What To Pray For
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What To Pray For

Romans 8: 26-27

This is one of the most important passages on prayer in the New Testament.
Paul says we do not know what to pray for because of our weakness,
but the prayers we ought to pray are offered for us by the Holy Spirit of God.

C. H. Dodd defined prayer in this way.
"Prayer is the Divine in us appealing to the Divine above us."

Now, that we have reached the end of this section of Romans, do we understand what this text means?
"... for we know not what we should pray for as we ought."
These words are one real, precise prayer.
Where could we find a prayer so penetrating?

Prayer is the simplest and easiest of all activities, and yet:
"We know not what we should pray for as we ought."

Whether this refers to the words (the manner) of the prayer or the subject makes little difference.
The two views amount to the same thing.
The Spirit helps in every way.

Even when Paul was writing these words, he knew that he did not know what he should pray for.
Why was he, and why are we so ignorant concerning prayer?

Essentially, it is because prayer is not the "miracle of miracles,"
which takes place daily in pious souls.
It is because the motive of all prayer is not the striving after, and the strengthening
and the enhancing of a person's own life.
We are ignorant in prayer because even the most sincere and most powerful prayers serve to reveal to us
how little the person of prayer is able to escape from what he, himself, has thought and experienced.

So many of so-called "pious prayers" occur within the sphere of this world
and have in themselves nothing whatever to do with the incomprehensible and living God.

"For we do not!"
We are ignorant of the right content and form of prayer.
The "infirmity" of which Paul speaks is our ignorance of the proper subject of prayer.
"We know not what to pray for."
"Lord, teach us to pray."

We are ignorant of the gifts for which we should ask.

If we knew what we needed, our great necessity for prayer would pass away.

Many of our prayers are produced by a lack of consciousness of our deadness
in which we are tempted to feel that we are "rich... and have need of nothing."
Because we know this to be a delusion, we are driven to God to show us our poverty.

Before we ask for any temporal gift, we should know what influence or temptation
it would have on us.
We do not know this.
We are ignorant of this.
What might appear to be the safest request, might have a danger of its own.

We may ask for neither poverty nor riches, but the blessings asked for contain
a temptation to imagine that we are free from the sins of both states.
Most of us would have to confess that many of our unanswered prayers have been great blessings.

Even when we asked petitions for spiritual blessings, we do not know how to rightly ask.
It may be said that we can rightly ask for such, and we can when God's Spirit teaches us, but not until then.

The strong responses, which our prayers often receive, seem to indicate that.

There are some very obvious reasons why we cannot pray as we ought. We cannot pray aright because we do not know what is best for us in any given situation.
We are often in the position of a child who wants something that is bound to hurt him.

This reminds me of the story that I heard many years ago.

An older brother and younger brother were playing outside in the backyard.
The older brother was responsible to care for his younger brother.
Suddenly, the younger brother started crying.

The mother called from the house, and blamed the older brother.
The mother said, "What have you done to your brother?"

The older brother said, "I have done nothing. He is crying because he wants something!"

The mother answered, "Let him have what he wants!"

Everything was quiet for a few moments.
Then, the younger brother began to really scream!

The mother called to the older brother, "Now, what is the matter?"

The older brother replied, "He got what he wanted -- a wasp!"


Often, God is in the position of a parent, who has to refuse His child's request
because He knows what is better for the child than the child could ever know.
We often ask for that which may not be good for us.

God gave Israel their desire, but He sent leanness into their souls.
Paul, suffering from the thorn in the flesh, prayed three times that it might be removed from him.
God knew what was better for Paul and did what was best for him.

Often, we have mistaken desires and make unwise choices in regard to what will bring to us true happiness.
Sometimes, we pray for things, not wrong in themselves,
but yet are wrong for us because we pray in an unsubmissive spirit.

Rebecca did this, when she prayed: "God, give me children, or else I die."
Often, our prayer is mixed with much pride and selfishness.
Sometimes, the dread of a present evil leads us to the use of arguments and expressions
unsuited to our true Christian character.

We know not how to pray as we ought
because we often ask for things which are absolutely sinful and unlawful. So, that which we may judge to be very desirable, may prove to the contrary.
"For we know not what we should pray for as we ought..."

We ought to pray:

With profound reverence
How often do we pray carelessly and casually?

With deep humility
How often do we pray with a cold heart?
How often do we pray with a proud, insensible, and unforgiving heart?

With great importunity
We must remember that the blessings we seek are of great magnitude.
We must remember the evils we depreciate are of greatest duration.

In faith
"He that cometh to God must believe that He is..."
We must come to God in power of and in reliance on Christ.

How often do we question the answers to prayer, and how seldom do we expect the blessings for which we pray?

"We do not know how to pray... as we ought."
A good paraphrase for the brief but comprehensive Greek phrase would be:
"According to the present and ever-varying needs."

Here are some illustrations of this truth:

Abraham interceding for Sodom. (Genesis 18:23-33)
Moses praying for permission to enter Canaan. (Deuteronomy 3:23-27)
Paul praying for the removal of the thorn in the flesh. (2 Corinthians 12:8,9)

Augustine's mother praying that her son might not go to Rome.
Yet, his going to Rome led to his going to Milan, where he became a Christian.

Remember, the prayer of Jesus in John 12:27.
Jesus was troubled and perplexed in regard to the object which should be prayed for.
Yet, whatever His desired prayer might have been, He was enabled to add:

"Father, glorify thy name, and not my will but thine be done."

I believe that every right prayer should be accompanied by these words!
It is so much better to leave the answer of our petitions with God.
He knows what is best and will do what is best for us.

We ought to pray with infinite perseverance, knowing that the answer will come,
although the blessing may be delayed.
But we often grow weary and faint before the answer comes.

In order to prove the extent of our weakness and the importance of the help of the Holy Spirit,
and the greatness of the assistance He gives, Paul declares that
"We know not what we should pray for as we ought."

Our blindness and natural ignorance are such that we know not how to make a proper choice
of the things for which we ought to pray.

Paul proceeds to inform us of the Spirit's aid.
We do not know the proper prayer to offer, but the Spirit Himself intercedes on our behalf
with groans that do not require expression in our speech.

Probably Paul uses this example because prayer is the most elementary of what many would call a religious duty.
"We are so weak that we do not even know how to pray."

The Holy Spirit's help in prayer is absolutely necessary!
God is our reconciled God and Father to Whom we come, and the Spirit is our guide, by Whom we come.
(Ephesians 2:18)
We need not only to be supplied from on high, but we also need Divine guidance
to show us what we need.
We know not what to ask, so the Holy Spirit within us assists us in praying.

That same Spirit is ever ready to guide the vague craving of our hearts towards the heart of God.
He, who came from the very heart of heaven, can take our restless, bewildered hearts
into the divine presence of our Father.

There are two kinds of prayer.

There is the prayer of the Baal worshiper hoping to avert God's wrath and to change His purposes.
Then, there is the prayer of a Christian crying for the Spirit, who is in harmony with God's will.

Notice the beautiful thought!
The strong, eternal Spirit of God breathing through this frail child of time and flesh
-- breathing a spiritual breath of love and submission -- all for our needs of which we are ignorant.

We dare not ask absolutely for any particular blessing, but the Spirit inspires us to cry:
"Thy will be done," and the right blessings are given.

We cannot know our own real need.
We cannot with our finite minds grasp God's plan.
All that we can do is to bring to God an inarticulate sigh which the Spirit will translate to God for us.

Paul is teaching that prayer, like everything else, is of God.

In the last analysis, the perfect prayer is simply:
"Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit. Not my will, but Thine be done."

Since we know not what to pray for, we should look to God's precious Spirit
to direct us and to teach us how to pray and for what to pray.

A prayer for us:

"Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee.
Thou only, knowest what I need.
Thou lovest me better than I know how to love myself.

O Father! Give to Thy child that which he himself knows not how to ask.
I dare not ask for crosses or consolations.
I simply present myself before Thee.
I open my heart to Thee.

Behold my needs, which I know not myself.
See, and do according to Thy tender mercy.

Smite, or heal; depress me, or raise me up.
I adore all Thy purposes without knowing them.
I am silent; I offer myself in sacrifice.
I yield myself to Thee.
I have no other desire than to accomplish Thy will
."

Teach me to pray!
Pray Thyself in me!

Sermon by Dr. Harold L. White
Email Dr. White at hleewhite@aol.com