The day I birthed my firecracker-of-a-son Isaac is a vivid picture burned not only in my mind but also my body. He was my third and final birth and the only one that I did without any kind of drug intervention. I felt every contraction, every urge, every agonizing inch that my son won in his struggle toward life outside the womb.
I had gone into the hospital that morning with the plan to do this birth naturally. I spoke with my doctor, a wonderful woman in her fifties with calm eyes and a soft voice. She agreed it was doable, and told me she would be there for the duration. When my water broke, what had been dull contractions became sharp and more frequent. I started to have to breathe through them, and then groan the further along I went. At one point, I looked up and told my doctor that I had changed my mind. It hurt too much. I wanted an epidural. Please. She calmly spoke to me, reminding me of my own words before my body began to tear itself apart. You can do this. You want to do this. This pain will bring life. My mind vacillated from panic to calm with every contraction. Finally, the time had come. The last few inches for my son to come home meant the most pain, the most pressure, the most desperation for me. I yelled with effort – my mind and body focused on one thing entirely: do whatever was needed to bring my son into my arms. Finally, with a rush of blood and water, out he came, naked and squalling. And with one look at his tiny form, my pain was gone. If you told me I had to do that 100 more times just to hold him, I would have done so without hesitation. Then and now. I was glad for the tearing of my body, for here was my son.
All three of my children’s births were gut-wrenchingly wonderful, but this last one was special. Its value is directly tied to the pain I endured. The pain is one of the things I was thankful for, which may sound backward considering how excruciating a birth experience is, and especially considering how those pains are directly tied to the second curse uttered in the Bible. Just after Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, God looked at the woman and said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen 3:16). From that point forward, women have had to let pain be the doorway to one of the greatest loves they can know, that of their children.
Labor pains are mentioned all over the Bible, and never in a pleasant tone. Isaiah calls out:
“For this reason my loins are full of anguish; pains have seized me like the pains of a woman in labor. I am so bewildered I cannot hear, so terrified I cannot see.”
Jeremiah shares his tone of anguish by comparing Israel’s pain to that of giving birth (Jeremiah 6:24). Both of these cries are in response to one thing: the vengeance of the Lord. The holy fear and terror that accompanies the truth of God’s justice is continually compared to the pain a woman feels in labor. The pain seizes us and we are helpless in the midst of it.
How curious then that these same allegorical connections are used by God about himself. In Isaiah 42, after many chapters of learning about impending judgment on other nations and his own people, we hear:
“For a long time I have held my peace; I have kept still and restrained myself.
Now like a woman in labor I will groan, I will both gasp and pant.
I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools.”
But then, after long diatribes of impending judgment, we see God turn his face towards his children — seemingly out of nowhere:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isaiah 43:1-2).
From divine labor pains came the restoration of wayward children to their father. But how does that happen? How can it happen? How does a sinful nation turn the heart of the God of the universe? Isaiah is disclosing part of the mystery: through the labor pains of God, he will bring forth a nation. I don’t see the death of Jesus often compared to labor pains, but read it again — how can it not be? The hands of the law-keepers that seized Jesus and drilled him to the cross were the labor pains that seized a sinful nation who were brought up under the righteousness of God. The groans, gasps, and pants that escaped from the mouth of Jesus while he hung from the cross were akin to a woman bearing down on the cusp of the deliverance of her child. He felt every tear, every bruise, every wound, fully and without any aid or assistance to dull it. He cries out, “It is done!”, and through the gush of blood and water from his side, and the last breath that was pushed from his lungs, the church was born. His dying cry gave way to our first cries of a born-again people. He allowed his naked body to be torn to make way for a redeemed nation.
Furthermore, He bore the curse that Eve brought upon herself, overturning God’s judgment of our sins onto himself. Through his death, Jesus turns the tables: he calls us from our labors and instead labors for us sinners. And thus we can read the beginning of Isaiah 43 anew: Fear not, for I have redeemed you through my death; I have called you by name, as a parent does his child, you are mine.
Whenever a mother willingly walks into the fire of labor, the world sees a glimpse of what Christ did for us all. Just beyond that cusp of pain is a life with their child, a child who was once in darkness, and now is in the light. A child that was mute and deaf and blind, but who can now sing and hear and see. A child who was nameless but is now called son or daughter. A child who would grow up underneath the love of a God who would not demand work from them but who would tirelessly work for their comfort, their provision, and their eternal hope. This isn’t less true for women who are barren or who have experienced miscarriages or stillbirths. Both the timelines and the forms of pain are altered, but both the imagery and the invitation remain. For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross despising its shame. Childbirth is a picture of the longsuffering of our God, and the joy of the new life that only he can bring.