“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” ~John 11:21b,32b
The sisters of Lazarus (Mary & Martha) both posed the same question to the Lord when their brother had died. Their statement rings true to each of us, doesn’t it? We can all think back to some tragedy, some trial or tribulation in life in which we suffered an incomprehensible grief and sense of loss that we each have asked (whether internally or audibly) “Where are you God?” Or, perhaps the old atheistic or agnostic prodding of “If God is good, then why _____________? (each of us can fill in that blank with whatever cup of misery we have drunk deeply from)
Often in those times (of grief and suffering), well-meaning friends, pastors, or family members will point to our need of trusting in God, but let us be honest, many times their efforts seem to come up flat or fall short of offering any real hope in the midst of our mid-nights of suffering. We will point to God’s sovereignty over the situation (which He is) which many of us believe and trust in, but it is often nothing more than a “true truth,” something which we know to be true, but doesn’t have much impact on us anymore. No, let us be honest friends, we have all asked the questions: “Why is there suffering?”, “Why do we have to deal with such hopeless situations in life?”, “Where was/is God?”
The truth is, in today’s culture of pop-psychology and secular humanism, we see no benefit from sadness or grief any longer. You may well ask “Well, how can it benefit anyone?” Well, firstly, we grieve so hard in dark situations because we live in a world that is dying. Grief was/is not a part of the original design for us. Our suffering firstly serves as a reminder we live in a world impacted and affected by sin. Death and disease (along with the suffering it causes) screams at humanity that we have a great need of God.
In the story of Lazarus, there are many great lessons we can learn about the presence of Christ and our suffering. The story begins in John 11:1 and finds a summation in verse 44. But let us start at the beginning:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” ~ John 11:1-3
Note this narrative begins with calling Lazarus “a certain man.” This was not just a run of the mill acquaintance of Jesus’. No, Jesus would stay at their house when He would venture through Bethany. He was well known and as we see in verse 3, he was one whom Jesus loved; he was a very dear friend of our Lord’s. But Jesus did not run to Lazarus’ aid as we’d expect. Surely, if anyone deserved to get relief from suffering it was those who had a close relationship with Christ; those who had physically seen the Lord and talked with Him face to face. Now, those in the religious community will often default and say “yes, Jesus cares for us”, and this is true, but it will be said in such a way that is often devoid of any real conviction. It will be assigned internally as a forlorn hope rather than a solid determination of truth. But in these verses, we see an instance in the life of Christ where a man who was a friend of Jesus’ who was suffering (not to mention the grief of Lazarus’ sisters). But how can you and I find any consolation and comfort in this? Well, in the next verse we read:
But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” ~ John 11:4
Jesus knew that Lazarus would die (He makes that plain a few verses later) but the point of this verse is that the suffering Lazarus was enduring was not the end. Secondly, we see that God has a plan for our suffering. Twice Jesus mentions that He would be glorified. God draws back the curtain and allows you and I to see that suffering has a purpose. A few verses later Jesus makes another statement:
Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” ~ John 11:14-15
“Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there…” God was going to be glorified and the disciples were going to be built up in their faith during this time of suffering. This brings joy to our Lord! It is in these dark times the believer must really examine their hearts. We must truly ask ourselves “Do I really believe God’s Word and do I trust Him?” Now this reality does not negate the reality of our suffering, but it gives purpose to our pain. Child of God, do you truly believe what Paul said in Romans 8?
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. ~ Romans 8:28-29
God is glorified by conforming His people to the image of Christ. This is often a painful process. Many times, this process takes place in the moments of suffering and grief. Many of us can testify that in times of intense anguish, God has drawn us closer to Himself. God determines the means to draw His people to Himself, and His glory is often seen with more clarity when we are in the darkness of our souls.
What does God teach us about this passage in John 11 about suffering? He teaches us that He is fully aware of your situation. There is never a moment where God draws a blank about what is happening. Jesus knew fully about Lazarus’ situation. God knows your pain as well. He can fully sympathize with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) and suffering. Secondly, God had a purpose for Lazarus and his sisters’ suffering. God never wastes our pain. But we must begin to understand that God is doing something in our hurt. Though we may not see it yet and we probably don’t understand it now, God is serving His purposes to glorify Himself and build His people. Jesus was willing to let His friends suffer in John 11. When we begin to see what He was doing, we can begin to see value in ours as well. This passage has much more to teach us about God and our suffering. We’ll begin to dig a little deeper on the next post.