Yesterday I laid a foundation for this by discussing tongues for two reasons:
- A lot of people think this verse is about praying in tongues.
- What I have to say about this verse is related to praying in tongues.
Is Rom. 8:26 About Praying in Tongues?
Romans 8:26 talks about the Holy Spirit making intercession for us with “groanings too deep to be uttered.” Groanings too deep to be uttered are not the same as speaking in another language. “Too deep to be uttered” means, uh, “too deep to be uttered.” That means you can’t say those groanings.
Speaking in tongues is speaking in words. Groaning without uttering is not speaking at all.
This isn’t talking about praying in tongues.
Groanings Too Deep To Be Uttered
I spent yesterday’s post talking about words and Scripture verses. I just discussed the wording of Romans 8:26. Now, it is time to get to what I really want to point out, the imagery of Romans 8:26.
Picture what Paul is describing here. I am going to assume that it is not only the Holy Spirit that is groaning, but that the person in whom the Holy Spirit lives is groaning as well.
Picture this kind of prayer.
A person is on their knees, so caught up in prayer, that they are literally groaning, unable to express the deep—rich even—emotions that are moving in his or her spirit, prompted by the Holy Spirit, whose own infinite, completely unselfish love is longing for good to be poured out on the earth from God; whose own divine purity is agonizing over the impurity that we bring into God’s creation and our own society of his beloved children.
Do we pray like this?
I believe that many of us do not pray like this because we never create the opportunity to pray like this.
One of my favorite stories from Christian history is the arrest of Polycarp, the aged and beloved overseer of the church in Smyrna. Two soldiers showed up to arrest this dangerous enemy of Rome and were shocket to find a fragile, 86-year-old man with white hair and beard.
Polycarp served them a meal, then asked time to pray.
He then prayed … for two hours … out loud and in front of the soldiers.
We read of Jesus himself rising before daybreak to pour out his heart to his Father. We read of him crying out to his Father on the eve of his crucifixion to the point where he sweat drops of blood.
What kind of prayer is that?
The gift of tongues is occasionally referred to by scholars as “ecstatic” tongues, especially in reference to the ancient tongues that we read about in the apostles writings.
TheFreeDictionary.com defines ecstatic as:
- In a trancelike state of great rapture or delight
- Being in a state of ecstasy; joyful or enraptured
I want to suggest that this “trancelike state of great rapture or delight” is promoted by the apostle Paul.
That’s probably not the best definition I could have used, but I had trouble finding a word as effective for communicating what I want to say as “ecstasy” is.
The problem is not “trancelike”; the problem is “rapture or delight” and “joyful.”
I don’t think that “groanings too deep to be uttered” are always, or ever, joyful or delightful. More probably, they can be painful, at least emotionally.
Paul was a much more wild man than we usually give him credit for. He was passionate, prone to anger, and impressively bold and hopeful. He was bold and hopeful because he was full of belief in the power of God.
But I wonder how much of his bold, hopeful fullness of faith was prompted by “watchings often.”
He mentions “watchings” in 2 Cor. 6:5 and 11:27. In 6:5 it is watchings and fasting. In 11:27 he adds “weariness and painfulness” and, again, “fasting often.”
What does Paul mean by “watching”?
He means staying up all night or late into the night in prayer. Not a few lines of requests for blessings, but long hours that he considered agonizing work.
When Paul mentions his difficulties and trials, he mentions false brothers, robbers, cold, nakedness, and “that which comes upon me daily, the care of all the churches.”
How did someone who had to walk everywhere he went care for all the churches?
He cared for them in prayer, which is why he could tell one church after another that he did not cease to pray for them, even since he saw them or even heard of them (Col. 1:3-4).
I’m going to risk a general statement here and say that no one who has spent long hours praying in care over the lost and over their brothers and sisters in Christ that they know or don’t know … anyone who has spent those long hours has had the experience of being “caught up,” whether in ecstasy or agony. They know the feeling of losing track of this world and being caught up into God, wrapped up in the Spirit of God, seeing things with an eternal view.
For Paul, this was definitely so. He was a man of visions and prophecies. In his prayers for the ship that was transporting him as a prisoner to Rome, which were surely long and full of emotional anguish, God promised him not only that he would survive, but that he would be granted the lives of all the crew members as well. (Toward the end of Acts, probably chapter 27. I’m in a hurry, so I’m not going to go look it up.)
Peter (Acts 10, I’m pretty sure) went to Joppa and was asked to pray for a woman named Dorcas, who had died. For us, that seems a little late to be praying, but Peter was an apostle.
Now Jesus was closer to God than even his lead disciple, Peter. Jesus could just walk into the room where Jairus’ daughter was and tell her to awake from the dead. Peter had to do more. When he was alone in the room with the dead woman, he prayed first, then asked Dorcas to get up.
I have to imagine that was an impassioned prayer. There were people outside counting on him. Can you imagine Peter emerging like a doctor from an operating room, head hung, pulling off his mask, and quietly announcing, “I’m sorry. I lost her.”
Peter didn’t want to imagine that, either. I assure you, he was crying out to God, and there were probably groans too deep to be uttered coming out of him.
Impassioned Prayers, Ecstasy, and Tongues
Let’s wander back to tongues. We read yesterday that Paul thanked God that he prayed with tongues more than all the Corinthians. He also prayed “with the understanding.” He sang, too, “with the spirit” and “with the understanding.”
I do not want to promote tongues. Overall, Paul didn’t, and no other apostles even mention it. You can search the writings of the early Christians, and there are a lot of them, and you will find only one passing reference from Irenaeus commenting that there were still those that spoke in tongues. It doesn’t sound like he even knew them.
Tongues showed up in the Book of Acts without any promotion. If they show up again, without any promotion or any kooky Christians asking us to say “abba” over and over again, then yeah!, I’m thrilled.
I do want to promote ecstasy, or at least that other worldly catching up that happens to those who labor before God for long periods of time.
It’s life-transforming, it’s Biblical, and both Jesus and the apostles gave us examples of it.
Maybe when we are people who can say with Paul that we are in watches and fasts, and that often, we will know again the proper role of tongues, or, even better, we will groan with intercessions too deep to be uttered rising from the Spirit of God to the throne of God.