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When God disappoints us

October 1997 | by John Cook

This title may raise a few eyebrows, but it does express a common feeling among Christians when we are confronted with difficult and unexpected experiences. There is an interesting example of this in John 11, when Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, confront the Lord Jesus with the words, ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died’ (John 11:21, 32). They were voicing bewilderment and disappointment that Jesus had not been there at the time of their critical need. Had he been, they thought, he would have prevented the death of Lazarus. Even if they do not say it, believers often think, ‘Lord, if you really cared, things would have been different, better or easier for us.’ Our Lord’s pastoral dealings with the sisters provide us with a pattern from which we ourselves can benefit.

Their relationship with Christ

From the narrative we discover two things concerning their relationship to Christ that are relevant to ourselves. Firstly, they believed in Jesus. In Martha’s case this was clearly confessed. ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God’ (11:27), and Mary demonstrated her faith by her costly act of devotion (11:2). Earlier, Mary had been commended by the Saviour for having chosen to sit at his feet and hear his words (Luke 10:39-42). We see, therefore, that even true believers, who love Christ’s teaching and delight to serve him, may yet be confused about his dealings with them in providence. But faith in the Lord Jesus is always capable of increase. Our response to adversity should not be to question the wisdom and love behind what happens to us, but rather to pray, ‘Lord, increase our faith’, and, like Job, be willing to cry, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him!’ (Job 13:15).

Secondly, they were loved by Jesus. This is directly affirmed in John 11:5: ‘Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.’ Yet surprisingly this fact is linked with his apparent failure to respond to the message that Lazarus was sick. God’s love is not always obvious in his dealings with us, and we need to look elsewhere for the evidences of it. We see the love of Christ for his people supremely in the context of our salvation from sin. Have we been forgiven? Do we have peace with God and the sure hope of heaven? Then we can trace the reality and greatness of Jesus’ love for us and affirm, with the apostle Paul, ‘The Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). It should surprise us that he loved us so much, even from eternity, that he saved us at such great cost to himself. But this being the case, we may apply Paul’s logic to every situation. If God ‘did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also give us all things? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ (Romans 8:32-35). In this confidence we may rest, whatever our circumstances.

They brought their problems to the Lord

Both the sisters opened their hearts to Jesus, and began by addressing him as ‘Lord’. In this they acted like suffering believers before them, such as Job, Jeremiah and the psalmists. Instead of wrestling with their problems in the darkness of their own minds, or complaining about them to others, they brought their difficulties into the light of God’s presence. We too must learn to spread our troubles before the Lord by bringing them to the light of his Word in humble and prayerful enquiry. Then we shall learn something of the reality of his compassion in our need and discover the secrets of his providential designs. Let us look more closely at these two matters.

The evidence of his compassion and loving care is everywhere in our passage. To Martha, Jesus revealed himself more fully as ‘the resurrection and the life’ (11:25), providing her with the assurance that her brother had not perished, but continued to live in the presence of God. When we are greatly distressed in bereavement and find it hard to understand why a loved one should have been taken from us, then let us similarly listen to the Saviour. Of course, Christians grieve, but not without hope for those who believe, remembering that ‘Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord’ (Revelation 14:13). Perhaps we can share in Charles Wesley’s encouragement: ‘Rejoice for a brother deceased. Our loss is his infinite gain.’

For Lazarus, of course, Jesus’ words were backed up by the miraculous demonstration of his power over death, as he raised the dead to life again. But this is also relevant to us, since it is a guarantee that our loved ones who fall asleep in Jesus remain in his loving care and will be raised at his glorious coming. In his dealings with Mary also, Jesus revealed the tenderness of his heart and the genuineness of his compassion. He was deeply moved in spirit, and himself burst into tears when he saw her weeping.

Christ does not change. Though now exalted in heaven, the Scriptures encourage us to believe that he is there as our faithful and merciful intercessor. ‘We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted [tested] as we are’ (Hebrews 4:15). The double negative used here actually serves to emphasize that Christ is well able to feel compassion and to minister to us sympathetically in our weaknesses and earthly trials. Jesus’ commitment to us in love means that he enters into our grief with genuine empathy. We shall always find mercy and needful grace when we come to him.

The revelation of his design is found in John 11:4: ‘This sickness is … for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ There are always two elements in God’s dealings with his children. The first is that he works all things for his own glory, and the second is that he works all things for our highest good. Consider the first of these. Jesus affirmed that the whole incident was designed to promote the glory of both the Father and the Son. The sisters were not aware of this at the time, but the Lord had promised that in believing they would see the glory of God (11:40). As we read this account of the raising of Lazarus, the glory of the Lord is still revealed to us also, and we are assured that even today Christ is glorified in his people through their trying circumstances, their pain, their sicknesses and their death. Like Martha and Mary at the time, we may not see how this works out, but believing we can rejoice in the sovereign purposes of God. Let us increasingly seek that God should be glorified in all things.

The second principle is that God really does work all things together for good to those who love him, because all things that touch our lives are included in the purpose according to which we are called (Romans 8:28). The apostle Paul clearly included among the ‘all things’ that tribulation, distress, persecution and even death to which he refers later in the same chapter (Romans 8:35). We may not feel that this is true. We may be unable to see how what hurts and grieves us can be good for us. Yet God’s ways with us are directed by infinite wisdom and everlasting love. His aim is to conform us to the image of his Son, and in all our experiences we may reckon that God is working to that end. Sorrow, pain and trouble are employed by God in the training and education of his children, and this includes such chastening as will make us partakers of his holiness (Hebrews 12:10).

Martha and Mary could appreciate, afterwards, that all that had distressed them really did give glory to Jesus and bring spiritual benefit to them. There will be an ‘afterwards’ for us also, when by God’s grace we shall affirm that ‘Jesus has done all things well.’