Hopeful Groaning

When You Still Haven't Found What You're Looking For

Return to Main Page

The year was 1987. After spending almost seven years in a downward spiral of alcohol, sex, and drugs, I found great liberation in my newfound faith in Jesus Christ. By the grace of God the chains that once held me were broken. My existence was bathed in a divine light that gave new meaning to everything. My restlessness was replaced with peace, my despair with hope, my sorrow with joy. Never before had I experienced such satisfaction and contentment. I looked forward to a long rewarding life-journey with the God who loved me perfectly and completely in Christ. Never again would I know sorrow, despair, or frustration.

Or so I thought... In the same year the Irish rock group, U2, experienced unprecedented success with their album, "The Joshua Tree." Three of the four members professed to be Christians. For this reason, spiritual themes were prominent throughout the album. One of the hit songs from this album, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," spoke of a man who had embraced the Christian faith but still remained unsatisfied.

I believe in the Kingdom Come Then all the colours will bleed into one Bleed into one. But yes, I'm still running. You broke the bonds And you loosed the chains Carried the cross of my shame Oh my shame, you know I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for.

Though the singer spoke of a future hope propelled by a belief in God's kingdom and embraced the cross of Christ as the means of his personal redemption, the repeated chorus, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for," left me questioning the singer's true convictions.

How could he possibly know the same loving Savior I had encountered? How could the glorious truths of the Christian faith leave him still searching for more? Was it possible that he simply had not experienced the same joy I experienced? Or was he expressing a truth that I, as a baby Christian, still could not grasp? As a new convert to the Christian faith I criticized this song. Now, 16 years later, I am convinced that U2 was right and I was wrong. I have found this out through experience confirmed by a deeper understanding of the sacred scriptures. The inner ache for something more is entirely compatible with the Christian faith and mature Christian experience. It certainly is possible to be a Christian and express such longings.

A few simple self-examination questions will prove this to be true. If we have peace with God, why do we still so restless? If we have been given God's Spirit to indwell us, why do we often feel so empty? If we've been given divine understanding through the Scriptures, why do we still not quite understand what is really going on inside and around us? In short, if we currently possess every spiritual blessing in Christ, why do we still often feel so torn inside, so restless, empty, and confused? This longing for more, this awareness that something is missing, this sense of incompletion is understandable in light of the "symphony of sighs" that is found at the heart of Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

In Romans 8:18-26, the apostle Paul speaks of three "groanings" - groanings that arise from around us, within us, and above us. These groanings are often neglected in light of the grand and wondrous themes that comprise the bulk of Romans 8. Nevertheless, the glorious realities of Romans 8 cannot be appreciated unless they are placed against the backdrop of these triple-groanings. Romans 8 is one of the most beloved chapters in the entire Bible, and for good reason. It begins and ends with great statements of the Christian's security in God's saving work in Christ. "There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus" and "Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ" frame the chapter (Romans 8:1, 39). There is no condemnation because all the righteous requirements of God's law have been satisfied in Christ on our behalf (8:2-4). The Spirit communicates this blessing to us. Furthermore, the Spirit leads us in a new way of life, helping us to fight personal sin, and teaching us to approach God as our "Abba" (8:5-17).

Because of God's work in our lives, we can be confident that God is for us and not against us (8:31-34). Nothing we encounter in this life can thwart God's purpose in our lives (8:35-39). This is all tremendous news! Yet ensconced in the middle of these great spiritual blessings, Paul elaborates on the context in which we participate in these realities (a groaning creation), the response we subsequently experience (groaning within ourselves), and God's place in our sufferings (groaning on our behalf). In short, creation, Christians, and God all groan together in one grand "symphony of sighs."

Groaning is a deep, inarticulate sound that expresses pain, grief, or sorrow. Groaning expresses frustration mixed with sorrow due to the lack of possessing something one desires. To groan is to sigh with frustration prompted by a longing for something more. Putting this inarticulate sound into poetry could very well sound like, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

According to Paul, we live in a time of tension: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18) Our current experience is one of "present suffering." Our destiny is that of "future glory." This present suffering produces sighs of frustration, groanings. Our hope of future glory gives us great hope which prompts patient waiting and steadfast endurance in the midst of our groanings. This situation produces in us a complex response of groaning and waiting, frustration and longing. We groan because we "still haven't found what we're looking for." We continue to press forward in our search because we are confident that there is a greater glory in our future, just over the horizon. As many have noted, to live is to suffer. It is impossible to escape suffering in this life. We all experience physical, mental, and emotional suffering over the course of our lives. In order to make sense of suffering, it must be viewed in the larger context of God's purposes for this world. In other words, suffering must be understood in a larger context than our own personal lives.

Though this world groans, suffering is never the final world. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, life - not death - is the final word; glory and not emptiness awaits us in the future. Until this glory is fully manifested, we groan. Because this glory will arrive, we anxiously await it with patient endurance. This simultaneous experience of groaning and expectation is at the heart of Romans 8:18-26. The stage on which the drama of our lives is played out is God's good creation. Our ultimate redemption - the gift of a resurrection body - is inextricably interlinked with the ultimate redemption of all creation. In other words, humanity's destiny and the destiny of this world are linked together.

When humankind fell in Adam, all creation suffered. When humankind is completely restored through the second Adam, Jesus, then all creation will be restored to its original wholeness. For this reason, Paul personifies creation by attributing human characteristics to inanimate matter and pictures it as waiting on tiptoe for this final rebirth. "For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God" (Romans 8:19). Creation "anxiously longs" and "waits eagerly for" the moment that will trigger her final liberation: "the revealing of the sons of God" (8:19). Creation waits longingly because it desires to be "set free from its slavery to corruption" (8:21). Creation is "frustrated," longing for completion. Its frustration is not self-chosen ("not of its own will"), but is a consequence of Adam's sin. Because humankind's destiny is linked with the earth's destiny, Adam's sin brought suffering, corruption, pain, and death to this world. The fabric of creation was shackled with thorns, thistles, and weeds which choke rather than sustain life. The good news is that Adam's sin has been countered by the obedience of Christ (Romans 5). Christ's salvation brings forth a new humanity who "walk in newness of life" through union with Christ and life in the Spirit (6:4). Christ's saving work makes us sons through his Spirit, heirs of the world (8:15-17). Through his faithful obedience, Christ restores all that Adam ruined - not only humans, but all creation as well.

The restoration of all creation is largely ignored by the contemporary church. This happens for two reasons - both a result of a truncated gospel message. First, our gospel message usually focuses on asking people whether they would like to go to heaven or hell when they die (an obvious question if ever there was one). By focusing on salvation as participation in an ethereal heavenly plane somewhere in the far-flung future we ignore the fact that heaven is not the goal of God's plan for humankind. God's plan is not that we would exist in heaven one day, but that we would dwell forever in glorified resurrected bodies in the new heavens and earth. Second, we emphasize "personal" salvation rather than seeking to understand our own personal salvation in light of a much larger redemptive work God is accomplishing - the restoration of the cosmos! Creation eagerly awaits its complete transformation. Not annihilation, but restoration is God's goal for creation (cf. Matthew 19:28 and Acts 3:21). The great rebirth of creation will conclude with the final redemption of humankind. For the Jewish mind, it is inconceivable for God's redemption to exclude creation for God never abandons what he creates. Until the final exodus, creation "groans and suffers the pains of childbirth" (Romans 8:23). These groanings are not death-pangs, but birth-pangs. A mother's groaning stems, not from her demise, but from the new life that grows in her womb. The groans intensify as this new life presses forward. These groans are not groans of despair, futility, or anxiety. They certainly express frustration, but with the hope of something greater on the horizon. This groaning creation is the context for our personal groanings: "We ourselves groan within ourselves" (8:23). This deep sense of frustration that arises from within is not a product of sin, but a consequence of our possession of God's Spirit. Because we "have the first fruits of the Spirit" we groan with pain, sorrow, and displeasure. It is the Spirit that prompts our groanings. Far from being a result of sin, our groanings are evidence that God's Spirit is at work in our lives. Perhaps we would not expect God's Spirit to produce sighs of frustration and longing aches for more, but this is exactly what the Spirit does in our lives in a groaning creation. Like the groans of creation, our groans are not groans of despair, futility, or anxiety. They certainly express frustration, but with the hope of something greater on the horizon.

Although we groan, we also "wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body" (8:23). Much of Paul's theology can only be understood in light of tension. For example, we possess the "first fruits of the Spirit." In an agrarian society, the first fruits of a harvest were a guarantee of a rich harvest to come. In the same way, we possess the Spirit, a guarantee of richer deeper experience to come. The Spirit is the link between the "already/not yet" tension we experience. Though we "have received a spirit of adoption as sons" (8:15) we still await "our adoption as sons" (8:23). Though "our body is dead because of sin" (8:10), the Spirit who indwells us will "give life to our mortal bodies" (8:11). The ultimate expression of this gift of life is the gift of the resurrection body - the full redemption of our body (8:23). The resurrection body is a glorious body, fashioned in the likeness of Jesus' glorified humanity, no longer subject to weakness, sickness, sin or death (1 Cor. 15:54; 2 Cor. 5:1-5; Phil. 3:21; 1 John 3:2). When we possess this body, our salvation will be complete. Like the restored creation, the resurrection body is largely ignored by contemporary Christianity.

When an ethereal heaven is preached, there is little need for a concrete, tangible body. However, if the end of all things is a new restored earth, then it only makes sense that a restored humanity would consist not only of perfected spirits but perfected embodied spirits. In short, God's goal is not for humanity to exist as spirits in heaven, but as glorified embodied beings on a new earth. Until this time we groan, experiencing frustration as a result of our moral and physical infirmities. Only the possession of a resurrection body will complete our deliverance from corruption, mortality, and sin. We groan - not with death-pangs, but birth-pangs. New life resides within us through the indwelling Spirit, new life that will burst into existence one day, triggering the restoration of the entire cosmos! For now, this reality is hidden. We simply do not see the resurrection life waiting to burst forth in embodied holiness. Yet our trust in Christ's resurrection, God's plan to restore all things, and the Spirit's indwelling impels us to press forward. It is this hope that is described in Romans 8:24-25. This hope drives us to "wait eagerly with perseverance."

Until the consummation of all things, we remain "weak" (8:26). Furthermore, in spite of all the light we have been given, we still remain largely in the dark. We still don't understand enough to pray adequately (8:26). It is not the form of prayer that is beyond our grasp but the content. We simply don't know what to pray for in all situations. Furthermore, even if we did, there are no adequate words to express the sense of frustration and longing for redemption that we all experience. This is why we groan. God is not upset by our weakness and ignorance. Instead of spurning us, God helps us at the point of our greatest weakness. Unbelievably, the Spirit enters into the very heart of our frustrations by voicing our groanings to God the Father. God, through the Spirit, groans with us, in us, and for us!

Where is God in a groaning creation? He is present in the sighs of frustration, pain, grief, and sorrow that pervade his groaning church. God is groaning in labor along with his creation and his church. God displays his compassion by sharing our sufferings, taking them upon himself, bearing them. This is good news indeed! A groaning God is a caring God. Far from remaining aloof, cold, and distant, God draws close - into our very hearts - and groans with us. God's prayer for us, through the Spirit, is for our complete transformation. Since the Spirit knows the very heart of God, he knows exactly how to intercede for us. Everything we go through will be used in shaping us into the image of Christ (8:27-28). "I still haven't found what I'm looking for" truly expresses the hopeful groaning of a suffering church. A groaning church in the midst of a groaning world is a product of the groaning God through his groaning Spirit. Paul's perspective is completely realistic, corresponding to our experience in the world and with ourselves.

Paul offers no triumphalistic view of Christian experience. The Christian life includes grief and groanings as well as expectant longing and hopeful anticipation. It is more like experiencing the pains of labor than anything else. The pain is great, but the payoff makes all the pain worth it. "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (8:23). "Can the gospel include the reality of tragedy in its provisions for human life?... I believe an adequate gospel will include in its provisions all people who know the reality of tragedy… But the gospel and a totally tragic view of the world are incompatible… The Christian faith has no room for accepting tragedy as a permanent resident in God's creation. Tragedy has a limited life span." (Al Truesdale, When You Can't Pray: Finding Hope When You're Not Experiencing God, p. 66)

We groan, but not in vain. The promise of future glory spurs us forward while simultaneously creating a deep frustration with our present existence. We still haven't found what we're looking for, but we commit to keep looking, for one day we will find what our heart most deeply desires. Only then will the inner ache that something is missing be removed. Our desire for something more will be satisfied. Our sense of incompletion will be dropped as we receive the gift of a resurrected body in a restored cosmos truly liberated from bondage to sin, suffering, despair, and death. Our groans are not expressions of doubt, despair, or anxiety. They are hopeful groans spurred by faith in Christ's resurrection and hope in God's promise of a new heavens and earth. The Spirit within us provokes rather than discourages these groans, for they reveal a heart longing for "the something more" that awaits God's people.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2003

Return to Main Page