This post is part three in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read part one and two here and here.
So far in John 11 we have seen how Jesus says no to the good request to heal his friend, instead remaining where he is and allowing Lazarus to die. We have also seen how Jesus acts out of love for his friends and says that these events will result somehow in greater glory and greater faith. For each point of observation made about Jesus in John 11, and indeed throughout the whole Bible, we must remember that the role of the Son is to explain the Father to us, to make him known (John 1:18). By his words and conduct, Jesus the god-man makes the eternal and infinite God truly, though not wholly, understandable for us. This means that if Jesus can say no to his friends good requests and it somehow be from love and result in greater glory and faith, then God the Father also does this as he interacts with his people throughout the ages. The same principle applies to the point we will look at today, that Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering.
The conversation between Jesus and his disciples in John 11 tells us that Jesus’ decision to visit Bethany was a risky one. It put his life and the lives of his disciples in danger.
 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”  After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”  Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,  and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”  So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
John 11:7-16, ESV
The last time Jesus was in Judea, the Jews were ready to stone him because they rightly understood him to be claiming equality with God (John 10:33). So, by Jesus going back there, his disciples are not wrong to be somewhat alarmed. You can hear the incredulity present in their question, “are you going there again?” Jesus’ answer about light and darkness amounts to basically, “Yep, I got work to do.” Then he gives us a tantalizing hint about the nature of his work. Lazarus is asleep (dead), and he is going to wake him up. The disciples seem to completely miss this stunning phrase, and Thomas serves as their mouthpiece, uttering a resigned “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” This is hardly bravery. It is much more likely a sarcastic remark made by those who feel that their leader is making a very bad decision. The key point to notice in all this is that Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering of his friends, despite the risk to his life.
Drawing near to the suffering in this context wouldn’t only be risking physical safety, however. By showing up two days late in Bethany, Jesus would be taking the brunt of his friends’ disoriented questions, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21, 32). In other words, “Why weren’t you here when we needed you? We know you love us, but why…?” Along with this risk is also the scoffing he would have to endure from the crowds of mourners who take a more cynical approach to the events. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (11:37). Finally, by drawing near to the suffering, Jesus would be coming face to face with the horror of death in general, and the horror of the death of a loved one in particular. The weeping, the mourners, the tomb would all force him to engage with the darkness and wrongness of death, now personified in the lifeless body of his dear friend and in his weeping sisters. This would spur his soul to anger, and to deep grief (11:33, 35). Facing these kinds of risks, others would have chosen to keep their distance.
Jesus doesn’t keep his distance. He boldly comes close to the suffering, scorning the risks. In doing so he demonstrates that he is strong enough to face these risks, and he is strong enough to endure them faithfully. He moves into the storm like a mighty vessel expertly captained, steady in spite of the howling wind and driving rain, ready to throw lifelines to others who are floundering in the waves.
In his humanity Jesus shows great courage by going to Bethany. In his divinity he shows us that God is never hesitant to draw close to those who suffer, and to even take suffering upon himself. In the Old Testament, we see God covenant in steadfast love to an unfaithful people, even when he knows they will betray him again and again. Then in the New Testament we see him send his only Son, knowing that he will be rejected and murdered unjustly. Jesus will not only risk suffering and death, he will experience it himself and embrace it. He will endure the cross, “despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). He will thus become our great high priest who is able to sympathize with his suffering people in every way (Heb 4:15). Our God is not afraid to draw close to us when we are suffering. He has suffered once for all, and he is not afraid of the costs.
I worry sometimes that my flawed responses to suffering will scare God off. This week marked thirty years since my dad died of an asthma attack in Melanesia. Growing up without a dad after the age of four has often felt like living with a gaping hole in my chest that is dry, wheezy, and full sharp spikes. There is a certain painful loneliness that never quite goes away. As I navigate different seasons of life and struggle in various ways, I constantly endure the thought that things wouldn’t be this bad if I still had a dad, or if I had one for more years growing up. I would be more disciplined, wiser, less ignorant, more confident, holier, a better husband and dad, etc. I have at times had it out with God over this gaping absence in my life. I have flung questions and accusations at him that make those in John 11 look quite tame by comparison. I have tried to ignore him, tried to explain things away, and dared him to prove that he really means the things he has promised. In short, when I am honest in my suffering, I am not necessarily balanced and safe. None of us are. It is a great comfort then to know that he does not keep me at arms length when I am disoriented in my suffering. I cannot scare him off. He comes close, steady, strong, and kind. Like he does with his friends in John 11, he may not have spelled everything out yet, but he has not left me alone in my pain. He has come, in spite of the risk. And that is a mighty comfort – even when it feels like he is late.
Ours is the only God who enters into suffering with us. He does not remain aloof and untouched by the pain of this world, like the god of Islam or other religions. This truth is revolutionary for a world of sufferers. While there is more meaning to our suffering to be revealed in John 11 and in the rest of the Bible, it would almost be enough to simply know that we are not alone in our grief. Our God will stay with us all the way through the darkness. We know echoes of this whenever another human joins us in our grief, sacrificing their own comfort out of love for us, and offering us a measure of healing. What other believers do for us in a limited way, God offers us in fullness and forever.
Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering. He boldly draws near to us. May we find comfort in his presence, even when we don’t yet understand his plans.
This post is part two in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read part one here and part three here.
Jesus explains the Father for us. The eternal Son makes the Father understandable for us. As we mentioned in part one, this interpretive principle is vital for us if we seek to read John 11 and understand what Jesus’ dealings with his friends have to do with us and our own suffering and deaths. We have seen that Jesus said no to the good, faith-filled request of Mary and Martha for the healing of their brother – a request completely in line with Jesus’ character. And so we can know that the Father can also say no to our good faith-filled requests that are consistent with his character.
Today’s point will begin to answer some of the why when God denies our good requests, when he allows his people to experience profound suffering. Specifically, we’ll see in John 11 Jesus’ motive for saying no, and two of his good purposes. It’s not until the end of the story that we’ll be able to reconcile this motive and these purposes with Jesus’ conduct, but they are presented to us at the beginning of the story so that we might know and wrestle with what Jesus says, striving to somehow believe that it is true, even though we can’t yet put the pieces together. The point we will seek to flesh out today is that Jesus says no to good requests because of love, and for the sake of greater glory and faith.
 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.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”  After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”  Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,  and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”  So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
John 11:1-16, ESV
Jesus says no to a good request for Lazarus’ healing because of love, and for the sake of greater glory and faith. This is why he lets his dear friend die and Mary and Martha’s world come undone. We see this motive of love and these purposes of glory and increased faith in verses 1-16.
The cause-and-effect grammar of verses 5 and 6 is unmistakable. Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. So, he stays put and lets Lazarus die. Because he loves them, he says no. Because he loves them, he allows their suffering and death. Our own logic and emotions may want to reject this kind of connection, but it is crystal clear in the text, daring us to believe it in spite of everything. Somehow, we will eventually be able to clearly trace Jesus’ conduct toward this family to his love for them. Although at this point, verses 5 and 6 likely serve to make our disorientation worse. “We know he loved them, so why is he treating them like this? How is this possibly consistent with love?”
We also see in this passage how Jesus’ goal through these events, his aims, are greater glory and greater faith. Right away in verse 4, he tells the disciples that Lazarus’ sickness “does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Whatever the enigmatic statement means that Lazarus’ sickness does not lead to death, it is clear that a greater display of the Father and the Son’s glory is going to come because of it. And what follows when the glory of God is displayed? The increased faith of his people. “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (11:14-15). Somehow, Lazarus’ death is going to lead to a display of God’s glory, and that glory is going to grow the faith of God’s people who see it and hear about it. These things are so certain in the mind of Jesus that he can even be glad for the coming greater faith of his disciples, as he looks ahead to the end of the story.
Notice here the genuine complexity of Jesus’ emotions, an important theme in this story. He is able to hold both gladness and sorrow for his friends, sovereignty and grief. His love for his friends would have meant genuine grief at the news of Lazarus’ sickness and the knowledge of his death. We see this grief spill over later in the chapter. Yet at the same time that he knows his dear friend has died he is able to be glad for the sake of his disciples, as he keeps in mind the glory and faith that is coming through this tragedy. Jesus holds these emotions in tension at the same time, and because of his humanity we can understand how this might be possible. Who hasn’t felt profound grief at the same time as gladness at seeing a friend or relative give a courageous eulogy at the funeral of a loved one? We are crushed by the loss, and yet we are also profoundly glad for what that loss has drawn out of the one speaking up front. We see this kind of authentic complexity in Jesus’ affections in this story and it helps us – because we want to deny God that same kind of authentic complexity in the midst of our own suffering. “He can’t truly be loving and sovereign at the same time, his love must be a sham.” But Jesus in John 11 confronts us with another reality, a truer window into the heart of God when we suffer.
But can we say from the rest of scripture that this is indeed true of God? Does God really allow suffering because of his love for his people and for the sake of greater glory and faith? Here I am reminded of Genesis 50, and Joseph’s response to his brothers when they fear he will take his revenge on them for the great suffering they inflicted on him in their youth. But Joseph’s response is one that acknowledges the good purposes of God in his suffering. “‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:19-21). Joseph responds kindly to his brothers because he has seen God’s kindness in his past slavery and imprisonment. God was working life for countless others through his pain and loss. This kind of sovereign love reveals God’s glory, and that revealed glory changes hearts, infusing them with faith and kindness toward others.
The difference between Joseph and where we find ourselves in John 11 and so often in our own suffering is that he is looking back at the beautiful threads of God’s motive and purposes revealed in history. We, on the other hand, are still in the dark, called to believe in Jesus’ love and working greater glory and faith when we can’t yet see how that can possibly make sense. This kind of position is the sort of crucible that proves genuine faith. It’s easy to believe when we see it. But when everything in our experience screams that God cannot possibly be good in this situation, when we strain our eyes of faith and can’t see anything good, that is when Jesus’ promises – and our faith in them – matter most.
I remember the pre-baptism conversation the men in our church-plant had with Hank*, a former Mullah in training from a city well-known for its Islamic radicals. In the previous months, Hank’s wife had abandoned him when she’d learned of his faith in Jesus. This had been disastrous for Hank on many fronts, a massive blow that he was still reeling from even as he shared his testimony with us that evening. Afterward, each of the believing men present had a chance to ask Hank questions about his faith or to offer encouragement. When it was my turn to share, I encouraged Hank from 2nd Corinthians 4, that our suffering as believers is resulting in an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. I desperately wanted Hank to know that every bit of his suffering was known by God and counted, somehow, for an increase of eternal glory. His wife’s abandoning him and the wreckage that ensued was not meaningless, nor was it God punishing him. Even if we never see the pieces fully come together in this life, one day we would see the love, the glory, and the faith that God was working in it all along. I hoped that, for Hank, this truth might help him to hold on to his new faith in the midst of great loss.
We don’t have to be able to trace the specific threads of God’s purposes in our suffering to know what he is ultimately up to. We see in John 11 that Jesus allows his friends’ suffering and death somehow because of his love for them, and that through it he is somehow working greater glory and greater faith. And that somehow, clung to in the disorienting fog of suffering like the tiniest bit of light, may make all the difference for a suffering saint.
This post is part one in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read parts two and three here.
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.
I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings.
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven.
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,
And the food be forgiving love.
I should welcome the poor to my feast,
For they are God's children.
I should welcome the sick to my feast,
For they are God's joy.
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,
And the sick dance with the angels.
God bless the poor,
God bless the sick,
And bless our human race.
God bless our food,
God bless our drink,
All homes, O God, embrace.
-Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 174-175
This is a prayer associated with Brigid, the abbess of an Irish monastery in the early 500s famous for its hospitality. This prayer reminds me of Lawrence of Rome, who, when asked in the persecution of 258 to surrender the riches of the church to the emperor Valerian, presented the poor, the crippled, and the widows, inviting the emperor to “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.”
This kind of ancient Christian delight in the poor and the sick strikes me as very different from what I am used to hearing emphasized in my circles. And that makes me curious. Why might that be? What would it look like for us to not just teach a theology of suffering, but to have a culture and language that better reflects the “great reversal” that the New Testament so often speaks of?
In this new year, may our poor also sit with Jesus at the highest place, and our sick also dance with the angels.
This Central Asian proverb speaks to what many in seasons of suffering have experienced – that suffering reveals who our truest friends really are. When the good times end and the trials have come, we find out who is still able to be a companion, even in the darkness. And who was there only for the proverbial melons. We have an equivalent English proverb that gets at the same idea: “a friend in need is a friend indeed.”
Very few people naturally know how to be a good friend in suffering. It seems to be something we must learn, often as we suffer and grieve ourselves and thereby grow in the unique wisdom of those who mourn. We also learn how to do this as we experience responses to our suffering that are not so helpful.
I am trying to learn to not pivot so quickly to the sovereignty of God in the midst of pain. I’ve learned there is a cheap way to turn to this glorious doctrine that can keep us from lamenting as we need to, whether for our own pain or for others. It can function as a deflecting mechanism of sorts because I am afraid of what will happen if I am truly open to the pain. I find it instructive that Jesus does not plainly tell Mary and Martha in John 11 what he is up to, that he allowed Lazarus to die because he is purposefully bringing about his resurrection from the dead. Instead, he hears their tortured questions, reminds them of who he is, and then weeps with them. It seems that even a death of a mere four days must be mourned before it is appropriate to start putting the pieces together. The faithful friendship of Jesus is revealed not only by his bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but also by his choosing to weep with his family first. “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36).
Many of us can grow in being better friends in suffering. Our own suffering will inevitably teach us how to do this. But we can also learn by listening well to those who are currently in seasons of grief and pain, or those who are reflecting on what they needed during their own dark season. Often, the desire to be a good friend is there. It’s a part of our new nature as believers to want to be this kind of friend for others. But we can often lack the practical know-how of how to actually weep with those who weep (Western culture is a terrible tutor when it comes to how to grieve). Our fear of saying the wrong thing can cause us to not send that note or make that call. When in doubt, we should take the risk and err on the side of extending comfort, imperfect though it may be – especially since so many agree that it’s not the words in the midst of suffering that mean the most, but our presence and mere willingness to enter into the sadness.
This Central Asian proverb echoes the eternal wisdom of God’s word also. Proverbs 17:17 – “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
When adversity inevitably comes to those around us, may we be revealed to be good and true friends. And may God provide these kinds of friends for us in our suffering as well.
Eating out just hasn’t felt worth it these past couple months that we’ve been back in the US. While restaurants in the states are open again, most are understaffed and alarmingly expensive. The lack of staff usually means pretty poor service, and even the quality of food usually strikes us as not what it used to be. Hearing others in the US voice similar sentiments means it’s not just those of us who have been living overseas who notice these differences. The food service industry is creaking, trying to lurch back to what it was before the pandemic. There is this sense that – convenience though it is – we can’t count it like we used to.
Food service is not the only system struggling to regain its pre-pandemic efficiency. International air travel has still not recovered either. We’ve never had the kind of travel difficulties that we’ve experienced over this past year. Even business behemoths like Amazon seem past their, ahem, prime. More seriously, crime has also skyrocketed in many American cities, with the understanding in some places that if you are the victim of certain crimes, you are on your own.
The strange thing about all this for highly-educated millennials like us is that we’ve hardly ever known the systems around us to get worse, perhaps with the exception of our elected government. By and large, we’ve only known the infrastructure and services offered in the West to (eventually) get faster, more efficient, and more user-friendly. This was also the worldview of our parents’ generation. Progress in the systems we rely on for life necessities or conveniences has been assumed. The pandemic and its aftermath have challenged this assumption and, whether temporary or long-term, the systems around us are showing their weakness.
Systems don’t last forever. The prophecy of the twelve eagles was right – Rome would fall. The Roman legions would leave places like Britain in 409 and never come back. Which meant the structures of empire that the Romanized residents of Londinium (London) relied upon would have slowly but surely broken down. A thousand years later the Portuguese would successfully sail to India – thereby causing the economic collapse of the Central Asian silk road. Trade routes that were kept safe by the wealth and power of regional regimes would become frequented by violent robbers and be slowly abandoned by the caravans. Empires rise. Empires decline. At some point a certain generation realizes that things are breaking faster than they can be repaired, and life is likely going to get a lot worse before it someday gets better.
As the systems of West have begun to creak, we’ve had an opportunity to get a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a declining empire, what it’s like to have things regress, as it were. We’re nowhere near what someone like Augustine would have experienced as the Vandals laid siege to his city during the last year of his life. Bad food service, late packages, and lost luggage are not nearly the same thing as barbarians at the gate. But if we stop and pay attention, we might be able to identify just a little more with all those communities throughout history that have known what it’s like to have their faith in their systems shaken. This is not all bad.
Who among us in the West has not at times believed the myth of our society’s unceasing progress and influence? It’s only human to believe that the way things are is the way they are going to be – certainly for our lifetimes, if not for much longer. But a shockwave through society’s systems can function much like a personal health scare. It can awaken us to our own transience. Our lives are like a vapor (James 4:14). So are our civilizations. Like Ozymandius, all the great boasts of this world will one day end up the equivalent of a monument buried in sand, abandoned and forgotten. Remembering our transience fosters humility. And our God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
Creaking systems can also foster a hunger for better ones, those that cannot be shaken (Heb 12:27). It’s no mistake that Augustine writes The City of God in the twilight of the Roman Empire, and in light of the first sack of Rome. When the temporary systems (the City of Man) that we live in get shaken, believers are forced to cling to our true home, our eternal one (the city of God). Just as all the transitions of a refugee’s or a TCK’s upbringing can cause him to hope more tangibly in an eternal home, so the church collectively can come to believe more deeply in the steadfast kingdom of God when their own societies of sojourn are coming undone.
Shall we grieve for our Babylons when their time has come? Yes. The losses are real, if indeed we sought the good of the city where we sojourned. And yet there is also hope and a renewed clarity that must intermingle with the grieving. We knew all along our common grace systems were eventually going to fail. But we also knew that their creaking and their failure would also (ultimately) serve as the prelude to the eternal story of the New Jerusalem.
Finally, these things also help us identify with the Church global and historical. When we ourselves wrestle in faith to trust God in the breakdown of our systems, we learn better how to pray for Christians who live in failed states or economies, for those whose societies experience a great deal more instability and turmoil than ours have. We are reminded that we should have been primarily identifying with them all along, rather than with our temporary fellow citizens and partisans.
When the city of man begins to creak and groan we may naturally feel a good deal of fear or disorientation. I don’t think there’s any way around this. But this creaking is also an opportunity for humility, for renewed faith in the New Jerusalem, and for identification with the historical and global Church. In this way, no matter if the cracks get worse or if they get patched, we will be able to maintain hope, to serve our brothers and sisters and even the perishing, and to point to what is coming.
For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.
I took a moment to register Darius’* response. This was different.
“His sister told me they had two villages,” he continued, “and from what you’re saying this is one of them. We need to go and find our brother.”
Harry*, a long-time believer, had disappeared again – which usually meant something bad had happened, some kind of threat of violence from his family or tribe on account of his faith. Whenever this happened to Harry in the past, the other local believers wouldn’t dare to get involved. Hence why Darius’ response was so different.
“Good. Mark* and I have already agreed to go. Last time Harry asked us to stay away when stuff like this happened, but staying away left him isolated and things did not go well. This time needs to be different. We would be glad to have you with us.”
I called Mark, the other expat serving with me as temporary pastor of our little church plant.
“Mr. Talent* is coming also,” Mark told me.
Another surprise. Mr. Talent, although a former soldier, had not been willing to get involved in past persecution interventions -“I can’t risk it with how well-known my dad is.” But it seemed as if things had changed for these two local men we’d been pouring into. Character was apparently growing. A readiness to risk for their brother in the faith was now there. This, in a culture where you might risk for your blood relatives, but almost never for your non-related friends. I’ve written in the past about some questions that can expose character, even across culture. One of them was, “Do they run when the wolf comes?” Wolves, in the form of Harry’s angry relatives, had potentially been spotted. And Darius and Mr. Talent were feeling some holy protectiveness. Praise God.
However, that didn’t exactly mean that we knew what we were doing. The principle was clear. In a communal, honor-shame culture, Harry’s tribe needed to know that he was not alone. He had people who would come looking for him, both locals and foreigners. This, we hoped, would give them pause if they thought about harming Harry further, maybe even convince them to hand him over if they were holding him somewhere. But the plan was what missionaries elsewhere have called “build the plane as you fly it.” We would go to Headless village, ask around to try to find Harry’s violent uncle, and try to somehow find Harry himself. If he was wounded, we would try to get him out of there. I had brought some first aid packs with me.
The uncle was the key to finding out what happened to Harry. After Harry had gone dark for several days, Mark had gone by his house to check on him. His mother and sister, distraught, told him that three days previous Harry’s uncle had shown up demanding that Harry accompany him to the village for some work on his house there. After that, Harry had been out of contact with everyone. He never came back to the house. No calls got through to his mobile phone. This was the same uncle who had lived with Harry’s family since Harry’s father’s death many years ago, living off their income and regularly beating them. Only recently had Harry been able to kick his uncle out of the house, an episode which also resulted in the uncle coming back when Harry wasn’t home and seizing some of Harry’s Christian books from his bedroom. Harry had been optimistic his very lost uncle might read some of the books and have a heart change. In hindsight it looks more like he was strengthening his hand for revenge.
Darius and I met at my house and then drove together to meet up with Mr. Talent and Mark. I was surprised to see Ray* with them also. Ray is a friend and pastor in the US who was in town for a few days after having preached at our retreat the week before. Had he volunteered to come with us on this risky outing? Or had he been “volun-told” to come so that we could have at least one mysterious American with us who couldn’t speak the local language – thereby raising some potentially helpful doubts in the minds of the villagers about what exactly our connections were? I’m still not sure which one it was, but I was grateful he joined us.
I’m calling the village Headless village because it is one of the main settlements of the tribe named The Headless Ones. These warlike nomads had settled in our area a couple centuries ago and still maintained a reputation for always being ready to fight – and having a lot of guns. Their neighborhood in our city – where Harry and his family lived – was one of the few where the local police would not allow foreigners like us to live. Given the warlike nature of this tribe, I wasn’t sure if our collective anxiety was sufficient or not quite enough. Mr. Talent and Darius certainly believed that we could find ourselves in a very dangerous situation with armed tribesmen very quickly and that we needed a wise approach.
“We’ll go to the village white-beard,” they agreed. “We’ll start with him and ask if he knows the uncle, explain Harry’s disappearance, and have him come with us as a mediator. That should provide some protection if the uncle gets angry at us.”
Right, I thought to myself, how is it that I’m always forgetting the importance of working through authority figures in this culture?
The first trick was finding the village white-beard, a social elder sort of position which every village apparently has. Unfortunately, it was now dark, so it took a little while to locate his house. When we did, we walked across a field of dry tilled earth and took counsel together about how to frame the situation in a true, but non-inflammatory way.
“Harry has been a language tutor for many of us foreigners. We can share that info and express concern that he has disappeared without notice,” Mark proposed.
“And don’t forget to mention that he’s also worked for the UN and other international organizations. That name alone should carry some weight, and help us in our purpose of convincing the tribe that Harry is not alone, but has some connections,” I added. “We need them to know that he has a lot of respect in some circles that they might not be aware of.”
We agreed who our spokesman would be and walked up to the village white-beard’s gate. A little boy spotted us and ran inside to get his father, the village white-beard. He came to greet us in the dark, wearing the traditional outfit of parachute pants fastened with a cloth belt around the mid-stomach, underneath which is tucked a collared shirt and traditional style jacket. A traditional turban and cap were on his head. He was a man in his 50s with a grey mustache, and seemed to have a friendly look about him. So far, so good.
Mr. Talent and Mark led the introductions and the purpose of the visit. The village white-beard ordered the boy to run inside and fetch us some water. We had forgotten to translate much of this initial part for poor Ray, who at this point assumed things were going poorly and the boy was sent to get a weapon. He was very relieved when he emerged with a tray of glasses and passed them around. Remembering the need to cue Ray in to what was going on, I told him to take a swig, toss the rest on the soil, then put the empty cup back on the tray. Locals don’t sip. They chug, chuck, and then give the glass back immediately.
“Is it safe to drink?” Ray asked.
“Maybe, maybe not. But we should anyway for the sake of honor,” I responded with a grimacing smile, raising my glass and taking a swig.
We seemed to be in luck. The village elder said he knew a man by the name of the uncle, with a nephew named Harry. He called him and put him on speaker phone. We held our breath.
“Is this Ali* the son of Bakir*?”
“Yes, respected one, please go ahead.”
“Ali the son of Bakir, with a nephew named Harry?”
“Yes, upon my eyes, that’s me, and who are you, honorable sir?”
“It’s me, elder brother Omar.*” This was followed by a long string of respectable pleasantries between the two of them.
“It seems your nephew has disappeared and there’s a group of his respected friends here asking about him and saying they aren’t sure if he’s safe or not.”
“Oh? That’s strange. He’s safe alright. He’s right here with me.”
We leaned in. Was he telling the truth? Was Harry really there with him and safe?
“Well, put him on if it’s no trouble.”
“Upon both of my eyes. Here he is.”
“Hello?” a younger voice rang out from the speaker phone. “This is Harry, who exactly is looking for me?”
At this point we all looked at one another in surprise and alarm. The names were right, but the voice was definitely not Harry’s.
“That’s not Harry’s voice!” we whispered to the village elder. “That’s somebody else.”
“Huh?” said the white-beard to us, “Where exactly does this Harry live?”
“In the city, in the neighborhood of the Headless tribe. He’s an engineer.”
The white-beard scrunched his brow and leaned into the speaker phone, running these details by Uncle Ali and the alternate Harry. He shook his head and looked up at us.
“You’ve got the wrong Ali and Harry. I remember now this Harry you are speaking of. Engineer in the city, connected to our tribe, not from this village. Not actually a member of our tribe. They’re really from another village up on the mountain. You’re mistaken to think that they have a house here.”
This thoroughly confused us. Up until now we had been convinced that we had the right village, based on putting the pieces together from the intel we had. But his sister had said something about them having two villages. And Harry had always been a little opaque about his background details. Maybe this was an ancestral village with no recent ties? Had we come to the wrong one? …Or was the village lying together because they were all in on it?
“They’re lying, I can tell,” whispered Mr. Talent to us.
“I’m not sure they’re the ones lying,” said Darius, with a look of suspicion and disappointment. “Harry told all of us many times that he was part of the Headless tribe. They’re all saying he’s not.”
“Let’s call Harry’s brother,” someone suggested. Not knowing if they had been in on it or not, we hadn’t wanted Harry’s immediate family to know we were coming to the village, in case they might alert the uncle before we got there. Harry’s brother lived in Europe and wasn’t really involved much with the family, but he was back temporarily on a visit. He picked up and started talking with Darius on speaker phone.
“Harry? Ha! He’s fine! He’s just traveling and in a neighboring country right now. Why is everyone so concerned about his safety?… He’s safe, I assure you… Are we part of the Headless tribe? No, we’re not. Did Harry tell you that?… No, we are from another village up on the mountain, though all our neighbors are Headless… My uncle’s not involved in any of this, who told you he was?… No, Harry is just traveling, I’m sure he’ll reach out to you soon. Haha.”
Mark and I exchanged confused looks. That same brother had been there earlier in the day when Harry’s sister and mother had tearfully described the uncle’s appearance and Harry’s disappearance. Why had the story now changed?
After some further conversation with the white-beard, our group decided to head back to the city. It really did seem as if Headless village was not involved in Harry’s disappearance. The tension that had built up as we anticipated a confrontation gave way to disappointment that our efforts had seemingly been in vain. At least if the village had been involved, and they had successfully duped us, then they now knew that Harry had some friends who would come asking awkward questions. Hopefully the ripples of our visit would make it’s way back to the violent uncle through the grapevine, alerting him to this as well. That could create some options that weren’t there previously.
The others headed home while Darius and I drove back toward my house, trying to make sense of the situation. We decided to swing by Harry’s neighborhood so that Darius could talk to Harry’s mom and sister. No one was home. We called the brother again and decided to meet him at a mall on the other side of town. Somebody, or multiple parties, had to be lying.
When we met up with Harry’s brother to try to figure out what was going on, it only muddied the picture even further. He kept claiming that Harry was just traveling for fun and contradicting things he had said to Mark earlier in the day. At this point it was too late to visit the other village up on the mountain, but we talked about making another surprise village investigation in the coming days.
We never did head to the village on the mountain. The next day we got some messages from Harry. He was on a bus, already in another country. He said he was safe, but something bad had happened and he wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. He needed to find somewhere quiet to rest. He was not willing to answer our questions. He was sorry he had left without telling us. Over the last couple months we’ve continued to get brief, sporadic messages from Harry as he was smuggled through several European countries to his final destination. He still hasn’t told us what happened. Nor have we been able to put all of the pieces together.
My best guess is that Harry’s uncle had really showed up that day and taken him to the village on the mountain. While there, he had made some kind threat or attack that terrified Harry, causing him to go dark for several days and make a run for it without even coming back home to get any of his things. Faced with another threat of persecution, Harry had relapsed to his old pattern – isolate and disappear. This time it seems he may be gone for good. His family had initially told us the truth only to walk it back later, perhaps out of fear of blowback from the uncle.
Harry’s sudden departure was a very discouraging development for our church plant and our team. He had only recently began helping to preach again after a period of restoration for having abandoned the church in a previous season. After years of coaching to next time include the body in your suffering and not go it alone, none of this counsel was heeded. Darius in particular was cut deep by his departure and the possibility of at least some deception and self-interest that was wrapped up in it. “We were ready to get killed for him, but maybe he was just trying to get to Europe and saw his chance and took it, just like all the others.”
We felt it keenly too. After several years of rebuilding, we had hoped that Darius and Harry would soon be ready to be elders-in-training. But every time we get to this point, our potential leaders tend to implode. Darius’ tone about the possibility of leadership has also changed because of what happfened with Harry, casting doubt on if he has the 1st Timothy 3:1 desire to be an elder someday. Facing an extended time away from the field ourselves, we were now set to leave our teammates with much less help than we had expected.
So much ministry in Central Asia happens in fits and starts. Costly losses are accompanied by a subtle flash of change and growth. I am grieved over whatever happened to Harry – and how he chose to respond to it. But I am also truly encouraged by the signs of growth that emerged in Darius and Mr. Talent. They really did put themselves in a dangerous position by going to an unknown village – known for its violence no less – in hopes of tracking down a persecuted believer. And though it didn’t turn out how we had hoped, the spiritual courage they showed was real. And a sign that even in the greatest setbacks, God is still at work to grow his people. These brothers had the courage to go to Headless village – a new spiritual instinct that was radically counter-cultural. It’s a beginning. One that someday just may lead to them speaking before kings.
We don’t need anyone coming to the mission field – nor leaving – as Christian individualists. By Christian individualists, I mean those who decide on massive life/ministry decisions without a healthy involvement of their church, mentors, family, and believing community. The problem with Christian individualism – especially when it comes to missions or ministry – is that it baptizes lone ranger decisions with the nigh-untouchable “God is calling me to…”
Thankfully, many sending churches and organizations have realized the danger of Christian individualists going to the mission field. The occasional Bruschko may end up working out, but the more likely scenario is a missionary who goes abroad while still unqualified, unfit, or at least woefully unprepared. This can cause untold damage to missionary teams, local believers, and the reputation of the gospel itself.
There is a trend of missionary-sending processes that increase the involvement of the local church. This is a very healthy development, one which pushes back against a previous tendency to outsource the assessment process to missions agencies. In fact, a healthy local church should be the primary place where a prospective missionary is assessed, affirmed, and sent. The church members and the leadership should be able to wholeheartedly vouch that the candidate’s character, knowledge, skills, and affections align with that of a qualified missionary-in-training. Individuals who do not meet these standards should be kindly redirected toward a different timeline or a different vocation.
Praise God, there is somewhat of a consensus – in reformed evangelicalism at least – on the need to not go to the field as individualists. This is a remarkably good thing given the militant individualism of Western culture. The difficulty of someone actually getting to the mission field without some degree of church and pastoral backing testifies to how the Western sending church is pushing back against its own culture with biblical wisdom.
However, we seem to have a blindspot when it comes to those who leave the field. Often this decision to leave is made with barely a fraction of the counsel, input, and testing that went into the decision to go in the first place. Sadly, many who come to the field, sent by their community, leave the field as Christian individualists. When wresting with leaving, they think and pray in private and then unexpectedly drop the bomb that God is calling them to leave the field, much to the dismay of their local friends and colleagues. Often, even if counsel is sought, the decision has already been made.
Several things make these dynamics understandable. Sometimes missionaries are simply too beat up or too burnt out to feel like they can handle the inevitable disappointment and pushback that comes when they float the idea of leaving. It can feel safer, or at least more bearable, to process privately and then try to go out quickly and quietly.
Leaving the mission field also means moving from a vocation that requires higher qualification, back to a lifestyle that does not require that same level of assessment. Leaving the role of a cross-cultural church planter to return to that of a church member in one’s native culture is a step back in terms of the leadership standards one must be held to – though basic standards of Christian faithfulness remain the same. So it makes sense that leaving would not naturally result in the same kind of robust processes and conversations.
Yet there’s also a lot of shame attached to the thought and reality of leaving the field. Does this mean failure? Are we leaving when just a little more pushing would have resulted in things changing? How can we let our colleagues down when they are already overwhelmed with life and ministry? How can I make sense of this to the local believers? I’m convinced that this sense of shame keeps the conversations from happening as openly as they might otherwise.
So the pattern repeats itself. Family after family announce their departure, rather than allowing it to be a decision which is not made until robust counsel has been sought and weighed. We revert to our enculturated individualism, and in our Christianese we tell ourselves and others that God has called us to a new chapter. Perhaps he has. But why have we not confirmed that calling in the same manner as we have in the past? What does that discrepancy mean? What have we been so afraid of?
I write this post in a season where we are very much wrestling with our family’s future on the field. Medical conditions have continued to pile up for our family, and in several weeks we will be returning to the US for yet another medical leave – one which may last quite a while. Will we be able to find the diagnoses and healing we need in order to be back on the field in a healthy place in six months? Or ever? We’ve not yet experienced this level of uncertainty regarding our future ministry in Central Asia. And it’s very sobering.
We are, however, trying to live out our convictions on this point of not living like Christian individualists. We have attempted to invite many into this process with us, so that they might pray for us and give us their counsel. If there is anything we are missing, we want to hear it. We will wait to make any big decisions until we can do so in the light and wisdom of many counselors. At the same time, I feel more than ever the pull of wanting to privately make a decision on our own, to protect myself from the uncertainty and the emotions of my friends’ responses. It is a very strong pull, even with my cross-cultural upbringing that slightly tempers my individualism.
Practically, I do have the spur of having advocated publicly for healthier departures from the mission field – and that means I now have the chance to eat my own words. This is a gracious thing on the hard days.
Our coworkers, leadership, local friends, and family have all been very kind counselors as we’ve tried to process this upcoming leave and its possible implications. Similar to confession of sin, I’m so glad we’ve been open about this. Whatever God wants us to do, we are hopeful that when clarity comes, it will come with the assurance that God’s people are actively speaking into the hard decision to leave, or the hard decision to stay.
Perhaps this is an area where churches and organizations can develop helpful structures and processes. Given the rate of attrition from the mission field, I wonder if an intentional and robust process which helps struggling workers wrestle with their desires to leave the field might not help clarify those who should indeed leave, and those whose calling has not changed, worn out though they are – some kind of a track that is the inverse of those used for mobilization, i.e. “So You Wanna Stop Being a Missionary?” I wonder if something like this could offer some protection from the dangers of subjectivism that come from being prone toward Christian individualism. Even after years of discipleship, we can be so adept at reverting to our human culture and playing cards that make our decisions almost unapproachable.
I believe we need to continue strengthening our commitment to not have any come to the mission field as Christian individualists, but rather with the backing of a healthy sending church and sending org. I also believe we need to awaken a commitment to not leave the field like Christian individualists, but as those with a spiritual family – churches, colleagues, and local brothers and sisters.
If leave we must, this won’t make it necessarily easier. But it will make it healthier. We would still grieve, but it would be good grieving, with less regret and less shame.
Pray for families like ours facing uncertainty on the field. Even in the midst of the strangeness of these conversations, pray that we would honor Jesus – and also honor his bride.
I’ve been listening to this song by Strahan for quite some time now, but I haven’t been able to find a postable video of it until today. Turns out that video has the lyrics in Spanish, so bonus there for you Spanish speakers. For the rest of us I’ve got the original lyrics posted below as well. I resonate with the desperate and honest faith in this song. I hope it encourages you as you wait in the midst of suffering as it has encouraged me.
Your heart is sweet
My heart is stone
Your voice is quiet
My journey long
But I'm holding on to your endless love
Through all the foggy days
Through all the tears I've prayed
And I'm breaking through for one touch from you
And I am not afraid
I am not afraid
Your arms are wide
My hands are fold
Your table long
My chair is short
You love the poor
And I'm destitute
But my hope is strong
When my joy is you
And I'm holding on to the corner of your robe
Cause there a power there
Before the Gardener's throne
And when your mercy breaks through all reckless tears
And all depressions cease
I am not afraid
No I'm not afraid
I'm not afraid
I am not afraid
I am not afraid
There's a beauty in our pain
Every night has a breaking day
We are coloured jars of clay
So carry on
There's a beauty in our pain
Every night has a breaking day
We are coloured jars of clay
So carry on