This was written a couple of years ago for a follow-up blog to a workshop on prayer I ran for the SPEAK Network*, but it’s something I’ve continued to think about to the point at which this passage has become probably my favourite part of the Bible. Some conversations I’ve had with friends recently about this incredible passage have made me feel I need to share my take on it again here; I hope these thoughts on prayer are as helpful to you as they have been to me:
I’ve been struggling a lot with prayer recently. I’ve been finding it easy to get overwhelmed by the mess everything’s in, and the need for prayer, and not known where to start. A friend asked me how my prayer life is, and I told him that, honestly, it hadn’t been in great shape – I’ve been unable to pray and have just been feeling overwhelmed by it all and going ‘oh God!’ silently in God’s vague direction. And he said to me, ‘But isn’t that a form of prayer?’. And it made me think – actually, maybe somewhere in this, I’ve been meeting God. Somewhere, God’s been feeling the pain with me. And then I re-discovered Romans 8.
Romans 8 is a huge chapter full of all sorts of gold and big ideas, and I recommend giving it a good read through, but what jumped out at me on this occasion was that here is the reason that my ‘oh God!’s are a form of prayer, and an important one too. Here is a description of a process that begins in God’s intimate presence, moves us through a painful identification with the brokenness of the world, and then out into becoming part of the solution and salvation of it all.
It all starts when we open ourselves up to God, and becoming close to God. The more we do, the more the Holy Spirit is able to work in us as we become more open to becoming more like Jesus. We develop a closeness with Jesus as we spend time with Him, and we see just how inspiring He is, and He begins to work transformation in us. The Holy Spirit in us begins to help us share His experiences, and we develop a very real sense of how close God is to us.
The trouble is, opening ourselves up to seeing the world and ourselves through Christ’s eyes, and sharing His experiences leaves us open not only to the love and closeness of God, but also opens our eyes and hearts to the brokenness of all we are and are surrounded by. In Jesus we see our own potential and that of the world; but we also see things clearly as they are in their messed up state, and it is heart-breaking. I can look at my own life; I’ve been a Christian for over 15 years now, but I’m still struggling with a lot of the same things I was struggling with 15 years ago, like negativity, grudges, inertia and anger. When I’m close to Jesus I realise that I don’t look 15 years more like Him than I did when I began. And I see more clearly how far everything is from His plans; my family and friends are struggling with their work, health and relationships, and the whole world is failing to deal with poverty, hunger, loss of biodiversity, conflict, and supremely climate change. Even the little things that show that this is not the way things are meant to be stand out so clearly; I notice how much everyone seems to be in a rush, I notice the emptiness of our 9-5 lifestyles, I notice how many areas are run down and dirty, I notice rubbish. I begin to see entropy everywhere and it feels overwhelming. This is the ‘groan’ of the earth – and us tuning in to it. And when we do open ourselves up, tune in and allow the pain to affect us, prayer happens. All we can do in that moment is go ‘oh God..!’. And in that moment, the Holy Spirit in us joins with us in lifting that groan up to God.
But it doesn’t stop there. Romans 8 dives off into the depths of mystery at this point; somehow, through this process of sharing God’s closeness and Christ’s pain, the Spirit in us works our salvation, our transformation. And (this is the really incredible bit) somehow our salvation brings hope to the world, and not just the vague ‘I wish…’ kind of hope we often talk about, but the real, gritty hope that’s backed up by real evidence of change and firm promises. All of that entropy, all that groans, all the brokenness, is somehow being transformed through us! It’s mindblowing. A clue comes in verse 28 in the Good News translation. A lot of versions translate it something like ‘God makes all things work together for good for those who love Him’, but the Good News has it ‘in all things God works for good with those who love Him’. That makes a lot more sense to me in the context of the passage. This is prayer that opens us up to God’s plans for the world, and makes us vulnerable to God’s purposes. We become changed, and driven to bring change. And this is promised to eventually reverse this entropy in the whole of creation!
So, what can we do with this? I’ve been thinking a lot on the following questions to work out where I fit in, since re-reading Romans 8, and I hope they are helpful questions for you as you try to discover your place in it too:
- What helps you draw close to God? Where/when do you feel a close relationship with God?
- Where do you feel the groan the clearest? What places/circumstances/practices put you most in touch with the pain of the world?
- How do we then bring the pain to God? What helps?
Let’s try to open ourselves up more to God’s work in us, and know that ‘in all these things we have complete victory through Him who loved us!’
*Excepting a few minor edits and updates, this was originally published here in 2013