By Elton HiggsOne day when I was reading the familiar passage in Rom. 8 on our hope for the final deliverance from sin through the resurrection of our bodies, I was struck with the recurrence of the verb “groan” in the space of eight verses:
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
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. 27 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. (Rom. 8:20-27)
There is an interlinking in these uses of “groaning,” with the first occurrence referring to the whole of creation, the second referring to all of God’s people, and the third to the agency of the Holy Spirit interceding for us with God.
This section of chapter 8 was introduced by the affirmation that as believers in Christ we have been certified by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit as children of God and heirs of His kingdom. However, our walk in the Spirit as sons and daughters of God entails suffering with Christ “in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). Accordingly, both of the first two occurrences of groaning in this passage are associated with a particular kind of productive human suffering, childbirth. The first, the groaning of the physical creation to be “set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v.21), is then linked to the inward groaning of each Christian for our “adoption as sons [and daughters], the redemption of our bodies” (v.23). Our suffering with Christ is not meaningless, but like the pains of childbirth, it ends in great joy, so that, as Paul has assured us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18-19).
But the final rebirth into eternal form that we share with the rest of creation is something that we must wait for in patience and faith, and while we endure in steadfast hope, we cry out to God in our weakness. That is, we try to articulate our groaning as we find our spiritual resources taxed to the breaking point, and the same Holy Spirit that dwells within us and guides us in His way becomes an interceding translator, presenting our petitions “with groanings too deep for words” (v. 26). What an abundance of mercy that God, in listening to our prayers, hears beyond our power to know just what to ask for and takes instead what the Spirit tells Him of what we really long for and need. In a sense, the groanings of Christ on the cross have been transmuted as a form of grace to all of creation, including ourselves, and this earthly groaning is in turn transmuted into the groaning of the Holy Spirit on our behalf that transcends human capabilities. And the Son who initiated the process partners with the Third Person of the Godhead to bring us redeemed, but as yet imperfect mortals into the Presence of the Abba Father to whom we pray.
Image: Pentecost Mosaic. Public Domain