(This is a reprise of my 2012 Advent series – enjoy!)
I didn’t really know much about labour and childbirth when I first went to visit my friend who’d just given birth. We were in the car park outside an NHS hospital, the sun was shining and the windows of the hospital were open. As I strolled towards the door, carrying flowers for the new Mum, I heard a cow mooing very loudly. I stopped, a little puzzled. There were no fields around, and the only other sound was the cars from the busy road.
The sound came again. A deep, powerful, almost comic sound, like when you squeeze an accordion and it runs out of air.
“I guess we’re outside the labour ward,” Jon said.
“No!” I replied, “No way is that a woman making that sound?”
We both stopped and listened again to adjudicate on the origin of the sound. Regrettably, there were no cows to be seen. From the context, it must have been a woman in labour.
But it was the most unhuman sound I had ever heard a human make. I couldn’t quite fathom the depth of pain that someone must be feeling to utter that noise. I walked a little more quickly to the hospital and tried to concentrate on the fluffy teddies and cute babies I was about to see.
We don’t often think of Mary in labour when we consider the nativity, do we? I have never yet seen a child’s nativity play, even the ones with real donkeys and hay that has Mary saying, ‘Aaaargh! Make it stop!”
Groans preceded Christ’s coming. He was born in pain into a world of pain. And as we wait, groans precede His second coming.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 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 through wordless groans. (Romans 8:22-26 NIV)
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
This world is creaking. There is so much that is good and beautiful in this world that it is sometimes possible to tune it out. But I hear of women attacked in Afghanistan, children bombed in Gaza, and earthquakes and hurricanes that destroy all in their path, and I can no longer drown out that deep and hoarse sound. The whole creation – people, animals, earth, air – is groaning with the pain of imperfection. The world is not as it should be, nor as it will be. In the meantime, it groans.
“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
Does being a Christian make you immune from the pain of the world? Does it act as an epidural somehow? The Bible says no – we groan all the more, waiting eagerly for it to be over when Christ returns. We groan inwardly. We yearn for heaven. We hope for what we do not yet have.
“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 through wordless groans.”
And where is God in this painful world? God is the doctor, yes, and the medicine – but God is also groaning along with us. When we look around and we don’t know the words to pray because it is all just too much – God the Spirit is groaning with us, interceding for us.
And this is the hope of Christmas: the reminder of Immanuel, God with us. Immanuel, God the Father, who heard the groans of His people in exile; Immanuel, God the Son, born into our pain; Immanuel, God the Spirit groaning with us as we wait.
Advent means ‘coming’. For ages I really didn’t understand Advent. Then a few years ago, a preacher explained that traditionally Advent preaching would focus not on the incarnation but on the return of Jesus; not on his first coming but his second coming. It was meant to be a penitential season, a time to pause and reflect.
I want to reflect that double perspective in these four weeks before Christmas – simultaneously meditating on Christ’s first coming and second coming.
Over to you:
- When are the times that you find yourself groaning? To what extent does it help to know that God is groaning too?
During the past two years I have transitioned in my prayer time to experiencing deep inward groans in my spirit and the pit of my stomach. Sometimes it is brief and sometimes so gut wrenching, I bend over in some inward deep unfathomable pain. The pain is not physical but spiritual. I could not figure out what was happening to me. Now I know it is the Holy spirit praying for His Will in me and in the lives of those I pray for. Those ‘inward groans’ that His word describes is actually literal! wow.
That’s fascinating, that you should feel the ‘spiritual groaning’ so physically and viscerally. I’m so glad that you were able to connect your experience with these amazing promises of God in Romans 8 – thanks so much for sharing this.
I’m very glad to have come across this post this morning. I appreciate how you connect the Romans passage to the nativity.
The whole creation – people, animals, earth, air – is groaning with the pain of imperfection. The world is not as it should be, nor as it will be. In the meantime, it groans.
I too often think of the words “creation groans” when I think of the problems and imperfections of the world. But I love the way you put it here. It’s not meant to be that way and it won’t stay that way.
Thanks so much, Bill, for your encouraging words! I really appreciate them. Hope you have a Happy Christmas!
I am so, so thankful that the Spirit intercedes and groans on my behalf. Especially now, when I’m finding it so difficult to focus on praying and to find the words to pray. It’s a staggering thought, one that I can’t wrap my head around, that the Lord cares enough to pray for little, insignificant me. It’s beautiful, confusing and very comforting.
Yes! It is a wonderful thought that even in prayer, it is not dependent on us – the Spirit is interceding, the Son is at the right hand of God interceding too. I think there is a real freedom in knowing that God knows our hearts and our feelings and desires, even before we have voiced them. Praying that you will know this truth as a peaceful one. Much love to you.
I am glad we have a God that intercedes for us and turns our groans and grief into that which we so badly need.
Me too, Mark – so glad! (Happy Christmas!)
Tanya, I happened to be studying Romans 8:26-28 for a separate purpose today, and read this from my Matthew Henry Commentary as be begins for these: “The apostle here suggests two privileges more to which true Christians are entitled: I. The help of the Spirit in prayer. While we are in this world, hoping and waiting for what we see not, we must be praying. Hope supposes desire, and that desire offered up to God is prayer; we groan.”
Praying we all sound a little less human as we work out our salvation…
I love those words from Matthew Henry – they are so apposite! And amen to that prayer – here’s to sounding less human. Thank you, Rachel.
Thank you Tanya, I seem to have done a lot of inner groaning in my life, but strangely not in childbirth,(4 times) I felt I had to be quiet, as I have been about so many of my feelings until recently.. I have certainly been struck at times that God is weeping for all the tragedies and injustice in this world. It was only a few years ago that it struck me that Mary had actually experienced the pain and waiting of childbirth, as we do. I had been too blinded by the “nice” nativity scene we always see, and hymns we sing. I am certainly very grateful that the Holy Spirit hears our inner moans and groans and intercedes on our behalf.
Thank you for your words. God Bless
Thanks so much, Sandra, for sharing your words. I am so glad that you have been rediscovering the reality of Mary being in labour (as opposed to the ‘nice’ nativity scenes), and that you have also been discovering your own groans and feelings, and are more confident in giving voice to them. Praying that you will sense the Holy Spirit with you as you do. Xx