Romans 8:18-25 [26-37]
It’s all about suffering, isn’t it?
No, of course it’s not. It just seems that way when you’re going through it.
Paul’s Roman congregation was suffering. If not actually persecuted they were deeply pained that the redemption that they longed for, and that had been promised by their newfound faith, seemed to be taking its sweet time. This was in the early days of the church when belief in an immanent Parousia (the end-time when Jesus returns and God puts all things to rights) was widespread.
Paul encourages his audience: if we suffer, we are suffering with Jesus. Just as Jesus’ resurrection lifted him from suffering to glory, we can expect a comparable outcome from our own suffering. Abide in this hope. Meanwhile all creation suffers like a mother in labor. What do you expect? No new life emerges without some disruption.
In natural childbirth classes (a million years ago now) I was taught that the suffering of childbirth as depicted in the movies, accompanied by lots of agonized screaming that left the father, anxiously waiting outside the room, apoplectic with concern, is grossly exaggerated. To a great extent in the modern era, women suffer in childbirth because that is the cultural expectation. Labor is exactly that: hard work. Look upon childbirth as hard work instead of suffering. Pain is minimized when you don’t fear the kind of agony often depicted in the media. In my case, it worked. (Of course, I was lucky enough to have no complications.)
It used to be said that labor is “the kind of pain you forget.” This is a stupid thing to say, but it does reflect that the joy of actually producing a child tends to outweigh whatever suffering you remember from labor.
It is this image that Paul uses to reassure his congregation. Yes, it’s hard now. But remember that the promised outcome is glorious beyond all comparison to current suffering. Recognize that anticipating the kingdom is hard work, and fear not, for fear will exaggerate the pain.
In the meantime, all creation groans in anticipation. Paul’s dragging all of creation into his discussion is remarkable. God’s plan is to redeem the cosmos, not just us. All of creation groans with us. We are never as alone as we think we are.
We tend to think that everything being OK is normal, but it’s not. Suffering is normal. Creation will suffer as long as anything in it deviates from God’s way of redemption, and it’s obvious that there’s a lot out there that still deviates. If not for God’s promise of ultimate salvation, and the belief that God is constantly at work to perfect the cosmos, the suffering would be hard to bear. But we do have the promise. And we have each other. And the companionship of all creation.
As a parish priest, I was privileged to know a lot about my parishioners. Because of the great gift of their trust, in many cases I knew where they suffered. There were times as I distributed communion along the altar rail that I would think things like, “This one worries about her intractable teenager; This one just received a cancer diagnosis; This one still mourns his wife after twenty years; This one feels distant from God;” and so on. And of course I was aware that there was additional suffering I didn’t even know about. I learned something about compassion that way.
Yes, it’s about suffering. But it’s not all about suffering. It’s about identifying with Jesus, and with others who suffer. And with all creation. It’s about hope. It’s about setting aside our fear. It’s about faith in the new life that’s on its way. It’s about remembering. It’s about companionship and compassion.
If we just listen.
The Reverend Dr. Cynthia Byers Walter is an Episcopal priest and author of the book, God’s Welcome, A Co-Creative Vision of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for Women. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.