Key text: Romans 8 v 22-39
Dwelling in suffering, yearning, and hope
It is perhaps stating the obvious to say that the context of our lives deeply affects the ways in which we encounter Scripture. Sometimes familiar bits of Scripture accompany us though rites of passage or moments of significance, providing a continuity and a clarity to our journey with God. On other occasions, a particular experience may give us fresh eyes or a new encounter with God through the Bible, lending new insight into the familiar or drawing the less familiar into clearer view.
Liturgical time can make a difference too, and this part of Romans 8 will find astonishingly different resonances with different liturgical seasons. Read it in Advent, and the focus of the passage is immediately drawn to the “eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v21), as we await the coming of the Christ-child and our Lord’s return. Read it again at Christmas, and the “groaning in labour pains” (v22) of creation makes connections with Mary’s own groaning as her body delivers the glory of God incarnate. Read the passage in Lent and Passiontide, however, and it’s verse 18 which really sets the tone for the season, as present suffering is placed in the context of future glory. If we read in Easter, then the declaration that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (v28) is understood as a hope which is based on the resurrection, rather than a vague reassurance sometime in the future. Reading the passage in that long stretch of Sundays after Trinity, and there our solidarity with the renewal and redemption of all creation might be what catches our eye.
As it happens, we encounter this section (split up) twice in the Sunday lectionary readings, and both times on or in the season of Pentecost. It’s natural at this point to focus on the wider context of the first two thirds of the chapter, which describe in detail the work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers and in the whole created order, and culminating in this outpouring of hope.
Having said all that, there is one day in the year when I think the whole momentum of this passage takes a very significant meaning. That day is Holy Saturday, the time between crucifixion and resurrection. It may be one day in the calendar, but it’s always worth remembering that for anyone in our care facing a terminal diagnosis, a family member slipping further into the clutches of dementia, the time between a death and a funeral, or proximity to an anniversary of a loved one’s passing, Holy Saturday may be any day in the year. It’s the day when Jesus is out of sight and out of reach, when darkness still covers the Earth, and faced with despair, all we can do is wait. It’s a day which perhaps more than any other demands our deep theological exploration and pastoral sensitivity in equal measure.
On Holy Saturday we are acutely aware that Christ has shared in our suffering, and that following a call which demands we take up our own crosses will inevitably and inexorably lead us to the same place. In this context, we might see in verses 18-25 four sentences which set out the three themes that Paul weaves together: suffering, yearning, and hoping; a mirror of the Triduum. Just as Christ shows solidarity in our pain, so we are bound up with the suffering and the redemption of the whole creation.
There is no denial of the impact of suffering here. Paul’s own life was spent first inflicting on others the suffering entailed in Christian discipleship, and then taking that same suffering upon himself. He knew first-hand what the consequences of this way of life would be. Looking ahead in the chapter (v35), Paul explicitly names the suffering he has experienced for the sake of the Gospel. So when he considers the “sufferings of this present time” (v18), and the whole creation’s “bondage to decay” (v21), these are not trivial difficulties, but matters of life and death.
Perhaps because giving birth to new life is a dangerous and life-threatening act, Paul uses birth as an analogy for the suffering and the renewal of creation. I wonder if there is a more succinct description of labour than this: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (v18)? And v19 also picks up on the anticipation of creation holding its breath with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, much like those final stages of a pregnancy. It’s language that has deliberate echoes of the original moments of creation; before there was anything else, there was simply God. And so, womblike, God has to make space within Godself for the creation simply to have a space to exist. As life is brought into existence, it is through the breaking of waters that chaos gradually transforms itself into order, and all is declared good.
That the total goodness does not last is a human legacy. “Cursed is the ground because of you” hear Eve and Adam. All creation is damaged by the carelessness of humankind, as it continues to be. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will” (v20) is how Paul puts it. Creation waits to “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v21), but in the meantime this is a painful and not a passive waiting. It’s tempting when we encounter this suffering in the text to want to skip over it and get straight to the reassurance. But it would be a mistake not to dwell a little longer in this time before everything is made a new creation.
The language of labour pains is then used to describe the groaning that both creation and those who have received the Spirit endure as they are simultaneously made anew and adopted. This is the moment that suffering changes to yearning. Much like labour, this is a purposeful groaning which aches and strains for the first glimpses of new life. Our own yearning for all to be made well is taken up by the Spirit on our behalf (v23; 26-8). To remain with the birthing image, it acts like a doula (birth partner) – reminding us that whatever our pain and whatever our longing, we are not alone. Even in the most difficult and trying of places, God is still somehow with us. Not for nothing has there been a tradition that this is the day in the calendar when Jesus descends to harrow hell. In the one place that God should not be, the work of redemption is already beginning.
“Everything will all be alright in the end. And if it’s not alright, it’s not yet the end.” So says the somewhat unlikely theologian Sonny Kapoor in the 2011 film The best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Just as suffering is transformed to yearning, so is yearning transformed into hoping. “For in hope we were saved” (v24) writes Paul. This is not the end of the story. Easter Sunday will bring about the renewal of all things, but we are not quite there yet. Indeed “we hope for what we do not see” (v25). It may take a while to get there, and we may need to spend time alongside those who are experiencing suffering and yearning, but we do not lose sight of the hope that Paul reaches – “All things work together for good for those who love God” (v28). We who witness to this hope are the first-fruits of this promise.
There is an awkward addendum that must be addressed at the end of this densely packed outpouring. The final question we’re left with from this passage is this – is this hope is for everyone? At first glance, the appearance of the word “predestined” in the final couple of verses might indicate otherwise. I find Tom Wright’s thoughts on v30, and the language of predestined, called, justified, and glorified, a helpful clarification here.
“That is a sharp, close-up, compressed telling of Israel as the chosen people, whose identity and destiny is then brought into sharp focus on Jesus (and in a sense Jesus is the one chosen one)… That identity is then shared with all those who are in Christ.”
The answer to the question then is that hope is for everyone who is in Christ. Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s story, and the means by which we come to share in their calling as God’s people. Through him we are justified, and by joining with him as people of the resurrection we are glorified.
Let us not forget the pastoral importance here. Holy Saturday requires us wait for the transforming that God will bring through the resurrection of Jesus. But it also requires us be entirely present in the moment of the pain of absence – not always knowing how to pray and relying on the Spirit to groan deeply on our behalf. Good Friday feels like the day when we have abandoned God; Holy Saturday feels like the day when God has abandoned us. Even in this moment though, the Spirit still intercedes for us, and we are called to painful, patient, purposeful hope.
Finally then, this passage reminds us that hope is what sustains all of creation within God’s story. The great hope of Easter transforms our perspective on the spoiling of creation, the waywardness of a people, the violence of a crucifixion, and the suffering of the present time. It reminds us that God always finds a way to bring beauty out of brokenness, closeness out of abandonment, joy out of despair, until the creation once again reveals the full glory of its creator.
 Genesis 3:17
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