I remember reading the story of Lazurus being raised from the dead as just that, a story. A story about a profound miracle only Christ himself could perform. As an elementary-aged student, that story became my focal point of John 11 for years. So when I didn’t receive the same miracle in my own life, I began to question the very point of this entire narrative.
You see, at age 22 I found myself with a dream job at a local church, newly married, and preparing to go back to school. I lived in a cute, downtown bungalow where I could walk to my favorite coffee shops. I saw my friends almost every week, my tattoo collection was growing, and by my own measurements, my life situation should have made me very hopeful and fulfilled. But, I wasn’t. I was miserable. Depression, although not foreign to me, seemed to plague my every thought, choice, and feeling. Months passed, and every week I would tell high schoolers, “Jesus is everything we need!” all the while feeling completely abandoned by him.
Tormented by the inability to eat or sleep, I prayed daily, “God, you’ve done it before, would you do it for me? Would you rescue me like you rescued Lazurus from death?” At this point I had been back in therapy for five months and was on medication again, but nothing seemed to work. How could God NOT rescue me? By the time I hit six months of feeling this way, I determined suicide was the only way I would get relief.
God is WITH You When You Call (Philippians 4:6-7)
I knew on Sunday night that Monday would be it. I was done waiting for rescue; the only way I would receive relief now would be to meet Jesus face to face. I packed my bag to leave the office early after my only meeting scheduled at my church on Monday. As I prepared to go home where I planned to end my own life, I was overcome with numbness. I picked up my bag only to find my office door being swiftly opened by a familiar face who knew exactly what was happening.
That night I found myself alive, sitting at the end of a bed located in a psych ward two hours north of where I lived. The numbness was still very much there. I tried to form sentences that made sense while talking to the nurse. “When will I get to see my husband?” The nurse looked back at me with compassion and sadness in her eyes and replied, “I am so sorry, Brenna. You are only allowed to receive visitors two hours a day; in the morning and afternoon. Phone privileges are during the same times as well, and…I am so sorry, but we are about to change shifts so you’ll be alone for the next hour.”
I wept and wept and wept. I wasn’t rescued, and I wasn’t with Jesus. I was completely and utterly alone for the first time in my entire life. Sitting in a place I had never been, in clothes that weren’t mine, in a town I had never visited. An unfamiliar setting. Total isolation. How was this better than death? As I sat there in my tear-soaked hospital scrubs, my mind landed somewhere unexpected: “Let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God…will guard your heart.” I couldn’t remember the exact verse or where in the Bible it was found, but I remembered it talked about peace, and I had nothing else to lose or gain in that moment.
With a deep breath, I uttered the simplest of words: “God, I need you to be with me; here, right now.” I didn’t plead for healing or rescue, I spoke no eloquent words in my despair—only a question. “Will you be with me; here and now?” And for the first time in six months, I laid down and fell asleep. Eight hours of peace; it made no sense. The room was cold, the bed was stiff, and the other patients were noisy. But despite it all, I found myself with peace that did in fact surpass my own understanding.
God is WITH You When You Despair (John 11:21, 28-35)
Just weeks after being released from the psych ward, I was asked to teach again at a different youth group than my own. I was on medical leave, but wanted to follow through with my prior commitment—and have something productive to do with my time off. As I sat in my living room staring at a blank computer screen, I was reminded again of John 11. Annoyed, I rolled my eyes and flipped through the pages of my Bible past the first three gospels to John 11. I began to read, but the story I had always known so well seemed to disappear from the pages as something new and unfamiliar came to light.
All this time, I had thought about myself as Lazurus; the most important part of the story. After all, God did raise him from the dead. But of the 44 verses given to this story, only the last four are about that very miracle. So why the first 40 verses? Why do they matter? The story begins with two sisters—friends of Jesus—whose brother falls ill. Upon this happening, they, like myself, think, “Since we know the Son of God personally, surely he will show up and heal our brother!” However, upon hearing the news of Lazurus’ sickness, Jesus decides to remain out of town a few more days. As you can imagine, the next scene is heartbreaking.
As Jesus makes his way back into town, the sisters—who had by now lost their brother to his illness—hear of Jesus’ return and prepare to meet him. Martha, who I imagine is full of frustration and anxiousness, meets Jesus in the street and says what must be one of the most gut-wrenching sentences in the Bible: “Jesus, if you would have been here my brother would not have died.” Reading that was like getting the wind knocked out of me. That is exactly how I felt. “God, if you would have healed me, I wouldn’t have ended up in this place full of despair.” I thought this countless times since being released from the hospital.
But Jesus’ reply to the sisters, as well as his actions that follow, are something we need to notice. Although Jesus replies to Martha with plans of resurrection, he isn’t referring to the miracle about to occur, but rather the hope that all followers of Christ have: eternity with him. Why doesn’t Jesus also tell of his plans to raise Lazarus that very day? Minutes later, Jesus faces Mary who states the same gut-wrenching fact: “If you would have been here…” This time, Jesus doesn’t even mention the resurrection, but becomes deeply moved at the mourning of all who are there. In fact, this is where we get the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
Why then, if Jesus knew the plans he had of this impending miracle, would he not let Martha and Mary in on the plan? And why, of all things, take time to weep and mourn a life that would no longer be lost in a matter of moments? Simply put, Christ is not looking to be our superhero. He’s not looking to swoop in, fix our problems, and leave. He’s looking for a relationship with us. I missed the entire past six months of pleading with God. I wanted rescue, but God wanted me to see that he was in fact there with me, in the midst of my brokenness. Jesus chose not to rush past the despair of Martha and Mary, but meet them in it and minister to them within it.
God is WITH You in the In-between (Exodus 16)
One of the best theological moments (in my opinion) within John 11, is when Jesus chose to talk about our future resurrection and not just the miracle resurrection that Lazarus experienced. If he were to do the first and not the latter, we would miss out on the fact that our God can and does perform life-giving miracles even on broken earth. However, if Jesus only talked about the latter and not the former, one could easily look at this story and claim prosperity gospel for all. The pairing of the two tell us how it truly is. We have a God who can and will give us wholeness, healing, and resurrection life. Some of us will experience it in part while we are still here, apart from God. But all of us will experience it in fullness when we meet Jesus face to face. There is truth with both and room for both.
So what if you find yourself like me? Wanting to experience it in part now, but finding that’s not God’s plan for your pain? You can be like me a few years ago, and let the sorrow of your situation overtake you. Or you can take hope in the countless narratives we have that God can and will sustain you as you wait to be united with him in wholeness and glory. Let’s look at an example.
In Exodus 16, the Israelites find themselves with a need, and a rather important one at that. They are without food and know God is the only one who can provide. God, in his goodness and plan, sees the Israelites’ needs and tells them he will provide. The only catch? They have to collect manna from heaven daily. If they collect more than a day’s worth, the extra food will rot. Naturally, the Israelites complain about the inefficiency of this method. So what can we learn from this? Our pain is part of living in a broken world. Just like hunger, we feel the uncomfortable twinges of sin and suffering in the world. However, in his goodness, God gives us a way to know him better through our pain.
The Israelites saw God’s requirements to meet their hunger as a chore. The daily reliance was annoying to them. What they failed to see was that God, through their needs, wanted to commune with them. God saw a need and wanted to not only provide for them but spend time with them within their time of need.
I wanted to be healed. God wanted to use my mental illness to allow me to be more dependent on him. The first sounds easier, but the second is infinitely more enriching, beautiful, and life-giving. So when you find yourself asking, “God, why can’t you rescue me NOW?!” Remind yourself of the character, love, and relationship the Israelites gained and witnessed with God in their in-between—their wilderness. What truths and facets of God would we miss out on if we skipped our in-between?
Psalm 34:8 is not just a call to witness or observe but to partake. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” We cannot expect to simply be called to watch God’s goodness. We must taste it as well! And if we have no hunger that needs to be met, how can we be led to taste?
Image Credit: Emilee Carpenter