March 31, 2023: For we do not know how to pray as we ought

Today, we look at a Day 3 text from this year’s summer curriculum, “Holy Trinity, Wholly Love.”


Reading: Romans 8:9-27

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.



I don’t know what to make of prayer.

I’m embarrassed to admit it—as a life-long Christian and an ordained pastor I’d like to say that I understand prayer. But I don’t. Not really. So much about prayer seems contradictory and confusing.

Why, exactly, are we supposed to pray? What’s the reason? What’s the purpose?

The scriptures encourage us to pray for the needs of others. Does that mean that God only intervenes in our lives if we ask God to? That doesn’t seem right. Or is God going to do what God is going to do? Then what is the point of praying for something if God has already made up God’s mind? Can God’s mind change? Some would vehemently argue no!

The scriptures also encourage us to offer our gratitude and our complaints. Talk about paradox! Most of the psalms are lament psalms, meaning they are psalms of complaint to God. They usually begin with the psalmist berating God for God’s apparent absence or apathy. But then (with only a couple exceptions) the psalm takes a turn about halfway through to praise. It’s as if the psalmist has vented his or her anger and now is able to remind his or herself that God is good even when life isn’t. Praise in the midst of anger. Confounding.

There are a few instances of liturgy in the scriptures, but largely it is our ancient church traditions that encourage us to pray in the form of liturgy. But what about spontaneous prayers? Are liturgical prayers valid even when we’re not fully paying attention to them (as is my case almost every Sunday while I try to corral my children in the pew). What makes a prayer valid? Does it have to be heart-felt? Do we really need to believe it? Or does just speaking the words make it valid?

Lately, I’ve gravitated toward contemplative prayer, the prayer style of the mystics. Contemplative prayer involves quieting your mind and opening yourself up to God. The idea behind contemplative prayer is that prayer, in all its forms, is about drawing you into deeper relationship with God. It’s about conforming yourself to the divine, finding the divine living within you, seeking out those places where you and God intertwine. I love it because it’s not about what I do, but about what God is doing within me. There are no expectations in contemplative prayer other than that we rest in God’s presence. And just that we do it. And that we not fall asleep. But I often fail at those three things.

So what am I to do? Petitionary prayer? Thanksgiving prayer? Lament prayer? Liturgical prayer? Spontaneous prayer? Contemplative prayer? I find beauty and confusion in all these forms of prayer. And what’s the point? Is it to lift up others? Is it to humble myself? Is it to have a relationship with God? Is it to change God’s mind? Or maybe to change my own mind?

In Zen Buddhism, the ancient Zen masters say that one is never to ask “why do we meditate?” The question is strictly forbidden. Zen is all about detachment and letting go. You meditate because you meditate. Looking for a reason why is just another form of attachment. Now I realize Christianity hopes for the opposite, not detachment from the universe but radical attachment to God, but maybe the answer is the same: we pray because we pray. Stop asking why!

So, now that you’ve had a glimpse into the chaos that is my mindscape, you might understand why I find this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans so very comforting.

“The spirit helps us in our weakness.” Thank God! As you can see from everything I just wrote, I feel very weak when it comes to prayer. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought!” You can say that again, Paul! Most days I don’t know what to ask God for because I don’t know what is best for me or the people around me. Usually, my prayers of petition end up just being “thy will be done!”

“But that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Maybe I don’t need to feel so bad about not knowing what to say. Even the Spirit doesn’t always know what to say. Instead, she sighs deeply, letting out a flood of emotion, rather than words, as a prayer to God.

“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Here is the most comforting part: God gets you. God gets me. God knows what is swirling in our hearts. God knows that prayer is complicated and weird and hard for a 21st century person to wrap his or her mind around. God gets it. And God isn’t going to let our weakness or our minced words get in the way of God’s love for us.

I don’t know what to make of prayer.

And that’s okay. Because the Spirit is with me, interceding for me, carrying my prayers to God even when I have no idea what my prayers should be.

Thanks be to God.

–Jim Vitale



Spirit of the living God, search my heart. Reach deeper into my soul than even I can reach. Discover what wonders, what fears, what questions, what gratitudes, what hopes lie in my depths. Carry what you find and lay it before the Father. Remind me that you and I and the Father are one, even when I do not feel it, even when I cannot see it, even when I cannot express it.