Birth pangs

Here’s a winning evangelistic strategy for you. Imagine that someone walks up to you and asks what the Christian life is like. Your response? “Well, I’m glad you asked. The Christian life is like a pregnant woman delivering a baby and groaning in labor.”

Um, yeah. Crickets.

But that’s precisely the imagery Paul uses when he describes our heavenly hope:

We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. We were saved in hope. (Rom 8:22-24a, CEB)

The imagery is graphic, the metaphor easily accessible. The Christian life isn’t all sweetness and light. We live in mortal bodies in a broken world; we suffer, even as we wait in hope for God’s promises to be fulfilled, for death and sin to be defeated once and for all. We know that the ultimate future is secure. But until then we wait, and we groan.

And we rejoice — because in hope, we learn to see every gift in the present as a sign of God’s promised future. That’s the implication of Paul’s language of “the first crop of the harvest”: the gift of God’s Spirit is a promise of even better days to come.

As we saw in the previous post, Jesus too uses the image of birth pangs to describe the disciples’ anguish:

When a woman gives birth, she has pain because her time has come. But when the child is born, she no longer remembers her distress because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. (John 16:21)

Just as the agony of labor is swallowed up in the joy of holding a healthy newborn, the disciples’ distress at losing their master will turn to joy at his unexpected return.

But that’s not all there is to the metaphor. The prophet Isaiah used the metaphor of birth pangs to describe Israel’s distress as they awaited the messianic age (e.g., 26:17-19; 66:7-11). That’s similar to Paul’s use: we groan as we await the completion of what’s already been started.

Jesus tells his disciples that their grief will turn to joy, and that no one will be able to take that joy away (John 16:22). That doesn’t mean that they will never again suffer or have an unhappy day. But joy is the mark of the new age born in Jesus. No one can take away the disciples’ joy, because no one can reverse what God has begun.

We have dark days. We suffer and groan. But we also have a reason for joy — not mere happiness, but the deeply rooted and hopeful knowledge that God is gracious, good, and sovereign. For the disciples, the resurrection of Jesus will be the sign that changes everything.

Hopefully, something similar is true for us as we wait on God’s future.