One of the craziest things has happened to me this summer. Scripture looks completely different to me. Like, I know how to read it as the campus minister who carries great burdens, and struggles alone, and tries to juggle being a mother with taking care of a whole ministry that nurtures students. Reading scripture while bending beneath the weight of that life is familiar. I can feel the oppression of the expectations I was living under even as I write those words. But things are different now. Today I am a woman who has been set free from a prison I didn't even know I was in until God led me out. What is clear is that I am a vastly different person that I once was.
I don't know if I will ever get over being surprised at how differently scripture speaks to me now. I once heard that you can never step into the same river twice. Reading scripture is the same way. As life moves us to different places, the old familiar story speaks a new message. All of the allusions and references change. My bearings have shifted.
It could just be that my whole person has shifted, and I never noticed because God did the transforming quietly, slowly over time. It's like one day I woke up and I was a completely different person than I was fifteen years ago. If I were to travel back in time to say hi to the girl that I was, I would barely recognize myself. And I definitely know that different people never hear scripture in the same way; their hearing is shaped by everything that has made them who they are.
The last few days I have been pondering a familiar scripture that speaks to me in a new way: Romans 8:18-30. It begins with Paul's encouragement, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us." It ends with Paul's firm declaration concerning God's children: "And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified." The old me would read this passage and imagine how God was going to jump into the circumstances of my life and bring forth a glorious reversal of all things painful and unjust. Today I read it and recognize a quieter truth, deeper than my earlier reckoning.
Before I thought that God was like Bette Midler's song "From a Distance" watching over us from a perch in heaven and swooping in to save the day when things had gotten sufficiently out of hand. (On some days that is what my life is like as a mother. Swooping is a good skill to have as a mother of three small boys.) All of my prayers and longings were directed toward that end, seeking God's intervention to accomplish the good I desired but was unable to bring forth. After all God is big, and God is good. Of course He wants to help. The events of the last few months have shifted my assumptions somewhat.
It's not that God is no longer Big and Good. He is. But I am recognizing that His purposes are not always (rarely?) my own. Let me explain. The Romans passage quickly admits that all of creation is "subjected to futility." But then the passage intimates that God is the one who did this! What the hay?! Why in the world would God do this? What could He possibly accomplish by putting us and the whole world in a scenario where we are groaning and straining toward a better good that seems to always be out of our grasp? I love how verse 26 puts it this way: "For we do not know how to pray as we ought." Of course we don't. Of course I don't! In the middle of suffering my prayers are like this: "God, get me out of here!!!!" I love what the scripture says next. God puts His own Spirit within us to pray on our behalf: "because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." Since I don't know how to pray according to God's will, God prays it for me, within me even.
I'm thinking that God's prayers within us are the very thing that transforms us, from the inside out. I'm thinking that this is how God slowly transformed me. I believe the key to unlocking this mystery of why God does what He does and not what we want comes from verse 29. I believe it is the heart of God's will for us and the whole creation: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family." While I'm begging God to rescue me from my troubles, God is working through them to recreate me in His Son's likeness. The Greek word for conform is "summorphos" which means "properly, conformed, by sharing the same inner essence-identity (form); showing similar behavior from having the same essential nature" (See www.biblos.com, HELPS Word Studies). It is our suffering that God works through to implant the likeness of Jesus within us.
And so through it all, God is not some distant overseeing Divine figure who waits to come in and save the day. Instead God is with us through every moment, experiencing the depths of our heartaches, disappointments, and pain. He translates our hurt into "sighs too deep for words." And as Romans 8:28 says, He translates those sighs into our good, and ultimately our glory. Again returning to the original meaning of Paul's use of the word "glorified" or doxazo in verse 30: "glorify; properly, to ascribe weight by recognizing real substance (value)" (again, see www.biblos.com, HELPS Word Studies). It's as if the difficulties we go through whittle away the parts of our lives that are not really us, not our heart's desires, not our true nature or character so that what remains is the essential self God had in mind at our beginning. It is a process of becoming the person God created us to be, full of the beauty and substance that only we can bring to the world. That end is truly joyful and genuinely good.
The temptation then, is not to believe the worst about God (God is certainly Big enough to handle our poor opinion of Him; I imagine He's been doing it for years. As Solomon says, "There is nothing new under the sun."). Our biggest temptation is to bug out of the process, to end the relationship and give ourselves over to our own appetites, or even worse, the enemy's lies. God's victory is when we stay connected despite our confusion, even anger, and continue to stretch ourselves towards Him. God never tires of hearing our groans. For Him they are the vessels of His transformation remaking our lives. For us they are the birth pains of the essential self being born, that person we have always longed to be but never thought we would or could.
There are so many things I do not understand. So many ways I would staunch the suffering and heartache of others if I could. I hate that I am unable to make life different for those I love, especially when my own soul leaps within me for the freedom and release I have found. All I can do is add my groans to theirs, to join in their longing for a better experience, for a more hopeful and satisfying end. It is my act of love to gather them into my own heart and offer them to the heart of God, asking for His glory to be revealed in them. But until then . . . .
"But until then my heart will go on singing,
Until then with joy I'll carry on;
Until the day my eyes behold the city,
Until the day God calls me home."
Lyrics to "Until Then"
Words and music by Stuart Hamblen