For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies….
…Likewise 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 (Romans 8:22-23, 26, ESV).
Word study used to be — perhaps still is in some circles — a popular method of lay Bible study. Selected words might be big concepts like grace, faith, sin. I have never, however, encountered a word study on the words ‘groan’, ‘groans’, or ‘groaning’. I suspect it would not turn up much more than these few verses. Yet I think such a study might actually be a fruitful one.
The ESV is not a Bible translation I normally use, not least because of its non-inclusive language (‘sons’? what’s wrong with ‘heirs’?). However I’ve picked it here because it uses the same word ‘groan’ to describe both the creation’s groaning as the Spirit’s groaning a couple of verses later, while my preferred NRSV uses ‘sighs’ for the Spirit’s prayer — and as far as I can tell from my interlinear New Testament (I’m no Greek scholar) the Greek word is the same in both instances.
Now we know, from John 3:3 onwards, that the New Testament’s primary image for salvation/redemption is that of childbirth: God gives new birth to us by the Spirit. This is one of many reasons why I think it is unhelpful to use only male pronouns for God — in spite of all our scientific advances, men do not yet give birth (and what a fuss they might make if they did…). There is also a strong tradition of seeing the Holy Spirit as female, which makes perfect sense if the Spirit is the one who gives us spiritual birth.
I also know, both from my own limited experience and from an addiction to watching Call the Midwife, that childbirth is accompanied by a great deal of groaning. Jesus himself noted the fact in John 16:21: ‘When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world’. And in this passage from Romans, Paul brings together three different instances of groaning: the creation groans, we followers of Jesus groan, and the Spirit him/herself groans, as all three labour together to give birth to a new reality, a new creation, the Kingdom of God. I find this a tremendous picture of what is going on in the process of redemption: something new and better is being birthed, and inevitably, as in all births, there are labour pains, and moments of extreme weakness when we feel we just can’t manage another push (I begged for forceps in the end, and got them).
Of course the metaphor is a little mixed here, as Paul also uses the image, his other favourite, of adoption. But under Roman law an adopted heir had exactly the same status as one who was an heir by birth. Perhaps he has in mind here the inclusion in the Kingdom of the Gentiles, who were not born to be God’s people in the sense that the Jews were, but who had been grafted in and were now as much a part of the vine, God’s family, as the Jews.
Two observations occur to me from this exploration. Firstly, how much more riches we gain from Scripture when we approach it with the experience of women in mind. It took me decades as a Christian to notice that Jesus’s portrayal of salvation was all about birth, and that he was thus putting women’s experience centre stage. How much do we miss by only having Scripture interpreted by men who can only relate it to their limited perspective on the world?
Secondly, while not all groaning heralds birth, we can be pretty sure that where something new is being born, there will be groaning. If we suffer pain in our journey with God, it thus does not have to mean that we have strayed from God’s planned path for us or have unconfessed sin in our lives. It is just as likely, perhaps more likely, to mean that we are spiritually giving birth to something new — or more accurately, that something new is being birthed in us by the Spirit. When we are groaning, then, we can be reassured that the Spirit of Jesus is groaning with us, as he groaned when on the Cross he gave birth, in blood and sweat, to the beginnings of a new creation.