“My doctor says I’m cured,” she tells me over the phone. Cured. Cancer doctors don’t throw that word around a lot. It’s a miracle, really, given that only 10 percent of people with her diagnosis live past five years, and she’s surpassed that with minimal setbacks.
I’ve been hoping to hear this news ever since the stage 4 melanoma metastasized in my mother’s lungs several years ago. But now that I’ve finally heard it, now that the doctor has officially cleared her as a patient, an unwelcome wave of guilt washes over me. Maybe because I know so many people who’ve had the opposite experience. Their mom—or wife or brother or uncle or best friend—died of cancer. Like my friend, Laura. Her dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor around the same time as my mom’s diagnosis. We prayed together for our parents. He died eighteen months later. Why did God save my mom but not my friend’s dad?
The common Christian response to enigmatic questions like mine is to try to explain it, to say that it will all work out, that God will ultimately “get the glory.” But what does that mean? What does that even mean to Laura? Saying that God is sovereign may be true and biblically accurate, but it seems woefully incomplete and unkind when you’re struggling to understand human suffering, especially if you’re currently caught in its crosshairs.
So a lot of times I say nothing. When confronted with someone in agonizing pain, I tend to duck and run. Like the other day while I shopped for groceries. I nearly crossed paths with a woman whose daughter is dying of cervical cancer, and rather than say something stupid or insensitive, I slinked to the soup aisle. It seemed like the lesser of two evils.
But I want to do better. I want to learn how to handle hurting hearts better. And that’s where Lazarus comes in.
I read about him in the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel. He’s dying, and his sisters, Mary and Martha, send for Jesus, urging him to come quick. Jesus is only two miles down the road. Surely time and Jesus are on Lazarus’s side.
Jesus deliberately delays going to see his friend—the one whose name, ironically, means “God is my help”—and Lazarus dies. At this point in the text I’m giving Jesus the side-eye. I mean, how could he? The same Savior who walked on water, fed the five thousand, and turned water into wine couldn’t save his own friend?
Martha apparently shares my sentiments.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. In other words, Jesus, if you showed up a few days ago, we wouldn’t be in this mess right now. But she follows up that doubt-fueled declaration with a fiery statement of faith, faith that defies the facts of her experience.
“I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world”. Soon after she says this, Jesus weeps with her, Mary, and the crowd of sympathizers gathered that day and ultimately raises Lazarus from the dead.
Again I’m confused. Why let a friend suffer and die (and allow his family and friends to grieve) only to resurrect him a few days later? Why did Lazarus have to go through the pain of dying in the first place? Jesus gives the reason in verse four and again in verse forty: it’s all for God’s glory.
Ugh. There’s that phrase again. It’s like a bumper sticker in the Christian community, a loaded cliché often carelessly lobbed like a grenade in the direction of the dying and downtrodden. I often cringe when I hear someone say it, and I’ve tossed it myself too many times than I care to confess. But as I read this passage, I peer past my personal hang-up with this platitude and squint for some deeper meaning.
That’s when I see something I never noticed before: raising Lazarus from the dead is actually the catalyst for the cross. This miracle, of which Jesus knew the cost and was prepared to pay, is the essential cause that moved the Jewish authorities to take definitive action to eliminating Christ. John says, “From that day on they plotted to take his life”. So when he took one step toward Bethany and curing Lazarus, Jesus was one step closer to Calvary. If he had come when Mary and Martha initially called, he might have missed his ultimate calling. By letting his friend lie dead in a tomb for four days, he allows me—and anyone else who believes in him—to live forever. What looks like the most unloving response to a friend in need is actually The Most Loving Response of All.
Why did God cure my mom of cancer while so many others still suffer and die from this dreadful disease? I still don’t have an easy answer, and anyone who says they do is lying, lazy, or completely delusional. But I believe, like Martha many years ago, that Jesus’s touch has not lost its power. Though I’ve never been diagnosed with a deadly disease, I have been sick spiritually. I’ve been so selfish and insensitive that I’ve been dead to the needs and feelings of others. I’ve been so bitter and angry that I’ve been dead to doing what love asks of me and offering forgiveness. I’ve been so depressed and doubtful about God’s goodness in my life that I’ve been dead to hope and finding purpose and pleasure in him.
But Jesus Christ resurrected me.
The witness of my personal history is that he has changed me, bringing me from death back to life. He’s cured me of my spiritual cancer just as surely as he has cured my mom of her metastatic melanoma. That’s why when I or someone I love suffers, as hard and uncomfortable as it is, I can peer past the physical and trust it is not the last act. While we weep and wait, we have a Savior who enters into our pain deeply, a Savior who might, in the middle of it all, be manifesting a miracle even greater than we can imagine.