Sighs too deep for words: Spirit and Scripture in Romans (Rom 8)

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. (Romans 8:26-27)

In his longest letter, written to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints”, Paul places importance in the role played by the Spirit of God. The word spirit appears 32 times in this letter; many of these refer to the Holy Spirit. Some of those instances appear in the epistle section that is set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Romans 8:26-39.

This section also contains a quotation from scripture (Psalm 44:22, quoted at Rom 8:36). The whole letter is replete with such scripture quotations—it starts with a programmatic citation about the righteous and faith, from Habakkuk 2:4 (at Rom 1:17), and moves through discussions of the power of sin (3:10-18), the relevance of Abraham (4:7-8), a reflection on the story of Adam (5:12-21), and a consideration of some of the Ten Commandments (7:7).

There is a long and complex discussion of the place of the people of Israel alongside the Gentiles within the plan of God (9:1-11:36, where many scripture quotations are included), further discussion on the place of the Gentiles (15:9-12) and a declaration of the importance of proclaiming the good news (15:20-21). Scripture undergirds the whole of Paul’s argument in Romans.

Paul retains from his Jewish upbringing a sense of the Spirit as a manifestation of divine energy; the Spirit is God’s gift to believers (5:5) and thus the source of life and peace (7:6; 8:2, 5–6). The Spirit, in Hebrew Scripture, breathes over the waters of chaos as God’s primary agent in creation (Gen 1:1-5), gifts the elders appointed by Moses (Num 11:16-25), anoints the prophets (Deut 34:9, Judges 13:24-25, 2 Sam 23:2) and inspires their pointed words of warning (Isa 61:1, Ezekiel 2:2, 3:12, Joel 2:28-29, Micah 3:8, Zechariah 4:6).

The same Sprit plays an important role in the story of Jesus, especially as Luke tells it, from the conception and birth of Jesus (Luke 1:35), through his commission at his baptism (3:22) and temptation (4:1), his public ministry (Luke 4:14, 18; Acts 10:38), through to his death (Luke 23:46).

The Spirit continues to be creatively active in the subsequent outpouring of gifts at Pentecost (Acts 2:2-4, 17-18, 33) and on through the story of the early followers of Jesus: Peter and John (Acts 4:8, 31), Stephen and others (6:3, 5, 10, 7:55), Phillip (8:17-18, 29, 39), Saul (9:17), Peter (10:19, 44-45, 11:15, 24, 28), Paul and Barnabas (13:2, 4, 9, 52), the council in Jerusalem (15:8, 28), and then in Paul’s continuing travels (16:6-7, 19:6, 21, 20:22-23, 28, 21:4, 11, 28:25).

The Spirit is an essential element in the story that Luke tells. Where does the Spirit fit in Paul’s view of things?

Paul imbues the Spirit with an eschatological role—first, the Spirit acts by raising Jesus from the dead (1:4; 8:11) and then by adopting believers as “children of God” (8:14–17, 23). The Spirit is a marker of life in the kingdom of God (14:17). The kingdom, for Paul, remains a future promise, to become a reality within the eschatological timetable (1 Cor 15:23-26).

Paul speaks with passion about how the creation groans in the present time of distress (8:18–23), as believers hold fast to their hope in the renewal of creation (8:17, 21, 24–25; see also 1 Cor 7:28–31). The groaning of creation is an image that connects clearly and directly with the current times.

The impact of COVID19 evokes groaning as we are surrounded by illness, anxiety, loneliness, and death. But this groaning comes also from the earth herself, groaning under the weight of the damaging misuse and destruction wrought by human beings, erupting out now in the rapid and threatening spread of a tiny, potent killer.

The role of the Spirit in this period is to strengthen believers by interceding for them (8:26–27). The Spirit is not to take us away from the realities of the life we live; rather, the Spirit engages us wholeheartedly and fully in the life of discipleship. Paul’s explanation is that the Spirit facilitates the way that we reach out to God, seeking help, for others and for our world. The Spirit intercedes with “sighs too deep for words”. An empathic companionships in the midst of the groanings.

Paul reminds the Romans that they are “in the Spirit” (8:9); this is reminiscent of his guidance to the Galatians to live “by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 22–25) and his exposition to the Corinthians of the gifts which are given “through the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:1, 4–11). The understanding of the gifting of believers by the Spirit, articulated in the first letter to the Corinthians, has played a significant role throughout the history of the church over the centuries. The sighs of the Spirit are manifested in the gifts of discipleship.

The life of faith, lived “in the Spirit”, is therefore to be characterised by “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Paul immediately explains that this requires believers to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). After making this bold programmatic statement, Paul devotes significant time (in chapters 12–15) to spelling out some of the ways in which this transformation might take place.

So, for Paul, the Spirit effects transformation, which then governs the behaviour as well as the words of believers. The Spirit is not simply an internal, mystical, or ecstatic experience; the Spirit is manifest in practical ways in the lives of disciples. The “sighs too deep for words” are wrapped around the focussed attention that scripture requires from believers. And scripture provides resources for grappling with the very issues about which the Spirit groans and sighs.

(We will look further into the function of scripture in this letter in a later blog.)

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/