December 17, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV)
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8 encourages us not to hold back in Advent as we observe and experience the “sufferings of this present time” (8:16). We are invited and emboldened to “groan” in prayer, knowing that God not only hears us, but also joins us in our groaning through the indwelling Spirit. Thus, our groaning draws us near to the heart of God.
Today’s devotion is part of the series: Advent for the Children of God.
In last Wednesday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we examined a passage in Romans 8 that talks about groaning in hope. First, we learned that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (8:22). Giving birth produces intense expressions of pain to be sure, but the groanings of labor are filled with hope of new birth. Second, we learned that “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). Our groanings also have a hopeful orientation. We are waiting for God to redeem us completely, confident that this will happen in the future.
If you’re reading Romans 8 in the NRSV, as I am, it would appear that we’re done with the theme of groaning. But, in fact, there is yet more groaning in this passage, groaning that is done by a most surprising groaner. In the NRSV, verse 26 reads, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (8:26). That’s not an incorrect translation, but it obscures the fact that the Greek word translated as “sighs” also means “groans.” That word in verse 26 is stenagmos. If you were to glance up at a couple of earlier verses, you’d see that creation is groaning (sustenazō, 8:22) and we are groaning (stenazō: 8:23). You don’t have to know Greek to recognize the similarity between stenagmos, sustenazo, and stenazo. Thus, I would suggest that the NRSV’s “sighs,” while lexically possible, is not strong enough. The Common English Bible renders the Greek more accurately by saying that “the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans” (Romans 8:26, CEB). The NIV agrees:
“the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (8:26, NIV). The surprising groaner in our passage is the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God!
Before I reflect on the implications of this surprise, let’s review what we have seen in Romans 8 about the Holy Spirit. In verse 9 we learn that the Spirit dwells in those of us who are “in Christ Jesus” (8:9-11). Since we are “children of God,” we are “led by the Spirit” (8:14). The Spirit reassures us that we are indeed God’s beloved children (8:16). Verse 26 adds that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” weakness that comes from the fact that we are not yet fully redeemed (8:23, 26).
No doubt the Spirit helps us in many different ways, including teaching, convicting, guiding, healing, consoling, and empowering us for service. But Romans 8:26-27 emphasizes one particular aspect of the Spirit’s help. When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit helps us by interceding for us with groanings “too deep for words” (8:26). That’s right, God’s own Spirit groans in prayer with us, perhaps also in us and through us.
This is truly amazing and, I suggest, unexpected. We’re used to thinking of prayer as our communication with God. When we pray, we share with God what’s in our hearts and seek to pay attention to what God is saying to us. But Romans 8:26-27 adds a different dimension to prayer. As we pray to God, God is also praying for us and with us. This is rather like what happened in John 17 when Jesus, God the Son, prayed for us. But in Romans 8 it is God the Holy Spirit who intercedes for us.
The Spirit helps us to pray by guiding us, inspiring us, even praying through us. This is true especially when we feel weak and don’t know how to pray. In our groaning prayers to God, God is groaning along with us through the Spirit.
This picture of prayer transforms our relationship with God and our work in the world. N.T. Wright, in his book Into the Heart of Romans, observes that this passage “is about the Christian vocation” (p. 136). As children of God, we are called to share in the pain, indeed, the groaning of this world. We do so not by ourselves, however, but in communion with God through the Spirit. Wright explains that “Paul is talking about our vocation not just to get through difficult times but to stand in prayer where the world is in pain so that God’s own spirit may be present, and intercede, right there” (pp. 133-134; Wright translates the Greek pneuma quite literally by not capitalizing “spirit.”) Wright continues:
God’s own spirit is groaning within us. We are caught up, vocationally, in the work that God is presently doing to bring about the redemption of creation. Our prayers, more specifically the anguished prayers that come when we are overwhelmed and don’t know what to pray for – they are part of the vital means by which the triune God is doing and will do the work of liberating creation from its corruption and decay. That’s what this passage is all about (pp. 142-143).
Thus, in Advent, as we attend to the brokenness in our lives and in our world, and as we wait for Christ to come again and restore all things, we are not only observers who wait in silence. Rather, we join with creation and with the Holy Spirit in groaning, in crying out to God for help. We do so with hope, yes, but also with grief. As Wright states,
[P]art of our primary calling as followers of Jesus is to lament: to stand in the place of pain in humility, sorrow and hope. That’s what the children of Israel did in Egypt. It’s what the Judaeans did for four hundred years before the Messiah came. It’s what we are called to do as we stand in prayer at the heart of a world in pain (p. 141).
Yet our prayerful lamentations are informed by Advent-like hope. “These verses,” Wright says, “explain and contextualize the present work of lament which anticipates the future promised work of the redemption of all creation” (p. 137, emphasis added).
Thus, Romans 8 encourages us not to hold back in Advent as we observe and experience the “sufferings of this present time” (8:16). We are emboldened to groan in prayer, knowing that God not only hears us, but also joins us through the indwelling Spirit. Thus, our groaning draws us near to the heart of God.
Can you remember a time in your life when your prayers were a kind of groaning? What was that like for you?
Have you ever sensed that the Holy Spirit was helping you to pray? If so, when? What happened?
How do you respond to the idea that the Spirit is actually praying with and for you as you pray?
Set aside some time to pray for the brokenness and pain of the world. As you do, be attentive to the presence and groaning of the Holy Spirit.
Gracious God, thank you for the season of Advent, for a time to get in touch with our hopes and yearnings. Thank you for the encouragement to wait upon you as we look to the future.
Lord, you know our groaning. You have heard it, whether we are crying out with our voices or just in our hearts. We groan over the brokenness in our own lives. We moan over the pain, injustice, violence, and suffering in our world.
As we cry out to you, O God, we are grateful that you hear us. But our passage from Romans helps us see something more. In our groaning, you groan with us through the Spirit. You help us to pray when we can’t find the words. You feel our desperation and disappointment. And, amazingly, you intercede for us by your Spirit.
Help me, Lord, to live into my vocation to cry out to you, to lament the pain in this world. May my heart be open to those who suffer. And as this happens, may my heart be open to you. Amen.
Banner image by Igor Rodrigues on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The Groaning of the Spirit.
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.