We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope, we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:22-27, NIV)
“Pentecost” is the Latin word for “fifty.” Each year, fifty days after Easter, Christians celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the early church with power. This Pentecostal energy is not just dynamite with an explosion of spiritual gifts and energizing ministry. Spiritual power certainly is and can be optimistic, positive, and full of faith.
More than that, Holy Spirit power can also be found in the travails and tribulations we face. It can be discovered in the dark night of the soul, in times of loneliness and doubt, and in the constant need for prayerful intercession. The Spirit is both a mighty wind and a gentle breeze.
The good news of Pentecost is that when we are not powerful, the Spirit helps us in our weakness – that is our hope and our quiet strength. The Apostle Paul used the experience of childbirth to communicate and illustrate what the experience of the Christian life is like. Growth, wonder, expectation, hope, patience, pain, and joy are all words to describe pregnancy and childbirth.
When it comes to the Church and the Christian life, believers are in the gestation period. Our salvation has not yet come to full term. Meanwhile, we must remain encouraged and healthy, keeping our future hope always in front of us so that we will not lose heart. When we are limited in what we can do, we pray. When we are flat on our backs, overwhelmed with our circumstances, we may not be able to utter any words in prayer.
My dear wife and I know something about pregnancy and prayer. We did not know, twenty-six years ago, whether we would have our third child, or not. Our lives were turned upside-down for nearly four months, as we did everything possible to deal with an overwhelming situation, not knowing if our little peanut of a daughter was going to live or die in the womb.
We had to wait. We had to force patience on ourselves. It really was a life and death situation. As Christians, we are waiting for our complete redemption. If we are not patient and do not focus on our hope, we will not make it.
To be sure, in difficult times it does no good to be like Eeyore and feel sorry for ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, it equally does no one any good to always be smiling, positive, and upbeat as if nothing is worth grieving over. To take such a posture toward the awful challenges of life is to, at best, ignore the power of lament, and, at worst, live in abject denial about what our true situation really is with all its weakness and inability to control most of what is going on.
In the teeth of adverse circumstances, enter God in the person of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit resides with us and strengthens us with Pentecostal power. So, on this Day of Pentecost, we not only celebrate the Spirit’s mighty power to blow a violent wind and upturn history; we also proclaim and praise the Spirit’s power to come alongside and provide the deep inner strength necessary to fortify us for all we must face.
We cannot run away from what God has put in front of us. We live in an awkward time of spiritual pregnancy in which we possess salvation but do not yet possess it in all its fullness. There is so much groaning going on because we realize there is such a large gap between where we are and where we want to be. If women could have babies without nine months of struggle, limitation, and pain, I think they would opt for that instead of the way it is now (I know I would!).
All of creation groans because where it is now and where it will be seems like such a long time in coming. Every creature and all living things are presently experiencing decay and death. The earth is not yet redeemed from its cursed bondage. So, the planet convulses and contracts with natural disasters and diseases because we live in a fallen world that is not yet redeemed.
People groan because they fall victim to circumstances beyond their control. We also groan because of our own poor choices which grieve us. Although we have been delivered from sin, death, and hell, and experience spiritual power, we still must wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies.
We are keenly aware of the terrible disconnect between where we are as people and where we want to be. It feels like Pinocchio, who is not yet a real boy, and must deal with strings and other puppeteers who don’t care about him, who feels the need to lie because of his situation and pays the consequences of his nose growing.
But we are not left to fend for ourselves. Because the Spirit groans on our behalf, uttering prayerful sounds that words cannot express. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, in our pregnant state of discomfort and wondering.
So, we focus on hope – the confident expectation we will not always be in this position. In the meantime, we learn to enjoy the process of growing in the Lord and discovering the ways of Jesus. We learn to slow down to listen to the gentle voice and the refreshing breeze of the Spirit. During this interim time, this gestation period, we develop new rhythms of life, moving back-and-forth between rejoicing and groaning; praising and grieving; hoping and lamenting; believing and doubting – all with agonizing patience.
Living patiently and hopefully in the Christian life will be worth it all when we see Jesus. We must walk through the valley; yet we never do it alone – God’s presence is with us in the personal provision of the Holy Spirit.
Do not give up in prayer. Even if you do not know what to say or cannot even speak, you can groan because the Spirit will pick up those groans and groan them in the ear of our gracious heavenly Father. The Holy Spirit stands in the gap between where we are and where we need to be. The Spirit intercedes for us, bridging that wide chasm, and bringing us practical deliverance from our impatience.
One of the oldest definitions of prayer is this: Lifting mind and heart to God. Too often in our efforts to pray formally, we fail to truly lift our hearts and minds to God. That’s because what is really in our hearts and minds is not something we generally connect with prayer, at all. Our frustrations, bitterness, jealousies, lusts, curses, sloth, and quiet despair are sometimes understood to be the opposite of prayer, as if they are things overcome so that we can pray.
However, something deeper is happening within: Our frustrations, longings, lusts, jealousies, and escapist daydreams, the things we are fearful and ashamed to name in prayer, are in fact already lifting our hearts and minds to God in more honest ways than we ever do consciously.
If you are carrying a heavy burden, take the light yoke of Jesus and offload your worries to the Holy Spirit who is waiting to intercede for you. And if there is no immediate relief, persevere in prayer without giving up. Pentecostal power is available, but it is not cheap; it will cost us time in prayer as well as patience for the Spirit to work on our behalf. For the Christian life is a lifelong process of becoming.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts. Kindle within us the fire of your love. Send the gentle breeze of your Spirit, and we shall be renewed into patient people, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Spirit of the living God, we invite you to wring the death out of our hearts and saturate our souls with your breath and life. Hoping against all hope we lay defeat aside. We grab for the corner of your cloak and wait for a miracle. Amen.
*Above artwork by Rebecca Brogan