My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you. (Galatians 4:19)
Any woman who has given birth to a child knows the pain of childbirth. With my first child, I was obliviously idealistic about what childbirth would be like. Other women might have tried to explain it to me, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of labor. Giving birth to a child is a complete investment of oneself— body and soul. The pains of childbirth are, of course, a part of the curse. What is true on a physical level about childbirth, is also true on a spiritual level about the labor of love called missions. The gospel worker must endure hardship in the process of watching and participating in the birth of spiritual offspring.
The Pains of Missions
Missions, like childbirth, is painful because of the curse. People are blind, deaf, and rebellious. The Bible says we are all “dead in our sins.” (Ephesians 2:1) We do not naturally want to know and obey God. Oftentimes, God uses painful experiences in people’s lives to make them aware that they cannot be fruitful on their own. Without God, they are only giving birth to wind.
It’s painful to go through, and almost just as painful to watch someone go through that process. We groan, as Paul did, as if in labor, because the work is so agonizing. Sometimes our endeavors remain without fruit, sometimes labor progresses so slowly, we get discouraged. The saddest experiences are the spiritual stillbirths when people’s initial interest suddenly aborts, and we are left empty-handed and grieve the loss. One friend to whom we had been witnessing for years died before accepting Christ; another was on the brink of conversion only to say, “The Gospel is like a fairy tale, it’s too good to be true!” and walked away from the church.
We groan in pain at such losses. But we must not forget that there is also great joy and hope in the labor of missions because Jesus has promised us his comforting presence and to do the work of calling and redeeming his own.
A Life-Giving Opportunity
The pain of childbirth is nothing compared to what good comes through it! What keeps us women going and enduring in childbirth is the thought of holding that precious newborn in our arms when all is over. Similarly, the pain of missional engagement is eclipsed by its ultimate goal: seeing new birth happen. We get front-row seats to watch Christ’s life being formed in others, growing, and bearing fruit to God. Jesus describes regeneration and conversion as a birth account:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3-8)
God the Spirit is the one who gives new life. As such, the gospel laborer’s work is merely that of spiritual midwifery. Because the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, blows where he wills, we are sometimes surprised at whom God chooses; new life is sometimes born in unexpected places. We often think those in whom we invest the most will be born again, including our own friends, relatives, or physical children. But this has not proven to be true in our 20 years of experience on the mission field. Some of the people we thought would become believers have not and many we would never have expected to come to Christ have received new life. I think, in particular, of the refugees from closed countries who have passed through the spiritual birth canal. Our job is to tell people about the good news and intercede for their salvation. God will do the rest. We just stand beside them as spiritual midwives, experiencing sympathetic labor pains. And what a joy it is to witness a new life coming into the world through a new birth!
A Future-Oriented Hope
Both the pain and the joy of mission work point forward to a future hope. Paul speaks of a future event: “Until Christ is formed in you.” The Apostle is playing with words here. The word “formed” could be used for the formation of an embryo in utero, which turns the picture around a little. Paul is laboring, like a woman in childbirth, for Christ to take up residence in the believers and grow to full-term in them. This is a promise of which Paul is confident. In Colossians 1:27 he writes: “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ in you. The promise is that Jesus will grow so big in our lives, that the fruit of our lives is Christ himself. Just like Jesus grew physically in Mary’s womb to full term and was born as a human baby, so Christ grows spiritually in us, through our union with him and through the transforming work of the Spirit, until he is born in us.
It is a beautiful process to watch someone be born again and grow in Christ-likeness. Paul was frustrated with the Galatians because he was not yet perceiving the growth he would have expected to see in them. They were tempted to incubate other saviors, to nurse the extremes of law-keeping or lawlessness. The beauty of the Gospel is that Christ was born a human, lived the perfect life for us and died the death we deserved to unite us with himself in his resurrection— his rebirth! He burst out of the tomb, the womb of the earth, as the first fruits of all who will be raised with him. The promise is secure: all who are in Christ and in whom he resides through faith will be glorified and made like him. We will be remade in his image and the entire groaning creation will be liberated from the pangs of childbirth as the children of God experience the glorious freedom of eternal life! (see Romans 8:18-25)
As missionaries, we often feel helpless to “make things happen.” Indeed, we cannot. But the Spirit himself groans in intercession for us and for all of God’s elect children who have not yet bowed the knee to Christ. So, whether you are involved in missions at home or overseas, remember that the pain involved in the missional labor is just a small taste of what Jesus went through to bring you to new life. It was Jesus’s labor of love for you on the cross and the Spirit’s labor of love in wooing you to Himself that gave you new birth. Take heart and rejoice that you now get to watch him do that for others!
About the Author:
Eowyn was raised as an MK in France, studied German at Wellesley College, then received a Masters in Theology from Westminster Seminary in California where she met her husband, David. They married in 1997 and moved to Eastern Berlin as church-planting missionaries in 2001 where she was challenged to find creative ways to reach out to post-communist atheists. She currently enjoys the open doors she has ministering to refugees. Eowyn and David have 5 children.