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 word. (verses 26-27)
I’ve often struggled with the reality of prayer. How is it that so often in my experience the answers don’t come through in the way I have been anticipating, even when I anticipate with faith-fuelled passion? I remind myself of the Lord’s promise, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14), yet the struggle persists.
I find some profound insight and encouragement in these two short verses.
First, something about me. Paul reminds me of my weakness, applying it specifically in the realm of prayer. “We do not know what we ought to pray for.” I’ve been assuming I should know what to pray, but he tells me I don’t. I’ve learned that I need to ask “in Jesus’ name,” which I understand to mean asking according to his purposes. But what I discover here, remarkably, is that part of the human condition (part of my own weakness) is that we don’t know. One of the commentators (Douglas Moo) helpfully draws out the implication: “All our praying is conditioned by our continuing ‘weakness’ and means that - except perhaps on rare occasions - our petitions must be qualified by ‘if it is in accordance with your will.’”
I find the realism of that statement profoundly encouraging. It means that prayer is discovery, pressing forward with faith-fuelled passion, yes, but keeping eyes open to discern further the Lord’s own purposes and direction.
Secondly, I learn something about the Spirit. Remarkably, he himself is always interceding on my behalf. Even when I don’t know what to pray, or perhaps especially then. He’s interceding beyond my own words, inaudibly praying on my behalf. And he gets it exactly right, because he knows the mind of the Father (1 Corinthians 2:11), and therefore “intercedes … in accordance with God’s will” (verse 27). What’s more, those prayers are fully heard, because the Father knows the mind of the Spirit.
What this tells me is there is a divine safety-net undergirding my prayers. Wow. My own passionate intercession may even be off-target, but all the while the Spirit is interceding powerfully and rightly on my behalf. What an incredible encouragement! This doesn’t lead me to give up praying. The scriptures throughout charge me to keep pressing on, to always pray and not give up. But, once again, it’s not dependent on me. The Spirit is praying straight and true.
The final thing I notice here is the phrase that introduces these verses in the first place: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us.” I’ve often asked myself, what’s the point of comparison, what is it that is “the same” about the Spirt’s intercession? I was interacting with the Lord about this yesterday as I looked at these words afresh. Something leapt off the page I hadn’t noticed before - I offer it to you (though perhaps you’ve already seen it). The common denominator is the “groaning.” Creation is groaning, waiting for perfection. We, too, having experienced the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” are groaning, passionately yearning for the fulfilment of hope. Paul uses the very same root word to describe the Spirit’s own activity in prayer: he “groans.” He has intense, heartfelt longing on our behalf as he intercedes. It’s not perfunctory. It’s not out of duty. He takes up our burdens, feels their weight, knows the Father’s purposes, and intercedes for us. Groaning. This is the Spirit’s heart.
I don’t yet fully understand prayer. But these verses urge me to press forward. The Spirit himself undergirds it all.
Dear Holy Spirit, thank you that you intercede on my behalf with heartfelt, wordless prayers of yearning. When I don’t even know how to pray, I stand in awe that you step right in. Praise you.
Pray: What prayers are on your heart? Pray, knowing the Spirit is groaning in prayer, too.