This week we continue to explore the great themes of Romans 8.
Monday, January 21
Read: Romans 8:18-21
Consider: Have you ever felt as though your pain was causing you to lose perspective? Several years ago, I had back surgery. I’ll never forget the days leading up to the operation. I was in excruciating pain. And it felt as though the pain was consuming me. I was on large doses of pain medication, yet the pain summed up my existence during that time. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t write. It was even hard to pray. My whole life was about pain. That was my reality for a brief period—several weeks—of my life. I cannot even imagine what some of my friends are going through who deal with chronic pain that has little potential of decreasing over time.
Of course, it’s not just physical pain that can consume us. Some of us must deal with mental illness. Some of us are healing from major emotional or spiritual trauma. And all of us have been, or will be, confronted with the deep, profound grief that comes from losing someone we love. When it is someone very close to you—someone with whom you have shared your life—it feels as though a part of you has died.
Back to the original question. Do you feel as though you’ve lost perspective because of your pain? Well, you haven’t. Suffering gives us a different perspective on reality. That perspective—that new vantage point—alters the landscape. Now, that may not sound like good news. It may sound as if I’m saying that, at some point, we’ll all discover how incredibly sad this existence is.
That’s where Paul comes in and gives us yet another vantage point—another place to stand as we view reality.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (8:18)
I used to get tripped up on one part of that sentence — “our present sufferings are not worth comparing…” It felt as though Paul was minimizing our pain. I didn’t like that because I knew some people who were dealing with incredible sorrow and suffering.
I no longer feel as though Paul was minimizing our pain. This man who had suffered so much wasn’t scolding us or telling us we were indulging in self-pity. He was saying that the reality of pain is so challenging that we must look to something beyond ourselves. As he began that train of thought, he called that something, “the glory that will be revealed in us.”
The operative word that Paul gives us for this “glory” is “hope.”
Pray: “Lord, even when I’m not suffering, I can be overwhelmed by the suffering I see in others—people I love and people around the globe. I can’t find solutions in my strength or in my understanding. So, please teach me hope. I don’t ask for the ability to understand hope by my intellect, but to grasp it in my soul—to walk in it and live in it as I live in you.”
Tuesday, January 22
Read: Romans 8:22-23
Consider: Paul chose a word that says so much. Yet this word does not describe or explain an idea. It points to a sound that describes an emotion. The word is “groan.”
Sometimes our groans are audible, as when we’re lifting a heavy load. But our real groans are groans of the spirit—we “groan inwardly” (8:23).
No explanation is needed to understand the groan of the spirit. We have all experienced pain that was too deep for words and pathos that couldn’t be put into language.
As we’ll see a few verses down, groans are actually prayers. I’m always reminded of this when I read the Old Testament book of Exodus. God called Moses to return to Egypt to deliver his people, because, as God said, “I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving” (Exodus 6:5). God didn’t say, “I have heard their prayers.” We might have interpreted that to mean that his people had some requests—some things they would like to see happen. No, God heard their groaning—inward and outward cries for mercy and deliverance. This woundedness of spirit could not be articulated, but it could be received by God.
And that’s what we need to remember. Our groans are heard. Our groans are understood. In fact, we are the ones who cannot fully comprehend our groans. He is the One who does. And, as with the Israelites in Egypt, God does not simply hear our groans, he is moved to act on our behalf. But before deliverance and before liberation, we groan.
Pray: “Lord, my groans are my prayers. Thank you for hearing and knowing me. I’m so grateful that, even when I cannot understand my own spirit, you do. Even in my pain, I rest in the knowledge of your presence.”
Wednesday, January 23
Read: Romans 8:20-23
Consider: As we read Paul’s letter to the Romans, we’re not surprised that he described our pain and suffering as something beyond our comprehension and beyond our ability to put to language. We know that we “groan inwardly” with pain that is too deep for words. (See yesterday’s meditation.) But what does stretch our thinking is Paul’s assertion that “the whole creation has been groaning” (8:22).
This mystifying image is beautiful—stunningly beautiful—when we see where Paul is taking us. This is not just any groan. This is not meaningless pain. It is the “pains of childbirth” (8:22).
If the whole creation is in the throes of labor, it means that God is birthing something brand new. This is central to Christian thought.
Over time, Greek philosophy has invaded our theology, which is really based in Hebrew understandings. Some of the ancient Greeks taught the immortality of the soul. They viewed the body as something decadent and something to be escaped. They thought the soul could be freed from it’s confines and that, if you were wise enough and virtuous enough, you might attain that perfection.
But we don’t cling to the immortality of the soul. We believe in…
“…the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)
God created our bodies. They are good. He incarnated a body like ours when the Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth. And someday, just like Jesus, we will each have a resurrected body.
So why is the “whole creation…groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”? Because God is not simply going to resurrect you and me. He’s going to raise up all of creation — creating “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). As the Lord proclaims, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).
Yesterday we saw that groaning is prayer. Next time you’re outside, listen for the groaning. It’s not the groaning of despair. It is the pain that precedes new birth. Join creation in prayer and rejoice at what God is doing.
Pray: “Lord, at times I’m prone to despair. Thank you that you understand my pain and confusion. And thank you that, even when I can’t recognize it, you are making all things new. I choose to believe that love will have the last word because ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16).”
Thursday, January 24
Read: Romans 8:22-25
Consider: Hope is a funny thing. It’s hard to define or even to describe. At times it seems fleeting. Some days we’re filled with hope and that hope brings us peace and joy. Other days hope seems unattainable and the void that is left can become a black hole of despair.
To me, what is strange about this undefinable thing called hope is that it is future-oriented but must be grasped in the present. We don’t wait for hope. But we wait for what we hope for. And, as Brother Paul puts it, since “we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (8:25).
Sometimes when I read those words, I want to say, “Speak for yourself, Paul! I don’t know how to wait patiently.” And yet, as we mature in life and in our walks with Christ, we discover that patience is not simply a nice character trait or something to work on when we think about it. Patience is vital to our emotional and spiritual health.
Ancient people thought about time much differently than we do. To them time was cyclical. Seasons, crops, generations and life itself seemed to be an endless circle. They didn’t think about life after death, but simply their children’s lives after their own deaths. They didn’t think about changing to discover a new way of living, but simply focused on feeding themselves and their families. But then something happened. God spoke to a man named Abram (later called, Abraham) and said, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words, “Abram, I have a plan for you and for your people. I am taking you to a new place to do a new thing.”
From Abraham came a nation, called Israel. Those Israelites saw time in a new way. They believed time was linear—that is, they believed that history was advancing, that it had direction and purpose. They believed God was up to something and had called them to be part of God’s plan. They believed in a concept that humans had not previously understood. They believed there was a future. And with their belief in God’s future for them, they embraced something new. It was called, “hope.”
Hope brings God’s future into the present and teaches us to wait patiently. But we don’t wait for random circumstances or cyclical events. We wait on and follow the same God who called Abram. And we walk with him as he gives new birth to us and to our world.
Pray: “Lord, you are the God ‘who was, and is, and is to come’ (Revelation 4:8). That you would invite me into your plan is humbling and amazing. Patience does not come easy for me. I can be so short-sighted. Please birth hope in me as I patiently wait for you. You are working in my life and in your cosmos. Help me to have eyes that see the works of your hands.”
Friday, January 25
Read: Romans 8:26-27
Consider: We return to the aspect of prayer that we considered on Tuesday and Wednesday — “groans that words cannot express” (8:26). But in today’s reading Paul shifts from talking about the deep pain we feel—our groans that are heard, understood and received by God—to teaching us about the groans of “the Spirit himself” (8:26).
I’m so glad to hear Paul say, “We do not know what we ought to pray for” (8:26). I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one who feels inadequate when I’m praying—interceding—for others. If you’re like me, you’ve gone to the Lord on behalf of someone you love and found yourself at a loss as to how to pray. Perhaps it was the complexity of the situation your loved one faced. You didn’t know God’s will and how to pray in accordance with his will. Or perhaps the pain was just too deep. You thought to yourself, “There are no words.” And, of course, you were right. Words simply were not capable of expressing your heart to God.
But “the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (8:27). The “groans” of the Spirit translate our prayers, because our hearts and the heart of the Father are inextricably intertwined. He knows our hearts. He knows us. He knows.
Have you ever heard someone say that intercessory prayer is hard work? I’ve heard that many times throughout my life. But I never understood it. I thought that perhaps it took long hours to pray for—to really intercede for—someone. Maybe the hard work was in focusing over long periods of time or in the repetitions that had to be made.
I’ve come to see that I had completely missed the point of what it means to intercede in prayer on behalf of someone else. I now believe that the real power—and the real hard work—of prayer lies in sharing the pain. It means groaning in your spirit with another human being whose pain is too deep for words.
And the Holy Spirit, who knows our hearts and understands our weaknesses, translates our groanings into something beyond our comprehension. To share someone’s pain is a powerful and loving form of prayer.
Pray: “Lord, your intercession took you to the cross. Give me the courage to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. And thank you for those who have wept with me.”
Saturday, January 26
Read: Romans 12:9-21
Consider: Throughout Paul’s letters he teaches theology, he gives practical instruction for the church, he encourages us, and, at times, he lifts us high with powerful and poetic words (1 Corinthians 13 is an example). But sometimes, with profound simplicity, he just tells us how we ought to live. Today we read one such passage. I love the way it challenges me, gives me joy, renews my hope, and recalibrates my priorities.
It also teaches me something about prayer. Nestled in those very practical admonitions is a simple sentence — “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (12:15).
In the past I didn’t receive this as an instruction in prayer. I saw it as a communal thing that the Body of Christ did to affirm and support one another. I saw it as solidarity with our sisters and brothers. Of course, it is that. But there is more. I’m not simply called to pray. I’m called to make my life a prayer. Every day my whole being should commune with God. And if, in that communion, I rejoice and mourn with others, I am allowing the Spirit of God to intercede for them and I’m allowing their lives to intercede for me.
“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 he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
Your tears make a difference. Your laughter makes a difference. Your life makes a difference.
Pray: “Lord, I cannot comprehend the work your Spirit does in us and through us. But what I cannot understand in my intellect I want to grasp in my spirit. Make me a vessel of your love even when that love demands that I suffer with others. Thank you for showing us the redemptive power of suffering.”