“Lord Have Mercy” has been ringing in God’s ears through the voice of Martyrs, their blood cries out from the ground. The agony of the human race has echoed in God’s ears from the moment of the fall; where death, disease and despair entered the world to wreak havoc through our choices, constant temptation and cries for help. God is deeply compassionate, long suffering and committed. We are told in these precious words of Romans 8 that God is groaning with every fibre of His being to redeem all things and to end the suffering of His imagebearers. So why does He allow it? He has suffered the most in the equation. It has cost Him personally to deliver us from the stranglehold of death and to enter into a world that is both beautiful and miserable at the same time. Jesus lived with this tension constantly. He groaned deeply over the throngs of people that surrounded Him, groaned for the leprous, the possessed, the hungry and for the lack of faith. He cursed the fig tree that did not bear fruit, silenced the storm, walked on water and turned water to wine. Equally God groaned over the children of Israel in the Wilderness, for their lack of faith, their idolatry and their stubbornness. The Holy Spirit too can be easily quenched, offended and he is sensitive to us and our hypocrisy. Each member of the Trinity is touched deeply by our human predicament and longs to feel deeply what we feel and relieve us from the pains of life, but they enter into the pain before making a way through it. Suffering is never sent by God, but rather it is a part of life that will produce Kingdom fruit.
Job talks about suffering in one of the earliest books of the bible. It is something that we need to get to grips with. If God joins in with our groaning, He suffered with us and does this in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Romans 8 talks about suffering in Creation, the Church and in the very Spirit of God. In many ways it is both a sad thing to think of everything groaning but also wonderful in that this groaning is a by-product of the coming Kingdom. Paul speaks of this process using an image of child birth. It is a temporary pain that produces an even greater joy in the delivery of new life. The disciples had just watch the messiah they loved being tortured, blasphemed and murdered on the cross though He was innocent. They assumed that suffering would be the norm for them too. Indeed eight of the twelve disciples died as martyrs and the early church suffered much persecution. They had seen the marks on Jesus’ resurrected body and so were more than willing to suffer for their faith. Indeed the deaths of many Christians throughout the centuries speak to the lengths people go for their convictions. However, God is also feeling the weight and pain of every human imagebearer. He enters into that pain and shows that He was willing to suffer and die too. To lay down His life for us and asks us to follow Him in the same journey and perfecting of our faith through suffering. Paul says that He has suffered many things for the gospel and fulfils in His own body the suffering of Christ. He wrote glorious epistles of the Victorious Christ from the shackles of prison.
We are midwives to the coming Kingdom. So we need to be very aware that we are working in between the lost and found and death and life. We are surrounded by both all the time and are also ourselves being taken from exile into an exodus into the promises of God. Just as God led the Israelites, He is leading His church into the New Creation. There is much to be learned in this process. We need to do it as always as embodied creatures, feeling the pain of our bodies, our minds, our choices, our souls and our spirits. They need to be impacted so that we can respond with a commitment to see God’s hands and feet at work on earth. If God is sacrificial in His nature, He will call us to be the same as His imagebearers. No matter how much we groan, we can be assured that God is groaning along with us. No matter what we are facing, and we will face much suffering throughout the course of our lives, we know that this too shall pass. Even death, Paul says, is not the end. So we are content in every situation, knowing that the life Jesus lived and died was not one of comfort, prosperity or safety, so we are assured that our lives will not be marked by such things too. Where we see light we need to fan it into flame and where we see death, we join with God in realising that resurrection life will swallow it whole. So for now, we groan and act within that groaning to see through the pain to the glory that will be revealed. God does not promise safety, He promises that He is good. We labour toward that end knowing that God will do the final work of taking down sin and death for good.
All things are groaning for redemption. Every atom will be redeemed, every creature that suffers, every human life mired in pain and agony. The world itself is groaning. Natural disasters are a sign of how sin has a stranglehold on the created order. We all feel the weight of poverty, the plight the homeless, the destitution of the refugee and the asylum seeker. We feel the thud of death at a funeral, the agony of birth as a new life comes from the womb… From the moment we are born we experience death and yet, we were never meant for this and God will bring His kingdom out from within it. We can’t have resurrection life unless death comes first. Every imagebearer will die, and every imagebearer will now also be resurrected once more. What God has done in Christ, He will do in every human being. Redemption has always come from a remnant; from within the brokenness, God will make us whole and integrated. So where we see death, disintegration, diseased, deformity and agony we know that it will not always be this way. We can work with God to bring healing, order, deliverance, beauty, resurrection life and abundance in tangible ways through our work and lives. We can be salt and light to preserve and to shine a spotlight on good things that are happening in our world as well as make sure that we address the pain of others in practical ways through relief work, community development and education, medical care and safe housing to those in need. Wherever we groan, God wants to use us in Intercession and in action to help. This is how God worked in Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel and Moses to bring change to our world and bring heaven to earth.
Paul says He glories in His weakness, for in His weakness, God’s strength is manifest. He also speaks of a thorn in his side. We don’t know exactly what that might have been, but some say it was the false teachers who followed him around, others say epilepsy, or a residual problem with his eyesight. I am sure that all of this list of the things he suffered in likely played a part. It is in a long list in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, he says he has been imprisoned, flogged and exposed to constant death, stoned, beaten, shipwrecked, homeless, in danger from bandits, Jews and Gentiles, at risk in the cities and countryside, spent a day adrift in the sea, toiled through sleepless nights, gone hungry, been cold and naked and more… Now if this is not embodied spirituality I don’t know what is? This gospel seems to be embrace pain as par for the course, and the truth is we don’t need to go searching for it. The pain we feel is right in our bodies, our families, our responsibilities, our habits and our circumstances and situations. The difference is that the early church expected it, they knew it would come and when it did, it was not a sign that God had abandoned them. Even Jesus said, “If the world hates you keep in mind that it hated me first.” WE have exchanged a costly gospel with a do-it-yourself one where we do not prepare people for the real cost of delivering the coming kingdom. We are meant to follow Jesus in His path and embrace the pain that we may feel as a part of it, knowing that we are perfected through suffering just as the template for our imagebearing was…He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:3).
Vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. (P. Palmer). It is in our humanity, the way we are designed that we are transformed. Humanism will never save us, we just have to look at the internet or any other invention to realise that as technology gets better and better in making our lives more comfortable we are still dealing with the darkness and wickedness within our human hearts. We can use and abuse everything. We are lost without a saviour, but equally, we need a saviour who becomes as we are to save us as we are and transform us into a new way to be human. To become more and more fully ourselves and comfortable within our own skin, within our own responsibilities to make the choices, embrace the pain and fall into the grace of God whether we are in sickness, or health, in poverty or wealth and know that we are committed to Him and He to us. This is when we are able to sit with those who weep and weep with them, to be joyful and to be content regardless. God will break our hearts for the world, for our neighbour and for our own predicament and then show us in our humanity how he is also human in Christ, how he is empowering us by the Holy Spirit and how he is calling everything home as the Father and creator of all. Wherever we address pain in our world and restore human dignity, sanctity and quality of life, we are doing the work of God. Every imagebearer God has made is involved in this process. The things we do that bring life will last, what we do that brings death and destruction will be removed and judged of poor quality. Our work will be tested by fire (1 Corinthians 3:1-17). Our work matters eternally, what is of God will remain.
We need great discernment to know which groaning we are to feel in prayer and intercession. There will be certain things that will impact you deeply in your life. You will feel broken-hearted and carry heavy burdens when you are made aware of abuse, or prostitution or human trafficking. Nehemiah was distraught when he thought of the city walls broken down, Ezra similarly had a burden to rebuild the temple. Moses had a burden for the slaves in Egypt, and David knew that He would have to battle the giant as no one else would. These giants that we will need to face in our lives, may be addictions, or alcoholism or cancer in our families or even in our own bodies. In your own life today, do you feel this groaning. Similarly in the created world, we will face natural disasters. Storms that Jesus calmed had their beginning in sources that were not of God. That is why he calmed them and silenced them. There is demonic activity around us but it is no match for God and for His church. We need to discern what is happening and address it as best we can. If there is abusive relationships or sin in our midst we must address it in our communities, God calls us to holiness and to health, how we use our bodies and what we do when we feel pain is very revealing. Do we hide, do we distract ourselves or change the channel. Finding solutions for these painful experiences are never easy, but God calls us to feel with others the depths of our humanity and then respond in prayer, respond with action and do what we can within our sphere of influence to make things right. Suffering is an early warning sign in your body. If we feel it in the natural world and in the church, we can know that God feels it too and then we can respond out of His compassion and out of our humanity to sit with people in the depths of their pain. We are not to rid ourselves of it, but to embrace it as a part of the process and from within ask for the grace of God to carry it if he does not take it away when we ask Him to.