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Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is adapted from Ortlund’s new book, Supernatural Living for Natural People: The Life-Giving Message of Romans 8 (Christian Focus, 2013).

We are not strong but weak. How are we weak? Well, how aren’t we weak? Brokenness, unmet needs, emptiness, confusion, weariness, unbelief, fear, dullness, depression, bewilderment, sin—we can be so overwhelmed with the crushing weight of this existence that we don’t even know how to pray. The very enormity of our struggles silences us. We don’t know what to pray for, as Paul says in Romans 8:26. We may be paralyzed in helpless indecision. We may be too distressed to utter a coherent prayer at all. We are weak.

Christians are not always on top of things. Where in the Bible are we taught to expect unruffled composure and unbroken victory? Sometimes life is so troubling, we feel defeated even in prayer. And if we cannot pray, we are really in trouble. At that very moment when we most need to draw upon God’s promises through prayer—what if we fail at that vital point of connection, when it really counts? Will our weakness bungle the purpose of God? Under normal conditions we tell ourselves that, when all else fails, we can fall back on prayer. But what if we do come to the end of ourselves and our own devices only to discover we don’t even know what to pray, we don’t understand how to connect the Bible with our experience, and God himself seems far away? What then? What encouragement can we look to beyond our own radical weakness?

When we’re reduced to helplessness, the Holy Spirit will help us. Have you ever thought of the Holy Spirit as a gracious person who steps in with the offer: “May I help? May I bear that burden with you? You’re in anguish over your children. You feel forsaken by God. You don’t know how to negotiate that important decision. You’re lonely. You’re tempted. You’re sinful. You need to pray. May I help?” The Holy Spirit does not reproach us. In fact, he “gives generously to all without making them feel foolish or guilty” (James 1:5, Phillips).

But how does the Holy Spirit help us? Now we enter into deep mystery. The Spirit helps us, Paul explains, by interceding for us. When we are too defeated and confused to pray, when the familiar phrases just don’t seem adequate anymore, when all we can do is groan, the Spirit makes his own appeal on our behalf.

Prayer is more profound than folding our hands and closing our eyes and mouthing well-worn phrases. James Montgomery’s (1771-1854) hymn has long recognized this:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,

unuttered or expressed,

the motion of a hidden fire

that trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,

the falling of a tear,

the upward glancing of an eye

when none but God is near.

This, too, is prayer, both urgent and profound. And it’s in mo­ments like these, when the heart moves even beyond words, that the “the Spirit himself”—the Spirit personally and directly, in imme­diacy and nearness—helps by interceding for us “with groanings too deep for words.”

Ole Kristian Hallesby (1879-1961) was a Norwegian theologian who stood for biblical truth in an age of doctrinal erosion. He also resisted the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II and suffered for it in a concentration camp. He understood the depth of prayer. In his book on the subject he wrote this:

I have witnessed the death-struggle of some of my Christian friends. Pain has coursed through their bodies and souls. But this was not their worst experience. I have seen them gaze at me anxiously and ask, “What will become of me when I am no longer able to think a sustained thought, nor pray to God?”

If they only realized what they were doing, the people who postpone conversion until they become ill! My friend, in the death-struggle your physical and mental energies will all be taxed to their utmost by your suffering and pain. Remember that and repent now, the acceptable time.

When I stand at the bedside of friends who are struggling with death, it is blessed to be able to say to them, “Do not worry about the prayers that you cannot pray. You yourself are a prayer to God at this moment. All that is within you cries out to Him. And He hears all the pleas that your suffering soul and body are making to Him with groanings which cannot be uttered. But if you should have an occasional restful moment, thank God that you already have been reconciled to Him, and that you are now resting in the everlasting arms.”1

1 Cf. H. C. G. Moule, Romans (London, 1893), 232.