The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. —Romans 8:26
Sometimes prayer is hard, because sometimes life is hard. Here at Immanuel, we love to pray. We love to pray with praise to Jesus, first and foremost, and with confession of our sins and with expectancy toward the future. But there is another side to prayer. God helps us to pray when we are too weak to pray.
The Bible says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” We don’t need a Christianity that just dumps on us. We need help. And verse 26 does not say “the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses,” plural, but “in our weakness,” singular. It’s not just that we have weaknesses here and there, though we do. But more deeply, we are weakness. Weakness is not one more experience alongside our other experiences. Weakness is the platform on which we have all our experiences. We are weak intellectually. We get confused. We are weak emotionally. We feel nothing, or we feel the wrong emotions. We are weak volitionally. We cannot gather the willpower to do the right thing. We are weak morally. We give in. We are weak relationally. We get tired of caring. In this life we never experience anything without weakness. And sometimes our weakness is so acute, our collapse so catastrophic, we can’t even pray.
What happens then? What becomes of us when we’re too weak to pray? Prayer is connecting with God. Prayer is drawing strength from God. When we are in crisis and we need God more than ever – and at that very moment we can’t pray? In ordinary times we tell ourselves that, if it gets really bad, we can always pray. But what if it gets so bad we can’t? What can we count on then? I want to show you the grace of God today. I want to show you how much God cares, how deeply God gets involved.
The key word is “groanings.” It appears three times in the context. Verse 22: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Verse 23: “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.” Now in verse 26, the Holy Spirit himself groans. Why is Paul talking about groaning, of all things? Because he’s talking about suffering. Verse 18 tells us what the passage is all about: “… the sufferings of this present time.” Paul goes on to explain that we are broken people in a broken world. We are not normal. We are not what God made people to be. Given that reality, it’s a miracle when anything goes well in this world. I don’t know what’s going to become of Egypt, for example. But I don’t expect it to go well. I expect it to increase human suffering. And what do we do when we suffer? We groan. And God knows how to help his groaning sufferers.
Inevitably, at some point in our lives, we experience suffering so intense, so overwhelming, it pushes us beyond anything we’ve known before. Something happens – we don’t need to go looking for it, it will come find us – something happens to blindside us. It goes beyond “normal life” as we have always known it. It goes beyond the understandings that had always held good. Something happens that is so shocking, we can’t make sense of it. It’s so big, so foreign, so horrible, we’re left speechless. All we can do is groan.
Up to then, we were able to take a difficult experience and pick it up in our hands, so to speak, and turn it over and over and look at it from different angles and categorize it and manage it. But for this level of anguish, we are completely unprepared. We find ourselves so overcome and defeated, we don’t know how to pray. And that matters, because prayer is talking with God. Prayer is giving utterance to our hearts before God. The Bible says, “Pour out your heart before him” (Psalm 62:8). But what happens when you can’t even speak, your heart is too broken, and all you can do is groan? That’s why the Bible is talking about groaning. It’s talking about extreme suffering. It’s talking about your life.
This is one of those passages in the Bible that reveals something we never could have known by ourselves. So we take this passage by faith. We receive it as the testimony of God. We are thankful that he is involved with us more deeply than we can see. What is God saying here?
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. –Romans 8:26
That translation may be correct. But another translation may be better: “… we do not even know how we ought to pray” (REB). The problem Paul is addressing is not simply that we don’t always know what to pray for. It’s true, we don’t. Should we pray for healing, or for the strength to go unhealed? It’s hard to know. Paul found it hard to know. He doesn’t say, “You do not know what to pray for as you ought,” but he says “we” and includes himself in this weakness. But the problem is still deeper than not knowing what to pray for. The problem is, sometimes we’re so distraught we don’t even know how to pray at all. All we can do is groan. But that’s when the Holy Spirit steps in to help. He doesn’t criticize us for our weakness. He helps us. He intercedes for us, the Bible is saying.
What does it mean “to intercede”? That word means to enter into a situation and insert oneself with an appeal, to step in and make a request. It’s prayer. It’s like when you’re in a conversation and you can’t quite articulate what you’re thinking and feeling and someone there says, “In other words, what you’re saying is _________,” and it’s exactly right, and even better than you could have said yourself. That is what the Holy Spirit does for us by his intercession. He gets involved when we are suffering. He enters into our groaning. He shapes and directs our anguish and turns it into something of his own. He turns our groanings into his own intercessions before God. He does this personally and directly, not through a pastor or a friend: “The Spirit himself intercedes for us.” J. B. Phillips paraphrases it this way: “His Spirit within us is actually praying for us in those agonizing longings which never find words.”
When we are too weak to pray, when we are crushed by life, when we are silenced by our sufferings but bowing down before the Lord as our only hope – at that moment of radical weakness, when we can’t even speak, God doesn’t wait for our words. His Spirit dwelling within us prays through our groanings too deep for words with his own groanings too deep for words. The Spirit himself shares our groanings and plants there his own heart and will and mind. We don’t understand what Paul is talking about here. But we receive it as God’s promise to us, and we’re grateful. It means we’re never alone, never friendless, never prayerless, no matter what we’re facing.
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, or when your body is so broken you can’t even think straight, you are not forsaken. You are not cut off. God is not singling you out for punishment. He is giving you a privilege. He is making you in your weakness instrumental in the ministry of prayer that is changing the universe. You are more than a conqueror. Your suffering certainly 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:
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 8:27
Two times in the book of Acts, God is called “the Heartknower” (Acts 1:24; 15:8). Only God can search our hearts. We don’t even know our own hearts, much less anyone else’s heart. But God knows what we’re going through. God reads the unexpressed emotions at the deepest core of our being. God not only knows us, but God also understands us and moves toward us, to help and to intercede with deep sympathy of feeling. When you are too weakened by your suffering to search for God, he is searching you – not to accuse you but to help you.
And what does he find as he searches your groanings? He finds the mind of the Spirit. He finds the desires and yearnings and purposes of the Holy Spirit in your spirit because the Holy Spirit lives within you. And God approves of the mind of the Spirit. He receives your groanings as a perfect prayer for his saving will for you and for those you love but can’t help because of your weakness. God is doing what we cannot do – he makes our defeatedness a perfect affirmation of his victory, a prayer for his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. And all his care and attention and involvement and love, though hidden inside your suffering, proves that you are a saint of God.
Your hardship doesn’t prove that you are rejected but the opposite. You are cherished by God as one of his “saints.” Paul doesn’t mean St. Augustine and St. Anselm and “the saints” as we might think of them – people we’ll never be. Paul simply means people set apart to God by his grace. Those are “the saints.” They’re just ordinary people, but through the cross of Christ they are now set apart to God. Paul is talking about St. Kenny and St. Jessica and St. Mike and St. You. If you are in Christ, God has redefined you as a saint. And God is holding onto you as someone important to him. You may be too weak to keep hold of God, but God is keeping hold of you with all his mighty power. You belong, you are loved, you are listened to, even when you can’t speak. It’s the saints whom God leads into hard places where all we have left is need, and God meets us there and makes that unwanted experience into something he wants it to be.
If you are in Christ, God is all over your life. There is not one square inch of your life unclaimed by God and unredeemed by God. There is not one experience or one moment when God isn’t involved. You will never find yourself out beyond the range of his care. He doesn’t look on from a safe distance but comes near to you, nearer than anyone else can come. He enters into your spirit through his Holy Spirit and feels what you are feeling and makes your weakness a vital part of his power working in the world today. It’s not so bad to be heartbroken. It’s not so bad to be weak. We’re not offering God our success. We’re not offering God our help, and he’s not asking for it. He is helping us. He is making everything we suffer a part of his plan and his triumph.
Here is what God is saying to us today. When you lie in a hospital bed with tubes all stuck into you and medications blurring your thinking and you can hardly string two thoughts together and you’re fading in and out, the Holy Spirit will be making your suffering into a mighty prayer to God for his glory in your life. And when you have a stroke and you can’t speak the way you want to and you can’t tell the ones you love what you’re thinking and feeling and you’re so frustrated and lonely, the Holy Spirit will be there with you, in you, redeeming everything, turning the sadness of your heart into a chorus fit for heaven. And when you’re hit by a drunk driver and your life-blood is flowing out of you in the wreckage of your car and you are in your final moments of consciousness and you hurt all over, the Holy Spirit will be there, not only with you but in you, taking your devastation into his mighty hands and subduing it to his loving and glorious purpose.
I think we can forget all ideas of prayer as a way to change God’s mind. Prayer is the mind of God entering into us. To be humbled into the dust, as we all will be, and all we have left is a longing for God, he will give himself to us very personally.
I think too we can forget all ideas of prayer as finding just the right words or becoming eloquent or sounding like some other Christian we perceive as impressive and copying them. The best prayer you ever send up might be a moan as you surrender yourself into God’s merciful hands.
Let’s take every opportunity we can while we’re in our strength to pray and praise and confess and ask for revival. But when we can’t pray, God will take over for us. God be praised for loving us so much!
Finally, if you have never received Christ, you have never become definite about him, I have to tell you that you have no hope in your sufferings. You have yourself to fall back on, and that’s it. And you are weak. Even more, you are evil – as evil as I am. You and I don’t deserve any help from God at all. We deserve hell. But you can have God, all of God, God giving himself to you freely with all his mighty heart, because Jesus died for evil people who don’t deserve any help at all. Stop thinking of yourself as deserving God’s help. The love of God for evil people is a miracle. Here is how that can happen for you. You let go of your fifth-rate goodness, admit your need, and receive Christ with the empty hands of faith. Will you? If you will, God will receive you, forgive you and come to you, never to leave. Empty hands held out before God – that’s all you need. It’s all God asks. It’s all God will acknowledge. And he will.
Will you receive Christ – right now?