July 20, 2014
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)
It is interesting that Paul, writing to what was probably a predominantly male audience, would have invoked the imagery of a pain that has never been felt by males. Says New Testament scholar Conrad Gempf, "One rather expects that in the culture of the biblical world, even more patriarchal and andro-centric than our own, the intense period of suffering that follows the long months of discomfort would be skipped over lightly, since it never happens to the men who shape the tradition, but only to the women, whose 'job' it is sometimes seen to be…" Birth pains are mentioned explicitly from Genesis to Revelation, appearing in various strands of New Testament traditions: Paul, the Synoptics, John, and Revelation.
This canonical context for birth pang imagery clarifies and deepens our reading of Romans 8:22-23. When in these verses Paul uses the image of birth pangs to describe the yearning for redemption of creation and humankind, he draws on the several strands of meaning inherent in the image of birth pangs we find woven through Scripture. It is a common human experience; it is intense; it is unavoidable; and it is a process that, once begun, must run its course. The context of all of this realism about suffering as birth pangs is that it has a productive outcome: variously expressed as new birth, redemption, and the advent of the Messiah.
This bigger picture is the setting of Romans 8:22-23's birth pang analogy.
An Intense Pain
Says Gempf, "The most obvious reason for using the image of birth pangs is that the pain of childbirth is such an intense and total pain, one that everyone will have some knowledge of. So basic is it to Jewish, indeed all human, experience that chapter 3 of Genesis specifically mentioned pain in childbirth as one of the curses of the Fall, along with the necessity of toil and of death." The pagan world of the first century expressed its fear of the pain of childbirth through the goddess Ilithyia. They dedicated sanctuaries to her and offered prayers for safe delivery. Both Scripture and the ancient world viewed labor as a time of severe pain, but also of the danger of death. (Gempf, 121)
Jeremiah puts a theological frame around the pain of labor—it describes the intensity of the pain of God's judgment (Jer. 30:4-7). Labor is connected with the Day of the Lord in 1 Enoch 62:4-6. (Allison, 6)
Paul uses this image in Thessalonians in depicting the day of the Lord coming like a thief in the night, like the birth pangs of a woman with child. We see the same imagery in Mark 13, describing terrible and painful end-time events including strife, earthquakes, and famines. Matthew and Mark indicate that these are beginning and will get even worse. Birth pangs have an inescapable quality, a repetitive series of waves of pain that Mark's Jesus saw as an analogy for the sequence of apocalyptic events.
A Helpless Pain
Romans 8 speaks of suffering in terms of the pains of childbirth. The whole of creation, Paul tells us, has been in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. It is not just the opponents of God who feel this pain, but the faithful as well. "We ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly…"
The passage does not speak of the birth event or of the Spirit as a sort of midwife. The image of birth pains focuses primarily on the present pain and frustration. It does not look forward except in looking to the end of this pain and frustration. The message is not "this pain will produce a future good," but "this present agony will not always be with us." (Gempf, 124)
In Romans 8 and 1 Thessalonians 5 the pain of childbirth is a negative image. The same is true of several passages from the prophets and the psalms where men faced with armies of judgment, whether human or divine, are turned into vulnerable, laboring women (Is. 13:4-8; Jer. 48:41; Ps. 48:4; Is. 42:13-14). (Gempf, 125)
A Productive Pain
Viewed in the larger theological context of Paul and the broader canon, the birth pangs have a more hopeful effect. Romans 8:12-25, taken as a whole, speaks of hope. Clearly the creation undergoes futility and pain, and the human race is cursed by being subjected to it (Gen. 3). But, says Paul, it is now God the Spirit who feels it in our stead or alongside us in a sort of reversal of the curse. This glimmer of hope is reinforced by a number of passages beyond Paul's letters where labor pains are shown to lead to new birth. John 16:20-22 emphasizes the joy of new birth that comes after labor. In Isaiah 66:6-9 and Micah 4:10, 5:3-4, Yahweh promises that new life will come from Israel's labors. Revelation 12:1-6 promises that after the birth of the child who will rule the nations, he will not be devoured by the waiting dragon but will be rescued by God. And in Galatians 4:19, Paul likens himself to the Galatians' spiritual mother, in labor until Christ is born in them. (Gempf, 129)