What father among you, if his son asks for a fish will give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to you children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:11-13)
Bryan Chapell, in his book, Praying Backwards, draws a quote from C. S. Lewis’ book, The Magician’s Nephew, in which Polly and Digory, having been sent on a mission by Aslan, wonder if they will have anything to eat when they get back. “Well, I do think someone might have arranged our meals”, said Digory. “I’m sure Aslan would have, if you asked him,” said Fledge [their flying horse] “Wouldn’t he know without being asked?” said Polly. “I have no doubt he would.” Said the horse…. “But, I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.”
That’s a bit like prayer, isn’t it? The psalmist reminds us, Even before a word is on our tongue, [the] Lord knows it altogether. (Psalm 139:4) If God knows all things, then what is the purpose of praying? Isn’t it wasted effort, just going through needless motions? Except, of course, Jesus encourages us and teaches us to pray.
There is a bit of a surprise in Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Luke 11. We understand the inference that God is always a good father, whereas we might not be. We expect Jesus to say that God will give us good gifts instead of those things that would harm us. But instead, Jesus promises “the Holy Spirit”. “Well, that’s fine, Jesus, but I was really just interested in a fish or an egg.” What’s with the Holy Spirit anyway? The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans, The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him… (Romans 8:26-28)
Can we see the connection between Jesus’ teaching on prayer and what Paul has written here? And can we appreciate the importance to our own prayer life? There are two important points here:
One has to do with the fervency of the Holy Spirit’s intercession. This is the third time Paul has used the word, “groan”. In verse 22 he writes that, creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth, because of the effects of the fall. Then in verse 23, Paul writes that we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the spirit (italics mine) also groan as we wait and long for restoration. Then in verse 26 Paul tell us that the Spirit groans through our prayers. This is an expression of fervency, isn’t it? As Chapell writes, “The Spirit cries as in the agonies of one birthing new life because new life is being formed- a new world order.” What a contrast to my meager attempts to pray, in which so often I find my mind wandering or find myself falling asleep like Jesus’ disciples in the garden. But is God limited by my lack of fervency? As I pray weakly, the Spirit pleads strongly for me and through me for God’s purposes.
That leads us to the other point, which has to do with God’s purposes and design. As Chapell puts it, “The Holy Spirit’s intercession is not a swirling hysteria. The Spirit’s work is target directed and laser precise.” Our knowledge is really quite limited. We may think we know what is the best thing for either ourselves or God’s Kingdom, but we don’t have access to all the details or the big picture as God does. As Chapell writes, “Were we with Joseph, we would have prayed for his rescue from his brother’s plot…. Had we been with Mary and Martha, we would have asked God not to let Lazarus die the first time. Were we at the foot of the cross, we would have cried for God to send his angels to the rescue.” The fact is, God knows better how to accomplish his will.
But then, does that mean that our prayers are irrelevant or in the way? No! In actuality The Holy Spirit chooses to use our fallible endeavors to accomplish God’s perfect will in ways that will always remain a mystery to us. It is part of the privilege that is ours as sons and daughters of God, and that means relationship with God. That’s the part we often miss in prayer, isn’t it?
Well, I do think someone might have arranged our meals. I’m sure he would have, if you asked him. Wouldn’t he know without being asked? I have no doubt he would. But, I’ve a sort of idea he likes to be asked.
Pastor Tom Bridgman