[I wrote an earlier version of this, “Groaning Towards Compassion,” in 2005. It’s helpful to know that when I first wrote this I was experiencing a level of grief more intense than any I have suffered beforehand or afterwards—so far. What I was saying was being put to the test existentially. And it did help me to name what was keeping me going. I recommend reading this in conjunction with this other reflection.]
Many of us believe that God is involved in our lives and in the day-to-day events that shape our lives. We grew up hearing that over and over, and maybe we’ve had those moments where we just knew God was right here with us. That’s what makes many of us put up with an institution as frustrating as the Church can be. We wouldn’t bother if we felt God wasn’t around to notice or if we felt God didn’t care.
But I’ve noticed that many of us (especially Episcopalians) also seem a little reluctant to say much about that—about what God is up to in our lives. That may be partly because some of us are reacting against other Christians who seem way too confident about their own ability to name God’s work in the world and in their lives. They might tell you, for example, that getting a competitive job was all God’s doing, without ever pausing to wonder what God was doing with the other applicants who needed that job as much as they did. And they never pause to wonder, either, if the hiring process was open and fair. Or they may be too quick to equate God’s work with their own political agenda. We hear a lot of complaints about the Christian Right doing just that, but let’s not forget that left-wingers can be just as confident of their own divine mandate. So in the face of all that self-serving certainty, lots of us have decided not to say much of anything about what God is up to.
And some of us may just feel disillusioned, because we thought we knew what God was up to, and then things took a very different turn from what we were led to expect. You thought you were going to get that job; it looked like an opportunity sent from heaven itself. And then you hear that it went to somebody else. Or the doctor tells you or someone you love that the cancer’s been eradicated. You can’t thank God enough for that wonderful news after all those months of agony. And then six months later it’s come back, and there aren’t any treatments left. It’s awfully hard not to feel cheated, and just as hard not to feel resentful when somebody comes along with cheery stories about how good God has been to them. And maybe hardest of all is finding any of your own inclination left to turn to a God who seems to have turned away from you in your deepest need.
And yet even in our most skeptical, disillusioned moments many of us can’t seem to shake this hunch that just maybe God really is at work among us. Maybe we’d like to find a more honest way to name what God is up to. Maybe we’d like to be able to talk about how God is present when things don’t go well.
That’s what St. Paul was trying to do with his readers in Rome. We don’t know exactly what was going on in Rome, but apparently things weren’t easy. Maybe there were outbreaks of persecution. Maybe it was their frustration at their own failure to be a community. But in Rome lives were definitely not going the way they’d hoped. Something made them feel like reciting the portion of Psalm 44 that Paul quotes: “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (8:36).
So Paul lets them and us in on a secret: We’re not alone in our frustration, not alone in our suffering, not alone in feeling deserted. Any suffering we feel, any disappointment, connects us to the whole universe. “We know,” Paul says, “that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” longing for God’s common life to arrive not just as a promise but a reality (8:22). This isn’t just about us, not even about the whole human species. The entire universe shares with us a frustration with promises that never seem to arrive. Our broken hearts join us to a broken-hearted world.*
But Paul doesn’t stop there. It’s not just the creation that groans or sighs with us. It’s God too, God the Spirit, God, who’s closer to us than we are to ourselves (8:26-27). So again, Paul reminds us, we’re not alone; we’re not deserted. God is not a God up there directing things from a distance. God is right here with us, no stranger to any kind of grief, any kind of frustration we have to endure. To be sure, God’s aim from the very beginning is to bring us and all creation to a reconciled common life in Jesus Christ (8:29), but God draws us toward reconciliation, not by forcing us, but by enduring our very worst and insistently returning—no matter how long it takes. (Can you tell I’m into process theology? I’m not saying that Paul was a process theologian, but what he says here points in that direction.)
God is at work in our lives, not just to make things go more pleasantly, but to make things go more deeply, not to keep us from frustration and grief but to open us to a whole world of frustration and grief that God endures far more intimately than we ever will, endures it all so that everyone’s healing can begin, not just ours. There’s deep joy in this, to be sure, but it’s a compassionate joy, not an oblivious cheerfulness, a joy that’s never satisfied with leaving anyone on the outside.
There are no shortcuts here. Yes, Paul is the one who said that God makes all things work together for good (8:28)—eventually—but this is not a good that leaves suffering behind. We don’t get to turn our backs on all the pain and injustice in the world, on the way that things most certainly are not working together for good just yet. We can’t turn our backs on any of that, because God didn’t. We hear Paul say that the God who gives up God’s own Son for us will surely give us everything else (8:32). But don’t miss the implication here. In everything God gives, we’re being turned into God’s image, drawn into the very shape of God’s own life, where life is found only in letting go of everything, even God’s own Beloved. This God who endures every suffering with us is making us into people who can join God in that same compassionate work. Whatever else God is doing with us, we can count on God to be doing that much. And let’s face it—that’s at least a bit unnerving. If all we want out of life is to be cheerful all the time, sharing God’s life sounds like a mixed blessing at best.
So let’s not sing, “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” I don’t think Paul would have cared for that one. I don’t think God felt like singing it when Jesus was on the cross. God isn’t just there in the happy moments in our lives. God is there just as much when things aren’t working out. God does rejoice with us when things go our way, but God will never be satisfied with a world where some people win at the expense of others’ losing. As long as there are some of us groaning and bewildered about the course our lives have taken, God shares our groaning and bewilderment with us.
We see God at work in our lives, not just when things go well for us, but even more as our capacity for compassion grows. And if you want to talk about what God’s doing with you, focus on that. Talk about the things that happened to bring you more compassion. Talk about the times your life was broken open to let the whole world’s pains and joys touch your own. Talk about those moments when you realized just how deep your connection with every other life runs. Talk about the God who shares God’s very own compassion with you. You really can’t go wrong if you focus on compassion.
In the meantime, there’s only one thing God has ever guaranteed to us: No matter what happens, no matter how deep your grief runs, no matter how much you groan, no matter how fragile your growing compassion can make you feel, you’re surrounded by love, and it won’t be taken away.
“For I am convinced,” says Paul, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
*As I read 8:20 in the original Greek, departing from the NRSV, Paul says that the universe is like this, not because of anybody’s will, but simply because it is less than (“subordinate to”) God. The Greek says nothing about God’s will, only about God’s hope for what the universe can become. Elsewhere I argue that God’s creating a universe is God’s unforced sharing of creativity with a multitude of lesser versions of creativity which cannot avoid the futility of being at cross purposes with one another. I am not saying that Paul thinks of creation in precisely these terms, but I am saying that this fits what Paul is saying in 8:20.