In Romans 8:26 Paul writes, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
In the past I’ve taken that to mean the Spirit will pray for me when I can’t find the words to pray, or the right words to pray. But I noticed in the Revised standard Version quoted above that it’s not “words” the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us with,” it’s “sighs.” And really sad sighs too, “groanings” according to the NIV. It’s the awful low sounding, chin on chest reaction to a horrible pain or despair.
And it’s pain and despair so great that there aren’t words to express it. I understand why, in Mark 5:38, people “were crying and wailing loudly” in the room where Jairus’ 12 year old daughter lay dead. Words could not express the depth of despair they felt at the awful sight and tragedy of a child dying so young.
And aren’t there things happening in our world and lives too that leave us in the same helpless state, where all we can do is “sigh and cry over all the abominations” that are leaving people’s lives and the planet in ruins?
But I’d never thought that my sighing and crying could actually be the Holy Spirit’s very own sighing and crying in me. You mean the Holy Spirit is in the same state I’m in?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because that’s what Paul is saying in Romans 8:26, but no, because the Holy Spirit’s groanings are more than just the natural grief and mourning we feel. I groan when I roll my ankle really badly, first of all because of the pain, but also because I know for the next six weeks I’ll be handicapped and hobbling and worrying about rolling my weakened ankle again, and I sigh and cry at the adjustments I’ll have to make to my schedule.
There’s a heavy dose of self-pity mixed in there. But that’s obviously not the reason for the Spirit’s sighs and groaning. The Spirit is sighing at our helplessness, not his. And it’s because of our helplessness that God doesn’t have the words to express the tragedy that is us. He didn’t at the time of Noah either. Evil had so infected humanity with such terrible inhumanity that “God’s heart was filled with pain” and he “grieved” at the hopeless mess we’d become. He wished he’d never created us, because of the horrors it had caused (Genesis 6:6-7).
Imagine being God and having to watch humans descend ever deeper into the depths of hell. But here we are now in much the same situation, and we’re now groaning at the horrors going on, not out of self-pity, but because the Holy Spirit is now living the pain-filled, grieving heart of God in us.
No wonder I feel so down some days, and nothing anyone says can comfort me. Thing are happening in the world or in my family or to my chums in church that I can’t do anything about and all I can do is watch helplessly, wishing I could do something, but I can’t. And neither will God solve the impossible horrors for now either, because “he set a day when he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31), and until that day comes the horrors will continue.
I need God to comfort me, therefore, just as Jesus promised he’d comfort those in mourning in Matthew 5:4. He’s doing it too, by showing us it’s because the Holy Spirit is living God’s heart in us that we’re feeling this way. We’re experiencing the supernatural sorrowfully, therefore, in sharing the sorrow and lament of God himself at what’s happening to people and the planet.
And God sees that happening in us, as Paul says in Romans 8:27, that “he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God,” and how wonderful that is to our Father, because it’s clear evidence that we’re being conformed and transformed into the image of Jesus himself, who was also called “a man of sorrows” in Isaiah 53:3. It’s proof we’re on the way to becoming true children of our Father, just like his firstborn Son.
For now I watch helplessly as people stumble through crisis after crisis with no solution, most of which I cannot do anything about. And some days I am just shrieking inside. I’m wailing, lamenting, mourning, groaning, and cannot find the words to even express how I feel to God. But to think that’s how the Holy Spirit feels too and he’s actually expressing his heart in us.