Giving birth isn’t something I’ve done, but I was praying for someone I know who is due to be doing that any time now – which got me thinking about labour pain, and about suffering.
We humans don’t generally like suffering, and we naturally complain, grumble, scream, yell, and try in various ways to avoid pain, to prevent or minimise suffering – for ourselves and for those we care about, and sometimes for humanity in general (as in: medical research, for example). And a thread that weaves loudly through our responses to suffering is: why?!!!
We don’t (usually) ask why when something good comes our way – we ask why when we experience pain, or when we see others suffer and it seems unfair.
Sometimes we try to find reasons, to explain why someone might deserve the suffering they got – there’s all sorts of ways humans go about this: we point to a rape victim’s short skirt and say she was asking for it; we look at someone’s past history and say they’re finally getting their comeuppance; we invent myths about “karma”, saying your suffering must be because of something you did in some “previous life”. We come up with all sorts of ways of explaining away the seeming unfairness: the fact that people do suffer through no fault of their own.
But let’s go back to what started me on this train of thought: labour pain.
My immediate thought was: labour pains mean that every birth, with all the joy of bringing a new baby into this world, is also a reminder that we live in a fallen world.
The woman giving birth is suffering not because of anything she has done personally – it’s a general thing, it’s the whole of humanity suffering as a result of human sin. The whole world is messed up, the beauty of nature is mixed with the prickliness of thorns and with mosquitoes and with animals devouring other animals and with humans being horrible to other humans and, yes, with pain and suffering in various shapes and sizes – and all because of human sin, because we rebelled against our loving God and chose to go our own way.
The way I see it, it’s not so much punishment as consequence – if you unplug from the source of everything you need, you end up in a mess.
The good news, though, is that God has given us a way to get plugged in again: his name is Jesus. And I believe that’s exactly the point of all this – when a woman gives birth, the pain of childbirth is a reminder of human sin, a reminder that’s intended to call us to repentance.
When we complain about pain and suffering, when we yell “why” and shout “it’s unfair”, we’re missing the point. The suffering of an individual may seem unfair to us, and it often isn’t because of something that individual has done – but the suffering of humanity in general is not unfair, it is a consequence of our rebellion against God. What is actually unfair is all the good stuff! It’s all grace, all totally undeserved when we consider humanity’s sin. God could have given up on us ages ago and left us to rot – he’d have been perfectly justified in doing that! But no, he has chosen to be gracious to us. He loves us – even though we have turned our backs on him.
Much like the loving parent of a teenager, he keeps loving us even though we storm out and slam the door, shouting: I hate you!
And he keeps the door unlocked, and milk and cookies ready for when we come to our senses and realise we do need his love.
The answer to “why is there suffering” is, on one level: why not? what do you expect, when you unplug from the source of all goodness and yell “I hate you, I don’t need you”?
The answer to “it’s so unfair” is, on one level: not really, considering our rebellion against God.
But the other answer to “it’s so unfair” is: yes, it is unfair that the perfect, sinless Son of God would die a horrible death, just so that you and I could have a way out of the hell we deserve. It is unfair that God would keep showing grace to us even though we’ve turned our backs on him. It is unfair that he sends rain to water the ground even though we’ve rebelled against him. It is unfair that he brightens our days with sunlight despite our sin. He is a very unfair God – he doesn’t treat us according to what we deserve, but rather, he keeps us alive and sustains us and offers us salvation at his own cost.
That’s the kind of unfair God I worship – out of love and eternal gratitude.
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
Turn to him now, while the door is still open. Jesus died so you can have eternal life, knowing God’s love personally and living without the burden of guilt – all you need to do is repent and take him up on his offer, and you too can say with the Psalm writer and with me: as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
Or as Psalm 32:1 says:
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.