In Romans 8:26-27, the Apostle Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit helps us to pray. How does He help us, and what does His help mean for us?
The Spirit’s Help
When Paul says that the Spirit helps us, he uses an eight syllable Greek word that means “to lay hold of with, to help in obtaining.” The Holy Spirit personally partners with us prayer; his hand reaches and grasps alongside my own – providing guidance and grace.
The Spirit helps us to pray in at least two ways: directly via assisted or inspired expression – as the text seems to more heavily indicate, and indirectly via the influence of His presence – as the text at least allows us to consider. Both, I think, are important and should be incorporated into our understanding and practice of Spirit-aided prayer.
But first, let Paul remind us of why we need help…
Why We Need Help
The Spirit helps us in our weakness, which Paul explains to mean that we have a limited knowledge of how to pray or what to pray. We pray from limited perspective, finite knowledge, and regardless of our best intentions, often a personal bias. We pray from reality as we see it; The Spirit prays from reality as He sees it. Therefore we need His help. I do not believe that Paul here intends in any way to encourage introspection and fear regarding our ability to pray, but much rather to inspire us to pray with confident, robust trust in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit intercedes through us in accord with the will of God. The Spirit who knows our hearts perfectly also knows with precision the will of God. And He weaves our longings and God’s will together in harmony.
How He Helps
The Spirit (directly) helps us to pray by interceding for us with groanings too deep for words. What does Paul have in mind here? The word he uses for “groans” just means “sighs,” or literally groans that cannot find articulation. This spirit-aided expression can certainly include glossolalia, if not by design than by default (even if not intended by the text, tongues certainly gives us opportunity to express our deepest longings with the empowered guidance of the Holy Spirit). The only other time this phrase (groans) is used in the NT is when Stephen is describing the deep longing of the Israelites (Acts 7:34) to be freed from captivity. These “groanings,” then, can include anything that expresses great longing: a sigh, a word, a string of words that may or may not make sense… The point is not to emphasize the expression itself, but the activity, the unction, the help of the Holy Spirit behind and with it. The Spirit is active in connecting with and interceding on behalf of our greatest longings. Spiritual prayer (spirit-aided prayer) engages our deepest self; it is not merely a cognitive function.
The Spirit also helps (indirectly) by bringing his influence to bear upon our prayers. By this I mean that we (should) pray with a deliberate awareness of His presence. Paul writes in Ephesians 6:18 that we should “pray in the Spirit an all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Wayne Grudem tells us that “in the Spirit” means “dwelling consciously in the presence of the Holy Spirit Himself, a presence characterized by Godlike qualities of power, love, joy, truth, holiness, righteousness and peace. To pray in the Spirit, then, is to pray with conscious awareness of God’s presence surrounding us.” A conscious awareness of His surrounding presence invites His influence to prevail upon our thoughts and affections. This “helps” us to pray by heating our hearts and minds with Holy affection and insight. Awareness leads to influence.
What His Help Means for Us
First, everyone can and should pray in/by the Spirit. Yes, everyone. There is absolutely no mention in the text here of a learning curve or difficulty. There is no hint of difficulty implied. Nothing in this hope-filled text suggests that one needs to practice to get this right. It is not reserved for the super-spiritual or exceptionally mature. In fact, friends, we only become spiritual BY THE SPIRIT. The Holy Spirit’s help in prayer is the birth-right of every believer. If you’re response is “I don’t know how,” it is probably because you’ve assumed (or been told) that you have to know how. Nope. You don’t have to know how this works. I know there are some who claim to know and offer some formula or another, but just between us – they’re making that up. This works by believing it’s true. Believe, deeply, that the Holy Spirit is helping you to pray, and pray. Practice an awareness of his saturating, surrounding presence, and pray. Trust the Holy Spirit.
Second, every believer can have confidence in their prayers. You are not praying alone. He’s praying with you. Trust the Holy Spirit. Also, and please re-read this part, your prayers are not being evaluated for accuracy. Go ahead, read that part again. Heaven isn’t measuring the content, syntax, or even the doctrine of your words. Heaven hears the Holy Spirit’s intercession from your heart. God knows what you mean. So, you don’t have to speak well, just release the longings of your heart. Trust the Holy Spirit.
Third, we should always trust the Holy Spirit (you might have caught on to this by now). He is our prayer partner; our senior partner. Truly, we don’t really pray – in a New Testament sense – apart from His active presence and influence. Trust the Holy Spirit. He’s here to help.