…groanings too deep for words… Romans 8:26
Sam had just lost a loved one. She came into my office and sat in the chair across from mine. She looked at me, gave an awkward smile which quickly turned to tears. She sat quietly then softly muttered out, “sorry” collapsing her face into a pillow of hands. Sobs, guttural staccatos and deep sucks of air followed as I sat, somewhat awkwardly, trying to figure out what to do. I rolled my chair up closer to hers and put my hand on her shoulder. I didn’t say a word. How could I? What would I say? Her moans were the most honest of all confessions.
You know what a groan is? A groan is the deep sound of the heart when words are insufficient. Sometimes our lives have become so unmanageable and suffering has struck us down so bitterly that we have no words lefts. Words are signs, pointers or descriptors of things in reality. But what happens when your reality isn’t definable anymore? What happens when things are so bad and you are so tired that you don’t even know if you feel anymore? But you do. Yet, you don’t. But you’re so tired of it all. You’re just confused, tired and lost. What happens when there are no words to capture the moment, no way of “making sense” of the apparently senseless?
The Apostle Paul can say some rather bold statements like, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”(Rom. 7:18). That may be true. But I’m not in paradise yet. I don’t even want paradise, I just want out of hell. Truly, “The creation waits with eager longing…(20). Indeed. But where is God in my waiting?
I find it also true that when I am this pit of despair, as Sam was, that I’m not sure I want to get out. Ironically, it’s just too much effort. I become like Elijah, who overwhelmed with his life sat under a tree defeated and, “asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough now O Lord, take away my life” (I Kings 19:4).
In this place of defeat there really is nothing we can do. There is a stubbornness about sorrow that refuses to be comforted. And this is as it should be. When we lose a loved one it is not a sign of faith’s weakness but of sin’s curse. Jesus cried at Lazurus’s tomb (11.35) because the response to death is first sorrow, then the emergent joy that comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5). This stubbornness of sorrow is not so much a denial of reality but an embrace of it. We know only too well what has been taken from us. And we know that all the words in the world cannot capture or express the wounds of the heart, the resultant fear, the deadening of joy and the ashes of loneliness. Broken hearts are self-destructive.
Yet….we hear this, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27).
Into the suffocating prison of sorrow, God sends his Breath, his Holy Spirit to help us. We may suffer, but we will not be alone. But more than this God’s gentle Spirit tenderly searches our hearts. He does not ask us to explain our pain in lofty prayers, he does not expect us to make all sort of confessions, he does not require us to put our requests into words. We don’t even know what to pray for when we are broken. But the Spirit of God goes to our damaged hearts and searches them. What we cannot express of reveal the Spirit finds.
What does he find? He finds our fears. There in the dark, damaged interiors of our hearts the Spirit sees our wounds. There he sees our hearts torn and the tenderness and fragility of our true selves. He searches and he sees. And you know what he does? The Holy Spirit of God sits down, as it were, in the corner of our hearts, looks around at the overwhelming damage, takes a deep breath and begins to groan. He does not classify or define our condition. He does not explain to us the why? He does not tell us how to improve or chastise us for not having enough faith. He does not demand we “snap out of it” or “feel guilty for feeling bad.” No. The Spirit of God sits in our wounded hearts and breaks the silence of our sorrow with a deep, guttural wail so terrible and tragic that the music of the moan would melt the sky should it dare to listen.
What is he accurately than words, groaning up to our High Priest a moan that more profoundly says something like, “Remember! Remember this pain? It was the pain you bore on the cross. Remember the brokenness of sin’s sting. Remember when you cried, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me!?” So the Spirit intercedes with groans. Our groans made into his groans. God partnering with man in a fellowship of pain. And the Christ of the Gospel whose hands still bear the holes of nails, hears.
When Sam finally was able to look up she said, “Pastor what am I going to do?”, her eyes betraying her fear. I looked at her and said, “Sam, sometimes we don’t need to do anything. Sometimes we just need to have a good cry, sometimes there are no words. But God cries with you.”
The Gospel has brought God near to us. So near that the Spirit can translate our groanings. If you find yourself overwhelmed and unable to put words to experience, that’s OK. The Spirit helps us in our weakness. He intercedes with groanings too deep for words. He says to the Nail-Pierced Man, and the Loving Father, “Let me show you the pain in the heart of this child. I know You will act. But right now what s/he need is a partner to cry with them.” And that is what God does. I thank Jesus that even in my groaning, I am never without grace and never without Him.
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.