This is the fifth time we’ve been studying Romans 8. And it’s a terrific chapter. Let me remind you of what we’ve seen so far.
In verses 1 to 4, Paul tells us there’s no condemnation, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because of what God the Father has done for us by his Son.
And then in verses 5 to 13, he explained how we’re no longer in the flesh, but we’re in the Spirit. The flesh is the realm of the human only, which is now characterised by sin and death. But the realm of the Spirit is characterised by righteousness and life. And whenever we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we’re delivered from the flesh, and we’re now in the Spirit.
And then in verses 14 to 17, Paul tells us how God the Father gave us his Spirit, the Spirit of Adoption, to persuade us of the wonderful truth that, through faith in Christ, we’ve become God’s children. His Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we’re his sons and daughters who will inherit everlasting life in God’s heavenly kingdom. And though we may have to suffer so very much in this troubled life, nevertheless we have the Spirit of Adoption to re-assure us of the Father’s love; and the Spirit enables us to cry out to our loving, heavenly Father for the help we need.
And then in verses 18 to 25, which we looked at last time, Paul began by saying that our present sufferings — all the trials and sorrows of this troubled life — are not worth comparing with the glory which God has in store for us when Jesus Christ our Saviour returns and we’re glorified in his presence. And do you remember? Paul spoke about how all of creation is longing with eager expectation for the day when the creation will be freed from its bondage to decay. And the Holy Spirit inside us — who is the pledge and guarantee and assurance of the life to come — makes us long for the consummation or the completion of our salvation, when we’ll be glorified in the presence of our Lord. That’s what we’re longing for. That’s are great hope. And it’s sure and it’s certain. And so we wait for it with patient endurance.
And once again, Paul is encouraging us. Right now, in this life, the Lord’s people suffer in many ways. Many things cause us to groan inwardly. But we’ve got a great hope to sustain us. That’s what Paul was saying in the previous section. We’ve got this sure and certain hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in Christ’s kingdom of glory to sustain us and to enable us to wait with patient endurance. But here’s another thing to encourage us and to prevent us from giving up in despair. You see, we’ve got the Holy Spirit to help us.
And in verses 26 and 27, Paul makes clear that we have the Holy Spirit to help us to pray.
We cannot pray
Why do we need help to pray? Look what Paul says in verse 26. He says that we do not know what we ought to pray for. Let me say that again, because it’s so surprising: we do not know what we ought to pray for.
Now, in many commentaries, the commentator takes it for granted that what Paul is saying here is that we sometimes don’t know what to pray for. Most of the time we know what to pray for, but occasionally, from time to time, we’re stuck and we don’t know what to pray for. Something has happened; and we don’t know what to make of it; we don’t know what to think of it; we don’t know what to say about it. And so, even though we have come to God to pray about it, on this occasion, we don’t know what to say to him or what to ask.
That’s how I always understood these words of Paul. In fact, that’s what I said the first time I preached on this passage. However, since I first preached on this passage I heard a talk by Richard Gaffin, who is an American theologian, who pointed out that that’s not what Paul said. He didn’t say:
We sometimes do not know what to pray for.
He didn’t say that; he said:
We do not know what to pray for.
It’s a sweeping assertion about the way it is every time we pray. So, whenever we pray, we don’t know what to pray for. This is the default position.
How can that be? Surely we do know what to pray for? Hasn’t God given us instructions in the Bible about how to pray? Didn’t the disciples ask the Lord Jesus to teach them to pray? And didn’t he give them the Lord’s Prayer as the pattern for all our prayers? So, this is what we’re to pray for: for God’s name to be hallowed; and for his kingdom to come; and for his will to be done; and so on. Isn’t that what we’re to pray for?
And that’s true, but still Paul says that we don’t know what to pray for. And I think what he meant is that, while we know in part what God’s will is, because he’s revealed it to us in the Bible, nevertheless we’re unable to know the depths of his will; and we’re unable to know everything about his plans for us and for the world.
Let me give you an example of what I mean from the life of Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes about that thorn in his flesh. We don’t really know what the thorn in his flesh was, though it was clearly something that caused him pain and discomfort; he called it a messenger of Satan, sent to torment him. And since it was tormenting him so much, Paul prayed to the Lord about it. So Paul, the Great Apostle, prayed to the Lord. If anyone knows what to pray for, surely it will be Paul the Apostle? And so, he pleaded with the Lord, three times, asking him to take the thorn away.
But it turns out that the Apostle Paul did not know what to pray for. He prayed for the Lord to take the thorn away; but the Lord did not take the thorn away. Instead of taking the thorn away, the Lord gave him the grace he needed to put up with the thorn and to endure it. Paul wanted relief from the thorn, but the Lord wanted to teach him something new about his power and his ability to help Paul.
We don’t know what to pray for. How can we possibly know everything about God’s plans and purposes for us? How can we possibly know what he’s got in mind for us and for the people we’re praying for? We think we know what needs to happen, and we think we know what God needs to do, but God has something far, far, far better in mind.
Remember what Paul said about God to the Ephesians? He said in Ephesians 3 that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask … and all we can even imagine. His ways are so far above our ways that we can’t even imagine what he might do. So, think of Joseph in the Old Testament. He couldn’t possibly imagine what God had in store for him whenever his brothers sold him as a slave. He couldn’t possibly imagine what God had in store for him when Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him. He couldn’t possibly imagine what God had in store for him when he was locked up in Pharaoh’s prison. He couldn’t possibly imagine what God had in store; so how could he know what to pray for? We want to pray for God’s will to be done, but we can’t, because God’s plans and purposes are beyond our understanding.
Not knowing what to pray for is all part of our weakness. Do you see how Paul refers to our weakness in verse 26? What does he mean by that?
We all suffer in varying degrees one weakness or another. One person is good at one thing, but weak at another. One person is good at sport; but hopeless at studying. Another person is good at studying, but hopeless at sport. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, the things we’re good at, and the things we’re bad at.
However, when Paul refers to our weakness here, he’s not referring to that kind of thing. He’s not referring to our ‘weaknesses’. He’s referring to our weakness, to the weakness which we all suffer from. He’s talking about the human condition, the whole of our existence, our life here on earth which, for the present, is characterised by weakness and by suffering and by frustration.
Look back to the previous verses to see what I mean. Look at verse 20, for a start, where Paul refers to how the creation was subjected to frustration. Then in verse 21 he refers to creation’s bondage to decay. And in verse 22 he tells us the whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. What’s he talking about? Well, I mentioned the last time that one of the commentators describes those verses as Paul’s commentary on Genesis 3:17+18. Do you remember? After Adam sinned, God said to him:
cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.
So, ever sin Adam fell, and sin came into the world, the world is no longer the way it’s meant to be, but it’s been subjected to frustration and decay and disorder. Furthermore, look at verse 23: we ourselves, says Paul, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit — so Paul is referring to believers here — we groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Paul is talking about how believers are frustrated with the way things are in the world around us; and we’re frustrated with the way we ourselves are — we’re frustrated by our sin and how we dishonour the Lord and fall short of doing his will and how we keep doing what we know is wrong. So, we groan inwardly because we’re frustrated with the way we are; and we’re longing for the consummation of our salvation, the fullness of our salvation, when at last we’re glorified, and made perfect forever, and brought into the presence of the Lord in the new heavens and the new earth.
The whole of creation is subjected to frustration, says Paul. We too are frustrated and we have to put up with and to endure our present sufferings and our present weakness. And part of that suffering and weakness is the fact that we don’t know what to pray for. We want to pray for God’s will to be done, but we can’t, because God’s plans and purposes are beyond our understanding.
This humbles us, doesn’t it? You meet proud Christians, Christians who are filled with pride and who boast about themselves and what they’ve done and who consider themselves to be superior to everyone else. But we don’t have any reason for pride, do we? There are many reasons for not being proud, and here’s one reason here: when we’re engaged in one of the most noble activities we can do — praying to Almighty God in Heaven — when we’re engaged in one of the most noble activities we can do, we’re confronted every time with our weakness and our inability to pray as we should. Every time we turn to God in prayer, we come face to face with our weakness. So, we have no reason to boast before the Lord and we have no reason to boast before other people. Instead we should humble ourselves and confess that we are weak and we don’t know what to pray for.
The Spirit’s help
However, there’s no reason to give up praying. There’s no reason to give up praying, because look at what else Paul says:
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. So, we don’t know what to pray for, but the Holy Spirit helps us; and he helps us by interceding on our behalf.
If you look back over chapter 8, you’ll see in verse 22 that Paul tells us how the creation groans. Then, in verse 23, he tells us that believers groan. And now, he tells us in verse 26 that the Spirit groans within us. And by means of this groaning, the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf. So, we don’t know what to pray for; we want to pray according to God’s will, but we can’t fathom the depths of God’s will. Nevertheless, the Spirit is able to help us and he helps us by praying to God the Father on our behalf.
And look at verse 27: When God the Father searches our hearts, what does he find? Well, he finds the mind of the Spirit, who is praying on our behalf; and the Holy Spirit is always, always, always able to pray according to God’s will, because he knows the will of God perfectly. So, his prayers on our behalf are always perfectly in tune with God’s will and with God’s plans and purposes for us and for the world.
There’s a garage near where we used to live. And when the children were small, I’d walk with them to the garage to help them buy their sweets. And the till was at the end of the counter; and on the top of the counter, were rows and rows and rows of sweets and chocolate bars. And I’d get the children to go up to the sales assistant at the till and to ask for what they wanted. But I’d also stand close by, because sometimes they’d get muddled and they’d ask for the wrong thing; and I’d see the sales assistant reach for the wrong packet of sweets. And whenever that happened, I’d speak up and say:
No, that’s not what they wanted to ask for. This is what they want to ask for.
In a similar way, we go to God the Father in prayer. And we want our prayers to be according to his will; we want to ask for the right things. But since we’re like little children, we get it wrong. But not to worry, because we have the Holy Spirit with us, to help us, and to speak up for us and to say to God the Father:
No, that’s not really what they wanted to ask for. This is what they wanted to ask for.
Whenever we pray, we’re confronted with our weakness, because we don’t know what we ought to ask for. But we don’t need to worry: God’s will for us and for the world is not frustrated, even though our prayers are not right and even though we’re confused and ignorant and we’re praying for the wrong thing. God’s will is not frustrated by our weakness, because the Holy Spirit is always with us to help us and to pray on our behalf; and his prayers are always perfectly in line with the Father’s will.
We’re often perplexed, aren’t we? We’re often perplexed by what God is doing our lives. Things happen in your life, and you don’t understand why the Lord let this thing happen to you. And you wonder what’s going on. Things happen in the home and with our families. Things happen at work. There’s an illness. There’s a bereavement. There’s a coronavirus crisis. Things happen and we’re perplexed and we wonder what’s going on.
And then we read on in Romans 8 where Paul says that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him. But we don’t know how he’s able to turn what happened to us to our good. How he’s going to do it? And then we read on about God’s great plan for us, and how he predestined us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son in glory. In other words, the destiny he had in mind when he called us to Christ, was to transform us into the likeness of Christ in the new heavens and the new earth where everything will be perfect. But how’s he going to do that? There are lots of things we don’t understand.
And though you know you ought to pray about these things, you don’t know what to say to God, and you don’t know what to ask for. And sometimes, you’re afraid you’re going to ask for the wrong thing. But listen: You don’t need to worry, because even though we’re perplexed, the Holy Spirit, living inside us, is never perplexed; and he’s able to overcome our weakness and to pray perfectly on our behalf according to God’s will. We don’t know what to pray for; you don’t know what to pray for; I don’t know what to pray for; but the Holy Spirit? He always knows what to pray for. So, even though prayer is hard, let’s keep praying, because whenever we pray, the Holy Spirit is at work to help us; and he’s at work to pray on our behalf so that God’s will is done in our lives and in the world.