The Bittersweet Parting

“Parting is such sweet sorrow." This is one of William Shakespeare’s most oft-quoted lines. What few realize is that it was uttered in the context of Juliet saying goodnight to Romeo “till it be tomorrow.” The sorrow of that parting was sweetened by the knowledge that it was only for a few hours.

But what about those partings from loved-ones that will be for years and years? There is nothing sweet and plenty bitter about such partings. What unmixed sorrow when a dying husband has to kiss his wife and children goodbye for the last time! What bitterness when soldiers on the way to Afghanistan have to say goodbye to their family and friends! What agony when a pastor and his beloved flock have to part, in response to God’s providential call, and sever the bond of love built up over years! Such partings are not “sweet sorrow,” but usually bitter, bitter, bitter.

The Lord Jesus also knew the deep sorrow of parting from His beloved family and flock on this earth. Time and again, He cautioned them that he had to “go away” (John 16:7). This was not easy for them; but neither was it easy for him.

The pain of missing them

For Jesus, there was a double sorrow in this parting. First, there was the pain of missing the disciples’ company. Over the years, he had come to love them, and even to need and to depend upon them. As a man, he enjoyed their friendship. He took pleasure in their conversation and delighted in their varied characters and personalities. He loved seeing their faces with their ever-changing expressions. When he heard their familiar voices, he could tell what mood they were in. He delighted to see any hints of spiritual growth and appreciated their unique spiritual gifts. He wanted them with him on earth (Matt. 26:37) and he wanted them with him in heaven (John 17:24). But now there was the pain of parting from them for a time. How he would miss them, and what pain this caused him, even in anticipation.

This bitter thought of missing his disciples, though, was partially sweetened for Christ by the knowledge that he was going to heaven, where all his pain and sorrow would be over. He was going to be with his glorified people, where the friendships and fellowship would be perfect and permanent. This, for Christ, somewhat sweetened the sorrow of parting.

The pain of paining them

Second, there was the pain of causing his flock pain. Jesus was not selfish. He was not thoughtless about those he was to leave behind. He cared deeply for his disciples and would have done anything, apart from disobeying his Father, in order to make them happy. The thought of his disciples feeling the aching void of his absence and shedding even one tear over it affected him deeply and troubled his sensitive soul. “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:6). As a perfectly sympathetic High Priest, he felt their painful feelings even more acutely than they did!

How he wished he could be in two places at once!

But wait … He could!

Not physically, but spiritually! Not in his body, but by his Spirit! Not a localized bodily presence, but a worldwide spiritual presence! This would be even better than being with his disciples one by one! “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

Here, Jesus promises his sorrowing disciples that by his Spirit he would come to them, fellowship with them, and comfort them. The dying husband, the departing soldier, and the called pastor may wish they could do the same. They may wish that they could leave their spirit behind to continue the relationship and so sweeten the sorrow of physical parting. They can’t.

But Christ can, and did, and does.

If you are a lonely, sorrowing Christian, Christ promises, “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18). Even in dread-filled anticipation of life’s partings, such plain words moderate our sadness: “I will come to you.”

Take all the bitter sorrow of this world’s partings – both present painful reality and future feared possibilities – to the Lord Jesus and seek his comforting, sweetening presence in your empty and bitter soul. Then, and only then, will this world’s partings begin to become “such sweet sorrow.”

Dr. David Murray