From Anguish to Joy
In February of this year, I experienced labor and delivery for the first time. I went in to the hospital on a Monday afternoon to begin the process of induction, but it took until Wednesday morning for my son to make his appearance in this world. Although I had been administered Pitocin in increasing intervals for several hours, I could not sense my contractions until my OB-GYN broke my water, at which point I began to feel them most assuredly. It was another twenty hours before I gave birth, and because my blood platelet count was low, I did not have the option of receiving an epidural.
Prior to the breaking of my water, I felt only a general discomfort in my abdomen, but after that I quickly experienced sensations similar to menstrual cramps (gentlemen, you may compare it to severe digestive cramps). As anticipated, these cramps grew in strength and frequency, but I was able to make use of methods I had learned in my childbirth class to deal with it. Then early Wednesday morning I reached a point where I could no longer breathe through the pain, nor could I find any position that made it tolerable. All I could do was allow that pain to take over my body, and for however long each contraction lasted, I was in agony. It was at this point that I broke down and requested the only pain relief they could offer me, which was an opiate.
Within two hours, I went from being dilated two or three centimeters to being dilated the full ten centimeters. Before I knew it, the room was full of people imploring me to push. My labor had gone on so long that the baby’s heart rate was dropping and I was close to needing an emergency Caesarean section. In that moment, I thought about the future I envisioned for my son and told myself the joy would be worth it. Then I pushed to my absolute physical limit, and within about ten minutes, he was out and it was done.
I do not tell you all this to make a point of how tough I am. Rather, I seek to highlight the suffering that so many women have endured throughout history in giving birth to children. I could not help pondering in the days after my son’s birth the many scriptural references to labor. Most significantly, I saw in this experience of suffering a metaphor for Christ’s Atonement.
Initial Uses of the Metaphor
I examined all the times Scripture discusses labor pains, childbirth, birth pangs, etc. and sorted them into six categories.
First, the metaphor of labor is used to refer to the intensity of the Day of the Lord. “Pains and anguish will take hold of them; / They will writhe like a woman in labor…” predicted the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 13:6-8), while the Apostle Paul warned that, “…destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
Second, the pains of labor are closely linked to the curse of sin. As God proclaimed to Eve, “I will greatly multiply Your pain in childbirth, / In pain you will bring forth children…” (Genesis 3:16) Paul later expands this metaphor to capture the experience of all creation under the curse of sin. “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Romans 8:22).
Third, scriptural authors appeal to the metaphor of labor to capture something of the personal anguish they or others feel. When Isaiah received a “harsh vision”, he complained, “Pains have seized me like the pains of a woman in labor.” (Isaiah 21:3) Likewise, Paul’s concern for the Galatian church was so strong that he addressed them as, “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you…” (Galatians 4:19)
These references to labor are all important and inform our understanding of Scripture, but the next three are most closely linked to the narrative of salvation.
Israel and the Virgin Mary
Of the many tragedies that the nation of Israel experienced throughout its history, none made such an impression on the biblical authors as the Exile, the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (by Assyria in 722 B.C.) and the southern kingdom of Judah (by Babylon in 586 B.C.), along with forcible removal of most Jews to lands further east. The Exile and Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people was initially predicted by the earlier Old Testament prophets, and then lamented by later prophets.
When the prophets sought a fitting metaphor for the suffering and pain brought about by the futility of Israel’s behavior and their eventual removal from the Promised Land, they appealed to the experience of labor. Speaking on behalf of his nation, Isaiah wrote,
“As the pregnant woman approaches the time to give birth,
She writhes and cries out in her labor pains,
Thus were we before You, O Lord.
We were pregnant, we writhed in labor,
We gave birth, as it seems, only to wind.” (Isaiah 26:17-18)
The prophet Jeremiah referred to his people in much the same way.
“For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
The anguish as of one giving birth to her first child,
The cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath,
Stretching out her hands, saying,
‘Ah, woe is me, for I faint before murderers.’” (Jeremiah 4:31)
Micah combined his prediction of judgment with a promise of future deliverance.
“Writhe and labor to give birth, Daughter of Zion,
Like a woman in childbirth;
For now you will go out of the city,
Dwell in the field,
And go to Babylon.
There you will be rescued;
There the Lord will redeem you
From the hand of your enemies.” (Micah 4:10)
The image of Israel as a woman going through the pains of labor, seeking something positive in the future, is thus fairly well established in the prophetic books. However, scripture also uses much the same language on occasions when the Virgin Mary is clearly in view. In the same passage where he predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, Micah wrote, “Therefore He will give them up until the time / When she who is in labor has borne a child. / Then the remainder of His brethren / Will return to the sons of Israel.” (Micah 5:3) This seems to refer to Mary. However, interestingly, it could also be seen as referring to the nation of Israel, from which the Messiah came forth. Given that the context of the passage emphasizes the Messiah’s link with the nation, a double meaning is possible.
Another likely double meaning comes much later. In the apocalyptic book of Revelation, the Apostle John reported the following from his vision. “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.” (Revelation 12:1-2) It is clear that we are meant to think of Mary here, for John writes of her son that he would “rule all the nations with a rod of iron”, an identification with biblical prophecies about Christ. However, the crown of twelve stars on the woman’s head could represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and it is difficult to imagine how the Virgin Mary fits John’s statement, “Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.” (v. 6) It is possible that this could be Mary, but Israel seems more likely.
My sense is that scripture is laying these two metaphors on top of one another. The woman in labor is both Mary and Israel. Not only that, but it is Mary as representative of Israel. From the time that God declared Isaac to be the child of the promise, it was predestined that the nation of Israel would give birth to the Messiah and that a female descendant of Isaac would be the woman whose seed would crush the head of the serpent. (Genesis 3:15) A beautiful line stretched from Eve, to Sarah, and finally to Mary: a line of promise. All the women in that line who went through the pain of labor and delivery were necessary for the physical bringing forth of the Messiah, although Mary has pride of place as the final woman chosen by God. Thus, both the nation and the individual woman gave birth to the Messiah. The genealogies at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke seem to emphasize this.
What about Christ?
We don’t often think about men experiencing labor pains, although the increasing number of people undergoing gender transition surgeries has led to such counterintuitive headlines as, “Man gives birth to baby with female partner.” I can say with great certainty that no human being with a Y chromosome or one who lacks a uterus has ever truly experienced childbirth, but in a metaphorical sense, I believe scripture encourages us to think of the sufferings of Christ in this manner.
True enough, the words labor and childbirth are never directly used to refer to the sufferings of Christ by which he gave us life. However, I do not think the metaphor is much of a stretch. When predicting the sufferings he would endure, Christ said, “But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50) Our Lord was not speaking of water baptism, for he had already experienced that. He was seemingly referring to what baptism symbolizes: his own death and resurrection.
Christ was fully aware of the suffering he would endure to bring us life. That is why, after again predicting his sufferings, death, and resurrection, (Mark 10:32-34) Jesus said to his disciples James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (v. 38) This cup was one of great suffering, prompting his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39)
Even as Scripture uses the metaphor of labor and delivery to describe the Exile experiences of the nation of Israel, so I believe we can think of the sufferings of Christ in much the same manner. As a woman goes through pregnancy knowing she will have to endure great pain to bring her child into the world, so Christ went through his earthly ministry knowing that the Passion would precede the Resurrection. Consider something else that he said the night before his crucifixion.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy. Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:20-22).
Although Christ’s words here are directed toward his disciples, I believe they also reflect his own experience. As Christ says of a woman in labor that “her hour has come”, so the Gospel of John records eight different occasions on which Jesus’ hour had either “come” or “not yet come”. (2:4, 7:30, 8:20, 12:23, 13:1, 16:4, 16:32, 17:1) The language is so similar that I believe we can easily identify Christ with the “pain” and “anguish” spoken of in the above passage, even as he also had great joy when his suffering was complete.
The author of Hebrews calls Jesus “the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God”. (Hebrews 12:2) Why did he allow himself to be tortured and killed? Why did he willingly bear the sins of humanity? For the joy that was set before him. Even as I persevered through labor pains by thinking of the joy that awaited, so Christ was sustained by thinking of the new life that would come from his death.
Therefore, as strange as it may sound, I believe we can state that Christ went through the pains of labor on our behalf. Neither suffering nor shame could dissuade him from pursuing joy. The sacrifices of mothers on behalf of their children are, at their best, a reflection of the sacrifices Christ made for us. Of all the labor metaphors in scripture, that is surely the greatest.
Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.
"The Suffering Savior" by Edmund Clowney
Atonement, edited by Gabriel Fluhrer
Jeremiah: Anthology by Philip Ryken
"Worthy is the Lamb" by James Boice and Philip Ryken
"The Blessed Cursed Tree" by Nick Batzig