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 (Romans 8:26 ESV).
I remember the first time I ever heard people “speaking in tongues.” A friend of my father’s had invited my dad and I to attend a Full Gospel Businessmen‘s fellowship meeting. I was only about 13 years old and we had a very nice dinner with men dressed in suits and ties… and chocolate ice-cream for desert. Yum-yum.
But then the meeting took an odd turn when guitar-led singing soon began, and I started to hear some of the men around me saying some rather funny things. As they were singing, I could not understand what words they were using. It clearly was not English! Was it gibberish? I could not help but to look around the room, eyes wild open, trying to figure out what in the world was going on! It was like something out of 1 Corinthians 14!
My dad and I had a rather quiet ride in the car going home that night. Now, you have to know my dad. He is not one for displaying emotion, being rather stoic in personality but always with something articulate to say. But the whole evening left my dad uncharacteristically speechless…. and it left me with a lot of questions.
The Charismatic Question
Years later in college, I started to attend a charismatic church where “speaking in tongues” and the like were quite the norm. I still had a lot of questions. There is not enough space in this blog post to address everything related to the “Charismatic Movement,” but I kept thinking about that night as a 13-year-old, trying to figure out what the “speaking in tongues” was all about. In particular, I was trying to reconcile how in many charismatic settings a particular display of “speaking in tongues” was not always accompanied by an “interpretation,” as the Apostle Paul encourages in 1 Corinthians 14:13-19. Was this really the Holy Spirit demonstrating the supernatural reality of God in those believers, or was it simply a psychological experience mimicking what was taught in the Bible?
I was not very sure.
I asked a friend about these “uninterpreted” instances of “speaking in tongues.” The answer I was given was that sometimes “speaking in tongues,” or what scholars call glossolalia, can be improperly handled in church. In a public setting, the Apostle Paul advises that an “interpretation” should be given for utterings in “unknown” languages. Otherwise, the worship experience risks falling into disorder (1 Corinthians 14:26-33). However, there are times where when spoken in a generally quiet or a low voice to one’s self that such an instance of glossolalia is a type of “praying in the Spirit,” otherwise known as a private prayer language.
If you have ever been in a group of Christians praying who practice such a “private prayer language,” it can quickly grab your attention to say the least. In fact, for someone who is a nonbeliever or otherwise unfamiliar with the practice to experience it around them, it will definitely cause them take notice! For many in the “Charismatic Movement,” this is effectively why Paul insists that such “sign” gifts of the Holy Spirit, like tongues, are meant to be a sign not for believers but for non believers (1 Corinthians 14:22).
The phenomenon in contemporary Christianity is very controversial. According to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, the contemporary revival of the charismata, or “gifts of the Spirit,” is the fastest growing global movement in all of world religious history, in spite of efforts by those who regard it as an aberration of genuine faith and wish to discourage it. The contention surrounding the “gifts of the Spirit” explains why in a lot of evangelical churches today that there are “closet charismatics” who use their “private prayer language” very, very quietly, so as not to alarm their n0n-charismatic friends with whom they worship.
So, I continued to ask my friend regarding the biblical basis for such a practice of a “private prayer language” specifically. His response was for me to read Romans 8:26, where the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
There are two main problems with appealing to this verse to substantiate the practice of a “private prayer language.” First, in this passage, the text indicates that the groanings of the Holy Spirit mentioned here are by the Apostles’ own admission too deep for words; that is, the groanings can not be articulated in words, implying that they simply can not be spoken, even in an “unknown” language, as many scholars would argue (though some scholars, such as F.F. Bruce in his Tyndale commentary on Romans, are indifferent on the matter).
Secondly, these groanings of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:26 are applicable to every believer, whereas the gift of tongues, despite what some extreme elements of the Pentecostalist movement contend, is not the gift of every Christian, as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 14:1-5. The work of the Spirit in Romans 8 is not just for some spiritual “elite,” it is for every follower of Jesus!
Within the larger context of Romans 8, the groanings of the Holy Spirit are meant to show us that when Christian believers find themselves unable to pray, we have the promise that the Holy Spirit will intercede before the Father on our behalf. Not every important question we have in life can be resolved simply by proof-texting a verse of Scripture. Should I become a missionary? Should I marry this person? Should I take this job? Why am I experiencing this trial of suffering in my life? …and so on. We can appeal to general principles of decision making and taking spiritual comfort in the Bible, but there are times where the answers do not always come very easily. We simply do not know, and we do not know how to pray. So the Apostle Paul encourages us by showing us that the Holy Spirit “has our back.” He prays for us even when we do not how or for what to pray.
Therefore, when a charismatic Bible teacher insists that Paul surely has a “private prayer language” in mind when he is writing Romans 8:26, there is sound evidence from Scripture that questions that idea. Now, is it possible for a “private prayer language” to be included in what Paul is saying here as well? Does a “private prayer language” provide an avenue for the Holy Spirit to comfort and lead us when we find ourselves pressed in on all sides, not knowing how to pray?
The answer to these questions would require a longer examination of what the Bible teaches about the nature of the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” and whether or not they are truly available to Christians today, topics we can take up at another time. This can be tricky business since the “Charismatic Movement” tends to attract Bible teachers who sometimes play rather fast and loose with the interpretation of Scripture, while at the same time there are other Christians who are so skeptical that they will not touch anything “charismatic” with a ten-foot-pole.
But the main lesson here, at least for this blog post, is that an appeal to Romans 8:26 as the definitive defense of the practice of a “private prayer language” fails to properly appreciate the context of this particular passage. Be open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, but always let the Scriptures be your guide.
UPDATE: April 28, 2015
In our small group discussion last night on this passage, the question was asked as to “who does the groaning? Is it the Holy Spirit? Or is it we who groan?” A literal reading of the text would indicate that it is the Holy Spirit who does the groaning, not us. But there is a serious objection to consider here: Can the Holy Spirit really groan? Is it thinkable that it would be the Holy Spirit who is rendered speechless? If we serve an omnipotent God, and we have a Holy Spirit who knows everything, how could the Holy Spirit not be able to intercede in an articulate manner with the Father? Or as pastor John Piper suggests, perhaps there is a third alternative, “namely, these groanings are our groanings which are also the Spirit’s groanings because he inspires and directs them in us?” If you are curious about this, I would commend to you John Piper’s exposition of this passage.