When it comes to the problem of evil and a theology of suffering, there is no text I have turned to more often that John chapter eleven. This post is the first of a series where I hope to mine some of the riches of this text, one point per each post. Well, really, it will be two points per post, because for this text to apply to personal or universal suffering, we must keep an initial point constantly before us. That point is one of the main themes of John’s gospel, namely that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
Essentially, this point means that Jesus explains the Father for us, he makes him understandable. He translates him for us so that our limited human brains and senses can understand and know him truly, though not completely. Why do we need help understanding God? Because he is so different from us and therefore so hard for us to comprehend. Everything else in existence that we interact with had a beginning. God was there before the beginning. Everything else is limited in its scale and presence. God is everywhere present, at the same time. Everything else has at least the capacity for evil. God is pure goodness and holiness. On top of all of it, we cannot in this age see God with our physical eyes and touch him with our hands. So yes, there is a need for a translator, someone who can explain and model God for us in ways and at a scale that we can comprehend. This is one of the reasons the eternal son became a human, so that he might become this crucial, necessary exegete of what God is really like. When we hear Jesus speak and see him act in the gospels, we are hearing and seeing things that are not just true of Jesus in the first century, we are hearing and seeing things that communicate the eternal nature of God himself.
This point is what makes Jesus’ conduct in John 11 relevant to our personal suffering, and the suffering of the entire creation. The problem of evil is huge, cosmic in its scope. It is difficult to grapple with, and on a scale that involves billions of humans throughout all time and history. If only we could have a story where God as a human character interacts with the suffering of a few friends – then we might be able to have some handles for how his sovereignty and love, our brokenness and faith, and the reality of evil and death truly intersect. That’s where John 11 comes in. Remember, Jesus explains the Father to us. So his interactions with his disciples and the family of the ill, later dead, later resurrected Lazarus show us what God is truly doing when his people suffer. Because we can see how he loved Lazarus and his family, we can also see how he loves us. And that gives us clues about how he also loves his entire created universe.
Entering into John 11 then, the first point we’ll focus on is that Jesus says no to a good, faith-filled request.
 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.”  But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
 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.  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”John 11:17, ESV
The family of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are close friends with Jesus. The text even says that he loves them. So this indirect request for healing, “he whom you love is ill,” is not coming from an enemy or even a seeker, but from loving friends. There is no cynical sign-seeking going on here. Add to this that it is a request utterly consistent with Jesus’ conduct up to that point. Everywhere else where the gospel writers record a request for healing, Jesus grants it, even when it’s a healing from a distance. Mary and Martha therefore have every reason to believe that Jesus will say yes and will heal their brother. So they reach out in good faith, knowing that he is able to do this. This is a very good request, stemming from love, faith, and sound knowledge of Jesus’ character.
Yet Jesus says no. It is an indirect, Middle-Eastern-style no. He doesn’t reply. He merely stays where he is another two days. Silence and absence. This is a good request effectively denied, a refusal to heal Lazarus, and therefore a permitting of his death when Jesus could have stopped it. For those who knew Jesus then, and for any reading the gospels now, this should cause some serious disorientation. What is going on here? This is not the Jesus we know and love. This seems cruel and heartless. When 1) he has the power to heal and 2) healing is consistent with his good character, why has he not done it? The text of John 11 will help us navigate this disorientation. For today, it is enough to slow down and take in the fact that Jesus sometimes says no to good, faith-filled requests that for the life of us seem to be according to his will.
I had a very close friend while growing up in Melanesia. We became friends in fifth grade and regularly spent time together through all the years that followed. In high school, this friend became like a spiritual brother to me. We attended discipleship groups together, prayed together, confessed sin to one another, and stayed up late on sleepovers talking about spiritual things. Then in 11th grade his father, a missionary and Bible translator, was caught with STDs. A double life of sexual sin was eventually exposed, meaning my close friend’s family was forced to return to the US. Their departure was heart-breaking for me and many others. I had made a vow seven years previous to no longer cry, but at that airport I could no longer keep the tears back, and I wept on my friend’s shoulders. Several years later this same friend was staying with my family over the summer as we attended different Christian colleges. His behavior had us concerned. He no longer seemed interested in the things of the Spirit that had bonded us so closely in high school. Eventually it came out that he was living a secret homosexual lifestyle, and about to go public with it. After much prayer that God would grant my dear friend repentance,we sat at the kitchen table one summer night. I pleaded with him to not give up the superior joy of following Jesus for the lesser pleasures of a homosexual lifestyle. I tried to reason with him from scripture. “I’m sorry,” he responded, “I’ve just never seen the joy of following Jesus match the kind of happiness I am experiencing as a gay man.” I was crushed. God had said no to my prayers for my friend’s repentance, who proceeded to plunge headlong into a homosexual lifestyle. Fifteen years later, God is still saying no to my good, faith-filled requests for my friend.
Sometimes, God will say no to our good requests. How can he do this and still be consistent with his character? Why would he not show his power when we know that he is able? John 11 will help us navigate these tensions. For now, it is enough to note that Jesus says no to the healing of Lazarus. And Jesus reveals the Father, which means that God will, at times, deny our faithful requests.
We must know this about our God so that when it happens to us, the natural disorientation that results will not shipwreck our faith. Having this category is crucial when our experience has thus far been an unbroken chain of answered prayer for a certain request. When multiple other couples have now been healed of infertility, why is it not working for us? When I have always before been provided with timely employment, why am I now out of a job and unable to pay these bills? My last three unbelieving friends came to faith after sustained prayer, so why has this one now cut me off? We also need to know this truth of God’s no for when other believers want to turn promises that will ultimately come true in the end into promises that they insist will come true in our own preferred timelines. When these promises don’t come about in our lives, these other Christians may try to claim that it’s actually our motives or our faith – or lack thereof – that is the culprit.
But we must have a category for God saying no, even when our requests are good, faith-filled, and according to his character. We see Jesus doing this very thing with Mary and Martha. When this happens, the reason is not some flaw in our asking. No, when God says no in these situations – like John 11 – there is something much deeper going on.