Some of you may be familiar with the British TV drama, “Call the Midwife.” “Call the Midwife is the story of a group of midwives (some of whom are nuns) who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s and 60s. The show has already completed 11 seasons, and there have been a lot of changes over those years. But one thing remains constant. In each episode, there is at least one birth. If you want to see childbirth depicted on TV, this is your show.
And the births are depicted about as realistically as you can in a 45-minute public TV show…including the fact that childbirth is extremely painful. I wonder how they audition for the parts of those mothers in labor. The actors probably have to give some pretty convincing cries, screams, moans, and groans…because groaning is a part of childbirth.
Now, the Apostle Paul (of course) never experienced childbirth. He may never even have observed childbirth. And from what I read of 1 Corinthians 7, I doubt that he was ever responsible for childbirth. However, he uses the image of childbirth, the pain of childbirth, the groaning of childbirth in this passage.
In this passage, Paul said that Creation, Mother Earth, if you will, has been groaning in labor pains. Paul believed that in the consummation of God’s Kingdom, there will be a rebirth of Creation. The old, the perishable, the corruptible will disappear, and something new will be born. As the Apostle John says in Revelation 21, there will be a new heaven and new earth. And in this new heaven and new earth there will be no death, nor crying, nor pain. But until that happens, says Paul, Creation groans as in childbirth.
But Creation is not the only one groaning. Paul said that we ourselves are groaning. We are groaning with Creation because we, also, are waiting for new life. We are waiting for resurrection. For us, this resurrection, this transformation, has already begun because we have already received the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has already begun that process of rebirth in us.
But still, we live in these mortal bodies. Still, we experience pain and suffering. Still, we exist in a world filled with pain and suffering. And so, we groan as we wait for the redemption of our bodies and the redemption of this world. Yes, Creation is filled with beauty, and joy and wonder. Yes, our lives can be filled with beauty, and joy and wonder. But until God’s Reign is complete, in this life, in this world, we continue to groan.
The picture Paul gives in these verses is the big picture, the cosmic picture, the complete and total transformation of everything. But, to be honest, most of my groaning has little to do with waiting for some big, future, cosmic event. Most of my groaning has to do with life in the here and now. Most of my groaning has to do with what Shakespeare called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
I groan every morning when I get out of bed. I groan inwardly so I won’t wake up Irene. But my muscles ache; my joints are stiff. I groan. I groan when I read the news of war in Ukraine, and Ethiopia, and Yemen. I groan over the lies and arrogance of some political leaders. I groan over the brutality of hunger and oppression. I groan under the weight of personal problems and responsibilities. I groan over heartache of unanswered prayer. Yes, the birth of a new heaven and new earth would be wonderful. But I groan for something closer, more proximate.
It would help to know that the pain I experience now is part of new birth. In “Call the Midwife,” when the expectant mother is completely exhausted by hours of labor, the midwives sometimes put up a mirror so the mother can see the head of the baby crowning. There’s hope! The pain will soon be over! New life will soon be born!
It would be helpful if we could see the head crowning. It would be helpful to know that the pain we experience will birth something new. But sometimes there is no head crowning. Sometimes there is no sign of anything new – just more, and more pain that leads to nothing. Sometimes we cannot see any signs of hope.
But Paul says that real hope has nothing to do with visible signs. Verse 24: “Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” Real hope is not something you can see. If you can see it, it’s no longer hope. You’re just waiting for the inevitable.
Real hope is something you cannot see. Real hope is hope in what God can, and will, do. It is hope in God’s will and purpose for us and all Creation. It is hope in God’s goodness, and power, and love. It is hope that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, even when we can see no visible signs of it.
When “we hope for what we do not see,” said Paul, “we wait for it with patience.” Now, the Greek word for “patience,” υπομονη, can also be translated endurance, steadfastness, or perseverance. I like perseverance the best. When we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with perseverance.
So, what do we do while we’re waiting with perseverance for a hope we cannot see? We pray. We persevere in prayer. Yes, we act whenever possible. Yes, we do whatever is within our power to accomplish God’s will. But more than anything, we persevere in prayer.
The problem is that sometimes we don’t know how to pray. We don’t know what to pray for. We’ve prayed, and prayed, and prayed for something we thought was God’s will. But in the end, what we prayed for never happened. Or maybe the exact opposite happened. So, we don’t know what to pray for.
It is at times like this, said Paul, that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness…we do not know how to pray…but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” That word “sigh” in the Greek has the same root word that elsewhere in this passage is translated as, “groan.” The Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.
If we don’t know how to pray. If we’ve prayed and prayed and prayed, and nothing has happened. If our prayers remain unanswered. If we are physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted by seemingly fruitless prayer. If we simply have run out of words. Then we just groan. That is enough for the Spirit to work with.
Just groan, and the Spirit will intercede for us “according to the will of God,” said Paul. God knows our heart, and God knows the Spirit’s mind. God and the Spirit are 100% on the same page. So, God will respond to our prayer…even if it’s nothing but a groan.
Many years ago, when Irene and I were missionaries in El Salvador, we went to a worship service in the home of a church member’s cousin. This man was dying of some kidney ailment. In his last days he had accepted the Lord and asked that the church hold a special worship service in his house.
His house, like most of the houses in that community, was mud-brick with a dirt floor. There were no windows – just two open doors. It was the middle of the afternoon, it was the end of the dry season, the hottest time of the year, and the heat was almost unbearable. It must have been 110 degrees in that house. The poor man lay in a hammock in the middle of the house, sweat rolling down his face, groaning in pain.
With a houseful of evangelicals, you would have thought at least one of us would have gone over and prayed with him. But we all just sat there, seemingly glued to our seats, saying nothing. To be honest, I was probably more focused on my own discomfort than the pain of that poor man in the hammock.
Then one of the man’s sons entered the room. He was a young man (maybe twenty years-old), who had Downs’ Syndrome. The kids around there always made fun of him. This son approached his father’s hammock and folded his hands in a traditional symbol of respect. Then he leaned over, wiped the sweat from his father’s forehead, and began to blow gently on his face.
It was a novel way to cool off someone, but it seemed to work. The old man stopped groaning. He cleared his throat and spoke the first words he had uttered since I had arrived. He said, “Pray for me.”
The son immediately dropped to his knees and began to mumble a bunch of barely intelligible sounds. I could make out a few words like “father” and “thanks,” but for the most part it just sounded like gibberish. After about three minutes of this the young man pronounced a loud, distinct “amen,” and stood up. He looked down at his father, who lay sleeping peacefully in the hammock, relieved of his pain.
Sometimes we don’t know how to pray. But the Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes with groans too deep for words.
This passage has become extremely important to me in recent years. It has encouraged me to hope when there are no visible signs of hope. It has encouraged me to pray when I had exhausted all my energy and exhausted all my words. It has encouraged me to reach for God when God seems remote and inaccessible. It reminds me that hope is not visible. And it reminds me that the Spirit will to intercede for us according to the will of God.
This message was given by David Morrow to Spokane Friends Church during Morning Worship on August 28, 2022.