Just a Little Bit Further

“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 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. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:16-24 ESV)

We’ve all been through difficult times in our lives. Admittedly, some of our difficulties pale in comparison to those faced by the Apostles and even modern day martyrs around the globe. If you don’t grieve when our brothers and sisters in the faith are suffering then you need to step back and examine your faith claims (see 1 John 2:9-11; 3:16-18).

Unfortunately, we often interpret emotional struggles and physical challenges as a sign of God’s unfaithfulness. In other words, we see painful circumstances as an indication of God’s disfavor or anger. However, Jesus uses childbirth as an illustration of the truth regarding pain, joy and God’s ultimate purpose.

I vividly remember the birth of all three of my children, and I was present (in the birthing room) for the birth of my two oldest grandchildren. Each of them had their own unique circumstances and events, but by the third one I felt I was becoming an expert. But, nothing could have have been farther from the truth. The sheer horror that I experienced during the birth of our first child, a daughter, is nothing compared to the joy I experienced when I held her in my arms and watched her at her mother’s side a few minutes later. This same scene repeated itself about 21 years later as I held my daughter’s hand while she gave birth and I cringed and cried at her pain but rejoiced moments later as I held my first granddaughter and then laid her in her mother’s arms.

Somehow, in the miracle of birth, God has taken the struggle and pain of life, in general, and has shown us a deep, deep truth… the new life he promises to those who believe comes through the pain and suffering of the cross. In fact, all of the bad things in life can be redeemed and transformed through God’s love, sacrifice and our faith. Let’s take a look…

Now many of us have readily embraced the truth that the horrific, painful and bloody events of the cross have been our source of life. This is an elementary principal of biblical faith. In this instance, the disciples are being prepared for a “little while” in which they will have to survive without Jesus and will endure a time of great pain, like that of childbirth, which will be replaced by great joy. Jesus’ illustration is intended to encourage them to see past the pain and to anticipate this promised joy.

But, his words are not just for the Apostles. They are also for us. Just as Christ calls the disciples to endure the pain of the crucifixion so they may experience the joy of the resurrection, we too are called to the same act of faith. While I have little doubt that most of us understand the basic concepts, we’ve likely not thought about the actual process of it in terms of birth. Yet, Jesus tells us “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 ESV)

You see, the process the disciples were facing was going to be a struggle somewhat like childbirth, but the joy they would experience at the end of the process was all going to be worth the intermediate pain and struggle. While there’s no doubt that Jesus is referencing the events of the following days, I believe the lesson was also intended to point past these events and include the years ahead. But, the joy and hope the resurrection offers is not limited to the Apostles or just the events following the crucifixion. It is also our joy and hope for today, tomorrow and for all eternity.

What happens when we begin to view our daily struggles, our pain and suffering as the pain of childbirth? Does it begin to transform our view? Does it change our perspective? For a man to see the kingdom of God he must endure childbirth. For man to experience the joy of the resurrection, Christ must endure the agony of the crucifixion. Paul tells us that the only way for us to inherit the incredible life God has promised is for us to shed this life through death…

“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:50-52 ESV)

This ought to make sense to us. We can’t take on a new nature until we shed the old one. Paul uses the analogy of a seed being placed in the ground and new life coming from it. But, if it makes sense for eternity then why not now? We can’t take on the new life Christ promises unless we die to our old lives. We can’t be born again without the pain of childbirth. It’s not possible to walk by faith if we are walking by sight. We can’t be led by God’s Spirit if we are being led by our own desires. We can’t serve two masters, for one will always take precedence over the other. (See Matt. 6:24)

What does all this mean? If we embrace a life of pain avoidance, we will miss the joy of the resurrection and its incredible power. If we seek worldly recognition and achievements we will forfeit the recognition of our Lord and lose the crown of life. So, enduring the pain of spiritual childbirth now will result in joy for all eternity. It means that we must look past the immediate gratification of our corrupted physical desires and focus our gaze on the distant but greater and eternal prize. That leads me to the next incredible promise in this passage…

Jesus makes an interesting but somewhat odd statement, “In that day you will ask nothing of me.” At first glance, this statement seems to imply the disciples will no longer ask Jesus for any assistance or teaching “in that day.” The reference to “that day” is the day in which their sorrow will turn to joy, or the day of His resurrection. Why would they cease to ask things of Him? Because in THAT DAY they will have been granted direct access to the throne of God and can speak to and ask God themselves, in the Son’s name.

Nearly every Christian I know ends their prayers with the tag line, “in the name of Jesus, amen.” What I suspect is that most of us have little understanding what that truly means and what power and authority it carries. It literally means that our prayers and requests have been placed before God the Father as if Jesus, the Son himself, had made the request. Consider the implications of those words…

Our prayers ought to reflect the person and purpose of the Son of God. We are not given the right to ask in our own name, but His name. Tina and I have been married for almost 40 years. In that time, I’ve come to learn quite a number of things about her. One of the things I’ve learned is what she likes, dislikes and how she reacts in certain situations. Because of that, I am able to anticipate and plan based on my knowledge and understanding of her personality. The same should become true of our relationship with Christ.

As we pray, our words, desires and hearts should be so shaped by our love for Christ that our requests begin to reflect His words, desires and heart. How can we be certain of His words, desires and heart? We see them throughout scripture. We must become so intimately familiar with His Word that we understand His thoughts, we recognize His actions, and we know His heart. It has been nearly thirty years since I’ve heard my earthly father’s voice or watched him write or sign his name. Yet, I would recognize them instantly. Can you say that of God? If not, you must begin now learning to know Him so intimately that you know His words, desires and His heart.

Finally, Jesus ties our asking (or praying) in His name to our deepest joy. He says that He wants them to ask and receive so that their joy may be full. Our initial reaction might be, “What are you waiting on? Get out the wish list!” But I would remind you that the asking is specifically to be made “in Jesus name.” It is interesting how our desires and prayers change with time and maturity.

I love Christmas and all of the celebration and gifts. But, now I’m more interested in giving gifts to my children and grandchildren than I am in receiving them. I used to wake up early on Christmas morning just to see what I had received. Now, I wake up early to see the joy on the kids faces as they open the gifts I bought specifically for them. What does that have to do with prayers and asking things of the Father, in Jesus name? Everything…

As I’ve matured my focus at Christmas and in daily praying has moved off of me and onto others. I find that I am not really in need of things for me, but I am really more focused on the needs I see in others around me. And those needs I see are not really about things, but are more about deeper needs that impact the heart. The things in life that really satisfy our longings and meet our needs are not really things, or the most important things in life aren’t things.

Perhaps, when our prayers begin to focus less on our own perceived needs and more on our neighbor’s heart needs we’ll begin to see our prayers answered in powerful and effective ways. German theologian-martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed this point well in a 1936 letter:

I either know about the God I seek from my own experience and insights, from the meanings which I assign to history or nature—that is, from within myself—or I know about him based on his revelation of his own Word. Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found. If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place that at first is not agreeable to me at all, that does not fit so well with me.

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13 ESV)

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