"We don’t know how to pray as we ought" is a striking and often overlooked line. Yet, it may be the truest thing the Apostle Paul ever wrote. It is not in human nature to distinguish between true and false communion with God. We think praying is simply a matter of closing our eyes and folding our hands. Or mentally doing something like that. Some describe prayer as simply talking to God like you would a friend. God is wholly other. The pre-socratic philosopher, Meno, asks, “How do you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Having glimpsed God down a long corridor, dimmed by your own inadequacies, how do you pray?
Look at the Old Testament lesson where Solomon achieves success in prayer by putting aside his own ambitions and praying to be wise (I Kings 3:5-12). From this, we would think that praying is simply a matter of guessing what God wants us to have, and then asking for it. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, do we? God must not like our prayers because he keeps giving us the opposite of what we ask for. We ask for patience and we receive more frustrations. We ask for peace in our household and we receive more conflict. We ask for enough wealth to be secure and we find ourselves jobless and dependent upon the kindness of strangers. I get the feeling that God’s intention is to throw us fully into life, like a baby being thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to swim, and then demand that we find the Holy Spirit in the few spare moments we have between crises. We learn to pray while half drowned and treading water. Like Eli Wiesel, we acquire wisdom in the midst of holocaust.
But how can we find the other whose nature is totally and mysteriously unknown to us? This is the question that Paul spends the passage from Romans 7:21-8:39 answering. In 8:1, we are given an abrupt answer. If we invite God into our hearts, he hardwires a connection. We go from being unable to pray to being unable to stop praying. We go from seeing God as a rich but distant uncle, to being a parasite under our skin. I imagine it’s a bit like becoming pregnant, children go from being an nice abstraction to being a resident heartburn. God is a mixed blessing.
This is white-knuckle spirituality. Nothing simple about it. We admit that we don't know how to pray. Then the Holy Spirit prays through us. It asks for what we need rather than for what we want. Breathe. Let go. Good luck!