“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. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:26-28)
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have begun our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” (Wendell Berry, Standing By Words: Essays, p. 97)
Romans 8 rightly occupies a beloved place in the affections of many weary Christians. It contains some of the most profound meditations on God’s redemptive work in Christ on behalf of sinners in the entire New Testament, as well as the sweetest promises that could ever be imagined. In a world of evil and death, all things nonetheless are working for our good. Resurrection is coming–not only for Christians, but for the entire cosmos. Every good thing we will ever need is personally guaranteed by God, since that feat is quite easy in comparison to the really hard thing which God has already accomplished for us (not sparing His own Son, but handing him over to death for us–the echoes of Genesis 22 are obvious). In the face of our ongoing guilt, Jesus our righteous high priest intercedes for us before the throne of God. And in the face of the often overwhelming sufferings of this present life, we are more than conquerors through the crucified and risen Jesus. Therefore, nothing could ever separate us from the love of God.
Yet within this soul-stirring chapter, 8:26-27 are two verses that stick out like a sore thumb. Self-evidently they are meant by Paul to be received as further positive reinforcement. But what in the world do they mean? And how do they lead into the astounding promise of 8:28, to which they are clearly connected? The overall context is fairly clear. In the face of our ongoing weakness as Christians–namely, that in spite of the redemption we have already received in Christ, we often find ourselves unsure of where we are going and what God’s will is–the Spirit intercedes for us to ensure that we reach our final destination. Whatever else Romans 8:26-27 is saying, the overall thrust is that Christians can be assured of God’s protective guidance in spite of often being unaware of where they should be going.
In this Paul manifestly alludes to the “new Exodus” motif that the Old Testament prophets (especially Isaiah and Jeremiah) promise. Just as God once liberated Israel from bondage to slavery in Egypt, led them through the barren wilderness, and eventually brought them to the promised land, so also a greater, more decisive Exodus will one day be accomplished for the people of God (Jeremiah 16:14-16, Hosea 11:1, 8-11, Luke 9:31). As the narrative logic of Isaiah 40-66 progressively unveils, a day is coming when the “way of the Lord” through the “wilderness” will be prepared, and the Lord Himself will return to Israel to lead them back into the promised land from the four corners of the earth to which they have been scattered through exile. Central to this new Exodus is the strange vocation of the Servant, who will suffer and be exalted in the pursuit of Israel’s restoration.
In Romans 6-8, Paul indicates in a number of ways that this new Exodus has now taken place through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Though formerly slaves to sin, Christians have been freed from their captivity (Romans 6). However, they have not yet reached the promised land (Romans 8:18ff). Instead, they find themselves “groaning” just as Israel once did, longing for the full liberation that God has promised (Exodus 2:23-24, Romans 8:22-23). So we too find ourselves in the “wilderness”, being tempted to turn back to the slavery we have been rescued from (8:15), all the while being exhorted to look ahead to the “inheritance” to come (8:17). And just as God once led His people through the wilderness, when they often found themselves not knowing where they were going, through the pillar of cloud and fire, so today the Spirit leads God’s children (8:14).
So this is the essential meaning of Romans 8:26-27. Having experienced the new Exodus in being liberated from sin and death through the Messiah, God’s people can take comfort that the Spirit will infallibly guide them through the wilderness until they reach the promised land–even though, like Israel of old, they often do not know the way they are going.
Yet the details are still obscure. How exactly does this guidance work itself our in our lives? Three questions can be put to Romans 8:26-27 that help to clarify the meaning. First, who is searching hearts? Second, what does he know? Third, why do all things work for our good? Let’s take these one at a time.
First, who does Paul have in mind at the beginning of 8:27 when he states that “he” is searching hearts? Most commentators and ordinary readers automatically assume that “he” refers here to God the Father. This interpetation is possessed of an a priori plausibility because of what “he” is said to know–the mind of the Spirit. If “he” knows the mind of the Spirit, it would seem that “he” cannot be the Spirit.
Nonetheless, I think this intuition is mistaken. First, the identity of “he” is not stated clearly in the Greek, and just as in the English language, in Greek a pronominal reference usually points back to the last explicitly named entity. In 8:26, the only “he” mentioned is the Spirit. So our initial assumption should be that “he” in 8:27 picks up this reference. Otherwise an unstated switch of reference to the Father would be abrupt and without any prior indication. Second, the word ”searches” (eraunao) is only used one other time by Paul in his letters, in 1 Corinthians 2:10. And there the one who is “searching” is the Spirit, not the Father. Finally, what “he” knows–the “mind of the Spirit”–is not nearly the defeater for identifying the Spirit with “he who searches hearts” as is ordinarily thought.
This leads to the second question. What does “he” (the Spirit) know in Romans 8:27? As a result of searching hearts, “he” knows “the mind of the Spirit.” What could this mean? Though the English translation virtually demands the reader to take the phrase as a reference to the cognitive mental thoughts of the Spirit, this is not the most likely meaning. The phrase Paul uses here (to phronema tou pneumatos) is used another time in Paul–and it appears only a few verses earlier in this same chapter!
In Romans 8:5-6 Paul writes that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on (phroneo) the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on (phroneo) the things of the Spirit. For the mindset (phronema) of the flesh is death, but the mindset of the Spirit (to phronema tou pneumatos) is life and peace.” The word in 8:27 that is rendered as “mind” in most English translations actually refers in 8:6 to the subjective attitude or moral disposition of Christians who walk according to the Spirit, and not to the objective cognitive data within the Spirit’s own “mind”!
Thus, Romans 8:27 should be understood to be saying something like this: “The Spirit who searches hearts knows (recognizes) those whose attitudes are bent in faith toward dependence upon the Spirit, not to the selfish desires of the flesh.” This also makes sense of what is (on the traditional interpretation of this passage) the apparently arbitrary reference to “searching hearts”, which throughout the Scripture always indicates a divine examination of human dispositions. This phrase has no relevance for the idea that the Father knows the mental thoughts of the Spirit–and such a meaning would be nonsensical in the logical flow of the passage.
So, a quick summary of where we are so far. Though Christians often do not know where they are going–they are still weak on this side of the resurrection!–the Spirit is interceding for them before God the Father with groans that we do not hear (literally, “without speech”). How does this behind-the-scenes dynamic work? 8:27 provides the answer. Though we do not where we are going or what we should pray for–that is, our weakness here is epistemological or cognitive–the Spirit is searching our hearts to discern if we are devoted to the Lord in righteousness, or to ourselves in sin. If the Spirit discovers, in His searching ministry, that we are among those who walk according to the Spirit and not the flesh (8:4-12), then He proceeds to interecede for us before the Father “according to the will of God.” That is, God honors those who honor Him. He pours out grace on faith. And this is a great comfort to wandering Christians, for though we cannot know the way home, we can walk according to the Spirit of God in our wilderness journeying.
And this provides the answer to our third question: why do all things work for the good of those who love God and who are called according to His purpose (8:28)? This promise is almost always disconnected entirely from the immediate context and made to stand alone. Yet Paul does not arrive at this conclusion willy nilly–for him the reason all things work for the good of Christians is obvious. It is because of 8:26-27! The result of the Spirit’s intercession in leading the weak, wandering people of God is that we will never be severed from God’s guiding hand. Note that this is not a promise that our “weakness” in 8:26 is ever removed. Paul does not says that. We still find ourselves, and always will on this side of the new creation to come, not knowing what to pray for or where we are going. But the promise of Romans 8:26-28 is that if we follow Jesus wholeheartedly and walk according to the Spirit, we will never be lost or abandoned.
Notice the intentional play on words in the passage. We do not “know” where we are going (8:26). But the Spirit “knows” if our hearts are inclined toward God in the midst of this ongoing weakness (8:27). And therefore, the one thing we do “know” is that all things are working for our good (8:28), for the Father unfailingly responds to the Spirit’s intercession when it is according to the will of God. We will reach the promised land if we follow the crucified and risen Jesus through the wilderness, no matter how forsaken or alone we may feel we are along the way. On the basis of perceiving that we are following Jesus in faith, the Spirit intercedes with groanings before the Father, who is prompted to powerfully turn our confusing paths toward Him for our everlasting good.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo embarked upon the perilous mission to destroy the ring, “even though I do not know the way.” But as Tolkien says at another point in the story, “not all who wander are lost.” As one Old Testament writer proclaimed, nicely summarizing Paul’s meaning in Romans 8:26-28: “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward Him” (2 Chronicles 16:9).
These are amazing promises to cherish as God’s people. Yet one particular implication stands out to me that seems worth highlighting. Many Christians today are obsessed with “knowing God’s will,” in the sense of discerning exactly what God wants them to do in each and every important decision in their lives. In itself, this is not a bad emphasis–though on any reading it can become dangerously lopsided. The desperation to know God’s will can easily lead to the subtle conviction that God’s will in the lives of individual Christians is ultimately dependent on Christians discerning and grasping that plan. This is manifestly foolish. So even while acknowledging the goodness of the desire to know God’s will, I am persuaded that passages like Romans 8:26-28 remind us that something else is far more important in life than knowing God’s will–namely, a heart that loves and longs to do God’s will. And God’s will is, above all else, that we follow Jesus in faith by taking up our cross and denying ourselves, putting the interests of his kingdom and our neighbor above our own. And insofar as we do this, we will never find ourselves outside of God’s gracious will for our lives.
Consider two hypothetical scenarios. In the first, a young man is relentlessly focused over the years on finding God’s specific will for his life–what he should major in, what career he should choose, who he should marry, what house and neighborhood he should live in, etc. All of these are worthy things to desire to know and to pursue knowledge of, to be sure. But imagine that this focus is so overwhelmingly prevalent in the man’s life that, along the way, he increasingly loses sight of God’s moral requirements in all situations. Imitating Jesus falls rapidly on his list of values. People and relationships are moved to the periphery. Unselfishness, humility and suffering love are marginalized as priorities in favor of discovering various techniques and prayers devoted to discerning God’s will for his next decision. In the long run this Christian, though perceiving himself to be spiritual and godly, strikes many people as shallow, self-obssessed, and generally unavailable to others in the nitty gritty business of real life. Knowing God’s will has become a functional excuse for not following Jesus in everyday life, and the pursuit of the “right decision” has often functioned as a means of hiding various idols and sinful desires that have never been dealt with. But his confidence is high that he stands fully assured in God’s will in all his decisions.
Now imagine a woman who regularly finds herself unsure of God’s leading in most of the “big” decisions in her life. She rarely feels confident that she hears or understands the voice of God along the way. This is a source of grief and consternation to her, yet she consistently devotes herself to the Lord, seeking to please Him in all things, and finds a thousand practical ways to take up her cross and live by faith in the many relationships and situations she finds herself in (and finds herself in without any strong assurance that this is where God is leading her!). Though years later she still finds herself unsure as to God’s specific will for her future, when she looks back upon her past she sees (by God’s grace) a long history of gospel fruitfulness, of friends whose lives have been changed and drawn closer to Christ through her humble service and love, and a steadfast joy in Christ that has slowly begun to overshadow all other desires. She doesn’t know where she is going, but she looks a lot like Jesus.
Truly I say to you–this woman was in God’s will through it all, though she often did not know how to pray. For the Spirit, perceiving that her heart was fully devoted to the Lord, sovereignly intercedes for her according to the will of God. And for this woman, all things have mysteriously worked together for good. And not just for her good. For the good of the world. Simply because she loved God.
The message of Romans 8:26-27 is that if we follow Jesus, we have nothing to ultimately fear as we navigate our way blindly through this howling wilderness, through this present evil age. He will bring us safely home. And thus we sing:
How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in his excellent word; What more can he say than to you he hath said? You, who unto Jesus, for refuge have fled.
In ev’ry condition – in sickness in health, In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth, At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea, As thy days may demand, so thy succor shall be.
Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed! For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go, The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow; For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply; The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design, Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
E’en down to old age, all my people shall prove My sov’reign eternal, unchangeable love; And then, when grey hairs shall their temples adorn, Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes: That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake