When We Don’t Know What to Pray

Romans 8:26-27

August 12, 2007 | Brian Bill

On August 1st, a terrible tragedy brought strangers together to pray.  I’m reading from the StarTribune.com out of Minneapolis-St. Paul:

“Lori Peterson, jogging on the path on West River Parkway, was about 200 feet past the Interstate 35W Bridge Wednesday when she heard an awful noise over the loud music on her iPod.  It was like dynamite…creaking metal…She turned and saw a cloud of white-gray dust billow out.  Water shot into the air.  A road rested in the Mississippi.  People opened car doors and walked off the fallen bridge onto land…Peterson put her hand on the trembling shoulder of a teenage girl, who appeared to be a new driver, as she called her mom.

“Leaving the river, Peterson stopped atop the hill at Gold Medal Park.  “Does anyone want to pray?” she asked.  People looked at her like she was nuts.  She asked three more times; a girl raised her hand and walked over.  More joined.  About 15 people circled for a short prayer.  As people on cell phones told loved ones they were OK, Peterson ran toward her condo at the Rock Island Lofts.  She saw her husband biking toward her.  She broke down in tears, and they held each other in the street.”

Last week we learned that creation is groaning and Christians are groaning.  This world is out of whack and believers are bummed out.  Why is that?  Because grief and groaning will one day be replaced by glory.  But that’s still in the future.  I like how one person said it: “I’m not what I ought to be; I’m not what I will be…but thank God I’m not what I used to be!”  

In our passage for today we’re going to see that not only is creation groaning, and not only are we groaning for glory, but the Holy Spirit Himself is groaning.  Check it out by turning to Romans 8:26-27: “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 will.” 

To get this passage into one sentence, hold on to this truth: “You’re not alone when you’re in the groan zone.”  Have you ever been in the groan zone?  It’s when you sigh more than you speak, when your inner agony is so deep that can’t even express it, when you cry and ask, “Why?”  The families of those coal miners in Utah have been groaning since Monday.   Perhaps you’re there right now.  

I’d like everyone to look at me.  I’m not going to embarrass you but if you’re in the groan zone, would you just drop your eyes to the floor?  Let’s pray right now and ask the Holy Spirit to do His work…

Are you ready to dig in?  Paul begins, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us…” This word “help” means to “take hold at our side; to receive help from one who bears our load.”  One of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to be our paraclete in Greek, or helper.  Jesus said it this way in John 14:16-17: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever–the Spirit of truth.  The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  This title Counselor can also be translated as Comforter.  The Holy Spirit helps by counseling and comforting and convicting (see John 16:8) because He’s with us, right next to us, and He is in us. 

When the Spirit Helps Us

You’re not alone when you’re in the groan zone.  In our passage we see when the Holy Spirit helps us.

1. When we’re weak and weary. 

The Spirit who is holy helps us “in our weakness.”  This word literally means “without strength” and speaks of being incapacitated.  I’m really glad to know this, aren’t you?  Some of us think that we have to be strong in order for God to use us.  Actually, God goes to work when we’re weak as 2 Corinthians 12:10 says: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Hebrews 4:15 tells us that the Son sympathizes with us when we feel feeble: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…”

Several weeks ago I had a day in which the ugliness of sin seemed to be everywhere.  As I listened to some stories about how sin and Satan were devastating lives, a strong abhorrence for sin started to rise within me.  Not just what sin does to others, but what I harbor in my own heart.  Later that day, I found out that someone in one of my former churches had committed suicide.  I was devastated.  As I slumped in my chair tears filled my eyes and I felt like I couldn’t move.  When I went home that night I told Beth that I hate what sin does and I told her that I was drained.  As the night went on I sensed the Holy Spirit helping me in my point of weakness and weariness.  

2. When we’re perplexed about what to pray for. 

The Holy Spirit also helps us when “We do not know what we ought to pray for.”  I think that’s why some people hesitated to pray right after the bridge collapsed.  Have you ever been at a total loss about what to pray for?  Sometimes all we can get out is some sighing and a lot of crying as Psalm 5:1 says: “Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing.”  The good thing is that this is good enough for God according to Psalm 38:9: “All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.” 

Part of our weakness is our pitiful prayers.  Most of us struggle with quantity (we don’t pray enough) and with quality (we don’t know how to pray).  And so sometimes we try to make our prayers sound perfect.  I think God is much less impressed with our “perfect prayers” than we are.  Psalm 34:18 says that God is “is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and Psalm 10:17: “You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.”  Prayers muttered in broken sentences reflecting a broken heart are very precious to God.  

Do you remember the story Jesus told about the self-righteous Pharisee who went to the temple and pontificated as he prayed?  Luke 18:11 actually says that he prayed about himself: “I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  And then the tax collector, standing far off, not even looking up, muttered this prayer for mercy: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus tells us that the man who asked for mercy went home justified while the one who was self-righteous was left just praying to himself.

we’re not alone when we’re in the groan zone

There have been many times in the ministry when I have been at a total loss about what to pray for.  I’ll never forget how paralyzed and perplexed I felt when I was asked to do the funeral for two children who were murdered by their father almost five years ago.  Walking into their bedrooms and seeing their unopened Christmas presents was almost unbearable.  As I tried to put the message together for their funeral, I could barely move my fingers on the keyboard.  The biggest help came from the Holy Spirit as he took my pitiful prayers and turned them into a message of comfort for the family.  Why does He do this?  Because we’re not alone when we’re in the groan zone.  

What the Holy Spirit Does

The second half of verse 26 tells us what the Holy Spirit does and how he does it.  Let’s look first at what He does: “But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us.”  Do you hear the emphasis here?  In contrast to our paltry prayers the “Spirit Himself” prays for us.  The word “intercede” means to “speak in behalf of, to appeal and plead for.”  It was used of rescuing someone in trouble who has no resources to escape.  Stop and ponder that for a moment.  The third member of the Trinity prays and pleads on our behalf, appealing to the Almighty.  Doesn’t that just blow your mind?

But wait.  It gets even better.  Do you know that there’s someone else interceding on your behalf right now?  We not only have the Spirit interceding in our heart; we also have the Son interceding in heaven.  Jump ahead to verse 34: “Christ Jesus, who died-more than that, who was raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  Hebrews 7:25 tells us that Jesus is interceding all the time for us: “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”  And 1 John 2:1 asserts that we have an Advocate who intercedes on our behalf: “But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense-Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”  Our Defender makes up for any deficiencies in our requests.

Friends, we have two perfect prayer partners interceding for us at all times!  That means that you’re not alone when you’re in the groan zone.  

How the Holy Spirit Intercedes

The last part of verse 26 tells us how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us: “with groans that words cannot express.” I find it so comforting that the Comforter groans with me as I deal with all the garbage in my life.  The Holy Spirit joins with creation and with Christians in deep, yet inaudible sighing.  God’s Spirit groans and they are experienced as our groanings as together we await the fulfillment of the glorious words found in Revelation 22:3: “No longer will there be any curse.  The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.”  Our sighing will cease and will be replaced by our serving.  John Piper says that these groanings are based on two things: First, a deep desire and ache of heart that Christ be magnified in our lives; and second, a weakness that leaves us baffled and unknowing as to how this is going to happen.

It’s so intense that words are inadequate to express it.  Here are some passages that mention groaning:

  • We groan with hardship.  Exodus 2:24: “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant…”
  • We groan with grief.  Psalm 6:6: “I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.”  
  • We groan with sickness.  Psalm 31:10: “My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.” 
  • We groan with heartache.  Psalm 38:8: “I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart.” 
  • We groan because of unconfessed sin.  Psalm 32:3: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.”
  • We groan as we grow old.  Proverbs 5:11: “At the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and body are spent.” 
  • We groan for glory.  2 Corinthians 5:2, 4: “Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling…For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened…”

Remember this: You’re not alone when you’re in the groan zone!

Are you still with me?  It gets even better.  Look at verse 27: “And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”

1. God the Father knows our motives. 

Isn’t it tough to really understand our motives?  I can be doing something with good motives and right in the middle of it; my motives get all messed up.  I take great comfort knowing that God knows what’s in my heart (sometimes I find discomfort with this realization).  The word for “search” means to make a thorough investigation.  That’s what the rescue teams have been doing this week as they searched for those missing miners.  This is in the present tense, indicating that this is God’s continual activity.  He never stops or takes a break.  1 Chronicles 28:9: “…For the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts.”  Psalm 44:21: “…He knows the secrets of the heart.” And Jeremiah 20:12 says that God does not just take a cursory glance at our motives: “O LORD Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart…”

2. God the Father knows the mind of the Spirit. 

Since the Father knows what’s in our hearts, he certainly knows the mind of the Spirit.  In fact, there is complete unity within the Trinity – there is no division between Father, Son and Spirit.  They always work together, and since the Holy Spirit is working within us, what He groans is what God the Father hears and responds to.  

3. God the Holy Spirit helps us pray according to God’s will. 

I wonder how many of my prayers are really according to my will and not according to God’s will.  1 John 5:14: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  While we should be careful to make sure we are praying according to God’s will, I’m glad that the Holy Spirit weeds out those prayers that are not in line with God’s will.  The Spirit of God knows my needs better than I do and so He pleads to the Father, raising my desires to a higher and holier place, accomplishing what is good for me and extending the Father’s glory.

An illustration from church history is helpful here.  Augustine, one of the early church leaders, had been a very wicked man in his youth.  His godly mother, Monica, had a heavy burden for her son.  When she learned that he was leaving home and headed to Italy, she prayed that God would not let him go because she feared that he would fall into deeper sin there.  God allowed Augustine to go to Italy and it was there that he was gloriously converted.  God didn’t answer her specific request because the Holy Spirit had redirected her request to line up with God’s will – which was what she wanted anyway.

The Holy Spirit takes our frail, feeble and faulty prayers and translates them to the Father so that they are acceptable and in harmony with His holy will

The Holy Spirit takes our frail, feeble and faulty prayers and translates them to the Father so that they are acceptable and in harmony with His holy will.  I really like the way Charles Spurgeon captures this: “The Holy Spirit’s intercessions have in them such a blessed blending of all that is good that they come up as a sweet perfume before the Lord…That prayer which came from heaven will certainly go back to heaven.  If the Holy Ghost prompts it, the Father must and will accept it, for it is not possible that He should put a slight upon the ever blessed and adorable Spirit.”  We catch a glimpse here of the incredible community and communication that takes place within the Trinity.

Comforting Words

I started this message by asking those who are in the groan zone to look down.  May I now ask you to look up?  Look up and see all that God has done for groaners like you and groaners like me.  John Piper suggests some ways that this passage can provide comfort to Christians.  

  1. Be encouraged that you are not expected to know the will of God in every respect.
  2. Be encouraged that in your perplexity and groaning, you are not being watched, you are being understood.
  3. Be encouraged that God’s work for you is not limited to what you can understand and express with words.
  4. Be encouraged that in your weakness and sickness and loss and hardship and danger the Spirit of God is praying for you and not against you.
  5. Be encouraged that God the Father hears the prayers of the Spirit for you.

“When you feel very weak, because of suffering or decay or sickness or futility or persecution or failed plans or baffling decisions, don’t despair, as if God is angry with you or at your inability to know what to do or what to pray.  At that very moment, experience the wordless groanings of your heart as groanings for the glory of Christ.  And trust the Spirit of God to intercede for you about the specifics.  Trust him, that because he is praying for you, your Father will bring about decisions and circumstances that will magnify Christ in the best way – in the very midst of your ignorance and groaning.” 

Prayer is like our bridge to God and it will never come down or collapse because the Holy Spirit is interceding for us with groans that cannot be expressed.  Our summer missionaries have certainly learned this truth: You’re not alone when you’re in the groan zone.   And the Holy Spirit does more than just pray for us – He sends us out with power to be His representatives to a lost and dying world.  Listen to Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?