Suffering, Affliction, and the Love of God

We find a rather peculiar thing in the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel. The chapter recounts the incident of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the first few verses we’re told that Mary and Martha sent messengers to tell Jesus that their brother, who was very dear to him, was ill. And then we read the following:

The Raising of Lazarus
by Juan de Flandes (1465-1519)
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 
John 11:5-6

What a very odd thing to say. We would have expected something quite different. After saying, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” we would have expected John to have said, “So, Jesus hurried off to their home to heal him.” But, no, it says, “He loved them, so he stayed two days longer where he was.”

What’s going on here? Because Jesus loved them, he wanted to teach them something that would prove to be an immeasurable comfort to them (and to us as well), namely, he is the resurrection and the life. Now, he could have merely stated the fact and it would have been no less true; but he wanted this truth to be so deeply impressed upon their minds that it could never be forgotten. He wanted them to experience it. He allowed the illness to take its natural course. He allowed Lazarus to die. He could have healed him, of course. He could have rushed to their home and laid his hand upon him, and the illness would have been immediately healed. Or he could have stayed where he was and simply spoken the word, and the illness would have been healed. Distance was no obstacle to him in such matters (cf. Matt. 8:5-13; Jn. 4:46:53). But instead, he let him die. And he did this because he loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. He loved them too much to heal him when there was another, higher, and more important object to be gained—their knowledge of him as the resurrection and the life.

For some of us, perhaps, this saying carries little power, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. It’s no more than a pleasant sounding religious platitude. But Jesus wanted them—as he wants us—to understand that the resurrection is a reality that changes our entire outlook on life. 

Jesus allowed those whom he loved to suffer a temporary sorrow in order to teach them a lesson of eternal value. May I suggest to you that this is how we should look upon all of our trials and afflictions? In his great love for us, he sometimes allows us to suffer things we would never have chosen for ourselves, but which are nevertheless for our good. There is some lesson to be learned, some grace of the Spirit, or some character trait to be formed in us; or perhaps some good to be accomplished in someone else by what we suffer, and so he allows us to suffer it. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray—and pray fervently—that we might avoid suffering, or pray to be delivered from suffering; but it does mean that if God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way or in the time we think he should, we should remember that he is nevertheless dealing with us in love. 

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