No one has to tell us that the world as we know it is a place of suffering, travail, and woe. Just watch the nightly news, or walk through a forest preserve or nature preserve and see the slaughterhouse of the animals. You’ll see injustice, violence, and blood everywhere.
In light of that, let us take a look at Paul’s mysterious and wonderful letter to the Romans: “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are as nothing compared to the glory to be revealed for us. For creation was made subject to futility…in the hope that creation itself would be set free… We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now” (Romans 8:18-22).
These are wonderful and yet puzzling words. Paul gives us the magnificent image of groaning in labor. The gestation of a baby is a slow and often uncomfortable process, and the act of giving birth—especially in Biblical times—is often horribly painful.
So the world, in all of its travail and woe, is like a maternity ward where millions of mothers are laboring to give rise to life. Or the world, in all of its travail and woe, is like a garden that stands in constant need of pruning and hoeing and cutting.
Think of an old, gnarled tree whose beauty is largely due to the signs of its struggle with life, or the beauty of an old person’s face, which arises from the twists and turns and agonies of making it through the human journey. These are signs of suffering in the present life.
And yet all of this is in service of God’s deep purposes, even when we can’t clearly see them.