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The Holy Spirit, Our Helper
P. G. Mathew, M.A., M.Div., Th.M.
"Excerpt from Original Article"
As people of God, we all need help, because this age is one of sufferings. Paul told us to wait for the life of the age to come with endurance (Rom. 8:25). So we are waiting in hope of the glory of God—waiting for our resurrection bodies and for the new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness.
But not only does this hope sustain us in our present sufferings, Paul tells us the Holy Spirit himself also helps us in all our weaknesses. God never leaves us nor forsakes us: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1-2). Paul declares, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). Then he states, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death, because God has given us the Holy Spirit.
In our previous studies of Romans 8 we learned a few things about the Holy Spirit: The law of the Spirit of life regenerated us and set us free from the law of sin and death so that we now live according to the rule of the Holy Spirit – kata pneuma. As children of God, we delight in what the Holy Spirit desires; we are now controlled, not by our old sin nature, but by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Christ who dwells in us guarantees that he will raise us up on the last day, and even now by the power of the Spirit of God we can daily put sin to death. The Holy Spirit guides us in the way of righteousness. This Spirit is the Spirit of our adoption as sons of God and by him we boldly cry, “Abba, Father.” The Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirits that we are children of God, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. The Holy Spirit is the first fruits pointing us to the harvest of our full and final salvation.
Now we learn from Romans 8:26-27 that this Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us is continually helping us in all the weaknesses we experience in this life, especially with our weakness in prayer. He intercedes for us, and his intercession is always effectual. Therefore, just as the hope of the coming glory sustains us to wait with patience, so also the Holy Spirit helps us to endure our sufferings.
1. The Holy Spirit Helps Us
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” in all our infirmities (Rom. 8:26). Paul here tells us something more about the Holy Spirit to assure us of our final salvation: The Spirit helps us in our present weakness. Notice, he does not remove our weakness, but he helps us in it. The Spirit helps us to go through our sufferings triumphantly. Our weaknesses include all the suffering of this present age—physical pain, mental depression, spiritual conflicts, groanings peculiar to pastors (Heb. 13:17), slander, persecution, sickness, lack of physical strength as we grow older, frustration, ignorance, dullness of mind to understand the Scriptures, martyrdom, terminal diseases, tragedies, being dragged to court, and finally facing death itself.
But the particular weakness Paul cites that affects all aspects of our life is our inability to discern clearly the will of God especially in unusual circumstances and crisis situations. We do not know what to pray for in such circumstances. For instance, suppose your wife is sick with cancer. You pray for her healing, yet you do not know what God’s will is for her—to live, or to die and be with Christ, which is far better. This weakness to discern the will of God is not sin. It is part of our present imperfect existence.
Since we do not know the secret will of God, we often add to our prayers, “If it is your will.” The apostles did this. Paul spoke like this in his letter to the Romans: “And I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you… . so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed” (Rom. 1:10; 15:32). He also told the Corinthian church, “But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing” (1 Cor. 4:19). Paul promised the Ephesians, “I will come back if it is God’s will” (Acts 18:21). James instructs us, “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). Jesus himself prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
We have weakness and problems, and do not always know what to pray in times of crisis. But the Holy Spirit comes to our aid in all such situations. He comes to help bear our burdens. He comes as the heaven-sent Comforter, Counselor, and ever-prevailing Advocate, who has never lost a case and never will. He is our paraklêtos, one called alongside us to help us. He comes to help.
Paul uses the word sunantilambanetai, which means “continually helping.” The Holy Spirit comes at just the right time to help us. He comes to take up one end of the burden, and he strengthens us to carry the other end of the load. This word is used in the Septuagint to describe easing the burden of God’s people, especially of leaders. God told Moses to come up with leaders for groups of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands: “That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you” (Exod. 18:22). Another time in reference to the seventy elders, God said, “They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone” (Num. 11:17). It is good to have a plurality of leaders so that one man does not have to bear the burden alone. In the New Testament, the overburdened Martha used this word when she requested, “Lord… . tell [Mary] to help me!” (Luke 10:40).
When troubles come that we cannot bear, the Holy Spirit will come and help us. Jesus declares, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29). In eastern countries we still see plows with two oxen attached to a yoke. The idea is we are one ox, Jesus is the other, and together we do the job. We bear the yoke with Jesus. He bears the burdens with us and enables us to bear them also. He promises to be with us always, even unto the end of the age. He is our high priest who sympathizes with all our troubles and helps us, as the Hebrews writer declares: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. But we have one who has been tempted in every way yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
So Paul said, “I can do everything through [Christ] who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13). We are weak and need strength. Jesus promises, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8). Christ helps us by sending the Spirit of God to empower us.
Our weakness is particularly manifested in our not knowing what to pray in the will of God, especially in deep crisis situations. Many people in the Scriptures experienced this problem. Moses prayed for God to let him go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan. But he was not praying in the will of God. The Lord said, “That’s enough! My will is for you to die, and you will not enter Canaan” (Deut. 3). Elijah grew tired of the ministry and prayed, “I have had enough, LORD… . Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4). He did not know what to pray. Instead of fulfilling his desire, God took him to heaven and he never died.
When Jesus was suffering, he prayed, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). Elsewhere he said, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Paul himself did not always know how to pray. When God gave Paul a thorn in his flesh to torment him, Paul prayed for its removal: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” But God did not grant Paul’s request. He continues, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:8–9). Another time he writes, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus” (2 Tim. 4:20). God had used Paul to perform great miracles in many places, but there was no miraculous healing of Trophimus. Paul had to leave him at Miletus, still sick.
Because of our present weakness and our limited horizons, sometimes we do not know what we should pray for and what we should not pray for. The Holy Spirit helps us in this weakness.
2. The Spirit Intercedes for Us
It is not that we always do not know what to pray for. Most of the time we do know because the Scripture instructs us to pray according to the will of God. And as we pray believing in God’s promises, God answers such prayers of faith.
Some would ask that if the Holy Spirit prays for us in the will of God, why should we bother praying? There are several answers to this question:
God commands us to pray.
God taught us to pray.
Just as God ordains the ends, he also ordains the means of prayer to those ends.
Jesus himself prayed.
God does not hear the prayers of sinners but he hears the prayers of his saints.
God tells us to pray to him in the name of Christ to receive mercy and grace to help us in time of our need.
God want us to know his will and pray in that will. Paul says, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Eph. 5:17).
God promises to hear our prayers.
As we become more godly, the more we will be in the word of God and the more we pray in the will of God.
We know that spiritual requests are always in God’s will, and we should make such requests, like the prayer of Paul for the church: “I pray that out of his glorious riches, he may strengthen you so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God ” (Eph. 3:16–19).
We know that when we pray based on God’s promises, he will hear us. David prayed, You promised… . please do it (see 2 Sam. 7:25–26). That is what children say to their parents: “You promised; please do it.”
However, we must make two notes about our prayers. First, we must never demand anything from God. Second, we must use caution when praying for personal things. The nation of Israel provides a warning in this regard: “In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wasteland they put God to the test. So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them” (Ps. 106:14-15).
But Romans 8:26-27 is especially speaking about the weakness of our ignorance as to what to pray for in crisis situations. The Spirit intercedes to the Father in heaven in behalf of his weak saints. He intercedes stenagmois alalétois, “with groanings unspoken,” which is a difficult phrase to interpret.
What is the meaning of groanings? When Paul writes about creation groaning (Rom. 8:22), we know that is metaphorical. (PGM) But when he says we groan within ourselves (v. 23), is that literal or metaphorical? In Romans 8:26, who is groaning? Does the Holy Spirit, who is eternal God, groan under pressure? Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says no: “He never groans, He never sighs; that is inconceivable.”1
The word “groaning,” stenagmos, or its verb stenazô, is used in the Septuagint and the New Testament to refer to groanings of creatures who are suffering under severe burdens. “I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free” (Acts 7:34). Paul says that “while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened” because our outward man is wasting away (2 Cor. 5:4). The word is also used in Hebrews 13:17: “Obey [your leaders] so that they do this with joy and not groaning” (author’s translation).
If this groaning is not metaphorical, who groans—the Holy Spirit or the saints? I believe it is neither alone, but the saints groaning under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
What is the nature of this groaning? Is alalétois defined as wordless, meaning these groanings are silent sighs too deep for words? Is it ineffable, incapable of being expressed in human language? Or does it mean inarticulate, that the sounds make no sense either to the hearers or to the one who groans?
Whatever the meaning is, the content of the groaning is the intercession of Holy Spirit. So this groaning has meaning and purpose. The sighs assume a degree of distress and anguish.
But are these groanings perceptible or imperceptible to the saints? C. H. Spurgeon says, “A groan then is a part of prayer which we owe to the Holy Ghost.”2 I say we groan under the direction of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 4:6 Paul says, “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father’” (author’s translation). In Romans 8:15 we read: “And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” The conclusion, then, is that we cry, “Abba, Father,” by the direction of the Holy Spirit. So also we groan under the direction of the Spirit.
Let me prove it in this way. Jesus said, “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt. 10:19–20). However, in Luke 12 we read, “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11–12). John says, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’” (Rev. 22:17). It is not the Spirit speaking, “Come!” But the Spirit speaks through the church, “Come!” Therefore, I say, we groan by the direction of the Spirit.
3. The Spirit’s Effectual Intercession
The intercession of the Holy Spirit is always effectual. This is because God who examines our hearts knows the mind of the Holy Spirit and what his desire for us is.
God knows our hearts. David said, “And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you” (1 Chron. 28:9). He also prays, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23).
The prayer of the Spirit is always effectual because he prays according to the will of God in our behalf. The Father is God and the Holy Spirit is God, so there exists perfect harmony between the Father who searches our hearts and the mind of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, we do not always know how to pray in accordance with God’s will in specific situations. But in Romans 8:27 Paul tells us, “According to God [kata theon] the Spirit intercedes for the benefit of the saints” (author’s translation). The Holy Spirit always prays according to the will of God. So the Spirit continually helps us to bear our burdens. His intercession is always effectual because he intercedes according to God’s perfect will. He is our paraklétos, one who comes alongside to help us in all our weaknesses.
Moses prayed to enter Canaan. The Spirit interceded that he not enter, and the Spirit’s intercession was effectual. Elijah prayed that he might die, but the Spirit interceded that he never die, and his intercession was effectual. Paul prayed that his thorn in the flesh be removed immediately; the Holy Spirit interceded that the thorn remain in his flesh, and the Spirit’s intercession was effectual. As a church we prayed for the healing of a cancer-stricken sister. The Holy Spirit prayed that she instead die and enter the presence of God, and the Spirit’s blessed intercession prevailed.
Saints, do not worry when you do not know what to pray for at certain difficult times. The Holy Spirit prays for us, and his prayer always prevails. The will of God will be done. Listen to Douglas Moo’s comforting words: “When we do not know what to pray for—yes, even when we pray for things that are not best for us—we need not despair, for we can depend on the Spirit’s ministry of perfect intercession ‘on our behalf.’”4 Martin Luther said, “It is not an evil sign, but indeed the very best, if upon our petitions the very opposite happens to us. Conversely, it is not a good sign if everything is granted to us for which we pray. The reason for this is the following: God’s counsel and will tower high above our own counsel and will, as we read in Isaiah 55:8, 9.”5
Conclusion We are weak, but God is strong to help us in all our weaknesses. We can rejoice, knowing that we have a number of intercessors.
Christ in heaven is interceding for us (Rom. 8:34), guaranteeing our justification based on his blood atonement. His intercession is effectual.
The Holy Spirit intercedes for us in our hearts according to the will of God. His intercession is always effectual for our sanctification.
God’s holy church intercedes for us. After James, the brother of John, was put to the sword, Peter was arrested and put in prison. The church was interceding for Peter in the house of Mary the mother of Mark (Acts 12:5), and the intercession was effectual. God sent an angel and let Peter out of prison to continue his ministry. Paul says that if one member suffers, the whole body suffers (1 Cor. 12:26). Elsewhere, he says, “Bear one another’s burden and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
May we therefore not worry as we face problems, weaknesses, sufferings, and trials. God the Father is for us, Christ the Son is for us, the Holy Spirit is for us, and the holy church is for us. We are well taken care of, and in his time, the Lord will bring us safely home.
Link: Original Article