Faith & Catastrophe

Patrick McKitrick /Wednesday, February 12, 2020


Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. - Romans 8:26-27 (NEV)

John Muir (1838-1914) was a conservationist, a man who loved nature and who advocated for the creation of national parks in America. He was an excellent writer, and we can see that there was an unmistakable spiritual element to his writing:

Now the storm is over, the sky is clear, the last rolling thunder-wave is spent on the peaks, and where are the raindrops now—what has become of all the shining throng? In winged vapor rising some are already hastening back to the sky, some have gone into the plants, creeping through invisible doors into the round rooms of cells, some are locked in crystals of ice, some in rock crystals, some in porous moraines to keep their small springs flowing, some have gone journeying on in the rivers to join the larger raindrop of the ocean. From form to form, beauty to beauty, ever changing, never resting, all are speeding on with love’s enthusiasm, singing with the stars the eternal song of creation.[1]

What can we do but smile in enjoyment at such a pleasing perception of nature?

Later on, in the same essay, we see also that Muir is a humble man, wanting to understand more about the world but knowing there are perhaps limitations to what he or anyone can understand:

Perched like a fly on this Yosemite dome, I gaze and sketch and bask, oftentimes settling down into dumb admiration without definite hope of ever learning much, yet with the longing, unresting effort that lies at the door of hope, humbly prostrate before the vast display of God’s power, and eager to offer self-denial and renunciation with eternal toil to learn any lesson in the divine manuscript.[2]

The beauty of nature should be a great source of inspiration for all of us.  What better response to the beauty of nature than faith in Almighty God?

We would not want, of course, to limit our faith simply to natural appreciation.

Christianity has many dimensions to it, but above all else it is our means of personal relationship with God.  If we are guided by the Bible, we will discover basic principles that never fail to amaze us, as well as nuances of meaning that will keep us challenged and learning for a lifetime.

What was it about certain things in nature that made John Muir react so strongly to them? Here is a description of how he responded once when finding some rare white flowers:

“I never before saw a plant so full of life; so perfectly spiritual . . . it seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator. I felt as if I were in the presence of superior beings who loved me and beckoned me to come. I sat down beside them and wept for joy.[3]

Weeping for joy is a good thing. There is another kind of weeping, however, as we all well know.


This life has pain and pitfalls and there are some among us who have to endure extreme forms of suffering.

No one leads a problem-free life, of course, but only a minority of us will have to face up to a catastrophe, or what is partly defined by the dictionary as “. . . a momentous tragic usually sudden event marked by effects ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin . . .”[4]

Such events might include:

  • the experience of living in a war-torn country
  • being attacked by a terrorist or insane person
  • or being involved in a horrific car or plane accident.

The worst aspect would be experiencing the loss of innocent lives, perhaps loved ones.

Those who are suffering great loss, or great injustice, or great physical pain should be excused by the rest of us from trying to make any sense of the situation.

They need our love, our support, our care.

They do not need exercises in logical reasoning, or our own feeble efforts to understand the “why” of things.

They have their plates full of “what?” They are not expected to be models of faithful behavior or language. They have understandably been struck dumb by pain and shock.

Regular, Everyday Suffering

But just where do we begin to reason, those of us who have the time and privilege to think about it; those of us who have mere everyday problems, rather than catastrophes?  What is God thinking? How does our Christian faith help us? How can our faith (eventually) help others?

It will dawn on us eventually that at the heart of our faith there is a man suffering—a man named Jesus, nailed to a cross. For those who suffer, this man on a cross is no mere symbol. They have joined him in suffering. They have joined him in pain. They are asking why. They are asking, as did Jesus, why the Father seems to be forsaking them.

We know, thankfully, how this story ends—it ends in the glorious resurrection of Jesus, our hope and our Savior. Praise God! This is our hope, this is our armor; this is what we want to share with other people.

In the meantime, however, the pains are sharp and the desire of the suffering person to groan is overwhelming.

The Groans of the Spirit

We will discover in the Bible that one of the many dimensions to faith is the help of the Holy Spirit. As indicated in Romans 8:26, the Spirit himself intercedes “with groanings too deep for words.” This is a remarkable idea that rather challenges human understanding.

F.F. Bruce equates “groaning” with prayer of “longings and aspirations” and writes: “In such prayer it is the indwelling spirit who prays, and his mind is immediately read by the Father to whom the prayer is addressed (verse 27).”[5]

So we see in verse 27—“And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

Have we got this?

The Holy Spirit is dwelling within the person, groaning on behalf of the person, and God the Father is reading the mind of the Spirit. Can we really say we understand this? Let’s just say it is a bit outside the normal parameters of human reasoning. Can we intuitively grasp and accept that this is true? The answer to that is most decidedly yes. At least for an instant we can sense how closely God holds us, how much he cares for us.

In these extreme sufferings, we might think that the faith of the suffering person is being tested-- the human faith presumably powered by human will-- but no.

It is God’s faith that matters. God’s promises. Our faith was always a gift from God in the first place.

The Holy Spirit groans; God responds.

Karl Barth has commented on Romans 8:27 as follows:

Let us set aside our investigation of God. He searcheth us. Our mind is never right. But God knows the mind of the Spirit in us; and this mind, because it is known of God and is the mind of the Spirit, is right-minded. In human fashion no man and no thing can make intercession for us. We stand alone, and are lost. But, according to the will of God, the Spirit intercedeth for us, and we are saved. Apart from the intercession of the Spirit we are sinners. But God names us saints. He makes us saints, using for our fashioning nothing that we are or have been or shall be. He makes us his saints, His separated ones, His instruments, because of that intercession. And he that intercedes for us is the Spirit, the Hope, the Truth, Jesus Christ.[6]

When we contemplate these things we are entering into the glorious mystery of the Holy Trinity.

To repeat an earlier point, our role in relation to a suffering person is to love and care for them. That is no small thing. There will be time enough later, if God is willing, for the suffering person to read and think and reason things out.

But to renew the joy of living we might simply return to an admiration of the beauty of nature. How blue the sky; how green the grass! How joyful is the sound of a bird singing at sunrise.

There are new beginnings, even after catastrophes.

There are new beginnings as tiny and gentle as a white flower blooming on a spring day; as grand and wonderful as all eternity in the company of God.

Praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!


Patrick McKitrick is as OC Associate, who provides regular meditations for the OC Team. When he was a kid, Patrick dreamed of being the Prime Minister of Canada, or a cowboy! If he had a free afternoon, you might find Patrick on the back patio reading or snoozing! His favourite verse is Psalm 130:5-6​, "I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning."













[1] John Muir, “The Yosemite” My First Summer in the Sierra and Selected Essays (New York: Penguin, Library of America Paperback Classics) 2011, pp.77-78.

[2] Muir, p.80.

[3] Muir, p.325.

[4] Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

[5] F.F. Bruce, Romans: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)1995, p.165.

[6] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans 6th ed. (London: Oxford) 1932, p. 317.



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