There is a song that can easily bring a tear to the eye. Composed to commemorate Kristallnact, the piece takes its lyrics from a poem scrawled on the wall of the secret room where an unknown Jew hid during the Holocaust.
“I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when feeling it not. I believe in God even when God is silent.”
The Gospels are full of stories of God speaking. Jesus calms the waves, heals the sick, preaches to multitudes, and they believe. In today’s story, however, Jesus is silent.
You can find the story in John 11:1-44. Lazarus, one of Jesus’ best friends and brother to Mary and Martha, is very sick. His sisters send word to Jesus, assuming he will heal Lazarus; after all, Jesus has healed people from afar before. Instead, the Bible records a strange cause-and-effect: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days…” (v. 5-6 NIV). What kind of reaction is that? Jesus loved Lazarus – and so he stayed where he was?
Once the two days pass, Jesus travels to Lazarus’s hometown of Bethany with his disciples, where Mary and Martha tell them that Lazarus has already been dead and buried for four days. Despite their affirmations of belief, Mary and Martha both have the same desperate, grief-stricken words for Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21, 32).
Later, Jesus will make his glory known. Later, Lazarus will stagger forth from the tomb and the sisters’ faith will be realized.
But first, it says that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (v. 33). Here, we find the shortest verse in the Bible, powerful in its simplicity: “Jesus wept” (v. 35).
Jesus’ friends are suffering. They don’t have answers. All they know is that they trusted him, and that trust was seemingly betrayed. They called for help, and Jesus did not reply the way they thought that he would.
But Jesus is not merely silent. He is weeping.
While it can be tempting to focus on the triumphant ending of this story, Jesus’ actions beforehand demand our attention. Jesus actively chooses not to heal Lazarus, not to save him, so that people will witness Lazarus’s resurrection and believe. Is Jesus a monster for letting his friends lose their brother when he could easily save him? Is he selfish for using their suffering for his own glory? Is the suffering and sadness of these sisters God’s will?
Every Christian, at some point at other, must face the question of answered and unanswered prayers. Some people will argue that God answers every prayer – it’s just that sometimes his answer is “no” or “wait a while.” This still leaves us asking why he gives positive answers to certain requests and not others, though. If God miraculously heals a church member’s cancer but despite your desperate and faithful prayers your mother dies of hers, is that his will? Did you not have enough faith? Were you not praying hard enough?
English poet William Blake wrote about one of the key components of being human: empathy. We are in a world inherently painful and full of suffering, he said, but when he became human Jesus empathized with us; he mourned with us.
In “On Another’s Sorrow,” Blake writes:
O! He gives to us His Joy / That our grief He may destroy / Till our grief is fled and gone / He doth sit by us and moan
The truth of the Lazarus story is twofold: 1 - God has the power to bring life out of death, resurrection out of the darkness of the grave, and the hope of this promise has been secured by Christ’s own resurrection. 2 - In the meantime, while God may have to withhold the exertion of his power for whatever mysterious reasons he may have, we can know that he feels the sorrow of humanity’s suffering and grieves with us until the time should come for him to intervene.
When you face unrelenting darkness – when you pray and pray and God doesn’t grant you what you are so desperate for – how do you keep believing? Is it enough to know that Jesus wept when we know that if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died? How do you believe in God even when God is silent?
- John 11:23-24 reads: “Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” What does this tell you about Jewish understandings of ‘Life After Death’ in the first century? Where do you think Martha believed her brother Lazarus was at that moment? Look at 11:11-13 for more detail!
- Do you find it troubling that God seems to grant the requests of some people and not those of others? If so, why does it trouble you? If not, why are you at peace with it?
- Are pain and suffering ever caused by God? Or does all suffering come from the devil? Or is it somewhere in between? What scriptures might address this point?
- How do you grapple with conditions like depression, or chronic illness, where people constantly live with unremitting suffering? Can anything good come from this at all?
The statement that Thomas makes in 11:16 is very strange. “Let us go die with him”. Who is the “him” that he is referring to? Why do you think Thomas said this? Was this a statement of devotion and faith in Jesus, or a sarcastic expression of disbelief?
- There are two helpful hints, one in 11:6-8 where the disciples resist the idea of going back to Judea, and the other in 11:45-53 - the violent reaction of the Jewish leaders. How does this help you understand Thomas’ strange remark?
- Compare the reaction of the onlooking people in 11:35-37 with the prayer that Jesus offers to his Father in 11:41-42 before he resurrects Lazarus.
- What point where the people trying to make by asking about Jesus’ other displays of miraculous power?
- What point was Jesus trying to make about the Father always hearing his prayers?
- Are these two points related at all?
- What is one thing that gives you hope and encouragement when you are in a dark place?