Proper 12, Year A
July 27, 2014
“The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Right now I’m reading a book by Nathan Schneider called God in Proof. I first encountered Schneider’s writing some years ago through the website he began with some other young writers called “Killing the Buddha.” It’s hard to describe in a few words what they’re trying to do with the site, but at its core is the quest of young people, millennials, to explore questions of faith and spirituality in our modern world.
God in Proof is both an examination of the long history of philosophical attempts to prove the existence of God and something of a spiritual memoir. Schneider tells the story of his own spiritual quest as he discusses Plato and Aquinas and Descartes. Surprisingly, this young man, raised by a secular Jewish father and a spiritual seeker mother, was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church while he was in college. It was a surprise not only to those who knew him; it was a surprise to himself. He writes candidly about his doubts and questions that persisted throughout the period of his baptismal instruction and after.
Although I began at a very different place than Schneider, my path converged on his in high school and college. My parents were deeply religious and the community where I grew up was overwhelmingly, exclusively Christian. But in high school, I began to ask questions about the Bible and Christian doctrine and I struggled intellectually and emotionally to connect with God and the faith of the church. Those doubts persisted all through college. Quite apart from the intense difficulties I had intellectually with the existence of God and some of the central tenets of Christian theology; even more problematic was the struggle I had to pray and to worship, to experience and cultivate the presence of God in my life.
Those struggles continued after graduation when I went off to Harvard Divinity School to prepare for the ministry and/or a teaching career in religious or theological studies. It didn’t help my spiritual life that among the first courses I took at Harvard was entitled “Constructing the Concept of God” with a professor who coincidentally was a member of the congregation I attended. I found it rather difficult on Sunday to pray to a concept I had spent the previous week constructing (or deconstructing).
Along the way, I encountered Romans 8. I’m not sure when I began to explore what Paul’s words in this chapter might mean for my spiritual life but there came a time when his language and imagery began to work powerfully on me. Not just the image of groaning that we read last week. Even more important were the verses we read this morning:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
“We do not know how to pray as we ought.” This is Paul talking, remember. This is the guy who had an encounter with the Risen Christ that initiated a radical change in his life. He’s someone who could confront the principalities and powers, challenge Jesus’ closest followers, even Peter. He wrote letters full of brashness and invective, was absolutely certain of his faith and of the correctness of his theology. He could write about his own mystical experiences, journeys to the third heaven. But still, even for him, prayer wasn’t easy.
Realizing that prayer isn’t easy, that finding adequate language with which to address God is a struggle common to many Christians, was something of a spiritual epiphany for me. I came to learn that my groping for language to address God, even my uncertainties and doubts about God, were not unique, but part of the experience of most Christians, at least at some point in their journeys. Some of us may come to a stage in our spiritual lives when prayer comes easy and naturally. Others will always struggle; or experience times when prayer is difficult, when God doesn’t seem present. Even the greatest mystics experienced such times. Teresa of Avila, for example, called such times in her life when God seemed absent, as dryness. For her, the dryness could last for years.
It’s not just prayer, of course. We struggle spiritually in so many ways. We worry that we don’t do the right thing; that we’re not quite dedicated enough. Some of us may worry that we don’t believe in the right way. We struggle with the creed, the resurrection. Some of us may look around the pews today, or the sidewalks tomorrow and wonder where we fit in this thing we call Christianity, especially when Christians so often seem to be hate-filled. Some of us wonder about the truth of other religions or the findings of science that seem to leave little room for God. Some of us, most of us, struggle with scripture in some way, puzzling over its importance and relevance to our twenty-first century lives.
In the midst of Paul’s discussion in today’s reading come two verses that taken out of context have caused many wounds.
“All things work together for good for those who love God.” It’s a favorite verse to quote to someone in the middle of difficulty, whether it’s illness, financial setback, or what have you. And it rarely offers comfort, because the conclusion one usually makes if things don’t work out, is that well, goes to show, you don’t love God enough. Similarly, a little later, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” It’s been a rallying cry for Christians on the warpath, spiritual or literal, for hundreds of years.
The problems of those two verses lead us to overlook what Paul is really doing in this section. Four times Paul asks a question:
Who is against us?
Who brings a charge against us?
Who condemns us?
What separates us from the love of God?
The answer to each of those questions is “No one.” In fact, these verses are not just the conclusion of chapter 8. They are the culmination and summary of an argument Paul has been making since chapter 5, that we can be certain of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. And in the midst of this powerful argument, Paul introduces another idea that speaks directly to what I was talking about earlier; our struggles with prayer and with God. Earlier, Paul had assured us that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. Now, it is Jesus Christ himself, who died, was raised, and sits at the right hand of the Father, who intercedes for us.
What I began to learn from these verses those many years ago; what I continue learn in my spiritual life each day, is that I’m not alone. I don’t need to figure it all out. I don’t have to have all the answers. That’s true for all of us. What we need to do is trust in God and in Jesus Christ. And in those darkest and driest moments, when we can’t even do that, we can rest in the assurance that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf, with sighs too deep for words; that Jesus Christ intercedes on our behalf and that, in the end, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God!