Spirit in Prayer

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.
~ Romans 8:26, Romans 15:1, 2 Corinthians 12:5

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
~ Hebrews 4:15

Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
~ James 4:3, Romans 8:15

LORD, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear:
Psalm 10:17

For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.
~ Matthew 10:20, Galatians 4:6, Ephesians 2:18, Ephesians 6:18, Jude 1:20-21

The LORD hath heard my supplication; the LORD will receive my prayer. Give ear to my prayer, O God; and hide not thyself from my supplication. Attend unto me, and hear me: I mourn in my complaint, and make a noise; I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God. I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and he gave ear unto me. In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah. O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee: Let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry; For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave. To hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death; For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
~ Psalm 6:9, Psalm 55:1-2, Psalm 69:3, Psalm 77:1-3, Psalm 88:1-3, Psalm 102:20, 2 Corinthians 12:8 (KJV)

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
~ Luke 22:44

The Work of the Holy Spirit As to the Matter of Prayer, by John Owen. The following is taken from Chapter 5 of his work, “The Work Of The Holy Spirit In Prayer”.

Chapter V.

The work of the Holy Spirit as to the matter of prayer.

These things are considerable as to the matter of prayer. And with respect to them, we do not know of ourselves what we should pray for, nor how, nor when. The first work of the Spirit of God, as a Spirit of supplication in believers, is to give them an understanding of all their wants, and of the supplies of grace and mercy in the promises. This causes such a sense of them to dwell and abide on their minds that, according to their measure, they are continually furnished with the matter of prayer, without which men never pray, and by which, in some sense, they pray always; for —

First. The Spirit alone gives us, and he alone is able to give us, such an understanding of our own wants, that we may be able to make our thoughts about them known to God in prayer and supplication. And what is said concerning our wants, is likewise said with respect to the whole matter of prayer by which we give glory to God, either in requests or prayers. I will manifest this in some instances, to which others may be reduced.

1. The principal matter of our prayers concerns faith and unbelief. So the apostles prayed in a particular manner, ‘Lord, increase our faith;’ and so the poor man prayed in his distress, ‘Lord, help my unbelief.’ I cannot think that those who never pray for the pardon of unbelief, for its removal, and for the increase of faith, ever pray rightly. If unbelief is the greatest of sins, and if faith is the greatest of the gifts of God, we are not Christians if these things are not one principal part of the matter of our prayers. To this end we must be convinced of the nature and guilt of unbelief, and also of the nature and use of faith. Without that conviction, we can neither know our own highest wants, nor what to pray for as we ought. Our Savior expressly declares that this is the special work of the Holy Ghost, Joh 16.8-9, ‘He will convince the world of sin, because they do not believe in me.’ I deny and must deny that anyone is or can be convinced of the nature and guilt of that unbelief, either in the whole or in its remainders — which the gospel condemns, and which is the great condemning sin under the gospel — without a special work of the Holy Ghost on his mind and soul. For unbelief, as it respects Jesus Christ — not believing in him, or not believing in him as we should — is a sin against the gospel. And it is by the gospel alone that we may be convinced of it; and that is by the ministration of the Spirit.

Thus, neither the light of a natural conscience nor the law will convince anyone of the guilt of unbelief with respect to Jesus Christ, nor instruct them in the nature of faith in him. No innate notions of our minds, no doctrines of the law, will reach to this. To think to teach men to pray, or to help them in praying, without a sense of unbelief, or of the remainders of it in its guilt and power — and without a sense of the nature of faith, with its necessity, use, and efficacy — is to say to the naked and the hungry, ‘Be warmed and filled,’ and not to give them those things that are needful for the body. Therefore, this belongs to the work of the Spirit as a Spirit of supplication. Let men tear and tire themselves night and day with a multitude of prayers, if a work of the Spirit of God in teaching the nature and guilt of unbelief, and the nature, efficacy, and use of faith in Christ Jesus, do not go with it, all will be lost and perish. Yet it is marvellous to consider how little mention of these things occurs in most of those compositions which have been published to be used as forms of prayer. They are generally omitted in such endeavours, as if they were things in which Christians were very little concerned. The gospel positively and frequently determines the present acceptance of men with God or their disobedience, with their future salvation and condemnation, according to their faith or unbelief. For their obedience or disobedience are infallible consequents of that. Now, if things that are of the greatest importance to us, and on which depend all other things in which our spiritual estate is concerned, and these things are not a part of the subject-matter of our daily prayer, then I do not know what deserves to be.

2. The matter of our prayer respects the depravation of our nature, and our wants on that account:

The darkness and ignorance that is in our understandings;

Our unacquaintedness with heavenly things;

Our alienation from the life of God thereby;

The secret workings of the lusts of the mind under the shade and covert of this darkness;
The stubbornness, obstinacy, and perverseness of our wills by nature;

Our wills’ reluctance toward and dislike of spiritual things; Innumerable latent guiles arising from this reluctance.

All of these keep the soul from a due conformity to the holiness of God. And so they are things which believers have a special regard to in their confessions and supplications. They know this is their duty, and find by experience that the greatest concern between God and their souls, as to sin and holiness, lies in these things. And they are never more concerned for themselves than when they find their hearts least affected with them. To give up entreating God about them — for mercy in their pardon, for grace in their removal, and the daily renovation of the image of God in them thereby — is to renounce all religion and all designs of living for God.

Therefore, without a knowledge, a sense, a due comprehension of these things, no man can pray as he should, because he is unacquainted with the matter of prayer, and he does not know what to pray for. But we cannot attain this knowledge of ourselves. Our nature is so corrupted as not to understand its own depravation. Hence some absolutely deny this corruption, thus taking away all necessity for labouring after its cure and the renovation of the image of God in us. And hereby they overthrow the prayers of all believers, which the ancient church continually pressed the Pelagians with. Without a sense of these things, I must profess that I do not understand how any man can pray. And as was said, we do not have this knowledge of ourselves. Our nature is blind, and cannot see them; it is proud, and will not own them; it is stupid, and senseless of them. It is the work of the Spirit of God alone to give us a due conviction of, a spiritual insight into, and a sense of the concern of these things. I have so fully proved this elsewhere, as not to insist on it here again.

It is not easy to conjecture how men pray, or what they pray about, who do not know the plague of their own hearts. Indeed, this ignorance, lack of light into, or conviction of, the depravation of their nature — and the remainders of it even in those who are renewed, with the fruits, consequents, and effects of it — are the principal cause of men’s barrenness in this duty. It is such that they can seldom go beyond what is prescribed to them. And from this, they can also satisfy themselves with a set or frame of well-composed words. They might easily discern that their own condition and concern are not at all expressed in these, if they were acquainted with them. I do not fix measures for other men, nor give bounds to their understandings. Only, I will take leave to profess, for my own part, that I cannot conceive or apprehend how any man does or can know what to pray for as he should, in the whole compass and course of that duty, if he has no spiritual illumination enabling him to discern, in some measure, the corruption of his nature, and the internal evils of his heart. If men judge that the faculties of their souls are undepraved, their minds are free from vanity, their hearts are free from guile and deceit, their wills are free from perverseness and carnality, I do not wonder on what grounds they despise the prayers of others, but would wonder on what grounds they might find real humiliation and fervency in their own.

To this I may add the irregularity and disorder of our affections. These, I confess, are discernible in the light of nature. And rectifying them, or attempting to, was the principal end of the old philosophy. But the chief respect it had to them on this principle, is that they disquiet the mind, or erupt into outward expressions by which men are defiled, dishonoured, or distressed. This is how far natural light will go. And by this light, in the working of their consciences, as far as I know, men may be put to prayer about them. But the chief depravation of the affections lies in their aversion to spiritual and heavenly things.

They are, indeed, sometimes ready to like spiritual things under false notions of them, and to like divine worship under superstitious ornaments and meretricious dresses. In this respect, they are the spring and life of all that devotion which is in the church of Rome. But take heavenly and spiritual things in themselves, with respect to their proper ends, and there is a dislike of them and an aversion to them in all our affections, which are corrupted. These variously act themselves, and influence our souls to vanities and disorders in all holy duties. No man knows what it means to pray, who is not exercised in supplications for mortifying, changing, and renewing these affections which are spiritually irregular. And yet it is the Spirit of God alone which reveals these things to us, and gives us a sense of our concern in them. I say, the spiritual irregularity of our affections, and their aversion to spiritual things, is discernible in no other light than supernatural illumination. For if spiritual things cannot be discerned without that, as the apostle assures us they cannot, 1Cor 2.14, then it is impossible that the disorder of our affections can do so. If we do not know the true nature of an object, we cannot know the actings of our minds towards it. Therefore, although there is an innate, universal aversion to spiritual things in our affections, seeing that by nature we are wholly alienated from the life of God, it cannot be discerned by us in any light except that which reveals these spiritual things to us. Nor can any man be made sensible of the evil and guilt of that disorder, who does not also have a love implanted in his heart for those things which the heart finds obstructed thereby. Therefore, the mortification of these affections, and their renovation with respect to spiritual and heavenly things — being no small part of the matter of the prayers of believers, and a special part of their duty — they have no other acquaintance with them or sense of them except as they receive them by light and conviction from the Spirit of God. Those who are destitute of this, must necessarily be strangers to the life and power of the duty of prayer itself.

As it is with respect to sin, so it is with respect to God and Christ, and the covenant, grace, holiness, and privileges. We have no spiritual conceptions about them, no right understanding of them, no insight into them, except what is given to us by the Spirit of God. Without an acquaintance with these things, what are our prayers, or what do they signify? Men without such an acquaintance, may pray on to the world’s end, without giving anything of glory to God, or obtaining any advantage for their own souls.

And this I place as the first part of the work of the Spirit of supplication in believers: enabling them to pray according to the mind of God, which they do not know how to do of themselves, as insisted on afterward in this passage of the apostle. When this is done, when a right apprehension of sin and grace and of our concern in them is fixed on our minds, then in some measure we always have the matter of prayer in readiness. Its words and expressions will easily follow, though the aid of the Holy Spirit is also necessary for this, as we will afterward declare.

And this is why the duty performed with respect to this part of the aid and assistance of the Spirit of God has lately been vilified and reproached by some (as said before). Formerly all their exceptions lay against some expressions, or against the weakness of some persons in conceived prayer, which they did not like. But now scorn is poured out on the matter of prayer itself, especially the humble and deep confessions of sin (upon its discovery mentioned before) which are made in the supplications of ministers and others. The things themselves are maligned as absurd, foolish, and irrational, as all spiritual things are to some sorts of men. Nor do I see how this disagreement is capable of any reconciliation. For those who have no light to discern those respects of sin and grace which we mentioned, cannot help but think it is uncouth to have them continually made the matter of men’s prayers. On the other hand, those who have received a light into sin and grace, and are acquainted with them by the Spirit of God, are troubled at nothing more than this: that they cannot sufficiently abase themselves under a sense of them, nor in any words can they fully express that impression on their minds which is made by the Holy Ghost, nor can they clothe their desires for grace and mercy with words sufficiently significant and emphatic. And therefore this difference is irreconcilable by any except the Spirit of God himself. While it abides, those who respect in their prayers only what is discernible in the light of nature, or from a natural conscience, will keep themselves to general expressions and outward things. They will use words prepared for that purpose by themselves or others, do what we can to the contrary; for men will not be led beyond their own light, nor is it fitting that they should. And those who receive the supplies of the Spirit in this matter, will principally be conversant in their prayers, about the spiritual, internal concerns of their souls in sin and grace, however pleased others may be to despise and reproach them for it.

It is in vain to contend much about these things, which are regulated not by arguments but by principles. Men will invincibly adhere to the capacity of their light. Nothing can put an end to this difference except a more plentiful effusion of the Spirit from above. According to the promise, this is what we wait for.

Secondly. We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Holy Ghost acquaints us with the grace and mercy which are prepared in the promises of God for our relief. I declared before, that the knowledge of this is necessary to enable us to direct our prayers to God in a due manner, and I suppose it will not be denied. For, what do we pray for? What do we have as a prospect and design in our supplications? What is it that we desire to be made partakers of? Praying only by saying or repeating so many words of prayer, whose sense and meaning are perhaps not understood by those who make use of them (as in the Papacy) — or doing so to rest in the saying or repetition of them, without having a special design to obtain some thing or things which we make known in our supplications — is unworthy the disciples of Christ, indeed of rational creatures. ‘Deal this way with your governor; will he be pleased with you, or accept you?’ Mal 1.8. Neither ruler, friend, nor neighbour, would accept it from our hands, if we were to constantly make solemn addresses to them without any special design. We must ‘pray with our understanding;’ 1Cor 14.15 that is, we must understand what we pray for.

And these things are none other than what God has promised. If we are not regulated by them in our supplications, we ‘ask amiss.’ It is, therefore, indispensably necessary to prayer that we know what God has promised, or that we should have an understanding of the grace and mercy of the promises. God knows our wants, what is good for us, what is useful to us, what is necessary to bring us to the enjoyment of himself, infinitely better than we do ourselves. Indeed, we know nothing of these things except what he is pleased to teach us. These are the things which he has ‘prepared’ for us, as the apostle says in 1Cor 2.9; and what he has prepared, he declares in the promises of the covenant, for they are the declaration of the grace and good pleasure which he has purposed in himself. From this, believers may learn what is good for them, and what is lacking for them in the promises, more clearly and certainly than by any other means whatever. Therefore, we learn from them what to pray for as we should. And this is another reason why men are so barren in their supplications: they do not know what to pray for, but are forced to take themselves to a confused repetition of the same requests — namely, their ignorance of the promises of God, and the grace exhibited in them.

Our inquiry, therefore, is by what way or means we come to an acquaintance with these promises. All believers have this in some measure, some more full and distinct than others, but all have it in a useful sufficiency. And we say this acquaintance is by the Spirit of God, without whose aid and assistance we can neither understand them nor what is contained in them.

I confess that some, by frequent reading of the Scripture and only by the help of a faithful memory, may be able to express in their prayers the promises of God, without any spiritual acquaintance with the grace of them. By this they minister to others, but not to themselves. This remembrance of words or expressions does not belong to the special work of the Holy Ghost in supplying the hearts and minds of believers with the matter of prayer. Rather, this is what he does in this work: he opens their eyes, he gives an understanding, he enlightens their minds, so that they will perceive the things that are prepared for them by God, and that are contained in the promises of the gospel. And in this he represents them in their beauty, glory, suitableness, and desirableness to their souls. He makes them see Christ in them, all the fruits of his mediation in them, all the effect of the grace and love of God in them; the excellence of mercy and pardon, of grace and holiness, of a new heart, with principles, dispositions, inclinations, and actings — all as they are proposed in the truth and faithfulness of God.

Now, when the mind and heart are continually filled with an understanding and due apprehension of these things, it is always furnished with the matter of prayer and praise to God. Persons make use of this as they have actual assistance and utterance given to them. And because the Holy Spirit implants a love for these things on the minds of believers, together with the knowledge of them, they are not only directed what to pray for by this, but they are excited and stirred up to seek the enjoyment of them with ardent affections and earnest endeavours. This is to pray. Among those on whose hearts these things are not implanted, some may, as observed before, make an appearance of it by expressing in prayer the words of the promises of God retained in their memories. Yet for the most part, they are not able to pray in any tolerable and useful manner; and they either wonder at or despise those who are so enabled.

But it may be objected that,

‘Where there is any defect in this, it may be easily supplied. For if men are not acquainted with the promises of God themselves, in the manner described before, and do not know what they ought to pray for, others who understand the promises may compose prayers for their use, according to their apprehensions of the mind of God in them, which they may read. And so they will have the matter of prayer always in readiness.’

I answer —

1. I do not know that anyone has a command or a promise of assistance to make or compose prayers that are to be said or read by others as their prayers. And therefore I expect no great matter from what anyone will do of that kind. The Spirit of grace and supplication is promised, as I have proved, to enable us to pray, not to enable us to make or compose prayers for others.

2. It savours of some unacquaintance with the promises of God and the duty of prayer, to imagine that the matter of them, in order to suit the various conditions of believers, can be pent up in any one form of man’s devising. Much of what we are to pray about may be in general and doctrinally comprised in a form of words, as they are in the Lord’s Prayer. This gives directions in and a boundary for our requests. But it is a fantasy to think that the things themselves could be prepared and suited for the condition and wants of those who are to pray.

3. There is a vast difference between objectively proposing good things to be prayed for in consideration of those who are to pray (which men may do), and implanting an acquaintance with them, and a love for them, upon the mind and heart: this is the work of the Holy Ghost.

4. When things are so prepared and cast into a form of prayer, those by whom such forms are used, no more understand them than if they had never been cast into any such form, unless the Spirit of God gives them an understanding; but the form itself is not a sanctified means for this. And where that understanding is given, there is no need for the form.

5. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to give believers such a comprehension of promised grace and mercy, that they may constantly apply their minds to it, or to those things which, in a special way, are suited to their present daily wants and occasions, with the frame and dispositions of their souls and spirit. This is what gives spiritual beauty and order to the duty of prayer — namely, suiting the wants and supplies of a thankful disposition and praises, of love and admiration, to the excellencies of God in Christ, and all by the wisdom of the Holy Ghost. But when a person is made to pray by his directory, for things that, although good in themselves, are not suited to his present state, frame, inclination, wants, and desires, there is nothing but spiritual confusion and disorder.

Again; what we said concerning the promises must also be applied to all the precepts or commands of God. These in like manner are the matter of our prayers, both as to confession and supplication. Without a right understanding of them, we can perform no part of this duty as we should.

This is evident in the apprehension of those who, repeating the words of the Decalogue, subjoin their acknowledgments of a desire for mercy with respect to the transgression of the law, I suppose, and their desire to have their hearts inclined to keep the law. But the law with all the commands of God are spiritual and inward. We cannot have a useful acquaintance with their true sense and importance, in their extent and latitude, except by the enlightening, instructing efficacy of the grace of the Spirit. And where this is given, the mind is greatly supplied with the true matter of prayer. For when the soul has learned the spirituality and holiness of the law — its extent to the inward frame and disposition of our hearts, as well as to our outward actions — and learned that it requires absolute holiness, rectitude, and conformity to God at all times and in all things, then the soul sees and learns its own discrepancy from it and its coming short of it — even when it is unblamable as to its outward acts and duties. And from this proceed those confessions of sin, in the best and most holy believers, which those who do not understand these things, deride and scorn. By this means, therefore, the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, by supplying us with the due and proper matter of supplications — even by acquainting us and affecting our hearts with the spirituality of the command, and of our coming short of this in our dispositions and frequent inordinate actings of our minds and affections. The one who is instructed in this, will on all occasions be prepared with a fullness of matter for confession and humiliation, and also with a sense of that grace and mercy which we stand in need of with respect to the obedience required of us.

Thirdly, He alone guides and directs believers to pray or ask for anything according to right and proper ends. For there is nothing so excellent in itself, so useful to us, and so acceptable to God, as the matter of prayer. But it may be vitiated, corrupted, and the prayer itself be rendered vain, by applying it to false or mistaken ends. And it is plain in the text under consideration, that in this case we are relieved by the Holy Ghost. For he ‘makes intercession for us according to God,’ helping our infirmities, and teaching us what to pray for as we should — that is, according to God’s mind or his will, Rom 8.27. He does this in us and by us, or he enables us to do so.

For the Spirit himself, without us, has no office to be performed immediately towards God, nor any nature that is inferior to the divine, in which he might intercede. The whole of any such work with respect to us is incumbent on Christ. He alone, and in his own person, performs what is to be done with God for us. What the Spirit does, he does in and by us. He therefore directs and enables us to make supplications ‘according to the mind of God.’ And in this, God is said to ‘know the mind of the Spirit;’ that is, to know his end and design in the matter of his requests. God knows this; that is, he approves of and accepts it. So it is the Spirit of God who directs us as to the design and end of our prayers, that they may find acceptance with God.

Yet there may be, and I believe there is, more in that expression, ‘God knows the mind of the Spirit.’ For he works such high, holy, spiritual desires and designs in the minds of believers in their supplications, that God alone knows and understands them in their full extent and latitude. Of ourselves, we are apt to fail and mistake, as declared from Jas 4.3.

I will not emphasise particulars here, but only mention two general ends of prayer to which the Holy Spirit keeps the minds of believers in all their requests, where he has furnished them with the matter of their requests according to the mind of God. For he not only makes intercession in them according to the mind of God with respect to the matter of their requests, but also with respect to the end which they aim at, that it may be accepted with him. He therefore guides them to design,

1. That all the success of their petitions and prayers may have an immediate tendency to the glory of God. It is he alone who enables them to subordinate all their desires to God’s glory. Without his special aid and assistance, we would aim at self only and ultimately, in all we do. Our own profit, ease, satisfaction, mercies, peace, and deliverance, would be the end to which we would direct all our supplications; and by this, they would all be vitiated and become abominable.

2. He keeps them to this also: that the issue of their supplications may be the improvement of holiness in them, and thereby their conformity to God, with their nearer access to him. Where these ends are not found, the matter of prayer may be good and according to the word of God, and yet our prayers would be an abomination.

We may pray for mercy and grace, and the best promised fruits of the love of God; and yet for lack of these ends, we will find no acceptance in our supplications. To keep us to them is His work, because it consists in casting out all self ends and aims, bringing all natural desires in subordination to God, which he works in us if he works in us anything at all.

And this is the first part of the work of the Spirit towards believers as a Spirit of grace and supplication — he furnishes and fills their minds with the matter of prayer, teaching them thereby what to pray for as they should. And where this is not worked in some measure and degree, there is no praying according to the mind of God.