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.”

The psalmist proceeds to contrast his own tenuous existence with that of God: “But you, O Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations” (v. 12). The heavens and earth will wear out like a garment, to be discarded like outworn clothes, but “you remain the same, and your years will never end” (v. 27).

Sandwiched between these contrary descriptions of a miserable prisoner and a majestic God there appears a request—the heart of the psalm. The author asks that in the future, when descendants reflect on former times, they may be able to say the following:

The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high,

from heaven he viewed the earth,

to hear the groans of the prisoners

and release those condemned to death.

(vv. 19–20)

Later, when I had access to a concordance, I looked up other appearances of the word groan or groaning in the Bible. I found that the image presented in Psalm 102—that of a faraway, exalted God bending down to hear the pain of the oppressed—typifies the use of the word in the Old Testament. When the Israelites groaned in their slavery (Exod. 2:23), God reached down to deliver them. When they groaned under foreign oppressors (Judg. 2:18), God raised up judges to lead them.

Hebrew writers never ceased to marvel that a transcendent God, high and lifted up, would care enough to intervene on their behalf. What right have mere mortals to expect such personal attention from the Lord of the Universe? As one psalmist expressed it, “What is man, that you are mindful of him …?” (Ps. 8:4).

Readers of the Old Testament can thus draw great comfort from the astonishing truth that God himself listens to our groans, and can be roused to act on our behalf.

But the Bible is far too realistic a book to close the story there. What about the many times God does not intervene: the times when prisoners, or widows, or war refugees, or the poor and sick, groan loud and long and get no sign that anyone is listening?

True, God heard the groans of the Israelites in Egypt, but several centuries slogged by before he sent Moses to lead them out of slavery. “Hey, you up there—are you deaf? Can’t you hear my groans?” That’s more the attitude expressed by Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Job, and some of the other psalmists. “My groans pour out like water,” Job protested (Job 3:24). “I am worn out from groaning,” complained one psalmist (6:6). Another turned his groan into a desperate query:

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I remembered you, O God, and I groaned.…

Will the Lord reject forever?

Will he never show his favor again?…

Has God forgotten to be merciful? (77:3, 7)

That final question haunted the Jews for four centuries after Malachi and the last few prophets had faded from the scene. They saw no miracles, no spectacular interventions, and heard no new words from the Lord. Perhaps he had forgotten how to be merciful. Perhaps he had plugged his ears against their groans.

Jesus, however, put an abrupt and decisive end to such speculation. Not only had God not “plugged his ears,” he suddenly took on ears—literal, ear-drum-ossicle-cochlea, human ears. On the cracked and dusty plains of Palestine he heard firsthand the molecular vibrations of human groans: from Jews oppressed by Roman conquerors (and from a Roman officer, too, grieving over his son’s death), and from quarantined leprosy victims, and from prostitutes, tax collectors, and others who groaned more from guilt than from pain.

Finally, Jesus himself groaned. Listen to the words he cried out on the cross, in their original context (Ps. 22:1–2):

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me,

so far from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

by night, and am not silent.

According to the author of Hebrews, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (5:7). But Jesus’ loud cries and tears did not save him from death. He saw his mission through unto the end, and that end meant execution.

Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? The question deserves an entire book, and has prompted many books, but among the answers the Bible gives is this most mysterious answer: Suffering served as a kind of “learning experience” for God. Such words seem faintly heretical, but I am merely following Hebrews: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (5:8). Elsewhere, that book tells us that the author of our salvation was made perfect through suffering (2:10).

These words, full of fathomless mystery, surely mean at least this: The Incarnation had meaning for God as well as for us. On one level, of course, God understood physical pain, for he designed the marvelous nervous system that carries it to our brains as a warning against harm. But had he, a Spirit, ever felt physical pain? Not until the Incarnation, the wrinkle in time when God himself experienced what it is like to be a human being. In 33 years on earth he learned about poverty, and about family squabbles, and social rejection, and verbal abuse, and betrayal. And he learned about pain. What it feels like to have an accuser leave the red imprint of his fingers on your face. What it feels like to have a whip studded with metal lash across your back. And what it feels like to have a crude iron spike pounded through muscle, tendon, and skin. On earth, God learned all that.

In some incomprehensible way, because of Jesus, God hears our groans differently. The author of Hebrews marveled that whatever we are going through, God has himself gone through. “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” (4:15). We have a high priest who, having graduated from the school of suffering, “is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness” (5:2). Because of Jesus, God understands, truly understands, our groans.

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We need no longer cry into the abyss, “Hey, are you listening?” By joining us on earth, God gave visible, historical proof that he hears our groans, and even groans them with us.

My survey of biblical groans led finally to Romans 8, where the word plays a central role in one of the great summary chapters of the New Testament. Paul’s language soars as he contemplates the wonderful new life in the Spirit that contrasts sharply with the life of dreariness described in the previous chapter.

Romans 8 sums up the entire human condition—more, that of the entire planet. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” Paul says in verse 22. And we humans “groan inwardly” as we await the redemption of our bodies (v. 23). As Paul sees it, since Adam’s fall the planet and all its inhabitants have been emitting a constant stream of low-frequency distress signals.

Paul loved a good play on words, and the first two appearances of the word groan set up his climactic conclusion: “… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (v. 26).

Because I sometimes write about pain and disappointment, I get letters from people who pour out their private groans. I know well the helpless feeling of not knowing what I ought to pray, and I suspect every pastor, counselor, missionary, or other Christian minister does too. How to pray for a person in a dead-end marriage that seems to represent only stuntedness, not growth? Or for a victim of child abuse who as an adult finds it impossible to enjoy sex? Or for a parent of a child diagnosed with terminal cancer? Or for a Christian in Nepal imprisoned for her faith? What can we ask for? How can we pray?

Romans 8 announces the good news that we need not always figure out exactly how to pray. We ought, of course, to think about what to pray for. But when we cannot, we need not despair. We need only groan.

As I read Paul’s words, an image comes to mind of a mother tuning in to her child’s wordless cry. I know mothers who, through years of experience, have learned to distinguish a cry for food from a cry for attention, an earache cry from a stomachache cry. To me, the sounds are identical; but the mother instinctively discerns the meaning of the child’s nonverbal groan. It is the inarticulateness, the very helplessness, of the child that gives the mother such compassionate intensity.

The Spirit of God has resources of sensitivity beyond even the wisest mother. Linking the groans of Romans 8, Paul tells of a Spirit who lives inside us, who detects needs we cannot articulate and expresses them in a language we cannot comprehend. When we do not know what to pray, he fills in the blanks. Evidently, it is our very helplessness that God, too, delights in. Our weakness gives opportunity for his strength.

The remainder of Romans 8 shows what this truth meant to the apostle Paul. After declaring that God is not deaf to our groans, that God in fact can hear groans faster than we can voice them, Paul launches into a stirring hymn of faith. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” he asks (v. 31). A God of such compassion, who did not spare his own Son, will not let our groans go unheard. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38–39).

After surveying all the biblical uses of the word groan, I realized that the odd, onomatopoeic word expresses a profound insight into God’s response to human pain. The Bible presents, if you will, a “trinity of groans,” a progression of intimacy in God’s involvement with his creation. The Old Testament tells us of a God above, a Father who, though transcendent, is no unfeeling “Ground of all Being,” but a Person who attends to our dwarfish human needs. The Gospels tell of a further step, the God with us, who became one of us—a God who took on ears. And the Epistles tell of the God within us, an invisible Spirit who gives expression to our wordless pain. Romans 8 concludes with the bold hint that one day there will be no need for groans at all. Our groans will be transformed into expressions of eternal joy and praise.

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