“A massive weakness permeates our lives and everything about them.”

Before March of 2008, my prayer life was, unknown to me at the time, a bit garbled. My prayers ran through familiar, rote choreography and the mock-pious tone I had repeated for years, sending out praises and requests. Some sort of prayer-like self-therapy attached itself to my genuine appeals to God, creating a weighty, internal mixed bag of emotions and thoughts. I looked more like a prayer tourist than a prayer warrior.

“In prayer we are ignorant not just of the right way to pray, but of what to pray for. And that is true not just some of the time, but all of the time.”

Listening Intently to Romans 8 

The voice in the audio clip below belongs to Rev. Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., who began teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia during the Johnson administration and faithfully continued for the next half-century. A brief note on Dr. Gaffin: if there were baseball cards for theologians, his would be worth a lot. He has written books that, to this day, have worldwide influence. He has taught and walked the Westminster halls with some of your favorite authors—Wayne Grudem, Tim Keller, Kevin Vanhoozer, Paul Tripp—while also faithfully serving as an elder at his small OPC church.

On a March morning in 2008, out of the over 11,000 mornings in which Gaffin had taught class up to that point, he chose to speak in chapel to students, staff, and faculty about prayer. I sat in the auditorium that day and soon realized, to my own embarrassment, I hadn’t listened intently enough to what Paul had said about prayer in Romans 8, and my ambling prayer life reflected that lack of attention. By the time Dr. Gaffin closed his 25-minute message, I walked out praying differently. Since that time I’ve listened to his message countless times—on lonely flights, on a jog, as a bachelor, married, in a sweet time of life, in a spiritual drought—and each time I’ve been filled with gratitude for it in different ways for different reasons.

Within Romans 8, verse 28 typically receives marquee status—in verse-a-day calendars, wall-art quotes, and Christian-leaning sympathy cards—for obvious reasons. The words carry an optimistic ring, elastically applicable to either the grinding humdrum or the cascading drama of the Christian life. But as comforting as verse 28 can be, its familiarity can cause us to miss the chapter’s full impact when we skim too quickly over its opener. So Gaffin slowed down the exegetical tempo, showing watchmaker-precision in working through the chapter’s fine details.

“There is a futility factor that cuts through the entire creation. Things, including ourselves, just don’t work right.”

Eschatological Weakness and Groaning

A quick surface reading of the weakness Paul mentions in verse 26 may appear to refer to pesky, occasional distractions in our prayer life. Or it may seem Paul writes only to a class of weak Christians, while the strong ones have their prayer life in the bag. Contrary to this weak/strong binary, Gaffin pinpoints Paul’s emphasis not on idiosyncratic weaknesses, but a singular weakness, sharpened by verse 18’s description: the sufferings of this present time, contrasted with the glory to be revealed. A deep, primal weakness permeates our prayer, exposing our ignorance. We just don’t know what to pray for. Our weakness yields a poverty of prayer.

“In the fragile clay jars that we are, we have this very invaluable treasure—the Spirit praying.”

This suffering and weakness infects more than humanity. Romans 8:18–23 clearly marks the territory and scope of redemption to include literally everything. If it’s created, then it’s groaning, and if it’s groaning, then it’s cursed, and if it’s cursed, then it needs redemption. This broad, redemptive scope is clear from Genesis 3:14–17, when curses fell on animals and the ground because of Adam’s sin. Prior to the chapel message, I’d always considered creation’s groans as merely an apt but abstract metaphor capturing some ominous element embedded in the world. Gaffin gave me fresh eyes for how Paul applies these various groanings within Romans 8, and now I’m unable to un-see his insights. The profound weakness we carry into the realm of prayer is the epochally tragic, “not yet” side of eschatological groaning.

But just as we lack the ability to redeem ourselves, we also lack the ability to redeem the groaning creation. Paul uses the closest and most obvious example of creation’s redemption—our own bodies (v. 23). A quick glance in the bathroom mirror works as proof enough that our gravity-laden bodies await the final day of redemption, marked on the divine calendar. We endure these last days and groan for that final, last day—the end-time curtain call, turning groans to glory.

“You and I are free as believers to be ourselves in prayer because we are not ultimately dependent on our own efforts in prayer. Our dependence is elsewhere.”

Liberating Our Prayers

If Paul had ended Romans 8 with an emphasis on weakness and curse, his abrupt point would surely discourage the most enthusiastic, glass-half-full Christian. So we would expect Paul to lead his readers toward the epically encouraging “already” side of eschatological groaning. As Gaffin points out, Paul’s idea of the eschatological groan progresses through Romans 8—from creation, to humanity, to the Spirit, who trans-linguistically groans and intercedes on our behalf. The most important elements of prayer ultimately rest not with us, but in prayer’s true Trinitarian nature—heard by God the Father, with Christ as our Redeemer interceding for us, along with the Spirit interceding for us through groans too deep for words.

My prayer life now admittedly still looks discheveled at times and occurs less frequently than I would like. Some of that hasn’t changed. But the difference in my prayer life as a result of Dr. Gaffin’s message many years ago centers around both the liberation from self-dependence he mentions and the cosmic, divine activity involved when each of us prays; a spiritual discipline that can sometimes seem cripplingly insignificant, but in Paul’s Romans 8 reality includes an end-times hue as all-encompassing as it is spiritually pervasive.