I am a huge fan of modern medicine. My first three children were born in North Carolina with the marvelously numbing help of an epidural. Sure, I felt uncomfortable but I did not feel the excruciating agony of childbirth. This was not the case for baby number four. He was born in East Asia where the epidural was not often administered and so, it did not take. I did not know that birthing a baby was actually supposed to be so painful. At one point, I was so convinced that I was dying in childbirth that I tearfully looked into my husband’s eyes and apologized for dying and leaving him a widower to care for three, possibly four, children.
From Sorrow to Joy
In his farewell address to his disciples, Jesus compares his impending earthly departure with a woman’s sorrow in labor. This metaphor would not have been a new one to those listening to Jesus. It was used in Old Testament biblical literature to allude to “the birth pains of the Messiah refer[ing] to a period of terrible trouble that must precede the consummation.”Jesus uses this imagery to show his disciples that they were at that point. The misery of Christ’s death would be countered with the bliss of Christ’s resurrection.
In the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus has been preparing his disciples for what was about to come. As he looked ahead to his own death, Jesus tells them in John 16 that soon they would not see him. Their sorrow at his departure would be like the pains of childbirth. But their sorrow would not be the end; their sorrow would turn to joy. The intense agony of labor (and their sorrow) would be followed by inexpressible joy just as a woman “no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21). Jesus follows with, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:23).
Did you catch the source of joy there? And the permanence of that joy? “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Jesus is not telling them that they will be sad for a little bit at his death but time will heal all wounds and they will move on and be just fine. No. Jesus says that the only way to shift out of grief and into joy would be them seeing Jesus again. Jesus is the only source of permanent joy. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the only way to make sense of our own sorrows and joys.
Fullness of Joy
Some of us have been watching the chaos and destruction around the world. Some of us might be watching chaos and destruction closer to home. We live in a world full of tribulation but because of Christ, we do not need to lose heart for Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33). Jesus does not merely offer us a temporary epidural anesthetic to numb the pain of our lives. Jesus offered up himself so that we would have a true, active joy. Our current sorrows are turned to joy as we bask in God’s grace and forgiveness.
What a balm it is to my soul to know that though I walk through suffering, trials, and tribulations (some of my own making), I will not be left there. Even in the midst of hardship, in Christ, it is possible to experience peace and joy now. And when Jesus comes back to inaugurate his eternal peace, I will experience joy in its fullness. This reality helps me persevere through the sorrows that I face. It helps me to ponder them in light of eternity. It helps me not to grow bitter. Rather I am challenged to wonder how the Lord, through his Holy Spirit, is working in my life through it. Does it still hurt? Oh yes. Just as labor felt as if I were dying. But as I plod through the heartbreak, I am confident that there will be joy. The joy is present in Christ. And the joy is also in the future as I look to eternity where there will be no more pain and sorrow and sadness (Revelation 21:4).
Obviously, I did not perish in childbirth but experienced amazing relief and joy as I held my newborn in my arms. The anguish and pain were completely erased by the overwhelming joy of looking into the face of my infant. Our sorrows and pains are real but they do not have the final say. As we look into the face of Christ, let his beauty wash away our sorrows and turn them into joy.
About the Author:
Pey Chu (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is wife to a PCA pastor, mother of four and biblical counselor with Cross Care Counseling. She delights in serving with the women’s ministry at her church, teaching Bible studies, and watching Christ work in her life and in the lives of the people around her. Before moving to Chicagoland, she served on staff with Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) for 20 years, spending 10 of those years in East Asia working with college students and indigenous churches. Pey was a contributor to Beyond the Roles: A Biblical Foundation for Women and Ministry. In her free time, Pey enjoys knitting useless items and eating bonbons.