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The Unexpected Good News in Advent’s Groaning

“It’s the time of year when everything gets a glow-up: the candles come out, the twinkly lights go up, we deck our ordinary lives with tinsel and sparkle and evergreen. I love it all. And yet, the first language of Advent’s expectant season is not bell carols, but groaning—the audial ache of a world in crisis.” 

Stephanie Duncan Smith

That last sentence stops me, inviting me to read it again, to savor and explore the words and their meaning: “The first language of Advent’s expectant season is not bell carols, but groaning—the audial ache of a world in crisis.”

What a brilliant definition for a groan! An audial ache. An ache that is heard.

We need only scan any recent morning’s headlines to feel our bodies ache with the grim echoes of our world’s groans:

  • “Heavy bombardment. . . overwhelmed with casualties. . . nowhere to go.”
  • “No safe zones. . . even more hellish. . . destroyed. . .”

This past Sunday, our preacher challenged us not to rush past the darkness of Advent but to be willing to sit in it, to hold at bay a superficial celebration in hope of a deeper celebration to come.

In the same we can’t feel the full joy of Easter without first sitting with the pain of sin and the grief of the death of the One we love, we can’t fully celebrate Light’s coming until we have sat in the darkness.

But do we dare? Do we dare to sit with the pain—our own, and that of the people around us? Do we dare to feel the world’s groaning in ourselves too?

I sense myself pulling away from the pain and the darkness, wanting to hurry into the relief of the light.

I return, instead, to the groaning, choosing to trust that as I honestly pray life’s realities, Light will find me there.

Groaning: a simple mind map leads me first to the groaning of our world and its people. Again, the headlines:

  • “Hacked. . . ghost city. . . raped and mutilated.”
  • “Climate damage. . . twenty-two dead. . . forests burned in Canada in 2023 eight times greater than the forty-year average.”

Paul’s words, written around 58 AD, remain true: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom 8:22, NIV).

But I also think of the groans and cries of the mothers I helped as they labored to bring new life into the world. They breathed and pushed through pain more severe than most other kinds of pain. But pain wasn’t the end. Pain was part of a process, a precursor to fulfillment of life’s promise.

Very little that is worth doing comes easily. Witness the cellist on Carnegie Hall’s stage after tens of thousands of hours of practice. The graduating doctor. The mother offering a breast to a crying infant at two a.m. And again at four.

Behold the cross.

And long before the cross, Mary’s yes to making space in herself, letting her world be turned upside down, being stretched and torn and transformed.

She groaned. But the groaning was not for nothing.

Suffering doesn’t speak the last word.

That is wonderfully freeing news. But the news is better still. Stephanie Duncan Smith takes us back still further into the story, before our current crises, before Mary’s laboring groans, all the way back to humanity’s first cries and to the One who heard our cries and came running.

“I think of Advent this way. Human pain is the call—every nerve ending crying out. The Incarnation is the response—every mirror neuron of God firing, volcanic in awakening. God hears the crash and cries of our great fall and comes running. Emmanuel rushes through time and space to be not just near our hurt, but human with us in it.” 

Stephanie Duncan Smith

In her summary words, “Advent tells the story of the great rushing of divine empathy toward human hurt” (Smith). 

This is what we miss when we race too quickly past the groaning to get to the light: we miss knowing not just in our heads but in our bodies that when we cry out, God hears. And that he comes. Has come. Will come.

As we journey through these first weeks of Advent, will you dare with me to name the weight of the darkness that you feel around and within you, to let our world’s groans, and our own, rise from our lips to the ears of God? Will you name the pain with me, knowing that our tender God sees and hears and is already at work in ways perhaps unseen, eager to bring us out into the spacious safety of his love? As we look and see and name the pain, let’s cry with the saints throughout history, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

If you need, like I often do, a picture of God’s fiercely protective response to us in our desperation, have a look at Psalm 18:1-19. There David’s cry is met by “every mirror neuron of God firing, volcanic in awakening” (Smith) culminating in David’s confident declaration: “He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me” (Ps 18:19).

It is true: God’s rescue often comes in ways we don’t at first recognize—an embryo in a virgin’s womb rather than a mighty warrior. But God does come. So as we wait for the coming of Christ in this Advent season, risking the truth about the darkness, may we find comfort in the truth that in God’s certain and ongoing coming, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5 NLT).

Waiting together in hope,


P.S. I recently read you a few Advent-related paragraphs from my new book, Risking Rest, and shared my prayer for you during this Advent season. If you missed it and would like to hear how my years in Afghanistan helped me understand Advent more deeply, you can watch the five-minute video here or on Instagram.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Linda

    Your Dad just dropped three of your books Risking Rest to me . Looking forward to reading it and passing on the others as Christmas gifts .
    Merry Christmas to you ! ❤️🎄🎶

    1. Carolyn Watts

      Great! May the books be a blessing to you and those to whom you give them. A blessed Advent and Merry Christmas to you as well!

  2. Cathy

    Oh my! Did I ever need to see this today!! In the midst of divorce from my husband of 46 years and struggling through the first holiday season. Thank you for this encouragement.

    1. Carolyn Watts

      Oh, Cathy, what a challenging season! May you experience God’s coming to you over these next weeks.

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