The Intercession of the Holy Spirit

Dr. Brian Allison

Last Sunday night I sat alone in my living room, reflecting on the will of the Lord; and I became very burdened. I felt compelled to pray. After kneeling down to pray, I was speechless. I could not pray; I did not know what to pray. I only knew that I was very burdened. I was emotionally tied up. Kneeling there, I was concerned that I would not pray selfishly (because there is always that tendency), and I was concerned that I would not pray in a way that might be fake (simply going through the religious motions, trying to put on a pious front). I also thought that if I prayed in a certain way, it probably would be pointless (which, no doubt, was a reflection on my faith at the time). Yet, I was concerned about praying God's will and not my will; I was concerned that I would not be rebellious in prayer. So, I was in somewhat of a quandary. I was literally torn within. I did not know what to pray or how to pray. I was spiritually groaning. Finally, some words came. Those words were the expression of my groaning; and in hindsight, I believe that at that time the Spirit was interceding for me. What a marvelous and comforting truth!

The Spirit's interceding is part of His helping ministry

Romans 8: 26,27 reads, "And 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; 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." Notice, first, that the Spirit's intercession is a specific expression of His helping ministry – "In the same way the Spirit also helps...for we do not know how to pray as we should." The term 'help,' in the original language, implies a personal presence and involvement in the actual giving of assistance. So, the point is not that the Spirit helps merely by providing aid in a detached or distant way; but rather that the Spirit Himself is personally involved and, by His very presence, He provides aid. For instance, you may be driving down the road and see some people pushing a car which has broken down. Endeavouring to help, you may keep driving and stop at a gas station and request that a tow truck be dispatched. Or, you may help by pulling over and getting out of your car and actually assist in pushing the car. This second kind of helping entails your personal presence and involvement; and that is the sense of the term used here. When Martha was anxious and exasperated, demanding of Jesus that He tell Mary, her sister, to help (the same Greek word) her, she was demanding Mary's personal involvement and assistance (Lu. 10:40). So, the Spirit's helping us is not simply that He gives us resources to overcome our struggles and difficulties; but rather that He Himself is actually involved in our struggles and difficulties.

As mentioned, according to the text, the particular expression of the Spirit's help is that of interceding for us. The Spirit not only gives us grace and strength to pray, but He Himself is involved in the praying (we shall return to this thought); He is praying on our behalf. Amazing! Think about it for a moment. We are not talking about some impersonal force; we are not talking about some mere higher energy; we are talking about God Himself. This God intercedes for us. Now, to intercede means to represent one's case to another. It means to plead or petition on behalf of another. The intercessor is an advocate. The Spirit is not so much assuming the role of a lawyer, as He is that of a supporter. Indeed, He is the blessed Comforter – the Paraclete.

The Spirit's interceding answers to human ignorance

This helping ministry of the Spirit, of course, presupposes that we are in need, that we require help (as already alluded to) – "The Spirit also helps our weakness." The term 'weakness' suggests a physical or bodily frailty, limitation, deficiency, or liability. For instance, we read, "And [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who for eighteen years had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all. And when Jesus saw her, He called her over and said to her, 'Woman, you are freed from your sickness [same word as 'weakness' in the original language]'" (Lu. 13:10f.). Again, Galatians 4:12 reads, "I beg you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong; but you know that it was because of a bodily illness [i.e., 'weakness of the flesh' in the original] that I preached the gospel to you the first time." This 'weakness' is rooted in, and associated with, mortal humanness. So, for instance, debilitating arthritis can be identified as a weakness; a chronic digestive problem can be identified as a weakness; deteriorating or faulty memory can be identified as a weakness.

The Spirit is personally involved in helping us overcome, and deal with, our weakness, especially our weakness in connection with prayer – "In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should." The specific weakness in view is that of ignorance. We experience ignorance concerning what is the proper or right thing for which we are to pray because we are still in these 'tabernacles of clay,' beset with sin, and affected by selfish desires and passions. We are often ignorant of God's will; but as the Spirit affords us assistance in our weakness, He "intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." And, of course, though we may be ignorant of God's will, the Spirit is not. The Spirit helps us in order that we may discern that will, and thus pray according to that will (we shall return to this truth in a moment).

The Spirit's interceding is in and through our hearts

I want to emphasize that the Spirit does not intercede independent of us. Again, He is personally involved in our praying, overcoming and compensating for our weaknesses, particularly for our ignorance. The Spirit Himself provides light, guidance, and direction; He teaches and reveals to us what is right and necessary to pray by praying in and through us, however mysterious this sounds. So, the Spirit's praying is our praying. For instance, we read, "For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" (Rm. 8:15). The Spirit causes believers to cry out in filial prayer. Yet, in Galatians 4:6, we read, "And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son [the Spirit of adoption] into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" So, the Spirit Himself cries out while we are crying out; and that is the mystery of spiritual union. As the Spirit indwells us, the mind of the Spirit is united with the mind of the believer. Hence, what the Spirit is doing, we are doing; and what the Spirit is praying, we are praying. Though we are not always able to discern what is of the flesh and what is of the Spirit, in actual experience, His praying and interceding, is indistinguishable from our act of praying and interceding. He does not have His own words, over and against or independent of our words.

The experience of weakness results, or expresses itself, in groaning. A number of months ago, I started to exercise again. The first number of weeks of running made me feel like a cripple. I hobbled. My joints were sore; my body was exhausted. I groaned. Accordingly, our weakness expresses itself in 'spiritual' groaning. This groaning implies the experience of a burden. Now, the Spirit (who is personally involved in our struggle) actually identifies with, and carries, our burden. The Spirit Himself groans, but His groaning is not strictly His own. When it says that "the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words," the point is this: His groaning is our groaning. Robert Haldane (1764-1842) writes, "Thus it is our hearts that groan, but the operation and emotion are from the Holy Spirit." So, Romans 8:23 reads, "And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit [having received the Spirit and knowing the indwelling of the Spirit], even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body." The Spirit's very presence anticipates that much more blessing is forthcoming, and thus we groan in that anticipation. Again, the groaning is because of the burden of this fallen world and our weakness, realizing that eternal glory awaits us. The Spirit gives us help in actually expressing our groaning in words, while He groans inexpressibly in our hearts. Charles Hodge (1797-1878) states, "We are not to suppose that the Spirit [Himself] prays or utters the inarticulate groans of which the apostle here speaks...He is said to do what He causes us to do...In our consciousness there is no difference between our own acting and those of the Spirit." The Spirit's intercession is not physically perceived, but is nonetheless spiritually real. It is like wind, you see the effects of it, you see the power of it, but you cannot actually see it. The Spirit groans with us; and in our groaning, He Himself is interceding in and through us so that we indeed pray according to the will of God.

The Spirit's interceding is according to God's will

While still living in the flesh, we often pray according to our selfish desires. The best of us are deceived at best. We want God to respond to our hurt and discomfort; and often our prayers are self-motivated and self-centred. For instance, a loved one may be dying, and because you do not want to lose him, you may pray, "Lord save this loved one from death." What is motivating you? Perhaps you do not want to be alone; you may not want to go through life on your own. Now, it is a good thing to pray that one may be healed, but the question is: What is your motivation? Even in a good thing (such as requesting healing), you may have a selfish motivation; and in that case, such praying may not be according to the will of God. In fact, it may be God's will to take that loved one, even though it may be your deep desire to keep him.

So, the Spirit helps us in our weakness so that we may know and pray according to the will of God, and not according our own will (i.e., selfish desires). God does not usually answer selfish prayers. We read, "You lust and you do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so you may spend it on your pleasures" (Jas. 4:2,3). This, no doubt, is a commentary on the praying of most of us. As mentioned, we often have wrong or selfish motives. Thus, we pray, for instance: "Lord, I do not want to hurt now; please take away the pain;" "Lord, take away the distress; I want happiness and prosperity." And God often says, in effect, "No. It is not My will. My will is for you to be on the sick bed;" or, "My will is for you to scramble to try to meet that next payment;" or, "My will is for your children to be sick." Now, I am sure that there are some who wrestle with the fact that such tragedies and misfortunes can be according to God's will; but if you pray for God to heal your spouse from cancer, and He doesn't; or for God to provide that certain job, and He doesn't; or for God to feed all the starving children of the world, and He doesn't; etc., then clearly it was not His will to do it, or else He would have done it. Right? He always ordains and acts according to His will. But we know this one thing: if the Spirit is interceding for us, His intercession is answered. Why? Because He intercedes according to the will of God, and God must answer it. God always answers when we pray according to His will (1 Jn. 5:14). That is your confidence and peace.

Accordingly, we can be assured that the will of God will be worked out in our lives (for that is what the Spirit prays, which God must answer); and should we want anything else but the will of God, regardless how painful it may be? I submit to you that if you are a child of God, in love with God; if you have experienced the grace of God, there is nothing you should want more than the will of God, even if it hurts. Do you agree? Sometimes the will of God is to say, "No." Sometimes the will of God is for you to have failure (God allowing Satan to attack you); sometimes the will of God is for your child to be ill (God allowing the fallenness of nature to manifest itself). Sometimes the will of God is for you to suffer financially for years (God allowing your foolish decisions to haunt you). But if we realize that it is His will, that can make all the difference in the world. We can live with that, or we should be able to live with that, knowing that He is sovereign, and that everything is subject to His will. It should be our joy and delight, and the supreme act of our obedience, to submit to that will.

Further, though our hearts be full of different kinds of thoughts and motives – a mixture of good and evil (God-honouring thoughts and motives, as well as self-exalting thoughts and motives) – the Spirit nevertheless successfully intercedes. Thus, we read, "And He who searches the hearts [of believers who are praying] knows what the mind of the Spirit is" (Rm. 8:27a). The Spirit's mind is revealed in and through our hearts; and the Spirit reveals our needs to us, and interprets our groaning for us, so that we may intelligibly present them to God the Father. The point is this: God, who knows, sees, and searches believers' hearts, knows the Spirit's mind within those hearts (which is His mind); and He distinguishes the good thoughts and motives (of the Spirit) from the bad thoughts and motives (of the self), responding only to the Spirit's mind.

Accordingly, we can pray God's will and our own will simultaneously; but (again) only the will of God will be answered. Our confidence is that the will of God will be both be prayed by us, and realized in our lives, even though our selfish wills 'get in the way,' because (again) the Spirit, praying in and through us, only prays according to God's will. A number of years ago my wife and I were at a crossroads. I had resigned from one ministry, and we were waiting upon the Lord for direction. It seemed that the Lord wanted us to go Africa through AEF. My wife was initially reluctant, but we eventually prayed, "Lord, open the doors. We are willing to go." We were prepared to go to Africa through AEF; we thought that was what the Lord wanted. Apparently, God's will was to simply bring us to the point where we would be willing to go. It was not His will to take us to Africa, even though we prayed for that. We were praying our thoughts and motives mixed with His thoughts and motives; and the only part of that prayer that was answered was that which was in accordance with His will.

What a personal comfort! In my groaning, as I try to put words together, endeavouring to release the burden of my soul, the Spirit is groaning inexpressibly; and that He helps me in my weakness, overcoming the liabilities of this body, particularly a mind which is still affected by sin. Though I am a combination of good and evil, God sees the mind of the Spirit in me, which is revealed through me, praying according to His will; and when I pray there shall be a fulfilment of that which originates in the Spirit. That is your comfort and assurance, my Christian brothers and sisters. You can pray aright through the Spirit. Is your chiefest desire to know God's will, and only His will, and to submit to it? That is the only thing that the Spirit prays. Be encouraged!