There are some texts in the Bible that have much the same effect on us as when we walk past a restaurant when we are hungry.  We’ve all had that experience, haven’t we?  The blower from the kitchen is putting out this wonderful aroma and as we pass by it, we derive genuine pleasure from the experience.  It makes us more hungry than we are already, but we happen to be walking PAST the restaurant.  We don’t go in and taste any of the food that is enticing us.  We get the general drift of the food, but don’t take any of it in and we walk away without nourishment.  That’s the way many texts in the Bible are to us.  We have read them and we kind of know what the author is talking about—we get the general drift of the text.  But because we don’t know what it means with any real specificity, we never claim the promise, or apply the truth to our lives in any concrete way.

          As we come to Romans 8:26-27, we come to a text which I believe is typical of so many of these texts we only get a whiff of.  We read it and we sense it contains something very good for us, but we don’t sit down and eat of it.  In Romans eight, we know that Paul is speaking of the role the Holy Spirit plays in the life of the believer.  To list just a few, the Spirit enables the believer to fulfill the law and thus keeps us from condemnation.  We saw that in verses 1-4.  We saw that the Spirit will, at the resurrection, raise our physical bodies so that they will no longer be subject to sin and death.  The Spirit enables us to live above the power of sin by giving us the power to kill sins as we wage an all out assault on them with the truth.   We saw that all those who have the Spirit are children of God.

          Here in verses 26-27, Paul gives one more blessed ministry the Holy Spirit performs for the child of God.  Paul writes, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.”   Do you see what I mean here about enjoying the basic gist of the text, but not knowing the specifics?  We know that this text is about prayer and about the Holy Spirit’s help in prayer to us, but what does this mean?  How does this work?  What is this business about groaning?  What specific assurances can I draw from this text?  For most believers, these questions remain unanswered and as a result, we don’t draw much nourishment from it.

          The basic, overarching message of the text can be stated simply, “Because believers are unable to pray what is needed for God’s will to be done in their lives, the Holy Spirit also prays for them.”  Now, let’s unpack what that means more specifically and our intention is that God would be honored as we understand more of what He does for us in prayer. The NIV captures the meaning of the original in verse 26 when it says, “We do not know what we ought to pray for…”  Verse 27 magnifies that by telling us the Spirit prays for us “in accordance with God’s will.”  In other words, we do not know what the will of God is for us, so the Spirit prays the will of God into our lives. We’ll talk more about that later, but right now let’s focus on the reason why the Spirit needs to do this and the reason is because we are “weak.”

          The word literally means “without strength” or in this case, without the ability to know the will of God for our lives.  We do not know what to pray so the will of God might be done in our lives.  We know, because God has told us in His word, what the general will of God is for our lives.  We know that we are to keep the commandments—we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  We know from 1 Thessalonians 4:3 that “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified” made like Christ.  We know things like that, but we don’t know how to pray in such a way that those things would be accomplished in our lives.

          I trust we have all felt the sense of utter helplessness in praying this general will of God into our lives.  We see a sin or stronghold in our lives and it drives us crazy—it grieves us so deeply.  So we go to God in our frustration and we pray highly specific, surgically precise prayers like, “Help me, Lord!”  Or, “Make me stop doing this.”  Or we just pour out our hearts in tears before the throne.  We know what we want, but we don’t know what to say beyond very simple, childlike pleas.  We want to be like Jesus, but we have no idea what God needs to do to make us like Christ. 

          Let’s give an example.  Let’s say a believer is struggling with self control.  They just can’t seem to get over their practice of over eating and they have tried every diet in the world and they just can’t seem to get control of this area of sin.  They are so frustrated by their failure, they show remorse, but deep in their soul, they never repent.  There is something which keeps them from being truly broken and repentant about it.  They are firing up all these non-specific 911 prayers to God, but they are unaware that the real issue for them is idolatry.  They have been confessing over eating, but the reason they have not repented is because they never knew that it is idolatry that keeps them over eating.  They are using food as a substitute for God.  So the Holy Spirit translates their longing for God’s will in this area into specific prayers and prays to the Father that they would see that this sin is really idolatry.  In answer to the prayer, they are given a “Weigh Down” Workshop book and as they read, the light goes on. They truly repent and gradually, they find the victory in this area.  That is just one example of why we need the Holy Spirit to pray for us in this area of sanctification.  He knows what our root issues are and what it will take for us to discover and repent of  them.  And He prays for those things which we would never know to pray so the will of God can be done in our lives.

          This weakness of ours includes not only matters related to our sanctification, but also the specific direction our lives should take.  We don’t often know what God wants us to do with our lives in a given moment.  What job to take, which church to attend, whether to marry and if so, who?  God has a specific choice for us in each one of those situations.  If He didn’t then why would He need the Spirit to pray those things into our life?  God knows what He wants for us, but so often we don’t.

For instance, we really want to buy a certain house—its just what we want.  So we start praying for it, “Oh God, please if it could be your will, could you let us buy that house?  But God knows something about the house, the neighbors, the whatever that would cause that house to bring Him less glory than if he puts us in another house.  So, he closes the door on the dream home—it mysteriously goes off the market.  Now, we may have been led by the Spirit to pray specifically, “Lord, if you don’t want us to be in that house, take it off the market.” But often, we don’t know enough to pray like that, but the Spirit does.  He and the Father are One and the Father, according to verse 27, “knows the mind of the Spirit.”  In other words, they are both omniscient—they both know everything there is to know about this house hunting venture.  And so the Spirit steps in and intercedes and prays to the Father, “Take it off the market.”  The house goes off the market and we are spared whatever ill that house would have brought us.

Another element to our ignorance in knowing how to pray is, we don’t know what invisible, spiritual forces are aligned against us whose mission it is to prevent God’s will from being done in our life.  We seldom consider that there is much more than simply our stubborn flesh which opposes God’s will being accomplished in our lives.  Satan’s will is steal, kill and destroy us.  He, in no way wants the will of God coming into our lives because when the will of God occurs, he always takes it on the chin.  This world is black and white in that sense.  If God’s will is done, Satan’s will is thwarted because His futile desire is to stymie God. 

Going back to our example, lets say that it is God’s will to move into a particular house because right next door are people that He has appointed for salvation—He’s going to save them.  And his will, totally unbeknownst to you, is that you be used to witness to them for Christ.  He has superintended the events of your life and theirs so that you have much in common and a friendship will occur.  Out of that relationship, a whole family will be won to Christ who he intends to use to reach the Zambizi people in the jungles of Micronesia.  He’s got that all figured out. You don’t even know what house you’re supposed to buy, but he’s got it all laid out.

Well, we know from the first and second chapters of Job that God let’s Satan in on some of His plans and so the enemy is going to work very diligently to keep you out of that house.  He might preemptively send an adulteress women into the man’s path months before to try to shatter their marriage so there will be no NEED to buy new home.  If that fails, He might try to direct you to a greedy realtor who wants to slam dunk you into an expensive house in another part of town.  He might bring spirits of division into your home to try to prevent you and your spouse from finding any agreement on this issue.  He could, in a last ditch attempt to thwart God, plant thoughts in your mind as you tour the house that will cause you to have fear or distaste toward some attribute of the house.

Now, while all of that is going on, all you are concerned about is finding a good house. You are utterly oblivious to all the demonic activity going on to keep God’s will from being accomplished.  So what is it that keeps Satan from winning the day and influencing you to move into a house across town?  Prayer.  Whose prayer…you don’t know enough to pray about these issues?  The Holy Spirit’s prayer.  Because He knows all about the opposition and he is praying for protection and praying that you will be strengthened morally with relationship to the adulteress and that the spirits of division would be kept back by holy angels and on and on.  And in so doing, He is enabling the will of the Father to be accomplished in your life.

          Now, don’t misunderstand.  Sometimes, people make the wrong decision because they are not sensitive enough to God.  If that’s the case, but God has decreed that you WILL witness to these folks, he already has planned another way for that to happen. You both have eight year olds on hockey and well, what do you know—they end up on the same team.  That means you will spend three hours a month with the parents of their eight year old at all the games.  God  always has a plan.  His decrees are never violated.  But one way He accomplishes His will in our lives is through the Holy Spirit praying for it in ways that we would never know how to pray.

 So, we know that the Holy Spirit prays God’s will into our lives.  The question is…how?  How does he do this?  The text is not as specific as we would like.  Verse 26 says, “…the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” That’s a good translation.  Some translations say that these groanings are “too deep for words.”  That may be true, but the word they are translating with “too deep for words” means simply “without speech” or, “without language.”  All we know for sure about these groans is they are groans without words.

This is a difficult part of the verse to figure out and it raises several questions, many of which surround this business of groaning.  If you’ll notice, it says it is the Spirit who groans without speech.  What are we to make of this?  No other text in the Bible has the Holy Spirit groaning.  The old Puritan scholar, Robert Haldane can help us here.  Listen to him.  He said, “Although these …groanings are here ascribed to the Spirit, it is not to be supposed that the divine Spirit can be subject to such emotions…but it is so represented, because He draws forth these groans from our hearts.”  Haldane’s point is well taken.  Why would the Holy Spirit need to groan?  The weakness isn’t His, but ours.  The Spirit doesn’t need to groan to demonstrate fervency.  Also, He wouldn’t need to resort to groans to communicate something.  Verse 27 says that God knows the mind of the Spirit.  That means that NO words or groans, for that matter, are even necessary from the Spirit.

We get some further insight as to who it is that groans by looking at Galatians 4:6 where Paul says, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls, “Abba, Father.”   Once again, we see the reference to the Spirit who calls, yet it is clear from the context that the one who senses and exults in this new sonship, is not the Spirit, but the believer in whom the Spirit lives.  Paul writes it this way to stress the immediate and intimate involvement the Spirit has in this ministry of causing us to groan without words.  It’s the Spirit, not us, who initiates the burden which we experience as some kind of groaning.  He translates our longing for His will into specific prayers that we would never know enough to pray.

That brings us to the next question which is, “What is meant by this word groaning?  A common interpretation for some is this groaning refers to speaking in tongues.  The fatal flaw in this interpretation is that it is clear that in Romans eight, Paul is speaking of the ministry of the Spirit to all believers, not one particular group of gifted believers.  This assistance given by the Spirit is given to all who are followers of Christ.  That excludes this groaning meaning tongues speaking because in First Corinthians 12:30 Paul asks the question, “Do all speak in tongues” and the answer has to be a negative from the both the grammar and the context.  Since not all believers speak in tongues, but only those who have been given that gift, that means these groanings cannot be tongues.

To be frank, in a text like this which speaks of an experience the Holy Spirit gives to believers in prayer, it is not a good idea to say, “This experience looks like this and only this.”  An experience with the Holy Spirit is not that easy to classify unless the Bible tells us more precisely HOW that experience is supposed to look and feel.  Experiences with God are by definition personal and different persons may experience this differently. It seems it IS safe to say that these groanings are not expressed constantly, but are expressed when we are praying.  The context is the weakness in our praying. It would seem consistent if this ministry of the Spirit was performed when we pray.

That suggests that as we pray, God searches our hearts and confirms whether or not we truly want His will.  If we do, He will have the Holy Spirit, without words, pray with us.  We may, on occasion literally groan audibly.  At times, they may be silent.  We know that Paul has a place for silent “groanings” because in verse 22 he says, “the whole creation groans as in the  pains of childbirth…”  We know that creation isn’t literally groaning.  It seems best the allow the Holy Spirit to give us whatever kind of groaning He desires rather than to prescribe some kind of experience that may not be of Him.

The implication is, we are to desire God’s will in our lives more than anything else.  And as we pray our prayers, asking for God’s will in general terms or perhaps, out of ignorance, asking for the wrong things, the Holy Spirit will be there praying the right things so the will of God WILL be done in our lives in spite of our weaknesses.  Before we apply this wonderful blessing, we need to ask the question, “why does God choose to go through this seemingly cumbersome process in order to bring about His will for our lives through prayer?”  One answer is:  He is glorified in this process.  Think about it.  When we pray for something—a new job, for instance, and He gives it to us, He is glorified because He has shown Himself to be faithful and good--He is Jehovah Jireh.  He is compassionate in that He listens to the cries of His children and responds.

But there is much to the will of God in our lives, unlike the more obvious need for a new job, that is just not clear to us.  So much of that we are unable to see.  We are weak and can’t even know what the will of God is in our lives.  In those instances, God is even more glorified in our lives.  Not only does He show His faithfulness to answer prayer, but He does even more—He prays the prayer!!  He translates our longings into specific prayers.  We know that God works His plan in our lives through prayer.  Some have even said, God does NOTHING except through prayer.  So, God does His will in our lives through prayer, but so much of His will and how to bring that about is just not clear to us because we are so limited in our understanding of God’s will.  God is not hindered by our ignorance in prayer.  He simply prays the prayer through us by His Spirit.

Is there anyone here who cannot look back at some time in their past and remember saying something like, “This isn’t what I prayed for and I would never have even thought to pray for this, but I’m sure glad God gave me what I NEEDED and not what I WANTED.”  When those things happen, its not necessarily done without prayer.  It simply means that just because YOU weren’t praying for it, doesn’t mean that someone, namely, the Holy Spirit, wasn’t praying for it.  Do you see how well this fits with the next verses about the fact that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are conformed to His purpose.”  Of course they work out for good, the Holy Spirit is praying that way!

Now, what are we to make of all of this?  Here are three applications.  We must see how weak we truly are.  If we were to hear about a person on a human level who didn’t even know enough TO ASK for what was good for them we would conclude that they were either children or mentally deficient.  Yet that is true of us in prayer.  That means there are no spiritual giants in this sense and certainly no giants in prayer.  At our very best and most discerning, Paul calls us “weak.”  We are weak and that is so important for us to know as fight the constant battle against pride.  We are so dependent upon God for everything.  Not only are we powerless to bring the right things into our life without Him, we don’t even know enough to ASK for the right things.  He not only has to answer our prayers, He often must PRAY our prayers.  That does not say much about our spiritual power.  We must see how weak we are before Him.

It does say something glorious about God, however.  He WILL accomplish His will in our lives.  His decrees will not be overturned.  That means that God is not solely dependent upon our weak, often ignorance-based prayers to accomplish His will in our lives.  There is a reason why Jesus says in the model prayer to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”  That’s very non specific but God hears that prayer and translates that longing into whatever specifics are needed.

That brings us to our third point.  This text ASSUMES that we want the will of God more than anything else in our lives.  Do we?  Here’s a quick test.  As you think about the fact that God will take your longings for His will and translate them into specific prayer requests, imagine for a moment that you are praying  tonight when you go to bed for God’s will. Now, you don’t know it, but God’s will is that you leave your current job and become a grief counselor.  And God’s will in your life (in this season of it) is to prepare you to become a grief counselor. 

Further, God knows that to prepare you for this life, you need to experience deep grief first hand.  And so, tonight when you pray for God’s will in your life the Holy Spirit begins to specify His will.  And so, as you are innocently praying for God’s will, the Holy Spirit is praying that God will take your daughter from you to be with Him tomorrow.  THAT is the will of God for you.  Sometimes, those things are God’s will for us.  Do you still want the will of God?  If you do, then you will follow our Lord in praying, “Not my will, but Thine be done” trusting that his will is good, perfect and acceptable and rooted in His desire to give us maximum pleasure for His glory.  May God be praised for His good will and the way He brings it to pass in our lives through prayer, His and ours.



Page last modified on 1/1/2002

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