Recently, I was praying and couldn’t come up with words to say. What came out was a guttural sigh, which frankly left me annoyed. I said to myself, “Look at me- how pathetic. I can’t even articulate what I’m trying to pray- all I’m doing is groaning, and God doesn’t want to hear that.” I was hurting.
I will spare you the details about my circumstances, but what seems helpful is to say that my pain led to my groaning, my groaning became a prayer, and God heard my prayer and led me back to His word. God’s word, specifically Romans 8, has good news for anyone in a season of groaning. Here we find that we are not alone in our groaning. All creation groans, we as Christians groan, and even the Holy Spirit groans.
Romans 8:18-22 declares that the whole world groans. Creation is in a state of bondage, corruption and futility. Creation’s position is strongly negative, yet not described with despair. This passage declares that creation “eagerly awaits” God’s future glory. This is a particular type of groaning. Creation groans like an expecting mother in labor, awaiting a future hope.
Similarly, Christians groan in anticipation of our adoption as God’s children. A careful reading of verse 23 gives us a wonderful literary breadcrumb. We do not just groan as created beings, but “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly.” This phrasing tells the reader that in order to understand our groaning, we must acknowledge the Spirit’s presence and work.
A popular but errant belief is that the Holy Spirit, as our comforter, will lead us to a life of full contentment and ease in all circumstances. Paul, nor the Spirit within him, held to this belief. What Romans 8 teaches is that the Spirit gives direction and reason for our groaning. We groan because of our hope, combined with our lack of vision. As Christians, it is alright if we find that we do not know how to pray. More than knowledge, what we can feel (or sense), is a spiritual yearning. We exist in a corrupted world, yearning for the Lord’s will to be realized, and so we groan.
In our weakness, our groaning aligns with the Holy Spirit. Our very groans bear the image of God.
The last mention of the word groan in Romans 8 appears in verse 26. Unlike the other 40 times we see this word in the Bible, it is not creation, or created beings that are doing the groaning. Here, God the spirit groans in prayer for us. God the Father hears what is described as the Spirit’s “plea”(entygchanō) for us.
This idea is theologically challenging, and we do well to critically consider what this passage is saying. Are we theologically at peace with the Holy Spirit being a God who groans? Is a literal reading of this text an accurate theological view?
From elsewhere in scripture, we know that the Spirit has been “deposited” or “given” into a corrupt environment. Human flesh becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. In this we see the humility and grace of God- to love us in this way, to bear with us with such devotion. Being God in nature, yet present in the unsanctified Christian’s soul, the Spirit groans and pleas for our benefit. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God, and as we see in Romans 8:30, God’s will is our glorification.
In this passage, we see three groans. Creation groans, awaiting a future freedom and glory. Christians groan, awaiting our full adoption and redemption. Lastly, the Holy Spirit groans, praying in a way that God hears, so that we will be sanctified (conformed to the image of the Son), justified, and glorified.
When our pain is all consuming and we don’t have words to pray, the Holy Spirit groans with and for us. God doesn’t remove our grief and mourning, he joins with us in it. In the Spirit, our groans take on new purpose and hope. Our sanctification, our Christian work, and our glorification will one day be complete, and this will be the result of the Holy Spirit’s groaning, prayer, and work in us. Let us keep in step with our gracious and powerful God, in every prayer and work and, yes, in every groan.
Pastor Jon Varner shares what he learned developing a practice of combining his daily Bible reading and prayer.