“No good man ever groans,” said the great Stoic Epictetus. “It is a disgrace to groan. Groaning must be resisted,” theorised Cicero. “Groaning is a sign of weakness,” said the philosopher Plutarch.
Try telling that to the 10,000 plus athletes who returned disappointed and empty-handed from Rio 2016: four – or more – years of hard work, intensive training, ruthless diets and eye-watering regimes and they finish up with as many Olympic medals as I do. (None, in case you were wondering). And the Paralympics will see yet more. For most of us disappointment comes in a very different package from defeat at the highest level of sport: the surprise rejection, the unexpected failure, the diagnosis we didn’t want. We all groan. Cicero would not approve.
Truth be told, Ancient Rome wasn’t a happy place for groaners – not just the medal-less, but the failures, the poor, the suffering. It was seen as weakness, something to be despised. True glory came through personal mastery – both of external challenges – whether sport or enemies or danger – or internal vices, like fear, anger or one’s passions. The Romans sneered at anything less: You’re feeling down after defeat? Buck up your ideas and think positively. You’re struggling to break a pattern of behaviour? Master yourself, foolish child. You’re suffering in life? Don’t be so weak as to be overcome by emotion.
The philosopher Seneca used the metaphor extensively – it emphasised placing all hope in yourself, certainly not in anyone else. Through the power of reason, you could become what was known as a ‘conqueror’, captain of your ship, master of your fate, ruler of your destiny – certainly not a groaner.
Imagine the disdain when a first-century writer called Paul described followers of Jesus as ‘groaners’ (Romans 8:23). It was public acknowledgement of their weakness; of their waiting – and longing – for something better, for someone greater than themselves to do what they couldn’t, to come and put everything right. I think that’s what I love most about the Christian worldview – it’s a faith for the medal-less (metaphorically speaking!), the morally bankrupt, the broken and the vulnerable. It’s week one at Failures Anonymous every day. If life feels overwhelming, if you recognise your brokenness, if you feel powerless to bring about change, then you qualify. It’s why the Church should be characterised by humility as much as anything else – considering others as more important (Philippians 2:3) and seeking to serve, honour and love people whatever it takes.
But Paul goes on to say something even more staggering. He describes God himself as a groaner (8:26). No one had ever talked about God this way. Jesus groaned. Rather than standing aloof from our suffering, not only does he feel the pain and disappointment we experience, but he’s done something to fix it. And anyone who rules out the idea of God because there’s suffering in the world is leaving the greatest of all stories at the interval; they’re missing the best bit.
That offers awe-inspiring hope for the future, and that’s what it really means to be “more than a conqueror” (8:37). It’s nothing to do with the strenuous human effort that Cicero was looking for. Christians are more than that: those who know they don’t have what it takes, and yet have quiet confidence in someone bigger than themselves to get them through: Jesus – through whom it’s impossible to be separated from God’s love and acceptance.
So if you didn’t get the medal you were hoping for, if life has dealt you a rough hand or if unexpected pain has come your way, you don’t need to follow the ancient’s advice to “make the best of it”. Paul describes a Church and a God who sit patiently with us in our pain, whispering words of reassurance that the best is yet to come.