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.
Our focus again today is on Romans 8:26-27. It says that in our weakness, the Spirit of God helps us because we don't know how to pray as we ought, and so the Spirit intercedes for us with wordless groanings. And it says that God the Father – the one who searches our hearts – knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit prays for us according to God's will. So God the Father always answers the Spirit’s prayers.
Last week we asked three questions: 1) What does the Spirit pray for us? 2) How does the Spirit pray for us? 3) Why does the Spirit pray for us?
What Does the Spirit Pray for Us?
I tried to answer only the first question. What the Spirit prays for us is that God would bring about the decisions and circumstances that would most magnify Christ in our lives when we are at a loss as to what the specific will of God is because of our weakness. I argued that the "weakness" of verse 26 is the same as the sufferings and decay and futility and groanings of verses 18-25. In other words, the sicknesses and calamities and thwarted plans and persecutions put us in situations where we are simply at a loss as to whether we should escape danger or stand, be healed or endure sickness, take a risk or stay safe.
We don't know. What we do know is that we want Christ to be exalted in our bodies whether by life or by death – as Paul said in Philippians 1:20. This is what it means to be a "saint" – a Christian – and these are the ones the Spirit is praying for according to verse 27, saints. So this is what the Holy Spirit asks the Father for, but he knows the will of the Father and he asks that the particular decisions and circumstances come to pass which will in fact magnify Christ best.
I said that this is relevant to every one of you as you wrestle with various kinds of sickness and suffering, and that it will be increasingly relevant as the price of being a Christian increases. It is an absolutely urgent issue for some of our missionaries right now. Should a missionary leave India? What about hostilities in other countries. For example, here is part of an email we received this past week:
Our confiscated books are now being scrutinized for subversive content. Meanwhile we have submitted a notice to the authorities announcing our intention to recommence public meetings. When our lawyer served the papers he was told it would have been better received if he had come in and cursed at them. Such is our welcome among the authorities. Please pray for us that we will have much wisdom. It is not the best timing to have finally had these papers submitted. . . . As we sat and considered whom of our local brothers and sisters might be able to stand with us we are aware that each one has a very valid reason why it would not be a good idea for them to be arrested at present. Is there ever a convenient time to be arrested? Maybe not, but some circumstances certainly make it even more of a problem. We need to hear from the Lord how to proceed. . . .
Yes, it would be very helpful to hear from the Lord or to have the grace of complete wisdom. And it is certainly right to pray for that. But it may be that this situation will be one of those moments when we "do not know how we must pray" and instead groan over our weakness. Is it not wonderful that God is not condemning or ever criticizing us here for not having the faith (as some might put it) to discern his will.
Paul’s point is to encourage us and help us. Even when we don't know what we would like to know, and can’t pray with more specificity and assurance of God's will, we must not lose heart, but trust that God has his purposes in this and has provided for us in our weakness. The Spirit prays for us.
How Does the Holy Spirit Pray for Us?
Now here’s the second question I raised last week: How does the Holy Spirit pray for us?
In the last part of verse 26 Paul says, "The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." What does this mean: "With groanings too deep for words"? Literally it simply says, "with wordless groanings." What does that refer to? Does it refer to groanings that we make? Or groanings that we do not make but the Holy Spirit makes? Or is there a third alternative – the one that I want argue for, namely, these groanings are our groanings which are also the Spirit’s groanings because he inspires and directs them in us?
Here’s why I think this and why it matters.
If the Holy Spirit is simply communicating with the Father about what we need, I cannot imagine why he would have to use wordless groans. He knows exactly what he wants to ask for. There is not the slightest confusion in his mind and he is never at a loss for how to communicate with the Father. So I doubt that these groans are groans that the Spirit addresses to the Father which are not our groans.
A second reason for thinking this is that the one who hears and understands and answers these groans is said in verse 27 to search our hearts. I think that points to the fact that the groans are in our heart. That is where they are experienced as groanings and heard. "The Spirit himself intercedes for us with wordless groanings. (27) And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit." In other words, the Spirit doesn’t send his groanings to the Father in heaven directly. He registers them in our hearts. That is where they are experienced as groans – in our hearts. I think this suggests they are our groanings, not just the Spirit’s groanings.
A third argument is that groaning in this context is something that marks the fallen world, and the Spirit is not fallen and does not need to groan like the creation and the saints. In verse 22 Paul says, "The whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now." And in verse 23 he says, "And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly." So groaning is part of the weakness and futility and pain and decay of this fallen world. That suggests that the groans of verse 26 are also part of this weakness and fallenness. They are our groans, inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit.
The fourth argument comes from the analogy of the witness of the Spirit in verses 15-16, "You have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a Spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" 16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God." Who is saying, "Abba! Father!" here? Well we are. But not only we. This is the witness of the Spirit. This heartfelt cry that God is our Father is inspired and directed by the Spirit. It is his witness!
So here we have a helpful analogy and parallel with the groaning of the Spirit in verse 26. The Spirit groans the same way the Spirit witnesses: he inspires the groaning, and he inspires the witness. The groaning is his groaning, and the witnessing is his witness. But we experience the witness of the Spirit as the heartfelt, authentic welling up in us of a cry, "Abba, father!" And we experience the groaning of the Spirit in the welling up within us of groanings for the glory of Christ, but in ways and means that we do not know.
So my answer to the question: How does the Spirit pray for us, is that he moves powerfully in our hearts to create groanings – his groanings experienced as our groanings – which are based on two things: 1) a deep desire and ache of heart that Christ be magnified in our lives, and 2) a weakness that leaves us baffled and unknowing as to how this is going to happen or should happen. So we are not sure how we are to pray, but we are sure that we want Christ to be magnified in our bodies.
The Father searches our heart and he hears this groaning. He hears the Christ-exalting yearning in it, and he hears the Spirit’s clear intention that certain decisions and circumstances come about in the exact way that will bring the most glory to Jesus.
One of the reasons this matters so much is that it means that in the very moment of some of our deepest frustrations, our groanings are the very work of God's Spirit FOR us and not against us. Remember, Paul is helping us endure the suffering and futility and decay and groaning of this world – that is the point of all these verses! And here he encourages us by saying that our weakness in this world will always include some ignorance about what the will of God is and how to pray. Yes, we should strive to know what the will of God is (Romans 12:1-2; Ephesians 5:17). But no we should not expect to always know it or to know it infallibly. We are weak and sinful, and Paul helps us understand how God is for us even in those moments.
Why Does the Holy Spirit Pray for Us in This Way?
Now, there is one last question: Why does the Holy Spirit pray for us in this way? You recall I said this is very strange: God praying to God according to the will of God. What’s the point? God the Father knows what his will iis before the Spirit asks him to do it.
The answer to this is part of the much larger question: Why did God will that there should be such a thing as prayer? Why did he decide to design the universe in such a way that he would do things in response to the prayers of his finite creatures? To answer this I venture five statements as summary theology of prayer. I assume that to know more of God's purpose will deepen our commitment to pray and help us glorify God for why he does what he does.
God created the universe and all that is in it to display the riches of the glory of his grace.
Isaiah 43:6-7: Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14: to the praise of his glorious grace…to the praise of his glory…to the praise of his glory.
Romans 9:23: …in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory
Therefore all persons should act in a way that calls attention to the glory of God's grace.
Matthew 5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
1 Corinthians 10:31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
The obedience and service of God's people will glorify him most when they consciously and manifestly depend on him for the grace and power to do what they do.
1 Peter 4:11 Whoever speaks [must do so] as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God'supplies – in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
2 Thessalonians 1:11-12: To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer for God's help is one way that God preserves and manifests the dependence of his people on his grace and power. The necessity of prayer is a constant reminder and display of our dependence on God for everything, so that he gets the glory when we get the help.
Psalm 50:15: Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
John 14:13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
When the Spirit inspires and directs the groanings in our hearts, the ultimate purpose of the universe happens: God gets the glory because God the Spirit creates the groanings in us; God gets the glory because God the Father is the one who hears and performs what the Spirit asks; God gets glory because God the Son purchased for sinners every blessing they ever receive; and God gets glory because our hearts are made the theater for this divine activity, so that we know and experience God's gracious intercession for us and consciously give him thanks and praise.
When you feel very weak, because of suffering or decay or sickness or futility or persecution or failed plans or baffling decisions, don't despair, as if God is angry with you or at your inability to know what to do or what to pray. At that very moment, experience the wordless groanings of your heart as groanings for the glory of Christ. And trust the Spirit of God to intercede for you about the specifics. Trust him, that because he is praying for you, your Father will bring about decisions and circumstances that will magnify Christ in the best way – in the very midst of your ignorance and groaning.
What a gracious and merciful God we have. He has planned for all our weakness and nothing can separate us from his love!