Toward a Better Understanding of Suffering: Part 2
Last week, I began to tread the dangerous waters of seeking a better understanding of the reality of suffering in God's world. In my post, I explained how suffering should not be, but is as a result of of God's righteous curse on the world because of our rebellion against Him; I also briefly mentioned the good news that God has chosen to redeem suffering through His great plan of salvation. I ended by stating that this is because we see the goodness of God's glory most brilliantly displayed...in the midst of our sufferings. This week, I want us to get a glimpse into how God does this with John's account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11:1-44.
This story dramatically details for us the last of Jesus' seven signs of John's gospel. Through the first ten chapters John has been carefully laying out a narrative of Jesus as God's true and final revelation of Himself, who has come into the world to show us who our God really is. He has done this specifically "so that you [and I] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing [we] might have life in his name" (John 20:31). And all of this crescendos up to this moment when Jesus' beloved friends, Mary and Martha, send Jesus word that their brother Lazarus has tragically died from an illness (John 11:1-4).
This scene is wrought with suffering. There's no doubt Lazarus suffered before he died as he endured his soon-to-be fatal illness. We also read in this chapter about the understandable bereaving grief of Mary and Martha over their brother's death. And on top of this, we see that there are numerous others from their community mourning with them. But most profoundly we see Jesus suffering with them. In John 11:33-35, John says "When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled...Jesus wept." Yes, the Son of God wept! In seeing these people suffer, Jesus, God incarnate, suffered with them. And John wants us to know that as we suffer, Jesus suffers with us...
Yes, Jesus, the living God, is moved ("deeply"!) by our suffering. Does this surprise you? Does this throw you off a bit? You're not alone. This truth has baffled theologians for centuries. But here it is. The Word made flesh came to dwell among us, and he came to suffer with us. But it's crucial that we understand how Jesus suffers here. You see, we tend to sentimentalize suffering as if we're helpless martyrs in God's chess game. But not Jesus. Listen to how D.A. Carson describes what the Greek word here for "deeply moved" really means: "It invariably suggests anger, outrage or emotional indignation" (The Gospel According to John, p. 415). Jesus saw the suffering of these people and was angry about it. What John wants us to grasp here is that Jesus is outraged about our suffering.
Now make no mistake: God righteously instituted the curse because of our rebellion. But He is outraged by how it affects us. As Lamentations 3:33 says, God "does not afflict from His heart or grieve the children of man." And as Ezekiel 18:23 reminds us, He has no pleasure in punishing the wicked. And so we see Jesus here agonizing over the sufferings of sin, death, bereavement, and ultimately unbelief. Carson later adds, "With most of us, to be angry...is inconsistent with being loving and empathetic.... With Jesus, as with his Father, the antithesis breaks down.... The same sin and death, the same unbelief, that prompted his outrage, also generated his grief" (p. 416). We can take comfort in the reality that God truly hates our suffering.
But that's not all. You see, God is up to something greater here than merely showing us how He cares deeply and empathetically about our sufferings. As if the comfort of knowing that God truly feels deeply with us in our suffering isn't marvelous enough, John ultimately wants us to know how God redeems our suffering through Jesus' suffering. You see, Jesus didn't ultimately come to suffer with us, as if there's some inherent value in suffering (remember, it's part of a curse!). No, he came to redeem suffering through his own suffering. This is what John is driving towards throughout his gospel, and it is wonderfully signified here.
After understanding how John explains Jesus' anger over our suffering, is it not strange to you how John says that out of love for Mary and Martha, Jesus, "when he heard that Lazarus was ill...stayed two days later in the place where he was" (John 11:5-6)? As Mary and Martha knew, Jesus could have healed him with a word. So how can he purposefully allow these women (whom he loves) to experience the suffering of grief (which he hates) over their brother's death?! Because there's something much bigger going on here. Because Jesus knows how God has ordained that we see the goodness of God's glory most brilliantly displayed...in the midst of our sufferings. The key is found in verses 14-15. Here Jesus tells his disciples, "'Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe (emphasis added)."'
Believe in what? In the wonder and the beauty and the power and the hope of resurrection! After telling his disciples this, Jesus then leads them to the tomb where Lazarus lay and with a word raises him from the dead (vv. 43-44). But before he does this, in order that we grasp what's really going on here, he says, "'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"' (vv. 25-26). Jesus wants us to understand that he has come bring the splendor of new life out of the suffering of death. If his disciples never experienced the grief and horror of Lazarus' death, they would have never experienced the hope of Jesus' power to resurrect.
It's the same with us. The only way we will truly grasp the glories of the resurrection is through the griefs of suffering. This is the ultimate purpose for our sufferings. And this is why Jesus suffered with and for us. As John and the other New Testament writers are at pains to show us, Jesus came to suffer death for us so that we would have the real hope of resurrection life with him. This is how God redeems suffering, and this is why we can find real hope in the midst of our sufferings. As we suffer, we can know that God experiences outrage over our sufferings with us. But most importantly, we can know that He has ordained our suffering in order to conquer our unbelief so that we can have real hope in the resurrection life that we have in Jesus.