When I was in high school, out of a desire to please my dad and take extra classes, I signed up for a zero hour class. I am not naturally an early-riser by any means, and prefer to leave my bed in a slow series of stages in the morning, like a little bean sprout crawling out of the dirt, but being able to squeeze an extra class into my schedule would help me get a move on with my future plans. But, sadly, the only early hour class that was available was weight-lifting. You must understand, in high school I was categorically what they would call a “late-bloomer”. Meaning I still was short, had a high-voice, and peach fuzz on my chin. It also meant that I didn’t have any kind of great strength, at all. I had noodley arms, small wrists and an even flimsier sense of self-esteem. Most of the people who took weight-lifting were big, hulking football players and wrestlers. Suffice to say, “noodley” was not the adjective that came to mind when you saw them.
So, I walk into the weight room, half asleep every morning, and am told to climb under this bar that I know I am not going to be able to lift. I would have these tiny little weights on the bar that were just dwarfed by the massive, planet sized weights being lifted by the other guys in the room. I would still, however, struggle under the bar, shaking and sweating, the bar wobbling up and down ever so slowly. I probably would have just let the bar collapse on top of me and crush me if it weren’t for my spotter. Towards the end of my set, if I just didn’t have what it takes to get the bar back up, my spotter would reach down with one hand help me complete my set. I don’t know if ever completed a whole set of bench presses without the help of my spotter. Next semester I dropped the weights class and just slept in instead.
Perhaps the weight class didn’t give me an excuse to wear tight t-shirts or stare at myself in a mirror, but it did leave a powerful image in my mind of what it feels like to be weak. Weakness is really a terrible thing. I know that I certainly hate it. I, often, want the exact opposite of weakness. I want to do whatever I can to put myself in circumstances where I will come out feeling strong and confident, and I’ll avoid anything the presses on my weaknesses like a rabbit avoids a fox. I think we all do this – this is why we get upset when unflattering pictures of us pop up on the internet, when we are stretched beyond our comfort-zone or get flustered when someone one-ups us. We want to convince ourselves and others that we are strong, capable and confident. We want to be the “cool guy”, undaunted, unfazed.
Well, that’s a dishonest and unfulfilling life to lead. Christianity has a different way for us to approach our weakness. Rather than avoiding, ignoring or just flat out pretending they don’t exist, Jesus invites us to embrace our weakness, and offers us help in the midst of it. So, what does that look like?
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God“. – Romans 8:26-27
We have been looking at Romans 8 for quite some time now, and if you could condense the message of Romans 8 into a sentence it would be “the new, Spirit-empowered life of those who have trusted in Jesus.” When we put our faith in Christ and what he did for us on the Cross, the Bible explains that we are filled with the third member of the trinity, the Holy Spirit. We see this early on in Romans 8, where Paul explains that the way you know you are a Christian is if the Holy Spirit dwells inside of you.
So what does the Holy Spirit do inside of us? Well, in this chapter we see that he “sets us free from the law of sin and death” (8:2), he “puts to death the deeds of the body” (8:13), and gives us a sense of being adopted in God’s family (8:16). But here, in verse 26, we see a new work that the Holy Spirit is promising to do for us: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” The Holy Spirit is here to help; here to help weak, tired, exhausted, frustrated, tempted, broken people live a new, supernatural life of love and service to the glory of God. I think we have a hard time believing that. I think we think that God will bring this supernatural kind of life to us after we fix all those problems – but that is not Jesus’ message. It is in the middle of weakness, that He promises power!
For a large part of my Christian life I felt like life was a race and God was running at a certain speed, and if I didn’t keep up with God, I was going to be left in the dust. If I struggled with a sin for too long, if I wasn’t bold enough in my evangelism, if I didn’t know all the right answers about the Bible, if I wasn’t feeling this spiritual high – then God was going to start to outrun me, and perhaps look over his shoulder and tell me to “get serious” about my faith.
Or maybe you are just trying to figure out what this is all about, maybe this is your first time in a church, or maybe you have been coming for quite some time now, but aren’t sure what the Christian faith is all about. Maybe every time I get up to speak, you feel confused. Or maybe you have heard other things in your life that make the Bible seem complicated or boring or even hypocritical.
God is speaking to all of us today with good news: He is here, and he doesn’t despise your weakness, He isn’t going to leave us in the dust, but He wants to help. The beginning of this verse opens up with a “Likewise”, so that means that it is linking it with what was previously said. Last week we looked at verses 18-25 and discussed how the world has been broken by sin, therefore there is suffering, but we have a coming hope that all will be made right. But the passage strongly emphasizes the pain that this fallen world brings, leading to all of creation “groaning” under the weight of the corruption. The puzzle pieces don’t all seem to fit, there is something clunking and sputtering under the hood of humanity. “Sin” has broken everything, our souls, minds, families, relationships – everything doesn’t operate the way it was meant to, and that is why we feel weak.
When the crushing weight of the brokenness of our world and our own sin feels like they are going to pulverize us under our wobbly, noodle arms, God reaches his hand down and says, “I can help.” There is the crazy place where Paul says that he rejoices in his weaknesses because when he is weak, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me…For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Why could Paul say that? Paul could say that because Jesus told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9). To us, it would make most sense if God just fixed all the problems right away – but God explains that there is something to rejoice in, even in our weakness. Jesus says that His power is made perfect, not when we are strong, but when we are weak. If you hear this today, remember this: You don’t have to pretend your weakness isn’t there, accept it, don’t try and cover it up, but give it to Jesus and let His help, His power come to you.
So what does that help actually look like? How is this help, this power going to come into our lives? Well, Paul’s answer is, at face value, somewhat puzzling. He immediately says, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought…” Prayer? What is Paul talking about? We are talking about weakness and suffering in a broken sinful world and the Spirit helping us amidst it all – we weren’t talking about prayer. The language Paul is using (the “For” at the beginning of the sentence), seems to be alluding to the fact that he assumes that prayer is somehow connected to both weakness, and the Spirit’s help. Here is what I think Paul is saying: “When we sense weakness, we must pray. It is as necessary as recoiling your hand back after it touches a flame. But our weakness is so blinding, we don’t even know what to pray for.”
Paul is saying that the Spirit’s help for our weakness somehow involves prayer, but we are so flawed we don’t even know what to do. It’s like we are in a battle, and we have been given a gun, but we don’t even know how to load it. This isn’t good news, this is just more bad news!
Well, luckily, Paul doesn’t end the passage there. “…but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Paul’s answer for how the Spirit helps us in our weakness isn’t just prayer, but Spirit-driven prayer. The Holy Spirit, God himself is leading us to pray. But how does this work? Is God forcing me to do something that I am not really doing? Can I just sit back and say, “I don’t need to pray, God is praying for me.” Not a chance. James 4:2 explicitly states that there a certain things that won’t happen, if you do not pray. There are things that would happen in the world, that are not happening, because God’s people will not pray. So, this verse is not teaching us that we don’t need to pray because the Spirit is interceding for us, rather this verse is teaching that the Spirit is leading us through prayer.
Let’s look at one example of this elsewhere in scripture to help us out. In Galatians 4:6 we see, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” But, if you remember, back in Romans 8:16 we see something similar, yet different, “…you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” In Galatians, it is the Spirit that is described as crying out, but in Romans we are the ones crying out. How does that happen? Did I suddenly lose my free will for a moment, and God turn me into a robot and make me say those words? No! From the bottom of my heart, I cry out to God what I truly believe and cherish. When the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts, he begins to transform us, and replaces our old desires, with His desires. And we are changed.
And this is where we have to examine the phrase that Paul uses, where he explains that the Spirit helps lead us in prayer by “groanings too deep for words.” Some people have interpreted that to mean a special, spiritual language, or a tongue that we are to pray in. I don’t think that is what this verse means, because just a few verses prior Paul is explaining that “groanings” are what all of creation expresses when we encounter the pain of sin, and is the expression of our longing for the redemption of this world. So, when the Holy Spirit has filled our hearts, and we encounter sin and suffering and brokenness, there is an inner groaning, an inner longing for our lives and this world to be healed and restored. And that God-empowered inner longing, too deep for words, is what influences what we pray for.
So, when I get an inclination to pray for something, that comes from the Holy Spirit’s work in me. God sharing the groanings of His own heart, with me, and inviting me into the process of shaping the world through prayer.
So, here is what I am saying: In our weakness, we go to God in prayer, trusting that He will lead us through our God-given inner desires, groanings and longings to pray what we ought to pray. This is how a Christian is to process through their own, and the world’s weaknesses. Therefore, if I feel frustrated over my weakness, but am not praying, I am avoiding the very means by which God has given me to have His Spirit come strengthen me.
And this is a final important note to remember: Just because God has us use prayer to grow and mature, prayer does not, however, turn God into a cosmic vending machine. You don’t put your prayer-quarter in, and then get to select whatever goodie you want. At the end of verse 27 we see that “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Our prayers are answered according to God’s will, not our own. He isn’t a tame lion, you can’t put a leash on Aslan and jerk him around where you want. He isn’t tame, but he is good, he’s the king. Sometimes it looks like our prayers aren’t being answered, but God never leaves us without an answer. God will always give us what we would ask for, if we knew everything that God knew. But, at times it can be difficult when it seems like God is silent or not listening.
In our waiting, how can we know that God really is listening to our prayers? How can we know that He embraces us in our weakness, rather than despise us? How do we know that God won’t just abandon us? Well, because 2,000 years ago Jesus had a prayer go unanswered. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to the Father to provide a different way other than the Cross. And he looks up to the heavens and hears nothing. And he goes to the cross and experiences utter abandonment and is forsaken by the Father. Why?
So you and I never would be. When Jesus died on the Cross, he took out the big divide between the Father and His children, and paid the debt in full. So we can now know for certain that God will never abandon us! Jesus’ prayer went unanswered so yours never would. You need to be reminded of that truth when it seems like God is not responding, like He isn’t there. He is. It may seem confusing, it may not make sense, but because of what Jesus did for us, we can know for certain that God is for us. Let that truth give you confidence and assurance in your prayers.