"Where is God? Why does he allow this?"
He looks at me, with tears welling up in his eyes, and mumbles the words, his heart broken over the condition of his wife.
She looks down in her lap, turning the kleenex over and over in her hands, tears streaming down her face, squeezing out the words in the middle of anguish over her husband, gone.
He gazes out the window, almost wistfully verbalizing his feelings, but I can tell he's not really expecting any kind of satisfying answer. There is more emotion in that gaze than could possibly be communicated by mere words as he grieves love lost.
She almost spits out the words, angered at the actions of a brother.
These stories take such differing paths, but all arrive at the same crossroads, with heart, mind, and soul yearning to know: If God is so powerful, why doesn't he do something about the suffering? Why doesn't he rescue me? Us?
When we come into contact with someone like this, I think we often feel powerless in the face of such raw emotion. And in one sense we are. We can't do anything to save someone. We can't change the circumstance, for we're not God. But we want to. We rightly want to help that friend, loved one, co-worker or neighbor. We want to extend our hand to show we are with them, and more than that, we so badly desire to express some word(s) of wisdom to bring comfort and peace.
Probably more often than not the best thing we can do in a moment like that is fight the urge to speak, and instead quietly pray, asking the Spirit to bring the comfort we so badly long for in the life of our loved one. And as we pray, to listen to our loved one and absorb the words, the tears, and the pain - weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
But a time will come for words, and we must have them. God has not been silent, so there are things to say. One of the glories of The Book that contains his speech is that it never ceases to supply all that we need. If we would but listen, God will reveal himself, so that we in turn may reveal him.
"[God] calls praying believers to essentially keep a lookout for the Holy Spirit. If, as we are meditating or praying,
'an abundance of good thoughts comes to us, we ought to disregard other petitions, make room for such thoughts, listen in silence, and under no circumstance obstruct them. The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.'
This principle is important enough to be repeated. Again he writes,
'If in the midst of such thought the Holy Spirit begins to preach in your heart with rich, enlightening thoughts, honor him by letting go of this [any praying] scheme...Remember what he says and note it well and you will behold wondrous things in the law of God" (Ps. 119:18).
Luther expects that we will hear God speak through his Word...He expects that the Spirit, as we reflect on the biblical truth before God, will sometimes fill our heart with rich thoughts and ideas that feel poignant and new to us, even when we are thinking about a text or truth that we have heard hundreds of times before. Luther is talking about the eyes of our hearts being enlightened (Ephesians 1:18) so that things we know with the mind become more fully rooted in our beings' core."
(Tim Keller, interacting with Martin Luther, in Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God)
God in his expansive kindness recently did this for me - he opened my eyes to see wonders I had not seen before in the story of Jesus and his friend, Lazarus. It is a story where a flesh-and-blood, hurting woman says something similar to our examples above; namely, "Where were you!? You could have saved him!" (John 11:32, my paraphrase)
Jesus' friend Lazarus is sick. Very sick. His sisters, Mary and Martha, have sent word to Jesus, and in a mystifying move, he lingers where he is and Lazarus dies, only to be raised from the dead days later by the Christ. And it is in this story that we find the words we need to help those asking the difficult questions, surrounding suffering, of the Sovereign Savior.
I want to show you five things we learn from this story about Jesus (and by extension, God), his sovereignty, and our suffering .
(1) Sometimes, for reasons we don't understand, God makes choices to cause or allow suffering in our lives to bring about a fuller glory - chiefly and most importantly - for himself.
11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany (the village of Mary and her sister Martha). 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
4 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 11:1-4, ESV)
Friend, I am not so naive to think that this automatically makes it easier to endure what we must because of the choices of our Father. But what this story shows us is that there is a greater glory possible through the decisions that God is making billions of times a day, and that our lives are woven into the production of that glory.
(2) Those choices by God are never separated from his love for us. In fact, they are connected to and motivated by his great love for us.
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:5-6)
Do you see? Because of his desire for maximum, Divine glory, because of his love for his friends, Jesus lingered. Jesus chose the path of suffering for his friends, a choice where love and glory-seeking were operating at the same time.
(3) In such suffering we grieve, weep, and hurt - we are torn up emotionally. And in that state (or spending time with someone in that state) we may be tempted to think that God is uncaring. However, God feels that pain with us.
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
35 Jesus wept.
36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:33-36)
Even though he is the one who brought this pain to Martha, Mary, and the family, it hurts Jesus too. He is no less affected. In fact, since he perfectly understands and flawlessly responds (unlike our imperfect and flawed response) it is true to say that he feels every hurt more acutely than we ever could.
(4) God may move in power, based on his love, to alleviate your suffering in this life.
38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”
44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
The disciples and the family did not know at the beginning of this story that the same love and glory-seeking which caused Jesus to tarry so that Lazarus might die would be the foundation of Jesus raising him from the dead, and alleviating their grief and suffering, resulting in their joy-filled celebration.
(5) However, if God should choose to wait to alleviate suffering, we have his promise of eternal, resurrection life to come, when all suffering shall be removed, forever.
21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:21-27)
My friends, do you believe this?
Come now, picture yourself there, standing with Martha, right next to her, as she cries out
"If you had been here, you could have saved him. He didn't have to die, he didn't have to! But, ok...ok Jesus, even now, I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you. So ask, ok Jesus? Ask him, please...ask him to save my brother!"
And then with her, standing right there next to her, turn your eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face, and hear him speak, the words dripping with love and familial affection,
"My dear, sweet sister...your faith, belief, and hope in me secures (among many things)the promise of eternal glory and pleasures, which is meant to temper your response to temporal suffering, even though it last a lifetime.
Do you believe this?"