Romans 8:26&27 “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. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”
This is the chapter in the Bible which contains the most references to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. See what Paul writes about him. Firstly, the Holy Spirit enables every Christian to keep the law of God (vv.2-8). Secondly, he energizes us to keep killing remaining sin (vv.9-13). Thirdly, the Holy Spirit gives to each of us the assurance that God has adopted us into his family (vv. 14-17). Fourthly, the Spirit of God is the guarantee and the foretaste of our inheritance in heaven (vv.18-23). And today we come to the last reference to the Holy Spirit here as the Holy Spirit is not named again in Romans 8. The final reference to him concerns his relationship to our praying.
If you want to humble a minister in particular, or any Christian, you talk to him about his praying. If you want to make a congregation sober and sensitive then preach a sermon on praying. Each minister has known the experience of preaching a sermon on the importane and privilege of prayer and seeing the numbers significantly drop in the follow week’s prayer meeting. We know the true theological reasons for this, that while our spirit encourages us to pray it is the last thing that our flesh wants to do. We must pray, but we can’t pray; and we can’t pray, but we must pray. Jesus wants us to pray and not faint; the devil wants us to faint and not pray. So until we get to heaven we have to exist within the parameters of such conflicting wrestlings; we live on the front line of the strife between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. Simple biblical praying day by day is an enormous challenge; the person who does that is a spiritual giant. Every Christian reading these words will acknowledge his failure. Days and weeks can go by without private devotions. Most of us exist on scraps. What ought to be judged as an honourable and delightful privilege – addressing Almighty God – can become an irksome, neglected and guilt-creating task. Having started to pray we rapidly faint, that is, our minds can quickly wander concerning the actual things we’re praying about. For example instead of confessing our sins we start to dwell on the things we should be acknowledging in repentance. William Cowper spoke on behalf of us all when he said, “What various hindrances we meet when coming to the mercy seat.” We all know the symptoms of a losing battle with prayer, a coldness of heart, a sense of unreality about the things we are talking about, how little we feel the petitions we are bringing to God. We envy the hymnist who wrote, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” Would that I also could feel the pain – not of my wanderings themselves but of my proneness to wander! Again, there is the absence of the joy of being a child of God, and the lack of reverence and godly fear speaking to the God before whom the angels hide their eyes – our praying seems a mass of confusion and failure.
What would we be like if we were totally dependent on ourselves for any Christian achievement, any victory over sin, and help to others? What if God’s blessing on our lives, and our effectiveness in our family and in the world and our church activities depended one hundred per cent, totally and exclusively, on the depth and strength and sincerity of our own praying – on that alone. In other words, if you could succeed in getting into a long period of intercession then you could guarantee that the day ahead would be abundant in usefulness, you would resist sin, speak with power and clarity, have such wisdom in counseling people and you would see conversions, but if you neglected praying that absence would also guarantee that your life would become a Sahara. If it were always as black and white as that then wouldn’t it result in your praying in a very peremptory way, mechanically, employing familiar devices that you’d learned to rely upon to help you get by? Wouldn’t it all become pretty formalistic? Wouldn’t praying itself be changed? It would be some religious work, a certain kind of ritual to be exercised four or five times a day, and then it was done’? But praying is not like that because it is not an activity in which we ourselves alone are engaged. The blessed mercy and sovereignty of God are willing and doing of their good pleasure in my life in all my activities and lack of action. If my usefulness as a Christian were dependent solely on the length and fervour of my prayers then my spiritual attainments would be just over nil. Let us pray. Let us give ourselves to warm fervent prayer. Let us seek deliverance from every peremptory form of personal devotion, but let us remember that we do not pray alone. No Christian as ever prayed alone, and none ever will. The Holy Spirit is interceding for us. Let us be mighty thankful to God that this is so and mighty careful that we never abuse this extraordinary privilege by even a hint of the thought, “He is praying and so I don’t need to pray.”
- THE SPIRIT HELPS US IN OUR WEAKNESS.
“In the same way,” begins Paul (v.26), in other words, as our Christian hope sustains us in the Christian life, so the Holy Spirit sustains us in praying. This is the first thing Paul tells us about the link that occurs between our praying and what God the Holy Spirit is doing in us, that he helps us actually to pray. That word ‘help’ is the word Martha uses, angry that her sister Mary is not helping her prepare the food in the kitchen but sitting and listening to Jesus. “Tell her to help me!” she complains to Jesus. The cooking and preparing was all too much for Martha alone. Praying is all too much for us. The Lord must send the Holy Spirit. He says, “Spirit, there is that woman in Aberystwyth and she is finding it so hard to pray just now. Holy Spirit, go and help her.” We all need his help and we all receive it. We must have him. No sin is too small to hinder prayer or to turn the very prayer itself into a sin. Let me suggest to you several such weaknesses (and each one of us has some choice personal weaknesses that so easily beset us in particular; they are a sad burden we have to resist).
i] Think of unbelief. We are coming to a King, large petitions with us bringing, but then as we ask for glorious blessings we find ourselves thinking, “Ah, that could never happen.” What weakness does unbelief cause. Has God promised something? Yes. Then let us plead that promise when we pray, nothing doubting. James tells a Christian to ask in faith, “and when he asks he must believe and not doubt” (James 1:6). According to your faith be it unto you! The Holy Spirit addresses this need. He will help us to trust in the power and the love of the God we speak to.
ii] Think of a critical spirit towards other people. If you tend to complain about others, and judge them then how that will kill warm, loving prayer! When you pray you start to think about them; they march across the channel of communication between you and God, blocking it. You consider their hurtful antics and your resentment grows, and prayer becomes a way for the roots of bitterness to go deep into your heart instead of those roots withering. If you have a critical nature then I urge you to turn the spotlight of criticism onto your own sins. The Holy Spirit will help you. Think of how little your enemy knows you, that if he knew more about the things you’d actually done then he’d want to smack your face. He’d never listen to you again. If only he knew what you were really like! What God has done so mercifully to you is to veil many of your worse sins from him. Thank God for this. Ask God the Holy Spirit for grace to love your enemy, to do your duty even when this unforgiving opponent of yours is failing to do his duty. The Spirit will help you.
iii] Think of the traitors lurking in your own heart. There are things you desire that if you got them would ruin your life – not only as a Christian but as a businessman, as a family member, as a neighbour to the people of this town, as a member of your congregation. You are dreaming of doing things that would destroy you, and yet at the same time you are praying, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven . . . lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil.” You are expressing to God such longings as that, while at the same time giving time and place and nourishment to lusts of the mind and lusts of the flesh. The traitors are finding refuge in your own heart! The gambling traitor is there, the alcohol traitor, the heresy traitor, the unfaithfulness traitor, anger and violence traitor, the pornography traitor is there and you are actually nurturing such traitors! Ask the Holy Spirit to help you overcome such weaknesses and mortify those traitors. Don’t let them thrive! Make them grow less and less influential through the help of the Spirit. Kill them! Always remember that we are not angels; we are saints.
Prayer must be enormously important if it is the one true almighty God the Spirit himself who is focusing upon us effectually enabling us to pray. The Bible does not say that the Spirit will help us pass every examination, or recover from every illness, or become rich, or have children, or make us members of large congregations. There are no promises in the Bible that the Spirit will help us achieve any of those things, but there is this categorical promise that he will indeed and does always help us to pray. Then prayer must be very important. It is more important than success or good health, or having children, or seeing numerical growth in our churches. God is helping us to Adore. He helps us to Confess. He helps us to give Thanks. He helps us in Supplication. In every aspect of true prayer as we spell it out in the mnemonic A.C.T.S. he is hands on in his dealing with us, working in us to will and to do of his good pleasure while we are on our knees. We will do it all infinitely better through the assistance of the Spirit; in fact without him we can’t pray; we can only say words.
He will begin by educating us from the Word of God. He will teach us about God, and how we can approach him by Jesus Christ, and then he shows us by the Bible what we are to pray for. He will teach us the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer. He will help us to enter into the spirit of the psalmists in the Book of Psalms. Then he will give us increasing desire for God – making us like a thirsty deer panting for water. When we go through lean and wintry periods and stop praying for weeks, then he’ll bring us back to himself. He will kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of our hearts. He will revive our drooping souls that languish without communion with God. He will help us to pray. What a blessing!
He is the Spirit of grace and of supplication, the author of every spiritual desire, every holy aspiration, every outgoing of the heart after God. Every thought of holiness in us is actually due to his working in its origin and in its pure longing. He knows what each Christian should pray for and he helps us by encouraging such prayers. We would find it impossible to pray for strength to pluck out the offending right eye, or to cut off the offending right hand as our Lord commands us to do. We would find it hard to pray for strength to put to death remaining sin. We might find it irksome to pray for the grace of poverty of spirit, or grief over sin, or hunger and thirst after righteousness. How difficult we would find contentment with the will of God if that will entailed loneliness or the loss of one we love best. But the Spirit is here. “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and he is interceding for us always “in accordance with God’s will” (v.27). He is saying, “Almighty God, give him or her the grace of contentment,” and so we begin to pray for them too with increasing discernment and increasing vehemence.
We are never to forget the purpose of the intercession of the Spirit, that he “helps us in our weakness” (v.26). His praying is a ‘help’ to prayer, not the rule of our praying or the reason for our prayers. We know some people who refuse to pray unless they are assured that the Spirit is moving them to do so. That is wrong. There is no way we can know he is helping us unless we pray. Our feelings must never become the touchstone of our duties. We are to pray and not faint. The Spirit then will work to help us in the performance of our duties. The rule is that in everything by prayer and supplication we are to make our requests known to God. You may start your praying by saying, “Help me now Lord . . .” We are not to think that our coldness of feeling and lack of words is a proof that the Spirit is withholding help from us. Pray! In the gatherings for prayer, when you feel as cold as ice then pray about it publicly. Confess to God, “Lord we feel so cold and far from you,” and that will immediately have the effect of warming everyone up. Such praying will lift the whole prayer meeting.
Have you ever considered to what amazing lengths God will go in order to persuade us to pray. God the Father invites us and pleads with us to seek his face and tells us of what blessings will be ours if we do that. God the Son has provided us with an open door into the presence of God and given us his example of frequent prayer and how we’re to pray. God the Spirit encourages us to say, “Abba, Father!” to God, and the Spirit himself helps us to pray and he prays for us. Let us now turn to that.
“But the Spirit himself intercedes for us” (v.26). Every Christian begins his new life in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Our very conception is of the Spirit. Our birth from above is by the Spirit, and that Spirit will never leave us. He is not in us to spy on us, to report to God, “Do you know what he’s been thinking about or imagining today?” No. Certainly as the Spir
it is in us he knows us exhaustively. He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. Surely he knows us better than we know ourselves. We have a certain image of ourselves, what are our strengths, our gifts, and our weaknesses, and very often we come to learn as the years go by that we haven’t understand ourselves aright. Some might learn the fact that God had never called them to become preachers. That is a great self-discovery. There are things about ourselves that we don’t care to acknowledge but he knows all about them. We might at times look at ourselves aghast that we could think something, or say something, or do something as horrible as we have done. How willful, how foolish, how sinful we are. We are astonished that we’ve been capable of tolerating such thoughts in our hearts and minds. We thought that we’d been delivered from such youthful excesses. We imagined we were immune from such slimy nastiness. We are again amazed at our condition, but the Holy Spirit never is. He knew all that David was capable of doing when David was a keen teenager on a mountain pasture looking after sheep. We would hate to work in a sewerage farm cleaning up and purifying raw sewerage. We know that work has to be done, but we don’t want to do it, but the tender Spirit of holiness comes right into the depths of our hearts and sees our imaginations and carnality and continues there for decades cleaning up our perpetually stinking lives.
The Holy Spirit also knows what the Son of God has achieved, that he has been condemned in our place, and all our sins and guilt have been dealt with on the cross. They are all pardoned and forgiven, every one. The Holy Spirit is in us to remind us of the marvel of that. He is telling us that through the person and work of Christ the books are balanced before God. We have been accepted by the Holy One. The wrath of a sin-hating God with me can have nothing to do by way of punishment, and of that reality the Spirit is giving us daily assurance. There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.
So his intercession is along the lines of an advocate, your counsel in a court of law. Before the judge you are tongue-tied and feel your guilt, but you have your best friend as your representative and spokesman. He knows the law; he loves you; he knows the Judge and he is totally committed to your receiving a full pardon. He brings the most unanswerable arguments; he urges the most eloquent pleas; he clothes his case with the most suitable words. We know not how to speak as we should; we don’t know ourselves – we are a frequent mystery to ourselves; we don’t know the exact way to present our case, but our great Advocate, the Holy Spirit, speaks up for us with unanswerable, humble, divine eloquence. We have in fact two such glorious advocates. God the Father has provided for every Christian two divine intercessors. The Son of God, Jesus Christ, is our intercessor in the court of heaven; the Holy Spirit is our intercessor in the theatre of our own hearts. You often hear it said by preachers how our morale would be boosted, and what new courage we would get if we could hear a mighty Christian, the man we most look up to and admire, praying for us by name with effectual earnestness in the room next door. But we have at this moment two glorious divine persons praying for us by name, the Son of God and the Spirit of God and the latter is not next door but he is in us.
- THE SPIRIT MAKES INTERCESSION FOR US WITH GROANS THAT WORDS CANNOT EXPRESS.
That is what we are told, that we do not know what to pray for as we ought. For example, should we pray for deliverance from our sufferings, or should we pray for patience to endure them? We don’t know, but the Spirit intercedes for us “with groans that words cannot express” (v.26). The groanings are his intercession; that is how they register in our hearts, not in articulate speech, not requests in the form of sentences and paragraphs with commas and full stops. His intercession is not put into words; it transcends that form of speech; the prayers are unexpressed but they are certainly not inexpressible; the groanings have content; they have meaning and purpose. They are in our hearts, my heart and your heart, but we are unable to spell them out; we cannot say to another person, “This morning the Spirit interceded in my heart and he said so and so . . .” No. Our words cannot express them. They are inaudible to men, but they are not inaudible to God who knows and understands the mind of the Spirit. So this groaning of the Spirit cannot be what men today call ‘tongues-speaking’ in other words, glossolalia. In the New Testament the gift of tongues was a language that men on the day of Pentecost understood. They were hearing in their own languages men telling them the wonderful works of God. After Pentecost the tongues were translated, and their messages were told to the congregation. But the groaning intercession of the Spirit cannot be put into human languages.
I ask you, shouldn’t God pray like that? How would you expect God to pray, like the talking clock, giving you exactly the time at this very moment, always correct and to the point? Would you expect the blessed God to pray for us like reading an alphabetic ordered list of names and addresses from the telephone directory? Would that be divine prayer and a role model for us in intercession? No, of course not. When God prays it is with agonized longings. When Christ prays then in every pang that rends the heart the man of sorrows had a part. He sympathizes with our griefs as he is interceding. Paul has already told us in this chapter that God’s creation is groaning and longing for its redemption, and he has also told us that God’s children groan because of their present imperfection. Here the apostle is saying that God also groans.
What an extraordinary picture emerges, that every day, from the hearts of millions of Christians all over the world, groans that words cannot express that have been conceived and uttered by the Spirit of God, are ascending to the throne of God, and this will go on, year by year until the Saviour appears when the Spirit’s groanings shall finally cease.
“Gentle, awful, holy guest, Make Thy temple in our breast,
There supreme to reign and rest, Comforter divine.
“In us, for us, intercede, And with voiceless groanings plead
Our unutterable need, Comforter divine”
I saw my college Principal, the late Edmund P. Clowney, a few years ago in California and he sad, “Come and see me tomorrow and we’ll have some coffee.” There he told me why he wanted to talk, that for all the years since I graduated from Seminary, forty years earlier, he had prayed for me every day. “It gets a little disheartening asking God, ‘Bless Geoff Thomas.’ Are there particular needs I can pray for?&
rdquo; That was the source of his inquiry. I was mightily cheered and humbled that he prayed for me every day, and I asked myself whether I’ve prayed for myself every day. We are touched by those friends who pray for us in places like Derbyshire and Suffolk and Merthyr Tydfil and other places once a week. There are family members we know who constantly pray for us, but there are these two very glorious persons who ever live to pray for us, the Lord Jesus above, at the right hand of God, and the Spirit within us. They will never stop praying. What encouragement that gives us; God “does exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephs. 3:20) because of the praying above and the praying below by Son and by Spirit. So we are infirm and weak in our praying but that does not define the limits of God’s immeasurable grace, but rather the knowledge, love and wisdom of the Son and the Spirit.
4. GOD SEARCHES OUR HEARTS AND KNOWS THE MIND OF THE SPIRIT.
In the Old Testament we are told of Samuel’s mother Hannah, who went to the house of God and prayed. She was loved by her husband but was childless while his other wife bore him children at will and she would mock Hannah because Hannah was loved more than she was. Hannah was broken in spirit and we are told that in the Temple she prayed, but “she spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken” (I Sam. 1:13). Even the high priest of Israel was incapable of discerning the anguish of her heart and what the Spirit was prompting her to pray, but God has no such problem. He knew her aching longings. He can distinguish between sounds coming from our mouths – our murmurs, mumblings and groanings – and those very clearly annunciated words spoken like a radio announcer reading the news on the B.B.C. God knew exactly the message of the groanings of Hannah’s heart.
We can hide nothing from him. All things are naked and open to the God with whom we have to deal. And you see the implications of that? You may pray in a perfectly orthodox way, in the name of Jesus, but it is not in the name of the Jesus of the Bible, because in your heart you are denying the virgin birth of Jesus, and his walking on the water, and his teaching on a second coming, judgment and hell. You are asking God to hear you because you are praying in the name of Jesus, but which Jesus is it? God searches your heart. Why should he hear you when you’re presenting to him another Jesus?
Again you pray with your lips, “Lead me not into temptation and deliver me from evil,” but in your heart you are plotting deceit, robbery, immoral liasons. You are entertaining lusts of the mind and the flesh while using ethically correct language in your prayers. God searches your heart. If we have a regard for sin, that is, if we cherish certain sins, then God may permit us to fall into them no matter what words we use about being not led into temptation. He does not hear and answer the words; rather I warn you that God can give you the longings of your heart and he sends leanness.
The Lord Jesus knew what was going on in men’s hearts. He knew all about Judas’ hatred and the Pharisees’ resentment and plotting. They imagined that they could hide everything from him. Their faces never reflected a flicker of the bitterness in their hearts. Their best friends never suspected the inner hostility festering there, but God seaches the hearts of men and knows everything. God knows everything; but that is not his omniscience. His omniscience is that that God the Father knows the mind of God the Son, and Father and Son know the mind of the Spirit. The members of the Godhead keep no secrets from one another. They know one another exhaustively. What one desires the other one not shortly after but immediately also desires. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God, and the Father knows the deep things of the Spirit, and the Son too – of all human beings – he alone knows the Father through and through. What a gloriously encouraging picture we have here. We are helped to pray by the Spirit, and he himself prays for us, and the Son also ever lives to make intercession for us. The Father doesn’t cry, “One at a time! How can you expect me to hear the two of you when you are both praying?” It is not like that at all. Even at this moment from ten thousand times ten thousand hearts, and thousands of thousands, there are prayers from every corner of the world in hundreds of languages directed to God, and he can cope! If there were a million more praying, he hears and understands and answers them all, but above all what the Spirit of God is praying for millions of us with his wordless groanings the Father knows and answers. Who knows what is happening in the hearts of stroke victims lying on their beds in a hospital who cannot say a word? What right does anyone have to say, “Terminate! Exterminate!” Would you cut off the groanings of God? He knows what the Spirit is saying in them in their enforced silence at this moment. They are dying to the Lord not to us.
5. THE SPIRIT INTERCEDES FOR US IN ACCORDANCE WITH GOD’S WILL.
Think of it! We have permitted the person of the Holy Ghost to penetrate the inner core of our being. There, in our very hearts – that dispositional complex out of which proceed all the issues of life – the Spirit has set up his holy abode, and from there he prays, and he never indicts a wrong prayer; he never suggests a pathetic argument; he never misleads by exaggeration or by ignoring anything. He is never hysterical or frustrated. He never sleeps. He is never forgetful. He never stops loving us. With divine wisdom and energy he lovingly intercedes for us and saves us to the uttermost.
The Spirit knows what is God’s will for us and for the church and for the whole creation. He knows that by the gospel the word of mercy for sinner through Jesus Christ is to be taken to the ends of the earth by Christians. That is what he prays for. He knows and loves the purposes of God and the mind of God. He reads the heart of God, yes he knows God himself, and so he can talk to God about us perfectly. He won’t be praying to Mary when he can talk to Mary’s Saviour who is omnipotent and omniscient as she is not. He won’t be talking to the saints and asking them to heal when he can talk to our Father in heaven. He prays according to the will of God.
Is your heart stirred to pray for some blessing for yourself and your loved ones and your church which you know is in agreement with the will of God? Do you find that there is this petition that lives on when you’ve had other prayers which have been prayed for a time and then have ceased? Do you find this prayer accompanied by a groaning of your spirit? Then be encouraged to pray on in hope. I know a fine Christian woman in Carlisle, Pennslvania, who as a teenager was one Sunday afternoon shared her burden for her father who was not a believer with a special speaker that week-end. She told him her longing for her father to be saved. She actually wept over his lostness and hardness. The speaker came to Ernest Reisinger who had arranged the meetings and told him of the teenager’s bu
rden and that such a concern for his salvation was clearly through the will of God and the burden by the Spirit of God. He further said that that encouraged him to believe her longings would be answered. “So,” he told Ernest, “we must go to his house now and bring him along to the evening service.” Ernest went a little reluctantly with him, because this man had shown no sympathy to the gospel when he had spoken to him in the past, and he had been irritated that his daughter was so involved in the church. But they went and the man agreed to come to church. He was impressed and challenged and thoughtful after coming, and within some time he did give his life to serving Jesus Christ as his God. It was his daughter’s intercession, her groans of longing that led the men to believe that there was hope that God would do a saving work in his life, that that might well be God’s will for his deliverance from bondage to unbelief, and so it was.
We all have such an intercessor-advocate in the court on earth which is our own hearts, the divine, loving and sympathizing Spirit. We also have such an intercessor-advocate in the court of heaven at God’s right hand, so powerful, so eloquent and so successful as our Lord Christ is. So, “Let us then come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
1st July 2012 GEOFF THOMAS