Yesterday, Paul (in verse 17) introduced the idea that, as good as life in the Spirit is, we will still experience suffering. Just like Jesus suffered before experiencing God’s glory, so will we. Yet Paul encouraged us by painting a picture of our future glory that is so… well, glorious… that our present sufferings aren’t worth comparing. God is preparing something big: a complete restoration of the whole of creation, in which we are the centrepiece. All of creation is waiting for us to take our place (again) as God’s image-bearers, when our glory is revealed. That’s how mind-blowingly big our future glory will be. So keep focused on that, says Paul, as you endure the sufferings of our in-between existence. It’s a bit like a woman in labour…
The pains of childbirth
Romans 8:22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
Childbirth can be quite bad, right? I mean, I’ve witnessed a couple of them. They’re not pleasant. And we weren’t into the whole natural birth thing, either. I mean, good luck to you if you can do it, but for us – as soon as we got to the hospital it was “right, let’s get some gas, some pethidine, put in an epidural.” I’m sure they gave something to my wife a bit later, too, but I was pretty much out of it by then. (Don’t judge. Listening to all that groaning can be painful.)
Paul’s point is that it is painful. But it’s pain with a purpose. It’s bringing new life into the world. It’s ushering in a new creation. Childbirth has often been described as trying to squeeze something the size of a watermelon out of something the size of a lemon. That’s bad enough. But God is trying to squeeze an entirely recreated world out, which is why the pains are so severe. (Yes, I went there.)
Waiting for our adoption
And it’s not just creation. We groan, too.
Romans 8:23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
We groan, because we’re living in a half-way existence. We’ve got the downpayment: the “firstfruits of the Spirit.” But we haven’t got the whole deal. I’d say the head is crowning but the baby isn’t out yet – except (just in the nick of time) Paul has swapped metaphors. It’s not the birth of a child we’re waiting for, but for our adoption papers to come through – so we can fully enter into our new identity as God’s children.
A few years ago, my sister and her husband adopted a little boy from Taiwan. The adoption was processed overseas, and he’s been living with them for around three years. But it wasn’t until recently that his birth certificate has officially been issued in his new family’s name, and his Australian citizenship was formalised. It was a proud moment (and photo, shared on Facebook) when all of the legal stuff was finally done, and he got to share the “glory” – the name and citizenship – of his parents. Even though he’d belonged to them ever since they brought him into their home.
We already belong to God. But the full measure of that adoption still awaits us: when we get to truly share in his glory – to have his name written on us (Rev 3:12) and to be issued with the citizenship documents issued from heaven (Phil 3:20). Our decaying bodies will be no more; we’ll be given new, resurrected bodies (1 Cor 15:42-44).
While we wait, we hope and pray
So what do we do while we wait? We hope.
Romans 8:24-25 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
We’re not there yet. We hope for it. Not because it isn’t certain – that it might not happen – but simply because it isn’t there yet. It’s like a Christmas present you know someone has bought for you; it might be sitting there under the tree. But until Christmas morning, you can’t experience it yet – you still wait in expectant hope. (“New underpants – I’ve been waiting all year…!”)
And this requires patience. It requires trust. And patient trust is expressed best in prayer. But even that can be difficult when suffering is great. So Paul reminds us that the indwelling Spirit – the one we talked about back at the start of chapter 8 – doesn’t abandon us in this, either:
Romans 8:26-27 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
When we’re at the end of our ability to cope. When we don’t know what to pray – the important thing is that we still pray. Like Job, we direct our groans, our tears, and our questions to God. We allow our suffering to make us more aware of our need for him, rather than to be an excuse to hide from him.
And when we do that – when we show by our patient, trusting prayers that God is greater than our suffering – we bring him glory. Our endurance is a silent act of worship. An expression of trust. Because we know that God is working all things for our good. (How? We’ll look at that next week.)