Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"How Shall We Pray"

2 Corinthians 12: 1-10

Romans 8: 26-27

      Imagine in your mind’s eye a convent.  It looks like a high walled castle of grey stone with short,

rotund towers on each side.  Ivy and flowering vines climb to the tops of the walls and towers.  In

the center is a massive iron gate which is wide open, leading into a garden courtyard.  There’s a

strong scent of Wisteria and Jasmine in the air.  A long line of people – who appear by their garb to

be of the peasant class – wait restlessly to have a personal audience with one of the nuns.  She sits

alone on a rough wood bench, dressed in a black habit with a white coif and veil; hands folded on

her lap; a kind smile on her face. 

      This scene is from 15th century England.  The place is the village of Norwich.  The nun is Juliana. 

History remembers her as Lady Julian.  She is venerated by Roman Catholics as a holy woman of

God, esteemed by many to be a saint.  Common people of the day would wait hours to receive the

spiritual counsel of Lady Julian of Norwich, mainly because of her reputation of being an authority

on prayer.  Pilgrims provided a steady stream of visitors to that convent who wanted to know from

Juliana how to pray, and for what to pray.  Her writings are gathered in a collection entitled

“Revelations of Divine Love” which show that Lady Julian assured sincere seekers that God truly

hears and answers prayer.  Today, I suppose Julian of Norwich would have a blog; a Facebook page;

maybe even a cable television call-in show.  And questions to her some six centuries later would

probably be the same:  Does God actually hear and respond to our particular prayers?  Fair question then; fair question now.  

      We do learn a lot about prayer from ancient mystics such as Lady Julian and Meister Eckhart.

Contemporary priests and mystics such as Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, and Mother Teresa have

much to teach us about prayer as well.  Especially we Protestants are guided primarily by the apostolic

saints of the early church, such as the Apostle Paul.  Some 1,960 years ago, Paul wrote what we might

call an autobiographical confession to the Corinthian Christians, in which he wrote at length about his

personal prayer life.  He shares in his second Corinthian letter that fourteen years earlier, he had gotten

so carried away in prayer that he had been, in his own words, “caught up to the third heaven.” 

This was Paul’s way of saying that he had experienced through prayer the highest form of ecstasy. 

Yet at the same time – in order that he not be perceived as someone better than anyone else -- Paul also

confesses that he has a chronic personal problem; perhaps it’s a physical ailment of some sort. 

Many commentators have suggested eye disease.  Then again, “a thorn” given him “in the flesh” could

refer to a problem that was of his human nature; anything from attitude, to depression, to anxiety, to addiction.

  Paul writes that on three occasions, he had pleaded with God for deliverance from this thorn in the flesh. 

But Paul felt the presence of the Lord saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect

in weakness.”  This was probably not the Divine deliverance Paul was hoping for.  But he bore his thorn in

courageous confidence in Christ, responding: “Therefore I am content…… for wherever I am weak, then I am strong.

      It is no wonder that the issue of prayer – interceding for ourselves, interceding for others, wondering how

and for what to pray – has been a proverbial question;  for people of Jesus’ and Paul’s time;  for people of

Juliana’s time;  for us.  Few of us believe that God is like some short-order cook; responding to all our beckoning

commands for a divine blue plate special.  Perhaps words of Jesus have added to the confusion;

such as when He says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” 

Adding to the confusion might be Jesus’ instruction to the disciples: “…if two of you agree on earth

about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”  Does this mean that all

the collective desires of the church are fulfilled by our launching prayer petitions?  No small number

of Christians believe this very thing.  Yet if this was literally what Jesus meant and what prayer means,

Camille Leslie would not have passed away.  There would never have been a second school shooting. 

No one would have died in the hurricane. The faithful would rarely enter hospitals, and all would live

beyond a ripe old age.  How and for what, then, should we pray?  What is the posture of prayer for a

mature and sensitive Christian, who is also reasonable and grounded in reality?

      Paul admitted that he himself oftentimes didn’t know how or for what to pray.  That’s quite an

admission from the church’s leading Biblical theologian, founder of dozens of churches, and most

prolific writer in the New Testament.  He acknowledged in his letter to the Romans:  “…we do not
know how to pray as we ought.” 
But he goes on to declare with certainty that the very Spirit of

Jesus Christ “intercedes” for us; steps into the gap when we just don’t have the words, will, or 

wherewithal to pray.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but Paul sure does describe my condition, as I

so often ramble on in confusion in my secret prayers. I think many of us would acknowledge that in

our personal prayer lives, we sometimes feel like a school child before a wise principal; or maybe

like a defendant in court before a powerful judge.  We hardly know what to say.  Yet we stammer

on, trying to convey our deepest thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes we send up compassionate

prayers.  Other times our prayers seem selfish and self-centered.  There are occasions when we may

think our prayers are just dumb.  And so often, overwhelmed by suffering, grief, shame, despair, it’s

like prayer dry mouth – we can’t even form a word; and when we do, we can’t get it out.

      Today, we receive an assurance from Paul.  It’s okay.  Paul counsels us not to get all stressed out

over the uncertainty, inconsistency, immaturity of our prayers and petitions.  God’s Holy Spirit – the

very Spirit of Christ – will take our good intentions, and the sincerity and earnestness of our utterances,

and present the whole package of our prayers in proper perspective before the mercy seat of the Almighty. 

We call this “intercession of the Spirit.”  Paul puts it this way to the Corinthians who wished for a better life in prayer: 

“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.” 

      Contemporary mystic Richard Foster, who comes out of the Quaker tradition, refers to this as

“the prayer of rest.”  He makes these observations:  The Holy Spirit prays on our behalf.  The gift of

the Spirit is the presence of God’s mercy.  The Holy Spirit is our interpreter before God.  And the

Holy Spirit returns to us like a wise and loving language interpreter.  The Spirit places the intent of

our garbled language before the presence of God in an intelligible form.  In short, the Spirit of

Christ’s love intercedes for us, according to what Jesus promised His disciples:  “I will ask the Father,

and he will give you another counselor” or “advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of

truth….” This Spirit, counselor, advocate interprets our words in ways that connect to God with


      This is good news indeed for we who struggle with the how’s and what’s of prayer.  The unseen

Spirit of God is guiding our prayers – the deepest yearnings of our hearts; the garbled confusion of

our minds.  God understands that we cannot pray with full wisdom because, unlike the Holy Spirit,

we can’t foresee what the future holds.  We can’t see that day on the other side of an illness or loss

or tragedy.  We can’t see the eventual good toward which God is guiding this broken creation, and

our broken lives.  Moreover, the wisdom of our prayers is limited by the fact that we don’t always

know what is best for us. 

      British New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd has an interesting take.  He once defined prayer as “the

divine (with a small d) in us appealing to the Divine (with a capital D) above us.”   Dodd claims that

the divine within us is not privy to the vast, eternal vision of the Divine above us.  Yet God’s divine

Spirit indwelling us speaks to God on our behalf.  Dodd describes it as the divine within us being on

intimate terms with the Divine above us, restoring and perfecting communication with God; even

when we think we’re making a mess of our prayers.  In short, Dodd concludes that without the gift

of Holy Spirit, we are at a loss to know how to communicate with God.

      Lady Julian of Norwich’s counsel to the many who visited her was simply an assurance that when

we bring our sincere prayers before the Lord, God truly hears and answers.   Paul expands that

assurance adding that however garbled; however confused, however unfocused; however dumb our

prayers may seem to us, the Holy Spirit living within us carries those prayers before the Lord – on

our behalf – with clarity, conviction, purpose and wisdom. 

      I guess in the end, with regard to our struggles in our personal prayer lives, the Lord might say

something like this:  “Don’t sweat it. I’ve got you covered.”  That’s good enough for me.



Help us in our lives of prayer, O God, as we so often struggle with right thoughts, right meditations, right words.  Assure our hearts that when we come to You in sincerity and truth, You perfect our prayers in Your hearing through your Holy Spirit dwelling inside us.  So Father, we won’t sweat it, because as in all things, You have us covered.  Amen. 


Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102