Labor with Hope: Gospel Meditations on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and MotherhoodWritten by Gloria Furman with Jesse Scheumann Reviewed By Annabel Nixey
I remember sitting in birth class with my husband and the midwife telling us birth pains were an evolutionary adaptation to encourage ancient pregnant women to seek caves to shelter in to give birth. To be honest, I’m not sure even the midwife was convinced. Thankfully, Labor with Hope shows that the Scriptures contain much richer insights and more helpful truths concerning not just labor, but pregnancy and motherhood as well.
As the subtitle promises, Labor with Hope is a series of “gospel meditations on pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.” The chapters are brief (generally 4–5 pages) but theologically rich and pastorally warm.
Furman’s goal is to lead the reader to worship (p. 19)—to see how “every aspect of birth and motherhood serves to fuel our worship of Jesus … birth is not about us, but about God” (p. 65). The reader is invited to see that “our birth pain is like God’s, not the other way around” (p. 92); “our childbirth and fertility is not about us, but about God” (p. 128) and that “God has designed every detail of your child’s life to direct you (and them) to worship him” (p. 133). Again and again, the reader is drawn into a God-centered view of what is so often a human-centered topic.
The explicit target audience is women who are expecting (either biologically or through adoption). However, if mindful of this focus, it would also be of encouragement to parents and interested Christians more broadly. Furman has written in partnership with Jesse Scheumann, drawing on his thesis on birth pains in the Bible. This partnership is evident particularly in some of the earlier chapters. Nevertheless, rather than moving topic by topic through subjects which we may deem relevant, the meditations move “passage by passage,” jumping back and forth through a whole range of bible passages which mention either physical, spiritual or metaphorical labor or childbirth. Labor with Hope is not seeking to give a systematic overview of all that could be said on these issues. Rather it uses each passage as a launchpad to consider how the physical realities of birth point to eternal truths.
At times the choice of passages can feel unexpected. On reflection, this is actually one of the strengths of the book. By allowing the content to be so explicitly Scripture-driven, it means that the book is plush with unexpected theological insights which can really turn on its head what we think labor is about. It is refreshing to read a book on this important topic that is more theological than anecdotal, challenging but still warm. Highlights include the realization that birth pains are frequently used in the Old Testament as a metaphor describing God’s judgment (e.g., p. 47) and the implications this has for passages like Matthew 24:8 and Romans 8:22. Furman also provides a helpful consideration of 1 Timothy 2:15 (“saved through childbearing”) (ch. 20) and a courageous and compassionate reflection on abortion (ch. 8).
Another strength of Labor with Hope is the series of pastoral appeals peppered through the chapters. Furman is winsome and strong in her encouragements to reconfigure our approach to birth and motherhood. I particularly appreciated her gospel clarity on the purpose of having children (ch. 2), her acknowledgment of the pain in parenting (ch. 5), her encouragement to keep up the struggle of raising spiritual disciples (ch. 12), her rebuke of the “mommy martyr complex” (ch. 13), and her challenge to boast in the cross (ch. 17).
In terms of weaknesses, I felt the absence of a chapter on infertility and/or miscarriage. While these struggles are touched upon at various points in the book, their prevalence in life (and in the Scriptures) perhaps provided an avenue along which Labor with Hope could be of even more benefit to readers.
There are also a couple of points when perhaps the reader is led too quickly from Scripture to theological conclusions. For example, in chapter 7, I wanted to see more of the workings which linked the depiction of God as our rock in Moses’s song in Deuteronomy 32:18 with the incident at the rock at Meribah in Exodus 17:1–7, a link which Furman reiterates in chapters 8 and 10 (see pp. 60, 70). The conclusion she draws is that “there at the rock of Meribah, Yahweh gave birth to his people” (p. 60). Yet even in light of 1 Corinthians 10:1–4, I’m hesitant to see such a strong prefiguring of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement in the words “I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink” (Exod 17:6). I celebrate how richly the Scriptures find their resounding “yes” in Christ and his cross, yet perhaps we see the anguish of God’s birthing of his people (so helpfully highlighted by Furman), not so much in one incident at Meribah, but in the entire Exodus narrative, including his ongoing faithfulness to a persistently unfaithful people. Having said this, I’m mindful that these are gospel meditations, part of the joy of which is bouncing along with the author’s reflections.
Labor with Hope may be a book of devotions specifically for women, but in a world which is increasingly confused about what it means to be a woman, that is more significant than we may think. By focusing on the uniquely womanly topics of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood it sheds light on biblical themes which many may have overlooked, and it invites women to explore their God-given identity by reorientating the very personal experience of birth in a radically Christocentric direction. What a blessing that is!
Crossroads Christian Church
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
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