Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
And from Matthew 13:‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Not good enough for Church?
I met a character not so long ago who has begun thinking about Christianity again after many years away. His comments to me were very telling in that he was wondering about going to church, but that he didn't feel good enough. I tried to explain to him that few Christians think they are good enough, and that this perception of ourselves is a reminder of why we follow this path in the first place. But it came as an important reminder to me of how the world at large often perceives us; as people who think they are holy. In my experience the reality is a long way removed from this. Many of the Christians I know still cannot get their heads around why God would be concerned with them. In fact it goes further than that; many Christians simply feel bad enough about themselves to the extent that they don't ever dare ask God for something in prayer, simply because they can't imagine how God could possibly love them given their knowledge of themselves and the weaknesses they have.
And into this psychospiritual space St. Paul writes: 'The Spirit helps us in our weakness'. This is what I want us to explore because it is only in taking on board the gravity of those words that we can begin to comprehend what Christianity is about and why it's actually good news. Yet so many of our churches don't seem to appreciate this.
The Spirit helps us in our weakness. Those tears you shed when God feels so distant? The Spirit helps us in our weakness. That person that you find yourself always saying the wrong thing to? The Spirit helps us in our weakness.
The character at work or the neighbour at home that you cannot help arguing with? The Spirit helps us in our weakness. The habit you can't break? The Spirit helps us in our weakness.
That, unfortunately, is not the general perception within so many churches. After generations of leaders who have laid so much guilt on us, we find it very hard to actually believe this. We think, 'Why would God want to help me? I don't deserve that'. Over and over again we get it wrong with what I call churchianity. We allow or even make people feel guilty for not living up to a particular standard and yet it is St. Paul, no doubt writing from a position of experience, who writes that it is when we are in the midst of our weaknesses that we so closely encounter the Spirit of God.
Take hold of this, honour the words and let them take root within you, it says that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. It emphatically does not say that the Spirit won't help us until we've conquered our weakness. This is what makes Christianity so important. This is why the teachings of Jesus are like a pearl of great price whose value is beyond all possessions, because in it the knowledge that whoever we are, wherever we are in our spiritual journey, however vulnerable we feel, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.
And it's not just to do with the things that we do wrong. It's also to do with the things that simply go wrong, because they do, all the time. We greet each other with smiles and 'How are you?' 'Oh I'm fine thank you, and how are you?' and yet the reality is that most of us are carrying some kind of burden, and some of those burdens are huge. And St. Paul affirms that The Spirit helps us in our weakness.
But how? Well consider our own lives. Accidents may have happened that have left us with a whole lifetime of difficulty. Abuse or bullying can leave a distorted lens that we may view all of life through. Our health may have deteriorated leaving us wondering how we are going to cope either now or in the future, or simply mourning how things used to be when our body worked properly.
What kind of help do you want when these things happen? Do you want someone to explain it to you and why it had to be this way? That's what we call theology.
Or do you want someone who puts her arms around you and truly weeps with you from the depths of her belly because She fully and completely understands? That's the Holy Spirit.
I had two responses seven years ago to the death of my sister. One was the, 'It'll be OK, she's in a better place now', kind of thing that left me wanting to respond very angrily. The other response was simply to be held in the midst of my grief by friends and family members who wept with me. That's what I really needed, because sometimes there are no words. You see when life gets that bad we no longer have any words left to pray. We don't know how to. We might be so angry at God at the events in our lives, or we might have been rendered completely unable to say anything. Not only does the Spirit help us in our weakness, but St. Paul goes on to say that She does so with sighs too deep for words.
Yes, rationally I may want an answer as to why, why whatever you or I have gone through has happened. But in our deepest selves what we most want, what we really need, is simply comfort; someone who is with us. Why do you think men dying in the trenches called for their mothers? They didn't want to know why the war was killing them – they just wanted the one who had borne them to be there in their pain.
In the midst of suffering our spirits run out of words, and the best comforters don't try and talk us through our suffering, they just weep with us with sighs too deep for words. And with the Spirit, those sighs carry the depth and the profound loss and degradation of our humanity right into the heart of God in ways that we cannot imagine. Yes I want to understand, but in the darkest places that we all inhabit at times in our lives, we just don't want to be alone, and we're not, because the Spirit is with us, helping us in our weakness and sighing with us with wordless love that penetrates into the heart of the Father.
In the midst of this St. Paul seems to write something troubling, that all things work together for good for those who love God. After everything I've said so far that hardly seems likely - how can anything good come from our darkest encounters and experiences. Yet in the midst of our pain, or grief, the Spirit of God entwined within us, communicates that pain into the heart of the Father. God truly knows and his response is to work alongside us to bring something of value out of what we have been through. Please recognise that I am not saying that God caused the pain, but that God wishes to bring something out of what happened.
Again I know this from my own experience. Nine years ago I would have focussed on the theology of this passage, on trying to unpick predestination (because philosophically St. Paul is not actually making sense here...), but for those in the midst of pain at the moment, that wouldn't have helped.
What you've been through; what our family went through, was never the direct will of God, but the Spirit was with us in our weakness and She sighed and wept with us into the heart of the Father, and through that experience each of us came to appreciate more what life is like for so many people, in order better to understand and be present in ways that help rather than as people with nothing more to offer than meaningless platitudes. Something good was brought into existence.
The last words belong with the poet Janet Morley who has captured this divine encounter beautifully:
Poem: From “All Desires Known” by Janet Morley
…and I was nothing but letting go and being held
and there were no words and there
needed to be no words and we flowed…
and I was given up to the dark and
in the darkness I was not lost
and the wanting was like fullness and I could
hardly hold it and I was held and
you were dark and warm and without time and
without words and you held me.