Romans 9: 1-5
‘I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.’ (Romans 9: 1-2)
The word ‘odunē’ translated in the RSV as ‘anguish’ means pain and often has physical associations, not necessarily about being physically ill, but about knowing pain or grief in the heart (or as scripture sometimes says in the ‘bowels’).
Christians do not sign up for anguish, but it is an integral part of the faith as each believer will realise at some point. When we accept the faith and endeavour to grow in it, it is because of the hope presented in the Gospel message and the joy of knowing the Lord, along with many other positive things. Yet anguish runs through a sincere faith like the damp course in a wall. It is something to be aware of, to recognise and to make sure that it is in the right place. If there is no awareness of anguish then, like the absence of a damp course, there are potential problems ahead.
Anguish can have past, present and future aspects and it is worth exploring these to see how they relate to each other. Past anguish can refer to the things that we have done or who we have been (maybe before we began our Christian journey). Such things can weigh heavily upon us, but can and ought to be placed in the ‘out tray’ or in a file marked ‘problem solved’. Anguish for things past can be dealt with through penitence – a tried and tested way of wiping the slate clean, or through acceptance – by which we learn to cope with or manage things we cannot change through God’s grace and in his strength, or simply by handing things over to God whose business they ultimately are.
Present anguish can be brought about by trials and tribulations. That may be true during these days when we are beset by a pandemic and are worried for family, friends, livelihood or just our own survival. St. Paul, writing to the Roman church is reflecting on the intransigence of his own people who have been in the privileged position of receiving the Messiah and yet have rejected him. These are his people and he looks upon their rejection of the gospel with anguish – with a pain in the gut. No wonder he can write,
‘For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.’ (Romans 9: 3)
This anguish is the root of all effective evangelism.
Future anguish is a curious amalgam of past experience and present trials leading to fear. To take an obvious and topical example, we might be concerned about the future of the Church of England as fault lines are exposed like cracks in a badly built wall. Problems over money, staffing, numbers of worshippers and leadership are the discussion points of the day. We may explore the historical reasons: two World Wars, Marxism and associated philosophies leading to secularism in society and the loss of the Christian mind in the church. We may consider the part that we ourselves have played: the failure to pass the faith on to our children or a loss of nerve in evangelism.
Whatever the reasons, fear for the future – anguish – leads us back to penitence. At its best this means a clean break with error, bad attitudes, presumption and poor discipline – with all the things which have lead us into sin. The psalmist writes of the need to rediscover God’s word which is the best place to start.
‘For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.’ (Psalm 50: 17)
There is the problem, but fresh instruction can lead to a renewed discipline, a strengthened faith and an anguish for souls which makes a difference.
‘He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honours me;
to him who orders his way aright I will show the salvation of God!’ (Psalm 50: 23)
That is something worth working for. Don’t just sit around worrying: discover some Godly anguish and change for the better. Don’t just atrophy in fear: live!
Father Andrew Burton SSC
2nd August 2020
Image by Ben White on Unsplash