25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise 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. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Christianity is the only religion in the world that affirms that there is one, and only one, true God, and that there are three divine persons in the one God: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit. This is called the doctrine of the Trinity. The church did not come to embrace the doctrine of the Trinity because there is a sentence in the Bible that says: "there is one God existing as three persons equal in divine essence, but distinct in personhood." There is no sentence like that in the Bible. Rather the reason the church has embraced this doctrine is because the Bible unwaveringly speaks of one true God, not three Gods, and yet reveals the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit as God, and as distinct persons.
If this perplexes you, keep in mind: We are in no position as creatures to dictate to our Creator what he may or should be like. God is absolute reality. He was there before anything else was, and he did not come into being, but always was. Therefore nobody made him the way he is, and there is no reason he is the way he is. He simply is. That is his name: "I Am Who I Am" (Exodus 3:14). Our role is not to say what can and can't be in God, but to learn who he is and who we are, and to shape our lives according to his reality – his will. We submit to the way he is. He doesn't submit to the way we are or the way we think he should be.
One of the places where the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is revealed most fully is in Romans 8. We are focusing on his work today in verses 26-27, but it would be good for us to see what has been revealed so far about the work of the person of the Holy Spirit. What emerges in this chapter is that the Spirit is not just some force or power of God the Father, but a person who works along with the Father and in relation to the Father.
Here's an overview of what the Spirit does for us. And one of my goals in mentioning these things is that you might love the Spirit. Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all that you are. The Spirit is God. Therefore, you should love the Spirit – as a person. Not as a force or power, but as a person who thinks about you and has emotions for you and works for you – indeed, as we will see in a moment, prays for you.
- According to verse 2 the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets you free from the law of sin and death.
- According to verse 4 the Spirit helps you fulfill the just requirement of the law.
- According to verse 6 the Spirit give life and peace.
- According to verse 11 God will raise you from the dead by the Spirit who dwells in you.
- According to verse 13 the Spirit helps you put to death the deeds of the body.
- According to verse 14 the sons of God are led by the Spirit.
- According to verses 15-16 the Spirit bears witness in us that we are the children of God and so gives us assurance of our salvation.
- According to verse 23 the Holy Spirit is the foretaste and guarantee of our final redemption.
And now in verses 26-27 the Spirit helps us when we don't know how to pray as we should. That's what we want to look at this morning.
Likewise 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. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
The word "likewise" at the beginning of verse 26 means that Paul has been giving help to us in what he has been saying and now he wants to give us some more help by explaining that the Spirit himself helps us. The way he has been helping us is by telling us why our sufferings are worth enduring for Christ. All of verses 18-25 give reasons for why we should hold fast to our hope in the midst of futility and decay and groaning and death. Now Paul says, "likewise" – in the same way – the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness.
So I want to ask three questions that I think this text answers. 1) What does the Holy Spirit pray for us? 2) How does the Holy Spirit pray for us? 3) Why does the Holy Spirit pray for us? We will answer the first question today and the other two next week.
1. What Does the Holy Spirit Pray for Us?
First of all, notice that this is, in fact, the way that the Spirit helps us in our weakness, namely, by praying for us. "Likewise 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."
Now what does the Spirit ask for when he intercedes for us? There are three ways the text points to an answer for this question: 1) It says the Spirit asks for things that we don't know we should ask for. Verse 26: "We do not know how to pray for what we ought." 2) It says the Spirit asks for things that we don't know to ask for because of our weakness. Verse 26: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness." 3) It says the Spirit asks for things that are in accord with the will of God. Verse 27b: "The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."
Now think about what those three facts imply. When it says the Spirit prays for things we don't know to pray for, that rules out a lot of things. We certainly know we are to pray for holiness and faith and hope and joy and all the fruits of the Spirit and every other unqualified commandment in the Bible. There is absolutely no doubt that we are to pray for whatever God commands us to do. The revealed will of God is not in question. If God has plainly told us in the Bible to pursue something – like love or faith or righteousness or holiness or courage – then we know we are to pray for it.
What Don't We Know What to Pray for?
But this text says that the Spirit is helping us by praying for us when we don't know what to pray for. Now when is that? What sorts of things don't we know what to pray for? What are we not sure about? Here's where the word "weakness" in verse 26 becomes important, and the context of what has gone before.
Paul says, "Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness." The uncertainty about what we are to pray is because of our "weakness." Now the word "weakness" in the New Testament can be weakness owing to our limited human nature (Romans 6:19), or weakness owing to sickness (Luke 5:15) or weakness owing to adversity (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). But consider the context of verses 18-25, especially verse 23, "We groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." The context is the groaning of decay and futility and misery in the world. It's the groaning of bodies that are not yet redeemed. In verse 10 Paul said the body is as good as dead. In verse 11 he said that the Spirit will one day raise our mortal bodies from the dead. But for now, the body groans under the curse of the fall (v. 20).
So in verse 18-25 Paul is helping the groaning saints by holding out hope to them as they wait for the redemption of their bodies. Then in verse 26 he says, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness." I have been helping you in your weakness with the promises of a great future. Now likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. What weakness? The one I have been talking about – the sickness and futility and frustration and decay and misery of life on the way to heaven.
So what is it that we don't know what to pray for in this weakness? I think the answer is: we don't know the secret will of God about our sicknesses and our hardships? We don't know whether we should pray for healing or for strength to endure. Of course, both are right and it's not wrong to pray for either. But we long to pray with great faith, and we groan that we are not sure what God's way will be with this sickness or this loss or this imprisonment. We just don't know.
We can see some examples of this in Paul's life. Consider his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. He asked three times that it be removed. And finally Jesus revealed to him that his will was not to take it away. Surely, that experience would leave Paul wondering with every sickness and pain and hardship and imprisonment what God's will was: Healing or not? Deliverance or not?
And when he was in prison in Rome he seemed – at least for a time – to be unsure what to pray for – life and ministry, or death with courage. He said in Philippians 1:22-24, "If I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake."
Now this is painfully relevant to many in this church now. And it will become increasingly relevant as the price of being a Christian and a missionary increases in the years to come. Not only are there many who are sick, but there are some now and there will be many over the next years who are in danger somewhere in the world, and wonder, "How should we pray?" Should we pray for a safe escape? Or should we resolve to stay and pray for protection? Or should we stay and pray for courage to suffer and even die?
People ask me about this almost every time I speak about suffering and martyrdom and risk-taking. God calls us to take risks. That is plain from Scripture (Luke 21:16). But which risks? When do we risk our lives and the lives of our families and when do we not?
John Bunyan, the pastor who wrote Pilgrim's Progress over 300 years ago stayed in prison for 12 years for conscience sake. He could have gotten out if he had agreed not to preach the gospel. He had a wife and four small children, one of whom was blind. Was this an easy decision? Stay in prison for conscience sake, or get out and take care of your family?
And today, you will all face similar decisions, though not all as dangerous. Should I take this risk or shouldn't I? Should I endanger myself, my family, my business, my church, etc? Bunyan wrote a book called Advice to Sufferers. In it he captured the perplexity and uncertainty that we face in danger or in front of a risk for Christ's sake. He asks, "May we try to escape" from the danger? And he answers:
Thou mayest do in this as it is in thy heart. If it is in thy heart to fly, fly: if it be in thy heart to stand, stand. Anything but a denial of the truth. He that flies, has warrant to do so; he that stands, has warrant to do so. Yea, the same man may both fly and stand, as the call and working of God with his heart may be. Moses fled (Ex. 2:15); Moses stood (Heb 11:27). David fled (1 Sam. 19:12); David stood (1 Sam. 24:8). Jeremiah fled (Jer. 37:11-12); Jeremiah stood (Jer. 38:17). Christ withdrew himself (Luke 19:10); Christ stood (John 18:1-8). Paul fled (2 Cor. 11:33); Paul stood (Act 20:22-23). . . . There are few rules in this case. The man himself is best able to judge concerning his present strength, and what weight this or that argument has upon his heart to stand or fly. . . Do not fly out of a slavish fear, but rather because flying is an ordinance of God, opening a door for the escape of some, which door is opened by God's providence, and the escape countenanced by God's Word (Matt. 10:23).
Paul's point is that when you groan with Christ-exalting desires but uncertainty how Christ might best be magnified, the Spirit prays for you and brings it to pass.
How shall we be encouraged by this? How is this a help, as Paul says it is: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness." He helps us. Are you helped in this way?
Five Encouragements from This Text
Let me close by suggesting at least five ways you can be encouraged by this text if you trust Christ and groan in your heart for his name to be exalted in your life.
1. Be encouraged that you are not expected to know the will of God in every respect. Yes his revealed will for you is always faith and hope and love and purity. But whether to trust him to deliver from sickness or hardship or prison, or whether to trust him to help you die, you do not always know. And this text says it's OK not to know. There is one who knows. And he is praying the way one ought to pray who knows. Don't add to your burdens the worry that you don't know all the will of God.
2. Be encouraged that in your perplexity and groaning you are not being watched, you are being understood. God is searching your heart, and he is finding in your holy groanings a meaning deeper than words – the meaning of the Spirit himself. More on that next week.
3. Be encouraged that God's work for you is not limited to what you can understand and express with words. Be glad that God is able to do exceedingly above all that you ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). Your thinking, especially in times of stress and groaning, is not the limit of God's acting. And be glad that there is a peace that passes all human understanding (Philippians 4:7). God is not limited by your limited mind.
4. Be encouraged that in your weakness and sickness and loss and hardship and danger the Spirit of God is praying for you and not against you. In verse 31 we will hear Paul exult: "If God is for us, who is against us?" And here we see part of that great "for us" in verse 26. The Spirit intercedes FOR us, not against us. Be encouraged that as you cling to Christ and groan for his exaltation in your uncertainty and pain, the Spirit is for you and not against you.
5. Finally, be encouraged that God the Father hears the prayer of the Spirit. This prayer is for you. And it is always heard! Always answered, God does not reject the prayers of God.