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 ESV
In the preceding verses, Paul encourages us to wait eagerly, hopefully, and yet patiently for the final stage of our adoption as sons and daughters of God and for the redemption of our bodies. There is a day coming when we will freed from these bodies of death as Paul called them (Romans 7:24). We will be given new bodies and the long-awaited opportunity to live in perfect, unbroken fellowship with God, fully enjoying our position as His children and all the benefits that come with being His heirs. But in the meantime, we must continue to live in a fallen world, dealing with the ongoing presence of our sin natures and struggling against the persistent attacks of Satan. Back in verse 17, Paul told us “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Our glorification is coming, but in the meantime we sometimes find ourselves suffering as a result of our faith in Christ and our relationship with Him. And as we suffer as God’s children, we naturally call out to Him as our Father. We find ourselves too weak at times to handle all that is happening to us and around us in this world. We are constantly experiencing and witnessing the effects of sin. And so, in our weakness, we cry out for help. But there are times when we don’t even know what to pray. We aren’t even sure what to ask God for. And when we do ask, we sometimes never see the answer to our request.
In our present circumstances, our needs are constant, but Paul assures us that so is the help of the Holy Spirit. He helps us in our weakness. As we patiently, eagerly, hopefully wait for our final adoption and redemption, He comes alongside and assists us during this time of suffering. Paul says we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23 ESV). That word, “groan”, means to sigh or pray inaudibly. As we attempt to live holy lives in the midst of an unholy world, we find ourselves struggling with our own sin and the constant emotional bombardment from witnessing sin’s damaging influence over the world. So we pray. We call out. And when we do, we find ourselves asking God to remove the cause of our struggles. We beg Him to remove sickness from our loved ones. We ask Him to provide us with resources when our bank account is low or our pantry is bare. We plead with Him to remove our pain and restore our strength when we are weak. And when He doesn’t seem to answer those prayers, we become defeated, confused and, at times, even bitter and disillusioned. But Paul would have us consider that the Holy Spirit helps us in our times of weakness. When we don’t know what to pray, how to pray, or how to get what we pray for, He intercedes on our behalf. “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.” The truth is, we don’t know what we need. Paul says, we don’t know what to pray for. We are like little children who ask for the obvious. Driven by our fallen human nature, we tend to ask for what we want, not necessarily what we need. If we have pain, we want it removed. If we experience sickness, we can think of nothing better than having it healed. Paul provided us with a personal testimony regarding this very thing. “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV). Whatever the “thorn” in Paul’s flesh might have been, Paul prayed that it be removed. But God had other plans and a higher purpose. He was protecting Paul from conceited, proud and arrogant over his position as God’s spokesman. Paul pleaded for the removal of the thorn, but the Holy Spirit interceded and turned those self-centered, comfort-oriented requests into prayers that matched the will of God.
We are children of God, but like all children, we rarely know what we truly need. The Spirit does, because He knows the heart and mind of God. If you ask a small child what he or she wants for dinner, they are likely to respond, “Ice cream!” That is what they want, but that is not what they need. And a loving parent would not give in to their request. Instead, they would provide them with what they truly needed, even though the child may feel like their “needs” are not being met. The difference between our prayers and those that the Spirit prays on our behalf are that He “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” I don’t always know the will of God. I don’t always know what is best for me. But the Spirit does. And He is constantly taking my sighs, moans, and silent prayers, and turning them into requests that align with God’s will for my life as His child. So when His answers come, I may not always recognize them, but I can trust that they are just what I needed. I have a prayer partner who intercedes on my behalf. He knows the desires of my heart, the will of God, and how the two can become one. Like any loving Father, God is not interested in giving us all that we want, but He is determined to provide us with all that we need for life and godliness. And His Spirit helps us pray within His will so that we can always know that we are receiving the right answer at just the right time.