THE SPIRIT'S HELP IN OUR PRAYING
Rom. 8:26, 27:—"And in like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God."
The direct teaching of this passage obviously is that the Holy Ghost, dwelling in Christian men, indites their petitions, and thus secures for them both that they shall ask God for what they really need and that they shall obtain what they ask. There is here asserted both an effect of the Spirit's working on the heart of the believer and an effect of this, His working on God. Even Christian men are full of weakness, and neither know what they should pray for in each time of need, nor are able to pray for it with the fervidness of desire which God would have them use. It is by the operation of the Spirit of God on their hearts that they are thus led to pray aright in matter and manner, and that their petitions are rendered acceptable to God, as being according to His will. This is the obvious teaching of the passage; but that we may fully understand it in its implications and shades it will be desirable to look at it in its context.
The eighth chapter of Romans is an outburst of humble triumph on the Apostle's part, on realizing that the conflict of the Christian life as depicted in the seventh chapter issues in victory, through the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. Evil may be entrenched in our members; but the power of God unto salvation has entered our hearts by the Holy Ghost and by the prevalent working of that Holy Spirit in us we are enabled to cry Abba, Father; and being made sons of God are constituted His heirs and co-heirs with Jesus Christ. Not as if, indeed, we are to be borne withbut effort of our own into this glorious inheritance— "to be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease." No! "Surely we must fight, if we would win." For, after all, the Christian life is a pilgrimage to be endured, a journey to be accomplished, a fight to be won. Least of all men was the Apostle Paul, whose life was in labours more abundant and in trials above measure, liable to forget this. It is out of the experiences of his own life as well as out of the nature of the thing that he adds, therefore, to his cry of triumph a warning of the nature of the life which, nevertheless, we must still live in the flesh. If "the Spirit Himself beareth witness with our Spirits that we are the Sons of God," and the glorious sequence follows, "and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ," no less do we need to be reminded further of the condition underlying the victory—"if so be that we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him." To share with Christ His glory implies sharing with Him His sufferings. "Must Jesus tread the path alone and all the world go free?" Union with Him implies taking part in all His life experiences, and we can ascend the throne with Him only by treading with Him the pathway by which He ascended the throne. It was from the cross that He rose to heaven.
The rest of this marvellous chapter seems to be devoted to encouraging the saint in his struggles as he treads the thorny path with Christ. The first encouragement is drawn from the relative greatness of the sufferings here and the glory yonder; the second, from the assistance in the journey received from the Holy Ghost; and the third from the gracious oversight of God over the whole progress of the journey. This whole section of the chapter, therefore, appears as Paul's word of encouragement to the believer as he struggles on in his pilgrimage—in his "Pilgrim's Progress"— in view of the hardships and sufferings and trials attendant in this sinful world on the life in Christ. It is substantially, therefore, an Apostolic commentary on our Lord's words, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me;" "he that doth not take up his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me." These sufferings, says Paul, are inevitable; no cross, no crown. But he would strengthen us in enduring the cross by keeping our eye on the crown, by assuring us of the presence of the Holy Spirit as our ever-present helper, and by reminding us of the Divine direction of it all. Thus he would alleviate the trials of the journey.
Our text then takes its place as one of these encouragements to steadfast constancy, endurance, in the Christian life—to what we call to-day "perseverance." The "weakness," "infirmity," to which it refers is to be taken, therefore, in the broadest sense. No doubt its primary reference may be to the remnant of indwelling sin, not yet eradicated and the source of all the Christian's weaknesses. But it is not confined to this. It includes all that comes to a Christian as he suffers with Christ; all that is included in our Lord's requirement of denying ourselves and taking up our cross. Paul's life of suffering for the Gospel's sake may be taken by us, as it, doubtless, was felt by him as he penned these words, as an illustration of the breadth of the meaning of the word. He who would live godly must in every age suffer a species of persecution; a species, differing in kind with the tone and temper and quality of each age, but always persecution. He who would follow after Christ must meet with many opposers. A strenuous life is the Christian life in the world; it is appropriately designated a warfare, a fight. But we are weak. And the weakness meant is inelusive of all human weaknesses in the stress of the great battle.
The encouragement which Paul offers us in this our confessed weakness, is the ever-present aid of the Holy Ghost. We are not to be left to tread the path, to fight the fight, alone; the Spirit ever "helpeth" our weakness, "takes our burden on Himself, in our stead and yet along with us," as the double compound word expresses. He does not take it away from us and bear it wholly Himself, but comes to our aid in bearing it, receiving it also on His shoulders along with us. In giving this encouragement of the ever-present aid of the Spirit in our weakness, the Apostle adds an illustration of it. And it is exceedingly striking that, in seeking an illustration of it, the Apostle thinks at once of the sphere of prayer. It shows his estimate of the place of prayer in the Christian struggle, that in his eye, prayer is really "the Christian's vital breath." Our weakness, he seems to say, is helped primarily by the Spirit through His inditing our prayers for us. Perhaps this will not seem strange to us if we will fitly consider what the Christian life is, in its dependence on God; and what prayer is, in its attitude of dependence on God. Prayer is, in a word, the correlate of religion. The prayerful attitude is the religious attitude. And that man is religious who habitually holds toward God, in life and thought, in act and word, the attitude of prayer. Is it not fitting, after all, that Paul should encourage the Christian man, striving to live a Christian life—denying himself and taking up his cross and following Christ—by assuring him primarily that the Holy Ghost is ever present, helping him in his weakness, to this effect that his attitude towards God in his conscious dependence on Him, should be kept straight? For this it is to help us in prayer.
Nor can it seem strange to us that Paul adverts to our need of aid in prayer in the very matter of our petitions. It is worth noting how very vitally he writes here, doubtless, again out of his own experience. "We know not what we should pray for," he says, "in each time of need"—according, that is, to the needs of each occasion. It is not lack of purpose—it is lack of wisdom, that he intimates. We may have every desire to serve God and every willingness to serve Him at our immediate expense, but do we know what we need at each moment? The wisest and best of men must needs fail here. So Paul found, when he asked thrice that the thorn in the flesh might be removed and stayed not till the Lord had told him explicitly that His grace was sufficient for him. How often we would rather escape the suffering that lies in our path than receive of the grace of God! Nay, a greater than Paul may here be our example. Did not our Lord Himself say, "Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour." Quick though came the response back from His own soul, "But for this cause came I unto this hour: Father, glorify thy name," yet may we not see even in this momentary hesitation a hint of that uncertainty of which all are more or less the prey? It is not merely in the recalcitrances of the Christian life—God knows we have need enough there!—but it is not only in the recalcitrances and the mere unwillingnesses of the Christian life that the Spirit aids us; but in the perplexities of the Christian life too. Under His leading we shall not only be saved from sins, but also from mistakes, in the will of God. And thus He leads us not only to pray, but to pray "according to the will of God."
And now, how does the Spirit thus aid us in praying according to the will of God? Paul calls it a making of intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; making intercession for us or in addition to us, for the word could have either meaning. It is clear from the whole passage that this is not an objective intercession in our behalf—made in heaven as Christ our Mediator intercedes for us. That the Spirit makes intercession for us is known to God not as God in heaven, but as "searcher of hearts." It is equally clear that it is not an intercession through us as mere conduits, unengaged in the intercession ourselves; it is an intercession made by the Spirit as our helper and not as our substitute. It is equally clear that it is not merely in our natural powers that the Spirit speaks; it is a groaning of which the Spirit is the author and "over and above" our own praying. It is clear then that it is subjective and yet not to be confused with our own prayings. Due to the Spirit's working in our hearts we conceive what we need in each hour of need and ask God for it with unutterable strength of desire. The Spirit intercedes for us then by working in us right desires for each time of need; and by deepening these desires into unutterable groans. They are our desires, and our groans. But not apart from the Spirit. They are His; wrought in us by Him. And God, who searches the heart, sees these unutterable desires and "knows the mind of the Spirit that He is making intercession for the saints according to the will of God."
Thus, then, the Spirit helps our weakness. By His hidden, inner influences He quickens us to the perception of our real need; He frames in us an infinite desire for this needed thing; He leads us to bring this desire in all its unutterable strength before God; who, seeing it within our hearts, cannot but grant it, as accordant with His will. Is not this a very present help in time of trouble? As prevalent a help as if we were miraculously rescued from any danger? And yet a help wrought through the means of God's own appointment, that is, our attitude of constant dependence on Him and our prayer to Him for His aid? And could Paul here have devised a better encouragement to the saints to go on in their holy course and fight the battle bravely to the end?