It was late spring and after 10:00 p.m. when Jake suggested we get out of our apartment and go for a walk. I don’t remember any specifics about this particular night except that we ended up sitting together on a bench while I cried and Jake—wordless and steady—held his arm around my shoulders as they shook with each sob. The next morning we were set to board a plane that would eventually lead us to Africa, and I was completely convinced we were going to die at some point on this trip.
It sounds dramatic, I know, but my skills as a worst-case scenarioist have always been next level. I figured if the plane didn’t go down, something would happen to us on the ground, but if everything proved fine there, well, there was still the flight home to get through. My mind raced, and my chest tightened, and, still, I knew I would go.
A few weeks earlier, I had told a woman at my church I was feeling anxious about the trip and she assured me that I didn’t need to worry. “Everything will be fine,” she said. “You’ll see.” While well-intentioned, this encouragement didn’t actually offer me any peace because I knew two things: She was unable to predict the future, and all the things I was anxious about, while unlikely, could happen. They were actual possibilities.
A.W. Tozer once famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” So, in the midst of my fear and unrest, I took a close look at my feelings, and I asked myself what I thought about God. If the “worst” was to come true, would I still trust him? Would I still believe he is good?
In John 11, Jesus got word from his friends Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, was sick. Jesus was, at the time, in another town, and he waited there for two days before going to see them in Bethany. By the time he arrived, Lazarus had already died—his body buried in the tomb for four days. Martha greeted Jesus before Mary, but they each said the exact same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To Martha, Jesus spoke about resurrection and belief, but he didn’t have words for Mary. Instead, when he saw her weeping, “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” And then when they took him to the tomb, Jesus wept with Mary and the other mourners. A few verses later, Lazarus walked out of the tomb, wrapped in linen burial cloths but very much alive. “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Jesus had asked Martha. It seems safe to assume that this encounter with Jesus solidified their faith in him.
There’s a small detail I left out of the beginning of the story—a single word I have been thinking about constantly since I read this account last week. Right after Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, he said to his disciples, “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.” Then, John includes these two sentences: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
So. Jesus loved his friends, so he didn’t go to them right away. It’s tempting to want to put a “but” there, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. When we love others, we try to spare them pain and sorrow, but the “so” remains which means it matters. Lazarus died because Jesus loved them. Even more peculiar, then, is Jesus’ response when he sees Mary. Three times before he gets to the tomb, Jesus says Lazarus will rise again. There is no suspense here for Jesus. He knows Lazarus will live. Yet still when he sees Mary, he is deeply moved by her grief and weeps with her before, moments later, calling Lazarus forth.
This story tells me two things about Jesus.
First, sometimes he allows us to experience temporary, earthly suffering because he loves us. Now I will be the first to admit that this concept is mysterious and complex and hard to swallow especially in the thick of difficult situations, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be true. Not every prayer ends as Mary and Martha’s did, but Lazarus walking alive from his tomb reminds us that just a short time later, Jesus did the same. His defeat of death is our hope, and anything that solidifies our belief in the resurrection and the glory of God is for our eternal good.
But goodness and difficulty aren’t mutually exclusive, and Jesus also shows us in this story that we can hold both grief and hope at the same time. We are not meant to face our trials while blithely proclaiming, “Everything will be okay!” We can acknowledge pain and sadness while also trusting God’s sovereignty. This is such a kindness to us—a Savior who weeps over brokenness even though he knows everything will be made new in the end.
I have been keeping a journal for the past few weeks. As soon as I could tell the nature of the coronavirus was ever-changing and unpredictable, I knew all the specifics of this time would blur together if I didn’t take time to write them down. So every morning, I log the events of the day before: News updates, changes to our daily patterns, how we fill our time, and my feelings in the midst of it all which have been frenetic—matched to the nature of this current reality.
Friday’s pages will tell you that the kids and I watched Jake’s car pull out of the driveway, unsure of when we will see it come back toward us again. They will tell you that we decided it would be best if he stays out of our house until after the virus peaks because we know it is inevitable that he will be exposed in the emergency room. They will tell you that I wept on and off for two straight days over the uncertainty of when we’ll all get to touch him again and the fact that while many kids, years from now, will remember this strange time with fond family memories, our kids will remember it as the season when dad had to stay at least six feet away.
Like that spring night in the park eight years ago, this is another significant opportunity to ask myself what I think about God. If my newest worst-case scenarios come true, will I still trust him? Will I still believe he is good even when he allows a global pandemic to completely upend everything around me?
I will. My hope is not tied to my circumstances, and if this experience refocuses my life on the One who is in control, then it is for my ultimate good.
But, still, I will weep because acknowledging my hope doesn’t negate the brokenness of this world. I will weep for those families also separated. For those who are anxious. For those who have lost their jobs. For those who face financial hardship. For those struggling to feed their families. For those who are sick. For those who are dying. For those who will die.
I will grieve over the shattered state of our world. I will sing of the glory of God. I will hold both things in my hand knowing that Jesus does too.