The topic given to me is, ‘Embracing suffering in ministry,’ and I want to take the second half of Romans 8, and present to you six words that will help us to be joyful in the midst of the suffering that we encounter in ministry. So, if you read the passage, you come to verse 20, which says, “The whole creation, for the creation, was subjected to futility. Not willingly, but because of him who subjected it in hope.” That’s the first-word, “futility,” or, as other translations put it, frustration. Things don’t work out as we expect them to all the time. Because of the fall, the world lost its equilibrium. And things happen that we don’t plan or desire. And of course, the pandemic has made it even more marked, as our plans have to be constantly changed because of the situation around us.
Of course, Jesus himself had to face frustration. We know that Jesus had a disciple Judas, who used to steal. I mean, the all-knowing Savior of the world, had the treasurer of his group, steal from him, take money from the common purse. He prayed, “Let this cup pass away from me,” but it was not fulfilled. That prayer was frustrated because God had a greater plan. According to that, Jesus came to serve incarnationally, and incarnational ministry means he had to be one with humanity and one with humanity as they suffer. So, Jesus suffered as people suffered, and we too must suffer. Our plans, ambitious, sometimes are dashed because of problems. Even while preparing for this talk, I found event after event because of the needs of people coming in to stop me from doing the preparation I wanted to do. This happens to us often as we are servants of people. Their plans sometimes supersede ours, so that our preparation has to be done with great difficulty like financial problems. I’m sure many pastors would be encountering financial problems during this pandemic. That’s what many are facing in Sri Lanka, as people are not working, and they cannot send their normal tithes to the church because some have lost their jobs. There are problems with the weather, lockdowns, sickness, and sometimes even death, unpleasant relationships at home, sometimes with spouses, problems that we encounter. And these are all coming under the rubric of frustration. So that’s the first word, frustration.
The second word is groaning. Verse 22, says, “The whole creation is groaning together in the pains of childbirth.” Of course, childbirth means there is hope something wonderful is going to come, that is that the creation is going to be redeemed. But even while we have this hope, we groan. Because now there is pain. And not only does the creation groan, but verse 23 says, “We who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly.” We have the first fruits of the Spirit. In other words, we have experienced God. We know he’s with us. We know our eternal destiny. We have had a taste of heaven already. But now, we experience pain and frustration. And so we groan. We have been given the freedom to groan by God, to express our pain.
Now groaning is different from grumbling. Grumbling is done by those who are disobedient, who are rebelling against God’s will. Groaning in the Bible is the groaning of the obedient, who have been faithful to God, and in spite of their faithfulness, they are experiencing problems, troubles, difficulties, and deprivation. The Old Testament Psalms give many laments, maybe 60 out of the 150, depending on whose classification you follow, are laments. And one of the most famous ones is Psalm 22, which starts with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And Jesus took those words and made them his own. So we can weep. We can question God, like the psalmist questions God. We can express our pain in words, in sighs. We don’t have to bottle up our pain and our questions. That will make us depressed, and even bitter. God has given us the freedom to weep. In fact, I would say that groaning is the alternative to quitting. Some people don’t know how to groan, can’t handle the frustration, and in their frustration, they quit. We don’t quit, we groan. We express our pain to our colleagues, to God, and mainly to God. We express our pain. So that’s the second word, groaning.
Now we come to the third word, which is fellowship, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The first part of verse 26 says, “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Though God is strong, still, while we live on Earth, we have weaknesses. Here, the particular weakness mentioned is that we do not know what to pray for, as we ought. I’m sure many of you have felt that with this pandemic that we are going through. We feel helpless. We don’t know what to pray for, we don’t know what we should pray about. Many of us, because we are leaders, ask God, “Lord, help us, help me, help me to say the right prayer to direct these people right in prayer.” There are so many situations that we cannot control, and we feel weak.
Today, with the pandemic we are having situations of loved ones suffering all alone, and their loved ones can’t be with them. They would like to be with them, to touch their hand as they are coming close to death. But they can’t. They can’t. There are many people who can’t control their financial situation. Right now, they feel weak. Whether there’s a pandemic or not, we struggle with our own personality weaknesses. All of us have weaknesses. So the Spirit helps us in our weakness.
Now, let’s look at the word “helps.” In English, it’s a very short word, ‘HELPS’. But in Greek, it’s a combination of three different words, ‘Sun-anti-lambanomai,’ and the word literally translates as “takes share in.” The great New Testament scholar A. T. Robinson says, “It’s like our weakness is a burden that we are carrying, a log that we are carrying, and we are finding it difficult to carry. And the Holy Spirit comes, and he takes one end on and helps us to go on by joining us in the struggle by carrying the burden alongside us. This is a feature of the role of the Holy Spirit as our helper. That brings us to another very well-known word for the Holy Spirit ‘parakletos,’ which we in English often say “Paraclete,” which John used when describing the Holy Spirit in his Last Supper. The Paraclete or the parekletos, that word means “called to be beside,” para means beside kleto has the idea of called, “called to be beside.” And it has been translated variously in the Bible: helper, advocate, counsellor, comforter. He is our friend. That’s why when we have our benediction, we say, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit helps us. We don’t bear our burden alone. He is there with us, to help us. He will see us through.
There was a lady whose husband died, she had one daughter, and the daughter got sick. And the daughter also died. And this mother was all alone. And she found it so difficult. And then she was having problems with her eyes. So, she went to the eye hospital, and they told her that she’s going blind. A member of the church that she belonged to, came to see her. And she realized that this fellow doesn’t know what to say here. Here’s a person who had first lost the husband, then the daughter, and now she’s going blind. He doesn’t know what to say. So she said something. She said, “Don’t feel too bad, Brother Billson. I have Jesus and they can’t take him away from me.” We have Jesus and you know, in Romans 8, the Spirit is called the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. That means Jesus comes as the Holy Spirit to be beside us. “I have Jesus and they can’t take him away from me.” So the Spirit is there giving us fellowship, and as our fellow, what does he do?
Well, we are told that the Spirit intercedes. The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. That’s in the second part of verse 26. He intercedes, he is praying for us. And how does he pray? With groanings too deep for words. Earlier we said that we groan. Now, Paul is saying that the Holy Spirit groans. He has got so close to us, that he’s groaning with us. He’s so near to us, that he feels our pain, and our pain has become his pain. This is a God who weeps. And so we find Jesus at the funeral of his friend, weeping. This is a God who understands, a God who groans with us.
There was a lady whose husband was abusive, using very abusive language on her, and being very nasty and speaking nasty things. And one day when he was scolding her, suddenly the thought came to her, “They said the same thing to Jesus! Jesus knows what I’m going through!” And in a beautiful way, she experienced the nearness of Jesus. Paul said in Philippians that he desires in the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s suffering. Jesus comes near to us in our suffering, and the Holy Spirit grieves and groans. As we grow, he understands and feels with us. That’s why we don’t have to be bitter.
You know, I have often felt that so many Christian workers are suffering from bitterness. And one of the reasons that they are bitter is that they don’t have friends. And we need friends with whom we can share our problems. But what if our friend is Jesus, God Himself? He understands. Our friends disappoint us, but Jesus never disappoints. We don’t have to be bitter. We can weep, we can be angry over wrongs, we can be upset about situations. But we can’t be bitter. And of course, if we are bitter, we end up hurting people. How can we not be bitter? Because God, Jesus is walking with us through the pain. And we have comfort and strength.
Now there’s something said in verse 27, about the intercession that Jesus does: “And he who searches the hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit. Because the Spirit intercedes for the sins, according to the will of God.” He knows, that is God knows, the mind of the Spirit, and the Spirit is interceding for us, according to the will of God.
Now we are weak. We don’t know what to pray for. But we pray. And the Holy Spirit takes our weak prayers and, because he knows the will of God, he brings them into accord with the will of God. And he, as it were, edits them, so that they become equal to the will of God. And he presents them interceding on our behalf to God. So our hearts are sincere, but we are clueless about what to pray for. We may even be praying for the wrong thing. But the Holy Spirit who knows our hearts comes close to us, takes our prayers, and presents them in keeping with the will of God.
I was in South Africa ministering in 1979. This was just before there was a transition to black rule. And war was going on, and people were praying. I was so impressed at how people pray during that time. But I felt that maybe they were praying for the wrong thing. A lot of them were praying for the defeat of the black army and for the white rule to continue. And that’s not what happened. But when the black rule, majority rule came in, everybody expected a bloodbath. But there was no bloodbath. Under Nelson Mandela, there was rather a reconciliatory attitude that really helped that country to have a rebirth. They prayed for the wrong thing. But their hearts were sincere. And God edited it and gave them the best possible result.
So, in the same way, we also pray. So the Holy Spirit is there in fellowship with us, helping us by correcting us walking beside us, as our Parakletos, beside us as our helper, one who takes our load and walks with us.
In the next part of the transcript, we will be looking at the last three words: sovereignty, patience, and love.
This article is the first one of the two-part article series of the transcript of Session 1 preached by Ajith Fernando in the AIPC 2021 Online Conference held on Sep 17-19, 2021.
Please click here to view the sermon.
Ajith Fernando is the Teaching Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka after serving as the ministry's National Director for thirty-five years.