Groaning and moaning

Being a father — and now a grandfather — has taught me things about myself that I otherwise might never have known. It has given me both joy and sorrow. I’ve always been active and involved in my children’s lives, much, much more so than my father was in mine. Feeding, changing, bathing, cuddling, playing; making up silly bedtime stories, drying tears, being the chauffeur. There was hardly anything about being a parent that I didn’t do.

Except one. I wasn’t the one who gave them birth. Whatever pain I may have suffered as a dad, it wasn’t that. (Mad respect to moms everywhere.)

As suggested in the previous post, even though the kingdom of heaven arrived in the person and ministry of Jesus, the kingdom will not be fully complete until Jesus returns as king. The world is still broken. Things are not as they should be. People suffer injustice; believers even suffer injustice at the hands of other believers. James issues a stern warning to such oppressors: “Weep and moan over the miseries coming upon you” (5:1, CEB), because judgment is coming.

Suffering is all around us, and we experience it ourselves. Paul describes our state using a metaphor everyone would understand: creation groans like a woman in labor (Rom 8:22). Yes, it is groaning in the anticipation of the end of pain and the beginning of a new and miraculous life, but it is groaning nonetheless. Even as believers who are inhabited by God’s Spirit, we groan and moan and lament in these fragile and mortal bodies of ours, as we await the promised day of our resurrection.

In the meantime, we are called to live in hope, groaning yet enduring (Rom 8:24-25). Even when we suffer injustice, we must live as people who believe that God is still sovereign, that God is still present and active, and that God’s justice will be done, whether within our lifetime or not. That’s not to say that the oppressed must remain silent or not have a voice in the public square. But that voice must still be one of love and not only lament.

James, too, speaks of groaning, as he counsels the poor believers who are being oppressed by the rich:

Don’t complain about each other, brothers and sisters, so that you won’t be judged. Look! The judge is standing at the door! (James 5:9, CEB)

Again, James has already warned the oppressors of the coming judgment, which will be severe. But he doesn’t let the oppressed off the hook. Even if they have right to complain, they shouldn’t; if they do, they will be liable to judgment too.

Wait, what? The rich are committing fraud and possibly even murder (James 5:4-6) — surely they deserve what they have coming to them if they don’t repent. By contrast, how could it be wrong for their victims to merely complain? Weren’t they being treated unfairly, and egregiously so? Wasn’t God angry at that injustice?

Yes. And indeed, James’ word here is the same as Paul’s: the poor are groaning. The word (a relatively rare one in the New Testament) suggests a situation of extreme pressure — like the strain of pushing a baby out into the world, or in this case, groaning under the burden of oppression.

But the people James is describing are not merely groaning within themselves, they are groaning about or against each other. I read James’ admonishment against the background of everything else he’s already said about how we create division in the church with our use of words.

Think about how this might play out. About whom would the poor complain? The rich. But to whom would they complain? Not the rich, certainly, who held all the power. No, the poor would complain to each other. And the more they did so, the greater the emotional gap between rich and poor, the firmer the social divide between us and them.

In his letter, James isn’t only concerned about individual ethics, but about what divides the community. These are people who are supposed to be brothers and sisters to one another by embodying the “royal law” of neighbor love (James 1:8). Unfortunately, however, much of what James heard in their words showed more self-centeredness than love.

. . .

There’s a lesson here for all of us. When we’re aggrieved, we’re tempted to lash out in anger and resentment. We’re less inclined to watch what we say, because we think we’re right, and in the right. Surely a few stinging words are nothing compared to what was done to us!

But even if we have our facts straight (and that’s never to be taken for granted!), even if we are in fact the innocent victims of someone else’s greed or malice, that doesn’t give us license to say whatever we please. We are called to be people of love, of longsuffering patience — to be people of the long fuse and the loving word. That’s part of the church’s witness; after all, how many people have been drawn to a church by its message of love, and then repelled by the gossip and backbiting?

If and when we groan, we groan together, not against each other. We groan as people who hope in resurrection, who desire to live in newness while we wait with patient endurance.