by Roger Alcaraz
Not too long ago, I attended a biblical counseling conference hosted by Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). I probably wouldn’t have gone except that this year it was on the topic of emotions, and was it a blessing! I thought I might give you a taste of the conference. So this article is a reflection of some of what I learned there.
When it comes to your emotions, maybe you feel you have good control over them. Even so, I’m willing to bet you sometimes feel emotions you don’t want to. Sure, we can fake being happy, put on a smile, spend time with people, laugh at the right times, but then go home and bury our face in our pillow with tears. We can fake being at peace, speak calmly to people, show hospitality to those who have wronged us, and say we forgive them, but then pound our fists on the walls the moment no one is looking.
Even as you consider today, you can probably think of a time when you faked an emotion. When you were angry, you pretended to be peaceful. When you were anxious, you pretended to be patient. When you were sad, you pretended to be happy. Emotions are certainly hard to control, and I think if we were able to control our emotions, most of us would want to produce more joy in our lives. While joy is something we’re commanded to seek, what about purposefully engaging in a painful emotion for the sake of serving someone else?
In John 11, we have the account of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the grave. We read that Jesus is near Bethany when a man named Lazarus becomes ill. His sisters were two of Jesus’ friends, Martha and Mary. And in verse three, we read “So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘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.’” Thus, this story is ultimately about the glory of God. It then makes sense that Jesus would allow Lazarus to die: in order to show that he has power over death and, thus, bring glory to God.
But verses 5-6 have always confused me. They say, “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.” I was confused by one word at the start of verse 6, “So.” It could also be translated as “therefore,” connecting two idea in such a way is “this” results in “that.” What’s shocking is the two ideas being connected: Jesus’ love and Lazarus’ death. The verses could be summarized to say, “Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, therefore he let Lazarus die.” You can see why it makes no sense. Because we would expect to read, “Jesus loved them, but he let Lazarus die.” Or, “Jesus loved them, so he healed Lazarus.”
But this is the disciple, John, writing, and he’s providing a type of divine commentary to what’s happening. We might not see the connection, but God has revealed it to John and he understands it looking back on the event as he writes. I doubt he would have understood at the time, that Jesus, in waiting for Lazarus to die, was motivated by love. But as he records these events for all Christians to read forever, he lets us in on a divine mystery. So here’s the question: How could love motivate Christ to let Lazarus die and to let his sisters agonize over his death? Unless you’re able to answer this question, you’re going to have a skewed understanding of Jesus’ love in your own suffering.
Jesus’ love for them is undeniable. Even in this short account, we’re told multiple times that he loves them. But more than that, we see a demonstration of his love that, without the death, these sisters would have never been able to experience.
In verse 35, John tells us that Jesus wept, and it’s in the very next verse that the crowds proclaim, “See how much he loved him.” Soon after this, Jesus resurrects Lazarus but the crowds give no such response, not even a remark about his love. And so we see, just as the Jews did, that Christ demonstrated his love through weeping and not by resurrecting Lazarus. Isn’t it amazing to think that more love is shown through weeping than through coming in and just fixing the problem?
As soon as Jesus heard that Lazarus was nearing death, Jesus could have snapped his fingers and say, “No he isn’t!” And they all would have said, “Praise Jesus!” But they would have never known how much Jesus loved them had he not come and wept. Also, had Jesus simply healed Lazarus from the start, he would have saved himself this agony as well. But we see that Jesus’ desire to show people love is greater than his desire to save himself from pain. He’s willing to endure the more painful route, not necessarily to fix the problem, but simply to demonstrate love.
And so, as it relates to your own struggles, realize that your suffering allows Christ to demonstrate his love for you as he cares for you. You may feel distant from him because of trials. Perhaps you’re thinking, “How can God love me if I’m suffering?” But understand that it’s actually during trials that Christ is able to draw nearer than ever.
Just before Jesus ascended to heaven, Jesus commanded the disciples to spread the gospel, and he gave them this promise: “And behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus made that promise while commissioning the disciples for a task that would end up killing them. They needed that promise. They needed the confidence to say, “No matter where I am and no matter who’s threatening to kill me, Christ is with me.”
We have a great high priest who sympathizes with our weakness (Hebrews 4:15). It’s more than just him saying, “Oh, I know how that feels.” If you’re lonely, not only does he know how that feels, but his heart weeps for you. If you suffer a severe loss, sure he knows a thing or two about loss, but he also grieves over your suffering.
There are a lot of passages that talk about how God grieves, there are even some that talk about the Holy Spirit grieving, a lot of times they’re seen grieving over sin and I believe that remains true today. God, the Holy Spirit, even Christ grieve over your sin. But when we look at Jesus’ earthly ministry, what else does he grieve over? Many times, it’s people’s pain. Jesus hates tragedy. He mourns at your loss. He grieves in your suffering. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked; how much less does he take pleasure in the suffering of his children?
The heart of Christ we see in the gospels is the same heart he has for his people today. Why else give the promise to always be with us except to comfort us in our suffering? Christ wants to comfort you in your pain. When you cry out to him in all of your distress, do you really think he shakes his head and says, “Why is this person still struggling?” Or do you think he bears your pain and takes it as his own, just like he did every time he showed compassion on earth?
It’s no wonder that Christ said “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” It’s also no wonder that the law of Christ is summarized into one command, “Bear one another’s burdens”– because that is what Christ did and continues to do. And you’ll notice the verse doesn’t say, “Fix one another’s problems, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” We’re called to bear each other’s burden.
So if this is how Jesus is, why is it that when we hear of someone’s distress and tragedy, our first thought is to try to fix the problem? I know it’s done out of a heart of love, but if you want to show love, you’re going to have to weep with them. It has to bother you as though you were the one suffering.
This isn’t to say that we don’t eventually try to speak truth into someone’s life. Romans 8:28 is a glorious verse that assures us of God’s good plan, but there’s a proper time for that. At the conference, a letter was read from a man describing how his friends tried to help during his time of suffering but often fell short. The man was heartbroken, and as he was pouring out his experience on paper, he wrote, “The next person to quote Romans 8:28, I’m gonna punch them in the stomach. And then, while the pain is still fresh, I’m going to remind them of Romans 8:28.”
It’s not about applying the most expedient solution. In fact, you shouldn’t even think about a solution until you’ve meditated on their pain, until you feel weighed down by their troubles, until they know you love them because you’re willing to suffer with them. We can learn a lot from Jesus on how we ought to love one another. But I pray if there’s one thing you remember from this article, it’s that Jesus always demonstrated his love by taking our pain upon himself, and we need to do the same.