“Our sorrows are all, like ourselves, mortal. There are no immortal sorrows for immortal souls. They come, but blessed be God, they also go. Like birds of the air, they fly over our heads. But they cannot make their abode in our souls. We suffer today, but we shall rejoice tomorrow.”
– Charles Spurgeon –
She didn’t have John 11 in her Bible.
And she didn’t understand.
Maybe, as the quiet, cold countryside air drifted through the house, she leaned against the wall and held her breath, waiting for her sick brother to inhale one more time.
A slow breath just beyond the thin wall.
She exhales, waiting for the next sound of air in fragile lungs.
It doesn’t come.
Her throat tightens. Hands go still where they’ve been digging a thin place in the hem of her skirt. Oh God, let him breathe.
It still doesn’t come.
A thin, reedy wail bubbles up from her chest, rising into deep sobs.
It didn’t come.
And neither had Jesus.
Other cries begin–her sister’s weary, husky choking, the softer wails of watching friends, a baby stirring on her cousin’s hip.
She closes her eyes and tastes the hot salt wetting her lips. “Why didn’t you come?” she whispers in the dark. “You could have stopped this.”
Have you seen a night that dark?
A death that tore out your heart. A friendship that melted away in the forge instead of being tempered by the flames. A dream that withered again and again.
We all ask this question, don’t we? “Why weren’t You there, Lord, when that happened? Where were You when I needed you?”
There’s the theological voice in our heads, telling us that God is omnipresent, that Jesus promised to never leave us, that He sent us the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and be our Comforter.
But…honestly? You can’t always feel truth. That theological voice can tell me all it wants, but there’s no doubt that sometimes we cry and it seems like there is no reply. No comfort. No easing of the pain. Just silence.
I think that’s how Mary felt.
She sat, perhaps, in the dark and wept for her lost brother Lazarus, and wondered why, why on earth, did Jesus fail them.
He could have stopped this. He’d done it before–healed so many. Healed those that didn’t even follow Him, healed beggars on roadsides, healed servants of Gentiles long-distance.
But the man he loved, whose sisters he loved? He didn’t show up for him.
Don’t you know that Mary cried in the dark and couldn’t wrap her mind around the lostness. It was bad enough that her brother was dead.
But the ache of Jesus failing them…that must have been a thousand times worse.
She’d sat at his feet (Luke 10:39). She thrown her soul into following Him. She’d tossed everything aside as unimportant, secondary to knowing Him.
And yet He hadn’t come.
So Mary buried her brother, perhaps helping her sister Martha wrap him in spice-soaked cloths. So Mary cried until her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen, until her heart felt drained of tears, and then she kept crying.
It was another four days, four days after the tombstone was shoved across the cave’s mouth, when Jesus finally showed up.
Late. Too late to heal. Too late, even, for the funeral. Just too late.
The Bible records Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus’ illness this way:
” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (John 11:5-6, NKJV).
Wait…what? This seems like a bad joke.
He hears about Lazarus…and stays away?
So, when he comes four days after the funeral (John 11:17), I wonder if Mary had stopped looking for Him? The passage doesn’t say. It only records,
“Now Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house” (John 11:20).
Did Mary hear? Why did she stay at the house? Perhaps she she was too swallowed by her grief. Maybe she didn’t know Jesus had arrived. Or maybe she had given up on Jesus, because He hadn’t been there when she needed Him most.
But Martha–strong, capable, warm–went running in her tears and met Jesus as He approached:
“Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).
But then, as Matthew Henry suggests in his commentary on the passage, she seems to regret her hasty, grieved words. Thought probably still asking “why” inside, she corrects herself:
“But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (John 11:22).
This is a grief-stricken, somewhat-shaken faith. “Lord, I don’t understand,” she seems to be saying. “I still believe in you. I still know you have power. But I don’t understand.”
Under Jesus’ gentle questioning, she affirms her conviction that He is the Messiah, even the Son of God.
Then he sends for Mary.
Remember, Mary hadn’t read John 11. She didn’t know what would happen. We who have the whole Bible, who have grown up with the narratives, become numb to it.
But this wasn’t a flannel graph, two-dimensional story for Mary. This was real.
Her brother was dead. Her Savior had abandoned her.
Then He called for her and she hurries to meet him.
“Then, when Mary came where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).
The same words as her sister–this same theme that resounds in our own hearts when God doesn’t show up in our pain.
“If you had been here, God…If only You had been here.”
And what does Jesus do? He had given Martha the theological answers. For Mary?
For Mary, He cries.
With Mary, He cries. Yes, God in flesh sees her tears, the tears of her sister, and He openly weeps (John 11:35).
What comes next?
A glorious rising. A heart-stopping, mind-blowing resurrection right on the fringes of Jerusalem. The world was shaken up that day.
Because Lazarus rose and walked out of that tomb!
But if we walk away from Mary’s story with the idea that Jesus will immediately come along and undo all our griefs, set it all right, make it not hurt anymore–then we’ve not learned our lesson.
You see, Mary didn’t know what Jesus was going to do.
But, behind Mary’s grieving, Martha’s questioning, Lazarus’ dying–behind all this was a much larger Story at work:
The Story of God glorifying His Son in the world (John 17).
In fact, in the very next chapter, we see the results of Lazarus rising:
“Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. 10 But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus” (John 12:9-11).
The Bible never tells the end of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s story.
But that passage–rather than scaring me, or making me worry about Lazarus’ safety–reassures me.
See what God did?
The whole mess of grief and then wonder, death and then life–all of it was a master-design to point the world to Jesus. Lazarus was such a testimony to His God that the Jews wanted him dead just to get people to stop believing!
God doesn’t always ride in and fix our problems. He doesn’t always come and heal our loved ones, raise our dead dreams, or mend our broken relationships. (One day, yes, He will! He will make all things new!)
But Mary’s story teaches me to hope.
Because whatever God is doing in the pain–however silent He seems to be–I know two things.
I know He knows my sorrows and is moved by my pain.
And I know that He is up to something glorious.
Grief is hard.
Pain hurts terribly.
Prayers don’t always feel like they’re going through.
But whether my Lazarus rises or not, I know that “God’s absence”–when He decides not to intervene in my hurt–is part of plan that makes God look amazing.
When He doesn’t show up, I will cling to the knowledge of His love and presence. He won’t always tell me why I have to hurt. He doesn’t owe me an explanation.
But I will believe.
And then I will watch His beauty be put on display.
“And He’s kneeling in the garden, as silent as a Stone
All His friends are sleeping and He’s weeping all alone
And the man of all sorrows, he never forgot
What sorrow is carried by the hearts that he bought
So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God
The aching may remain but the breaking does not
The aching may remain but the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo of the silence of God.”
– Andrew Peterson, “The Silence of God” –
* All Scripture verses come from the New King James Version