23 years ago today my mum lost her battle with cancer. This photo was taken not long before she got ill. I remember the happy family walk through the woodland in Kent and have often wanted to be back there to the time before the cancer took hold. Almost all will know what a horrible disease cancer is, many have painful memories of what it has done to them or someone they love. Just yesterday the former tennis champion Jana Novotna lost her battle with cancer at just 49. Cancer is miserable. Today I continue to grieve the loss of my dear mother who I only knew for 14 years, but I don't grieve as one without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), though I once did. For about 8 years after she died I was angry with God for allowing this cruel disease to take my mum at such a young age. I'm no longer angry with God, here's 4 reasons from John 11 why I'm no longer angry and why I do grieve, but not without hope.
1. Jesus is angry at the cause of suffering
We don't often think of Jesus as angry, but in John 11 we see something that angers him. We may miss it on a first reading of the chapter, we're told twice that Jesus was "deeply moved" (v33, 38).
This word could be translated as "indignant" (see ESV footnote) or as "bellowed with anger". What is making Jesus angry? As he looks around and sees people grieving over the loss of a man who died at a young age, he is angry at suffering in the world, he's angry at death and the pain it causes, and he's angry at sin and Satan for devastating God's perfect world.
As I see this, I am encouraged, it is good that Jesus is not indifferent to the pain and suffering in the world. He is deeply moved, he is angry, but his is not a powerless anger, he approaches his enemy of death with the power of life as we'll see...
2. You will be raised
The reality of the resurrection does not take away the pain of losing a loved one, but it does surely help to know that there is certain hope beyond the grave. Jesus approaches the tomb like a boxer about to get into the ring, but there is no contest, death is no match for him. With just 3 words, a man who is rotting in the tomb is called out: "Lazarus come out"! Such power over the cruellest of enemies. But that is not the most amazing thing, because as amazing as it was, Lazarus went on to die again. The most amazing thing is Jesus' words in v25 "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." Jesus promises ultimate victory over death - He will call each one who has trusted Him from their graves when He returns. How do we know that He has that sort of power? Through his own resurrection from the dead, and as far as I'm aware, they still haven't found His body! The only explanation is that he really did rise physically from the dead!
Tim Keller very helpfully says what the resurrection to new life means for us:
"We must realise that the most rapturous delights you have ever had – in the beauty of a landscape, or in the pleasure of food, or in the fulfilment of a loving embrace – are like dew drops compared to the bottomless ocean of joy that it will be to see God face-to-face." (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller)
The future is wonderful for those who trust Jesus, but what about while we wait? Should we just grin and bear it?
3. It's ok to weep while you wait
The shortest verse in the Bible - John 11:35 "Jesus wept". But why did He weep? Surely he knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead and this would put an end to all of the suffering. Why did He weep? Well, have you ever shared some sad news with someone, and as you have shared it, they have shed tears for what you are facing? I've had a friend like this, and what it tells me is that he understands the heartache. It's no less with Jesus, he understands the pain, and he wants them to know this. This verse has been written in our Bibles to show us Jesus isn't just angry at the cause of suffering, he weeps with those facing it and he gives us permission to do the same.
There's something healthy about weeping as Christians, it shows that we are homesick for our true home of heaven, a place where there will be no more tears, Don Carson puts it like this:
"Is not some of the pain and sorrow in this life used in God's providential hand to make us homesick for heaven, to detach us from this world, to prepare us for heaven, to draw our attention to himself, and away from the world of merely physical things" (Carson, 'How Long O Lord.')
Sometimes we need to give each other space to grieve, it's ok to weep, but even when we are weeping, there's something very comforting we can know....
4. God is working his purposes out
Have you ever had an injection? Sometimes they can be a bit painful. I remember the BCG, and of course getting it done as a teenage boy meant that you had the added pain of your 'friends' thumping you on it! But we all had the injection, partly because there was no choice, but also because we knew it did us some good - namely, preventing TB. If we with our finite minds can understand that, how much more can God with his infinite mind bring good out of suffering? It may be hard for us to understand when we are in the midst of the trials, and I have found the best place to turn for reassurance is the cross of Christ and His resurrection.
When my mum died I struggled with the question "how can a loving God allow this"? Years later when I understood that God had loved us so much that He gave His Son to die on the cross for all the times that we had rejected His rule over us, I could no longer question His love. And, when I understood that Jesus had really risen physically from the dead, I could no longer question his power. So I had to reinterpret my circumstances in the light of the cross. Again, Tim Keller puts it helpfully:
"I am going to judge my circumstances by Jesus' love...not Jesus' love by my circumstances."
For Lazarus and his sisters, they must have been wondering, how can Jesus love us? Surely if he loved us he would have come straight away when we called him? Have you ever thought the same thing: why God have you not answered my prayer straight away?! Thankfully John 11 tells us that the reason why Jesus didn't come straight away wasn't because He didn't love them, we are told in v3 and v5 that Jesus loved Lazarus, Martha and Mary. In fact we are told in v6 that the very reason for His delay was because he loved them!
How can his delay show his love? What can have been more important? This was life and death!
It seems that the something more important was because Jesus wanted others to believe (v15) and this seemingly was the result (v45). Well that was for the benefit of others, what about Lazarus, Mary, Martha? Well, I imagine that the three of them had their faith in the life giving Son of God strengthened by the whole experience! Perhaps Jesus allowed them to go through the pain of death, so that they could have a stronger faith and greater confidence in Him? What about us? Well if Jesus had healed Lazarus straight away, we wouldn't have John 11v25 in our Bibles! A verse that has brought comfort to countless numbers at Christian funerals. And we can know that God is working His loving purposes out even when we don't fully understand.
As I remember 23 years ago, I am still saddened at my mum losing her fight with cancer, over those years I have come to understand some of God's purposes, I may not know all the answers, but I trust Him as I wait.