Over the last few weeks in our Bible study group at church we’ve been quickly working our way through John’s Gospel. Yesterday morning we camped out in John 11. We asked and discussed questions like:
- What is the meaning of suffering?
- What is the cause of suffering?
- What can we learn through suffering?
These are not easy questions. To fully answer and discuss such questions in the short time that we’re together on Sunday mornings is a nearly impossible task. So Sunday mornings are not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of a particular text or topic, but rather a discussion and partial answer designed to encourage further investigation, questions, and conversation throughout the week.
As I’ve continued to think through John 11, I found a couple things to be particularly encouraging and helpful enough to make them worthy of sharing – some of which come directly from John 11, others which come from texts that support and shed light on the questions raised by John 11.
Suffering Falls on the Faithful
Our hearts are hard-wired to be performance-driven. We easily believe that if we are faithful and obedient, God will always bless us – things will always, or at least eventually, go well for us. This mindset, which is unfortunately often encouraged by prosperity gospel preachers, quickly leads us into an attitude of entitlement, as if by our faithful obedience we put God in our debt – that he owes us prosperity if we behave. For people who have fallen into this error, because they believe that circumstances – positive and negative – are directly related to their performance, the natural response to suffering is to assume that God is punishing them for unfaithfulness. As if the experience of suffering were not enough, we add the weight of introspective guilt – searching endlessly for the sin in our lives that has brought about our suffering.
Brothers and sisters, this need not be! In John 11, we see that suffering falls on the faithful just as it falls on the unfaithful.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (John 11:1-3)
Lazarus and his family were close friends of Jesus. In fact, Lazarus is described as being “he whom [Jesus] love[d].” Mary is the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and wiped them with her hair as a demonstration and offering of her love and gratitude to Jesus. Martha is the one who worked tirelessly to host a dinner for Jesus and the disciples. These were like family friends to Jesus. But this fact did not spare them from suffering. Despite the fact that Jesus loved them, despite the fact that they served him faithfully, suffering fell upon them.
Be encouraged, brothers and sisters, that suffering falls on the faithful – on those whom Jesus loves, and do not assume that your suffering is directly caused by your failure to perform.
Suffering by Design
Atheistic secular humanism will tell you that your suffering is meaningless. Since there is no God to personally design and guide reality toward a purpose, existence is nothing more than matter in motion – an endless chain of meaningless chemical reactions. Whatever happens happens. Life has no meaning. It just is. There is no hope.
Flimsy, surface-level, top-soil Christianity will tell you that God would never bring suffering into your life. God does not ordain and design your suffering, he simply carries you through it. Much like atheistic secular humanism, suffering has no design – no meaning. If suffering is designed by someone, it is designed by Satan as a form of temptation. In other words, for surface-level Christianity suffering is either designed by Satan for your demise, or it has no design at all. While this perspective offers hope in that Jesus will eventually bring a full and final end to all suffering, it does little in terms of giving hope and encouragement for your present suffering.
Robust, deeply-rooted, biblically grounded Christianity tells you that there is hope in your suffering – yes, because Jesus will fully and finally end all suffering when he returns, but also because your suffering has a good and gracious design. Suffering is not meaningless. It has a purpose. Suffering is designed not by Satan for your demise, but rather by God for his glory and for your good.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:28, 35–39)
God works all things for our good, and we are more than conquerors in suffering through Jesus, because of his love for us.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:7-12, 16-18)
We carry the treasure of the gospel in these weak, breakable bodies of suffering, and this is by design: to show the surpassing power and glory of God. We suffer so that the supremacy of God might be clearly seen, and it is for this reason that we persevere through suffering, namely, because the immense weight of glory being prepared for us by our suffering is immeasurably greater than our experience of suffering.
No matter how heavy your present suffering feels to you now, be encouraged and take heart! Your suffering is preparing for you an eternal glory so real, so joyful, and so weighty that, by comparison, your present suffering will feel light and momentary!
Suffering Because of Love
Despite the fact that we often associate suffering with judgement, the texts considered above help us to see that, for the Christian, suffering is more often a measure of mercy. John 11, in a rather counter-intuitive way, clearly shows us that our suffering is intended by God for our good because of his love.
Now 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. (John 11:5–6)
The relationship between these two sentences is puzzling. Jesus has just received word that one of his closest friends is sick. Knowing all things, he knows that Lazarus’ illness is life-threatening. Upon receiving such news, we would expect Jesus to immediately go and heal his beloved friend. But this is not what Jesus does. Jesus waits. Knowing the severity of Lazarus’ condition, Jesus stayed two days longer before traveling to visit Lazarus and his family. In fact, it isn’t until Jesus knows that Lazarus has already died that he gathers his disciples for the journey.
John connects Jesus’ intentional delay with his love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus with one shocking word:
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed . . .
That word ‘so’ communicates a very important truth: It is not merely true that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus experienced suffering despite Jesus’ love for them. They experienced suffering precisely because of Jesus’ love for them. This is shockingly counter-intuitive. It doesn’t make sense. If Jesus really loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, wouldn’t he have spared them the grief and pain of Lazarus’ death? Why was it more loving of Jesus to let Lazarus die?
Very early on, Jesus gives glimpses into the purpose of his allowing Lazarus to die. The purpose of Lazarus’ illness was so that Jesus would be glorified (John 11:4), so that the disciples would believe (John 11:14), and so that the people witnessing the Lazarus’ resurrection would believe that Jesus was sent from God (John 11:41-42). In other words, Jesus’ purpose in letting Lazarus die was so that people could see and believe in him as the life-giving resurrecting Lord.
Jesus’ letting Mary, Martha, and Lazarus suffer was more loving than if he had prevented their suffering because it was through that suffering that they saw Jesus’ glory more clearly.
Suffering that Breaks into Glory
Our full and final hope, however, comes in the reality that one day suffering will be done away with. A day will come when Jesus will return, and on that day all suffering will end. The suffering under which we have been weighed down during life here on this fallen earth is not even worth comparing to the glorious and joyful reality that we will eternally experience on that day! By God’s grace, we are granted the gift of suffering to keep us longing for that glorious day.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18-25)
Believe therefore, brothers and sisters, that your suffering is not the wrath of God; for Jesus suffered in your place to rescue you from wrath.
Believe that your suffering is not in vain. Your suffering serves a good and gracious purpose. Your suffering was designed by God and, because Jesus’ suffering was designed for you, is preparing for you an inheritance of glorious joy that far outweighs your present suffering.
Believe that your suffering is an expression of God’s love for you. Through your suffering you will see the glory of Christ more clearly, and that is better than freedom from suffering. Because Jesus suffered for you, seeing more of him is worth the suffering you presently experience.
Believe that a day is coming when Jesus will return to wipe every tear away. Death will be defeated and all suffering will be abolished. Because Jesus was raised victorious over death through suffering (the reality toward which the resurrection of Lazarus points), he has authority to fully and finally do away with death and suffering. Because we are united to Jesus by faith, we too share in his victory.
Believe, brothers and sisters, and wait patiently for that day – holding fast to the hope in which we have been saved – sorrowful, yet always rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God (2 Cor 6:10; Rom 5:1-5). Take heart and believe that, though it is a weight seemingly too great to bear, in Christ, your present and momentary suffering is ultimately designed to serve your eternal joy!