The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. and he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Romans 8: 26, 27 NIV)
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4: 14-16 NIV)
Prayer Support (5)
I have to say that this is my favorite “truth” in the seven truths of Romans 8.
We looked at the truth that there is now NO CONDEMNATION (Romans 8:1) and the truth that there are also NO EXCUSES since we have the power of the Holy Spirit within us (Romans 8:11). Then the obvious question always comes up, “How do I know that I have the Holy Spirit in me?” and there we talked about the truth of EVIDENCE OF LIFE (Romans 8:15b, 16) which the Holy Spirit himself gives us. And then we talked about the truth of SUFFERING and GLORY (Romans 8:17,18) which make all of us a bit uncomfortable (but maybe excited at the same time). But I have to say that I am always blown away by this whole idea of PRAYER SUPPORT (Romans 8:26,27,34).
Now, I know that I have made a big point about the idea that our suffering needs to be a “suffering for the Gospel” to qualify as suffering with Christ. The Bible makes that abundantly clear but, at the same time, much of the church only focuses on our general suffering “under the curse.” That is a mistake. It is a suffering for the gospel that is so often talked about in the New Testament – persecution, rejection, stoning, martyrdom. This is no country for old men, as they say.
But, still, there is some truth to the fact that we also suffer “under the curse” and in that suffering we also need some comfort and hope. And our passage today provides just that.
I call them the “groaning” passages because Paul tells us that “creation” is groaning (vs. 22), we are groaning (vs. 23) and the Holy Spirit is groaning (vs. 26) on our behalf.
It really starts way back in vs. 19 where Paul says that, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” He had just talked about our glory which will be created in the context of our suffering. It is a progressive thing, as sanctification always is, which will come to its final fruition before the throne of God on the last day.
Now Paul says that that “revealing” is something that the whole of creation is waiting for (and will participate in) as well. He personifies creation as if it was a woman giving birth and is in the middle of birth pangs (vs. 22) and that is a fitting image to use.
Way back in Genesis 3:16, the Bible tells us that one of the curses that God inflicted on creation after the Fall of man was the pain of childbirth. God said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing, with pain you will give birth to children…” (Genesis 3:16a NIV).
And yes, the woman is part of creation. Our bodies are part of creation. Our bodies are subject to decay and death, just like the rest of creation. It is God’s continuous reminder that we come into this world of evil and sin through pain and suffering and that death is our final end and time will be our master all the days of our lives.
Of course, we have simply gotten used to it so it lacks the same impact that it had on the original couple who had just experienced the wonders of the Garden of Eden in the protective, caring presence of God. Now that was over.
After the Fall of mankind, God spoke three curses that still continue to affect us today. “Cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken, for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 4:17b, 18,19 NIV).
Sure, we have mitigated the effects of the curse with our technology and inventions. Sure, there is much in this world that is beautiful and even breath-taking. God has not left Himself without a witness. The sun continues to shine on the righteous and unrighteous alike. No doubt. But the curse still stands.
Paul points out that the reason why creation was cursed was because of mankind and their rebellion against the reign of God in this world. They had sided with the Evil One and now God had to find a way to separate them and save mankind from his own folly. They were deceived after all but they are still responsible for their actions. Creation was to be under the stewardship of mankind and therefore creation was cursed as a constant reminder that all is not well on planet earth.
Today we see not only the impact of the curse, the decay and death all around us that we have gotten dangerously used to, but we also see the effects of mankind’s misuse of the planets resources and the deterioration that is a result of the mismanagement, the lack of stewardship, that mankind has exercised over the centuries in their pursuit of power and resources.
So be it. But the curses still stand as a mute (or not so mute) reminder that all is not well and we would do well to heed it’s call.
But Paul’s purpose is not to rebuke us but to encourage us who are in the faith. Our glory will be revealed both in this life and in the life to come. It is a continuous revealing that will find its climax at the end of time. And since the curse on creation is closely linked to the Fall of mankind from grace, Paul makes the point that when the redemptive emergency is over, when our glory is finally revealed, the creation, too, will celebrate with us (so to speak) because the curses on it will be lifted. In other words, creation will participate in our redemption and the renewing of the earth at the end of time. When the rebellion is over, the curses will be lifted. “No longer will there be any curse,” John tells us in Revelations 22:3 NIV.
So Paul personifies creation and tells us that the creation “waits in eager expectation” for that moment. And then, to explain further, Paul says, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it…(vs. 20). Of course Paul is talking about the curses in Genesis 4 and God’s decision to use the creation as a constant reminder of the absurdity of an abnormal situation that we experience every day if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
But here are the interesting words – “in hope,” Paul says. In hope, God cursed the world. In hope, the creation waits eagerly. In hope, creation puts up with their ongoing “frustration” and what Paul calls later “groaning.” In hope.
Remember that these two truths go together. Suffering and Glory on the one hand which is rooted in hope. Our hope is that the glory of the character of Christ will be revealed in us here on earth to empower our testimony and finally in heaven where all will be revealed. Our glorification gives us hope.
But there is more. During this time of frustration and “groaning” there is also hope for creation. All is not lost. Global warming will not have the last word. Pollution and destruction of the rain forests will not stand. This world with all of its beauty and marvel is not destined for destruction but for renewal.
Paul says in vs. 20b and 21 that “in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” That is a vision of the future to give us hope. We are not alone in our glorification. Even creation will be restored to its former glory and that will be something worth seeing.
In the meantime, there is still a lot of frustration, bondage to decay and ‘groaning” going on. Paul says that “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (vs.22). The image of childbirth is an interesting one. Not only does it remind us of the curse on childbearing from Genesis 4 but many theologians have used this imagery to describe the process that world history (and creation) has been going through (and will go through) up to the time of the Second Coming of Christ.
Leaving aside our particular view of the millennium for a moment, the idea is basically that world events (as described in the book of Revelations) will get increasingly worse until Christ comes back.
There is a note of judgment in all of this because, apparently, God is willing to allow mankind to destroy himself (and creation) as a direct consequence of his sinful rebellion and godless lifestyle. The destruction of creation (and the self-destruction of mankind) is a direct result of the rebelliousness of mankind against God. That very destruction will stand as a witness against the evil and sin of a world in rebellion against its Creator.
But this will happen in waves. It will get very painful for a while and then it will ease off. Then more painful, and then another respite until, finally, the self-destruction is inevitable and God has to finally intervene and bring history to a close and reveal what He has been doing all this time during the redemptive emergency.
Not that mankind will determine the day or the hour of His coming, that is entirely in the hands of the Father, but the imagery of childbirth seems to give us a good way to understand world history. The Spanish Influenza during the first World War, as well as the atrocities of the Second World War would be seen as a time of great pain and the next fifty years, a time when the pain subsided somewhat. But it will come again. And it will be more terrible yet.
But that doesn’t mean that we are without hope. Yes there will be pain and suffering but, in the end, a child will be born and that child is us, the children of God, and the revealing of our glory (as we revel in the glory of a newborn child). It is a beautiful picture.
Paul is telling us that this is the nature of the beast. To expect that there will be no suffering for the gospel is naive. To expect that there will be no “groaning,” and frustration and bondage to decay in this life is naive. There will be suffering for the gospel and there will be suffering on a creation level for all people in one form or another, either as an entire society or individually through cancer, decay and death.
In fact, Paul includes us in the very next verse (vs. 23) where he says, “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Yes, there is a sense that everyone is “groaning” in the general, creation suffering and pain that is due to both the curse and the rebellion of mankind.
But there is another sense in which only those “who have the first fruits of the Spirit,” really understand what is going on. Many people “groan” as those who have no hope. We “groan” even more because we do have hope. And that hope is not some “pie-in-the-sky” kind of hope that we will one day be in heaven as spirit-beings, playing harps and sitting on a cloud. Far from it.
Remember that I told you earlier that the woman was also part of creation and therefore her curse was also a curse on creation? Paul makes it clear that all of us, especially in terms of our bodies, male and female alike, are part of this great renewal of creation that will happen. God did not create this beautiful world in vain. He will complete the work that He started and the whole of creation, including our physical bodies, will be included in the process. We suffer and “groan” in the body but we have hope that even our bodies will be “redeemed” and made new once again.
There is so much more to say on that topic but, for now, we need to move on. Now we get to the good part. Yes, Paul says, this may be a time of suffering and pain. After all, we still live under the curse. Our bodies are still subject to decay and death as is all of creation. We are still in “bondage to decay” and there is no escaping that reality. Later on, Paul will talk about our “bodies of death” that we still have to live with, our handicaps, our cancer, our disease, our temptations, our weaknesses. There is victory and we are no longer under the control of that “decay” but it is still there and we need to manage it, fight it, be stewards of it, all in the “hope” of our adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies.
So don’t be surprised that we will suffer, whether for the gospel or not. Suffering and pain are a part of the reality of life. But there is hope and that hope will not disappoint us. In the meantime, in the middle of our suffering and pain, there is a further truth that will comfort us. Paul tells us in vs. 26 that “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” Wow. The Holy Spirit prays for me with “groans” that words cannot express. Get your head around that for a moment.
We all know what it is like to have so much grief at the death of a child or the despair of facing an addiction, or the frustration of an entire lifestyle that seems self-destructive at best. Life is sometimes very hard. And prayer seems to be impossible.
I have had moments like that. You just can’t put anything into words and, maybe, you don’t even want to. All you can do is “groan” and weep and rail against the injustice of it all. Maybe you are even tempted to blame God. No worries. He can handle it. Talk to Him and weep before Him. He understands every tear you shed and each one is precious to Him.
Just imagine the Holy Spirit within you feeling every “groan” and weeping every tear with you. God is a God who weeps with those who weep. The truth is that we don’t even know what to pray for, says Paul. Some things just cannot be undone. We need to learn to live with it whether we like it or not. The Holy Spirit understands your dilemma. He understands your grief and He groans with you, and for you, before the throne of God. He knows what to pray for.
God, the Father, understands as well. He is an active part of the process. Paul tells us in vs. 27 that God “who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” That last part is interesting.
When the Spirit prays for us with “groans that words cannot express,” it doesn’t mean that there is only emotion involved. The Spirit is “interceding” for us. He is talking to the Father on our behalf. He is “interpreting” our emotions but He is also praying for us “in accordance with God’s will.”
This fits in perfectly with the next truth that we are MORE THAN CONQUERORS and that all things will work out for our good. That is what the Spirit is praying for, that God’s will be fulfilled in us and that it will work out for our good.
The Spirit doesn’t just feel bad for us, He takes it upon Himself to “interpret” our “groaning” to God and, at the same time, praying a “powerful and effective prayer” (James 5:16) that is in accordance with God’s will. Remember that Spiritual Maturity means that we agree, even in our pain and suffering, that God’s eternal will and priority to save the people around us is “good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12: 2b NIV). Just like Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, we can groan and suffer but, in the end, say “not my will but yours be done.”
Speaking of Jesus, Paul makes another comment, almost as an aside, about Jesus in vs. 34. He says, “Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” So, not only is the Holy Spirit praying for us, but Jesus is also interceding for us at the right hand of God. In the Book of Hebrews, we are told that “because he (Jesus) himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18 NIV). He gets it. He’s been there, just like us. He knows what to pray for.
Now, that is what I call PRAYER SUPPORT and that gives me hope in the midst of my suffering and pain, both for the gospel and just the general suffering that we are all still subject to. I sometimes try to imagine the Holy Spirit and Jesus praying for me and God listening carefully to what I really want in the Spirit.
And I tell myself that if they are taking the time to pray for me these “powerful and effective” prayers, it’s no wonder that I can be MORE THAN A CONQUEROR in the situation that I am facing. It gives me comfort and hope and that is what I need the most.
The Desert Warrior
Lord, thank you for praying for me. Sometimes my prayers are selfish and shallow but I know that you understand what I am going through. On the one hand, I just want the pain to go away but on the other hand, I want to break through to the purpose you have for the pain and suffering. I know that how I handle it in faith, hope and love will give power to my testimony which can change the lives of my children, my friends, my neighbors. And that is worth it. It is always worth it. It’s just that in the moment, I am weak when I need to be strong. Knowing that you pray for me and that you know what to pray for gives me hope. Thank you Lord. In your name I pray. Amen.