There are days when many of my prayers are silence. I’ve asked for healing over and over. I’ve complained (it’s okay; the psalmist did—Psalm 64:1). Some days there’s nothing left to say. I read a psalm. Or a prayer from The Valley of Vision. But from my own mind, I have no words. I don’t mean to sound like a martyr; but suffering sometimes is like that. So today’s text is good news . . .
“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” (Romans 8:26).
“Likewise”, Paul writes, “the Spirit helps us . . . “ In the same way (“likewise”) as what? Just as we have “the first fruits of the Spirit’ and so groan longingly for bodily redemption, so “the Spirit helps us . . . ” . The Greek word, soonantilambanomy, means “grasp hold of someone to help”.
So, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness . . .” . Greek, asthenia, refers to weakness of any kind. Paul uses it in 6:19, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations”.
Our suffering (the context of 8:1-27) intensifies our natural weakness (in this case, the weakness of ignorance). Paul specifies it as not knowing “how to pray as we ought”. He doesn’t mean the form of our praying, nor its frequency or fervency, but its content. Especially in our suffering, we don’t know what to ask God for. But “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”.
Jesus promised the Spirit to be exclusively in his own people . . .
“This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:17).
As Jesus promised, the Spirit indwells us. He is God the Holy Spirit present with us and in us. And he not only “comes alongside to help us” (paraklaytos—John 14:26), but in our suffering-weakness he “grasps hold of us to help us”.
My handicapped niece painted Jesus bending over with two hands reaching to pick up a young girl who had fallen. This is what I see in Paul’s words, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”. He helps, not because we’re too weak to walk, but because we’re too ignorant to pray.
He “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Greek, stenagmois (“groanings”) alalaytois (“that cannot be expressed in words”). We can’t verbalize these groanings, though they may or may not be audible. They are the Spirit in us praying for us.
“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” (8:27).
God, writes Paul, examines our heart and knows what the Spirit in us is thinking. This is because the Spirit intercedes for God’s holy ones according to God’s will.
David wrote of the Lord searching and knowing him . . .
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me” (Psalm 139:1).
Here Paul writes of God searching our heart to know the mind of the indwelling Spirit.
Now we see what we’re ignorant of—namely, what God’s will is in our times of suffering. So, the Spirit “takes over” and prays God’s will for us. So, not only does incomparable glory await us, in the present we have the Holy Spirit who “grabs hold of” us to help us by interceding according to God’s will for us. And he intercedes for us, not only to strengthen us in suffering, but also to empower us in suffering “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk . . . according to the Spirit” (8:4).
“Paul is saying . . . that our failure to know God’s will and consequent inability to approach God specifically and assuredly is met by God’s Spirit, who himself expresses to God those intercessory petitions that perfectly match the will of God. When we do not know what to pray for–yes, even when we pray for things not best for us–we need not despair, for we can depend on the Spirit’s ministry of perfect intercession on our behalf.” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p.525).
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Our prayers matter. Else why would the Spirit intercede for us with sighs too deep for words? That he intercede for us “according to the will of God” is a reminder that prayers are effective when we pray according to his will (1 John 5:14,15).
That being said, two questions. One, if God’s going to do what he wants, why does the Spirit intercede in prayer for us? (Why doesn’t God just do his will?) Two, can we know when the Spirit intercedes for us and does it matter or not if we know?
Answer to #1: all prayer is designed to deepen our relationship with the Lord. God will do his will with or without our prayers. But seeking him draws us closer to him. And in some way, God uses prayers prayed according to his will to accomplish his will. (All this, by the way, sounds authoritarian on God’s part–until we remember God’s will is holy, pleasing and perfect–Romans 12:2).
Answer to #2–Perhaps we know when the Spirit is interceding when we sense a special measure of the Spirit’s presence. Regarding the Spirit accomplishing his intercession, it doesn’t matter if we know he’s praying for us or not. But regarding our assurance that he’s interceding, it does, because we’re enjoying that assurance with a felt sense of his presence.
Questions aside, Paul intends these statements to give us assurance in suffering. When we’re hurting and don’t know how to pray as we should, the Spirit indwelling us prays for us according to God’s good will.
I sit in my wheelchair on my little platform outside on my pool deck. Downcast. Prayers for healing so far unanswered. Wondering why God should answer when many others suffer so much. Old age is filled with illness. Breathing deeply in dismay. Sighing. Is the Spirit deep inside me interceding for me according to God’s will? That’s the hope Paul offers. I grab on.