Grieved for me? the God of strength and power

Griev’d for a worm, which when I tread,

I passe away and leave it dead?

—George Herbert, “Ephesians 4:30”

Groan is one of those words, like whisper, clunk, and vroom, that sounds like what it means. (Onomatopoeia, which sounds like a skin disease, is the technical term for this quirk of language.) When you say groan aloud, it resonates deep in the belly, not just the throat. As you speak, the vowels tend to drag out, a sympathetic echo of the long discomfort that normally provokes a groan.

It was during a trip to South America that I first noticed the word groan in the Bible. I was visiting prisons in Peru and Chile on a magazine assignment, and I had already heard much groaning from the inmates. One evening, while reading from the Psalms alone in my hotel room, I came across Psalm 102, a poem most likely written by a prisoner or a refugee from war. Its author eloquently expresses his desperate state:

… my bones burn like glowing embers.

My heart is blighted and withered like grass;

I forget to eat my food.

Because of my loud groaning

I am reduced to skin and bones.

I am like a desert owl,

like an owl among the ruins.

I lie awake; I have become

like a bird alone on a roof.

All day long my enemies taunt me;

those who rail against me use my name as a curse.

For I eat ashes as my food

and mingle my drink with tears …

(vv. 3–9; all Scripture references from NIV)

That psalm captured precisely the spirit of the prisoners I had been interviewing. Not all were suffering such physical hardships, but to a man they all groused about the food, the loneliness, the insomnia, the rejection. Like desert owls, they lived apart from civilization, among the ruins. All had hearts “blighted and withered like grass.”

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