I helped to chaperone a ski retreat to West Virginia last weekend with our church’s youth group. The scripture that we discussed throughout the weekend was Romans 8, among the Bible’s highest and most glorious summits.
Since I haven’t preached on or studied Romans in years, the retreat gave me a new opportunity to reflect more deeply on the letter, on this chapter within it, and on my life’s theme verse, Romans 8:28. Allow me to share the following insight:
In the two verses preceding Romans 8:28, Paul writes,
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. 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. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
To begin with, Paul is offering practical pastoral guidance related to prayer. For instance, when my father was dying of terminal cancer many years ago, and suffering the side effects of aggressive chemotherapy, he confided in me that he was having trouble concentrating in prayer. I told him, of course, that we don’t need chemotherapy to have that problem! Then I quoted these verses: the good news about prayer is that the Holy Spirit helps us where we fall short, “interced[ing] for us with groanings too deep for words.”
This means, as I’ve said before in sermons, that God answers the prayer underneath our prayer—or, as Tim Keller memorably puts it: “God will either give us what we ask for, or what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows.” (Please note, however, that Keller isn’t saying that God will give us what we would have asked for… if only we had bothered to ask. Paul’s promise here applies to actual, not hypothetical, prayers.)
But here’s my main point: God does not always give us human beings what we ask for in prayer—because we are finite and fallible; we can’t begin to imagine the impact that God’s answering our prayer will have on everyone else in the world—indeed, how our answered prayer would affect the “greater good” that God is always bringing about. Only God can know all these things. (I’ve blogged before about how the “butterfly effect” applies to our relationship with God.)
So God won’t always answer our prayers. But do you know whose prayers God will answer every single time?
God’s prayers for us!
As strange as it seems, this is what Paul is saying in this text: The Holy Spirit—who is God himself, the Third Person of the Trinity—is praying for us, and the Holy Spirit’s prayers for us—to our Father—will always be answered… affirmatively, perfectly, unfailingly! The Father will always grant the Spirit’s petitions on our behalf.
Does God desire only what’s good for his children? Yes. And so, when the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us” (“prays for us,” NLT), he is praying only for what is in our best interest—at every moment, in every circumstance.
Doesn’t this make logical sense, therefore, of the great promise in Romans 8:28—that in all things God works for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose?
This means, among other things, that no matter what potentially difficult trial we’re enduring at the moment, we are enduring it only because God wills it for us… and God only wills it for our good… because the Holy Spirit is always praying for our good… and the Father always answers the Spirit’s prayers with a resounding “yes.”
By all means, we may be enduring a difficult trial because of sinful choices that we’ve made—or others have made—which harm us. And if those choices had been otherwise, our life would be easier than it is at the moment. God’s “best” for us may be very painful at times. As Paul also says in Romans 8, “we ourselves… groan inwardly,” and “we are being killed all the day long” (vv. 23, 36). But on the other side of every trial is a blessing.
How can it be otherwise, if God’s promises in this passage are true—and the underlying logic holds.
We are blessed not only in spite of the pain we experience but also through the pain. If we are in Christ, we can be sure that the pain is necessary for whatever blessing God wants to give us.
I know we often to struggle with this—for two reasons. First, we believe we are blessed only to the extent that we feel blessed. Feelings are good, of course, but they are an unreliable measure of our blessedness. The life-saving vaccine is incredibly good for us, after all, even though the needle by which it’s administered hurts in the short run.
Not long ago, I was talking to a parishioner who was facing a severe health challenge. After describing the problem, she assured me, “But I’m doing O.K. I’m blessed.” And I thought, “What a mature Christian attitude! That’s exactly right! She is blessed. At this very moment, she may not be experiencing this trial as a blessing—she may not be feeling the blessing—but she can be confident that God is using the experience, ultimately, to bless her.”
But then she said the following: “I mean, I look around and see others who have it so much worse than I do.”
My heart sank. We are not blessed only to the extent that other people “have it so much worse” than us! If we are in Christ, we are blessed, period. Full stop.
But this is the second mistake we make when it comes to our blessings: we tend to measure them in comparison to the blessings of others: “I know I’m blessed because I have something that these other people don’t have.”
I struggle with this. I often want someone else’s blessings—in my case, usually some other pastor’s blessings. But why should I expect God to give me—and I’m dreaming big here—the blessings of Joel Osteen (of money, power, prestige, and popularity)? Yet I think, If only I had his blessings, then I would know that I’m successful; then I would know that I’m making a difference; then I would know that people loved me. If I had Joel Osteen’s blessings, then I wouldn’t feel so insecure all the time!
But what do I know? The blessings with which God has blessed Osteen may become curses if they happened to me. In fact, with my ego… I’m sure they would! They would destroy me!
No, I can trust that God has designed my blessings especially for me and for my good, which includes learning that I don’t need worldly measures of success to know that I’m a “highly favored” son of God through adoption into God’s family by faith in Christ.
So what will God’s blessings in my life accomplish? They will enable me, as Paul also says in Romans 8:29, “to be conformed to the image of his Son,” which will inevitably lead to loving Jesus more, enjoying him more, being more satisfied in him, experiencing more of his presence and power.
Granted, I have to want more of Jesus in order for God’s blessings to feel like blessings. I have to want more of Jesus in order to find any lasting happiness in life.
Is that what I want? Because ultimately that’s all God wants to give me.
I’ll leave you with this passage from C.S. Lewis, which continues to haunt me with its truth and beauty:
George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.
1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.