What the Holy Spirit Does for Us

For many Christians, the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives is unclear. We have heard many stories of excess, of churches either ignoring the Spirit or focusing almost exclusively on him and his gifts. If we affirm the Trinity and want to understand and celebrate the work of the third Person, how should we proceed?

Romans 8 is not a bad place to start! It is full of references to the Holy Spirit.

But, because the chapter is so full of these references, we need an entry point. As we look closer, two of the references to the Holy Spirit stand out.

Twice in Romans 8 we are told that “the Spirit himself” does or accomplishes something. This phrase is emphatic, designed to make us look up from our coffee and take notice. The Spirit does not contract these jobs out to others, he does them himself, intimately involved in this work for us.

The Spirit Bears Witness

This phrase first occurs in verse 16.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15–17, emphasis mine)

When the Spirit “bears witness” with our spirits, he is reminding us—testifying to us—that we are children of God. Why would we need such reminding? Too often we default to a “spirit of slavery” which leads us to fear (Romans 8:15).

To know when we are sliding back into a spirit of slavery and away from the Spirit of adoption, we only need to consider the difference between slaves and children. When we take on a mindset as slaves, we have an overwhelming sense of duty and no reward. We don’t know any affection from God, only lists of things to accomplish or avoid. Our interaction with God feels distant and unapproving; we are without the rest and warmth of a beloved, adopted child.

If any of these descriptions fit you, there’s good news: The Holy Spirit wants to convince you of the truth! He himself aims to persuade your spirit that you really are a child and heir of God.

Note that this identity as a child of God is not just teddy bears and lollipops. We “suffer with [Christ] in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

But there is glory coming for the children of God, and the Spirit will keep reminding us who we are until that day. How this happens is probably worthy of a much longer article, but here’s an initial thought. Some excellent ways to listen to the Spirit testifying to us about our status as children of God are to read the Bible (the Spirit-breathed word), to meditate on truths like this very passage (Romans 8), to pray (see below), and to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that emphasize the truth of our adoption.

The Spirit Intercedes

This wonderful phrase also appears in verse 26.

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. And he who searches hearts 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, emphasis mine)

We have many weaknesses, including not knowing what to pray for. So the Holy Spirit prays for us.

The word “likewise” in verse 26 doesn’t refer to our weakness or to prayer, but to groaning. Paul has written that creation groans (Rom 8:22) and that we groan (Rom 8:23). The Spirit likewise groans.

Ours are the groans of waiting and longing for new-creation bodies in the midst of suffering. So when we “do not know what to pray for,” this isn’t just indecision or a lack of direction. We are often confused and wordless in our prayers because we have come to the end of our energy, effort, and speech. We trust God but don’t know what that might look like going forward. In our lament, we can give this over to God, because the Spirit is at work.

What difference does this make for us? Knowing that the Spirit prays, we can sit with God in prayer when we don’t have words. It is good to keep coming to him in our confusion and suffering—we don’t need any fancy language or feeling of holiness. We can trust that the Spirit will intercede for us (just as Jesus also does, see Romans 8:34) “according to the will of God.”

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Lament in the Background of Romans 8

I’m open to the accusation that, after spending two years thinking hard about lament, I see it where others do not. I may have turned into the man who is given a hammer and, suddenly, nails abound.

Yet there remains the possibility that we don’t spot lament at times because modern Christians are terribly out of practice. Lament was a regular part of worship for ancient Israel, and I suspect it was much more prevalent in the early Christian church than in present-day congregations. Especially in more affluent communities, lament can be seen as an unknown taste, an exotic flavor one might sample on a tour but which is out of place in the regular rhythms of Christian worship.

Let’s consider Romans, chapter 8, as a case study. We tend to think of this chapter for its memorable, soaring statements about the love of God. However, it might be better to see the end of Romans 8 as the last stage of lament, where Paul is working out what it means to hope in God in the midst of great suffering.

The Ingredients of Lament

I’m not claiming that Romans 8 is an example of lament. But the ingredients of lament are here, so Romans 8 is evidence that lament was a tool Paul used to process and reflect on sorrow in his life.

Turn to the Lord

The first ingredient of lament, as Mark Vroegop describes it, is to turn to the Lord. Again, Romans 8 is not a prayer, but it is sprinkled with both references to and explicit teaching about prayer.

  • The Spirit of adoption causes us to cry out to God, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15).
  • The Spirit also helps us pray, because we don’t know how to pray as we should. He “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” We can be sure that the Spirit prays according to the will of God for us (Romans 8:26–27).


A central part of lament is complaining to the Lord. Though this may make us uncomfortable, we have plentiful examples in the Bible to reassure and guide us. Paul mentions aspects of complaint in Romans 8.

  • The creation has been subjected to futility, it is in bondage to corruption (Romans 8:20–21). As God’s stewards, a corrupted creation is a source of frustration and grief.
  • The creation groans in the pains of childbirth; we also groan as we wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22–23). The new bodies we long for—with freedom from the curse—have not yet arrived.

Though Paul mentions suffering as well (see Romans 8:35–37), these are perhaps the only verses which could be viewed as complaint in Romans 8.

Ask Boldly

Because this is not a prayer of lament but evidence of lament in Paul’s life, we don’t have any specific requests in this chapter. However, we do have Paul’s reminders that the Spirit (Romans 8:26–27) and the Son (Romans 8:34) intercede for us. This is great motivation to pray and should give us confidence when we do so. (Remember, not every lament includes all of the “ingredients” of lament.)

Trust in the Lord

It is this last element of lament which is so prevalent in this chapter, which is why I see this chapter, in part, as the fruit of Paul’s practice of lament. I won’t list all the numerous ways Paul exhorts us to trust and hope in the Lord here. But here is a selection.

  • Though we suffer, there is glory to be revealed to us. In fact, the suffering doesn’t even compare to the glory! (Romans 8:18)
  • There is hope built into the creation for freedom from bondage. We share this same hope for new creation bodies (Romans 8:20–25).
  • Though we may not understand it, we can trust God in prayer because the Father knows the mind of the Spirit who intercedes for us (Romans 8:27).
  • All things—especially this groan-inducing suffering—work together for good for God’s beloved children. This “good” includes being made into the image of Jesus and sharing in his glory! (Romans 8:28–30)
  • The final paragraphs of this chapter are eloquent and justifiably memorable—nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31–39).

Lament for the Rest of Us

Few of us will come out of lament with this same Spirit-given swell of hope. But Romans 8 is another encouragement for us not to shy away from talking with God about the hard things in life.

We can take our pain and sadness and confusion to him. We don’t need to pretend to have the right words, posture, or attitude. God may seem distant, but he is with us to the very last drop of our sorrow.

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