Battle of the Heart
This question is like a hardcore game of tug-of-war in your heart and mind. You know that God’s love for you is uninhibited, unbound, and unmerited. You know that he loved you despite your deliberate rebellion against him in sending Christ Jesus to die for you. You know that God loves you because he adopted you; you are his child and he is your Father. You know he loves you as the Holy Spirit sanctifies you and reorients your desires toward Christ. And you know he loves you because in his preserving grace he wakes you up each morning saying, “I believe in Jesus.”
Yet, at the same time, your heart is breaking at the sound of bad news, your faith is shaking with doubt, or your world has been completely turned upside down by tragedy, suffering, or some raging consequences of sin. You cry yourself to sleep at night. No one can say anything that can ease the pain. Broken relationships. Broken bodies. Broken health. Broken hearts. Just sheer brokenness fills your life. And so you pray. You pray, and you pray, and you pray. Each morning and afternoon, evening and night, and all throughout the day you pray for God to lift the pain, cure the disease, mend the broken relationship. The voice of your heart could not be clearer.
But what comes out of these heart-wrenching prayers? What is the response from these humble cries to the God of the universe in whom you have trusted and to whom you belong?
Silence. Piercing silence. Deafening silence. The suffering and the tragedy persists. The darkness will not lift. Is God ignoring you? Does he even hear you? This silence or delay from God seems surprising and uncharacteristic of his love. Can God truly claim to love us with the intensity that he says he does if he delays in answering our prayers?
I want you to see that in delaying, God is loving you. The basis from which all of this flows is the truth that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). So, his love for you is not something that he must learn. It is crucial to his character.
Loving by Delay: Example from John 11
Let’s look at Jesus in John 11 for an example of this. John 11 begins with a request for help from Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus had fallen ill. It is clear that Jesus loved this family. Lazarus’ sisters refer to their brother as “he whom you love” (11:3). It is notable that they say Lazarus is the one whom Jesus loves, instead of saying the one ill was Lazarus, the one who loves Jesus. This tells me that those who have an intimate relationship with Jesus view the love in that relationship as primarily stemming from him to them, rather than vice-versa, though that aspect is there as well (i.e. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus clearly loved Jesus).
We see this in other places as well. The writer of this Gospel, John, refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved (13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20). Paul, writing of the atonement of Jesus adds a personal clause: “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). D.A. Carson writes, “Those who draw really close to Jesus think of themselves, first and foremost, as those loved by him rather than as those who profess their love for him.”
So, the one whom Jesus loves is sick and dying and the ones who Jesus loves are pleading with him to help. Mary and Martha call upon Jesus to demonstrate his love for them by doing something about the illness. Let’s be clear about what is going on. A family that Jesus loves deeply has been struck with tragedy. A brother is dying. Two sisters are crying. His love for them is real and deep. This is how he responds:
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” (11:4).
I like the NASB translation better here: “This sickness is not to end in death…” Though Lazarus’ sickness would definitely lead to death in one sense (Lazarus does die), this illness does not end in death. In one sense, the story does not end with Lazarus’ death. The sickness does not have the last word. Jesus does. But also, it may be that Jesus says this with emphasis on the event’s purpose. The true end or purpose of what is about to happen is not death, but the glorification of God in Jesus Christ. “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” So, one thing that is central to Lazarus’ and his sisters’ suffering is the glory of God in Jesus Christ.
Two things are clear so far: (1) Jesus loves Lazarus (and Mary and Martha), and (2) the suffering of this family (Lazarus’ illness) has as its end the glory of God in Jesus Christ. John now moves to focus on Jesus’ love. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). What John is about to write must be taken with this knowledge fresh on our minds. He then writes something shocking, surprising, and seemingly scandalous. Now, what we would expect from John in verse six would be something like this: “As a result of this love, Jesus immediately went to Lazarus and healed him from this illness.” This is what we would expect from the love of Christ poured out on those whom he loves. This is what we expect from him when we are suffering; immediate response and healing. However, we get something much different:
So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was (11:6).
What?! John reminds us of Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and then he tells us that the way he demonstrates this love is by staying two days longer where he was. He does not rush to Lazarus’ rescue. He delays. In response to a desperate plea from the ones he loves, Jesus demonstrates his love by delay. The original Greek is much clearer than the English translation in verses 5-6. John essentially says that because Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he delayed in coming to his rescue.
Reasons to Love by Delay
But why the delay? If Jesus loved this family, why would he wait two (what ended up being four) days to come to them? I believe there are two main reasons.
1. To Magnify His Glory
Remember, the end or purpose of Lazarus’ sickness is that God may be glorified in the glorification of Jesus Christ. When Jesus and his disciples finally arrived, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb for four days. This is highly significant because of Jewish thought. At that time, there was a Jewish superstition that when someone died, the spirit of that person hovers over their body for up to three days, after which no resurrection or resuscitation would be possible. So, when Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ tomb after four days, there would be no question that any resurrection would be divine. Nothing would be able to explain a resurrection at this point and Jesus’ deity and glory would be on full display. Death does not have the last word. Jesus does. And he has the final word on your suffering as well. In the end, he will magnify his glory.
2. To Magnify His Love
How does Jesus show his love for this family in his delay? We have already seen that he shows his love for them by glorifying himself in Lazarus’ resurrection, which was magnified through delay. However, there is something more personally significant that happens when Jesus loves this way; through delay. In his book Scandalous, D.A. Carson observes that oftentimes Christians act like immature children when we pray.
Sadly, many of us act like very young and immature children when we deal with God. We, too, want specific blessings now, now, now. But God takes the long view, and he understands that sometimes delay is what is best for us (Scandalous, 121).
Our view of God is far too often too little. We view him, speak of him, and deal with him in human terms–and as Carson has demonstrated, childish human terms at that. This is also true with regard to our understanding of God’s love. We feel that God does not love us if he does not answer or bless us immediately. But what we see in John 11 refutes that thinking. Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and yet he delayed in coming to them. He did not immediately relieve their suffering. God does not always immediately relieve the suffering of his children. And it isn’t always the case that he relieves our suffering at all. In these cases, with Paul we must submit to the truth that God’s grace is sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9). However, he is always sovereign over our suffering.
Suffering to the Glory of God
I’ll close this lengthy post with an encouragement. Jesus showed his love for Lazarus and his sisters by delaying in relieving their suffering. Delay therefore does not imply lack of love or neglect. Rather, it implies a higher wisdom and grander purpose.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. — Romans 5:3-5
God is glorified in the joy of his people. And when his people find joy in God amidst tremendous suffering, God is greatly glorified. The vision of God that we must take up in order to accurately view personal suffering that will not cease and endless prayers that seem to have no answer is that of Romans 5:3-5. This vision is that the increase of character, perseverance, and future hope is more important than relief from suffering. Paul would later write “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). One means that God works this joy out in us is through delay. God’s love through delay produces perseverance, character, and a hope that will never fail us; a hope that vanquishes all need for relief.
D.A. Carson is poignant on this point:
God is sovereign. He is wise. He is unqualifiedly good. Part of Christian maturation is understanding that even his delays are not foolish or stupid or mistakes or exercises in whimsy. He is to be trusted, and even the delays are to be improved upon by the way we respond to them.
Christian, when your suffering will not cease; when the darkness over your soul will not lift; when you feel your prayers going unanswered; know that this is one of the innumerably glorious ways that your God loves you. His glory and love are magnified in his delay. And always remember that the grand purpose in your suffering is in one way the glory of God in the satisfaction of his suffering saint.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower. –William Cowper
Resources: I was greatly influenced by D.A. Carson’s book Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. I highly recommend it.