Sometimes, watching or reading the news can be depressing. We attempt to follow the biblical mandate to find and think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). The stories dominating the media, however, often make us sad, frustrated, or angry.
Additionally, we have personal struggles at home and work, with finances, relationships, illness, and so much more.
We turn to our faith for answers, but answers don't often come easily. There are mostly questions. What are people of faith to do in the midst of overwhelming tragedy and strife?
The shortest verse in the Bible, in the King James Version at least, is just two words, "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Though only 10 characters, too short even to tweet, that verse has tremendous significance, especially when we are struggling to find hope.
Jesus weeps in the midst of comforting his friends Mary and Martha who are grieving the death of their brother Lazarus. Yes, that Lazarus. The one famous for being raised by Jesus.
Jesus is out of town when he hears of Lazarus' illness. Rather than adjusting his plans to go visit this friend whom he loves (John 11:3), Jesus instead decides to stay where he is for a couple of days. He tells the disciples Lazarus' illness will somehow serve the glory of God, and that God's Son will be glorified through it (John 11:4).
By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. Mary and Martha, Lazarus' sisters, are understandably miffed at the lack of urgency Jesus showed. In their own way, each of them expresses their frustration with him. They are convinced their brother would not have died if Jesus had come when he was first summoned (John 11:21, 32).
There, watching the grief of this family and community, Jesus begins to cry. There is debate as to why, John doesn't tell us, but I am convinced it is out of empathy for the pain of those he loves. In that moment, Jesus was feeling Mary and Martha's grief, their sense of hopelessness, their pain and loss. So he cries.
There is comfort in knowing we don't worship a stoic God. The God we know in Christ Jesus feels our pain and knows our loss. He weeps with us.
We also worship a God who can take our frustration. Mary and Martha vent, and so can we. As it is in any healthy relationship, we need to be open and honest with those we love, even when we are angry with them. If anyone can take it, certainly Jesus can.
It is also a comforting reminder that even while we are going through our pain, and Jesus feels far from us, it is not because he doesn't love us. He loved Lazarus, the Bible tells us, even while not taking his illness from him.
Lazarus' story does not end with his death. At his tomb, Jesus calls Lazarus' name and the crowds watch in disbelief as Lazarus emerges…alive. While Mary and Martha thought Jesus had come too late to help, we learn there is never a "too late" with God.
We may believe our situation is hopeless. We may not see a solution. We may not have a clue how to get out of the mess in which we find ourselves. In Jesus, though, there is always hope. There is always the possibility of new life, not just some day in the great by-and-by, but here in this life. This is the whole point of Jesus' resurrection – new life today, and a new life to come.
When I finish reading the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, I still have questions. Why did Lazarus have to go through all of this? Why did Jesus come too late to keep him from dying? Why did Mary and Martha have to experience grief?
In the tragedies I experience and read about, I am left with questions also. Why do some feel so hopeless they take their own lives? Why do people of faith receive devastating diagnoses? Why isn't a doctor and hospital doing so much good, supernaturally protected from illness? Why are families rattled by unemployment and lives lost in natural disasters? Why do we suffer?
While we may not receive all the answers we want, we know Jesus weeps with us.
Questions for discussion and contemplation:
- Have you known anyone whose life changed due to illness, tragedy, struggles? What was your response?
- When have you felt as though Jesus was distant?
- When have you wondered why God allowed something to happen, or didn't stop something from occurring?
- If you struggle with venting your frustration toward God, why is that? If not, why not?
- How does it help to know there is someone weeping with you when you are suffering?
- Have you ever cried for someone you did not know? Is that a helpful response?
- Can you picture God as having emotions? Does God cry? Laugh? Become angry?
- Why does God allow us to suffer, grieve, and struggle?
- When you are in a place of desperation, what do you do?
- Has God brought you peace and newness when you thought it was too late?
- How does the hope you have in Christ Jesus keep you going?
Resources for further reading:
- When Grief Breaks Your Heart by James W. Moore. This book explores what faith says about the grief experience and how faith helps mend a broken heart.
- The Gift of Encouragement: Restoring Heart to Those Who Have Lost It by Marjorie J. Thompson. The Gift of Encouragement offers practical help to persons serving those who need comfort.
- When the One You Love Is Gone By Rebekah L. Miles. When the One You Love Is Gone encourages us to use our scars, messes, and the heartache to give new life to ourselves, and others.
- Hope Beyond Your Tears: Experiencing Christ's Healing Love by Trevor Hudson. Hudson offers and excellent resource for exploring the importance of Christ's resurrection for your life.
*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by email.
Editor's note: This story, originally published November 13, 2014, has been updated.