…groanings which cannot be uttered

Country walks often lead to interesting discoveries.

We spent last week on holiday in Norfolk, a county in East Anglia known for wide beaches, migrating birds, and windmills. It’s like Holland only England. A short stroll near Felbrigg Hall led us to an old church where used books had been laid out for sale on one of the pews. I picked up a book about the British Museum and another about using the New Testament in prayer.

The first prayer is based on Romans 8:26-27:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God. (KJV)

With help from a better translation, we can see that Paul is suggesting that for those of us lost for words in prayer we can rely on the Holy Spirit to intercede and speak the words on our behalf:

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.  (NRSV)

Never before had I considered the Holy Ghost to be an intercessor, so my thanks go to the people of Felbrigg church who will make good use of my £2 I am sure.

It’s interesting to see how this passage has been used in a Mormon context. Using the LDS Scripture Citation Index it becomes clear that Mormon authorities have not really seen it the same way. In all modern cases, these verses are used to suggest that the Holy Spirit suggests to us what we should say in prayer rather than saying it for us. Joseph Smith, on the other hand, seems happy to see the Spirit as a more direct voice and intercessor. (Search for Romans 8:26-27 for citations.)

I wonder if this represents a meaningful difference in theology? I suspect that the end result is the same: it is the voice of the Spirit, whether through us or for us, which reaches the ears of God. Still, I think the modern reading of this verse maps the Mormon move to see Christ as sole intercessor and the Holy Ghost as an interior voice more than discrete personality. (Obviously I know that Mormon theology sees the Holy Ghost has a discrete personality but he doesn’t ever really act that way outside of 1 Ne.)


  1. Thanks for this nice insight. I have been thinking some recently about what the Book of Mormon means when it says we are “sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost.” (3 Nephi 27:20; see also Alma 13:12 and 2 Nephi 31:17). Elder Christofferson referred to the Holy Ghost as “the messenger of grace by which the blood of Christ is applied to take away our sins and sanctify us.” I don’t know if that is intercessory or not but it suggests something related to what you are talking about here.

  2. I think you could tie the LDS thought on agency as it relates to the atonement and salvation into the interpretation of the scripture.

    Curious, what people think… is the “he” in the verse “And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit” referring to God or referring to a kind of royal he, ie. the one who the verse is talking about the one who searches their own feelings with the help of the spirit? Either way, the interpretation gets a little odd. It’s strange to say God knows the mind of the Spirit, as if they were two separate entities when you believe they are the same entity right?

  3. Christian J says:

    Sr. Head, I’ve heard this sentiment from Bednar and Eyring in the recent past, but can’t find the references right now. But, I do remember it frustrating me. First, my standard American English isn’t good enough, then I have to make sure I’m “feeling” grateful. Now, I better say what God already wants me to say, or…..

    I will admit, your account of things sounds much more appealing. At the end of the day, If hearing the Spirit was a given, sure I’d love to be told what to say. Having ears to hear has proved to be tough, however. (At present, I find a lot of satisfaction in just making some of the Psalms my own..)

  4. I love this, thanks so much!! Have been reading fiction set in a medieval nunnery in England. I am touched by the beauty and poetry of the prayers and psalms of the offices and the nuns’ calling to reach so deeply in prayer to obtain God’s presence. Whether or not it quite fits with Mormon practice (the recited prayers for example), I have personally discovered very edifying insights and inspiration in the words I have read. There is joy in finding beauty in the Word of God.

  5. My thoughts echo Paul’s. There is so much to pray for and too much unknown. It is good that the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf.

  6. Mommie Dearest says:

    Would that all BCC posts came with a soundtrack as profound as the one linked in #2.

    A couple of years ago I was in London, by myself, waiting for the rest of my party to arrive. I was all out of sorts and lonesome and not doing so well that way. It was the sabbath and I had spent the day poorly, and I stumbled across Evensong at a venerable old church, St. Pancras. I guess all everyone was on holiday and there were few attending, but I felt good just sitting in the pew. The homily was a poem, “Emerging” by Ronald Stuart Thomas. It was perfect for me, just what I needed to hear, and both the spirit and I knew it.

    There are gems to be found in the unheralded places.

  7. I recently sat with an area seventy who was giving instruction to stake presidencies. We had a wonderful discussion on this topic and about “askingthe right questions” in our prayers. We talked about how our prayers should be approached in a similar way to that of a priesthood blessing. That is, we do it in the name of The Son by the power of the Holy Ghost.

  8. We’re not great with apophasis, are we? I’ve been thinking more and more about it with the new project, and I’m convinced that there are elements of apophatic theology that will be quite healthful for us individually and as a people, but that we are fundamentally not a tradition of truly negative theology, so there will need to be limits to apophasis. I agree with RJH that the set point on the spectrum of unselfconsciously, massively positive theology (we can know and express every last detail about God) to purely negative theology (we can only know and express what God is not; he is utterly beyond our capacity to know or describe) should probably move further toward the negative than it has historically been, but as much as I admire and sympathize with negative theologians, I think we would lose an essential part of our Mormon-ness if we went too far toward that extreme.

  9. Great stuff, Ronan. Supernal gets lots of traction, more than ineffable.

  10. And there has been a thread that reads the HG out of 1 Ne. Sam, I think we have, perhaps a little unconsciously, headed toward the negative. Science tends to move us this way to explain an embodied God (non-baryonic matter perhaps, etc.).

  11. A Frequent Follower says:

    Aw, Kristine, you never fail us. Thanks so much for posting the lovely choral number and its sublime message. It’s always a treat for me to read your comments or other postings.

  12. Antonio Parr says:

    This is great, Ronan. Faulconeresque.

  13. I think the key difference is that one train of thought leads to more accountability and growth while the other is passive. What’s the point in searching out for the right questions and the right words that actually express the deep emotions we have if the Spirit is going to take care of that anyway? God knows our thoughts, but do we? I think one of the most important aspects of prayer is the meditation aspect of it, that we focus and organize our thoughts so that we form opinions and plans out of the jumbled synapses in our brain.

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