I have been enjoying Tim Keller’s new book on prayer (Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God). There are many of prayer’s mysteries he handles with exellence and perhaps none more so than what Paul means when, in Romans 8, he writes these words: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” What are these groanings or sighs? Here is Keller’s answer.
There has been some debate over the meaning of “the Spirit’s groans.” Some believe that this is the spirit helping us when we are desperate and groaning, but it is unlikely that this is describing only times of depression. Rather, the “weakness” referred to in verse 26 is the weakness described in the preceding verses, which refer not just to times of despondancy but to our entire human situation of frustrated longings as we await the future glory (vv. 18-25, especially v.23). We know that God is working out all things for our good according to his will (v.28), but seldom can we discern what that good actually is. In other words, most of the time, we don’t know exactly what outcome we should pray for. The Spirit, however, makes our groaning his groaning, putting his prayers to the Father inside our prayers. He does so by placing within us a deep, inexpressible longing to do God’s will and see his glory. This aspiration—this “groaning” desire to please him—comes through in our petitions to God. In every specific request, then, the Father hears us praying for what is both truly best for us and pleasing to him, “and the intercession of the Spirit is answered as God works all things for our good.” The Spirit enables us to long for the future glory of God and his will, even though we don’t know the specific things we should pray for here and now.
Prayer is the way to experience the powerful confidence that God is handling our lives well, that our bad things will turn out for good, our good things cannot be taken from us, and the best things are yet to come.