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Picture a small discussion group. One day the group gets talking about prayer. “What do you struggle with in your prayer life? What do you find hard about praying?” The responses come readily: Staying focused. . . . Too much asking and not enough thanking. . . . Getting into a rut. . . . Wondering if prayer does any good.

But in Romans 8:26-27, the apostle Paul doesn’t mention any of those problems. “My problem,” he writes, “is not knowing what to pray for.” A puzzling admission coming from a veteran believer in God, and a preacher at that.

Ministers are supposed to be experts in prayer. If there is a minister “in the house,” guess who gets asked to pray? Yet Paul says, “We don’t know what we ought to pray for.”

I talked to a devout believer several decades ago whose aging mother was failing. He began to pray that God might soon take her home—until he and his wife got ready to go on a two-week trip abroad. Suddenly he didn’t know whether to pray, “Lord, take her,” or “Lord, please wait a few weeks.”

When a loved one is told she has only a few months to live, do you pray for a miracle or do you pray for grace in dying?

Nearly two years ago Brian and Kathy Sietsema gave birth to a child who died not long after birth. Early in the pregnancy, tests had come back showing that Bessie (the child’s name) had Trisomy 18, a genetic condition resulting in problems in the central nervous system. Immediately questions arose: Would the baby be stillborn? How profound would her disabilities be? What kind of heart-wrenching medical choices would have to be made?

In a eulogy at his daughter’s funeral, Brian told the congregation, “It was hard to know even what to pray for. It goes against every parental instinct to wish for a miscarriage or a stillbirth, yet the alternative was to hope for the birth of a very sick child, one who might have a short life of great suffering.”

“We do not know what to pray for,” said Paul.

So what do we do? Stop coming to God with our requests? No, we are honest with God, as the psalmists so often were. We acknowledge to God, “I don’t know what to pray for.” We put our uncertainty in God’s lap. But we do so knowing this: “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings that words cannot express.” Literally, “wordless groanings.” Groans that the Father can understand because God knows the mind of the Spirit.

I think of Ron. When I visit him in the nursing home, I don’t know what he says. He mumbles, he mutters. But his father and mother, who have lived with him for about 60 years, can decipher, in a way that I cannot, his wordless groans. In some such way the Spirit intercedes, and the Father knows what he is saying. Writes Rev. John Timmer, “[The Spirit] takes our agonizing longings that cannot find words, and interprets them into the ears of the Father.”

And the beautiful thing is that the Spirit, being divine, intercedes for us according to the will of God. Like a film that is formatted to fit the TV screen, so the Spirit formats our petitions to fit God’s purposes for us. What wonderful harmony: the Spirit intercedes for us according to the Father’s will, and the Father understands the groanings of the Spirit.

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