Recently, my family set out on an afternoon walk. Beauty surrounded us; the fall colors set the trees aglow, and the sun shimmered upon the lake as it set. There was much glory to behold that day. The display of the changing season was spectacular. Upon returning home, I was reflecting on all we had seen when my son thoughtfully interjected, “It is hard to take in all the beauty when you are in pain.”
My son has an undiagnosed neuromuscular disease. It presents itself as muscle weakness and fatigue. That simple walk hurt his teenaged body, and while what he said caused my heart to sink, it encapsulated a truth that resonates deeply for many I minister to.
When I walk alongside hurting, wounded, and broken people, I long for them to encounter Jesus and his tender care for them. I want them to live fully, knowing what he has promised them. But for many, it is a slow, long walk to get there, and my son’s words made sense of this in a new way for me. Pain calls our attention to what hurts. Pain is loud. It requires a large portion of our energy just to live with it. And pain can be consuming, tainting how we experience everything. It shouts about what is wrong with us and our world.
We can all resonate with this on some level, a simple head cold or twisted ankle can make an ordinary day feel hard and miserable to slog through. The presence of pain impacts all of us.
The Apostle Paul acknowledges this in his letter to the Romans. He uses the metaphor of childbirth to talk about the pain we suffer due to the many evils that the fall has brought upon us.
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Rom 8:22)
Labor is painful and Paul is using it to remind us of the reality that, as we wait for our redemption to be fully realized, there is pain and misery.
Sometimes our agony can dull our ability to see God’s forthcoming promises. But just as the intense suffering involved in labor ends with the arrival of a precious child, so too will our groanings be resolved by something far greater when our adoption as children of God is finally complete.
My son is acutely aware of this and shares with us his confident hope that as God’s son, one day, he will have freedom and joy that will accompany his redeemed body. But that does not stop him from feeling the full weight of his broken and weak body now. Paul reminds us that we all groan, awaiting our deliverance from suffering,
…and not only creation but we, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:23)
Yet, while we all face pain (both physical and emotional), for some people—it is much more intense—it crushes and overwhelms.
Recognizing this helps us to care more patiently for those who are wounded. We need to understand their hearts and what is going on deep within them. We must fully realize their groanings before we even try to encourage them in their suffering. Too often, we are tempted to move past people’s pain, calling them to live as if they were fully redeemed already. Most of us are prone to think that it is wrong to linger on what is hard in our present realities. But even the analogy Paul uses evokes sympathy for our laboring. The pain of childbirth cannot be bypassed, it is something we must go through before hope is birthed. He reminds us that we all groan as we await what is coming. And while what is coming is glorious, we are now still groaning, and that can shape how we see the world.
A suffering heart brings with it a different perspective, and it is good that we learn from it, as I did from my son. As we stood to gaze upon the same glorious scene, we experienced it differently. I was comforted by seeing the beauty-filled creation, whereas he was made more aware of his weakness and brokenness. And while for him there was sadness, it has fostered in him a deep longing for Christ’s return that far exceeds mine.