by Paul Tautges /
In the process of prayer, the Holy Spirit plays a role both unique and unexpected. Romans 8:26-27 puts it like this.
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.
Just as creation groans waiting for the fullness of redemption, and just as believers groan waiting for redemption from their earthly bodies (Romans 8:22-23), so the Holy Spirit groans in prayer! Three truths concerning the Spirit’s ministry of prayer for us are here to be uncovered.
The Spirit Prays for Us Because We Are Weak
The Spirit who resides within “helps” us. He comes to our aid, rescues us, makes our prayers acceptable to God the Father, and helps shoulder our heavy burden. This is the ongoing ministry of the Spirit in our “weakness,” our human frailties.
It is important for us to recognize that physical, emotional, and spiritual weaknesses reveal human frailty, yet are not necessarily the result of sin. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, experienced human frailty—enabling him to “sympathize with our weaknesses”—yet he never sinned (Hebrews 4:14-15). The omniscient Holy Spirit knows our weaknesses as well. He is the “Spirit of adoption” whom we have received from God and “by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15).
The Spirit Prays for Us Because We Are Ignorant
Often we “do not know what to pray for” (Romans 8:26). Sometimes we are aware of our ignorance, like the disciples who asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). But often we are blind to it, like the sons of Zebedee who came to Jesus with their mother to demand a position of leadership—in response Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22).
The Spirit prays for us because our knowledge is incomplete. Matthew Henry writes, “We are shortsighted … like foolish children, that are ready to cry for fruit before it is ripe and fit for them.” One of my young daughters loves to eat pears, but she does not know how to tell when they are ripe. As a result she will often grab a hard, green pear off the kitchen counter, take one bite, and leave the rest behind claiming “it is too hard.” We often do the same. We want the fruit God is preparing for our future, but we want it now, before it is ripe. We do this because we are ignorant of what is best for us, and therefore don’t know how to pray as we should. But the Spirit prays according to perfect knowledge. He prays with “groanings too deep for words.” The Spirit pleads on our behalf in longings that are verbally inexpressible. This is his silent prayer ministry.
The Spirit Prays for Us Because God’s Knowledge is Perfect
Paul continues in Romans 8:27, “He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit.” The omniscient Father always knows what the Spirit is thinking. So the Spirit’s prayers include groanings that literally cannot be expressed in words, but at the same time the Father knows and understands the thoughts of the Spirit without the need for words. The Spirit of God knows the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:11), and the Father knows the thoughts of the Spirit. The two are always in full agreement.
What then is the role of words in prayer? The same as the role of words in human communication generally. We do not have God’s unlimited intellect, so we generally need words to help us capture thoughts in a more tangible form. Most of the time we also need words to communicate reasonably well with one another and with ourselves. This is why the Bible has come to us as it has—the Spirit “translating” God’s thoughts to us in the form of words (1 Corinthians 2:13, 2 Peter 1:21).
Knowing that God’s thoughts have been revealed to us by the Spirit in the written Word of God, we can have great confidence that the words the Spirit prays on our behalf to the Father are always perfectly in accord with Scripture. The same cannot be said of our own prayers, as R. C. Sproul admonishes,
Professing Christians often ask God to bless or sanction their sin. They are even capable of telling their friends they have prayed about a certain matter and God has given them peace, despite what they prayed for was contrary to his will. Such prayers are thinly veiled acts of blasphemy, and we add insult to God when we dare to announce that his Spirit has sanctioned our sin by giving us peace in our souls. Such a peace is a carnal peace and has nothing to do with the peace that passes understanding, the peace that the Spirit is pleased to grant to those who love God and love his law.
It should come as no surprise that sinful, rebellious people are capable of sinful, rebellious prayers. We can pray with our mouths, “Thy will be done,” but mean in our hearts, “My will be done.” This is where the Spirit helps us immensely. Galatians 4:6 says, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit and the Son make our prayers acceptable to the Father according to his will. In other words, we pray, then on the basis of those prayers the Son and Spirit pray for us to the Father on our behalf in perfect accordance with the Father’s will.
Jesus is our substitute, our representative before the Father, and only on the basis of his work on the cross can we ever come before God. The same is true of our prayers! Just as we are unfit to come before the Father on our own behalf, neither are our prayers! They must be sanctified and purified—“translated,” so to speak—by the Spirit and Son before they can come before the Father. If no unholy person can come before God, then neither can any unholy prayers. This is what it means to say that the Spirit intercedes for us “according to the will of God.”
Dr. Paul Tautges is the husband of Karen and father of ten wonderful children, two of whom are married. He serves as senior pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Cleveland OH, and is the author of numerous books. This series has been adapted from chapter one of his book, Brass Heavens: Reasons for Unanswered Prayer.