“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 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. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,  for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”(Romans 8:25-30 (ESV)
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” It’s a comforting verse. Without the help of the Spirit our prayers would be in vain.
Man is sinful, and so man tries in vain to hide from God with fig leaves covering our genitals. It’s quite an amazing thing. He searches our hearts and knows them. That is terrifying. My thoughts and my heart terrify me. In Romans 10 we are told that with our hearts we believe and with our mouths we confess. Sometimes, I review my conversations, and tremble at the beliefs I have exposed with the confession of my mouth. Jesus tells us that from our hearts come all manner of evil, adultery, theft, murder. To pray from the heart seems like a futile thing, and I can think of no reason why God should listen to me, “I am a worm and not a man” as the Psalmist says. (Psalm 22) When I hear that God hears the prayers of a righteous man, I figure I may as well find another to beseech for help.
This has long plagued the souls of believers. It gave birth to the cult of the saints in the Middle ages, which revolves around the thought that we are too sinful to pray to God directly, it is much better to perhaps ask Mary to talk to Jesus for us. In such a manner, our prayers themselves become acts of disobedience to God. In this, we break the Second Commandment. God would have us use his name for prayer, praise and thanksgiving. He promises to be our help in every trouble. But he knows our predicament, he knows that our sinful nature is not merely unwilling to call upon him in every trouble, but deathly afraid of it. He knows that even in the heart of the believer there is a Moses claiming to be a chronic stutterer who can’t possibly be up to the task. So he gives us the words we are to pray and he gives us an Aaron to interpret for us.
First, God knows our hearts far better than we do. We hide nothing from him. We hide reality from ourselves. We can even get good at convincing ourselves that we are in fact good. We hide from God because his Holiness and goodness expose our lie. So God gives us the words, even as he told Moses what to say. He gives us the words to shape our prayers, words to meditate upon, words that not only shape our prayers, but over time begin to shape our hearts and minds, words that crucify the flesh and bring to life the new man within us. These are the words of scripture, and most important among them are the words of the Psalms along the Lord’s Prayer that summarizes the Psalms for us in the words of Jesus himself. When we pray the Psalms we pray the prayers of Jesus Christ himself. These are the prayers of a righteous man who is heard. Therefore, they are our prayers who are righteous not in ourselves but in him. These are the prayers that shaped the death and resurrection of Christ who prayed them in the midst of his great distress on the cross. So they are our prayers because in baptism we were buried into his death so that just as he was raised to the glory of the Father we too might walk in the newness of life. It is in this newness of life that we pray righteous and clean in the waters of baptism.
Yet still, our Old Adam gets in the way, we stutter even as we read the Holy Words of God himself. Our prayers are polluted with sinful thoughts and words, selfish desires of the flesh and all sorts of embarrassments especially in the times of our greatest distress. It is when we are sick in a hospital bed inflicted with pain that if we don’t think of ourselves as too weak to pray, we find ourselves angry at God who must in some way be responsible for our suffering if he is all good and all powerful. It is at these times we find ourselves angry at him, even if somehow we know we deserve his temporal and eternal punishments. Of course, it is when plagued by thoughts like these that the Psalms often offer their greatest comforts, because the prophetic words of David himself echo the sentiments anger, despair, and distress that usher forth from such an afflicted soul. Christ himself would pray “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” But to help us in our prayers, we have been given an Aaron for our souls. Here we have the Holy Spirit. He who sanctifies us in the waters of baptism sanctifies our prayers. He makes our prayers holy though our lips be unclean, he is the sanctifying coal fire with which Jesus has baptized us.
Yes, our lips give unclean prayers. Even praying the words of God back to him, would be an affront to the holiness of God the Father should they remain in the polluted form with which they leave our lips. So God gives us the Spirit who intercedes for us in groans we cannot understand. He takes our prayers and interprets them for us, puts the best construction on them and offers them to the Father as sacrifices given by his Son, the righteous man in whom we walk in the newness of life. And for this reason our prayers are heard in every time of trouble.