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Romans 8:22-27

It is easy to overlook the nuances of things that we assume to have figured out. Having been read and gleaned just as much as any biblical text in the modern era, Romans chapter eight is no exception to this rule. Romans 8:22-27 is a passage of scripture that has serviced the ends of a multiplicity of theologies in our time. For theologies of liberation, adoption, redemption, and restoration, this passage has served as a cornerstone. The image Paul invokes here by using the analogy of labor pains is one of embracing pain with the hope of producing something new. Imagine the extent of what Paul is proposing here – the rebirth of a planet – God’s recreation of all things! For Paul, this idea is central for an understanding of the world moving forward from the Christ event. Although the author does imply great hope with this beautifully constructed text, the often overlooked aspect of this scripture is its most obvious and inherent element: childbirth.

Paul is a thoughtful author, and I do not think that he uses the metaphor of birth lightly. Childbirth is a process of pain and evolution for both the mother and the child. These elements, however, are the inherent elements of Paul’s theology that have been greatly missed in our popular understanding of his work. Both of these words are equally offensive in our current context, and I hope to redeem them and bring this passage to light in a way that both can be embraced as Paul would challenge us to embrace them. All metaphors or stories break down at some point as maxims for reality. I don’t mean to imply some sense of antiquated allegory with assigned roles for parent and child, nine months of a full-term pregnancy, or other unknown elements of this word-picture. I simply want to bring to the fore two neglected elements of Paul’s literary device as commentary on Romans chapter eight: pain and evolution.

Regarding present popular Christian understandings of the condition of humanity, Paul’s work has been hijacked to produce, in the West, theologies of original sin and total depravity that I believe limit Paul’s ontology. I propose that it is in this passage from Romans that we find one of the most helpful and corrective anecdotes to our sin-obsession in our anthropology, and our fascination in the holiness movement with entire sanctification as instant eschatology. These are significant shortcomings in our current state of pastoral theology, and I hope to provide helpful correctives with pastoral implications for preaching and care in this commentary. If you are looking for some good comments on the original Greek or some comments on this passage in terms of literary and historical criticism, I suggest you pick up Douglas Moo’s classic work on Romans, or read Soderlund and Wright’s Romans and the People of God (Eerdman’s, 1999).

In our current religious milieu, we have a very difficult time dealing with pain. Pain serves as the impetus of theodicy in our time. Even as we lift up the cross of Christ, we do away with the problem of pain by suggesting that Christ suffered on our behalf or in our place so that we do not have to. This idea is based on a penal substitution understanding of atonement and could not be further from the implications of Paul’s theology here. In Paul’s theology, identification with Christ is pain (Galatians 2:20; 1 Cor. 9:27; 2 Cor. 11:25; etc.). I want to suggest that for Paul, pain is not an arbitrary vehicle for a philosophical problem of evil, it is the Cadillac of sanctification. You don’t get Christ without a cross – and you don’t get a new heaven and new earth without the pains of childbirth. We who have the first fruits are all groaning! If you’re not groaning, you’re not a part of Christ’s redemptive action in the world.

Thinking critically about our shared life and shared destiny as rebirth – I realize that my lack of pain as a part of my religious culture in North America is directly tied to our indifference to the suffering and pain found in our own communities and in the world around us. If we were convinced that our shared vocation was to be about the work of rebirthing all things, however, we would more readily embrace solidarity with the suffering around us. It is only as we, the Church (Christ’s body), enter into the suffering of others, as we suffer with them and for them, that somehow we are a part of God’s redemptive plan of rebirth in the world. I do not have a mathematical equation or theological formula for this reality, as this is more of an existential revelation. Furthermore, we must not only embrace the suffering of others, but we must learn to embrace our own pain. According to Paul, it is in our weakness that the Spirit is able to help us. Too often, saints are guilty of claiming sanctification as liberation from pain. Paul would suggest otherwise. He would suggest that sanctification is not an escape from pain, but it is the ability to embrace pain as sanctifying. This is what every mother does who gives birth: she gives into excruciating pain with the hope that the child she has not yet seen will come through her patience and suffering.

Evolution is a very scary word for systematic theologians who have an understanding of God as highly controlling. As a child, I heard evolution used as a synonym for godlessness. I remember arguing with my sixth grade science teacher (who now is one of our parishioners) that evolution was impossible because it implied mindlessness and unintelligence! (I have since apologized for my use of his classroom as the ultimate platform for my rigid fundamentalism.) Later on, I studied the Old Testament and the story of the people of God. That which I discovered somewhere between Genesis and Malachi changed my mind. The evolution of the romance of the Old Testament was not a result of God’s mindlessness, but a result of his people’s unfaithfulness. Over time, God’s relationship with his people changed – for the worse. The covenant marriage of the people of the Exodus to Yahweh deteriorated into a one-sided affair characterized in the book of Hosea.

Coming back to Paul’s analogy, let’s think about birth. There are an infinite number of possibilities in the womb, and it is only upon delivery that the parents get to discover the nature of their newly formed being. Perhaps this analogy is growing in fragility with every word I write, but at least consider this – evolution is an undoing of knowing future certainties. And what does Paul imply here, but that we have great uncertainty about future destiny? In verse nineteen, Paul says that we are waiting expectantly for the children of God to be revealed. He states in 1 Cor. 13 that we now only see in part. Paul does not try to provide us with a precise and descriptive eschatology (yet, it is to this very end that we have been mining Paul and the other Apostles’ words for the past two thousand years). What Paul is trying to do here is begin a new framework of seeing reality and possibilities for the world because of the work of God in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s self-understanding according to this passage is that he is just one of the first fruits of God’s new gardening project – you and I are living in the days of future iterations of that same project. The older I get, the more I am convinced that holiness is an ability to change, to evolve. As Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3: The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

We hope that God is indeed giving birth to a new thing in our time. I believe that he is. I am not putting my hope in the liberals or the conservatives, the misogynists or the feminists, the progressives or the reactionaries. As audacious as this might seem, I am putting my hope in God. To this point in human history, God has been incredibly patient with the tenants of his Earth. When thinking about the role of Christians on this Earth, we often talk about stewardship or leadership. I think that it would be helpful for us to add another image to our collective self-understanding and imagination: the image of the midwife. What if we understood ourselves to be here to assist in the rebirthing of all things? We are not the ones giving birth, but we are an integral part of the birthing process. May we continue to imagine new possibilities with the guiding of God’s Spirit, as we anticipate our hope that is not yet seen.