Have you ever heard someone groan? I mean really groan … from down deep in their bones. Have you heard someone groan like they were trying to push something toxic out – to let something surface that had been buried beneath a façade of wellness? Like they were just hanging on in the present until that day comes when things are right again? That kind of groaning comes from deep grief and profound longing. Grief is born of loss — the loss of something good. Longing envisions a time when what was good will be restored.
I know a woman whose ministry is to pray. That’s it. She is paid to pray. Once at a conference for Black students from all parts of the African diaspora (including Africa, the U.S., the Caribbean, and Europe) the topic of slavery came up. Speakers analyzed the effects of it and talked about how devastating it was — this institution that pilfered the largest and naturally richest continent on earth of its human and material resources and robbed African descendants of human dignity from that day to present. The speakers talked, and as they did, my friend — this prayer woman — discerned that the group needed to bend to its knees.
She suggested that we pray. As she led us she explained a kind of prayer that skips past words and connects with the heart of God. It is a prayer of lament and a prayer of longing. It is the prayer of the Spirit of God that Paul refers to in Romans 8:26: “Groaning Prayer,” she called it.
The conference attendees sat silent as my friend began to pray: first with words “Oh, God! Heal us of the stifling effects of loss, never given the chance to be truly grieved! Help us to see ourselves as you see us — to imagine a world where we are seen by all as you see us.” Soon one student groaned. Then another … and another. After some time, the room heaved as a generation mourned the trauma, loss, fear, and humiliation that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade levied on nearly 10 generations of their ancestors and dared to imagine a world where they and their descendants might be healed.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God …” (Romans 8:18-19)
And who are God’s children in the immediate context? Paul explains the “children of God” are those whose spirits cry “father” when referring to God. “For,” according to Paul, “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Romans 8:14) If this is true, then why is creation longing for the children of God (those led by God’s Spirit) to be revealed?
In Genesis 1, the author writes, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” The Hebrew words for “very good” are mehode tobe. Mehode means “forcefully” and in the Hebrew context tobedoes not necessarily refer to the object itself. Rather it refers to the ties between things. So, when God looked around at the end of the sixth day and said, “This is very good,” God was saying the relationships between all parts of creation were “forcefully good.” The relationship between humanity and God, men and women, within families, between us and the systems that govern us, and the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation — the land, the sea, and sky and all the animals and vegetation God created to dwell in those domains—all of these relationships were forcefully good!
Then in Genesis 2 we have a more intimate story of creation in which humanity is created from the earth. We are not separate from creation, but made from it. We are placed in a garden and told to “till and keep” it (Genesis 2:15-16). The Hebrew word for “till” is abad, which means “to serve.” The word for “keep” in Hebrew is shamar. It means to “protect.” You see? God intended for humans to serve the needs of the rest of creation and to protect its integrity.
Then the story of humanity turns in the span of one chapter. And it all hinges on how the first humans interact with a tree — a part of God’s creation.
In Genesis 2, God tells humanity not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because it will lead to death. In Genesis 3, the man and woman choose their own way to wellness, wholeness, and peace. They eat the fruit of the tree and, indeed, gain the knowledge of evil — the experience of not trusting God. Their relationship with God is broken, but it doesn’t stop there. One by one, every relationship that God declared mehode tobe just a chapter and a verse before — they all fall down.
Among the fallen lay the shattered relationship between humanity and the rest of creation. Animals are cursed because of our sin (Genesis 3:14). For the first time in the story of creation we see an animal sniping at a human being (Genesis 3:15). Then, the land is cursed as a repercussion of our sin (Genesis 3:17). The earth produced vegetation and fruit in Genesis 2:9. Now, for the first time, the ground will produce thorns and thistles and humanity will have to beat the earth to eat and live (Genesis 3:17b-19).
“For creation was subjected to futility,” Paul explains in Roman 8, “not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.” Who subjected the earth to futility? One might say God did, since God laid down the curse. Another might say humanity subjected the earth to futility by not trusting God’s command in the first place. Thus, the curse is not levied by God, but rather is the natural outcome of humanity’s rebellion.
And so creation groans.
It groans under the pain of the futility of trying to live out its purpose — to produce life-giving vegetation and oxygen that all animals need, including humanity — and, for animals, to enrich the earth and produce enough carbon for plant-life to breathe.
Creation groans under the weight of futility of trying to reproduce vegetation at a sustainable rate when humanity is determined to secure its own wellness through increased deforestation, agribusiness that exploits the land through monocropping, and creation of genetically modified crops, which increases the need for pesticides that compromise the well-being of human consumers and the land.
Creation is groaning under the futility of trying to reproduce natural gas and oil at a sustainable rate when humanity is intent on getting its energy fix right now. As the seas warm and rise, and the climate is altered, animals and humans alike — especially the poor — are at risk.
And so creation is groaning for the revelation of the children of God. It longs for those who will follow the Spirit of God, those who will follow God’s ways, those who will work for reconciliation between humanity and God, as well as humanity and the rest of creation. For the revelation of God’s children is a sign that restoration is at hand.
Here is the question for the church today. Will we continue to argue over whether the earth was made in 7 days or 7 million years? Or will we be the children of God we claim to be? Will we humble ourselves and pray as God calls us to pray in 2 Chronicles 7:14? Will we seek God’s face and let our Spirit groan with God’s spirit, and will we be reconciled to the rest of creation? Maybe if we do … God will heal our land.
Image: Oil spill illustration, fish1715 / Shutterstock.com