The Spirit helps us in our weakness. —Romans 8:26
We are weak. It’s not just that we have moments of weakness now and then. Weakness pervades everything we are. We’re weak in our intellects. We struggle to understand. We don’t think clearly at times. We get confused. We’re weak in our emotions. Not only do we go into emotional meltdown at times when we just can’t take any more, but on the other hand we don’t feel deeply and richly and constantly the wonderful emotions God has for us. A big part of growing in Christ is that we stop feeling some emotions and we start feeling other emotions. We need stronger godly emotions. We’re weak volitionally, in our wills. We give in too easily to temptation, and we lack the decisiveness we ought to have.
Weakness is not one experience we have among others. Weakness is the platform on which we have all our experiences. Remember in The Great Divorce how C. S. Lewis portrayed us, as ghost-like, nearly transparent beings, compared with the massive and solid and muscular and radiant people from heaven. We’ve never known one nanosecond of non-weakness all our lives. But the Spirit helps us in our weakness. I love that word “helps.” I need a Christianity that helps me. I don’t need a Christianity that just dumps on me. Neither do you. And the Spirit helps us in our weakness. How? Let’s find out.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. —Romans 8:22
Paul has just told us how big salvation in Christ is. We have to redefine the English word “salvation.” Ask anybody on the street to define that word, and what will they say? There’s a good chance “salvation” will be about being religious and going to church. That’s not a big category of life. We can be religious and go to church on a completely recreational basis and think we’re “saved.” A lot of people in Nashville know that Jesus is the savior. Not enough people believe that he’s a big Savior bringing a salvation way too big to fit down inside our little boxes of weekend recreational options. So we have to redefine the word “salvation.” Maybe even replace it. How about “re-creation”? That’s a bigger word, and it’s what Paul is talking about here. God is re-creating the universe. He is re-creating the human race. He is unleashing the renewing power of the resurrection to build a new everything. That is “salvation.” Paul has just told us that, in verses 18-21, so that we won’t chicken out and bail on Jesus. What we suffer to follow him is not worth comparing with the glory he will reveal to us. We know about suffering. What we need to know about is the bigness of what Christ is doing about it. When his work is completed, we want to be there to enjoy it. So don’t be intimidated by the price you’re going to pay to follow Jesus. He’s a big Savior, bigger than all we suffer.
Now we see, in verse 22, that our sufferings in the present are taking us somewhere. Jesus doesn’t save us in spite of our sufferings but through our sufferings. It feels like our sufferings produce nothing but death. But the truth is, our sufferings for Christ are producing new life: “the pains of childbirth,” it says. As we follow Christ, it gets hard sometimes. But verse 22 tells us that our hardships are part of a larger trauma. It’s as if the universe is one vast emergency room. What do we hear in this emergency room? Groaning. The whole creation is groaning together, the Bible says here. Death claims everything, even stars. And nobody, nothing, enjoys dying. Why all this groaning, all this suffering? Only the gospel explains it. Death and suffering and groaning are not some cosmic inevitability. It isn’t a flaw in God’s design. It isn’t that we’re still so low on the evolutionary ladder. What’s wrong is that we have sinned against God. The whole creation is groaning in pain for a moral reason. God created us to rule all things. God created us for authority over the creation. But we sinned, we set in motion forces we didn’t foresee. And now nature, “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it, throbs with pain everywhere.
But God is doing something about it. God is making all this groaning into the pains of childbirth. And every mom knows, when they lay her newborn baby in her arms, that the pain was worth it. God wants us to know that we’re not in the throes of death but in the pangs of new life, a life we’ve never seen before, a whole new world that only God could create. Christ got involved in our pain. He entered in. He died the worst death of all. And now, with his resurrection power, he is birthing a new universe. He’s creating something new and alive and filled with hope out of the very wreckage we’ve created. Here’s how he gets us involved in that:
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. —Romans 8:23
We groan too, don’t we? What if we didn’t groan? What if we didn’t care? What if all we wanted to do was medicate our pain with TV and credit cards and porn? If you belong to Jesus, he has given you the firstfruits of the Spirit. What does that mean? It means he’s bringing into your experience foretastes of your heavenly home. A person reborn by the grace of God – it’s nothing less than a miracle of God in your heart, it isn’t just you accepting Jesus but it’s God resurrecting your heart from the dead so that you long for him in ways you never dreamed were possible – a person reborn by the grace of God has new life within, a new awareness, the firstfruits of the Spirit, or, to change the metaphor, a down-payment on the whole deal. A person that Jesus is stirring up and getting ready for the new universe feels not less groaning but new groanings. C. S. Lewis taught us that Christians feel an inconsolable longing, an awareness that something wonderful is intensely missing from this world. When God does a new work in your heart, you start groaning inwardly for what nothing in this world can provide. It’s a desire which can pierce your heart at any moment. You just never know when suddenly your heart will be flooded with a yearning to go home, a yearning finally to be complete, a yearning to go and be with Christ. It can happen any time – in church, listening to Handel or Chris Tomlin, holding your newborn baby for the first time, saying goodbye to your wife as you leave town even for a weekend. It’s a kind of nostalgia, but for a future world you’ve never seen. Lewis called it “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” This groaning – Jesus turns the pain of this life into something sweet. He makes this kind of groaning into an “Oh!” in your heart for him that is more intense than any other feeling in your heart. In this bittersweet groaning, he is whispering to you, “Your salvation is not here in this world, but everything here is hinting at it. Don’t be fooled. Set your heart on things above.” We all know what it’s like to be house hunting and to find that house that feels just right, but it turns out to be just a house, and one we’ll move out of someday. We all know what it’s like to meet someone who feels just right, but having that “perfect person” doesn’t make the longing go away. This world, at its best, is tantalizing glimpses.
If you don’t long for Jesus, it’s because your heart is deadened with sin and self-righteousness. You’re too good for him. You need to beg him to save your dead heart. But if you do long for him, the Bible is explaining here what’s going on in your heart. Through the grace of Christ, we have the firstfruits of the Spirit. The incompleteness of this world is not mocking our longings but arousing our longings, so that Jesus can satisfy us. We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the verse says, the redemption of our bodies. What’s that? It’s the ultimate job promotion, the ultimate recognition and honor and inclusion and completeness, when our whole beings will finally become what God had in mind, in a new world only God can create, and it will never end. This is why Jesus died on the cross. He suffered, to win for you a place in his eternal kingdom and to prepare you for it. Don’t be ashamed of your longings for him. Never let them die. They’re the best part of you. They are the beginnings of the new heaven and the new earth inside you right now. And it has nothing to do with what you deserve. It is all his kindness to you.
For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. —Romans 8:24-25
I don’t like calling anybody out. But we do not get “our best life now.” That is a false teaching, and it will rob you and trivialize you. The Prosperity Gospel – what if we did get our best life now? What if God so hated you that he gave you a huge salary and a big mansion and a Playboy bunny wife? What if God gave you the whole world but withheld himself, and then you lose it all the instant you die and you have nothing forever? How would your heart feel about that? If your heart would say, “Cool. I’ll settle for that,” then you hate God. You don’t want him. What you want is money and sex. Your desires are downward – what Pascal called “licking the earth.” That’s where the Prosperity Gospel will take you, and it will damn you. But if your heart says, “This world is a nice place. God made it. He’s going to redeem it. But I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I’d rather be his than have riches untold. I don’t mind not having my best life now. My best life is being with Jesus forever. I don’t mind savoring by faith a happiness I can’t see yet. He’s worth the wait. Offer me the whole world, and I still happily choose Jesus.” If that’s how you feel, then he has given himself to you through his cross, and your full enjoyment of him is very certain. And even now, when our desires for him are weak and we feel like quitting, he does not despise us. He helps 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. 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. —Romans 8:26-27
We’re not the spiritual giants we wish we were. We’re weak. We don’t even pray as well as we should. Jesus prayed all night. We have trouble paying attention in prayer for two minutes. It’s an effort. It’s an effort worth making. But we need God’s help even in prayer, and God gives it.
Back in verse 16 the Bible said that the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Now the Bible tells us something more about the work of the Spirit in our hearts. That’s why verse 26 starts with the word “Likewise.” Paul is linking verse 26 back with verse 16. And now we find out another way the Holy Spirit helps us. He helps us in prayer. That matters. Sometimes life is so overwhelming we can’t even pray. And if we can’t pray, if that link with God is cut off by our weakness, what then? We tend to think that, if things get bad, we can always fall back on prayer. But what if they get so bad not even prayer seems to work? What if we’re driven to such extreme weakness, we don’t even know how to pray? What does God do then?
The Spirit helps us. Here’s how: “The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” God himself enters into our groaning and turns it into something of his own. Look carefully here: “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.” Do you see it? When we are too weak to pray, we’re crushed by life, maybe even feeling forsaken by God, silenced by the intensity of our sufferings but bowing down before the Lord as our only hope and the one to whom we turn – at that moment, when we cannot speak, God searches our hearts. He doesn’t wait to hear our words. He himself searches our hearts. What does he find there? He finds the mind of the Spirit, who is interceding for us. God himself enters into our groanings and plants there his own heart and will and mind and makes our groanings into his prayers. This is where the heartcry “Abba, Father!” comes from. The Spirit himself gives it to us. We don’t understand this. But we’re grateful for it. It means we’re never alone, never defeated, never helpless, never friendless.
Ole Kristian Hallesby was a theologian in Norway during World War 2 and fought with the underground when the Nazis invaded and did time in a concentration camp. He wrote a book on prayer. He said this:
I have witnessed the death-struggle of some of my Christian friends. Pain has coursed through their bodies and souls. But this was not their worst experience. I have seen them gaze at me anxiously and ask, “What will become of me when I am no longer able to think a sustained thought nor pray to God?” . . . it is blessed to be able to say to them, “Do not worry about the prayers that you cannot pray. You yourself are a prayer to God at this moment. All that is within you cries out to him. And he hears all the pleas that your suffering soul and body are making to him with groanings which cannot be uttered. But if you should have an occasional restful moment, thank God that you already have been reconciled to him and that you are now resting in the everlasting arms.”
When your heart is so broken you can’t even get it out, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned you. It doesn’t mean you are not one of his saints. Just the opposite. The Bible says here, this is God’s way with his saints (verse 27). It’s the saints whom God leads to places where all we have left is need, and God meets us there and fills our emptiness with his fullness.
God not only knows you, he understands you and feels with you and makes you a vital part of his big salvation even in your weakness. So it’s not so bad to be heartbroken. It’s not so bad to need. We’re not bringing to God our success. We come to him as we are. And through the cross of Christ, he receives us. He doesn’t ask us for help. He helps us. He indwells us. He makes us part of his new creation, even in our weakness.
I don’t know how to “apply” this to our lives. It’s not about what we do. It’s all of God. But I think we can say, “Thank you, Lord.”