Perhaps no other comic strip is so ingrained in the collective consciousness and imagination of our American culture as is "Peanuts." Even with its creator, Charles Schultz, being deceased for some nine years now, his dog Snoopy, along with the rest of his congenial cast of characters, live on in reruns of the famous strip that continue to delight the youngest to the oldest of us.
The central and original character of the "Peanuts" strip, of course, is Charlie Brown. The best way that I have heard Charlie Brown described is as a "lovable loser." Sure, he is kind and endearing, but he is also quite naïve, much to the amusement of his friends who persistently leverage his gullibility for their benefit. Often, after Charlie Brown has been taken advantage of by a friend, or even after he has simply been hit by one of his legendary strings of bad luck, he will let out his famous *SIGH*. Such a *SIGH* is an indicator that Charlie Brown has come to the end of his rope. He's ready to throw in the towel. He's going to call it a day. For he has lost the drive, desire, and hope that things can or will get better. Very simply, he's given up.
In our reading for today from Romans 8, Paul writes, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (verse 22). The Greek word used here for "groaning" is stenazo, which carries with it a sense of "sighing" or that which is a "heavy burden" (cf. Hebrews 13:17). Stenazo, then, is that which happens when someone comes to the end of their rope. When someone is ready to throw in the towel. When someone is ready to call it a day. And all of creation, Paul reminds us, stenazos. For all of creation suffers pain. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. Droughts. Famines. Tsunamis. These are enough to bring anyone to their knees in despair. And that is why not only does creation itself groan, we, as the crowning glory of God's creation, groan as well: "We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly" (verse 23). We let out a collective *SIGH* at the pain and sorrow that wrecks our world and pierces our hearts. Such is the grim picture that Paul paints in Romans 8.
From where can we find relief from such a bleak outlook on our world and on our lives? Paul continues, "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness" (verse 26). That is, the Spirit helps us when we stenazo. He does this when he "intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (verse 26). How does the Spirit relieve us when we stenazo? He joins in. He does not remain distant and aloof. Rather, he takes on our pain, our despair, and our misery and intercedes for us so that we need not bear it alone. And then, something miraculous happens. We find out that he have a little more rope left. We discover that we're still holding on, even if it's only by a tentative thread, to the towel. We realize that we have the strength to fight another day. For God has intervened in the midst of our sorrow, misery, and despair. God has seen our stenazo and he has come to help.
This is why Paul can write, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (verse 28). Many people mistakenly take this verse to mean that even when something seemingly bad happens, it's not really bad, because it's for God good purposes. But this is far from Paul's point here. Indeed, it is precisely because there are really bad things that happen to us - things that cause us to stenazo - that we need this verse. For this verse promises that even when really bad things happen, God will conquer these bad things with his goodness. I love the way the philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard paraphrases this verse: "For those who love God, nothing irredeemable can happen to you." In other words, God can take your truly terrible stenazos and conquer them with his redemptive righteousness. He can take your mourning at the malevolence of this world and turn it into rejoicing at his goodness, etched into the fabric of the cosmos.
Charlie Brown's *SIGH* would usually come at the end of a "Peanuts" comic strip. For after ole Charlie would be the victim of his friends' antics, he would then let out a *SIGH* in surrender. The end. This is not how it is, however, with our *SIGHS*. For even the bitterest stenazo does not mark the end of the strip of our life. As Paul writes, "The creation waits in eager expectation" (verse 19). That is, even while creation is presently stenazoing, it's expecting something more. It's waiting for something more. It's waiting for redemption. And so, we look forward to the Day when "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21:3). We look forward to the Day of Redemption.