“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together…
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the
Firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait…
The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings
Too deep for words.”
~Romans 8:22,23, 26~
There is a piercing kind of pain that only those who belong to Christ know; it is an agony that is sharp as a sword “dividing soul and spirit.” It might perhaps be called anxiety if anxiety could be a godly disposition; it is the anxiety of the adopted sons of God who are temporally separated from their loving Father. His love is not always immediately present to the soul, nor is His manifest presence always experienced as pleasure (see Isaiah 6). Saint Paul said it was a groaning, the deepest sort of hunger longing to be satisfied. Only the saints know this hunger because only the saints have been given a hunger for God. It is a pang that the saint gradually comes to realize will not be satisfied even by the most ecstatic of earthly experiences. George Ladd, the evangelical theologian, brought into common parlance the term “already but not yet” in referring to the kingdom as described in the Gospels of Jesus Christ. If his articulation of this tension is accurate (which I believe it is), then this theological notion has profound implications regarding Christian spirituality. The saint then will experience, and often in a penetrating, not-of-this-world sort of way, the not-yet.
Throughout the history of the church this groaning has been expressed in a number of ways. Many have looked to the Beatitudes as Jesus’ faithful articulation of this tension. Perhaps what is most jolting about the Beatitudes is that the blessedness of the mourning, the meek, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, is a blessedness that will be but is not yet. The will be carves out vast caverns of longing, expectation, and hunger with the promise of being filled… but not yet. It is a hunger for the transcendent joy that is in Tolkien’s words “beyond the walls of the world.” This appetite is articulated by Kierkegaard and is immensely helpful, “that is what my soul longs after [the deeper significance of Christianity], as the African desert thirsts for water. That is what I lack, and that is why I am left standing like a man who has rented a house and gathered all the furniture and household things together, but has not yet found the beloved with whom to share the joys and sorrows of his life.” We can also see more popular expressions of this in U2’s famous song off of Joshua Tree;
I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still runnin.
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
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for
We are not without those among us who have felt this, for it is the experience of all true saints who groan for their adoptions as sons.
There must be some clarification at this point; first the spirituality of the not-yet is often painful and no amount of cleverness, distraction, or denial can alleviate the pain. The temptation is often, when the darkness of this experience comes, to “figure it out,” or to watch television, or work harder, or just flat out deny the experience. Although at times, down right agonizing, the not-yet is a gift from God. He gives it to His beloved children to so that they would know that there is an appetite in their soul that cannot be filled by anything on the created order; this means that it is preparatory for love. The greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. This gift prepares the saint to love God in that manner, to fulfill a command it could not without divine enablement. Though the pains are agonizing, they inform the soul of its need for the Living God and urge it to move toward Him in love.
Second the spirituality of the not yet is deeply mysterious. This is incredibly important, yet simultaneously incredibly difficult to understand. There are two distinctions that need to be made; first the mysteriousness signifies a hiddeness, and second the mysteriousness signifies a special kind of gift. The hiddeness of this spirituality is that the pains cannot be adequately expressed in words. This means that often the saints experience will be unknown to many, save for those who understand it themselves and who say nothing of it, save a knowing gaze (think here of Frodo and Sam after they have destroyed the ring of power, none know the pains they have experienced and those pains cannot be faithfully expressed to the others in the fellowship). The mysteriousness of the not-yet is also a gift, because it is a special language between the soul and God. Just as Sam could not fully comprehend Frodo’s burden, so we also cannot fully comprehend each others. It is a secret and hidden hunger that only God and the soul know and no others are privy to this language, for even if it were to be expressed it would not be understood. God knows the longings of the soul because He gave them to the soul in the beginning.
A few closing exhortations as to how to live in light of the not-yet. It is best, and most difficult, to open to the groanings of the heart. Giving oneself to prayer by opening the heart to God in the midst of the emptiness is the only place to turn. The hunger is for God, so go to God… though perhaps you will not experience the hunger joyfully, they are hunger pains after all. Second, I will let C.S. Lewis, speaking through the demon Uncle Screwtape, instruct us on where to go, as he so often does:
“Sooner or later he withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs – to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish…He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand… Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy’s [God] will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
Let us then live in the light of the not-yet and long for the will be.