In John 16:20-21, just before Jesus’ arrest and trial, John records Jesus saying to the disciples:
Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.
This seems an odd metaphor to use with a bunch of men like Jesus’ disciples. None of them had experienced childbirth. We know men cannot imagine what childbirth is like. So, what is the sense here?
In the Old Testament the prophets use childbirth as an image of the beginning of judgment.
Micah 4:10 (NRSV)
Writhe and groan, O daughter Zion, like a woman in labor; for now you shall go forth from the city and camp in the open country; you shall go to Babylon. (see also Isaiah 13:7-8, Jeremiah 6:24; 31:7-8)
Men have not experienced childbirth, but they have likely heard (possibly from a distance) women go through it. It sounds like terrifying pain.
God’s judgment, like childbirth, would be swift in coming and painful for those who must endure it.
This is not really Jesus’ point in using this metaphor, or at least not all his point. Like labor, sorrow and pain are about to hit the disciples when Jesus is arrested and crucified. Yet, this is something that will last only “a little while.” And then as a woman who goes through labor sees pain and anguish turn into joy as she holds the baby, the disciples will see their anguish transformed from sorrow and pain to joy (John 16:21).
What is about to happen looks like the judgment of Jesus. But Jesus has already announced, “Now is the judgment of the world and the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31). The cross looks like the world and the devil are winning—but it is in fact the sign of their defeat.
Twice in these verses Jesus talks about the joy the disciples are about to experience:
John 16:22-24 (NRSV)
So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.
Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
Here’s what strikes me about this passage. Jesus is underlining (as he does elsewhere) that suffering and joy are frequent companions in the Christian life (see John 15:11). Pain, as bad as it certainly can be, will not last forever. As the disciples will suffer in that “little while” between Good Friday and Easter—grieving not only for Jesus’ death, but for their own failures—so they will in a few days see Jesus again and joy will replace their sorrow.
The “little while” can refer to more than just the period between Good Friday and Easter. The prophet Haggai says, “For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land… I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts” (2:6-7).
God’s day of restoration and salvation is also just “a little while” away. Because Christ is raised from the dead, we can know that our present troubles, as hard as they are, will not last forever. The very last words in chapter 16 say this, “In this world you will have tribulation, but rejoice, I have overcome the world.”
Those who let tribulations and pain drive them to the Lord, and who pray seeking his will and his presence, will find that God answers those prayers. Amid sorrows that seem overwhelming we can hold on to Christ. We can still seek his will, abide in his word and we find that the pain does not last forever—but the glory of God in Jesus does.
So many times people have shared with me after a time of real grief and loss something like this: “I would not wish what I went through on anyone. And yet I would not give up what I experienced in that time for anything.” As hard as it was, these people found that God showed up and provided good things and even joy amid their sufferings.
Prayer: Jesus, right now I pray for those going through times of pain and anguish—help them to hold on and to see that their own resurrection is coming. Pain is real, but your life and love are real, too. It is no surprise to experience tribulation in this world—help us to see your overcoming love in our lives. Amen.