Romans 8:26–27 (ESV) — 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.
“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.”
Likewise and Weakness:
Paul transitions from the hope we have in both the “now” and “not yet”…
- Into another positive feature of the Christian life (as opposed to our sufferings and groanings).
- “…the Spirit…”
In fact, the “likewise” here is connected directly to the hope of verses 24 and 25.
- “…in the same way [as this hope sustains us] (Doug Moo)”, Paul says, “the Spirit helps us…”
So, if the hope we have in the “now” wasn’t cool enough…
- Paul tells us the indwelling Spirit is present with us as part of this hope.
And the best part is what the Spirit is doing on our behalf.
- Paul says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”.
What is “our weakness”?
The things that come along with:
- “body of death” (7:24)
- “the sufferings of our present time” (8:18)
- “groan inwardly” (8:23)
The word literally refers to a physical debilitating sickness or disease – BDAG.
- So Paul’s use here is metaphorical.
- And he is referring to our “lack of spiritual insight” or “moral deficiency” – BDAG.
So our weakness is this:
- Because of our “lack of spiritual insight”…
- Because of our “moral deficiency”…
- We don’t pray “as we ought”.
What does Paul mean that we don’t pray “as we ought”?
- Moo says Paul is referring to content not style.
- Schreiner agrees.
In other words…
- The problem here is not that we aren’t articulate enough…
- Or don’t use enough Christianese…
- Or don’t pray in a British accent.
The problem is that the things we actually pray for…
- Are apparently, more often than not, outside of God’s will.
So the question is what are the right things to pray for – what is the right content?
- Generally speaking, the things that God wills.
- “What Paul apparently has in mind is that inability to discern clearly God’s will in the many things for which we pray…” – Doug Moo.
- Paul says as much in verse 27 – “according to the will of God”.
- More on the 26 and 27 connection in a bit.
This sounds like a serious problem.
- But this is not where Paul is headed.
- This is not a beat down passage.
Paul has some good news.
- Because we are in Christ and indwelled by the Spirit…
- Paul gives us some good news that mitigates our “weakness”.
Paul says that…
- The Spirit “intercedes” on our behalf.
In other words, due to our “weakness” and the inability it brings…
- The Spirit intervenes for our sake.
- The interceding or intervening of the Spirit is the “help” the Spirit brings us in our weakness.
Parsing all this out:
- We simply have a difficult time discerning the will of God.
- We do our best and offer up our prayer and petitions in this light.
- However, our “weakness” means we fail to discern the will of God on a regular basis.
- But, the Spirit does know the will of God and intercedes on our behalf.
Before we move on, we have to ask one more question.
- Didn’t Jesus teach us how to pray?
Jesus said the following:
- Matthew 6:9–15 (ESV) — 9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
How do we square what Jesus teaches here with what Paul teaches?
What exactly is the nature of the Spirit’s help and interceding?
- “groaning too deep for words” – “stenagmos alaletos”
Or as other translations put it:
- “sighs to deep for words” – NRSV
- “groans that words cannot express” – NIV
- “inexpressible groanings” – NET
- “unspoken groanings” – HCSB
To begin with this is not the same kind of inward groaning believers express.
- As we observed last time, the Spirit is not a creature and not in Garden Exile.
- Doug Moo agrees: “…the groaning of the Spirit is very different in its nature and purpose from [our] ‘groanings’” – Doug Moo.
The BDAG makes a subtle distinction between the Spirit’s groaning and our groaning that might help us here.
- Whereas, we groan due to our circumstances – our weakness.
- The Spirit groans out of concern for our circumstance – “expression of great concern” (BDAG).
This distinction is helpful.
- But it doesn’t tell us what the “inexpressible groanings” of the Spirit literally are.
Tom Schreiner thinks they are perhaps our groanings which the Holy Spirit modifies or translates.
“God searches the hearts of believers and finds unutterable longings to conform their lives to the will of God. The Holy Spirit takes these groanings and presents them before God in an articulate form…the Holy Spirit translates these groanings and conforms them to God’s will” – Tom Schreiner.
Implications for Us:
This revelation from Paul about our “weakness” should serve to humble us.
Believers, “do not have an adequate grasp of what God’s will is when they pray. Because of our finiteness and fallibility we cannot perceive fully what God would desire” – Tom Schreiner.
The implication of this is simple:
- “…we cannot presume to identify our petitions with the will of God” – Doug Moo.
So even in our prayer life…
- We must depend upon the Holy Spirit.
- In the midst of our weakness, we find the Spirit’s strength and intercession!
- And this is good news!
“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.”
Paul says God the Father continually searches the hearts of believers.
- T. Wright says of Paul’s word choice for “searches”:
“The word ‘searcher’ comes from a root which suggests someone lighting a torch and going slowly round a large, dark room full of all sorts of things, looking for something in particular” – N.T. Wright.
Wright says this is both “disturbing and exciting”.
- I think so too!
Why would the idea of God the Father doing a room-to-room search of our hearts be disturbing?
- Short answer: He is going to find the stuff of weak creatures – sin, etc.
- And this stuff will come under judgment.
- Romans 2:16 (ESV) — 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Why would the idea of God the Father doing a room-to-room search of our hearts be exciting?
- Because, for the believer, He will also find the stuff of those in Christ and indwelled by the Spirit.
- And our text tells us that part of that stuff is the groanings of the Spirit.
N.T. Wright puts it like this:
“But the thing he is wanting to find above all else, and which according to Paul he ought to find in all Christians, is the sound of the spirit’s groaning” – N.T. Wright.
This is more good news for the believer!
- God the Father, the searcher, confirms our union with Christ through the presence of an interceding Spirit groaning on our behalf.
It’s hard to find a better Trinitarian description of the Gospel than this.
“This hints at something deeper than merely prayer in the way that God wants or approves; God’s own life, love and energy are involved in the process. The Christian, precisely at the point of weakness and uncertainty, of inability and struggle, becomes the place at which the triune God is revealed in person” – N.T. Wright.
Paul goes on to tell us that the Father knows the “phronema” or “mindset” of the Spirit.
- “the mind of the Spirit”.
So what is the “mindset” of the Spirit?
- “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God”
The “mindset” of the Spirit…
- Is to intercede, mediate and translate our prayers and our groanings to the Father.
- And to do so “according to the will of God”.
In other words, the “mindset” of the Spirit is CONCERN:
- Concern for the weakness of the believer.
- Concern for the will of God the Father.
This is how verse 26 and verse 27 are connected and fill each other out.
- We are weak – so the Spirit groans (show of concern) on our behalf.
- God the Father has a will – so the Spirit intercedes for us (show of concern) according to the Father’s will.
This work of the Spirit should bring us huge comfort!
“We discover that God himself does not stand apart from the pain both of the world and of the church, but comes to dwell in the middle of it in the person and power of the spirit” – N.T. Wright.
And with respect to our lives:
“Believers should take tremendous encouragement that the will of God is being fulfilled in their lives despite their weakness and inability to know what to pray for. God’s will is not being frustrated because of the weakness of believers” – Tom Schreiner.