Several years ago, a good, very godly friend of mine lost his wife to cancer. It was devastating. We had prayed and prayed for her recovery, but there was no sign of God’s healing hand. Jim sat by his wife’s side all day, every day. Anything he could do to make his wife more comfortable, he did gladly. And yet he remained powerless to do the one thing he desired most of all — to heal his wife.
I had heard Jim pray. I had seen him hurt. His faith had not been shattered; yet his wife eventually died. Although he eventually recovered from the heartbreaking loss, the question remained:
Why did this happen? What was the point? What was accomplished? Why was grief so unfairly imposed upon such a God-fearing family?
Jim and his family were certainly not the first to ask such painful and complex questions. And they were well aware of that. In anticipation of questions raised by circumstances such as these, God has given us in the gospel of John a narrative that helps us gain the perspective needed to survive tragedies such as that faced by Jim.
The problem with studying any familiar passage is that we rarely allow ourselves to feel what the characters must have felt. Why should we? We usually know what happens in the end.
Unfortunately, this familiarity with the Scriptures often robs us of their intended results. It is hard to feel the fear David must have felt when he faced Goliath when we know from the outset that he comes out the victor. We miss the sense of isolation Moses must have felt as he fled Egypt for his life. After all, he ends up a hero. So as you approach this familiar narrative in John 11, try to forget the end of the story. Instead, do your best to put yourself in the shoes, or maybe the sandals, of the people involved. If you read what happens but neglect to consider what must have been felt, you lose some of the richest insights of this story.
“HE WHOM YOU LOVE IS SICK”
Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. And it was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. The sisters therefore sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” — John 11:1-3
The household of Mary and Martha is one in which Jesus and His disciples had been given hospitality whenever they had been in the area of Judea. Apparently, Lazarus was a wealthy man, and he used his wealth to support the ministry of Christ. The fact that Mary and Martha sent for Jesus as soon as Lazarus became ill is evidence of their faith in His power. No doubt they thought, If Jesus is willing to heal total strangers, certainly He will jump at the opportunity to heal one who has been a friend. But such was not the case.
But when Jesus heard it, He said, This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. — John 11:4-6
These verses make absolutely no sense, humanly speaking. That is why I love this story, because most adversity makes about as much sense from our perspective. It is clearly stated that Jesus loves this family; then He makes no move to relieve their suffering. I can relate to that.
Whenever the bottom drops out, I go scrambling to the verses in the Bible that remind me of God’s love — yet at times it seems God is unwilling to follow through with any action.
We need to pause here because at this point in the narrative we have our greatest struggles. I am referring to that time between the point we ask God for help and the point at which He does something. It is so easy to read, “He then stayed two days longer.” But the delay was like an eternity for Mary and Martha. The Scripture informs us that they knew the general area and how long it would take Him to make the trip to Bethany. So they waited. And as the hours dragged on, they watched their brother grow weaker and weaker.
Finally the day arrived when, according to the normal traveling time, Jesus should arrive. No doubt they took turns sitting with Lazarus. That way one of them could go out to the road to look for Jesus. I can imagine Mary or Martha asking all the men and women coming from the direction of Perea if they had seen a group of twelve or so men headed that way. As they would shake their heads no, the sisters’ hope burned a little lower. “Why didn’t He come? Maybe He never got the message? Maybe He left Perea without sending word back to us? Where is He? After all we have done for Him, it is the least He could do.” And yet He failed to come when they expected Him.
Lazarus died. Maybe Mary came in early one morning to check on him and found him dead. Perhaps it was in the afternoon when both Mary and Martha were at his side that he breathed his last breath. Whatever the situation, both women felt that hollow, helpless feeling that always accompanies death. It was over. He was gone. Soon their thoughts turned to Jesus, Why didn’t He come? How could He know what we were going through and yet stay away?
These, no doubt, are some of the questions you have asked as you have cried out to God in the midst of the adversity in your life. How can a God of love stand back and watch my friend and his wife suffer and not do anything about it? How can He watch from the balcony of Heaven as women are physically or sexually abused? How can He watch husbands walk out on their wives and children? Does He know what is going on down here?
Once again, this narrative is helpful. Jesus knew exactly what was going on. He knew what Mary and Martha were going through. He knew His friend’s condition was worsening. And He knew the moment Lazarus died:
And after that He said to them [the disciples], “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” — John 11:11
Yet He did nothing! Keep in mind, Lazarus was not some guy off the street. He had invited Jesus into his home. Lazarus had expressed faith in Christ and His ministry. He was a good man. He certainly had more faith than most of the other people Jesus had healed. Some of them did not even know who Christ was (John 9). But Jesus was nowhere to be found when Lazarus needed Him most. To add insult to injury, Jesus had the nerve to say to His disciples,
Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there. — John 11:14-15, emphasis added
Jesus was “glad”? How could He say such a thing? Two of his best friends go through emotional turmoil; another friend dies of an illness; and Jesus says He is glad? What could He have possibly been thinking? What was going through His mind?
My friend, the answer to that question is the key to unlocking the mystery of tragedy in this life. To understand what was going on in the mind of Christ and in the economy of God in a situation like this one is to discover the universal principle that puts together and holds together all of life — both now and for eternity.
Christ had a goal in all this, a goal so important that it was worth the emotional agony Mary and Martha had to endure. It was worth risking the destruction of their faith. It was even worth the death of a faithful friend.
What Jesus, in conjunction with His heavenly Father, had in mind was so incredible that even through the pain surrounding the whole event Jesus could say, “I am glad this has happened.” In other words, “Men, what you are about to see is so fantastic that it is worth the pain and death of My beloved friend.” If they were like us, they probably thought, What could be worth all of this?
“IF YOU HAD BEEN HERE”
Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him; but Mary still sat in the house. Martha then said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” …And when she had said this, she went away, and called Mary her sister, saying secretly, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she arose quickly, and was coming to Him… Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” — John 11:18-21, John 11:28-29, John 11:32
Mary and Martha, for all their time spent with the Son of God, were still human to the core. They wanted to know one thing: “Jesus, where in the world have You been?” They had no doubt that Jesus could have healed their brother; Martha even indicates that she believes there is still hope (John 11:22). But the fact that He had seemingly ignored their plight had left them confused and frustrated. Why did He delay?
When Jesus therefore saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. And so the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” — John 11:33-36
At this juncture any doubt about Jesus’ love and concern for Lazarus is laid to rest. “Jesus wept.” Yet His overt concern about His friend Lazarus adds another layer of mystery to the story.
If Jesus was so concerned, why did He not come to Lazarus’s aid? Why did He let him die?
Once again we are faced with what appears to be an unsolvable mystery. It becomes apparent that whatever Christ had in mind, whatever He was trying to accomplish, it was worth sacrificing the emotions of the ones He loved as well as His own. Jesus wept when He arrived to find Lazarus dead. Think about it.
His knowledge of the future did not keep Him from identifying with the sorrow of those around Him.
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
If anything is clear from this story, it is that some things are so important to God that they are worth interrupting the happiness and health of His children in order to accomplish them. That is an awesome thought. To some, it may seem like an indictment of the character of God. But this principle will become clearer through the pages and chapters that follow. Whether some persons can fit this idea into their theology or not, the fact remains that the Son of God allowed those He loved to suffer and die for the sake of some higher purpose.
Some individuals may think such a statement implies that we are merely pawns to be moved about and even abused at God’s whims. But remember, “Jesus wept.” He was moved with emotion at the sight of Mary and Martha’s sorrow. He was touched by the love they had for their brother. He was not emotionally isolated from the pain suffered by those whose perspective was different from His own.
When you hurt, God hurts. Regardless of what He may be in the process of accomplishing, regardless of how noble His purposes may be, He is in touch with what you are feeling. He is not like the football coach who sneers at his players when they complain of their pain. He is not like the boxing coach who whispers into his fighter’s ear, “No pain, no gain.” Neither is He like the parent who laughs and says to a child who has lost a first love, “Don’t worry. You’ll get over it.”
Through all the pain and adversity God may allow us to face, two things are always true. First, He is sensitive to what we are feeling:
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses. — Hebrews 4:15
Jesus wept over Lazarus. He weeps over our sorrow as well.
Second, whatever He is in the process of accomplishing through our suffering will always be for our best interest. The degree to which things actually work out for our best interest is determined by our response. As we trust God through our adversity, when all is said and done, we will sincerely believe it was worth it all.
Excerpted with permission from Can You Still Trust God? by Charles F. Stanley, copyright Charles F. Stanley.
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If you’re suffering right now, Jesus in not indifferent! He isn’t late. He isn’t unaware. He has a bigger plan than we can currently imagine and in the end it will be worth it. Come share your thoughts with us. ~ Devotionals Daily