A Song on the Endless Summer of Heaven

“Endless Summer” by Lovkn

One of our missionary friends passed away this past week on the field after a long battle with brain cancer. Perhaps in time I will have the chance to write more of her and her family’s story, and how they returned to the field five years ago after the cancer diagnosis, knowing that it would likely be fatal. But for now we grieve and pray for her husband and kids, and for their Central Asian church family.

This song speaks beautifully of God’s welcome of his saints into life everlasting, into the endless summer of heaven. I love how the song speaks of heaven as “The Great Adventure.” Here is what the writer says of the lyrics:

Dedicated to Kimmy, this track was inspired by a life that left the Earth far too soon. The lyrics of this song are taken directly from Kimmy’s last blog post before she passed. It is a beautiful picture into the welcoming arms of the Father as we pass into eternity.

Ivy League Education vs. Middle Eastern Racism

Melissa* sat in a metal chair next to the overgrown pool, clearly distressed. She turned from Farhad* to try to catch her parents’ eyes, looking for reassurance. As a graduate student at an Ivy League school, she didn’t know what to do with what Farhad was telling her. His forceful accented words were not fitting within her worldview, within her moral framework of highly-educated liberal New England.

I was manning the grill nearby and could see the dynamics. By this time I knew Farhad and could have guessed what he was going on about just by his body language. As a member of a minority people group who had suffered genocide when he was a teenager, Farhad harbored a deeply-rooted hatred of the majority Middle Eastern people group who had slaughtered his own. And a deeply-rooted hatred of Islam, the faith they used to justify their atrocities. Farhad was not a Christian, but he was definitely post-Islamic, and had been willing to study the Bible with me and Reza* and even to attend church with us.

Tall, in his forties, with slicked-back shoulder-length black hair and a narrow angular face, Farhad liked to wear a suit to church with a Hawaiian shirt underneath, generously unbuttoned at the top, 1970’s style. He had kind dark eyes and a genuine smile, though he was missing one of his front upper teeth – the result of a mugging incident soon after he had arrived in the US as a refugee.

“I get kidnapped by Al Qaeda. I almost die. But I keep all my teeth. I come to America. I lose my tooth! Why?!” he was known to ask when telling the story of how he got mugged in the apartment complex where he was placed by his resettlement program.

Now, he was unloading on Melissa, who had simply come down to the Louisville area to visit her parents during a school break. Her parents, both professors at Ivy League schools, would come down periodically to the area to stay in their second home, where my mom was a long-term house sitter at the time. Because they lived in the same house as my mom during these visits, our two families had gotten to know one another well and become friends, even though our worldviews were drastically different. We were a family of evangelical missionaries, studying at the Calvinistic Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. They were a family of staunchly liberal Harvard-educated progressives. But there was an openness to conversation, even friendship, with others who were different from them that set them apart from the more radical progressivism that is in vogue today.

This professor couple believed that as much as possible, nature should be allowed to take over the property, hence the overgrown pool from the 1960s, now full of lily pads, algae, frogs, and a snapping turtle. When the weather was warm, we liked to have cookouts on the cement patio next to this pool, and I would often invite my international friends. My mom’s creative cooking was a real treat for them, as well as for me, a college student at the time living on my own. We’d eat by the fire pit, swapping stories from all around the world until long after the lightning bugs had come out. A map on the wall contained pins from all of the different countries where my mom’s many guests had come from.

But swapping stories with refugees can get intense very quickly. The barbecue chicken wasn’t even done grilling when Farhad was dropping stories on Melissa of genocide and passionately espousing his seemingly-racist and Islamophobic opinions. She didn’t know what to do with it. Melissa was a sharp woman, and getting a world class education. But when your education and worldview is framed to believe that racism and oppression can only really be perpetrated by white Christians, by the oppressor class, what do you do with a Middle Eastern society where various people groups have hated and killed each other for thousands of years? What do you do with a brown-skinned Muslim who is eager to convince you of the evils of his own religion, and has first-hand accounts of genocide to back it up? Victims are supposed to be inherently virtuous, the oppressed are not supposed to be able to be racist. But Farhad was calling members of the dominant people group names like “dogs” and “filth.” He clearly hated them. All of them. Islam is supposed to be the misunderstood and maligned religion of peace, but Farhad was pointing to examples from recent history of massacres literally named after chapters of the Qur’an. Of Muslims with power slaughtering Muslims and other minority groups with less power.

Melissa caught her mom’s attention and tried to appeal to her. “But… but… mom… this can’t be right, can it?”

“No, honey, you’re right, it can’t be right, it’s, well, it’s…”

They were grasping, intellectually brilliant though they were. Their moral lenses had taught them that the world was full of people who were basically good, and evil only really exists in the oppressor class, or in those who just haven’t had enough education. But Farhad was a fly in that ointment, a big angry fly, prominently missing a tooth. His logic was strong. There was clear victimhood and suffering in his story. There was also clear darkness in his heart.

I turned the barbecue chicken legs over on the grill and thought about the scene before me. I thought about how adept Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees are at messing with the categories of popular Western morality. I am amazed at how Iraqis, Iranians, and Afghans can say all kinds of politically-incorrect things and get away with it. What progressive Westerner is going to be so bold as to call them out and risk exposing themselves to accusations of racism or Islamophobia? Some still might, but many, like our friends, will find that they have instead stumbled upon some kind of loophole, some kind of short in the moral circuitry.

I also thought about how grateful I was to be able to live in the real world, the world I had learned from the Bible. In that world evil and darkness are not limited to the few, to the oppressor class. They exist in every human heart. We are all evil, we are all on the spectrum of darkness. So we are not surprised when it shows up in the poor and marginalized, just as it does among the wealthy and privileged. While God’s word is clear about the evils of true oppression, the Bible calls both both the oppressor and the oppressed to repent of their hatred (murder) in their hearts toward one another, and to become part of a new redeemed humanity together.

The Bible has a category for people like Farhad. It shocks him by calling him to love his enemies (Matt 5:44). And when he finds that impossible to do in his own strength, to repent and to cast himself on God’s mercy in Christ. And if he does this, then he will be given the Holy Spirit who will empower him for the first time to do the impossible – to love those who committed genocide against his people. He’ll be able to do this because God’s justice is coming, and because he will know that he was forgiven when he had committed even worse against God himself.

An Ivy league education is no match for the realities of Middle Eastern racism. But the Bible can handle it – yes, more than handle it. It can transform it.

*Names changed for security

Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash

Why Americans Don’t Trust Sad People

Americans don’t trust sad people. Daniel Nayeri makes this insightful observation in his hilarious and heartbreaking memoir, Everything Sad is Untrue. As an Iranian refugee, it makes sense that Nayeri would notice this. Because in the Middle East and Central Asia, the opposite tends to be true. They don’t trust people who are overly happy or optimistic.

This tendency to trust (or not) tends to be reflected in which kind of stories end up being most popular. For a story to be truly great, most Westerners want a happy ending. The good guy almost always wins in the end. But Central Asians call for a tragic ending in order for a story to achieve true greatness. The Western movies my Central Asian friends like the most are Titanic (where Jack dies of hypothermia), Braveheart (where William Wallace from disembowelment and beheading), and Forrest Gump (Where Jenny dies of AIDS). As for movies made in Central Asia? Dark endings. Almost all of them. I think I’ve only ever seen one with a happy ending.

This orientation toward tragedy vs. comedy seems to reflect the deep-down worldview beliefs of each culture – what each feels is most true about real life. Westerners really believe deep down that life will have a happy ending, that if we just believe and try hard enough, everything’s going to be alright. Central Asians really believe that no matter how good things get, it’s all going to end in tragedy, just as it always has.

Even our histories tend to strengthen these worldview narratives. Think of the meteoric rise of the power of the Christian West over the last 500 years. Then consider the incredible decline of the power of the Islamic Middle East and Central Asia. 1,000 years ago, the centers of global wealth and culture were not cities like London and New York, but Baghdad and Samarkand. Perhaps back then the Europeans would have been the pessimists, and the citizens of the Silk Road those who believed in rosy endings.

When you meet someone whose bearing contradicts the primary narrative of your culture, you tend to distrust them. This is because they seem to be out of touch with reality. Many a Western aid worker arrives in Central Asia bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, believing that with just a little bit of money and some fresh ideas transformation can be a simple thing. Meanwhile, locals just shake their heads at this naive foreigner, knowing that for all their frenetic activity these Western plans will be about as effective as a dirt clod thrown at a passing tank. I have had countless conversations with my friends and students in Central Asia where I’ve been dumbfounded by their lack of belief in the possibility of change, while they in turn are dumbfounded that I actually believe real change is possible.

The West, for its part, and especially America, traditionally believes in the inevitability of progress. And we are deeply committed to the belief that things really will work out for those who work hard enough. Successful people function as our prophets and idols, the ones who confirm for us what we already believe – that the story of life ends in happiness. So we find ourselves uncomfortable with sad people, with those whose lives seems to be a relentless movement from one season of suffering to the next. We don’t trust them to be prophets of the way things really are. We don’t want to.

Biblically, both cultures are wrong, and both cultures are right. The ending of history will indeed be good – yes, as good even as resurrection. But resurrection is impossible unless preceded by death. It’s got to all die before it can all come back to life. Creation must groan, and painfully so, before the revealing of the sons of God. As such, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes go hand in hand. The wheat and the tares grow together. Suffering and death are inevitable. Hell is real. But eternal life is also inevitable for those who entrust themselves to the one who suffered and died – and now lives forever.

Paul speaks of us as being a people who are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” This means that Christians are those who can be fully awake to the grief and suffering of life, and those who can also be fully awake to the joy and delight of it. This means that a Christian who is shaped by the Bible’s view of reality is one who can be trusted by both kinds of cultures, the optimistic West and the pessimistic East. We know the depths of sadness. So we are not dismissed as naive. But we also know the heights of true hope and joy. So we are not dismissed as fatalists. We are, in one sense, Western and Central Asian at the same time. Or at least we should be.

And yet I find myself very lopsided. I have some idea of what it means to be always rejoicing. But what might it mean to be always sorrowful? And can it be that faithfulness in this age actually involves both at the same time? What might that look like when it boils down to things like daily spiritual disciplines, church services, and our “How’s it going?” conversations with other believers? I at least still have a ways to go in learning how to faithfully lament, not just with my mind, but also with my heart and emotions. I still have a hard time trusting sad people, in spite of spending half my life in cultures where grief and sadness are far more acceptable than here in the US.

Yet I have tasted aspects of this at funerals, when laughter comes easily during stories told of a departed loved one. Or at weddings or concerts, where joy and beauty are so strong they lead to tears. I felt it yesterday at a poetry recitation at my kids’ school. The kind of joy that makes you serious, as Lewis once put it. Joy and sadness intermingled, and something that feels so very right about this.

Americans might not trust sad people. And Central Asians might not trust happy ones. But believers from both worlds have come to trust a man of sorrows who is also the embodiment of purest joy. He holds both perfectly together at the same time, always able to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. He does this authentically, with no whiplash or disjointedness. He can show us how to laugh and cry at the same time, welcoming both with hearts that are somehow more whole for their embrace of these seemingly-opposite postures.

As we draw near to him the promise is that we will become like him. And that will make us also those that sinners come to trust, whatever their cultural bias. Not because we are so impressive, but because we are the ones who are the most real, those who walk in the truest story. One where grief and joy also walk, hand-in-hand.

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

Donkeys, Fireballs, and Other Near-Death Experiences

Balaam wasn’t saved by an angel. He was saved from an angel. This reversal of the expected formula is made even stranger in that his repeated deliverer is a donkey – one who can not only see the invisible angel, but who can also speak. And Balaam, at least for his first two near-death experiences, was utterly ignorant of the fact that he was being delivered from death by means of his remarkable long-eared servant (Numbers 22).

This is so often the way it goes. Death misses us by a hair and we are completely unaware of it, or at least unaware of what was going on behind the scenes once we do realize the great danger we just escaped. Just the other day we found a copperhead coiled up at the bottom of a rock we had been climbing and sitting on. I and several of my kids had apparently stepped around and right over him, busy admiring the view beyond of a Virginia river valley, taking pictures and peering over the cliff edge, completely unaware that the far greater danger was coiled up at our toes.

What had directed our feet so that they never stepped on the poisonous snake? What had directed the snake so that he stayed still, opting for freezing rather than fighting? Had it all been normal providence, aligning our days and choices just so in order to turn a potentially deadly encounter into a merely interesting one? Or was there direct involvement in that moment, a little nudge to the four-year-old’s foot by an invisible protector here, a word of warning inaudibly spoken to the snake there? Traditional Christian culture has angels invisibly intervening for us on the regular, saving us from calamity just in the nick of time, and often without us ever being aware.

If such guardians do function in this way, perhaps one activity in eternity will be watching one another’s Your Many Near-Deaths: Greatest Hits compilations. I can see it now, chilling with Darius* and Reza* in my room in the Father’s house as we watch one particular nail-biting act of deliverance. They rise to their feet, hand on their heads, yelling, “Bro!!! That was so close! How did you not die?! Look at you, just sitting there, sipping your chai like a complete donkey!”

Occasionally we do realize that something was definitely amiss in a given near-scrape. Something potentially deadly has happened, yet we were rescued, unharmed, in a way that doesn’t completely make sense. People don’t act they way they normally would. Train schedules are inexplicably off. For some reason we make a choice that we would not typically make. Natural elements behave abnormally. Fireballs burn an arc around us yet leave us completely alone.

One year ago I almost blew myself up in our kitchen. I did manage to blow up the kitchen, especially the stove. But I escaped unscathed, with the exception of some jumpiness every time I lit a gas burner for the next six months.

It all went back to to the difficulty of staying warm during the worst part of our Central Asian winters. The nights up in our mountain area often go below freezing, and the government makes its most severe cuts to the electricity during this season also. Two winters ago also proved to be one of the coldest snaps in decades. Add to the cold and the lack of electricity a natural gas shortage as well. All this meant not enough electricity to heat water for showers, dwindling supplies of LPG for cooking and portable heating, and one very cold family who couldn’t stop coughing. As a dad, I decided that it was time to pursue the nuclear option, something I had been chewing on for many a cold Central Asian winter.

With the help of a partner church, we purchased a 3,000 liter LPG tank for our roof and got a gas-powered water heater, a couple of LPG fireplace-type heaters, and all the necessary piping installed. This would mean that even if we had no electricity for days on end, we would have constant hot water, heating for at least two rooms during the day, and gas for cooking and hot drinks. The local workmen who installed all of this for us in the worst part of winter were great guys, and they even showed me what to do if the huge tank ever ran out. Conveniently, I could attach one of our smaller fifteen liter tanks to the gas lines and – voila – have gas in the lines until I could get the big one refilled. But, they stressed, it’s not good to let the tank completely empty. Refill it at twenty percent.

Well, Central Asia being what it is, the next few months were full of lots of ministry drama and various crises, and the big gas tank on our roof ran out without me noticing. It was late at night when this happened. My kids were already asleep and my wife was reading in our bedroom. I recalled what the workmen had told me several months before about how to temporarily refill the gas lines. So I went out back, attached a hose and nozzle to one of our small grill-style LPG tanks, and hooked it up to the house gas lines. But before I turned it on I made sure all the gas appliances were shut off. The gas nozzle I was using was one I was less familiar with, the kind that twisted open rather than a simple on/off lever. Figuring I needed to fill up many meters of lines for this to work, I turned the nozzle as far open as it could go, and heard a loud hiss as the gas rushed into the lines. So far, so good.

But as soon as I walked back inside I knew that something was not right. Another hissing sound was coming from the kitchen. I ran into the kitchen and could tell that gas was rushing out of the front right burner of the stove. I was confused. The burner was not on. But I figured that I’d better make sure. I made a panicky attempt to turn the burners off, forgetting that this stove had an electric lighter function. And in trying to make sure the burner was off, I accidentally triggered the lighter function. That’s when it happened.

A fireball filled the kitchen. Warm air wrapped around me, a shock wave hit my eardrums and rocked me backward, and the entire house shook. When this had passed I saw that the stove was on fire. What had been the front right burner area was now a geyser of flame, smoke, and melting plastic. Somehow I had the presence of mind to run outside and shut off the valve connecting the small LPG tank the the lines.

I ran back inside and was intercepted by my wife who has just run into the kitchen, wide-eyed. She thought our city was being bombed. I must have mumbled some kind of explanation to her that no, it was me. No enemies or terrorists bombing. I had managed to bomb the kitchen.

The next most important thing was to shut off the valve from the pipes to the stove and to grab the fire extinguisher. Both of these were back against the wall, right next to the side of the stove that was on fire. Not the best place for a fire extinguisher, I thought to myself as I strategized how to safely get past the flames. I managed to do it by draping a dish cloth over my head, ducking past the flaming corner, and shutting off the gas line. I also grabbed the fire extinguisher while I was down there and soon the stove and most of the kitchen was covered in a fine grey dust.

My wife went and grabbed the vacuum while I stood there, shocked and surveying the damage. What had gone wrong? Did I turn up the pressure too high on the unfamiliar nozzle? Did some kind of safety mechanism in the stove break, allowing gas to rush out when the burner wasn’t on? This was when I figured out that it was me who had lit the fireball by means of the lighter function in my haste to make sure the burners were actually off.

“Do I still have my eyebrows?” I asked my wife as she walked back in. I was very surprised when she answered in the affirmative. I had learned from friends in Melanesia that when facing down a fireball, the eyebrows usually don’t make it. I looked down for the first time at the hair on my arm and hands. Not singed at all. My clothes weren’t either. Wait, the tips of my thermal socks were crispy. And all around me, a semicircle was melted into the grey kitchen carpet. Other parts of the kitchen also evidenced contact with the explosion. Strangely, the exposed part of the trash bag had reversed itself, wrapping itself up tight around the lid of the bin when it had previously been wrapped over the sides.

We spent the next hour or so cleaning up all the extinguisher dust, and marveling that nothing worse had happened. What accounted for the fact that I was almost untouched by the giant fireball? Why had the carpet all around me melted while even my hair had gone unsinged? Was I protected by the normal flow of providence, or had there been some kind of abnormal intervention which stood between me and the flames? Is that even a valid distinction to make?

It’s unlikely I’ll ever know the answers to these questions in this life. “The secret things belong to the Lord,” as it says in Deuteronomy 29:29. And included in those secret things are many of the workings of providence in both our tragedies and our deliverances. No, unlike Balaam, ours is not usually to see behind the curtain when it comes to our close calls, but to learn from them and to be grateful for them. There’s wisdom there – like how not to nearly blow yourself up next time your LPG tank is empty. And gratitude – like prayers of thanks for the only real loss being a melted stove, and for the surprising bonus of not even one melted eyebrow.

Balaam was saved from an angel by a donkey. Could I have been saved by an angel from the consequences of being a donkey? Perhaps. A few more seconds of that gas rushing out and it could have been a much bigger bomb. But however it went down in the invisible realm, I am thankful for God’s kindness to me when I almost blew myself up a year ago. As I am thankful for his protection this week with the copperhead – and for all those other times that I don’t even know about, included on my tape of Your Many Near Deaths: Greatest Hits.

*Names changed for security

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Even Fevers Matter to Jesus

I’ve always loved the placement of the story where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. The account is a short one. She has a fever, so Jesus touches her hand. She is healed, rises, and like a good Middle Eastern mom immediately begins to serve her guests. In Matthew, this non-flashy miracle comes directly after Jesus has healed a leper and a paralyzed servant who was suffering terribly. And it’s followed by Jesus casting out demons and healing all the sick brought to him in Capernaum. In Luke and Mark the preceding account is of the showdown with the demonized man in the synagogue. (Matt 8:1-17, Mark 1:21-33, Luke 4:31-41).

In this context, the healing of a fever seems like a small thing. “Big deal, fevers are ho-hum, everyday stuff. Casting out demons and healing those with life-threatening diseases and excruciating pain? Now that’s what really counts.” Yet there it is, a simple healing of a simple illness, placed in all three synoptic gospels, a reminder that Jesus cares about fevers too. Apparently, he does not scoff at requests to heal the little stuff, but even there he delights to show his compassion and power.

Perhaps fevers were more life-threatening in first century Galilee. But still, a qualitative difference remains. The doctors in Capernaum would have felt like they had adequate medicine for fevers. There were treatable by normal means, as it were. Leprosy and demon-possession? Not so much. Peter’s household may have felt some temptation to not ask for healing. After all, shouldn’t Jesus’ power and attention be saved for the big stuff, especially when local remedies existed for things like fevers? Whether they felt this or not, we are not told. We are simply told that they told Jesus about her fever and he healed her.

This is the logic of faith functioning as it should. Jesus can heal bigger and badder things, so therefore let’s be quick to ask him to take care of this fever also. This is true humility, faith like a child. Yet so often we fall into a different kind of logic, where because we know Jesus can heal bigger and badder things, we think he shouldn’t be bothered with our little forms of suffering – if we even put them in the category of suffering at all. I know that I for one am often guilty of taking headache medicine without praying for God to heal. Even today my kids are home sick from school, yet it took me until I wrote this post to actually pray for them. My underlying assumption seems to be that it’s not worth bringing the little stuff to God, that either he or I really can’t be bothered.

This kind of dismissive thinking also seems widespread when it comes to healing trauma. If we are challenged to dig into the hard things we have experienced that may still be profoundly affecting us, many of us are quick to say that our wounds don’t really count. We all know or have heard of others who have suffered to a much greater extent than we have. So we draw arbitrary lines for what warrants attention and healing and what doesn’t. Sexual abuse? Yes, worthy of getting some care. Bullying? No, that’s normal growing up stuff. Genocide or torture? By all means, that qualifies for some counseling. Moving a dozen times while growing up? Well, there must be something wrong with me for needing help with processing something as small as that.

However, remembering that Jesus healed the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law can free us from the comparison-fueled dismissal of our own suffering. He really does care about suffering that we might count as small. We can and should bring all of our cares to him, not only those that we feel qualify for it. He will not scoff at our wounds, just as a good father doesn’t scoff at the tears caused by his three-year-old’s rug burn. That rug burn matters. If we feel that it doesn’t, that’s likely a sign that something is amiss in our own theology of suffering.

We need to remember that all suffering, no matter how normal or small it seems, is a profound departure from the way things were meant to be. It’s all a grievous twisting of creation, from every simple failure of a parent to respond gently to the greatest of atrocities. Every sin and every kind of suffering grieves God, who created the world as “very good” and will one day resurrect it to once again be so. Because even the smallest kinds of suffering are deeply wrong, we can feel free to bring them to him, and to freely ask for healing.

Indeed, when we don’t bring our seemingly small suffering to him, it tends to build up until collectively it has become something large and dangerous, ready to spill out, breaking our bodies’ health or our relationships with others. This death-by-a-thousand-papercuts accumulation of smaller sufferings is sometimes called complex trauma, and it is a very important category to have. No, you are not crazy for experiencing anxiety attacks even though you can’t pinpoint any singular instances of massive trauma in your past. There’s a reason certain symptoms have emerged, and it probably has something to do with all of the “fevers” you’ve never named, grieved, and brought to Jesus. Each one of them mattered, and each brought its own losses with it. Sooner or later, the grief we have submerged will find its way to the surface. When we become aware of it, will we bring it to Jesus for healing? Or will we condemn ourselves for being weak and unable to simply get over it?

No, fevers matter to Jesus. All of our physical, emotional, spiritual suffering is welcome in the practice of the great physician – even the seemingly-small stuff. He will not despise us if we come or send us away. He won’t sigh and help us reluctantly. He’ll take our hand, and sooner or later, help us to rise up, well again and able to serve.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus in John 11: He Invites Focus and Faith in His Character

This post is part four in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. Here you can read part one, part two, and part three.

As we continue our trek through John 11, we have come to the point in the story where Jesus is now in person in Bethany, interacting face to face with those who are suffering. We have seen how he has said no to their good request, has hinted at his purposes of love, faith, and glory, and has boldly drawn near to the suffering. In all of this, we should continue to keep in mind that Jesus reveals the Father to us (John 1:18). His conduct toward his suffering friends in this chapter is a window for us into how God relates to his suffering people.

In this post we’ll focus on how in the midst of suffering, Jesus invites focus and faith in his character. Here is the relevant portion of John 11, where Jesus interacts with the grieving Martha:

[17] Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. [18] Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, [19] and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. [20] So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. [21] Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [22] But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” [23] Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” [24] Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” [25] Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” [27] She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

John 11:17-27, ESV

This conversation between Jesus and Martha is remarkable. Martha, often viewed as the busy earthly-minded one compared to her more spiritual sister, truly shines in this interaction as a genuine believer of deep faith. She begins by being brutally honest with Jesus, bringing him the question that has been tormenting her soul. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). In other words, “Where were you? This doesn’t make sense to me given what we know, what at least we thought we knew of your love for us.” This kind of honesty might seem disrespectfully forward to some, but it shows the presence of trust even in the midst of severe trial. That desperate trust is communicated by her second statement. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (11:22). The disorientation of Jesus not agreeing to heal her brother means Martha’s faith in Jesus is under assault. Her circumstances do not fit with the loving and powerful Jesus that she knows. But she is still holding on, confessing that she knows something truer than what her experience and feelings may be preaching to her. There is a lot present in those words, “even now…” True faith has been put into the fire, and though it is painfully tested it is glowing white hot, genuine.

Jesus responds to Martha with a statement of double meaning, or a prophecy with a double fulfillment, one near and one far. He says that Lazarus will rise again, speaking seemingly of both the miracle he is about to perform as well as the future resurrection of the just, in which Lazarus will be a participant. Martha seems to understand only the latter part about the final resurrection of God’s people. Or perhaps she is afraid to risk hoping that Jesus might be speaking of the present. Her statement about God granting whatever Jesus asks hints that she may harbor a secret hope that this is indeed what will take place. But if it’s there, she doesn’t risk asking it directly. Instead, Martha focuses on the ultimate hope of the suffering faithful – that one day resurrection is coming and suffering and death will be forever reversed. Even in the midst of crushing grief and disappointment, she reaffirms her belief that God will on that final day raise her brother from the dead, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24).

But Jesus does not leave things here, satisfied that Martha has remained orthodox even in the face of death. He pivots, directing her focus to his own character, and uttering one of the most important statements in the gospel of John, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26). In the midst of her suffering, Jesus invites Martha to focus on his identity and to reaffirm her faith in who he is. Jesus is revealing to Martha that he not only has power to give resurrection and life, he is the resurrection and the life. He is the source of all life, and he is the source of not only the created life we know now that ultimately leads to death, but also of the coming new creation life that reverses the order of things, bursting out of death and lasting forever. This fifth of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements in the book of John communicates his divinity, for only God is the source of life itself. Whoever believes in Jesus will be united with him who is life, and therefore will not only have life after death, but because of this, will in a real sense never really die.

Resurrection and the reality of eternal life really do transform the nature of death for believers. While still painful and grievous, the ultimate sign that things are not the way they’re supposed to be, death has been gutted of its deepest darkness, it has been robbed of its ultimate weapon – eternal death in separation from God. As I have shared countless times with believers in Central Asia, death for believers is now merely the door to God’s presence, a temporary state of our bodies being entrusted to the dirt, knowing that the dirt will one day give its charge back, new and shining with eternal glory.

By asking Martha to focus on who he is, Jesus is not yet explaining all of his purposes to her. There are some very big pieces that do not yet make sense. But by calling her to believe in his character, in his identity, he is helping her to have assurance that the one who is life will somehow bring life out of even this. To do otherwise would be to go against his very nature. Wherever Jesus is, ultimately, will also be life and resurrection – no matter how much suffering and death we currently see around us.

Martha responds by courageously confessing her faith in Jesus’ character and identity, “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world’” (11:27).

The words of Jesus to Martha help us understand what God’s purposes are so often in the progression of our own suffering. He will often invite us to first remember who he is, and to fight to believe yet again in his character, before he will show us how he is working all things for good. Like Martha, this sequence is painful and yet revelatory – it reveals the presence of genuine faith in a way few other things can. Consider the logic of 1st Peter 1:6-7:

[6] In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, [7] so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

There are kinds of necessary suffering we must encounter. Why? So that our faith can be proved as genuine, just as Martha’s was. And so that when this happens, Jesus will receive more praise and honor and glory – just as he does when Martha confesses him as Christ and Son of God.

Why doesn’t God just get on with it and explain what he is doing? Why does he leave us confused in extended seasons of suffering? Well, in part so that we will wrestle with the messages preached by our circumstances and find grounding once again in a settled faith in his character and identity. True faith in God’s character does not fail based on our temporary, visible circumstances. Rather, it is fixed on what is unseen and eternal, it is based on faith in God’s word and character (2 Cor 4:16-18). Suffering is often God’s servant by which he reveals which kind of faith we have. And it is his means of helping us find the only thing solid enough to carry us through the darkness.

This past autumn it became increasingly clear that our family would have to come back to the US for an extended season of medical leave. I remember eventually feeling settled that it was necessary, but wrestling greatly to feel at all that it was good. So many things didn’t make sense given all that we had invested, and I wrestled greatly with the costs my family, my team, and our little church plant would incur if we stepped away. The uncertainty of our return also introduced a level of grieving into our departure that I wasn’t prepared for. Now, three months into our medical leave, we still don’t have very much clarity on our future. But my wrestling in the season of our departure did lead to a greater measure of peace in the midst of the fog. It came while learning about the patron-client logic baked into the book of Hebrews. So many of the arguments for perseverance made in that book could be summarized as, “Consider what a superior and trustworthy patron you have in Jesus Christ. And he graciously has even more in store for you, so how could you even think of leaving him and shamefully falling away? Keep going!” Somehow, the book of Hebrews brought me back to once again focus on the trustworthiness of my God. And my faith in his character was renewed. This has held me fast in the greatest season of uncertainty we’ve had for many years.

In John 11, Jesus invites his friends to focus and faith in his character. He is the resurrection and the life, even when we can’t yet square how this fits with the death we see around us. As we lean into his revealed character and identity we will find that our faith is proved to be genuine, and that this vision of him will be enough for us. It will help us to persevere until the coming resurrection – no matter how long that takes.

Photo by Gaia Armellin on Unsplash

Jesus in John 11: He Boldly Draws Near to the Suffering

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. Part four is 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.

[7] Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” [8] The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” [9] 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. [10] But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” [11] After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” [12] The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” [13] Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. [14] Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, [15] and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” [16] 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.

Photo by Quick PS on Unsplash

Jesus in John 11: Somehow from Love, Somehow for Glory and Faith

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, part three here, and part four 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.

[1] Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. [2] It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. [3] So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” [4] 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.”

[5] Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [6] So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. [7] Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” [8] The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” [9] 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. [10] But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” [11] After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” [12] The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” [13] Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. [14] Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, [15] and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” [16] 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.

*names changed for security

Jesus in John 11: He Says No to Good Requests

This post is part one in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. Here you can read parts two, three, and four.

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.

[1] Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. [2] It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. [3] So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” [4] 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.”

[5] Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [6] So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. [7] 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.

Photo by Pedro Lima on Unsplash

The Table Grace of Brigid

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.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash