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We Do Not Know How to Pray as We Ought

by Brant Pitre November 27, 2020 0 Comments

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…what then are some practical points we can draw out about this verse from the living tradition? I’m going to bring up two sources here. The first is from St. Augustine. St. Augustine wrote a short—this is unusual for him—a short commentary on Romans. It was one of his earlier works. And in his section on Romans 8, Augustine says this about the verse we have for today:

“We do not know how to pray as we ought” for two reasons. First, it is not yet clear what future we are hoping for or where we are heading, and second, many things in this life may seem positive but are in fact negative, and vice versa. Tribulation, for example, when it comes to a servant of God in order to test or correct him may seem futile to those who have less understanding… But God often helps us through tribulation, and prosperity, which may be negative if it traps the soul with delight and the love of this life, is sought after in vain.”

So that’s Augustine, On Romans, number 54. In other words, for Augustine, what he’s saying is there are two reasons we need the Holy Spirit to intercede on our behalf and to teach us how to pray. There are two reasons we don’t know how to pray as we ought.

First, we don’t really know where we’re heading. We don’t know the future. A lot of times we are ignorant of what is to come, so it’s hard for us to ask rightly about our ultimate destiny, because it’s still obscure to us, as we’ll see elsewhere. Paul is going to say:

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him,”

So there’s a transcendent element to our ultimate destiny that just illuminates how ignorant we really are of where we’re heading and what our ultimate destiny really is. So we tend to shoot lower, in other words. Our hopes are often much lower than what God’s hopes for us actually are. So the Spirit will ask for more than we ask for ourselves. And you know this if you have kids, right? A lot of times what they want is actually much less than what you want to give them. They will often set their sights on lower, earthly things. And you’ll often have to withhold those things from them in order to teach them to aim higher. That’s just how children are; they don’t know any better. And that’s how we are when we pray...we don’t know any better.

And then the second thing is, Augustine says, is that things that we think are good are actually negative. So for example, Augustine uses the example of suffering. He says, “How many of us actually pray, ‘Lord, send me some tribulation’?” Well, most people don’t, and so when tribulation comes, we often treat it as something negative. But Augustine says that in this case, sometimes tribulation can actually grow us, help us to grow, and it can be a positive thing. Whereas prosperity, which we will often pray for—give us prosperity or health—can be a danger, because it can turn our soul away from God. And the only one who really knows what’s good for us and what’s bad for us is God Himself.

So the other reason that the Spirit will intercede for us is because we’ll often ask for things that we don’t actually need or that aren’t good for us. And again, if you have children, you know exactly what I’m talking about here. Kids will take the candy everyday know, they’ll want candy over a good solid meal everyday. They want it because it’s sweet. But it’s not necessarily good for them. It can be bad for them, especially if it’s too much. So the same thing is true in our prayer to God the Father. So the Spirit acts as our intercessor and helps us to pray when we don’t know how to pray as we ought.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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