26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.27 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.
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Paul’s Letter to the Romans is a book of the Bible that’s sort of “theologically dense.” What I mean is that some passages of Romans have so much important information in them that you can spend a lot of time thinking about just a few verses. Take this reading, for instance. It’s only five verses long, but it has three important ideas in those five verses.
One of these ideas is predestination, which is so intimidating that preacher types have been known to cross themselves when it comes up – and Protestants don’t even believe in crossing ourselves. But predestination has also been associated with the Reformed tradition Presbyterians are part of, so we can’t just ignore it.
The basic idea, as Paul outlines it here, is that God has known since the down of time who would be moved to follow Jesus – in fact God has called some people but not everyone to be followers of Jesus. In fact, Jesus himself once said to his disciples, “You did not choose me. I chose you.” To some people, this seems grossly unfair of God – to choose some people and not others.
But the real point that is made with this doctrine is that we can’t claim any credit for our own salvation. We can’t claim to have earned it in any way – even by deciding to be followers of Jesus. Our new life as followers of Jesus is entirely a gift from God, so we can’t look down on non-believers as in any way inferior. Our faith is not an achievement on our part – it’s a gift of God’s grace.
The second idea in this passage is that the Holy Spirit participates in our life of prayer – that the Spirit represents a kind of communications link to God. Paul says that our faith and our understanding are so limited that we really don’t even know what to pray for. Sure, we can pray for those who are sick or hurting around us, we can pray for blessings for our loved ones, and we can pray for our own needs. But is that the end of what God has in mind for us when it comes to prayer? Probably not.
If we’re serious about prayer, it seems like we should be praying for God to reveal his will more and more to us. And we should be praying for God’s wisdom, and for God to show us what he has in mind for us. It seems like we should be praying for God to pry open our stubborn hearts so we can really deepen our relationship with him. It seems like we should face the fact that we really don’t even know what we should be praying for. But the good news, Paul says, is that the Holy Spirit is willing and able to serve as that link with God. The Spirit can lift our own needs and longings to God and bring back to us the messages God wants us to hear and pay attention to.
This should be a relief for people who think they need to pray the kind of long, formal, theological, “churchy-sounding” prayers that you hear in worship. Paul seems to be saying that it’s really enough just to fall silent in the presence of God and say, “God, help me to love you more and to know what you want me to do.” Or maybe the famous prayer, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or maybe even to say nothing, and just trust the Spirit to take it from there.
The third big idea in this passage appears in verse 28 – “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Some people read this verse, and misunderstand it to mean that God causes all our sufferings to test us or to teach us lessons. But that’s not what Paul says here. He also doesn’t say that everything happens ‘for a reason.’
It seems especially important for us to see that’s not what Paul is saying. So many Christians respond to tragedy in life by telling suffering people that “everything happens for a reason,” with the clear implication that God decided to bring suffering and tragedy into those people’s lives. To me, that seems ill-advised. For one thing, it leads people to think of God as capricious and cruel. And it’s not really what Paul is saying here.
What Paul is saying, it seems to me, is that in every circumstance of life, good or bad, God stands with us and works to bring good out of it.
We serve a God who has shown that he is willing to be with humankind in the most tragic and difficult circumstances. He shared our human life in full, even suffering death on the cross. And the God we serve has shown that he is able to bring powerful good out of those horrible circumstances, like starting from the cross to build a worldwide movement that has done more good for more people than any other movement in human history.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the gift of new life in Jesus that you have given us out of your grace. Help us always to embrace it as the gift it is, and guard us against thinking that faith is something we have achieved by our own morality or good deeds. Help us to open our hearts in prayer, not relying on religious-sounding words, but instead allowing it to speak to us your words of comfort and guidance. And when we face hard times, remind us that you are always with us, working to bring good out of evil and peace out of turmoil. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 62 and 145; Numbers 32:1-27; and Matthew 23:1-12.)