As I write, the United Kingdom is still reeling from the latest terrorist atrocity to be unleashed in one of our major cities. It was particularly horrific in that it was deliberately targeted at children and teenagers attending a pop concert. The grief of those affected has been broadcast widely and it is impossible not to be deeply touched by their anguish – anguish repeatedly expressed in gut-wrenching groans. No matter how much the media and its pundits try to make sense of what has happened, words are inadequate to plumb the depths of pain.
Tragically, there is nothing new in this. This same week saw another terrorist incident back in the headlines–one that took place 41 years ago in Ireland. Four decades on and no one charged for the offense and the surviving members of the victims’ families still expressing the raw pain of the loss they have lived with all that time. All this but another symptom of what C.S. Lewis aptly called, The Problem of Pain.
Something in all of us (Christians included) desperately wants to say something in response to these catastrophes, but in doing so we can easily stray into saying too much, or too little. We rarely get the balance right. In light of that we can be thankful for the many places in the Bible where God’s words strike just the right balance. And what God says through his servant Paul is a prime example of getting it right.
Addressing the church in Rome, he speaks about ‘our present sufferings’ and declares they ‘are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Ro 8.18). Far from being a cop out by kicking the problem of pain into the long (and currently inaccessible) grass of the world to come, this actually provides the springboard for a realistic look at the world in its ‘present’ state and why it is in this state.
With a significant choice of words, the apostle speaks first of all about creation ‘groaning’ (8.22), and how ‘we ourselves [Christians]…groan inwardly’ (8.23), then of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for believers ‘with groans that words cannot express’ (8.26). Language that speaks of something deep that must be expressed, but for which no normal vocabulary exists.
This in itself would suggest we can go no further. If words are inadequate to communicate these deep sentiments, then why write any more? Except that Paul sets these groanings in a very specific context: that of a fallen world.
The ‘present’ in which these troubles are ours is what Paul describes more fully to the Galatians as ‘this present evil age’ (Ga 1.4). The age that began in the aftermath of Adam’s fall into sin. An age that is marked, not merely by the inescapable propensity to sin innate in every human being, but also by the consequences and collateral damage sin leaves in its wake.
Interestingly, therefore, Paul speaks first and foremost of ‘creation’ itself ‘groaning as in the pains of childbirth’ in this context. Earlier he depicts creation as waiting ‘in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed’ (8.19). He is referring to the parousia and ‘the restoration of all things’ associated with that day (Ac 3.21). He portrays it as if the entire created order was standing on tiptoe trying to see over the horizon of time for the first sign of the arrival of that day.
Although our pets may do their fair share of ‘groaning’ (when they are hungry or lonely) most of creation is inanimate and incapable of expressing any sentiment. So Paul is simply personifying its non-human elements as displaying discontent over its abnormality. The world and universe in their present state are not what God intended them to be; but one day that state of affairs will be changed.
When it comes to how humans respond, however, things are different. We can articulate our thoughts and feelings, however imperfectly. For those who are not Christians and cannot reach for God’s word to shed light into the darkness and confusion of our world, they do express themselves in a multitude of ways, but ways that fall short of real comfort or hope. But those ‘who have the firstfruits of the Spirit’ – believers (8.23) – things are different. We too still groan – indicating the many aspects of present experience we cannot now fathom – but in a way that is tempered by ‘hope’ (8.24-25). And this enables patience in our affliction.
Paul’s last reference to groaning is the one that is most intriguing. He says that the Holy Sprit helps God’s children in their weakness, but does so by interceding for us ‘with groans that words cannot express’ (1.26). How could it be said that the Holy Spirit was somehow lost for words? Perhaps because Paul is giving us a glimpse of the fact that as the glory of God in his being and works go beyond the limits of language to adequately express, so too sin and its consequences do the same. And nowhere is that more plainly visible than on the cross. There we are confronted simultaneously with the word-defying horror of what put Christ on that cross but also the indescribable glory of what he was doing there. And just as the shameful reality of our sin and what it deserve leaves ‘every mouth silenced’ before God (Ro 3.19), so too when we are confronted with the glory of the Lamb who was slain for our salvation.
The fact the Spirit condescends to ‘groan’ on our behalf shows there are no simplistic explanations or answers to the anguish that lies behind our groaning. This should say something to us as Christians as we try to speak into the pain that surrounds us in our world. Sometimes it is best to just ‘weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn’ – but do so as those ‘who share in the sufferings of Christ.’
Rev. Mark Johnston is the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff, Wales. He is the author of Let’s Study John, Let’s Study Colossians and Philemon and Let’s Study 2 Peter and Jude. You can follow him on Twitter at @revmgjohnston.