TEXT: Romans 8:12-25
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves … (Romans 8:22-23)
This Tuesday past, Iris and I celebrated 36 years of marriage. Thirty-six years. As I reflect on that, I recall how different we both were, way back then. In many ways, we were completely unlike the persons we are today.
On July 18, 1981—in the eyes of the law—we became a married couple. But in reality, each of us was still very much an isolated individual. This new thing we were creating—this unity of husband and wife—remained a work in progress. And there would be many years of accommodation and adjustment—and groaning—ahead of us, as this new thing began to take shape. It would be a long journey, with our destination always seemingly just beyond the horizon. I suspect most veteran married couples would report a similar experience.
Reflecting on that journey, I recall a day—some 10 years into it—when I sat with Iris in a delivery room, witnessing the birth of our only son. It was not a quiet process. There was much groaning and crying out (not all of it from Iris) as this struggle of creation unfolded.
Some wise person once said, “Groaning is the soundtrack of creation.” As the apostle Paul put it, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” (Rom. 8:22).
To anyone who’s given birth—or witnessed a birth—Paul’s metaphor packs quite a punch. The work of creation can be not only difficult, but also frightening. At the very least, it is always hard labour—and sometimes it is brutal. No wonder it produces groaning.
This groaning takes place in a gap—the gap between what we are doing and what we hope to do. In the gap between what is and what is yet to be—in the gap between creation as God intends and wills it and the reality of here and now—we labour, and we groan.
In chapter eight of his Letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes about this gap, and this groaning. He urges us to embrace optimism and hope—even while living in a world that rarely delivers what God has promised.
“Life in the gap.” Or, as Paul calls it, “life in the Spirit.” His entire ministry was—in a way—about bridging this gap.
Paul believed that—in Jesus—he had seen the fulfillment of creation. He also believed—fervently—that this fulfillment was not only within reach, but soon to become a concrete reality. He wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
Even so, Paul realized that those who read his words were still living with injustice, war, poverty, persecution, and pain. He saw future glory even as he felt present suffering. Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to “live in the Spirit,” looking toward the glory that lies just beyond the gap. That is “life in the Spirit,” according to Paul.
Life in the Spirit is a life defined by supreme confidence—confidence that, through Christ, we have already been freed from those things that would increase our suffering.
Life in the Spirit is a life devoid of hatred and violence, filled instead with love and reconciliation. Life in the Spirit, according to Paul, is about living not in quiet desperation, but in glad—and groaning—exertion.
“Living in the gap” is not easy. Even though we may from time to time catch a glimpse of our glorious destination, we still live here—in a world that is not yet fully glorified.
As for Paul, his eyes had seen the glory of the risen Christ! And his conviction and faith and excitement must have been contagious, filling the hearts and minds of those in the churches he planted.
Yet, the inglorious world lay just outside the door of each house church. Every time the fellowship meal ended and people returned to their everyday lives, they were confronted by some harsh realities. Especially for those outside the ruling class, Roman society did not much resemble heaven’s kingdom.
Jesus told parables about the world to come. Paul wrote about adoption into God’s family and “waiting with eager longing” and hoping for what we do not see. Such words were meant to encourage first-century believers—but they are also encouraging words for today, because Christians are still living in the gap.
Many of us know the reality of God’s love, having experienced it in our lives. Many of us have witnessed it in grand acts of compassion—and beheld it in small but grace-filled acts of kindness. We rejoice when goodness triumphs, and we celebrate when sick ones return to health. These are clear signs that the Kingdom of Heaven has indeed come near.
Yet, every day we wake up to news about war and rumors of war, about violence in homes and communities, about soul-crushing poverty in every country, about injustice and persecution, corruption and cruelty. Everywhere we look, it seems, the inherent dignity of every human being is under attack.
As Paul reminded the Christians in ancient Rome, so he reminds us, here and now: our hope is not based on what we can see. Christian hope is based on the confidence and assurance that the risen Christ is present in the world, bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into being. In other words, Jesus is closing the gap.
Through his Spirit, God is even now building a bridge between what is and what is to come. This has been the work of God from the beginning of creation. Living as Christians—living in the gap—means joining in this work. As children of God, we are expected to pitch in and help.
How do we do that? The way we can pitch in—the way we can join in this work—is by living a life in the Spirit. And we absolutely cannot live that way by ignoring the gap. No.
Jesus calls us to stride boldly into the gap—working for justice, standing for peace, feeding the hungry, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice … all the while striving and straining and groaning.
“Striving and straining and groaning.” If you are a serious disciple of Jesus, you know a thing or two about that. You know about the importance of hard work. You know about hope—and you also know what change looks like. Sometimes it makes you smile. Sometimes it makes you groan.
Groaning is the soundtrack of creation. It’s the sound of the gap closing. It’s the sound of the Spirit overcoming resistance. Life in the Spirit strains and groans to close the gap. It is a good, honest groaning. And it heralds what will be.
Life in the Spirit bridges the gap between the agony of labour and the joy of holding the newborn. Ultimately, life in the Spirit leads us to a place where we can look back upon our long journey with a sense of satisfaction and gratitude.
As Christians, we are called to be gap closers. We are called to span the distance between what should be and what is. We are called to strain, and heave, and work, and hoist—all in order to close that gap. And when we groan in the doing, we sing in harmony with the soundtrack of creation.
So, friends, let’s stay true in the struggle—groaning if we need to, but faithful to the task. And never doubt this: the gap is closing. Thanks be to God.