The Principle of Travail

by T. Austin-Sparks

Transcribed from a conference message given in August 1956 in a series entitled "The Israel of God". Words that were difficult to determine are indicated by [square] brackets.

The seed plot of our consideration and meditation at this time is a little fragment at the end of the letter to the Galatians. The letter to the Galatians chapter 6, in verse 16. It is the last clause, but I'll read the whole verse: "And as many as shall walk by this rule, peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God".

That last clause, 'the Israel of God', I want to bring alongside of that some other fragments. Going back to the prophecies of Isaiah chapter 53, verses 10 and 11: "Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied".

In chapter 66 of the same prophecies, at verse 8: "Who hath heard such a thing? Who hath seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth at once? For as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children".

The prophecies of Micah chapter 5, verse 3: "Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she who travaileth hath brought forth: then the residue of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel".

The letter to the Romans, letter to the Romans chapter 8, verse 22: "For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now... waiting for the adoption, the redemption, of our bodies".

In the gospel by John, gospel by John chapter 16 at verse 20: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye shall weep and lament, the world shall rejoice: ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but when she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for the joy that a man is born into the world".

And then again to the letter to the Galatians chapter 4, verse 19: "My little children, of whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you...".

Now let us bring together particularly the fragment from Galatians 6:16: "The Israel of God", and the fragments in Isaiah 53:10 and 11: "He shall see His seed"; "He shall see the travail of His soul". And to abbreviate that: "His seed... the travail of His soul".

It's a very full, deep and far-reaching matter that the Lord is bringing before us at this time, this whole matter of producing, securing, training, and using a spiritual seed - a new spiritual Israel.

This afternoon we begin this whole matter with a brief consideration of this particular principle, which is found in the word which has been in every passage which we have read, excepting one, this principle of travail.

We go back and remind ourselves that this is a law which God established in the creation. There is an established law of travail. You will recall what the Lord said, first to the woman, and then to the man, as we have it in Genesis 3:16-19. To the woman He said, and then to the man He said, and He there linked this law in two realms: with production and reproduction. In one connection with children; in the other connection with the earth.

And in these two connections of the law of travail we find three things.

First of all:

The Matter of Justification of Life.

The very justification of life is in reproduction, in a seed, in multiplication - it's never intended to be an end in itself. The only justification for life, according to God's law and principle, is that it reproduces. And so the law of travail is linked with reproduction. That runs through the whole realm of nature and of grace, the natural and the spiritual. There is no reproduction anywhere without travail; that's God's law. But, there is no reproduction without travail and the travail becomes the basis of the justification of existence. That is something much deeper than perhaps appears. And one might say it like this, quite bluntly: If we are without travail, there is no justification for our existence. You can put that round the other way: travail is God's way and ground of justifying our existence. We will come back to that, we just state it as we go on.

Then as to what He said to the woman, then He turned to the man and spoke about the travail of his labour, of the ground bringing forth thorns and briars, and that it would be by the sweat of his brow that the ground produced, and this was the preservation and sustentation of life. The justification of life: the preservation and sustentation of life, on the principle of travail.

And then, of course, in both cases the issue is a triumph. That is made perfectly clear in both connections. Paul puts his finger upon that, you remember, in his letter to Timothy. Yes, travail, but triumph. God will see you through in spite of it. It's the triumph of life in both connections - the children and the earth - that which issues as a testimony to something having been overcome, it's a testimony to a victory over forces at work which would prevent, which would make it infinitely difficult. The testimony of triumph. And travail, you see, is God's law by which He is not defeated! That is where the test comes always for us: He is not defeated. But out of the adversity, out of the difficulty, out of the suffering, something stands as a great testimony to triumph, to victory.

Now I'm only just touching on something, or on some things that run all the way through the Word of God and are so true to the spiritual life. We shall see more about those very things. Now note the implication of this principle of travail.

Travail in Every Connection

Remember, when I say that, I mean more than the two connections of which I've spoken. You go through the Bible and you see the great number of connections where this principle, this law of struggle and conflict and pain and anguish is the law of some tremendous new thing of God, the emergence of something of God. We'll leave that for the moment, but note the implication of such a law.

What did God mean by this? Well, I think simply this - perhaps much more, but this - that nothing was going to be easy and cheap. To put that another way: that God was really establishing the tremendous value of everything, saving man from regarding things as being of little concern or value, forcing him and forcing her to recognise that this thing is costly because it is valuable. Now, you see, it is the offset to the whole tendency of man's nature to get things easily, to get things cheaply, not to pay a price for them, to escape suffering, to escape labour, to get it all without any cost or price. And God has written in the whole universe this law that anything that is of Him, in creation or in grace, has a price attached to it, is a costly thing. It is infinitely precious and valuable, and worth suffering for!

Note, it is intended to bring the soul in - "the travail of His soul"; "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death" - to bring the soul into relation with things; and when we say that, we mean love. What we get cheaply and easily we don't really love. But that which costs, binds our hearts to it - it becomes a matter of the heart, of love. And so by travail, you see, the soul is saved from lightness, carelessness, frivolity, cheapness, and brought to recognise that there is something here that is infinitely precious.

How far-reaching is that truth and that law! What a lot of ground it covers, doesn't it? God is not going to let the creation off in this matter. This is the explanation of so much. And nations and people just give themselves up to frivolity, to cheapness, to escapism and all that sort of thing; that nation or people is on the high road to a bad time in its history. It won't be too long before it passes through some fiery ordeal, to bring back the preciousness and the seriousness of things. And if this is true in the realm of nature and the world, what a lot it explains in the realm of God's spiritual things!

Oh, the tragedy, the infinite tragedy of trying to make the things of God cheap and easy - even salvation, and the Christian life - cheap and easy, appealing always to the pleasure side of men, trying to eliminate the cost. The Lord Jesus never did that. He never did that. Salvation is something of infinite cost and everything to do with salvation is infinitely precious, and there is not one fragment of all that is of God which is not of surpassing and transcendent value. It's not just going to be had willy-nilly, but "through much tribulation" (and that's only another English word for 'travail') "we must enter into the kingdom of God". Yes, suffering is attached to anything of any value, and that is particularly true of spiritual things.

At that very point you and I, dear friends, do need to have our minds "converted" - that is where we need a tremendous change of mind. You cannot understand some things in the Bible unless you recognise that and unless that has become true. They sound flippant, garrulous; they sound as though they're just words, words, words. Listen: "Our light affliction, which is but for a passing moment...". What are you talking about, Paul? "Our light affliction"? Well, listen to his catalogue of sufferings! Listen to him as he tells us of all that he had to go through for the gospel's sake, and read the much more that Luke tells us, that Paul never mentioned personally. What that beloved servant of God went through for the gospel's sake! And yet he talks like this: "Our light affliction which is for a passing moment". You can't talk like that in the presence of suffering unless you have seen the infinite preciousness of that toward which God is working and bringing you. "Though now for a season we are in heaviness through manifold trials, yet... though we see Him not we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory". Now look at the context of that: fiery trials. Fiery trials! You can't just go through, understand, endure the travail, unless, unless you have some sense of the value of things.

Now, this law is carried through from nature to the purpose of God, to the Divine purpose, and is seen in the Scriptures to be the principle or law of all Divine realisations. If you look again, you will see that in all new beginnings, the initiations of God, this law is ever present. Everything of God emerges from some agony, from some convulsion, from some death struggle. Look at your Bible again. It's like that all the way through: without or within, some tremendous travail marks every new beginning of God. Can you, can you put your finger in the Bible upon any instance where God began again and there was no association with the principle of travail? You'll have difficulty, it's the law of birth, you see, and it relates to the spiritual world, the purpose of God, just as much as to any other realm.

And what is true of God's beginnings and initiations, is true of every enlargement. Whenever God sets Himself for increase, for enlargement, to get something more in that which He has already got, it seems that He plunges that thing anew into travail. Yes, in nature, every spring-time, which is to see nature enlarged, growing beyond what it was before, every spring-time in its increase is a new travail.

A New Travail

You can almost hear the trees travailing at certain times as you walk in the woods. Probably if our ears were more attuned to that realm (and there are sounds to which our ears are not attuned and they're sounds, real sounds) we should hear the groaning in the creation. And Paul just says this to us: "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth...". What for? This is pent up, it is held back, it is under arrest; it is groaning for its expansion, its enlargement, its liberation!

Liberation. That's a law in spiritual things, dear friends. Every fresh measure of Christ, every bit of spiritual increase, is fraught with a fresh baptism into His passion. Well, we should recognise that, because so often we don't understand why it is that, when we ask for spiritual increase and enlargement, we immediately are plunged into a bad time. It comes that way, doesn't it?

Some of us have learned that so much, that we say these things to the Lord with our tongue in our cheek; we are very, very careful what we say to the Lord. We have learned that the way of enlargement is at cost, through fresh travail. It is true; we can't get away from it!

Yes, there are successive baptisms into the passion of Christ. The law, the law of His universality is the law of His passion. "I came to scatter fire in the earth... and how am I straitened until it be accomplished! But I have a baptism to be baptised with...". By the travail of His soul, the passion of His Cross, the straitening was removed, and the fire was scattered, and the enlargement took place. But that is equally true of the church as of Himself. The church has never expanded and been released without some convulsion. That's history, isn't it? And it's spiritual truth.

And again, what is true of God's beginnings, and of God's continuations and enlargements, is true of the final, in the finality of things: one great tremendous convulsion. If you like to change the word - travail. Travail! I'm not sure that the church has not entered upon that already. It's spreading, it's coming, it will be, at the end. It's the explanation. You look again at the Word, it's quite true to the Word, here it is and God is going to bring out that ultimate, and final, intrinsic thing of glory and preciousness, it comes out of the fiery ordeal at the end.

The Fiery Ordeal

Yes, the travail of the church at the end will issue in the final emergence of the church in glory and in the consummation of the Divine purpose. The Bible sees a great travail in the church and in the creation, out of which the Kingdom will finally come in fullness. "When you see these things... lift up your heads; know that your way out draweth nigh..." your escape, your exodus, your redemption.

Now, this principle, of course, is comprehensively, fully gathered up in Christ Himself and in His Cross. Christ's passion, Christ's Cross is central to the whole universe, and central in this particular respect: it's travail through which the universe is redeemed. Yes, the heavens and the earth. The Cross of the Lord Jesus affects the whole range of things in the earth and beyond the earth. His travail is of universal significance, it's such a far-reaching thing. And into every experience of true spiritual travail there is something that is of far-reaching significance and account.

Here is this one little man, Paul - thought very little of by the world in his day, despised, and through centuries since. A great man in his own eyes calls him "the insignificant little Jew", Paul of Tarsus. Well, that's the world's estimate of him. Here he is saying: "I fill up in my body that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for His body's sake, which is the church". In other words: "I sip His cup, and in so doing, I touch the whole Body of Christ." It's a tremendous statement, isn't it? But was it true? Was it true? Has history proved that it was true?

I would like to stop here with a parenthesis on that historical side of things. You know, fifty years ago, the whole realm of biblical scholarship, as it is called, "finished" Paul. They finished Paul; they wrote him off. They decided that Paul was not Christ's, that his was in another, another realm of teaching altogether - it wasn't Christian - and so they wrote him off. That's Paul finished, as they thought! Somehow or another, he has had a mighty resurrection! And the remarkable thing is that the whole realm of scholarship, biblical scholarship, is now anew giving Paul his place, seeing the immense significance of this man. It's one of the most fascinating things to follow the course of biblical interpretation, and to be able to see today exactly what had happened, exactly what had happened: the tremendous come-back. Why, of course, we know, and they're all going to be made to know that this man, because he shared the sufferings of Christ, has a universal significance for the whole Body of Christ. It is true!

Now, in saying that, while it's interesting (and I could add so much more to it) the point is this, here's the principle: that, if you and I really do, do share the spiritual travail of Christ, we are lifted out of anything that is local and small and placed right in the universal.

It's a value secured for the Body of Christ beyond anything merely earthly and parochial. That is the principle of His travail, it's placed at the centre of the universe; and to share that does mean such enlargement, enlargement, such release! You see, we come back to it again: enlargement.

Release, Expansion

Fullness, reproduction - use what words you will. The law of it all is the law of travail. The Lord allows travail - indeed, He not only allows it, but appoints it - to find out, to find out whether really there is a heart-relationship to His things.

You walk across the road outside of this hall this afternoon, you will find a tree lying at the side of the road. A week or two ago it was upright and growing, and it looked like all the other trees. It had all the leaves of profession, all the proximity of association with the other trees, and outwardly it could pass off as being the real thing. But a storm came, the storm came. It's lying there; you look at it and you'll find it has no heart: it is a completely hollowed thing - it was only a framework. Go and look at it. It's a parable. That's what is happening, what is going to happen, what God will cause to happen everywhere.

The travail will come - the suffering, persecution, the trials, whatever it may be and whatever may be its form, whether it be within or without, it's going to come to discover whether the heart is there for God, or whether, after all, it's hollow, it's profession, it's simply association on the outside, and it's not real on the inside. It must be, God must expose what is not real, and God must test everything to prove it.

And look at the others, what has happened to them? Well, they survived the storm, and they're standing. Is that all? Not a bit! The next storm that comes will probably find that it has got a little more hard work than the last time to move this one. Aye, yes, you know that those roots have felt the strain and they have reached down and taken a tighter hold. They've got a grip on things; they've realised that storms are realities, and that it's a matter of life and death as to whether they stand.

It's so easy, dear friends, when things get difficult, difficult, to just walk out, isn't it? Give up... so easy. Oh, how we pray that the Lord will protect, protect from difficulty and trouble! But the Lord never answers a prayer like that.

It comes to us personally, it comes to us in our little companies - storms, shaking storms, things calculated to devastate and scatter, destroy and finish what is there - and the Lord doesn't protect. But what is He doing? On the one side He is finding out whether there is a heart, and whether that thing is real in every member, or whether it's only outward and hollow inside. On the other side, He is seeking to bring out the expression of preciousness: that this thing is too precious to let go easily; [this thing means] far too much for us to abandon at the first onset of adversity and trial. That's the meaning of it, it's very true. It explains a lot, doesn't it?

Now, I'm closing this moment for the time being, but this comprehends God's whole conception of a spiritual Israel. Why, you've taken that fragment or been led to it - "the Israel of God". You know, Paul was almost invidious when he used that. If you don't know what I mean by that, if you look at the letter to the Galatians, you will see that he is dealing with two Israels, and in that phrase he is saying, "There's a true and a false Israel".

I think Phillips, in his "Letters to Young Churches", has put in the word which, while it is not in the text, is what is generally believed to be the meaning of Paul. He has said: "To the true Israel of God". The true Israel of God and that is exactly what Paul meant. You know the letter to the Galatians, don't you? There's one Israel and Paul's saying, "That's not it, but those who walk by this rule, this measure, this standard". What standard? Well, look at the letter and you'll see: "My little children, for whom I am again in travail till Christ be fullly formed in you... as many as walk by this measure... they are the true Israel of God." The measure of Christ is made complete through travail. The true Israel. That is the "seed" which is "of the travail of His soul".

Well, perhaps we'll come back to that, but there's enough here in what we've seen to instruct, perhaps to rebuke, to correct, perhaps encourage. There's no getting away from it friends, like it or not like it, it's an established law. You can do all sorts of things, if you like, artificially, to get rid of the travail, but the fact is that God's law means that there is something, something that comes out of preciousness when it's suffered for, when you suffer for it.

Oh, may we never get to the place where we try to make the Christian life cheap and easy - a perpetual holiday. While there's the joy - and it should be there - while there should be the deep worship, thanksgiving and praise to God, I feel that the reality even of the joy is that it comes from deep experience through suffering. Is that not true? The true joy, is born out of suffering. It's not the superficial, flippant, frivolous kind of Christian who really knows the Lord most. No: "We rejoice", said Paul, "in all our tribulations". There's something precious that the Lord binds up with suffering, and you and I have to face that. We have to face it.

At this time I add this as I close, I have just received, as out from China, a message which is given by our brother Watchman Nee just before he was put in prison, about four years ago. Do you know what that message was on? The necessity for the breaking of the vessel in order to reveal the preciousness of the treasure within. He said it, he's knowing it. It's true, but: "He shall see of the travail of his soul, he shall see his seed... and shall be satisfied".


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