One of the hardest things to do as a Christian is to reconcile the unfathomable love of God with the inconceivable evil in this world. Much of the time we wave away the cognitive dissonance. Thoughts of the third world or the Holocaust come upon us while we lounge in our first-world, air-conditioned homes. We calm ourselves with a distraction or think to ourselves, “I don’t understand, but God does.” While true, we often leave this sector of theology unfinished.
Sometimes this hits closer to home. We struggle for decades with the same temptation. We lose a job. We spend years of our lives in loneliness, hoping that God might one day give us a spouse. We struggle financially, some of us praying at times for enough food on the table. Others of us lose a loved one to tragedy. Or an unexpected illness shows up in a medical test, derailing our lives and the lives of everyone around us. It is much harder to shrug off the cognitive dissonance in these moments, with our lives a mess and our prayers unanswered.
The Story of the Unanswered Prayer
In the first few verses of John 11, two sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus that their brother is sick and dying. This family had hosted Jesus before, and were very close to him and his ministry. Jesus, of course, had the power to go and heal Lazarus right away, but instead, he does something that seems nonsensical.
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.
Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, but instead of rushing to Lazarus’ side and miraculously healing him, he stayed where he was. A very paraphrased version of this verse could be: “Jesus loved them, so, he let Lazarus die.”
Later, in the same chapter, Jesus goes to the now grieving sisters, mourning the loss of their brother. We see Martha and Mary expressing their grief to Jesus, who weeps along with them. The response of the mourners surrounding them echoes our own feelings.
So, the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus shared in Mary and Martha’s bitter grief. That’s a comfort to us now, especially when we experience loss. When calamity strikes, when we’re broken by the world, Jesus weeps with us. It’s a testament to his humanity, and to the fact that we do not have a “High Priest who is unable to sympathize.” (Hebrews 4:15) At the same time, we continue to ask, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind keep this from happening?”
The answer is yes. Yes, he could have. Which begs another question altogether:
Then why didn’t he.
Why did God allow my cousin to get cancer? Why did God allow my dad to lose his job? Why did God allow the fire that caused my family to lose everything?
Why does God allow children to die? Why does God allow people to starve? Why does God allow terrorist attacks? Corruption? The displacement of entire people groups? The murder of innocents? The destitution of the poor?
Why does he seem so silent when we ask these questions?
By the end of John 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Mary and Martha receive their brother back. All is well again. But the question still lingers: why did Jesus allow him to die in the first place?
The Answer God Provides
Jesus’ words in this passage may help us to understand:
Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.
Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 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.
It’s important to remember that our earthly comfort and fulfillment are not God’s top priorities. Even our physical safety and health are not his first priorities. His number one priority is glorifying himself and spiritually fulfilling us through himself.
John Piper’s mantra, “God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in him,” speaks volumes to this truth. We are created not for our own enjoyment, not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify God and enjoy him forever. When we seek satisfaction outside of God (even in health, safety, family, friends, and other good things), we remain unfulfilled. God cannot supply anything better than himself.
The complete, full, and sufficient answers to our questions are not found in platitudes or in a passage of Scripture or in the philosophies of man. The answer is in God, and God alone. C. S. Lewis, after losing his wife, wrote “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer. Before your face, questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
The answer God provides is not silence. The answer God provides is himself.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
At the end of everything, our lives will be made whole in Christ. We will be cured of all illness and suffering, and made perfect. We will receive back those loved ones who have gone to Jesus before us. More importantly, we will be fully satisfied in God, reveling in his glory and reflecting it back to him.