Ten years ago my mom underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. The treatment prolonged her life, so I’m grateful she withstood it. But I’ll never be able to shake the awful memories from the days she was most in agony. The sound of her groans haunt me.
In recent weeks, when footage of the killing of George Floyd circulated, I couldn’t stop thinking about his family forced to watch and, especially, listen to his dying. How they must be haunted by his groans.
I began to pray that the Comforter would help George Floyd’s family bear the unbearable. I prayed that, eventually, they’ll be able to recall his voice in a form other than a groan – the sound of him singing, or laughing, or good naturedly trash talking a friend on the basketball court.
And then I listened as a collective human groan for justice began to crescendo in America – sometimes peacefully, sometimes violently. And I realized this groan for things to be put right is as ancient as it is urgent. I remembered that here in Canada we have often ignored or suppressed similar groans for justice – especially from our Indigenous citizens.
I could only stand to listen to the groans for a few days before I, like so many others, was tempted to despair.
That’s when I remembered a sermon my friend Trevor Hudson gave as a visiting preacher in Vancouver. Trevor is a South African pastor once imprisoned for his resistance to apartheid. His ears are finely tuned to groans for justice.
Trevor’s text was Romans 8:22–27 which begins, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (22). Taking us through the passage Trevor noted the Apostle Paul asks us to listen to three separate groans.
The first groan is indeed the groan of the whole creation – the deep longing for the flourishing God intends for His world. At every moment there are overwhelming needs around us. But if we pay attention, we’ll notice there are particular groans we hear more clearly.
You may hear the groan for companionship among the elderly or the disabled. I may hear the groan for provision among the impoverished. The human cries we hear loudest are important clues to the particular ways we’ve been called to co-labour with God in His project of restoring and redeeming all things.
At this long overdue moment, many of us are hearing groans for racial justice with new clarity. What are the appropriate responses? Grief? Yes. Repentance for our own complicity in systems of injustice? Definitely. Rolling up our sleeves to learn how best to change and contribute? Undoubtedly.
At this long overdue moment, many of us are hearing groans for racial justice with new clarity.
But despair? No.
Why? Because there are a second and third set of groans addressed in the text.
The second groans are those of our own hearts. "We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly," writes Paul (23a).
Unpacking this verse Trevor asked us to picture Jesus on the first Easter morning, approaching Mary Magdalene outside the empty tomb with a question. "Why are you crying?" (John 20:15–16). Our own tears, Trevor suggested, are the most likely places of encounter with the risen Christ.
When the heart we offer God is broken, it’s more permeable than it could be in any other state. Rather than despair our sorrow can become our deepest prayer.
But why can we trust God will hear and respond? Because – and here is the astonishing part – the third set of groans are the groans of God. "The Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans," writes Paul (26).
"The deepest groan of the universe," Trevor preached, "is God’s." However much we may long for justice, God longs for it more.
Our comfort is that God grieves with us.
Our hope is that God’s not finished with His plans for creation.
And God’s promise is that – even now, and despite apparent evidence to the contrary – He is making all things new (Revelation 21:5).
Many people see the injustice in the world as a reason to give up on faith. But the irony is, when we decry injustice, our hearts resonate with the heart of God more than we can possibly imagine.
If you find this hard to believe, just listen to the groans.