Jesus Does Not Always Try to Prevent People from Dying

There's a lot to like about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus' amazing declaration to Martha that "I am the resurrection and the life"; Jesus' poignant weeping with Mary in front of Lazarus' tomb;  and of course, Jesus' climactic command: "Lazarus, come out!" And out he walks. Pretty great, right? 

Here's the catch: it's Jesus' fault that Lazarus died in the first place.

"I Am Glad I Was Not There"

At the beginning of the chapter (John 11), we learn that Jesus was sent word by Mary and Martha that their brother was sick. They knew that Jesus could heal because they obviously had a close relationship with him and his ministry; Mary was the one who anointed his feet with oil, and in the message Lazarus isn't even mentioned by name. He's just called "the one you love." 

The next few verses seem out of place. It's not how you'd expect Jesus to respond:
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
I always catch myself at the word "so." Typically that English word is used to draw a conclusion, but the conclusion here doesn't seem to follow. Jesus loved them, so he immediately left and went to--oh, wait, no. He stayed put. Not only did he stay put, but he clarified that Lazarus' sickness is both for God's and for his own glory. That sounds awful. Since when is Jesus the sort of person who thinks the death of someone he loves brings him glory? And a few verses later, when he's talking to his disciples about going to Judea:
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Not only does Jesus know that his waiting has resulted in Lazarus' death, he actually says he's glad he wasn't there, "so that you may believe."

If that doesn't at least seem a bit callous or harsh, you are probably too familiar with this story.

Looking More Closely

At this point, some nuance is in order. Jesus didn't cause Lazarus' death; the immediate cause was his sickness. It's also important to see that Jesus didn't actually say that Lazarus' death would bring him glory; a close reading shows that it is Lazarus' sickness that Jesus says is "for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it"; and the idea is probably not that the sickness itself is somehow God-glorifying, but that the whole situation represented by the sickness will cause the truth and glory of God--personified in Jesus, the incarnate Son of God--to be made known more clearly. That's what Jesus seems to mean when he tells his disciples that he's glad he wasn't there "so that you may believe."

The fact remains, however, that the following is true:

1. Jesus could have left immediately and prevented Lazarus from dying, but he didn't, because

2. Jesus was willing to allow sickness that he knew would lead to death to play a role in making his identity, and thus his and God's glory, more fully known, toward the goal of helping his disciples "believe."

Your reaction to these two points is probably dependent on your view of God. If you consider yourself a high Calvinist, this text fits easily with an overall biblical theology in which God's foreknowledge / causation of events that we might view as lamentable or evil is necessitated by your reading of God's sovereignty. If, on the other hand, you are a non-Calvinist, or you believe that Jesus isn't the sort of person who would turn down the opportunity to keep someone from dying for any reason--because if you found yourself in his situation you can't imagine letting someone die to make a theological point, no matter how important--then chances are you minimize a text like this, or attempt to mitigate its force.

The fact remains that Jesus let Lazarus die to make an important point about belief in himself to his disciples (and, presumably, to future generations of Christians).

Following Jesus Means Dying One Way Or Another

Biblically faithful Christianity always includes the awareness that one's life, health, & death are no longer the most important things in the world. Jesus makes this point elsewhere repeatedly, most famously telling his disciples that following him means to "take up your cross" (Matthew 10, Luke 9, Mark 8)--in other words, prepare to be executed as outcasts because of me. Elsewhere in John Jesus says that a man's blindness was not on account of his or his parents' sin but rather "so that the works of God might be displayed in him" (John 9), which is basically the same thing he says later about Lazarus' sickness and death. Other New Testament writers make similar points all over the place. This helps decenter our ego and recenter us on the priorities of the kingdom, which often don't include things like safety, comfort, and not dying.

At this point you might be wondering: what's your big point? I hesitate to "bring it home" one way or another because my goal is more vague (and perhaps impossible). I just want people to be more interested in who Jesus actually is rather than who they might already think he is. If you want some takeaways, here are some:

 - Your life and death do not take place in isolation; they are caught up in bigger purposes about God's glory and belief in Jesus. This calls not necessarily for understanding but rather for faith and joy.

 - Jesus believed death and sickness could be used to make his glory more apparent. If your reaction to this is negative, on the one hand that's completely understandable; on the other it means you need to seek Jesus for who he is rather than who you think he is or want him to be. When you do this, you'll see the face of God, and that is always good for you, in the best and most eternal sense of the word "good."

 - Grand, sweeping statements about who Jesus is, what God must or cannot be like, need to be passed through specific stories in the Bible like this one before you make them so cavalierly on blogs or twitters or Facebook or wherever.

 - However, I don't believe we are biblically permitted to point to specific instances of death or suffering and claim that we understand how they fit into an overall plan. My favorite (short) book-length defense of this idea is still David Bentley Hart's The Doors of the Sea.

If you care about the Bible and believe that Jesus is in fact the resurrection and the life for anyone who believes, let's commit together to remembering that sometimes we don't know Jesus as well as we want to, and the process of knowing him better isn't meant to always be comfortable. Sometimes Jesus doesn't try to prevent people from dying. This doesn't mean he's not good; it means that our understanding of who he is needs to include all of him, even the parts that we don't understand or that make us uncomfortable.

After all, it is Jesus himself who offers new life, not the Jesus we create from our preferences.

Loneliness, Spiritual Formation, and Jesus

All of us have places we instinctively turn in times of loneliness, discomfort, unrest, directionlessness. I find myself in that place every so often when I consider aspects of my life that are uncertain - where I will go once I finish this degree; how I will pay off loans when I get wherever that will be; what my romantic future holds, and when that will (or won't) find me; even my moment-to-moment tendencies to put off the work I know I need to be doing in favor of some diversion or another. Tonight, for instance, I tried to distract myself by playing Super Mario Bros. and Megaman X3 on a Super Nintendo emulator I downloaded. I didn't have the patience to get past the first level of Megaman (which is unfortunate, because I love that game).

"Some diversion or another"; what I noticed tonight is that those 'diversions' are actually coping mechanisms of mine for those times when I feel uncertain or lonely. They're a good way to shut off my mind for a while. Most of those places involve websites - facebook, twitter, steepandcheap, tumblr, facebook, cnn, xkcd, facebook, youtube, youtube, facebook - you get the idea. Some of those places involve playing my guitar aimlessly instead of focusing my creativity on songwriting or greater technical proficiency. Sometimes I pick up a familiar book; sometimes I call someone; sometimes - today it felt like I only did this very rarely - I manage to focus on something I actually need to get done, something I can wrap my twenty or thirty minutes around before I get distracted again and play SNES.

I think that a good way to conceive of the process of spiritual formation could be this: gradually learning to make Jesus that "place," over and above anything else. Spiritual disciplines are the processes and mechanisms, so to speak, that help us become the kinds of people who instinctively turn to Jesus in those doldrum times, when seeming aimlessness or uncertainty threatens to derail our concentration and productivity and peace of mind and focus. Those times are not only dangerous for those reasons; I've found myself much more susceptible to temptations of all forms when I feel that way.

When Jesus told his listeners, "I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery in his heart," (Matt 5:28), he wasn't expecting anyone - and he doesn't expect you and I, today, to whom these words are still, through the witness of the Spirit, directed - to be able to simply drop his or her patterns of sight and thought to conform with this standard. Humanly speaking this is impossible; and what I've found is that nowhere does the Bible teach that we ought to expect such radical, instantaneous deliverance from sinful patterns of life. (God certainly can work like that, but I've come to believe that is the exception.)

That's why his next words specify that one must alter one's patterns - radically if need be - to get to the place of being able to conform one's thoughts and habits to such a standard: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell" (5:29). He is using hyperbole to make the very basic point that it is better to subject your life to radical and possibly uncomfortable - but, in the long-term, beneficial - changes than to stroll comfortably into God's final judgment. These changes are what many have come to call the spiritual disciplines, various practices that make 'space' for the transforming work of the Spirit in our lives.

My feelings of aimlessness or loneliness are not something that I can simply switch off by force of mental effort. But Jesus knows this; he is a master of the human personality (he did create it, after all). Thankfully there are resources available to me that I can begin putting into practice now - small, measurable steps, over a significant period of time - that will produce in me, in the power of the Spirit, the kind of heart and action that will help me simply be a different kind of person. Then, I will have the ability to concretely demonstrate my trust in Jesus as a teacher of the everyday and the normal by turning to him in those times rather than the numerous distractions I tend to turn towards presently. That is the very real hope of change made available in the ever-present kingdom of God. That is the eternal kind of life, as Dallas Willard usually puts it. Though I will probably never be able to say, "I have arrived," I will be able - and already am able, in many ways - to say, "See, in these things I have been changed. I am no longer as I was, I no longer have this impulse, and in its place is this better, more constructive one. Thanks be to God."

Thoughts on Watching a Man Struggle to Walk in a Hospital Waiting Room

I work for an elderly gentleman and the other day I took him to a hospital for a routine checkup. I bought a coffee and sat down in the waiting room with my book - Watership Down, actually; I usually read it twice a year, to remind myself of what it means to tell a good story - and, although I am generally a very focused reader, I found myself distracted by persons coming and going, probably because it was in the mid-afternoon and there weren't very many people around, so the few that did walk through had an easy time of stealing my attention.

At some point I looked up and noticed a man approaching using a walker. It was, as a whole, a very incongruous picture: He was impeccably dressed in business attire, as if he'd just stepped out of a corporate meeting; there was a messenger bag across his shoulder; in one of his hands, that rested on but seemed unable to directly clench the walker, there was a plastic grocery bag with what looked like groceries inside; he could not have been more than thirty-five years old. His gait was extremely halting and slow, and as I watched it occurred to me that he moved as one who is silently enduring a great deal of pain on account of the movement. He approached the reception desk very slowly, and the receptionist spoke with him, evidently telling him he needed to provide a urine sample. The nearest bathroom I'd seen was more than twenty-five yards in the opposite direction down the hall from which he'd come, and I also heard him say, after being asked to write his name on the little plastic container, "I can barely write," which only reinforced my impression that he was in great pain.

Some provision was made for this - I think she printed out a sticker label and came out to put it on the container herself - and he was then directed to walk just around the corner to my right, where there was a bathroom inside one of the examination rooms. He was relieved by this, but he still had to walk about thirty feet towards me and around the corner, and I watched this as best I could without being intrusive or impolite. His feet did not plant themselves exactly straight as he shuffled forwards, and his hands were clenched peculiarly. I do not know why he didn't use a wheelchair; maybe it was even more painful to sit down, or maybe he was desperately hanging on to whatever limited physical activity he was still capable of performing. But at one point, while he was standing still and before he had passed me, he met my gaze, and returned my quick smile.

At that moment my heart broke. For some reason, the only thing that kept running through my mind was: Your faith has healed you; go in peace. I was filled with an overwhelming longing to stand up and embrace him, to put my arms around him and look him in the eyes and say: "In the name of Jesus Christ, be healed, be well, let go of the walker, have no more reason to grimace and clench your fingers and use such an unnatural and painful gait."

But I could do nothing. I can't heal people. I don't have the gift of healing and I don't even understand how that works. All of this ran through my head as I continued to watch him struggle his way towards the bathroom. I wanted to say, I'm sorry, I wish I could heal you, I wish I could do something to take away your pain and make your family glad along with you, I don't understand why you're suffering and there is nothing I can do about it. And all of this is made no easier - quite the opposite, actually - by the fact that at the core of my life and belief stands a man who was raised from the dead, who himself spent quite a bit of time during his public time of service physically healing people. I believe that all that is true, and I believe that I now daily learn how to live my life from him, and that I have received some kind of gift of salvation, and that such a gift is available to any who will come. I believe all of this and yet I had to sit impotent as I watched a young man struggle past me on a walker, a device that shouldn't have had to even cross his mind for at least another forty years.

It was at once infuriating and depressingly tragic. I have a rage inside of me that boils up, sometimes unexpectedly, whenever I encounter suffering, or whenever I spend a few moments specifically contemplating some event of suffering. In such moments I imagine myself physically beating on God's chest, tears falling, screaming obscenities and raging, and repeating, over and over, something like this: Why do you let it go on? Why do you let this happen? Why don't you bring it all to an end? Do you remember how you closed your own canon - with a prayer for Lord Jesus to come quickly? What the hell are you waiting for?

What I have come to believe is that such times - while bordering on the impertinent and irreverent, and sometimes, I'm sure, crossing some sort of line - are actually a reaffirmation of my continuing confidence and trust in God. The reason such things reach me so deeply is precisely because I think there's every good reason to take seriously the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - just as the writers of the New Testament, living in the first decades after those events, took them seriously, writing and leading communities and proclaiming and dying for these things with an urgency that I know I often struggle to feel. But these times of intense mourning and raging at suffering and evil remind me just how visceral and real and urgent all this is.

Most of us - I include myself, and anyone likely to read this, who lives comfortably enough to access the internet at their leisure in a place with things like electricity and a computer - tend to be insulated from suffering. I am paradoxically grateful that sometimes I am unable to think straight because of how vehemently I don't understand it and how difficult it sometimes is to put it out of my mind.

Suffering does not lead me to question the existence or justice of God, because I have come to believe that such things were established in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But there is nothing that says I must be ok with it, or that I will somehow end up understanding it all, or that I will ever cease feeling as angry and impotent and sorrowful over it as I often do. When wrestling with such things gets to me that way, it reminds me of two things: If I have any hope of ever understanding any of this, I must keep returning to and learning from Jesus through the Spirit; and, ultimately, I must continue to live in such a way that I testify to the as-yet-unseen (except in the resurrection!) hope that someday all things will be made right and justice will pour out on the world like a beautiful flood.

Someday a world without walkers will be real. For now, I cry and rage and do my best to live in awareness of the great blessings and privileges I've been given that many, many others are daily denied.

Easter Reflections: Resurrection, John 11, and the Problem of Evil

I am always drawn to John 11 when I reflect on Jesus' resurrection. Jesus is in a deeply personal and emotionally fraught situation: Lazaraus, brother of Mary and Martha, all three of whom we know to be close friends of Jesus, is sick; Jesus receives word of this but nevertheless waits where he is with his disciples long enough for Lazarus to die (!), and then tells his disciples that he is glad, for their sakes, that he waited, "so that you may believe" (11:15). The disciples are afraid that by going back to Judea he will risk being stoned, since it was just attempted in the previous chapter; Jesus has a far more important and profound lesson in mind that he wants to teach them. (Keep in mind that you and I know, from John's prologue, who he is, where he's from, and why he was sent into the world. He's got no reason to fear being stoned.)

As Jesus approaches the tomb, Martha comes to meet him from a long way off. This is one of many instances in which, as Dallas Willard likes to say, Jesus displays his mastery of the human personality: He responds to Martha according to the way she chooses to process her grief, which is by immediately engaging him in theological conversation. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will grant you." Some have suggested that she is bitter or angry here, and I don't think that can be ruled out, but I also think it is possible to see her as simply trying to reconcile her grief with her knowledge that Jesus could have, and perhaps still might, intervene in the situation. Jesus responds that her brother will come back to life again, and Martha replies with what was a fairly common Jewish eschatological belief: "I know that he will come back to life again in the resurrection at the last day."

Jesus says many things in John's gospel, but I believe that what he says next is one of his most theologically (socially, culturally, philosophically) loaded statements: "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Martha then confesses that she does. Jesus proceeds to the tomb, at which point Mary comes to meet him, asking him the same question Martha asked; but she does not proceed in conversation. Rather, from the context, it appears that she asks him this question through tears, and continues weeping after asking it. This deeply moves Jesus, and when he is shown the tomb he joins her in weeping. It is a profound moment. He then asks for the stone to be taken away, and when Martha objects that it will smell, he responds: "Didn't I tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?" And then he prays, and then he shouts: "Lazarus, come out!" And Lazarus comes out.

What has happened here? A few things are obvious: A dead man came out of a tomb. Jesus shed empathetic tears. Perhaps less obviously, Jesus handled the grief of two women in ways appropriate to their individual expressions of it. But consider the context: He has come from the countryside to Bethany, which was "less than two miles from Jerusalem" (11:17). Jesus' actions are symbolic and weighty because of his location near the Temple. From reading John's gospel before this point we know that this is the seventh and last sign Jesus is to perform, and so this is climactic in some way; from reading on in the gospel we know that it was at this point that the high priests and religious leaders began actively planning to kill him (11:53).

Jesus' actions were significant not only because he brought someone back from the dead - interestingly enough, John doesn't report that the religious leaders deny his miracle! - but because he was wrapping the Jewish conception of a final resurrection for the righteous around himself, and he was doing so in a public way, near the Temple, which was supposed to be the center of Jewish life and worship. He is also redefining what the criteria are for being one who participates in that resurrection (they cannot assume, because they are children of Abraham, that they are therefore righteous).

I began this by saying that I often think about John 11 in connection with Jesus' resurrection. It is difficult for me to read John 11 without becoming very emotional because I often find myself in both Martha's and Mary's shoes when faced with the question of the problem of evil, the presence in the world of seemingly senseless suffering and death. Sometimes I respond like Martha: I want to wrestle and discuss and talk and think about it, and maybe shout at God that if he'd been there, maybe the tsunami wouldn't have hit; maybe the oil rig wouldn't have blown up; maybe the IED wouldn't have gone off; maybe that young girl in Texas wouldn't have been repeatedly gang-raped over the course of several months; maybe I wouldn't think such filthy things; maybe more fathers would love their families instead of abandoning them; maybe my friends wouldn't have had a miscarriage. Other times I respond like Mary: I can barely manage to voice my thoughts in between sobbing in grief and pain, even on behalf of people I've never met. 

No matter how I approach him, however, I always find Jesus waiting and ready to respond. 

If I come to him as Martha I am confronted with the staggering truth: "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" This is not something that I must simply acknowledge to be true; it is something I must be prepared to act on, to believe. No matter how much I might pound on his chest and accuse him of being absent and wrestle with the various ways theologians and philosophers have written about the 'problem of evil,' I cannot escape Jesus, my contemporary, risen from the dead, asking me over and over again: Do you believe this? This is what continually pulls me back, even if I am pulled back kicking and screaming. I simply cannot escape the risen Jesus Christ.

But if I come to him as Mary - if I come to him broken, and hurting, and stumbling through tears shed on behalf of the unjust suffering and pain I become acutely aware of, on a daily basis, on many levels, from my personal sin to things that rot on a global scale - I find him there with tears already on his face. I find him with nail scars on his hands and his feet, and a spear wound in his side, and the piercing memory of the cry of dereliction. I find him, in short, mourning and weeping alongside me. He does not tell me to dry up and get about the business of the kingdom or theology or being a joyful Christian. He weeps with me, openly and publicly.

Death is not the final word. The more I meditate on this passage, and on other important resurrection passages such as 1 Corinthians 15, the more I walk away with the realization that if Christians have any hope to offer the world it must be this. In the face of all the senseless violence and waste and shallowness and triviality and pain and suffering, the resurrection is God's final and definitive statement about whose kingdom is, in fact, the ruling and authoritative kingdom. In other words, if we want to know how God feels about suffering and evil, we need to look at Jesus' resurrection; if we want to know what God has in store for those who believe and trust in him for their vindication, we must, again, look at Jesus' resurrection.

I do not understand why most evil and horrible things happen, and I doubt I ever will. But I am never told, in scripture, that such answers are to be expected. Rather I am invited to see and know and believe the One who is himself the answer. When I do this I find that, instead of beating the air and beating myself up in the process, I now have a strong chest to beat on when I am frustrated and confused and angry and outraged; and I now have the promise that death itself will one day be undone, and God's justice will roll down like a mighty flood, and this world will be once and for all set free.

In John 11 we see Jesus painting a vivid picture of this reality. In John 11 we are reminded that we are continually confronted with the necessity of believing Jesus when he says that he is the resurrection and the life, and that if we are to understand what it really means to be alive at all we need to look to him for those answers. In the process I usually find that my questions themselves are challenged as much as answered; but some of them are not answered, and this is usually, and probably will be for the rest of my life, painful and difficult. But I still cannot get away from Jesus, from this one who has the power to raise the dead, from this one who claims that he is, in fact, the resurrection and the life; from this one who has so powerfully wrested my life away from my own grasp, transformed it, healed it, cleansed it, and resurrected it - and, through the present gift of the indwelling Spirit, promised that there is much, much more to come, both for me, for the people of God, and for this world. That is what I am focusing on this Easter: that the resurrection of Jesus means that everything is different, and that you and I can be called out of our tombs - daily, if need be - and confronted with God's most full, dangerous, provocative, and satisfying answer that is the real and available person of Jesus Christ.