1 Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. 3 So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” 4 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when He heard that he was sick, He then 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.” … 14 So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” – John 11:1-7, 14-15 NASB
The story of Lazarus is such a strange story! If I knew that someone I loved was so sick they might die, I would think the best thing to do would be to rush to their side immediately! But Jesus, when He heard that Lazarus was sick, waited two days longer – by specific design He allowed Lazarus to die. He was glad that He was not there to prevent it! Glad! What in the world? Jesus shows us that God actually prolonged suffering unto death and was glad He did. How can this be right?
I’ve been reading Peter Kreeft’s wonderful book “Making Sense Out of Suffering”. He puts the problem like this: how can all four of these be true?
- God exists
- God is all-powerful
- God is loving
- Evil exists
The Cheap Answer to the Problem
Kreeft makes the point that atheism is a very cheap answer to the problem of evil. It is an answer I have encountered many times. One of my atheist friends put it this way: how can there be a God if He allows a child to die from cancer? This is a very good question after all, isn’t it? Usually people don’t end up getting resurrected like Lazarus did. They suffer, they die, and they stay dead.
Here is the question I posed to my atheist friend who asked about the child dying of cancer. What comfort do you have to offer the dying child? Will you go to her bedside, and look into her pained and frightened eyes, and say, “Your suffering is just the random conjunction of time and chance. You are merely a random collection of molecules that formed genes, and when you die, it will all be for nothing. None of it matters. There is no evil – whatever is is what is. Your suffering is just the firing of neurons in your brain, which your fight-or-flight instinct has evolved to help you adapt to the challenge of life. But you, you have failed – you will not survive. Those more fit will live on, and your life is of no significance whatsoever. I would say I’m sorry, but that too is an illusion, nothing more than certain chemicals and electrical signals converging in my brain. The strong survive, and it is good that the weak die.” Of course, my atheist friend said that he would never go to a child and say those things. But, I said, that is what you are telling me is ultimately true. You brought up the scenario of the dying child. Are you uncomfortable with your own answer? Would you lie to the child simply to comfort her?
A Very Strange Symbol
I want to point out that Christian orthodoxy does not shy away from this question. Christianity is probably the only religion which puts a symbol of suffering and death at the very heart of its doctrine. The ultimate symbol Christians hold up is not a symbol of success and triumph, but a symbol of suffering and failure and death. It is a symbol, really, of the triumph of injustice and evil. The tomb may be empty, but the cross of Christ is what Paul was determined to make known (1 Corinthians 2:2). It is a very strange symbol to put at the heart of an entire world religion, is it not? Christian teaching embraces the problem of suffering and evil and puts it at the very front and center of its worship.
Why is this? It is not just that Christianity has well-seasoned, sophisticated, and satisfying answers to the problem of evil. It is that it almost exists AS an answer to the problem of evil. How so?
A Much Better Answer
The Christian has something very substantive and very real to offer to the suffering person and to the dying person. The Christian can say, God too has suffered. God does not just sit on a throne in a far-off heaven and tell you to soldier on. He has suffered too. He has experienced the kind of horror that you are experiencing. He has learned through suffering (Hebrews 5:8). He has tremendous compassion for you. And He has a very real and helpful answer for you:
8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:8-11 NASB
Fellowship In Suffering
What does it mean to have fellowship in His sufferings? I grew up with severe asthma – I almost died numerous times. Good God, it was awful. I remember thinking that my fondest thought of heaven was that I would be able to breathe. In the book “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” Paul Brand recounts how, in his experience, people with breathing problems far outstrip even people with severed limbs for being utterly panicked and desperate. So when I see people who have asthma or other kinds of breathing difficulties, I have deep empathy. I understand what they are going through. I get down and pray for them earnestly. I want to suggest that in a way, I have fellowship in their sufferings. We are part of the same little group – we know something that others do not know. We know how to be grateful for a good intake of air in a set of healthy lungs.
Paul hints at this in his letter to the Corinthians:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; 7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 NASB
If I talk to someone who has had cancer and beat it, I don’t know what that is like. I haven’t walked through that. But if I talk to someone whose wife has had a late-term miscarriage, I do know what that is like – because we have walked down that same tragic road. So we have this touchstone of experience: a kind of suffering that makes us members of a kind of exclusive club. In this way, we have a special kind of fellowship, and because of that I have the right and the experience to offer comfort that others could not. My comfort is more than a platitude because I have experienced a similar kind of suffering. This is what the scripture says here. My affliction means I can share comfort.
I used to do a magic trick where I would tear up a napkin, and then put the torn pieces into a bag, and then restore it. But before I performed the actual magic, I would have a volunteer choose one of the torn pieces out, and when the napkin was restored, it would have that one exact matching piece missing. It was especially miraculous because you knew the napkin was the actual torn up one because of the exact missing piece – that was what made the trick convincing. You could recognize the napkin by the matching torn hole. Have you ever wondered why, when Jesus was resurrected, He retained the scars and wounds of His crucifixion? I love Michael Card’s song, that He would be known by the scars. The scars are what convinced Thomas (John 20:24-28)- this is so significant. Even on the throne of God at the end of days in Revelations, He stands on the throne of God as a Lamb as if slain. Whenever you see paintings of this scene, they are always very strange looking, because there is no such thing as a Lamb standing as if slain. Slain lambs don’t stand. What is the meaning of all this?
I think that if we had never suffered, we would see Him there on the throne, a Lamb as if slain, risen but retaining His scars, and it would have no real meaning to us. We would not have fellowship because we would not understand what He had gone through. But we in the church have suffered. We know what betrayal and disappointment and injustice and shame and physical pain is. We can see that He suffered for us, and we get it. Forever, we know what He would do for the love of us. The same kind of hole that was torn in us has been torn in Him. God can create universes with a word, but He found a way to make it cost Himself, to express His love for us. When we see Him, who purchased our redemption with His very blood, we will resonate greatly with Him. We will have fellowship in His suffering. And He in ours.
We the believers are the ones for whom evil and suffering foster faith. That is the chief and genuine way in which we are sanctified, the way that we are in the world but not of the world. We don’t think that suffering invalidates God, in fact we think it manifest’s God’s glory. Instead of saying that suffering proves that God doesn’t exist, or that it proves He has limited power or is a heartless monster, we hold up the cross. We believe that all suffering and evil is entirely awful, but we know that in the end that God will cause even this to turn out for good. We believe it makes way for the resurrection. We as believers know that our suffering is not the end because we believe in God’s answer. We are convinced that His love persists, and is more substantial than all the suffering the world can throw at us. We are comforted in our troubles that despite our sin, despite our suffering, He knows us, and His love will triumph in the end. This is the difference between the believer and the non-believer. In the end, not because He is sadistic but because it fosters fellowship, He is glad that suffering comes to us, because it fosters an opportunity for belief. This is the victory that overcomes the world: our faith (1 John 5:4).
16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NASB