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Groans That Words Cannot Express

In my ongoing devotional wrestling reading through the book of Romans I arrive this morning at the eight chapter of Paul’s epistle. This chapter has several passages that are well-known to believers. Some of the passages most believers are familiar with are: “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus;” “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us;” and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The chapter concludes with Paul’s inspiring expression of confidence in God’s ability and desire to preserve him to the end: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The passage that caught my attention for the longest, though, was in verses 26 and 27 where we read “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.”

Browsing through my entirely-inadequate collection of books and commentaries I found a couple of possible explanations for what this passage teaches about the Holy Spirit’s role in prayer and in particular what the passage means by “groans that words cannot express.” Some teach that these groans are actually made by the Spirit Himself on our behalf while others teach that these are the groans of the believer as he cries out to God. The most plausible and defensible explanation is that these are the groans of the believer. Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology, page 381-382) explains that the word translated “helps” (as in “the Spirit helps us in our weakness”) is the same word as is found in Luke 10:40 where Martha asks Mary to come and help her. This would indicate that the Holy Spirit does not pray instead of us, since Martha did not want Mary to work instead of her, but that He takes part with us and makes our prayers effective. It would also seem strange that the Holy Spirit would feel such distress that He would be reduced to groaning - a level of anguish that might be appropriate for humans, but would be entirely inappropriate for the Creator.

So what, then, does it mean that the Spirit helps us in our weakness, taking part in our prayers as we groan in ways that words cannot express? The clearest explanation seems to be that the Spirit helps make our prayers effective. The Spirit may bring to mind needs, desires and problems that we have been unable to express. He may help us to bring meaning and expression to our groanings before God. When we do not know what to say, but merely come before the Lord in brokenness, the Spirit makes our prayers effective in ways we may not even understand. He turns our groanings into fervent, effective prayer to the Father.

What an inspiration it is to know that when we do not know what to say, the Spirit Himself will help us, turning our groanings into effective prayer. What confidence it can give us that when words fail us, they do not fail the Spirit who knows the desires of our hearts better than we do. What a great God we serve that He would provide a way for us to cry out to Him even when we have no words to express our longings.

I will conclude with words penned by Charles Spurgeon: “We are to groan for glorification, but we are to wait patiently for it, knowing that what the Lord appoints is best. Waiting implies being ready. We are to stand at the door expecting the Beloved to open it and take us away to Himself. This “groaning” is a test. You may judge of a man by what he groans after. Some men groan after wealth—they worship Mammon; some groan continually under the troubles of life—they are merely impatient; but the man who sighs after God, who is uneasy till he is made like Christ, that is the blessed man. May God help us to groan for the coming of the Lord, and the resurrection which He will bring to us.”