“You Will Sob and Mourn”
Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he reads. Old familiar words can rise and stretch and move with life like actors on a stage. Sometimes this new understanding is profound and life-altering. Sometimes it’s just a window into a reality you know is there but never saw in those words before.
The title words above are not particularly surprising. Most of us have had our share of those things. But the context in which they were spoken is what arrested my attention. So did the implications they carry for when we find ourselves in those circumstances.
I recently returned to the upper room from just a few blogs ago, but I was standing in a different corner of the room, watching the scene from a different angle, noticing things I didn’t catch before. As Jesus was preparing his disciples for what they were about to experience (beginning the next day!), something caught my ear. Wait, did he just say “you will sob and mourn” (John 16:20)? He knew they would be hurting and confused. He told them they would be. Couldn’t he have mitigated that sorrow considerably by making things a little plainer? After all, he had just told Peter exactly what he was going to do (John 13:38).
Couldn’t Jesus have said, “By the third hour tomorrow morning, I will have been arrested, beaten, mocked, condemned to death and nailed to a cross. By sundown tomorrow I will be entombed. Dead. There is nothing you either can or should do about this. It will be hard to watch, but it will be all right. By the first day of the new week, I will rise from the grave and see you again. In my body. Three nights from now. Don’t panic. Don’t doubt or despair. It will be over soon. Everything will be alright”?
He could have said all that. But he didn’t. All he said was, “I am sending you into a hard situation. I know that you will sob and mourn, while the rest of the world celebrates the very thing that brings you grief.” He did assure them that their sorrow would be brief. And eventually reversed. But only in the vaguest of terms.
“A little while” is a purposely ambiguous phrase repeated seven times in the immediately preceding four verses (John 16:16-19), an echo from earlier that evening (John 14:19; 13:33). How long is “a little while”? Jesus used virtually the same expression earlier to signify how much of his earthly ministry remained; that was several months ago. The New Testament will later use the same expression to describe an indeterminate period of centuries (Heb. 10:37). With the benefit of hindsight, we may expect the disciples to take comfort from Jesus’ assurance that their sorrow would be short-lived, only “a little while.” We know in retrospect it would be only a couple of days. But put yourself in the disciples’ sandals, and you have no idea how long that “little while” might be! And you don’t know what’s happening, or why it has to happen this way.
And yet, along with Jesus’ assurance that it will be painful and sorrowful and sometimes confusing came his promise that it is only temporary (“a little while”) and that it will be gloriously reversed (John 16:20-21). Whatever distress you encounter as a believer, Jesus not only knows — he knew. He knew exactly how it would affect you before he sent you into those providential circumstances, but he sent you into them nonetheless (John 16:33). That does not make the pain less real, but it does sanctify the suffering if we will let it.
Sometimes Jesus leads us into storms (Matt. 8:23). Sometimes he sends us into storms (John 6:16-17). He knows we will weep and mourn and grieve and hurt; but we know that, however long it lasts, it is temporary. And it will be reversed.
That’s what I heard in the upper room this time.
So, why didn’t Jesus tell them more plainly exactly what was going to happen? Doesn’t genuine love for his followers obligate him to do all he can to minimize their pain and bewilderment? That’s for another post.