To live in the Spirit is to live by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself up for you. To live in the flesh is to live by your works, enslaved to Sin, Death, and the Law. To live in the concrete reality of being baptized, of having the gift of baptismal faith, is to live in a tension between sin and grace, Law and Gospel, now and not yet. Now we are the children of God, born of God by water and Spirit, declared dead to Sin but alive to God in Christ. And yet we are not yet risen from the dead. We live in this body of death. We are heirs who have not yet received the inheritance. We know it’s ours. The promise of God is sure. We have the down payment of the Holy Spirit, the “earnest money” of our inheritance. And yet it’s still “not yet.”
We’re saints in spite of our sin. We are victorious in spite of our defeats. We succeed in spite of our failures. We live in spite of our death. We believe in spite of what we see. We are sinner/saints destined to rise to eternal life with God in a new creation. We are already new creations in Christ. And yet it doesn’t feel that way, does it?
We groan. The whole creation groans. The animals groan. The plants groan. The sun, moon, and stars groan. The whole creation groans like a mother in labor, waiting in eager expectation for the revealing of the sons of God, for your resurrection from the dead.
There is suffering, real suffering in this life. An airplane full of passenger is shot out of the sky at cruising altitude, probably by accident. Earthquakes, floods, fires, war in Syria, in Iraq, in Gaza, in Africa. Nation against nation. People against people. Viruses and superbacteria. It seems no matter where you look, through the telescope, under the microscope, on the internet, in the newspaper – you will see the evidence of the creation being subjected to futility and decay. That’s why any attempt on man’s part to “save the planet” is ultimately arrogance and foolishness. Certainly, we are to take care of our corner of the creation, be wise stewards of the gifts of God, but there is no saving a creation that has been subject to decay and destruction by the Creator Himself.
Jesus said it would be this way. He told His disciples of wars and rumors of war, nation rising up against nation, earthquakes, famines, floods. He called them “the beginning of the birth pangs” the same as the apostle Paul here in Romans 8. These are the labor pains of the new creation. Not the death throes but the birth pangs. A sign of life not death. A sign of God’s goodness and mercy hidden under wrath and destruction. It appears to be all going to hell in a handbasket, yet our Lord bids us to believe that it is all redeemed for good in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. This calls for faith, hope, and a patient endurance. It calls for faith because we can’t experience yet what is ours in Christ. We can’t see, taste, touch, smell, or feel it. We can only believe it. Trust God and take Him at His Word that the glory that is to come doesn’t compare with whatever it may be that we are suffering.
These aren’t idle, empty words from the apostle. Paul lived these words in his own life. He rejoiced in his sufferings, saying that in his flesh he completed what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, the church. As Christ suffered in His body, so the church as His body suffers in this present age. Paul desired to share in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like Him in His death, that he might know the power of His resurrection. He boasted of his own sufferings – the beatings, the imprisonments, the dangers, the persecutions, the hardship, the loss. He encouraged Timothy, his young charge, to share in suffering for the gospel as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. He knew and believed that suffering was the way to glory, death the way to life. He saw in the suffering and death of Jesus his own suffering and death. He knew that being joined to Christ in His suffering and death was not a way around suffering and death but the only way through. As with Christ, so with all who are in Christ.
We don’t like to hear that. We’d prefer to hear that if we played by the rules, we’d get a pass. It’s how we expect things to work in the world, and it’s how we as children of Adam expect God to work. And in that sense, He subjects us, together with the whole creation, to the futility of not being able to save ourselves and He binds everything to decay so that light bulbs burn out, batteries run out, and bodies wear out. He does that so that our faith is not in this life or in things temporal but in the life to come and things eternal.
We don’t like to hear this because we’ve managed to insulate ourselves from suffering. We live and work in climate controlled buildings. We get crabby when the room temperature rises much over 75 or drops below 65. We complain at the slightest pain, whine at the least inconvenience, and when we encounter genuine suffering we are appalled by what we see and immediately blame God for not doing something about.
I like the television show Nature. It has some great photography. It also has some great drama. I always dread the episodes when they have cute little baby animals because I know that by the end of the episode, one or more of them is going to be dead or eaten. And the show rarely fails to deliver. And I’m bummed about it for the next hour or two because it wouldn’t be this way if I were running the world. Baby animals wouldn’t die and young girls wouldn’t be kidnapped and sold into slavery and passenger jets wouldn’t be shot out of the sky. If I were running the show, I’d be out there pulling those weeds in the weedy wheat field, which was an eyesore to the community. We’d rid the world of evil and evildoers, if we had the means to do it, not recognizing that if we did that, we’d eliminate ourselves from the picture as well.
This calls for hope. It’s easy to lose hope in the midst of suffering. Hope is lost when there is no sense of future. Nothing to look forward to. No reason to get up in the morning. Suffering can shut out the future, leaving you with nothing but the pain of the present. When prisoners of war are tortured, the goal is to take away all hope in order to break the person down so that all he has to look forward to is another day of suffering. The apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15 that if our hope in Christ is for this present life only, then we are of all men most to be pitied. But our hope in Christ is not for a band-aid for today but for life on the last day. It’s not for a patch here and there on this or that problem in our life, but literally life from the dead. Our hope in Christ is nothing short of resurrection from the dead, and that’s as sure as Jesus Himself is risen from the dead.
To use the adoption metaphor of Paul, now our adoption papers have been filled out. God has declared us to be His children. But we haven’t yet come home. We’re still in the orphanage of this life, waiting, hoping, expecting that day when we finally will be welcomed home. Yes, we are now the children of God through Baptism. That’s true, but only inwardly. You can’t see or feel that. You must believe it. Like staring at those signed adoption papers and reminding yourself that you belong.
This also calls for patience, and we are impatient. I caution people, and would caution you as well. Don’t pray for patience. God doesn’t give patience. He sends suffering which produces patience. Patient endurance is what faith does when it encounters the opposite. It waits on the Lord and puts its hope and trust in Him.
So what do we do amidst all this suffering, in the throes of labor pains for which there are no drugs to ease the pain? We pray. And here is one of the great gifts of our being in Christ and His Spirit being in us. We don’t need to know how to pray or what to pray for. We just pray in our groanings and the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings that words cannot express. There is great freedom, my friends. The same Spirit who delivers the Word of Christ to our ears and minds and hearts delivers our words through Christ to the ears of our Father in heaven. As we intercede for others, He intercedes for us, through the High Priesthood of Christ. He takes our words and shapes them to God’s will, because He knows both our heart and the Father’s heart.
It’s hard to pray in the midst of suffering. In great suffering, it’s almost impossible to squeak out a Kyrie much less an Our Father. But even our groanings become prayer with the Spirit’s groanings. And while we stammer in weakness, the deepest longings of our hearts are being poured into the Father’s ear by the Spirit. And while we must always pray, “if it be Thy will,” the Spirit knows the will of God, and so His prayers are always certain and sure. You are free to pray in all your stammering, stuttering weakness, in your sighs and groanings. You don’t have to be eloquent or precise. You simply come as a dear child coming to his dear Father in heaven saying “Abba, Papa,” and the Spirit will take care of the rest.
So in your suffering, in the suffering of this present age, pray. Pray boldly and confidently. Pray with faith and hope and patience. The Father is committed to hear you. The Son insists on it. And the Spirit will not be silent. The present may be dark, even bleak. But the future is bright and glorious in Christ.
Know this: Your present sufferings, no matter what they are, no matter how terrible they may be, do not compare with the glory that will be revealed in you on Resurrection Day. Wait patiently for it. Hope for it. It’s as sure as Jesus is risen from the dead and reigns in glory at the right hand of God. It’s as sure as the baptismal water that embraced you in His death, life, and glory.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.