The apostle Paul wrote, "In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;" (Rom 8:26).
The Help of the Holy Spirit
This verse speaks of the help of the Holy Spirit in prayer, because our weakness greatly limits us in our ability to pray for ourselves and for one another. Our natural human condition is that we do not know how to pray as we should. As Matthew Henry said, "We are often at a loss - graces are weak, affections cold, thoughts wandering, and it is not always easy to find the heart to pray, 2Sa_7:27. The apostle speaks of this in the first person: 'We know not.' He puts himself among the rest. Folly, and weakness, and distraction in prayer, are what all the saints are complaining of. If so great a saint as Paul knew not what to pray for, what little reason have we to go forth about that duty in our own strength!"
Moreover, we don't know what to pray for specifically, because we do not fully understand our situation as the Lord does. Another reason is that in our nearsightedness we tend to focus on our immediate need rather than on what is best in the long term and even in eternity. We also tend to be partial in favor of our own selfish desires.
In light of all that, it's no wonder we need the assistance of the Spirit in prayer. There are many ways in which He helps us, including through the Word of God as we pray and read it. He speaks to us through it and reveals to us the promises of God for us, as well as how to go about living. He also speaks directly to our hearts as well. But the help Paul was speaking of here is specifically referring to the Spirit's help by praying for us. Not only do we have the assurance that Jesus Christ is interceding for us in heaven before the Father, but we also have the promise that the Spirit is interceding for us in our hearts.
Matthew Henry commented: "The Spirit in the heart helps, dwelling in us, working in us, as a Spirit of grace and supplication, especially with respect to the infirmities we are under when we are in a suffering state, when our faith is most apt to fail; for this end the Holy Ghost was poured out." He explains that the word for "Helps" is the Greek word "sumantilambanetai," meaning "heaves with us, over against us, helps as we help one that would lift up a burden, by lifting over against him at the other end - helps with us, that is, with us doing our endeavour, putting forth the strength we have. We must not sit still, and expect that the Spirit should do all; when the Spirit goes before us we must bestir ourselves. We cannot without God, and he will not without us. What help? Why, the Spirit itself makes intercession for us, dictates our requests...draws up our plea for us...so graciously has God provided for the encouragement of the praying remnant. The Spirit, as an enlightening Spirit, teaches us what to pray for, as a sanctifying Spirit works and excites praying graces, as a comforting Spirit silences our fears, and helps us over all our discouragements. The Holy Spirit is the spring of all our desires and breathings towards God."
The Spirit's Intercession for Us
Now keeping in mind the meaning of this help of the Spirit who heaves with us, consider what Albert Barnes aptly pointed out about the meaning of "Maketh intercession," regarding this work of the Spirit in our hearts. He stated, "The word used here huper-entungchanei, occurs no where else in the New Testament. The word entungchanō, however, is used several times. It means properly to be present with anyone for the purpose of aiding, as an advocate does in a court of justice; hence, to intercede for anyone, or to aid or assist in any manner. In this place it simply means that the Holy Spirit greatly assists or aids us; not by praying for us, but in our prayers and infirmities."
It's interesting to note that the root word "huper" is where we get our English word "hyper". It means over, beyond, and more than, in much the same way we use the word hyper today, as in hyperactive. I like this word huper or hyper, because it connotes something extraordinary like turbo power in an automobile engine or like the after-burners on a fighter jet that light up with flames shooting out the back, as the aircraft takes off in a steep climb skyward. But huper also means "in behalf of, or for the sake of." When you combine this word "huper" with the word "entungchanei" which refers to interceding, you have a powerful word. The Spirit Himself "hyper-intercedes" for us in a manner that is supernatural, extraordinary, more than we could ever do on our own, and beyond our natural abilities. He does all of this on our behalf or for us, which is the other part of the meaning of huper, and that's why it says the Spirit intercedes "for us." This is like turbo-prayer on our behalf.
It also reminds me of another illustration from auto mechanics, which is something called overdrive. According to Wikipedia, "Overdrive is a term used to describe the operation of an automobile cruising at sustained speed with reduced engine revolutions per minute, leading to better fuel consumption, lower noise, and lower wear." When your vehicle shifts into this gear, you are able to cruise long distances at high speeds with less friction and wear on your engine. When the Spirit performs this hyper-supplication within us, it's a wonderful feature, because we are enabled to accomplish far more in prayer than we ever could on our own, and we can do so without wearing ourselves out.
Groanings Too Deep for Words
Let's just recap for a moment. The Spirit heaves with us inside as we pray and assists us with the heavy lifting by providing this supernatural, high-powered intercession within us. It's a sort of extreme prayer or ultra-intercession. What does that look like or sound like? Let's return to Matthew Henry's comments for more on that:
"Now this intercession which the Spirit makes is, (1.) With groanings that cannot be uttered. The strength and fervency of those desires which the Holy Spirit works are hereby intimated. There may be praying in the Spirit where there is not a word spoken; as Moses prayed (Exo_14:15), and Hannah, 1Sa_1:13. It is not the rhetoric and eloquence, but the faith and fervency, of our prayers, that the Spirit works, as an intercessor, in us. Cannot be uttered; they are so confused, the soul is in such a hurry with temptations and troubles, we know not what to say, nor how to express ourselves. Here is the Spirit interceding with groans that cannot be uttered. When we can but cry, 'Abba, Father,' and refer ourselves to him with a holy humble boldness, this is the work of the Spirit."
Henry pointed out here that this intercession of the Spirit is with groanings too deep for words. As I've been saying, this happens at a much higher level, above and beyond anything we are capable of in ourselves. Since these groanings are so deep that they cannot be expressed with words, they may come forth as a deep sigh, a cry, or a moan. By definition a groan is a deep inarticulate sound made in pain or despair. That's basically what we're talking about here. In some cases, it may even be completely inaudible to the human ear, such as what happened when Moses cried out to God in his heart.
When he was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, as they were being chased by the Egyptian army and the people were crying out to him that he should have left them in Egypt, he was telling them not to be afraid because the Lord would fight for them. But even as he was in the midst of all that commotion, he must have been crying out to God fervently in his heart with faith, because the Lord said to him, "Why are you crying out to me?" (Ex 14:15a).
Another example that Matthew Henry cited was the time when Hannah was earnestly praying to God, and her lips were moving, but no sound was coming out. "Now it came about, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli was watching her mouth. As for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. Then Eli said to her, 'How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you.' But Hannah replied, 'No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the LORD. Do not consider your maidservant as a worthless woman, for I have spoken until now out of my great concern and provocation." (1Sa 1:12-16). That's a great definition of heart-prayer, which illustrates what this intercession of the Spirit for us in our hearts may actually look like sometimes. It could be completely silent, except to the one praying, who is aware of the deep cries within his or her heart, and to the Lord who hears that silent prayer, as well as to the angels who are involved in carrying our prayers to God.
Here's another one you may not have noticed before in the gospels, regarding what happened when Jesus met the demoniac in the region of the Gerasenes. "When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, 'What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!' For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man." (Lk 8:27-29a, NIV).
In this passage, notice that it says the reason the demon inside the man caused him to cry out at the top of his voice, begging Jesus not to torture him, was that Jesus "had commanded" the impure spirit to come out of the man. However, as with the silent prayer of Moses referred to in Exodus 14:15, there is no record quoting the Lord's actual command to the impure spirit to come out of the man, as we see in other passages, but only a retrospective statement about it after the fact. It's my opinion that Jesus in his heart may have commanded the demon to come out of the man without doing so out loud. While others around Him didn't hear it, the demon did!
I had an experience like this one time. I used to work as a bellman in a four diamond hotel when I was in graduate school studying Missiology or World Missions in the Regent University School of Divinity. This particular time there was a guest who called himself "Michaelangelo," who was staying by himself at the hotel. He began acting bizarrely not long after he checked in. I was standing in front of the bell stand in the large front lobby of the hotel next to my fellow bellman John. We were looking directly across at the front desk on the other side of the lobby, where one of the female front desk clerks was standing. John was also in graduate school, but he was studying psychology in the School of Counseling.
At that point, I recall that "Michaelangelo" the guest came around the corner into the lobby and I believe he spit his room key out of his mouth onto the front desk counter top. As he was interacting with the front desk lady, which I believe was about some complaint of his, John was evaluating him out loud to me in a low voice. He was seeking to diagnose the man's psychological problem. Perhaps he was diagnosing the man as schizophrenic and/or having obsessive-compulsive disorder. On the other hand, my approach was to view things as Jesus did from a spiritual perspective, and I sensed that this man was demon possessed, but I kept that to myself. I simply looked right at the man from across the room as he stood at the front desk, and in my heart I silently but authoritatively commanded the demon in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of him. However, I was not scowling at him or making any kind of angry expression.
At that point, as if the man actually heard me, he looked at me and came right over to me, challenging me belligerently to my face. He was a little shorter than me, so as he stood closely right in front of me just inches from my chest, he looked up at me and commanded me to tell him my name. He said something like, "What is your name? I command you to tell me your name!" I maintained my peace and the professional servant-to-guest demeanor, but I referred to my name printed on my name tag attached to my uniform and I called him "sir." I didn't back down or back away from him a single inch, despite his intimidation tactics. Then he began to say, "I don't like you!" He looked at John the student of psychology and said, "I like you," then he looked back at me he said, "but I don't like you." Eventually he went away and the front desk lady commended me for maintaining my peace and not being afraid of him. The police ended up being called in to deal with something going on in the man's room, and I cannot recall if he was suicidal or what. But that seems to come to mind for some reason.
My point in telling that story is that although I had not said a word out loud, in my heart I silently commanded that demon to come out of the man, and I believe the demon inside him heard me loud and clear. As a side note, I also found it interesting that the demon in him liked the person who was studying psychology, but it didn't like me who was operating in the supernatural power of the Spirit. I have never forgotten that incident, and it seems to me that it was a clear example of a heart-prayer assisted by the Holy Spirit. That's why I tend to think this is what Jesus did to the demon inside the man in the region of the Gaderenes. In other places in Scripture, we see the words recorded that Jesus spoke to the demons, but in this passage, it only refers to Jesus' command after the fact by saying, "For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man."
Here is another example of heart-prayer from the gospels. This time it's from the incident when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. "So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, 'Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.' When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, 'Take off the grave clothes and let him go.'” (Jn 11:41-44, NIV).
I want you to notice the part that says, "Then Jesus looked up and said, 'Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.'" This means that Jesus had prayed to the Father in His heart silently, and when He thanked the Father for hearing Him, He only did so for the benefit of those watching. The reason it benefited them was that they could not hear His silent heart-prayer to the Father, and by His thanking the Father for hearing that silent prayer, it helped them to believe that that the Father had sent Him when they saw Him raise Lazarus from the dead.
He Perceives Our Thoughts
According to King David, the Lord knows our deepest thoughts. He said, "You perceive my thoughts from afar...Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely." (Ps 139:2b, 4). That means that you can communicate heart to heart and thought to thought with Him without even speaking the words out loud with your mouth. He already knows what you're going to say before you say it. There are times when this type of heart-prayer is all you are able to do, either because of the place you find yourself in, where you are not free to pray out loud, such as when you are sharing Jesus with a non-believer, or because you are unable to speak, or because you don't know how you should pray. In moments like these, all you may be able to do is to cry out to Him in your heart, and He hears it.
According to the will of God
In the verse following our main text, it says that the Spirit always prays according to the will of God. Paul wrote, "And He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." (Rom 8:27). That's another great benefit of this intercession of the Spirit in our hearts. As Matthew Henry says, "The Spirit in the heart never contradicts the Spirit in the word. Those desires that are contrary to the will of God do not come from the Spirit. The Spirit interceding in us evermore melts our wills into the will of God. Not as I will, but as thou wilt." According to the apostle John, "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." Therefore, God always hears these prayers of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Praying in the Spirit
Paul spoke of it quite a bit in his epistles. He wrote, "For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries...One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself...Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues...For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also...I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all." (1Co 14:2, 4a, 5a, 14-15, 18). He also wrote, "With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints." (Eph 6:18). Jude wrote, "But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit," (Jud 1:20). Therefore, we know that there is something called praying in the Spirit, and one way this happens is, as Paul said, praying in a tongue. When I pray in a tongue (i.e., pray in tongues), my spirit prays, but my mind does not understand what I am saying. The Spirit prays through me to the Father, making intercession for me and those I am praying for. This enables us to effectively pray the will of God when we know not how we should pray or what we should pray.
As we can see from Scripture, because of our weaknesses, we don't know how we should pray. God has graciously provided the saints with the help of the Spirit, who heaves with us, "hyper-praying" on our behalf with groanings too deep for words. This is a marvelous service that He provides! It has many applications, including silent heart-prayers, sighs, groans, calling out His name, and even praying in tongues. The Holy Spirit cooperates with us as we pray, and He knows exactly how to pray according to the will of God. Let me encourage you to fully take advantage of all the Lord has provided for you as a believer. Don't miss out on anything the Lord has for you.
Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB, copyright Lockman Foundation, used by permission. Other Scriptures from the Holy Bible NIV, copyright Zondervan, used by permission. The artwork of a woman praying in her closet is by my daughter Charity Lacroix, and you can find more of her artwork and calligraphy at A Brush with Life.
Author's note: If you enjoyed this post, please also see the following: Who Intercedes for Us, Crying Out to God Loudly, Lifting Your Face in Prayer, Lifting Hands in Prayer, and Baptized with the Holy Spirit. You may find the Main Directory for this blog at Home, and you may also access my complete blog directory at "Writing for the Master."
Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus. Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?
“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15). He preached that we must repent and believe.
Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"
Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International. He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission. www.dmiworld.org.