Paul mentions prayer numerous times in his letters, but specific teaching on prayer is surprisingly rare; indeed, there are relatively few teachings on prayer in the New Testament as a whole. One of the key Pauline references is found in Romans 8:26-27, set at a climactic point within the structure of the main body of the letter, the probatio (1:18-8:39), in which Paul expounds his central proposition (1:16-17) using various lines of argument. The probatio can be divided into four sections, the first three of which I summarize as:
- Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God)
- Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
- Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin
This last section (chapter 8) I would divide as follows (for more on this outline, cf. the article in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”):
- Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
—8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
—8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
—8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
—8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
- Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)
- Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
As indicated above, the primary theme of chapter 8 is the new life in the Spirit that believers experience, representing the culmination of the “salvation history” or “order of salvation” that Paul lays out in the probatio of Romans. In verses 12-17, believers are identified as the children (“sons”) of God, an identity that is realized through the Spirit (cp. Gal 4:6). In verse 18, this discussion shifts to the future aspect of our Christian identity, comparing the situation for believers currently (whether understood as Paul’s time or our own) in the world, with what awaits the faithful in the Age to Come.
In verse 26, as noted in the outline above, Paul shifts to discuss briefly the salvation believers experience, already in the present, through the Spirit. If ultimately we shall realize it in glory, even now we still experience this work of the Spirit in the midst of our human weakness, as Paul begins in v. 26:
“And even so, the Spirit also takes hold opposite together with (us), in our lack of strength [a)sqe/neia]…”
The noun a)sqe/neia is usually translated “weakness”, but literally means “lack of strength”, being “without strength”. I have translated the compound verb sunantilamba/nomai in an extremely literal manner: “take (hold)” [lamba/nw] “opposite” [a)nti/] “(together) with” [su/n]. A useful image might be of two people lifting a large object, holding it together from opposite sides. This effectively summarizes the helping/guiding work of the Spirit for believers in all aspects of our lives (8:9ff), insofar as we allow ourselves to be guided (Gal 5:16-25). Prayer certainly would be included as part of this daily life that is (to be) aided and directed by the Spirit, and it is the area that Paul specifically mentions here.
In a prior study, I pointed out how, in Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Luke 11:1-13, the coming of the Spirit is presented as the ultimate goal and purpose of the disciples’ prayer (v. 13). Much the same point is made by Jesus in the Johannine “Last Discourse”(14:13-17, 25ff; 15;16, 26; 16:23-26). In this regard, it is worth considering again the interesting variant reading in the Lukan Lord’s Prayer (v. 2), in which the Kingdom of God is effectively identified with the presence of the Spirit in and among believers. The petition for the coming of the Kingdom is transformed into a request for the Spirit to “come upon us and cleanse us”. If the coming of the Spirit is the answer to prayer, what role does the Spirit play in the prayer of believers once it is present working in and among us?
In Romans 8:26, Paul provides something of an answer to this question, giving us a rare and precious glimpse of how the Spirit works within the believer. As I mentioned above, such descriptions are rare in the New Testament, and even here the language and imagery lacks precision; however, the basic idea comes through:
“…for th(at for) wh(ich) we should speak out toward (God), according to (what) is necessary, we have not seen [i.e. we do not know], but the Spirit it(self) hits on it over (us), with speechless groanings”
Paul’s syntax is a bit tricky to translate literally, but I have attempted to do so above, as cumbersome as it might seem it modern English. Let us elucidate the vocabulary:
“speak out toward (God)” —this is the verb proseu/xomai, the regular verb used for prayer in the New Testament; it quite literally indicates a person speaking out, uttering a prayer or petition that is directed “toward” (pro/$) God.
“according to (what) is necessary” —this translates the expression kaqo\ dei=; the impersonal verb dei= (3rd person singular) means something like “it is necessary”, referring to something which needs to be done; here it more accurately connotes the right and proper way in which something should be done.
“we have not seen” (ou)k oi&damen)—in Classical and New Testament (Koine) Greek, the verb ei&dw (“see”) is more or less interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”), along with the concepts of seeing/knowing. The New Testament Scriptures make fine use of the dual-concept, especially in the Johannine Gospel. To say “we do not see (clearly)”, essentially means “we do not know”, even as in English idiom.
“hits on it over (us)” —this is a literal translation of the compound verb u(perentugxa/nw; the verb e)ntugxa/nw means “hit on (something)”, in the sense of realizing and dealing with something that one encounters, particularly dealing with issues related to an encounter with another person. The prefixed preposition u(pe/r (“over”) indicates that this is done on behalf of someone. In a technical sense, the compound verb can connote interceding on a person’s behalf.
“speechless groanings” —the noun stenagmo/$ means a “groan” or sigh (the related verb stena/zw was used earlier in v. 23), while the adjective a)la/lhto$ literally means “without speaking”, i.e. without speech, speechless, sometimes in the sense of “unspeakable”. Before offering an explanation of what Paul exactly is describing, let us proceed with the continuation of his statement in verse 27:
“and the (One) searching the hearts has seen [i.e. knows] what the mind(-set) of the Spirit (is), (in) that [i.e. because] he hits upon it over (the) holy (one)s according to God.”
In other words, the Spirit does its work on behalf of believers (“holy ones”) according to God (kata\ qeo/n). This expression is sometimes glossed in translation as “according to God’s will”, which is accurate enough (cf. the following thought in vv. 28ff); however, I feel it is better to keep more closely to the literal wording (“according to God”). Since the Spirit itself represents the active presence and power of God, it acts according to God’s own power and purpose. This belief follows the well-established line of Old Testament and Jewish tradition; what is unique for early Christians is the idea that the Spirit of God is also the Spirit of Jesus Christ—Christ (the Son) and God the Father being united in one Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 6:17; 15:45). Thus, the work of the Spirit, interceding before God on behalf of believers, is simultaneously performed by the exalted Jesus himself, envisioned as standing “at the right hand of God”. Attempts to draw clear theological or metaphysical distinctions between the exalted Jesus and the Spirit go far beyond the New Testament evidence, and are generally ill-supported by the Scriptures themselves.
The characterization of God as “the one searching the hearts” draws upon a familiar Old Testament and Jewish idiom (cf. 1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 7:11; 17:3; 139:1; 1 Cor 4:5; Rev 2:23); in Acts 1:24 and 15:8 the idea is expressed through a specially-coined theological term, “heart-knower” (kardiognw/sth$). In searching the hearts of believers, God finds his own Spirit speaking on their behalf, and instantly recognizes its thought and will as his own. Paul uses the noun fro/nhma, which I translate as “mind-set”, that is, a way of thinking, a tendency or inclination of thought and feeling. This word occurs just four times in the New Testament, all here in chapter 8 of Romans. In the previous three occurrences (vv. 6-7), Paul contrasts the “mind-set” of the Spirit with that of the flesh—part of the Spirit-vs-flesh dualism that we find throughout his letters (esp. Romans and Galatians). The mind-set of the “flesh” is hostile to God, opposed to His will, and leads to death for the human being. The believer is saved from this; the Spirit leads to life, and yet there remains a conflict with the flesh that the believer must deal with on a regular basis (vv. 9-13, etc). This conflict is part of the “groaning” we experience in the present, as we live within the current order of creation (vv. 18-25).
Paul touched upon some of these same themes earlier in 1 Corinthians (2:6-16), only he there described the work of the Spirit in a different manner—instead of God searching the hearts of believers, it is the Spirit who searches the depths of God, and making the “deep things” available as a gift to believers. The emphasis in 1 Cor 2 is on wisdom and revelation, rather than prayer; yet, there can be no doubt that the same essential dynamic is involved—whereby the Spirit of God is at work, manifesting His own presence and power, in and among believers.
Let us attempt now to clarify what Paul is describing in vv. 26-27. The basic premise in v. 26 is that human beings, without the guiding presence of the Spirit, are not able fully to understand how they should pray. Jesus himself offered instruction on prayer to his disciples, including a pattern in the Lord’s Prayer, but this represents only a beginning—just like all of the teaching of Jesus we have recorded in the Gospels. The fullness of his instruction comes through the presence of the Spirit, through which he continues to instruct believers on a daily basis. So it is that we must be instructed in prayer by the Spirit of God and Christ. Paul indicates that this Spirit-guided instruction takes place in a manner that transcends a message in words, stating that it occurs “with speechless groanings” (stenagmoi=$ a)lalh/toi$), which might also be rendered “with unspeakable groanings”.
Many commentators have noted a general parallel with the gift of tongues, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians. While some in the Corinthian congregations were apparently enamored with the display of this gift in a public worship setting, Paul argues strongly that it is more appropriate in a setting of private prayer, where the individual believer is speaking directly to God (14:1-19). In that passage, the gift of tongues functions as a special kind of prayer-language, which likewise transcends ordinary intelligible words, spoken out by a person’s spirit as it is touched/inspired by the Spirit of God. The situation in Rom 8:26-27 is somewhat different, though not entirely unrelated. Paul is describing not a special gift, but something common to all believers, insofar as we all are guided by the Spirit. This guidance in prayer is “without speech”, functioning at a primordial level that goes beyond simple language. It is a stirring, a vibration, an energy that touches our deepest thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
As believers, are we receptive to this stirring, this “groaning” of the Spirit within us? Are we willing to let it guide us in our prayer as we speak out to God in different ways? This is just one part of the larger, continual challenge we face—of allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit, to “walk about” in it at all times. The need of praying “in the Spirit” was understood and appreciated by the New Testament writers, even if they did not express it so clearly or vividly as Paul does in Rom 8:26-27. It is certainly stated in Eph 6:18 and Jude 20, and we may assume it as part of the wider concept of worshiping God in the Spirit (cf. Phil 3:3; Rev 1:10, etc; also John 4:23-24). We may also assume that Jesus’ time spent in prayer also took place in the Spirit—in any case, this would definitely be part of the Lukan portrait of Jesus’ ministry (cf. 4:1, 14, 18; 10:21). All of this to say that we should be ever cognizant of the importance of our prayer being guided by the Spirit, those wordless groanings which allow us to touch the depths of God, and which help our own way of thinking to be conformed to God’s own thought and mind.