“If you had been here…”
I don’t think words have been repeated so often to God as those five. Neither have they ever been said with anything less than strong emotion or deep pain. Maybe you’ve gone through something you thought was almost unbearable, or you’ve lost certain things you aren’t able to get back. Maybe, like the original speakers of those words, someone you care most about has passed away, and though you prayed for their healing and you asked God to come in and fix things, it didn’t seem like He showed up in time.
It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where I’d yell at God. I think a kind of reverence has been so hardwired into my head at this point it seems like a sin to complain directly to God, yet I have no problem complaining when I’m not praying. I’ll grumble and moan about a situation, sure, but most of the time I’ll try to suck it up, tough it out, and wait until things get better. No one likes a person who complains without a solution to their problems, but if I’m complaining, I’m generally too mad to think of one. The farthest I typically get in my solution making is, “take the problem away and things will get better.” It’s less about moving forward to something better and more about going back to when things were already good. Besides, thinking of a solution means dealing with a lot of “ifs,” and if there’s anything I like, it’s thinking about what is or has been, or the things that are known to work, not what could or might be.
Unfortunately for me, the Bible presents a much different picture to dealing with problems. Go back to the words at the beginning of this post, “if you had been here.” These are first spoken in John 11, where, after the death of their brother Lazarus, both Mary and Martha tell Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Think about how this statement compares to how I tend to deal with problems. You can’t get around the tone of the words themselves. I can’t hear these words being said without a faint sense of accusation in them. I try to think of a situation where I would tell God, “if you had been here, [insert hypothetical here],” and I don’t think I could do it without also telling Him how He’s wronged me or how He should apologize for not doing what I thought He would do.
This is the polar opposite of shutting up and dealing with it. At least Martha added that she believed in Jesus as she cried to Him; Mary just laid her pain on Him and left it there. There’s nothing to soften the blow, nothing to ease into it, just, “you could have fixed this.” I couldn’t tell my own parents something like that without feeling guilty, and I’d certainly expect them to give a reasonable justification for whatever I was blaming them for. All that’s left is finding out I was mistaken in the first place and apologizing for placing the blame one someone else.
Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t do things the way I would do them. Though He has a plan from the very beginning (see vs. 11-15), He doesn’t rebuke the sisters for their cries to Him. He doesn’t offer a defense for His actions or reprimand the sisters for not trusting Him. In verse 35, John shows He even weeps with them. Instead of seeing Jesus do all the things He justifiably could do, we see Him do one of the last things we’d expect from the God of the universe: He takes it. He comforts those in pain. He cries with them for more than a few reasons. In the end, He proves Himself to be the God who raises the dead.
We’re not told whether the sisters were right or wrong for confronting Jesus about what could have been. What we do see, though, is the effect it has. In Psalm 62:8, David writes, “Trust in Him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts before Him; God is a refuge for us.” From all the scripture I have read, I have yet to find a single verse that advocates for the way I deal with problems. Stoicism is the last thing the Bible peddles. We’re called to pour out our hearts to God, not stifle everything down. Rugged, emotionless suffering is the least supported position for dealing with your problems in the Bible, yet it’s one of the most sought temperaments in our culture, keeping a stiff upper lip and handling whatever comes your way.
It’s not wrong to tell God how you feel. It might be wrong to say “if you were here, such a thing would have happened” if you actually have the pride to believe that you could predict whatever would change, but even that’s a problem from the pride, not the sad feeling or the confrontation. It’s not wrong to be unhappy with the way things are, even if you believe that God made it that way.
When He heard that Lazarus was sick, Jesus stayed where He was specifically to bring Lazarus back from the dead. From Jesus’ perspective, every part of the story played out for a purpose, from His own waiting until Lazarus’s death to raising him as He did, and He states the purpose clearly enough, “It is for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified through it.” In all His purposes, he never blames Mary or Martha for how they feel.
Sometimes, life throws us a curve ball. I used to believe that the best way to handle it was to go along with it, to accept it as fate even if I hated it. I have come to believe, however, that God actually cares about how I feel, and even wants me to tell Him, even if I’m mad or hurt and have a problem with the way He’s done something. It doesn’t mean that I’m right, or that He actually has wronged me, or that I deserve some kind of apology. It means that God is still kind and good when I don’t understand what’s going on. It means it’s okay to tell God, “if you had been here.”
At the very least, you’ll know He’s with you then, and He’ll comfort you in the way you need comfort, as He did with Mary and Martha.
And who knows? Jesus surprised everyone when He raised Lazarus from the dead. He may surprise you too.