“For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Romans 8:22).
MEANING AND PURPOSE MAKE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUFFERING THAT IS TOLERABLE AND SUFFERING THAT IS NOT. When we suffer, if we know the struggle is leading to something worthwhile, we can bear it. And “birth pangs” is perhaps the most powerful metaphor with which to make that point. In the physical realm, the agony of the birth process can be endured because of the joyous prospect of new life. And in the spiritual realm, a similar thing is true. If the “pangs” that we experience are those of a “birth,” then we can tolerate what would otherwise be intolerable.
In Romans 8:22, Paul uses this analogy with reference to the corruption of the physical universe. The consequences of human sin have fouled the habitat that God created for us, and Paul pictures the earth as longing to be released from the ravages of our rebellion against God: “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” The universe is in agony, but the “labor” is one that is striving toward a significant “birth.”
But just as the creation “groans and labors,” so do we. As we struggle through this world, we can only imagine what it must have been like to live in Eden, prior to the pain. We live in a broken world, but we yearn for one that isn’t. To put it plainly: we suffer. But our suffering is not meaningless. A “birth” is coming.
The difficulty, of course, is to keep in mind what we know about the meaning and purpose of our sufferings. The birth may be coming, but the labor right now tends to dominate our thinking. So as hard as it may be, we need to make ourselves look beyond the birth pangs. “Gird up the loins of your mind,” Peter wrote, “be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
Yet there is a sense in which the birth pangs themselves are useful. If that’s what it takes to make us enjoy heaven when we get there, then we can be glad to have experienced them.
“Even in evil, that dark cloud that hangs over creation, we discern rays of light and hope and gradually come to see, in suffering and temptation, proofs and instruments of the sublimest purposes of wisdom and love” (William Ellery Channing).