Sometimes we find ourselves at a loss for words. Thankfully, when we pray as Christians, we have a helper—the Holy Spirit—who aids in our human weakness whenever words fall short: “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26, ESV), or, as the KJV has it, “with groanings which cannot be uttered.”
In Romans 8:18–27, the apostle Paul encouraged believers to hold on to the hope and assurance of our ultimate adoption, redemption, and glorification even as we patiently endure suffering in this present life. We find strength amidst our human frailty when we depend on the Holy Spirit’s assistance in prayer. When we are unsure how to pray or don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit “groans” within our hearts with words that cannot be uttered or expressed.
The phrase rendered in English “groanings that cannot be uttered” means “indescribable, wordless groans” in the original Greek language. Other things in the same passage also utter “wordless groans”: all creation now groans “as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22), and believers “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (verse 23).
The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit reminds us that our redemption is guaranteed: “We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. . . . While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 5:2–5, NLT).
Most of us have struggled in prayer, wondering whether to pray for deliverance from our suffering, miraculous relief and rescue, or the strength to endure through it. Even Paul the apostle pleaded with the Lord to take away his “thorn in the flesh,” only to be told that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9). Like Paul, we often think we know what we need, but we’re not always good judges of God’s perfect will. What a relief it is to realize that the effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on us. We don’t have to have the knowledge or the words to express what we need because “the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will” (Romans 8:27, NLT).
Our limited vision is no excuse to abandon prayer altogether, for it is essential to the Christian life. But we must realize that prayer is a trinitarian activity. We pray to the Father. The Holy Spirit is our advocate and intercessor in the process (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). We cannot truly pray without the Holy Spirit’s assistance. Through Jesus Christ, we have access to the Father by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:18), who helps and intercedes for us with inarticulate groans. “In language we cannot understand, the Father searches the human heart, the abode of the Spirit, to hear the Spirit’s prayer. When the Father hears his will being prayed by the Spirit (because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will), then the Father and Spirit are in perfect harmony for the purposes of God to be accomplished in the believer through the instrument of prayer” (Boa, K., and Kruidenier, W., Romans, Vol. 6, Broadman & Holman Pub., 2000, p. 259).
The Holy Spirit’s intercession with “groanings that cannot be uttered” ought not to be confused with speaking in tongues. In Scripture, tongues are expressed in audible, uttered words that are meant to be understood and interpreted (Acts 2:4–47; 19:6; 1 Corinthians 14:13–40). In Romans 8:26, Paul referred to unspoken groanings. These wordless, soundless, speechless groanings are spiritual in nature and divinely understood.
We live in a fallen world that is not our permanent home (Hebrews 13:14; Philippians 3:20). We are caught between “our present sufferings” and the future “glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). We are hounded by weaknesses within (Matthew 26:41; 2 Corinthians 12:5–10) and powerful enemies without (Ephesians 6:11–13). We can pray with words using our human understanding, but God has not left us alone in this endeavor. He has given us the ministry of the Holy Spirit who prays on our behalf with groanings that cannot be uttered. We can rely on the Spirit’s divine intellect and infinite vision to pray effectively according to God’s good purpose and will (1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 6:18–20; Jude 1:20).