Christian, have you ever prayed for something over and over again that resulted in no apparent answer from God, so much so, that it led you to question his love for you?
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 (Rom. 5:8). 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 God. And you know he loves you because by his preserving grace you wake 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, you pray for God to lift the pain, cure the disease, mend the broken relationship. The cry of your heart could not be clearer. With the psalmist you cry:
I am weary with my moaning
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes (Ps. 6:6-7).
But what comes out of these heart-wrenching prayers? What is the response of the God of the universe in whom you have trusted and to whom you belong to your humble, desperate cries?
Silence. Piercing silence. Deafening silence. The suffering and the tragedy persist. The night will not end. You wonder, “Is God ignoring me? Does he even hear me?” 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. He loves you when you cry, “My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O Lord—how long?” (Ps. 6:3). The basis from which all of this flows is the truth that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). His love for you is not something that must be learned or acquired; it is crucial to his character.
Loving by Delay: Example from John 11
An example of this can be found in John 11, which begins with a request for help from Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus had fallen ill. It is clear that Jesus loved this family, for Lazarus’ sisters refer to their brother as “he whom you love” (John 11:3). 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. Just to be clear here, a family that Jesus loves deeply has been struck with tragedy. A brother is dying, and his sisters are crying. His love for them is real and deep, and 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” (John 11:4).
The NASB uses the phrase: “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 other words, the story does not end with Lazarus’ death. The sickness does not have the last word—Jesus does. But it may also 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 rather 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, the one central thing 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 his sisters, and (2) the suffering of this family (Lazarus’ illness) has its end or purpose as the glory of God in Jesus Christ.
John now moves to focus on Jesus’ love. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 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. What we might 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 immediate healing. However, the story goes much differently.
So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was (John 11:6).
John reminds us of Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus and then proceeds to tell 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. Delay was Jesus’ way of demonstrating his love for his friends.
Reasons to Love by Delay
But why the delay? Doesn’t Peter clearly teach that God does not delay? “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay” (2 Pt. 3:9). 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.
- 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. When Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ tomb after four days, there would be no question that any resurrection would be nothing short of 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.
- 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 demonstrates love by way of delay. In his book Scandalous, D.A. Carson observes that oftentimes Christians act like immature children when we pray. He says this:
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.
Our view of God is too often far too small. We view him, speak of him, and deal with him in human terms—and as Carson has demonstrated, childish human terms at that. Peter writes that the Lord does not delay “as some understand delay” (2 Pt. 3:9). Even though he is specifically referring to the second coming of Christ in this passage, it is clear that God’s delay is intentional and is not the result of some limitation of his power or love. Delay from God is evidence of his patience to accomplish his purposes in perfect timing.
Our view of God’s love is also too small. 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).
Suffering to the Glory of God
Jesus showed his love for Lazarus and his sisters by delaying in relieving their suffering. Therefore, delay does not imply lack of love or neglect but 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 (Rom. 5:3-5).
God is glorified in the joy of his people, and when his people find joy in him amidst tremendous suffering, the worth of God radiates from his suffering people. The vision of God that we must take up in order to accurately view personal suffering 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 uses to work this joy out in us is delay. God’s love through delay produces perseverance, character, and hope—hope that will never fail us and 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.”
Likewise, John Piper exhorts, “We can draw no deadlines for God. He hastens or he delays as he sees fit. And his timing is all-loving toward his children. Oh, that we might learn to be patient in the hour of darkness.”
Christian, when your suffering will not cease, when the darkness over your soul will not lift, and when you feel your prayers are going unanswered, know that this is one of the innumerably glorious and mysterious ways that your God loves you. His glory and love are magnified in his delay. You can rest assured knowing that the grand purpose in suffering is the glory of God in the satisfaction of his suffering saint. Find solace and identification through suffering in these words from Christian poet, George Herbert:
Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.
*This post first appeared as a chapter in my book, Come to the Well. You can purchase a copy from Amazon, CBD, and from many other book retailers.
Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor of Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God and founder of Grace Satisfies. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their two sons, Jude and Jack. You can follow Mathew on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.