My son had a rude awakening last week. He got really sick with something called croup. Now as bad as it is for anyone to get sick, what made it harder for Patrick is that he had never been really sick before. You could just see him thinking. What is happening to me? My life was going so great, and now this comes along? What is going on here?
Patrick was facing what everyone has to face. Everybody, to some degree, suffers. Nobody gets a pass when it comes to hard things in life. Granted some face harder things than others, sometimes incredibly harder. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in Syria right now. But you don’t need to be in Syria to know about suffering. Everybody faces it. That’s not the question. The question is how do you deal with it? How do you, even in your sufferings, grow stronger rather than weaker? How does that happen?
Hard things in your lives can either make you better or make you bitter. How do you move toward better? In these words, God shows the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
How, when suffering comes, and it will come, do you not only get through the suffering but come through stronger, even better than before. In these words, God shows us. The key to triumph in hard times is to know three powerful things. You do not suffer alone. You do not suffer without purpose. And you are never without hope. Now that can be nice to say, but how do you know those things are true, that they’re real? You know those things are true, that they are real, because of one profoundly true thing that makes them real. But before we get there or even to unpacking the three powerful things, we need to get this.
No matter what anyone tells you, you can’t avoid suffering. Suffering is baked into the cake. Why? As Paul puts it, creation is subjected to decay. Everything in us and around us is winding down. Think about it. How many 50 year olds are playing in the NBA playoffs? And why is that? No matter how good any player is, at some point, he slows down. He ages out. And that happens to everyone. Even if you have every creature comfort possible; if you live in total safety and security; if you have the best medicine money can provide, you can’t avoid that winding down. Sooner or later, you’re going to die. The people you care about, they’re going to die too. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s the truth. And all of that means suffering.
It’s why the word that Paul uses here for groaning, doesn’t simply mean, mild pain. No, Paul is talking about the sort of groaning a person faces who is close to death. The Greeks used this word to describe the groaning of dying warriors on a battlefield or as Paul uses it here, to describe the groaning of child birth. And in Paul’s day, every time a woman gave birth, she was close to death. In ancient times a woman dying in child birth happened all too often.
We need to make this clear, because we live in a society that wants to deny those hard realities. So often people face some painful trial in their lives, and are shocked. How can this be happening to me? It’s happening to you, because it happens to everybody. But instead of accepting that reality, what do folks do. They may get angry or bitter. Or they may simply try to avoid the pain of it all.
Do you know that almost 70% of people who take anti-depressants, have never experienced what you would call a major depression? More than that, 40% don’t have any significant depression symptoms at all. So why are they taking the drug? Well, it’s because, life feels better when you’re a little drugged. And if not, you can use your phone or TV to distract you, to deaden the pain of life. But here’s the reality. Drugging or distracting your way out of the hard realities of life never works. It doesn’t only deaden you to the pain. It deadens you to life. But if you face the pain, if you move through it, instead of trying to go around it, you can rely on three powerful things.
First, you can know that you are never alone. Do you see that word that Paul uses for Father here, Abba? Every language has a word like that. Why? It’s because no matter where you are, when a child first comes up with a word for their parents, it’s something like Abba. It may be Dada or Mama or Papa, but it always has that aah aah sound. And Paul uses that word to tell us something profoundly true in how God relates to us. God really does see you as his child, as his son or daughter. But more than that, God relates to you as a parent relates not just to any child but to a small child, a child who says Abba. And that’s an incredibly important thing to know.
If you have a young child, when your child cries out in distress, real distress, what do you do? You run to that child. You pick her up. You hold him close. What that happens it’s not that you love the child more in those moments. But that cry stirs your love up. It moves you to action. And Paul is saying. When you cry out to God, God runs to you just like that. Not only does God not leave you alone, but in those moments, like any loving parent, God comes close.
But Paul goes further. He tells us that in those moments, God works to meet your deepest needs, even the ones you don’t know you have. When you don’t have the words to express your deepest need, then the Spirit of God speaks it for you. Like any child, we don’t always know what we need, but our heavenly Father does. And by his Spirit, he speaks that need and meets it.
Many years ago, I went through a devastating break-up. I prayed many times for God to bring that relationship back. In hindsight, I’m glad God didn’t answer that prayer. But in the midst of those cries to God, God did answer my prayers, in the way that I most deeply needed.
The last time I saw this woman happened to be a weekend when I was in Boston, where she lived, for work. She agreed to get together. I went all out. I booked a dinner at a great restaurant, got her a gift from her favorite store, and as we ate, I was thinking just maybe. That’s when she told me, she was seeing someone else. And that hurt.
Yet as I cried out to God that weekend, he came running. As I was checking out where I was staying, the woman behind the counter looked at me and did a double take. She looked at my card, and then at me. Then she asked. Did you travel across the country on this bus called the Green Tortoise? Yeah, I said, I did. Don’t you remember me? (I didn’t. But I said I did. She was pretty attractive.). Then she said I remember you. You were one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. Let me tell you. After suffering a devastating rejection, I needed that. I needed that more than I even knew. And God knew that and he came running.
Looking back on those days, I’m grateful not only for the consolation God gave, but because I saw something even more. Any suffering we face can carry purpose. That’s why Paul says that being a child of God doesn’t exempt you from suffering, it guarantees it. Just look at Jesus. Being God’s son didn’t exempt him from suffering. It led him into it. But in what he suffered. Jesus knew. God was using it for a larger purpose. His suffering led to greater strength. His death brought resurrection. And that pattern holds true for us. In our suffering, in our weakness, God can and will make you stronger. Your suffering always has the power to make you better, if you let it.
But you don’t need to focus on Jesus to see this. You can see it in the gym. When you work out with weights in the gym, as you pull those weights up, you feel the pain. You feel the muscles getting weaker and weaker. Yet here’s the truth. It’s only through the weakness and pain that the strength comes. What trainers say in the gym is true in life. No pain, no gain.
Think about a single acorn. In it, you have the potential for a whole forest. Out of one acorn can come enough trees to cover a continent. But none of that happens, unless that acorn falls into the soil and dies. Here’s the truth of that acorn. It takes the soil of pain and suffering to grow. You can’t have resurrection unless you have death first. In each of us lies potential for incredible kindness, incredible strength, for an inner beauty that can take our breath away, but it does not come easily. Only when you face your weakness, can you find your strength. And if you doubt that, look to Jesus, a man unjustly convicted, brutalized and killed. Yet in that seemingly senseless suffering, God was working. And in whatever you face, God will work too.
But beyond that, you can know yet one more powerful thing. No matter what you face, you need never lose hope. Why? You know the end of the story. And when you know the end, that end gives you power right now in the present.
Why does Paul talk about the creation groaning in terms of childbirth? It’s because when a woman suffers the incredible pain of labor, she knows to what end she suffers. She is bringing a new life into the world, and that life she knows brings with it greater joy and love and beauty than she can imagine. She endures the pain because she knows the hope fulfilled that lies at its end.
Right now, in the midst of this suffering world, in the midst of our struggles and pain, God is bringing something wondrous to birth, a new creation. As amazing and beautiful as this world is, it cannot hold a candle to what God will bring. How amazing and beautiful? Look at what Paul says. He writes. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us. They are not worth comparing. Paul is writing to people getting slaughtered in the coliseums. And he is saying. No matter what you are suffering, what God is bringing will blow all that suffering away. And knowing that hope, doesn’t just change your future, it changes your right now.
Do you remember that story from Easter? Two folks get hired to do the same job, a tedious, unpleasant job, like fitting widgets into wodgets. One person gets told that at the end of one year, they’ll make 20 thousand a year, but the other person gets told that they’ll make 20 million a year. Now which one of them is going to come to work happier, with more enthusiasm? The 20 grand guy or the 20 million guy. Yet remember, each of them are experiencing the same thing right now. What is the difference? One of them has a very different future. And if you know, that no matter what you face, it cannot compare to the beauty and wonder that God has planned for you, that gives you strength, not just in the future. It gives you strength right now.
But hold on a second. How can you know all that I’ve said is true? How can you know that God loves you like parents loves their kids, that any suffering can have purpose, that God has an amazing end in store? Maybe you’re not feeling any of that? How do you know it’s even real, and not just some sort of religious fantasy.
In these words, Paul points you to how. Paul tells us that the Spirit of God is groaning with creation as it suffers and struggles. Think about that. This word means death groans. How can a being utterly infinite in power suffer death groans? How can God possibly know the agony of a mother about to die to bring her child into the world? How can God feel the pain of a warrior crying out for help as his wounds kill him, yet knowing that likely no help will come? How can God know that pain and agony? Look at Jesus.
As Jesus died on the cross, he quoted a verse from Psalm 22. He cried out My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? But do you know what comes next in that verse? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? In Jesus, God came as a warrior on the ultimate battlefield, to fight the enemies that held us hostage. In those moments he absorbed our sin, our evil, so we would be free. And like a warrior wounded to the death, he groans. He cries out, but no one comes. And because Jesus was utterly abandoned for you, you can know that in your suffering, you never will be. Because Jesus was forsaken in his death groan, when you groan, God hears it the way a mother or father hears the cry of a child. He meets your deepest need, the one you don’t even know you have. And in your suffering, God uses it to make you greater. He assures you that your suffering will never have the last word. For someday, God will put an end to evil and all the pain it brings. Like a mother, groaning in labor, God will bring a new creation, a new you. Right now in your hardest moments, God walks with you. God runs towards you. God works within you. And God promises you a future more amazing than you can comprehend. How can you know that? Because on the cross, God sealed that promise with his very life.