Summary: When we let the Spirit work in our lives groaning for the sake of the world, and when we open ourselves to God’s righteousness as he searches our hearts, then even in our weakness, there will be strength; strength for us, strength for the world, strength
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” That is the opening to Psalm 139, which we reflected on last week. If you remember, we thought about how scary it is to be known inside and out. And then we reflected on how with God, being fully and completely known is not a scary thing, but really a wonderful blessing because God loves us despite all the messiness. And God is always ready to forgive our mistakes and to help us grow more and more into the people he created us to be.
Today, Paul continues that thought for us in a way as he writes to the Romans. "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” he says. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will." So, not only does God know us inside and out, but through his Spirit, God takes action for us.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” This is one of the key statements in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Throughout this letter, Paul is seeking to reveal the righteousness of God, and here in the middle portion of his letter, Paul is describing the new journey of the people of God. Jesus Christ, of course, inaugurated this new journey. And following in Christ’s footsteps the Holy Spirit leads us on this journey through the present life, even as we look forward to that great inheritance, the life to come, which will include the whole of creation. God’s righteousness is shown throughout this journey in the presence of the Holy Spirit, which intercedes on our behalf. With the Spirit in us, God can intercede in accordance with his will, even when we do not know what that is or what to pray for! And it is because of that intercession of the Holy Spirit that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
But there are so many horrible things that happen in the world, how does God work for good? In this passage, Paul speaks of the one who “searches our hearts.” God is the "Searcher of our hearts." The word "searcher" comes from a root word which suggests someone lighting a torch and going slowly around a large, dark room full of all sorts of things, but looking for something in particular. But what is it, exactly, that this Searcher wants to find?
Certainly, in searching the dark spaces of our hearts, God comes across all sorts of things which we would prefer remain hidden; as we were reminded last week. But in searching our hearts, God is not really looking for (or even at) all that junk inside us. Rather, the thing God is wanting to find above all else, and which according to Paul he ought to find in all Christians, is the sound of the Spirit's groaning; "a sigh too deep for words."
The interesting thing about this groaning, though, is that it is not a groaning on our behalf, but on behalf of God's will. I believe it is fair to say that a characteristic trait of our society is selfishness. As a general rule, we are always looking out for number one, and number one is us. The spillover in matters of faith is that we see our relationship with God only in terms of how it fills our individual needs. Our common modern interpretation of this particular passage from Romans is a classic example. We like this text because to us, it seems to offer assurance that God is going to make our life “good.” This is certainly true, but we look at that “good” on our terms, rather than on God’s terms. And it is precisely in this misinterpretation that we overlook Paul’s very message of God’s righteousness.
When we read Paul’s words, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” what we hear is “we’re gonna get what we want.” But that is not a message of God’s righteousness at all, that is a message of self-righteousness. What Paul is expressing to the Romans in this passage is that God is looking out for the well-being and the continual upbuilding of his whole kingdom, the entire creation. The groan of the Holy Spirit within us gives voice not only to our need, but more importantly to the needs of the world.
Earlier in his letter to the Romans, Paul spoke of a world in pain, groaning in the birth pangs of a new creation. He spoke, too, of the church sharing that pain, groaning in our longing for the redemption of all people. The church is not to be apart from the pain of the world, nor are the people in the church. Here Paul shows that God himself does not stand apart from the pain of the world or the church, but instead comes to dwell in the middle of it in the person and power of the Spirit. And we are called to be a part of that work; even in our weakness, we are to open ourselves so that the Spirit can work in and through us.