Sighs for help

June 20th, 2017

Romans 8:26-39

It was early on a Thursday morning, long before daybreak, that I found myself driving north on I-75. My mother had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and I was making the drive to Atlanta to help my sisters care for her. I’m not sure how many weeks I had been making that weekly pilgrimage to help take Mom to radiation treatments, but it had been going on long enough that I was weary. As I drove, I realized that I was weary like I had never been before. I was weary in body, mind, and spirit. I was feeling overwhelmed and uncertain of the future. I wondered, How long will our family have to keep up this schedule? How long will my mother have to endure this illness? How long can I balance the demands of work and family?

I don’t remember forming any words as I drove, but I remember sighing a lot. I don’t remember that I was intentionally praying, but I do remember sensing that I was crying out to God in my heart. Many minutes of silence passed, and then, as the sun rose in the distance, these words came to me: “My grace is sufficient unto the day.” It was the answer to a prayer I didn’t even know that I had offered but desperately needed. I was assured that God was present with me in that moment. I couldn’t know the future, but I could trust that God would give me what I needed at the exact time that I needed it. It was a promise that I carried with me in the days, weeks, and months to follow. It was an assurance that I held on to through my mother’s illness and following her death.

The eighth chapter of the book of Romans is perhaps my favorite chapter in all of Scripture. It offers words of comfort and reassurance to those of us who carry heavy burdens. At times, we are all too aware of the brokenness of our world. We know that our lives are marred by sin, and we experience suffering in our daily lives. We experience physical illness or loss. We endure the pain of broken relationships. We come across stories of violence, economic need, and hopelessness. As we look around us, it is easy to become discouraged, overwhelmed, and uncertain of the future. I believe that Paul addressed these words to people like us. They bear witness to the compassionate heart of a pastor, trying to encourage a community in the midst of some of the most devastating trials that life has to offer.

In the verses previous to Romans 8:26-39, Paul has spoken of the suffering that not only we but also all creation experiences. He writes that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22). Suffering is a reality that we live with each day, evident not only in our human struggles but also throughout the created order. Although, as people of faith, we know that God’s glory will one day be revealed, we find ourselves crying, “How long, O Lord?”

Sometimes, as on that dark Thursday morning, the suffering becomes too much. There are moments in life when we are literally rendered speechless. How do we begin to express the depth of our sorrow as we realize our deep need for God’s help? How do we find the words to cry out for our redemption? Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can’t. These are the places where God’s grace breaks into our lives most powerfully.

“In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.” (8:26). What a wonderful gift God has given to us, that even when our words fail, God’s Spirit is present in ways beyond our human understanding. As N. T. Wright so insightfully observes, “Those who cannot see that for which they eagerly hope need assistance to peer into the darkness ahead and to pray God’s future into the present” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002], 598).

The wonder and the grace of prayer is that many times we can’t offer a prayer in our own strength. Prayer, as the early church fathers and mothers taught us, is often a heartrending struggle. Yet it is in these moments that we can receive what is most needed for the journey. We can be offered that assurance of God’s love and grace in a more powerful way because all the words, the human certainty, and the illusion of control are stripped away. We receive what we need the most because the Spirit “pleads for the saints, consistent with God’s will” (8:27).

The Spirit of God intercedes for us and reminds us of the great love of God our creator. Our lives, the lives of those we love, the life of the world may still be broken, but our concerns are brought into the presence of God, and we are reminded again of the future that God has in store for us. We are reminded that God works for our good in all things.

Paul knew the power of the gifts received through God’s Spirit. He knew them because he had experienced them, and when the words returned, it was sheer doxology:

But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:37-39 CEB)

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