Groaning Into Our Adoption
Note: Most of the below article is an excerpt from Gordon’s new book Grace from Head to Heart: Experiencing God’s Kindness in a Fallen World. You can buy the book locally in Birmingham at Little Professor Bookshop in Homewood, Church Street Coffee and Books in Crestline or at the Daymark office. It is also available online through Little Professor’s Website (https://littleprofessorhomewood.com/products/grace-from-head-to-heart-experiencing-god-skindness-in-a-fallen-world) or on Amazon.
In general, it doesn’t seem hard for us to believe in our head that we are God’s children, but we often have time accepting it and acting like it. In a world where we experience things like rejection, loss and heartache we often learn to protect ourselves from others instead of getting close to them. This complicates our ability to accept God’s love. In fact, we are not wise or humble enough to vulnerably open our hearts to God, so we need help. It is ironic that we need help to receive the way God wants to treat us as his children.
This is where the Holy Spirit comes in. After describing the helplessness of being plagued with a sinful nature that bullies us toward turning in ourselves Paul reminds us that we are not obligated to follow the urges of our sinful nature and are not alone in standing up to it. He writes, “But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’ For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15-16, nlt) Even though we can be overcome with sinful urges and actions it doesn’t change the fact that we are God’s children, and we need help accepting this. His spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. The Holy Spirit wants to help us grow into our adoption, so we don’t live in fear of our sinful nature. How many of us actively remember that the Spirit is right with us working and pleading on our behalf to respond to God’s kindness. Again, Paul helps us embrace this, “Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God.” (1 Cor 2:12, nlt) The Holy Spirit helps us to receive the grace God wants to give us.
“Abba Father” is an intimate term, like “Daddy.” Whenever we need to, we can cry out to God, “Daddy, Daddy!,” a childlike cry of groaning. We easily forget that we’re supposed to relate to God vulnerably like little children. The disciples once approached Jesus and inquired about who among them was the greatest. Like good grown-ups, the disciples were aligning themselves for power and position. Jesus confronted this by replying, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Instead of reaching a place where we’re secure and self-reliant adults, we’re supposed to work backward and become like young children looking for someone to take care of us.
The hunger in our hearts for someone to care about us is good, but evil rails against it. In this world, it’s not even easy for children to be children. I experienced this early and often in my parenting. For example, one night when my oldest daughter, Aimee, was about seven years old, I was awakened around two o’clock in the morning by the sound of her stirring in her room. I went into her room to attend to her needs, and she said, “Daddy, I wasn’t feeling well, and I didn’t want to wake you up.” As a typical firstborn, she was trying to be overly responsible. I knew I needed to teach her how to grow comfortable with wanting and accepting help. I said to her, “I’m your dad, and I’m supposed to get up in the middle of the night and help you, even if it’s a sacrifice.” Surprisingly, even as a young child she needed reinforcement to accept sacrificial help, because a lying voice inside her head was telling her she should handle it on her own. Only a few short years before that, Aimee knew what to do when she was hurting. She cried out for parental care. She didn’t spend time assessing whether she needed our help or not, or whether it would inconvenience us. She unashamedly and passionately cried for help when she needed it. The cries were painful—often piercingly painful. She felt powerless and alone and needed comfort, so she cried out for us. When she expressed powerlessness and aloneness like a child, she was treating us like parents. Yet only a couple of years later, she was already battling temptation to decide whether she should be the parent. She was already fighting that deceiving voice that discouraged her from reaching out for help. My job as a parent was to help her move back toward vulnerability. Growing into maturity doesn’t mean we become self-sufficient adults; it means we learn to discern between the need to push through and the need to take help.
Groaning is the biblical term for the unguarded cry of an infant who anticipates their parent coming to soothe their ache—a spiritual discipline that Paul encourages every believer to practice. As we groan, the Spirit ministers God’s love to us and fights condemnation for us in places we cannot. Groaning connects our spirit with the Spirit who is the seal of our adoption. In counseling believers to unite with the Holy Spirit, Paul encourages them to groan: “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.” (Romans 8:22–23)
The pleading and prayers of the Holy Spirit put us in touch with God’s grace that transcends our circumstances. Our fears and anxieties are often safely protected behind fig leaves of manageability or performance. Sin, suffering, and loss bring them to the surface. When we sin, we face the powerlessness of not being able to change ourselves. When we suffer, we face our inability to manipulate our world. When we experience loss, we encounter a future we cannot control. As we groan through this powerlessness, and the Holy Spirit directs us and communicates with God, we become more open and responsive to His grace. We have endless need to be reminded of God’s love, which is one reason that “the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:10 csb) Those depths assuredly include God’s love and power toward us who believe. As we groan, the Spirit is searching the depths of God’s love, looking for an aspect of it that will help us more meaningfully experience our adoption into God’s family. The Holy Spirit looks for opportunities to help us recognize and respond to God’s grace. Although our sinful nature inside us—and the worldly influences outside—bully us toward self-reliance and loneliness, this is undone by our groaning into God’s love. “I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through His Spirit. Then Christ will make His home in your hearts as you trust in Him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep His love is.” (Ephesians 3:16–18) Groaning gets us out of ourselves and acknowledges that God is holding onto us and will not let us go. We don’t have the capacity, wisdom, or strength to convince ourselves that God loves us. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Our job is to relate vulnerably to the Lord, and to invite the Spirit to do His job.
After Paul addresses the ministry of the Spirit and our adoption and groaning in Romans 8, he describes how inseparable we are from God’s love: “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today, nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” (8:38) Paul is eloquently describing how much the Spirit intercedes for us to take ownership of the fact that we’re God’s children. Paul even points his words at condemnation from the evil one that separates us from God’s love: “Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and He is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.” (8:34) Groaning with God’s Holy Spirit is how we connect to and advance that reality. When we go through our worst moments of wounding, sin, and unbelief, our heart will be pried open. In our recognized need, the Holy Spirit can guide us into more of God’s grace. Instead of trying to believe this or thinking we must be convinced of it for God to care about us, how about we practice at acting like a needy child. Praying more vulnerably will increase our confidence that we’re His child, even though we feel hopeless and alone. “For we know how dearly God loves us, because He has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with His love.” (Romans 5:5)