THE HELP OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (26-27)
1. Helps in our weakness as we pray (26a)
He says, "The Holy Spirit helps us in our infirmity." Singular, it is our longing for release from this
earth. He helps us in that. He explains, "For we know not what we should pray for as is necessary, But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us, with unuttered groanings." And I think that means that the Holy Spirit down within us in ways that are not the ways of articulate speech prays for us in the present environment, and struggles. We have two divine intercessors. We have one in heaven, who is at the right hand of the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, who ever lives to make intercession for us. Paul will refer to this in verse 34, and we also have the Holy Spirit within us, and he too prays that we might be released from the present troubles and trials, and he does it with groanings that are unuttered.
I do not know of any subject that has caused more perplexity for more Christians than the subject of prayer, unless perhaps it is the matter of knowing God’s will. And, of course, the two are related. They are related in this text as well as in other places, for the verses we are now studying speak of the Holy Spirit’s help in prayer, concluding that “he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (v. 27).
Christians who want to pray in accordance with God’s will find themselves asking: What should I pray for? How should I pray? Can I pray with confidence, “claiming” things by faith? Or do I have to make my prayers tentative, adding always, “If it be your will”?
What happens if I pray wrongly? Can prayer do harm? Does prayer get God to change his mind? Can it change God’s plans? If not, does it even matter if I pray?
I do not know any subject that has caused more perplexity and been more of a continuing problem for more believers than this one. But we have help in this area, the help of the Holy Spirit, which is great indeed. It is what Romans 8:26 and 27 are about.
“In the Same Way”
These verses begin with the phrase “in the same way.” So we first need to ask what this refers to. It is a connecting phrase, of course, and most of the commentators link it to what immediately precedes. That is, they link it to the Christian’s hope. The idea seems to be that we endure sufferings in this life but that we are able to handle them in two ways: first, by hope, that is, by a sure and patient looking forward to the final redemption of our bodies; and second, by the help of the Holy Spirit in prayer.
That is a valid connection, of course. But I think that D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is right when he links the apostle’s teaching about prayer in verses 26–27 to his teaching about prayer in verses 15–17. The earlier passage taught that the Holy Spirit enables us to pray, assuring us that we truly are God’s children and encouraging us to cry out “Abba, Father.” That teaching was followed by an extensive digression dealing with the sufferings endured in this life before we come into God’s presence. But then, having dealt with sufferings, Paul returns once more to the Spirit’s work in enabling us to pray, adding that the Spirit also “helps us in our weakness” (v. 26).
In other words, Paul returns to the subject of assurance, which is the chapter’s main theme. The point of these two verses is that the Holy Spirit’s help in prayer is another way we can know that we are God’s children and that nothing will ever separate us from his love.
Notice that when Paul writes the word weakness he adds the word our, thereby putting himself in an identical position. In other words, the weakness that makes prayer difficult is not something that only new, baby, or immature Christians have. It is part of our common human condition. Even the greatest saints have had this difficulty.
The idea of the Holy Spirit coming alongside a Christian to help is the same in both cases. But the special meaning in the word used here in Romans is to help by bearing the Christian’s burden. It pictures our ignorance of what to pray for as a heavy load. We are struggling along under it, as it were. But the Holy Spirit comes alongside and helps us shoulder the load. He identifies with us in our weakness, as Jesus did by his incarnation, and he labors with us.
The second word Paul uses is intercession, saying that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” An intercessor is a person who pleads one’s case. So the meaning is that the way the Holy Spirit comes alongside us to help and shoulder our burden is by pleading our case with God when we do not know how to do it. We do not know what to pray for, but the Holy Spirit does. So he prays for us, and God “who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit” and answers his very correct and powerful prayers wisely.
But none of this is meant to suggest that we have nothing to do in prayer or have no responsibility to pray. We do have responsibility in prayer, which is made quite clear by the word helps. The apostle says that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” He does not eliminate our need to pray regularly and fervently.
Romans 8:26 and 27 imply or explicitly teach so many lessons about prayer that a number of them can be listed as a summary of what we have been learning.
1. We are supposed to pray. Regardless of the problems we may have with prayer—and we are reminded that the saints have all had problems with prayer at times—we are nevertheless supposed to pray. In fact, the Word of God commands us to pray. Indeed, we are told to “pray continually” (1 Thess. 4:17). Anything God tells us to do is for our good, and we are poorer if we fail to do it. Prayer is one of the great spiritual disciplines.
2. Do not expect prayer to be easy. Why should it be? Nothing else in the Christian life is easy. Why should prayer be any different? We should not expect simple or quick-fix solutions. Our contemporary American culture has conditioned us to want easy cure-alls. In the area of our sanctification we expect immediate victories either by a formula or spiritual experience. But God does not work that way. We are called to a struggle, and our perseverance in that struggle is itself a victory, even if the results are not visible or spectacular. And the Holy Spirit will help us bear our burden.
You do not have to feel good about it, though you will in most cases. You do not even have to see results. What is important is that you keep on, and keep on keeping on. One bit of verse puts it like this:
We are not here to play, to dream, to drift;
We have hard work to do and loads to lift.
Shun not the struggle; face it; ’tis God’s gift.
3. Realize what you are doing when you pray. We are addressing ourselves to the great sovereign God of the universe and are presenting our adoration, confessions, thanksgivings and supplications to him. He is hearing these prayers and responding to them consistently, perfectly, and wisely out of his own inexhaustible abundance.
Does prayer get God to change his mind? Of course not! No reasonable person would want that—because if God’s way is perfect, as it is, to get him to change it would be to get him to become imperfect. If that ever happened, the universe would fall into disorder! Any thinking person wants God always to run things according to his own perfect will, not ours.
But here is a parallel question: Does prayer change things? The answer to that is Yes—because God who ordains the ends also ordains the means, and he has made prayer a means to those ends. He has promised us that prayer is effective. Because God has ordained that it should be this way. Jesus has told us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt. 7:7–8). James wrote, “… You do not have, because you do not ask God” (James 4:2), adding, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16b). Remember, too, that when we are talking about change the chief thing that happens in prayer is that prayer changes us.
4. Be encouraged by these verses. It is true that “we do not know what we ought to pray for.” But the Holy Spirit does, and the Holy Spirit has been given to us by God to assist precisely in this area, as well as in other ways. With his help we will make progress.
One commentator has compared learning to pray to a man learning to play the violin. At first he is not very good. But he gets the schedule of the classical music broadcasts in his area, buys the violin parts to the music that he knows will be played, and then tunes in the radio each afternoon and plays along as best he can. His mistakes do not change what is coming in over the radio in the slightest. The concertos continue to roll on in perfect harmony and tempo. But the struggling violinist changes. He gets better week by week and year by year, and the time eventually comes when he can play along with the orchestra broadcasts pretty well.
Prayer is like that. There are plenty of mistaken notes, and groans, too. But there is also progress and joy and encouragement, since God is continuing to conduct the perfect heavenly symphony, and the Holy Spirit is continuing to prepare us for the day when we will be able to take our place in the divine orchestra. In the meantime we can know that the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, like a wise and faithful teacher, is by our side.