It’s still a clear memory for me: I was a freshman in a small, Christian college with a million-and-one questions about everything. My heart was raw from adolescent struggles, but, due to a profound experience with Jesus just before graduation, I was now trying to learn more about God. One day, without intention, my hand shot up and I blurted out a burning question that was evidently killing me! The professor looked at me with a great big smile and said, “That is an excellent question! Would you mind if we talked after class?” Mollified but not satisfied, I agreed. He met me after class and patiently answered question after question for me. It was a big turning point in my life.
Over the years I have enjoyed the process of learning more about the nature and person of God, both academically and experientially. The worldview I grew up with has been hammered and forged into something much more vibrant and joyful through exposure to other cultures, thinkers, and religions. 26+ years of full-time ministry has also helped me understand how people of all walks of life experience the power and love of Jesus. But no matter how long I live or how many books I read, there’s something about God that is still hard for me to understand–Why does it hurt so much when you feel as if God was not there when tragedy, abuse or chronic pain happened? It’s an old question but feels more relevant than ever in our current cultural climate.
I get the logical answers, I do. The necessity of valid, compelling answers to these questions is a stream of thinking that profoundly matters–“Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”¹ Sometimes these questions and experiences drive people far from God, and we need a functional, sound pathway back from that terrible place. But the truth is that when you are in the middle of acute or chronic pain, logical answers sound like vapid garbage at best or patronizing manure at worst. The nature of pain is such that knowing the right answers often doesn’t even matter…the pain shouts down the reason. As I continue to face suffering, questions still pop up in my heart as if some perennial weed exists in my soul. It’s hard for me to understand the motives of God who, apparently, is everywhere all the time and is, at the same time, all-powerful. That same person seems to do nothing for me when life is excruciatingly painful. Even though I know it’s not true, new offshoots of doubt crop up and, like always, I need the Word of God for wisdom–especially the teaching and life of Jesus. However, even in the Biblical text, some of the emotional things are hard to hear.
John 11 is perhaps one of the most challenging sections of Scripture for me. The chapter opens with clarifying statements to remind us who these folks were: Mary was the one who washed Jesus’ feet with tears, wiped them with her hair and anointed Jesus. Martha was the one who took care of many of the physical needs of Jesus and his disciples. Two of his favorite, most trusted people came to him with a terrible need: Their brother, their legal protector, their only hope of property and safety…he was sick. Ok. That set up makes sense I suppose. But there’s a statement there that’s tough:
Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he [Lazarus] was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (Jn 11:5-6 NASB).
What? He loved them? And yet he intentionally didn’t help them? Well… (insert favorite but un-admitted curse word or phrase here)!
Of course, Jesus explains it later–he is going to use this tragedy to bless everyone involved! Raising someone from the dead will be a BIG deal! He’s going to teach about resurrection now, the power of God and the resurrection someday. Jesus had reasons–good reasons for what he was doing, yet no one experienced it that way at the time.
If you follow along in the chapter, after Lazarus died (Jesus suggesting he was merely sleeping), Jesus finally gets moving. He wasn’t in a hurry; he was moseying. His disciples are meanwhile suggesting different courses of action that would help Lazarus, help them stay out of danger, help Jesus think about the right way to handle this. But Jesus simply stayed true to his plan and his lesson.
As they got closer to Lazarus’ burial plot, Martha left the group and went out to meet him. Her statement to Jesus captures the very essence of the deepest of wounds with God:
Lord, if only you had been here… (NLT)
If only God had been there when…(fill in your own sorrow). “Things would have been different! I would not have felt abandoned, alone or (X).” I have a lot on that list. My current version barely merits mention, but I still feel it. It’s a crushing thought; one that makes us questions God’s abilities and intentions.
Mary’s grief was more like mine. She didn’t even come out to see him. They had gone to tell Jesus their need! He KNEW their desperation, and instead of rushing to their side, it appeared that he just let other things get in the way. Meanwhile, the only lifeline they had in that culture died and was buried…and Jesus didn’t even come to the funeral. Mary’s King failed to take care of her protector–and she was left without both. So she avoided Jesus. I don’t blame her. When Jesus finally showed up (sheesh) and then sent for her (rude), her response was the same as her sister’s.
Lord if only you had been here…
When Jesus finally went to the graveside, looked around and wept, some folks commented, “See how He loved Lazarus!” These were the sweet folks who felt so sad for Jesus because he was crying. We need those people, but I’m not them. I’m more like the people who responded, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man from dying?”
There it is. God seems to say that he CAN help…but sometimes he doesn’t. That hurts more than we can describe. No language can express how we feel when the one that we looked to for help seems to be quiet. Profanity is not profane enough, and praise feels too self-serving.
If you are reading this right now and are looking for answers, please consider working through Phillip Yancey’s classic book about this…it’s been beneficial to me.²
“If only you had been here.” My oh my, what a phrase.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve heard people gloss over this and go straight to the resurrection. These are the folks who skip to the last page of the book, who check texts throughout the movie until the ending. Many of us think that if God wasn’t there for us in our pain, he either couldn’t help or he didn’t want to do so. What we’re experiencing is nothing new. Even non-believers have struggled with this. From Epicurus³ to the New Atheists, we all wonder about the supreme being and the pain we experience.
It’s a perennial question: like a seed of cancerous thought, lying underground; suspect that maybe, after all, the man in the sky saw what happened, was able to help and chose not to. But why?
Place to Hope
This is among the deepest truths of the Gospel that I need to constantly re-learn–Pain, while REAL and valid, is only temporary. God is the very source of life. The author of the story, the creator of who we are. And, no matter how we feel, our trust in God is our lifeline to life itself–even death cannot keep us from Him. Trust is one of those things that humbles us, hurts us and reminds us that we are, all of us, derivative of someone else’s power and design. Those of us who claim Christ as our King have surrendered our lives (Luke 9:23) and have pledged ourselves to heaven. God KNEW Jesus was going to suffer and die and sent him anyway. Jesus KNEW that Mary and Martha were going to hurt and waited anyway. God KNOWS things are going to be hard, yet he sends us forward anyway.
And, in the end, Jesus didn’t leave them to hurt alone. He was IN the hurt with them, weeping and full of sorrow. He knew that indeed he was the one who could have kept Lazarus from dying, yet he willingly allowed all that pain for something even more critical.
Not only is pain temporary, something even more profound happens when we seek God in the middle of suffering.
The most simple truth for me about all of this is that trust in God is no simple task, no flighty optimism, no crutch for the weak-minded. Trust like this is a white-knuckled, sweating, gripping of the rope that burns our hands. Habbakuk knew this kind of trust, Paul knew it, Peter was a pro. Eons of Christian martyrs have learned that there is something beyond pain…something beyond our sorrows. It is an anchored belief that nothing can separate us (Rom 8) and that my trials (James 1) are developing me into a mature Christ-Follower.
More than that, the Sovereign God who still allows us to choose faith redeems each wound. His blood has purchased us; every laugh, tear, and hurt are bought and re-used by God. All that we are will be redeemed in the end.
And even more than that, he invites us to pick up our cross willingly and join him in helping! We ourselves, who are wounded, get our wounds turned into a ministry tool for others who are hurting (cf I Cor 1). We learn that although we’re opposed, broken, hurt and dying (over and over), the God of resurrection takes each of these scars, heals us, transforms us and then invite us to be part of the healing He is doing around the world. The Holy Spirit helps us learn compassion; we learn pity, we develop strategic partnerships with others and, together, we find joy as we minister to others. We become participators in what Jesus was about (Col 1:24).
The secret task, then, is to lean into God during pain. We can cut away any new growth from those perennial bulbs of doubt and fix our eyes on Jesus, the author, and perfector of our faith. Martha ran to Jesus for help. Mary came to Jesus when he called. In spite of their pain, Jesus brought Lazarus back to life and brought many others to believe in His deity. That hoped-for ending came true in the end! When we come to Jesus, it is there that we find the one who weeps with us, does His work in us and sends us toward a greater calling. With Christ, we can obey, forgive and heal.
I want the happy ending of this story to stop there. But as the next chapter rolls around, political pressures mount, Lazurus received death threats, and the cycle starts anew. Ugh. We long for rest…but we start all over, trusting God as things hurt, learning to take joy, press on and discover that through Christ, we really can do everything he asks (Phil 4).
One beautiful day, Jesus will give us all rest. Life will be made manifest; revealed and eternal. He is with us now in the pain and we will be with Him forever when it’s over. Until then, run to Jesus, approach when He calls, In any and every case–hold on. I’m praying for you…
¹C.S. Lewis – “Learning in War-time” from the book The Weight of Glory (many editions).
²Where is God When It Hurts? by Phillip Yancey (many editions)
³David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Edited by Jonathan Bennett, 2017. PDF. https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/hume1779.pdf, pg 44. For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. His paradox goes like this: Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?