Those who are unconscious of and unconcerned about the sins which they commit when at their devotions, will not be able to enter into the meaning of this piece, for it treats of that which is quite foreign to their experiences. But they who make conscience of the surgings of pride, the promptings of carnality, the workings of unbelief, and the exercise of self-will, when supplicating the Lord, will—if He deigns to bless it unto them—find here something to help and comfort them.
"The heart knows his own bitterness; and a stranger does not intermeddle with his joy" (Proverbs 14:10). Each regenerate person has deep exercises of soul and painful pangs of heart which those dead in trespasses and sins have no acquaintance with. Yet have they their own peculiar hopes, comforts, and delights—which strangers to Christ know nothing of. Those exercises of soul and pangs of heart, find expression in sighs and sobs, in moans and groans—yet such as mere nature never produced.
The word "sigh" has a much stronger force in its Scriptural usage than in our ordinary conversation —or, we should say, in more modern speech—for three hundred years ago, it signified a lament rather than a mark of peevishiness. Though not quite so intense as a "groan," yet a "sigh" approximates very closely thereto, as appears from the fact that the Hebrew anach is translated both "sigh" and "groan;" as also is the Greek word stenazo.
Its first occurrence at once intimates its force: "And the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage" (Exodus 2:23), the meaning of which is explained in the next verse, "And God heard their groaning." Their "sighing" expressed their suffering and sorrow under the oppression of their Egyptian taskmasters.
So again, we read that the sorely afflicted Job declared, "For my sighing comes before I eat, and my roarings are poured out like the waters" (Job 3:24).
So by prayer sighs, we mean those agitations and breathings of soul which are virtually synonymous with groans. A "sigh" is an inarticulate declaration, an indistinct cry for deliverance. The saints are sometimes so opposed and troubled, that they cannot find language suited to their emotions: where words fail them, the thoughts and feelings of their hearts find expression in sighs and cries. The workings of a Christian's heart under the pressure of indwelling sin, the temptations of Satan, the opposition of the ungodly, the burden of uncongenial society, the wickedness of the world, the low state of the Cause of Christ on earth—are variously described in Scripture. Sometimes he is said to be "in heaviness" (1 Peter 1:6), to cry "out of the depths" (Psalm 130:1), to "roar" (Psalm 38:8), to be "overwhelmed" (Psalm 61:2), to be "distracted" (Psalm 88:15).
The tossings and anguish of his soul are depicted as "groanings" (Romans 8:26). The groanings of the believer are not only expressive of sorrow—but also of hope, of the intensity of his spiritual desires, of his panting after God, and his yearning for the bliss which awaits him on high (2 Corinthians 5:2, 4).
Such exercises of soul are peculiar to the regenerate, and by them the Christian may identify himself. If the reader now is the subject of sorrows and sighs to which he was a total stranger while in a state of nature—then he may be assured he is no longer dead in sins. If he finds himself groaning over the infection of his heart and those workings of inward corruption which prevent his perfectly loving and uninterruptedly serving God as he longs to do—that is proof that a principle of holiness has been communicated to his soul. If he mourns over the lustings of his flesh against that principle of holiness—then he must be alive unto God.
The worldling will groan over the common troubles of life—such as financial loss, pain of body, the death of a loved one—but that is only the voice of nature. The Christian, too, will groan over such sorrows, for grace does not destroy the feelings of nature, though it both regulates and sublimates them. But the worldling never weeps in secret over the coldness of his heart or the workings of unbelief. Where one groans over the workings of indwelling sin, over manifold temptations, over his comparative barrenness, over his being so little like what he longs to be (fully conformed to the image of Christ), those "groans" or "sighs" are the evidences of spiritual life, the pantings of holiness, hungering and thirsting after righteousness. They are, as Octavius Winslow (1808-1878) expressed it, "The muffled chimings of Heaven." They are the sure pledges of deliverance (2 Corinthians 5:4). They are the marks of the Christian's union with Him who was "The Man of sorrows."
Before Christ healed the deaf man, we read that "he sighed" (Mark 7:34), which expressed His deep sympathy with the sufferer, as one "touched with the feeling of our infirmities" (Hebrews 4:15). And again, when the Pharisees came to Him, "tempting him" by asking a sign from heaven, we are told that Christ "sighed deeply in his spirit" (Mark 8:11-12), which denoted His holy indignation at their sin, godly sorrow for their persons, and grief within His own soul, for He "suffered" when He was "tempted" (Hebrews 2:18), His holiness felt contact with evil.
The more the Christian's light and love increase, the heavier does the burden of indwelling sin become, and the more ardently does he long for deliverance from his body of death. There are sighs and groans which issue not only from sorrows—but from obstructed desires and delayed hopes. The groanings of 2 Corinthians 5:4—for the glorified state—breathes the fervency and intensity of our longing for the same, in contrast with a stolid indifference or cold formality. The stronger that longing is, the more groaning until it is realized.
"The more we grow in faith and spiritual light, the more sensible are we of our present burdens, and the more vehemently do we groan for deliverance into the perfect liberty of the sons of God…The nearer anyone is to heaven, the more he desires to be there, because Christ is there. For the more frequent and steady are our views of Him by faith, the more do we long and groan for the removal of all obstructions and hindrances. Groaning is a vehement desire, mixed with sorrow, for the present want of what is desired" (John Owen, 1616-1683).
Now the spiritual sighs and groanings of the Christian are interpreted by God as prayers! Those sacrifices which are acceptable to Him are "a broken and a contrite heart" (Psalm 51:17). Sobbings of soul are of great price in His sight (Psalm 56:8). The believer's moans are intelligible language to heaven: "The Lord has heard the voice of my weeping" (Psalm 6:8), that "weeping" possesses an appeal unto Him which the flowery eloquence of professional praying does not. "Lord, all my desire is before you; and my groaning is not hid from you" (Psalm 38:9). Those who wish to be reputed as very humble and holy by professing Christians, may go about talking of their corruptions and proclaiming their vileness—but the truly broken-hearted will mourn in secret before God!
Romans 8:23 says we "groan within ourselves": our groans may be inaudible not only to other men's ears—but to our own; yet not so to God's. "He knows the secrets of the heart" (Psalm 44:21) and among those "secrets" are those aspirations of the soul which are expressed in sighs and groans. Yes, God interprets the unexpressed exercises of a renewed heart.
An illustration of that occurs in Exodus 14:15. When Moses was confronted with the Red Sea, his soul was deeply stirred before God. Nothing is recorded of his praying or audible groaning—yet the Lord asks, "Why are you crying [inwardly] unto me?" Poor Eli supposed that Hannah was drunken because he observed the moving of her lips, but heard not her voice; but the Lord heard, for "she spoke in her heart" (1 Samuel 1:13).
What comfort is there for deeply tried saints? You may be one who feels utterly incapable of praying in public (as was the case with the godly father of the writer), and may lament the fact that at times, you cannot find words to express yourself before God in private; nevertheless, if you sigh and groan within yourself, He understands the longings of your heart, and in due time will satisfy them. Those sighs are as acceptable unto Him as the songs of "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Hebrews 12:23).
Very remarkable are those words in Romans 8:26: "The Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered." The deep longings and agitations of heart experienced by the saint for relief are the work of the blessed Comforter, and therefore does God give ear to them! The Holy Spirit excites longings in our souls for deliverance from the power of sin within, and the world without. He it is who inspires yearnings after holiness and heavenly mindedness such as are greater than words can express, and, as verse 27 tells us, they are "according to the will of God."
Blessed be His name, God reads every longing caused by His grace within us. He recognizes the symptoms and diagnoses the case of our soul with infinitely more accuracy than the best physician does that of the body. Our tears speak to Him of godly sorrow, our moans as the breathings of a contrite spirit. "From heaven did the Lord behold the earth; To hear the groaning of the prisoner" (Psalm 102:19-20), such "groaning" as that of Romans 8:14, 19, 23. They are "his prisoners" (Psalm 69:33), and therefore, the "prisoners of hope" (Zechariah 9:12).
Here then is consolation: God is privy to our secret sighs, Christ is touched with them (Hebrews 4:15), they ascend as petitions to heaven, and are the sure pledges of deliverance.