We all have knee-jerk reactions to suffering.
My knee-jerk reaction? I tend to go numb. I find it really hard to pray. After a while, a niggling sense of shame at the poor state of my prayer life may creep in… I should be worshiping God and being positive despite my circumstances! Why can’t I get rid of this horrible numbness inside?!
And the chasm that lies between my true feelings and my intellectual faith swallows me up. It makes me feel distant from God.
How about you? How do you react when you are completely overwhelmed by life’s brokenness? I’m not talking about what you think you should do. I’m talking about what you actually do. (Come on, I was honest! You can be honest with yourself too!)
Do you try your best not to complain (with varying degrees of success!)? Do you shut down your feelings, as a coping mechanism? Do you try using positive thinking strategies to overcome your pain, but you end up feeling even worse because it doesn’t seem to be working? Do you feel distant from God, like I do?
When things go from bad to worse, it can be hard to know how to respond, can’t it? And sometimes our “real”, uncensored reactions don’t seem particularly God-honouring… So we try to sanitise our prayers. We hide our ugliest feelings from God because we don’t know what else to do…
Groaning: a godly response to suffering?!
After studying the book of Job last year, I realised something: I’ve been putting a lid on my sorrow. I’ve been keeping my grief to myself, rather than talking to God about it.
I don’t always know how to throw my burdens onto Jesus… but I know he’s invited me to do so.
I’ve been wondering, How can I be real with God — about my fears, my disillusionment, my anger, my despair, and even my doubts — in a way that doesn’t dishonour or disappoint him??
If you can relate, I commiserate! Below, I’ve got some embarrassing stories and a favourite Bible passage to share. Plus, there are some (free) resources at the end, designed to help you throw your own burdens onto Jesus.I don't always know how to throw my burdens onto Jesus... but I know he's invited me to do so. Click To Tweet
Bible heroes who groaned
I’m about to make a bold statement. Are you ready for it?
Groaning is a totally acceptable way — and even the most godly way — to respond when things are tough.
Really? Yes, really!
Does this come as a surprise to you? How does it sit with your existing view of the Christian life? If you’re a bit perplexed by the statement, that’s OK. It would have surprised me, too, not too long ago.
Now, before going any further, I want to clarify one important point: Let’s not confuse groaning with complaining. The Bible explicitly instructs us not to complain! (To help you work out the difference, there’s a short self-assessment activity at the end.)
In case you’re not sure what I mean by “groaning”, let’s take a quick look at some examples from the Bible apart from Job’s story, which I’ve mentioned already.
In both the Old and the New Testament we read of people — godly, upright people — groaning, or “lamenting” when faced with the brokenness of this world.
The Psalms come to mind. King David, a “man after God’s own heart”, wrote songs to our Lord that revealed the depths of his soul, and it was not all glass-half-full stuff!! The Old Testament prophets lamented bitterly to God, most famously Jeremiah and Habakkuk. (See related articles in resources section for examples.)
In the New Testament, we see the apostle Paul pleading with God numerous times to take away his “thorn” (which is likely to have been a chronic health condition, according to my NIV Study Bible footnotes… Interesting!). (2 Cor 12:8-10)
Are you seeing the pattern yet? Groaning to God in prayer does not equal sin! These are all righteous, God-honouring people of God who are groaning. The thing that amazes me the most is that God doesn’t reproach any of them for being painfully honest in their prayers.
There’s one obvious example I haven’t yet mentioned… Even our Lord Jesus groaned! (Heb 5:7-8) In the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest, look at what Jesus said and did:
He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
He went on a little farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him might pass him by. “Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
When Jesus went back to pray again, Luke’s gospel describes it like this:
He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. (Luke 22:44)
Jesus wasn’t stoic; Jesus was real with God. He was raggedly emotional… as well as being obedient.
Wow. I really want to become more like Jesus in this area… How about you?
It’s been a groan-worthy start to the year in our household. I’ve been in a severe flare for over a month. My husband is very weary — an extra load inevitably falls on him when I’m out of action. We’re just surviving.
Day two of the new school year was eventful. At about 8:15am I was lying on the couch, resting, before school drop-off. When I tried to stand up, nothing happened… I couldn’t move my legs. This happens every now and then during a flare, but I wasn’t prepared for it to happen before school when I was home alone with both kids! I kept the TV on and sent a text message to one of my emergency backup people, requesting help with school drop-off.
It took a while for my helper to arrive, which meant the kids watched over an hour of TV in the morning (eek!), and my son was delivered to school over half-an-hour late on his second day of Year 1. So much for making a good impression on his new teacher!! Sigh… This was really hard on the ego for a high-achieving people pleaser like me!!! (I wonder which aspects of my character God’s been working on lately? 😉)
THEN, a week later, my dad had a stroke. He was in a critical state and we didn’t know if he would survive. What should I do?! I knew I needed even more rest than usual if I wanted to recover from my flare; but I wanted to be there for my dear dad…
After a day of deliberation and praying for wisdom, we made the decision: I would travel by plane (I can no longer manage long drives) to visit my dad in the hospital. My husband stayed home with the kids, so as not to disrupt their routine.
I am so glad I went. I needed to go — I couldn’t bear to think of my dad lying there, so close to death. But the trip has thrown my system even further into its downward spiral. On top of that, my husband is a step closer to burnout due to the pressure of having the kids solo for those few days when he was so weary already.
I’m sure you have your own stories to tell, of months — or even years — stolen and plans thrown into chaos by distressing events.
Groaning and new life
[If reading a childbirth story is likely to prick at your grief bubble, please feel free to skip ahead to the next section.]
Is it one of those groan-worthy seasons for you?
The sorrow and fatigue are rising; your resilience and strength are plummeting. Inside and out, your whole being is sighing… You’re battling frustration — Why is this happening?! I wish I could just click my fingers and make everything OK again…
These times are an invitation to draw near to God. Take your groaning to him! Cry out to him! Be real with him! He can take it.
Romans chapter 8 is one of my favourite Bible passages because it’s so real, and honest, and authentic. It talks about the ugliness of our broken lives without resorting to either nihilistic despair or sugar-coated denial.
Paul compares the suffering we experience here and now to the groans of a woman in labour.
For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. (Rom 8:22-23)
I remember my two labours and they sure were awful…
I was not one of those controlled women — a childbirth champion — who bears the pain silently. (I’ve seen them on TV documentaries. I guess you might be more inclined to exude calmness and stoic strength if there’s a camera crew present!)
No, I screamed so loudly that the midwife kept having to remind me, “Save your strength… Use your strength to push… Don’t scream.”
I tried to take it down a few octaves as wave after wave of contractions stretched my body beyond what would seem physically possible. My supremely calm midwife coached me through the final excruciating contractions: I had to change my high-pitched screams — prolonged, siren-like shrieks that would have caused any dogs within earshot to howl! — into low-toned groans.
So, there I was, bellowing like a bear. I was naked amongst strangers and didn’t even care. (I even asked for photos to be taken! How bizarre and other-worldly is the childbirth experience…)
I’m not sure whether the bear-bellowing helped or not. What I do know is this: before too long a precious new life was born.
Was the pain worth it? It certainly was. All that suffering and pain for a little while (28 hours with my first child, who was eventually yanked out with a pair of giant birthing tweezers called forceps!), and now two beautiful little souls are in the world.
There was an end to the pain.
There was a purpose to the pain.
After the pain came new life. And it was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.
Romans 8 is such a wonderful reminder for us! (Rom 8:18-39) The apostle Paul didn’t have a wife, but he must have been in the neighbouring buildings of women in labour, who bear-bellowed or siren-shrieked like I did. And he would have seen the joy that followed the pain: new life.
Let’s remember this when we feel like giving up; when we feel like the pain of this life is just too much to bear. Let’s remember that God is birthing in us a new, eternal life.
Let’s allow ourselves to groan and cry out to God, because he hears every prayer. By groaning we’re releasing some of our pain. We’re drawing near to God and allowing him to walk this dark path with us.
And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. (Rom 8:26)
For some of us, our circumstances might change for the better, relieving us from our suffering. For others, our pain might not end until we meet Jesus face-to-face in Heaven.
Whether our trials are temporary or ongoing, let’s remember that one day we will be in a new creation, with our Lord, and without any more pain. Let’s remember that God has plans for us; good plans. (Jer 29:11, Rom 8:18, 21) God has a hope and a future in store that’s more beautiful than we could ever imagine.
Father, we long to be free from these aching, failing bodies of ours. We long to be free from grief and pain. It’s overwhelming, Lord. It really is too much to bear at times…
When the brokenness of this world fills our bodies and minds, we look to you, our great God. Thank you for sending Jesus. As we remember his humble life of service and his gruesome, lonely death, we see that you are not removed from this world’s brokenness… Instead, you chose to enter into it… You understand our pain. You’ve been there… Thank you that we’re not alone.
Please teach us to take our soul’s groans to you, so that we can receive your comfort. Please fill us with your Spirit, so that hope will overflow in our hearts, as we remember all that you’ve done for us and all that you have in store for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
How can I help you grow?
Below are some resources to equip you and support you. (Don’t worry, all my resources are free!) There’s an e-booklet, as well as links to music playlists; articles about lamenting; and a book about prayer that has done wonders for my prayer life (which was close to non-existent till recently… Terrible, I know!!! 😖). I’ve been using these resources myself, and they’ve really helped me!! Hope they bless you too.
I’ve put together a 10-page downloadable e-booklet for you that’s easy to follow and adaptable — you can do it individually, with a friend, or even with a group.
If you don’t yet have a password for the resource library, click here.
What’s in the bundle?
- A self-assessment activity to help you work out (1) the difference between complaining, groaning and burying, and (2) how you usually respond when bad things happen.
- Examples of “groaning prayers” from the Bible.
- A step-by-step guide designed to help you balance your prayers.
- A template you can use for your own “groaning prayers”.
I pray this e-booklet will help you grow closer to our loving Father, who loves it when we come to him like little children: delightfully uncensored and full of trust. This bundle has certainly been helping me to pray in a more Christ-like way — I’ve been practising along the way!
2. Song playlists
Sometimes we don’t have any words; only pain. Groans.
The good thing is, we don’t need to use words to pray. Romans 8:26 says we can pray with groans that no words can express. So, next time you’re bawling your eyes out, or just sitting there feeling utterly numb, use it as a chance to be in God’s presence.
Here’s a playlist of songs (gone are the days of mix tapes!) that are like prayers, for those times when you just don’t know how to pray:
If you don’t yet have a password for the resource library, click here.
And the Hope & Courage playlist has some of my favourite worship songs, for those times when you need some spiritual fuel to help you persevere:
If you don’t yet have a password for the resource library, click here.
[I don’t have any connection or affiliation with Spotify; I’m just using the sharing option that their service provides. Neither do I have any affiliation with the link to Amazon, or to the author of the book, below!!]
3. Related articles
4. Book recommendation
Last month I read a book called “A Praying Life”, by Paul E. Miller. It really challenged me. I realised just how much I was shutting down my negative emotions from God (e.g. anger, disappointment). I highly recommend this book if you, too, struggle to be real with God.
I pray this post and these resources will encourage you and filled you with spiritual fuel. May we all learn the art of groaning… May we always take our sorrows to God, and may we receive his supernatural comfort, peace and joy in return.
Check out this song. It’s a great example of a groaning prayer from the Psalms!
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