its supply. He is sensible of a lack, but what it is, or how it may be met, he is perplexed to know. He inwardly, deeply groans, but these emotions utter a language which even he cannot interpret. But there is One who can. Be that need, be that lack what it may, Christ knows it, Christ sympathizes with it, Christ meets it. He in whom dwelt all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, is prepared to supply all our need. There rises not a groan of the Spirit from the soul of a sinner, the meaning of which God cannot understand, and the prayer of which God will not answer. To the soul who breathes it, it may appear, as were many of the predictions of the ancient prophets, unintelligible and meaningless; yet, like those prophetic utterances, they have a sense and a language clear and articulate to Him who inspired them. Oh blessed, eloquent groanings in the heart of a poor sinner, which human words fail to utter! God hears them- Jesus understands them- the Spirit creates them- and not one shall be uttered in vain. Whether it be the groaning from a pressure of sin, or from a sense of desire, or from a conviction of need, or from the smiting hand of God himself, that groaning ascends to heaven, and bears to the throne of the Eternal, whose ear bends to the softest whisper, and hearkens to the gentlest sigh of his child, a confession, or a request, which shall not be unheard, unheeded, or forgotten.
In conclusion, overlook not the fitness of the Lord Jesus to meet all the infirmities of his people. There are two touching and expressive passages bearing on this point. "He himself took our infirmities, and bore our sicknesses." Wondrous view of the Incarnate God! That very infirmity; Christian reader, which now bows you to the earth, by reason of which you can in no wise lift up yourself, your Savior bore. Is it sin? is it sorrow? is it sickness? is it need? It bowed him to the dust, and brought the crimson drops to his brow. And is this no consolation? Does it not make your infirmity even pleasant, to remember that Jesus once bore it, and in sympathy bears it still? The other passage is- "We have not a high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities." Touched with my infirmity! What a thought! I reveal my grief to my friend. I discern the emotions of his soul, I mark the trembling lip, the sympathizing look, the moistened eye- my friend is touched with my sorrow. But oh, what is this sympathy- tender, soothing, grateful as it is- compared to the sympathy with which the great High Priest in heaven enters into my case, is moved with my grief, is touched with the feeling of my infirmity?
Let us learn more tenderly to sympathize with the infirmities of our brethren. "We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves." Oh for more of this primitive Christianity! The infirmity of a Christian brother should, by a heartfelt sympathy, become in a measure our own. We ought to bear it. The rule of our conduct towards him should be the rule of our conduct towards our own selves. Who would feel bound or disposed to travel from house to house, proclaiming with trumpet tongue and with evident satisfaction his own weaknesses, failings, and infirmities? To God we may confess them, but no divine precept enjoins their confession to man. We unveil them to his eye, and he kindly and graciously veils them from all human eyes. Be this our spirit and our conduct towards a weak and erring brother. Let us rather part with our right hand than publish his infirmity to others, and thus wound the Head by an unkind and unholy exposure of the faults and frailties of a member of his body, and by so doing cause the enemies of Christ to blaspheme that worthy name by which we are called.
Honor and glorify the Spirit who thus so graciously and so kindly sympathizes with our infirmities. Pay to him divine worship, yield to him divine homage, and let your unreserved obedience to his commands, and your jealous regard for his honor, and your faithful hearkening to the gentle accents of his "still, small voice" manifest how deeply sensible you are of his love, his grace, and faithfulness in sympathizing with your sorrows, in supplying your need, and in making your burdens and infirmities all and entirely his own.