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A Cry, A Groan and A Promise


Romans 8:15-27


A bereaved person can’t help weeping. A happy person can’t help smiling. The person “tickled” by a good joke can’t help laughing. In all these situations the appropriate response springs forth spontaneously, without reflection or deliberation. The bereaved person doesn’t deduce that since he’s bereaved he should weep. Neither does the happy person conclude that she should smile. The response arises spontaneously as a result of her situation.


I: — In exactly the same way the apostle Paul tells us that the Christian can’t help crying, “Abba, Father”. The cry comes forth from us as a result of our intimacy with God. We don’t labour at ten stiff books of theology, note that God is said to be Father to all to whom Christ is brother by faith, ascertain that we are possessed of faith, and finally conclude that God is our Father. On the contrary, whether our knowledge of theology is great or little, our situation – we who cling to Jesus Christ in faith are sons and daughters of God by adoption – moves us to exult spontaneously “Father, my Father”, from the bottom of our hearts. We cry this instantly, immediately, not inferentially.

When Jesus spoke to his Father he used the Aramaic word “Abba”. Aramaic was the language   Jews spoke with each other in First-Century Palestine. When Jews spoke with Gentiles they spoke Greek; but with fellow-Jews they conversed every day and conducted business every day in Aramaic. In First Century Palestine, however, no Aramaic-speaking Jew called God “Abba”. The word was deemed to be too intimate. The person who addressed God in this manner would be deemed disrespectful, over-familiar, presumptuous even. The only Jew found to be using the word of the Father was Jesus. The disciples overheard him using it several times throughout his earthly ministry. They overheard him using it, most pointedly, in Gethsemane on the eve of his terrible trial. Terrible as the trial was, it couldn’t deflect him from the intimacy he had long known with his Father, an intimacy his disciples thought to characterize him. Our Lord was acquainted with his Father at such profound depths of intimacy and warmth and trust and confidence that the word sprang unbidden to his lips.

Yet while it sprang to Christ’s lips it didn’t spring to his alone. Paul maintains that faith binds us intimately to Jesus, and our intimacy with the Son is one with our intimacy with the Father. Christians therefore find themselves crying spontaneously “Abba, Father”. We don’t think about the matter and then conclude that God is – or might be – our Father after all. Instead we are constrained to cry, impelled to, because our intimacy with the Father issues in exultation as surely as the happy person smiles or the bereaved person weeps or the startled person gasps. In the context of our intimacy with him who is our Father our exultation, “Father”, couldn’t be more natural.


II: — I have found that when people are informed of all this they assume that Christians are supposed to live ten feet off the ground, never quite touching the earth.   They assume that anyone who genuinely utters the cry, “Abba, Father”, is someone whose faith has elevated her just high enough to be beyond the turbulence and pain and contradictions of life. You see, if we are living ten feet off the ground we are close enough to the earth to observe all the negativities with which life afflicts people, yet also far enough above them all as to remain unaffected by pain and disappointment and heartbreak, and therefore unperturbed. Newer Christians especially are frequently puzzled at first and soon guilt-ridden. They assume that if their faith is real, they should be beyond the reach of life’s turbulence and treachery. Since they aren’t beyond the reach of life’s turbulence and treachery, they begin to doubt the reality of their faith, perchance even concluding that they aren’t Christians after all.

Over and over a pastor meets people who think that God has played a dirty trick on them. They assumed that faith meant riding above life’s “crunches”, and now they find themselves crunched several times over. They feel God has let them down. If they had more nerve, they’d curse him – like Job’s wife. Lacking such nerve, they blame him for deceiving them, or they blame themselves for their insufficient faith. Both responses are wrong.

The apostle who knows that Christians are constrained to cry “Abba” knows that we groan as well. “We who have the first fruits of the Spirit;” he writes, “we groan inwardly.” Paul groans himself. Doesn’t he tell us of his thorn in the flesh that causes him relentless pain and embarrassment? All God’s people groan, for in all of us there are found simultaneously unspeakable intimacy with our Father and indescribable pain over a frustration or a wound that remains unrelieved.

We should note more carefully what Paul says. In Romans 8:15 he exclaims, “We have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba, Father’ it is God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children now.” Then in Romans 8:23 he says that the whole creation is groaning in labour pains; we are part of the creation and therefore we are groaning too; and we whom God’s Spirit has brought to intimacy with the Father – we are groaning inwardly while we wait for adoption.” Wait for adoption? Eight verses earlier he told us we already had it; already we were sons and daughters of God, admitted to God’s family, knowing an intimacy with him that only family members can know. “Wait for adoption”? More specifically he says we are waiting for the “redemption of our bodies”.

The apostle is always profound. On the one hand by faith we are, right now, sons and daughters of God. We know we are, and our heartfelt intimacy with our Father is as much attestation as we need. On the other hand, there remains much about us that is struggling to be born, struggling to come to the full light of day, struggling for a fulfilment so far denied it. We are gloriously adopted now, and we also wait for the full manifestation of that adoption. Until then, we exult ecstatically and groan painfully at the same time.

[i] The most obvious situation is that of the person who is terminally ill, the person who is dying one inch at a time. He groans, for he is struggling to be released from all that inhibits the fullest expression of his human creatureliness and his spiritual sonship. He’s frustrated.

Worse than the predicament of the person with the terminal disease is the predicament of the person with the non-terminal, neurological disease. Neurological diseases force severe disabilities on people and force people to live with those disabilities, in that the worst neurological diseases leave people alive for such a long time. Meanwhile, the sufferer is longing to emerge into that freedom – “the redemption of our bodies” Paul calls it – when the adoption we already cherish will be made manifest.

[ii] What about the person who is chronically mentally ill? What about her family? We wouldn’t want to be heard saying, “Wouldn’t it be less wearing for everyone if Mrs. X simply slipped away in her sleep? Wouldn’t it bring huge relief to her and to everyone around her?” We wouldn’t want to be heard thinking this out loud. Still, we can’t help thinking it.

My blood runs cold when I think of severely schizophrenic people and their families who are caught up in the round of psychiatrists, pharmacists, ministers, police, the courts, assorted provincial services, and institutionalizations. Both the chronically disturbed and their family are struggling in anticipation of a better day. But until that day, they groan; all of them.

[iv] What parent hasn’t groaned, and groaned some more, concerning an adolescent son or daughter’s emergence into sane, sober, godly adulthood? I’m not questioning for a minute that parents are groaning inwardly, frequently outwardly, through their adolescent’s struggle. I do question, however, whether it’s sufficiently understood that the adolescents themselves are suffering with a suffering worse than the suffering of many adults, if not most.

I often think that older adults regard adolescent stress much too cavalierly. When I was a teenager, moping and moaning, my mother frequently expostulated, “Why the hang-dog expression? Don’t you know these are the best days of your life? You have no mortgage payments to worry about, no car payments.” To be sure, I didn’t have mortgage payments to worry about. So what. Those days were the worst days of my life and I never want to see them again. If older adults were aware of the suicide rate among teenagers, and were aware that the suicide rate has increased 300% in the last 25 years, older adults would sing a different tune.

I’m not suggesting that all teenagers are pained or frustrated to the point of being at risk.   But many are. Neither am I suggesting that all parents feel confused, set upon, unappreciated and helpless.   But many do. In both teenager and teenager’s parent something is struggling for expression, and struggling for an expression denied for now.

[v] And then we groan concerning ourselves. Isn’t there something deep in all of us that longs for expression, or fuller expression, but hasn’t yet found it? Don’t we crave release from intra-psychic wounds, acquired decades ago, whose after-effects have not only scarred us but continue to inhibit us decades later?   What wouldn’t we give to be freed from emotional wounds that remain booby-traps, and too frequently embarrass us as we react in a way that observers find startling, and more than startling, find incomprehensible and sometimes even threatening?

I never make light of mental difficulties. I never joke about them. Think of phobias, for instance. People who aren’t phobic (most of us) are always tempted to make light of the woman who is panic-stricken if she sees a feather or the man who faints if he climbs higher than two feet. Psychiatrists tell us that phobias are virtually incurable. People afflicted with them suffer, and suffer a long time.

And then of course if we are serious at all we groan as we await our ultimate deliverance from the sin that still dogs us. To be sure, it’s only because of our intimacy with our Father, “Abba”, that we are even aware of our lingering depravity. (The spiritually inert, needless to say, are also spiritually indifferent.) Those admitted to the wonder of the light, admitted to intimacy with him who is the light; they are appalled at the shadows within them that his light casts. I’m tired of the burden my sin is to others. I’m also tired of the burden my sin is to myself.

Everyone is groaning somewhere.   Everyone has to be groaning somewhere, since the apostle tells us that “the whole creation is groaning in labour pains”.


III: — Then are you and I simply suspended between the ecstatic cry of intimacy with our Father and the groan of our frustration and disappointment? Are we going to be suspended indefinitely?

Our Lord Jesus knew both cry and groan, but he wasn’t suspended indefinitely. He knew an intimacy with his Father that is the foundation of ours, as his disciples found him repeatedly taken up, while at prayer, into an immediacy and intensity before his Father that his disciples subsequently came to know for themselves. He also knew an anguish, in Gethsemane and at Calvary (not to mention at many points throughout this earthly ministry) that we can’t penetrate. He both exulted and groaned simultaneously.

But not forever. He was resurrected. And because he shares his resurrected life with us, we have been appointed to a resolution wherein we shall rejoice, simply exult, without a simultaneous anguish. Within a few verses of Paul’s speaking both of cry and groan he makes two staggering assertions. One, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Two, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Why is it, how is it, that nothing can separate us from God’s love? It’s because God’s power, wherewith he raised Jesus from the dead, is the same power wherewith he binds you and me to the risen One in whose company we are flooded with God’s love.

Why is it, how is it, that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us? It’s because the Son who was borne through everything that made him groan is now glorified and guarantees that our groaning will give way to glorification.

Scripture is fond of obstetrical metaphors. Paul uses them frequently. He uses one in Romans 8 when he says that the entire creation, in the era of the Fall, is groaning in labour. But no woman in labour labours forever. Labour ends in birth.   Jesus uses obstetrical metaphors. He too speaks of a woman in labour. He maintains that however difficult, however protracted, a woman’s labour might be, when her child is born she puts it all behind her, forgets it all, out of the sheer joy of the child she has long awaited and now has in her arms. In exactly this sense the day has been appointed when you and I put behind us, forget without trying to forget, the years in which we exulted and groaned simultaneously just because on that day we are going to be found exulting only, overtaken by our emergence into the bright light of a new day.

Question: Is this a future development? Yes. Is it only a future development, exclusively a future development? No. Already we have tasted it. Already we have glimpsed the Promised Land and have even begun to live in it. Already our exultation outweighs our anguish. Already our experience of our Father’s care assures us that the good work he has begun in us he is unfailingly going to complete.


IV: — Today is Communion Sunday. The elements, bread and wine, tell us not merely of body and blood but of a body broken and of blood shed. They remind us then of our Lord’s anguish, the day-by-day anguish which is the human lot in the era of the Fall, as well as his more intense anguish of crucifixion, as well as his most intense anguish of the dereliction when he couldn’t help gasping, “Why have you forsaken me?” He groans.

Yet even from the cross he addresses his Father as “Father”; even from the cross he speaks the word of intimacy that he used every day, especially when he prayed. He exults.

And as he is raised from the dead he enters into promised glory, lives in it forever, and from it promises us a glory that will be the fulfilment of our exultation and the cancellation of our groaning. For on that day, Charles Wesley reminds us, we are going to be “lost in wonder, love and praise”.


                                                                                                          Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

 July 2005