The English puritan, John Owen, once wrote, “[The Holy Spirit] disposes the hearts of men to pray and enables them so to do.” (Works, 4:260) We may fail to realize this sometimes but the entirety of our spiritual life as Christians is rooted in the person and work of the Holy Spirit. What exactly does the Spirit do?
The Holy Spirit makes us born again by the Word of the Gospel. He strengthens us as we become acquainted with the Word. This strengthening is ordinarily accomplished in the Word as we read it, as we hear it, as its preached to us, as we sing it in the psalms, but also as we participate in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Holy Spirit as well instills new passions in us so that we might love God, whom we once hated, and learn to hate sin, which we once loved. He also preserves us, so that not one of Christ’s sheep will fail to make it home. In other words, not a step of the Christian life is accomplished apart from His aid.
The Apostle Paul directed his readers to consider the importance of the Holy Spirit’s work specifically as he called them to prayer. The Apostle wrote that we as believers must be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Ephesians 6:18 ESV) Notice that even the Apostle’s call to prayer is not something to be accomplished in our own strength. It is only possible in and by the Holy Spirit. We are indeed a dependent people.
Now that may be hard for us. Not one of us likes being dependent on others. Naturally as children, we recognize our own growth in maturity by no longer needing the help and assistance of others to accomplish our goals. We see this most clearly in little ones who are adamant that they don’t need their parents to accomplish their various tasks. “I can do it!” is the battle cry of the willful child. It is also the battle cry of the stubborn adult who presumes to be able to succeed in this life apart from God. Many today echo this cry as they not only fail to pray regularly, but they remove themselves from Christ’s church thinking that such an act will not have catastrophic consequences.
Now we may not cry out “I can do it!” in such a silly manner as our little ones. But we demonstrate in practice that we are no different when we don’t bother to consider our hearts as our heavenly Father has designed them. Just as our hands were made to grab, and our lips to speak, so our hearts have been made to be dependent upon our God. But we are a stubborn lot. We prefer things our way. We ignore our mistakes. We highlight the failures of others. We refuse help. And it is precisely this last point which lies behind our prayerless lives.
Praise God that He comes to change us. Yes, this is the heart of the Christian faith: we need to change. But we cannot change ourselves, Christ must do it. He must do it by His Word and Spirit. But what about us has to change?
We must admit our weakness. When we come to God admitting our weakness we are not pushed away but embraced. The very Spirit of God who dwells within Christians is our promised Helper. The Apostle writes, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26 ESV) What is Paul saying? Our weakness is not a barrier for God’s blessing, only our pride.
We cannot stand on our own two feet, spiritually speaking; we are needy. Prayer is the admission both to God and our fellow man that only our triune God can help us. Such a cry isn’t a waste or useless. It is instead the beginning of our growth. It is a testimony of humility. It is an admission of our limitations. It is also simultaneously the means of our power and vigor, of our life and strength, and of the grace we need to conquer today. God is indeed the one, “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.” He is doing the work even today. For the “power at work within us” has been given to us by Him (Ephesians 3:20 ESV).
So let us not be lazy. Let us not be indifferent or unmoved. Let us stand boldly resting in the arms and strength of our great God. Let us be vigorous in our prayers, whether we are new to the faith or have walked with the Lord these past eighty years for “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16)