In the previous verses, the apostle has been reminding us of the hope that we have in Christ. Even though our lives are now characterized by waiting and groaning, yet it is a waiting and groaning in hope. We are heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, and looking forward to the full realization of our future glorious inheritance. The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to be revealed (18). Nevertheless, in the meantime we are stuck in the present as we look and long for the future glory. And this means that in some sense we are vulnerable – vulnerable to suffering and persecution, to trials and afflictions and sorrows. In this vulnerability, one of the things we want to know is what is best for us. This is especially true when faced with a trial. We kind of take it for granted that we are doing the right thing when things are going well for us (though this is not always true!). But when we are going through a hard time we begin to question things, and to reevaluate our position.
For the Christian, he or she become acutely aware of how important it is in times like this to be in God’s will. What I mean by God’s will in this case is not God’s will of decree or his eternal purpose (which encompasses whatever comes to pass and which we cannot change – I believe this is what James is referring to at the end of James 4), but rather what has sometimes been called God’s will of command. In other words, there are certain things that are according to God’s will in the sense that God has commanded that we do them. And there are things that are against God’s will of command in the sense that to do them is to do what God has forbidden. For example, Paul says in 1 Thess. 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Sadly, this commandment is often broken. When you do not abstain from sexual immorality, you are not in God’s will in this sense. This is important because obedience brings blessing whereas disobedience brings God’s displeasure and Fatherly discipline.
So when we are suffering under some trial, as I say, we are more sensitive to the desire to have God’s blessing. We certainly don’t want to compound our problems by having God’s hand of discipline upon us. On the other hand, we also want to have God’s blessing and grace in the trials we undergo, because knowing our own weakness, we know that we won’t make it to the other side very well without it.
So how do we know what God’s will is for us in a given situation? Is it always possible to infallibly know what God’s will is? Will you always be able to know the right choice when confronted with a major decision?
This text helps us here. I am so glad for passages like this. Several years ago, I was faced with what seemed at the time a very difficult decision. I didn’t really know what to do. It wasn’t one of those situations where it’s obvious what God’s will was. There wasn’t anything obviously sinful about any of the options before me, although there were valid concerns about motives and whether or not I was living by faith and so on. But I still had to make a choice. And I had to do so without a clear vision from God telling me, “This is the way: walk in it.”
One of the things that can make the agony of decision-making more intense is the belief that if we are in God’s will, we are inevitably going to know it. Some teach that you will always infallibly know whether or not you are doing what is best, and if you don’t then you are somehow not living by faith or not living Biblically. Well, I think I had bought into that idea to some extent, and so what happened is that I became paralyzed by a fear that I might be doing something wrong, no matter what choice I made. Instead of seeing the matter as a chance to trust in the Lord, I saw the decision before me as a choice of chalices, with one of them containing poison, and I not knowing which one! I was afraid of the whole Indiana Jones scenario – one drink and then the words, “He did not choose wisely….”
And then I heard John Piper preach on this text (a lot of what I say in this message is highly influenced by his sermon on this text). He pointed out the obvious lesson of the text, though before that I hadn’t seen it for whatever reason. Anyway, I thank God that in his providence it was at this point in my life that I heard that sermon, because it freed me up to really live by faith and leave the results up to God. The truth he pointed out, which is the truth of this text, is that we do not always know God’s will, even if you are living a holy and righteous life. For Paul explicitly says that, “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (26). In other words, I won’t always know what to pray for. And when you compare this with verse 27, this means that we don’t know what to pray for in terms of God’s will for us. It’s part of the “weakness” the apostle refers to in verse 26. But this weakness is not the same thing as sinfulness. There is no indication anywhere in these verses that not knowing how to pray is a result of sinful living. In fact, the apostle refers to the subjects of these verses as “the saints” or “the holy ones” (27): the Spirit “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” So this can happen to people who are not walking in any known sin.
So when we’re faced with decisions like, should I stay in this job or not? Should I take this medication or something else? Or should I join this church or another? These are not always questions that will be obvious. And just because you pray a lot doesn’t mean it will be revealed to you or that you will know what to pray for.
Now that doesn’t mean that in all cases of life there aren’t Biblical principles to guide us. Of course there are. The Scriptures are sufficient in that they give us principles to guide us in our decision making, no matter what the matter is. For example, I can’t take a job that would involve me in dishonest business practices. But given two different job opportunities, neither of which are inconsistent with faithfulness to Christ, I can make a decision based on sanctified common sense, and then, as Kevin DeYoung puts it, just do something, and leave the results to God.
But the point I want to make with respect to our text is that it frees us up to do that. It allows us the freedom to make decisions – within the clear boundaries that God’s word lays out for us – on the basis of sanctified common sense, and not to become paralyzed because we don’t know exactly what God’s mind is on a particular choice we have to make. We may be unable to know exactly how best to proceed so that Christ might be best magnified in our lives. Like Paul, who wrote, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 1:22-24). But Paul doesn’t indicate that this ignorance as to the best path was a result of sin in his life. Neither should we think that is always the case for us. We don’t need to live in guilt if we don’t know exactly how to proceed so that God is most honored by our choices. Rather, we live by faith and make decisions in light of the best information that we have and leave the results to God.
But how exactly does the text free us up to do that? It does it by showing that our ignorance is not ultimately a handicap because we are not prisoners to our ignorance. We have help in this weakness of ours. And the help that the apostle points us to is the help of the Spirit.
Now this really is part two of three different ways that Paul is pointing us to for help in our suffering. The first help that we have is the hope we have in Christ that one day we will enter into an eternal state of glory in fellowship with God (18-25). The second help is the help extended in verses 26-27, the help of the Spirit. The third help is the knowledge that all things work for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose (28). This morning, we are going to focus in on this second help, the help of the Holy Spirit.
How does the Spirit help us?
By interceding for us.
He helps us by interceding for us – which is exactly what we need. When I need to present my cause in a court of law, I don’t know how to argue my case, so I get a lawyer. In a remarkably similar fashion, the Spirit here is presented more or less as our lawyer who presents our case to God, along with our Lord Jesus Christ (34). We don’t know how to present our case to God in the sense that we don’t know what to pray for (some translations make this a problem of how to pray, when the problem is more specific – it’s the problem of what to pray for). So the Spirit steps in and brings our case before God in a way that is perfectly in conformity with God’s will: he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God (27).
Paul doesn’t use the language of Paraclete here, as our Lord does in the book of John (14:16-17, 26; 16:7), but it fits the picture the apostle is painting for us of the Spirit’s work on our behalf. The word “paraclete” is very hard to translate. In the gospel of John, the KJV translates it as “Comforter.” But the same word is translated in 1 John 2:1 as “Advocate.” It can mean both. Broadly, it refers to someone who comes alongside to help. So the ESV uses the word “Helper” in the gospel of John (though again “advocate” in his epistle). In the same way, here in our text we see the Spirit coming alongside us to help us in our weakness, a counselor and advocate in the very court of God on our behalf.
With groanings that cannot be uttered.
It is very interesting, however, how this is said to happen. The apostle writes, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (26). What does this mean? In particular, whose groanings are these? Are these my groanings? Are they the Spirit’s groanings? Or are they my groanings inspired by the Spirit? I think the latter, for the following reasons.
First, it is unlikely that the Spirit himself would need to groan to the Father. Groanings seems to befit those who are less than perfect, and in the Holy Trinity there are no imperfections.
Second, the groaning in verse 26 reminds us of the groanings in verses 22 and 23 – and back in those verses they are in part the groanings of the saints due to their sufferings and infirmities. Again, we are reminded that groaning is an expression that comes out of suffering, and the Holy Spirit himself does not suffer. Rather, we are the ones who are suffering.
I also think that what the apostle means by “groanings too deep for words” is that the groanings in some sense take the place of words. Why would that be? An obvious explanation would be that words cannot be found to express what is wanted to be said. Again, that fits our experience, but not so much the Spirit as he is in himself. We groan because we don’t know what to pray for. We wish we knew. But we don’t. So what comes out are not words which cannot be found but groanings. It’s all we can do. It’s a part of our weakness.
Third, the place in which the groaning takes place is the heart, not heaven: “he who searches the hearts” (27). God searches the hearts where the groaning is taking place. This is almost certainly a reference to human hearts.
Fourth, this is very much like what we’ve seen before with the Spirit’s ministry to the people of God. In 14-16, he is the Spirit of adoption, bearing witness with our spirits that we are the children of God (16). He is not operating independently of our spirits, but in and with our spirits. In fact, the very cry, “Abba, Father,” is an utterance inspired by the Holy Spirit (15). In the same way, it is best to take these groanings as the work of the Spirit in and with our hearts.
Now how does this do us any good? How does it help? There are three realities that the ministry of the Spirit in our groanings that are pointed to in this text.
Our groanings are good.
We must remember why we are groaning: because we want the will of God for our lives but do not know what God’s will is for a particular situation. We come to God in prayer to ask for help and guidance but we don’t know what to pray for. And since we can’t even formulate the words to pray, all that comes out are these groanings. These may not even be audible, but there they are in our hearts, these deeps expressions of our weakness and helplessness. And if we only see them as expressions of our weakness, we are likely to be depressed. But what Paul wants us to see is that these groanings are inspired by the Holy Spirit himself, and are the very means of his intercession for us! Even the very expressions of our weakness are a reminder that we have help that comes from God. And that means they are good.
Our groanings are heard.
As a result, verse 27 tells us that because these groanings are inspired by the Spirit of God, God takes notice of them: “he who searches hearts knows that is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” This is so important for us to see. Few things are more spiritually and emotionally debilitating than to think that you are crying out for help and no one is listening. It can feel like that sometimes, even for believers. But we must never think that we are alone. Even when we are at the end of our own abilities and strengths and are groaning out our weakness, this is an evidence that God is working in us and for us. And our groanings are being listened to by God. He takes notice of them, and as the hymn puts it, “He hears our praises and complaints.”
We sometimes think that God won’t hear our prayers if we don’t say the right thing. And of course we can say the wrong things: we can ask for things selfishly or from wrong motives (cf. Jam. 4:2). But it is also possible to fall into the belief that our prayers need to have some kind of almost literary embellishment or adornment for God to take notice of them. We’re afraid if we don’t pray spiritually sophisticated prayers they won’t somehow reach heaven. But what does our text say? It says that God inspires and hears even our groaning. We may not know what to say at all, but that is no hindrance to God! In fact, there are instances in Scripture where the groanings of God’s people are the precursor to some of God’s greatest deliverances. For example, the Exodus: “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel – and God knew” (Exod. 2:23-25). In the end, just like the Israelites, God’s commitment to us does not depend upon our flowery prayers or our worthiness but upon God’s commitment to his covenant, to his promises to us in Christ.
Our groanings are acted upon.
And so we see that what inevitably follows upon God’s notice is God’s acting for us. We can know, because of the Spirit’s intercession for us, that God is going to bring about his will in our lives, even if we don’t know what it is. We don’t have to know what is best for us, because “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” We’re going to consider the next verse more fully next time, but this obviously leads to the thought of verse 28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Our weakness and ignorance is no roadblock for the fulfillment of God’s good purpose in our lives, because the Spirit is interceding for us according to God’s will.
This text is yet another reminder of the more general principle that God is not limited by our limitations. Over and over again we are reminded in Scripture that the things that are impossible with men are possible with God. We are instructed that when we are weak then we are strong because it is precisely in our weakness that God shows his strength. We need to be reminded of this because we are often trapped by the tendency to measure all possible outcomes in any particular situation in terms of our ability to manage and handle them. This is dangerous because if we look at life through these lenses, we will less likely look to God for our help. It is only when we come to the end of ourselves that we truly start to look to God for our help. Like the psalmist, it is when “my heart is in anguish within me” and “the terrors of death have fallen upon me” and “fear and trembling come upon me” and “horror overwhelms we” that we say, “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Ps. 55:4-5, 22).
Another way to put it is that this doctrine is an antidote to human pride. But it is also an antidote to our despair. Some people don’t look to God because they think they have it all together. These verses remind us that is not true. But there are others who are afraid to look to God because all they see when they look within is ugliness and insufficiency and weakness and sin. What this text reminds us is that we also should not allow our weakness to turn us from God but to remind us of our dependence upon him. Even in our groaning, the expression of our limitations and ignorance, God is working.
Beware of theological systems that in the end make your life and salvation dependent upon yourself. My friend, that is a terrifying and debilitating idea. Thank God, Scripture does not teach that! Rather, it teaches that ultimately we are wholly dependent upon God. And that is good news. We are full of sin, but in Christ we have redemption and justification and sanctification. We are full of weakness, but in Christ we are made strong. Without him we can do nothing but in Christ we can do all things through his strength. We are full of ignorance, but in Christ the Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God. Every one of our needs are met in Christ, fully and completely.
So don’t let discouragement get you down. Stop looking at your own limitations and look to the one who is almighty and omnipotent and who brings his power and strength on our behalf, not because we are worthy but because Christ is worthy for us. Look to Christ and trust in him, and find him a full and complete salvation.