The Sorrows of Life and the Love of God
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
– John 11:21
In John’s account of Lazarus’ sickness and death, we are given an incredibly valuable gift, namely, the opportunity to view tragedy and suffering from God’s perspective. Because the narrative follows Jesus and not Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, it is as if we are within God’s own secret counsels during their hardships, and since the Lord never changes, we are given a glimpse of the heart behind our own trials as well.
To see Christ is to see God. To understand something true about Christ is to understand something true about God. Christ’s motives are God’s motives, Christ’s desires are God’s desires, Christ’s purposes, plans, intentions are also God’s. So then, what can we learn about our Lord and our God through this passage?
God’s Goal and Motive in Christian Suffering
The thing that stands out most clearly to me is that God’s goal and motive in this suffering are beautiful: The goal is that God would be glorified through the glorification of His Son, (11:4, “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.”) and the motive is love, (11:5, “Now Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.”).
So, the GOAL is that the Glory of God be displayed in His Son, and the MOTIVE is Love, specifically, Love toward His sheep (Martha, Mary, and Lazarus). This means that the gift of Perfect Love, the gift of Infinite Love, the gift that Love Himself gives to those whom He loves is to see the Glory of God in the face of the Son. Love’s supreme gift is God, seen, known and enjoyed……Or, another way to say it is that love’s supreme gift is eternal life (John 3:16), which Jesus defines as knowing the Father and the Son (John 17:3).
So what lies behind the Christian’s pain? What lies behind the deaths, the suffering, the sickness? What lies behind the hardship, the numbing, plodding, grinding difficulty of life? For one who has heard their Shepherd’s voice in the Person of Christ…we know what is behind it: The love-driven communication of God’s glory in his Son to our hearts. God desires that we see His beauty in His Son, and everything that enters our lives is part of His accomplishment of this love-born task.
Love that Bursts Wineskins
So, back to Martha’s words, “Lord, if you had been here…” Yes, from Martha’s perspective it would have been better for Jesus to have been there and prevented Lazarus’ death…but God loved her and her family too much for that…Jesus loved Martha too much to have kept Lazarus from dying. When horror descends on us (or, simple, continual, heart-hardening daily difficulties) if we find ourselves saying “if only this hadn’t happened”, what the Christian is really saying is, “if only God didn’t love me so deeply!” The love of Christ is DEEP….so deep that when He takes us into it, we might fear for our lives – we might even lose them…but it is worth it.
But don’t hear me – or Christ – making light of sorrow and suffering. Remember that Jesus weeps over this act of love that He gives to Martha’s family (11:35). Love is a costly thing; costly to give and costly to receive, but to truly give it and to truly receive it is the joy of God Himself and the purpose of reality. May God strengthen us both to give and receive this weighty gift.
God’s love for his people is beyond anything we can fully experience in this world and in this life…it is, in fact, MORE love than we naturally want or can handle – but he will make us fitting vessels for it by and by. His love is like New Wine and our hearts are like old, cracked wineskins. As He pours His love into us over the course of our life, the immediate sense may be that we are splitting at the seams – but as the old skin stretches and tears and groans under the weight and energy of His love, He will sustain us….He will sustain us until the end, until He pours out that sweetest and strongest drought of His love that actually does burst our wineskin and remove us wholly from this world and into His presence. Then a new skin is given to us, a skin that receives the new wine of His love with previously un-imagined capacities of pleasure and joy and wonder…
Every hardship that the Christian walks through is in the pattern of Lazarus’ death, that is, God has ordained it for us in love, and it’s goal is the communication of God’s beauty to us in Christ. As Christian’s, we could put our names and trials into chapter 11:5-6: “Jesus loved ________, so He brought them into a time of doubt,” “Jesus loved ____________, so He caused her relationships to begin splintering,” “Jesus loved ___________, so He did not heal him.”
Please be clear, I am not saying that Christ’s love always results in our suffering, but I am saying that – as Christians – our suffering always results from Christ’s love. If it feels painful, if it feels hard, if it feels like we have received the sentence of death – that’s not because we are walking through some remaining anger from God, or because God has a quota of suffering that we all have to experience. Rather, it is because God’s love-driven communication of His glory, breathed over us through the veil of fallen creation sometimes meets us as suffering and hardship.
Sorrow is the Seed of Joy
But look to the end of the story….Lazarus rises from the dead. Four days after his heart has stopped, four days after all hope has been extinguished, he rises from the dead. The “Happy Ending” is God’s glory…when long dead lungs breathe new air, when long silent lips sing new songs, when eyes dimmed by sorrow well up with tears of Joy, God is glorified and we are loved. Remember that Joy beyond hope awaits the Christian, often in this life (as was the case for Lazarus), and surely in the next. Ultimately, sorrow is the seed of joy, and God is a wise, good, and sovereign Gardener.
ALL the paths of the Lord….ALL the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness for those who keep His covenant and His testimonies…Psalm 25:10.