Continuing to expect Jesus’ healing here and now is often harder than writing it off as unrealistic or something to be awaited on the other side of death. Everywhere I travel lately I meet people and communities crippled by disappointment.
A man in Iceland prayed for days that his sister would come back to life after a drug overdose. A pastor of a church in the UK died of cancer in spite of massive prayer efforts. A close friend’s Pakistani Christian friend who advocated for minorities was gunned down in Islamabad in March. I myself have been discouraged by the slew of revenge killings in a Honduran community dear to my heart—and now by a close friend’s decline in a long prayer-bathed battle against cancer. What disappoints do you have, small or big?
“How many of you have been disappointed by God?” I asked a group of inmates back in July. Many were honest enough to admit frustrations at God not apparently answering prayers: their girl friends’ refusal to turn away from drug habits or the courts denials of their requests to be admitted into drug court rather than going straight to serve long prison sentences. Others were afraid to admit their disappointments—especially at a time when they really need God’s help. Many assume that being honest with God might get you on God’s bad side.
I have been learning to bring my complaints to Jesus, and encouraging many to risk transparency with God through the clear articulation of disappointments. Martha and Mary have been helpful teachers, and I’ve discovered the fresh relevance of John 11—a chapter dedicated mostly to people’s complaints to Jesus—who doesn’t punish them (or us) for being real but goes with them and us to the depths of grief—through the darkness and towards the other side.
The story begins in John 11:1-3, where Mary and Martha are mentioned, and Mary is forefronted as the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair—a bold act of transparent worship in the house of a judging Pharisee (see Lk 7:36-50). Mary is a true devotee who represents those in relationship with Jesus who come to him expecting answers to prayers.
Mary and Martha send word to Jesus about their brother Lazarus: “Lord, he who you love is ill” (v. 3). Jesus deliberately stays where he is for two days, and Lazarus dies. By the time Jesus approaches Bethany Lazarus has already been dead four days.
Martha goes out to meet Jesus, while Mary stays back, grieving in the house. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give whatever you ask him” (v. 21).
Martha’s complaint is strong and so is her faith. Yet in the ensuing conversation it is clear that she has no expectation that Jesus can or will resurrect her brother before the last day (v. 24). Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me shall never die,” and invites her to believe– in him. Her affirmation of faith in the aftermath of premature death, that he is Christ, Son of God, the Coming One energizes her as she stands before him. She goes back and takes pastoral liberties, tricking her despondent sister into approaching Jesus with two well-intentioned lies.
“The teacher is here and is calling you” (v. 28). Intercessors affirm as real that which is not yet actual based on what they believe to be true. Jesus was not yet in the village, as the next verse clearly states. Nor had Jesus called for Mary. Martha’s faith jumpstarts Mary’s. She gets up quickly and goes to him.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at this feet and repeats Martha’s exact complaint but without Martha’s confession of faith: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus is deeply impacted. He doesn’t correct her, explain himself or in any way justify his absence. A series of verbs shows Jesus’ increasing closeness to Mary, Martha, and their dead brother. He sees her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
Jesus shows God’s willingness to go with us fully into our pain. Rather than distancing himself through theological reflection Jesus asks: “Where have you laid him?” (v. 34). The people invite him deeper into the concrete details of their upset: “Come and see,”– and Jesus weeps.
Jesus’ empathy leads some in the crowd to complain as I sometimes do: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v. 37). The crowd doesn’t complain directly to Jesus as Martha and Mary do, but talk about him in the third person.
Regardless of different people’s ways of addressing Jesus, the text says nothing to critique people or to justify Jesus. Rather Jesus shows a willingness to go even deeper into people’s root disappointments and loss, inviting them (and us) to intercession to the point of discomfort and even offense. How far will Jesus go? Much further than we will it seems.
Jesus is described as being “deeply disturbed” but not intimidated as he comes to the tomb, a cave with a stone lying against it. Jesus commands: “Take away the stone.”
Martha represents the realist. She’s the voice of those who accept the finality of death and impossibility of repair. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Martha resists Jesus descent into the grave.
Jesus addresses her unbelief with a challenge: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
They take away the stone and Jesus is there, face-to-face with the rotting corpse of his friend. He cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews witnessing the event believed in Jesus, and I have been feeling compelled to put my faith more fully in the person of Jesus than ever before. Though opponents sought to kill Lazarus and did manage to kill Jesus, and John the Baptist while Jesus was still alive—his resurrection means he himself continues to be the resurrection and the life for us—before and after death.
I’ve spent untold hours these past months grieving the death of the men of Mal Paso and of my own and Tierra Nueva’s seeming powerlessness to stop the violence. I have felt freer to speak my laments and complaints directly to Jesus—and it seems my faith, my intercession and my longing for transformation are increasing. There is so much about prayer and God’s action in the world that I still do not understand. So much remains a mystery. I am glad right now that the violence in Mal Paso has actually stopped. A calm appears to be returning to the village and TN’s Honduran leader David is feeling encouraged.
Please continue to pray with us for the Kingdom of God to come more and more to this village and to Minas de Oro—and for wisdom and strength for our leader David. Please continue to pray for Tina’s healing.
May Jesus increase your faith to bring your uncensored disappointments, complaints and grief directly to him in prayer. May you experience first-hand God’s presence, goodness and power as you come into Jesus’ Presence and as he goes with you into your difficulties to bring resurrection and life.