'In the same way, the Spirit stands with us, helping us in our weakness; for we do not know what we should pray, but the Spirit intercedes for us in our wordless groans.'
This is a verse that has really got me mulling things over. I don’t feel I’ve got to the end of that process but here are some thoughts for the present: Commentators are divided as to how this verse should be translated. Some think we should go with the standard way of translating it, which tells us that the wordless groaning is something the Spirit does when he intercedes for us. Most bible versions take this line; others think that it is the Spirit interceding for us in our wordless groans (and the Greek text does allow for this way of translating).
I’m not sure what to make of the idea of the Spirit engaging in wordless groans – if this is meaningful for anyone, I’d be interested to hear their thoughts, but I have to say it rather has me scratching my head! So I made the decision to go with the other option and see where it lead me and have found it has opened up some stirring and powerful thoughts, as well as some challenging ones. One thing I realised when I started thinking about it is that I have a natural bias towards the extrovert in my praying, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s understandable why this should be; our extrovert finds it a lot easier to express what it is thinking than our introvert does to express what it is really feeling. It’s often quite difficult to put our finger on what we are feeling and find words to properly express it. We naturally feel we need to pray with words; after all, if I am praying together with other Christians, if I don’t find words with which to express my prayer, others won’t be able to share in my praying. If all they hear from me is wordless groans they will doubtless perceive that I’m in some kind of difficulty - and somewhat lost as to what they are supposed to be saying Amen to! However, what about when we are praying on our own? Are we then going to dismiss some of the things we are feeling which have us inwardly groaning because we struggle to find the words for them? Added to this is our natural fear that if we were able find words to express our feelings, they wouldn’t be very acceptable – either to God or to other people. We can so easily give in to this fear.
It’s not difficult to see how our introvert ends up being squashed when it comes to praying. What is so liberating about Paul’s words here (as well as challenging) is that he assumes that our prayers should spring from our introvert and that, therefore, it’s only to be expected that we start out from a place of not being able to find the right words to pray arising from our deeper feelings. That’s why he says we do not know what we should pray. Now as some one who has got quite used to praying aloud, I can tell you that my extrovert doesn’t have any difficulty in thinking of things that I should pray for and finding the words for them. However, if what I come up with is not connected up with my introvert it probably won’t be that much value as a prayer. I can come up with some nice words though! It’s in my introvert feelings that I really struggle to express myself and that’s what Paul must be referring to here; the implication is that this is the thing that really matters when it comes to praying. That’s where we should start out from.
If we start out not being able to find words and all that we have is wordless groans (and groans can mean anything from inner pain and frustration to longings and desires) Paul wants us to know that that’s fine, the Spirit is right there with us in that and he can take those groans to God the Father. I was struck by what someone on a recent Understanding Yourself course said. She related how one of their children told them she felt “funny” (as in, she felt something was not right) without being able to articulate any more and they were able to affirm her in being able to say that was OK, without being dismissive or not taken seriously.
Going on from there, the Spirit is here to help us put what we feel into words (or more clearly expressed thoughts, at least) that we can pray to our God. This is the point we can start to get inhibited about whether what we come up with will be right or acceptable. We can berate ourselves, saying “doesn’t Paul talk about what we should pray? What if we end up saying things to God that are not right?” However, if it is concerned with what we really feel, it needs to be expressed, even if what we are feeling is not what we should be feeling, or we want something that is not for us to have. It is only when these things are given full and clear expression that they can be properly dealt with. In this sense, they are things we need to pray in the cause of being honest with ourselves and with God. At Gethsemene, Jesus prayed something he wasn’t supposed to ask for at all when he asked to be spared from going to the cross, even though he had repeatedly declared this is what he was meant to do. Paul asked for his thorn in the flesh to be taken away from him, even after God had already said no to him – and he did this twice! Jeremiah gets angry with God, telling him he feels betrayed by him. Job complains bitterly to God, and even worse, he makes complaints about God! But Job’s honesty with God about what he really feels is important, for it is a route to his feelings being properly dealt with.
On the other hand, there will be times when, to our surprise, we learn that those deep feelings that the Spirit helps us to find the words for are beautiful and profound and this includes when they are painful feelings. They may bring us and other people incredible insights. Sometimes we are afraid we might be expressing something we shouldn’t, but it turns out to be something valuable and important. It may be what we say is not at all pretty but it needs to be said because it is the truth, even if it is a difficult truth.
The psalms are full of all of these things and are given to us as examples of what happens when the Spirit helps us to give expression to someone’s inner feelings, whether those feelings are right or not. So, for instance, we frequently find the Psalmist saying he feels that God is angry with him. Without knowing more about the situations the psalmists speaking from, it’s sometimes difficult to know whether they were right in feeling this, or just being plagued by dark thoughts. In general terms, my feeling is that sometimes what they were saying came from an objective understanding of their situation; at other times, they may simply have been weighed down with negativity and false guilt. In both cases, the feelings were recorded for posterity and added to Holy Scripture because God really cares about what we feel, whether we’re right to feel it or not.
So let’s not be afraid to go to the difficult places inside us, so that the Spirit can lead us on to saying the unsay-able, in just the same way as children who feel completely secure in their parents’ love can say what they feel whether it’s pretty or not. When we lose our inhibitions about the introvert, that’s when things that need sorting out inside us can get dealt with and healed and that’s when the riches of the introvert can really come out and seen in all their glory.