If You Had Been Here

“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.

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Suffering for God’s Sake

What would you give up to stop some kind of pain in your life? What would you be willing to lose to be healed? Most people go to the doctor’s when they get sick and have to pay a little out-of-pocket before they can get looked at. It may not always be cheap, but it’s ultimately a small price to pay for health in the long run. For more serious diseases like cancer and other long-term sicknesses, one might sacrifice a few relationships. Not the important people, just those you don’t normally hang out with in the first place. What if, on the other hand, you couldn’t choose what to give up? It might be something small and more or less insignificant, but it might be important. What if it was the single most important thing in your life? Would you still want to be healed?

In John 9, we’re taken to a man to whom these questions apply. We are told he’s blind from birth, but not a whole lot of other information is given about him save but one thing: that Jesus’ disciples initially believed that the cause of his blindness was either his sin or the sin of his parents. The question they ask, if we could reword it for today, is simply this: Who did something wrong that he should suffer for it? Why did God let this man suffer blindness from birth?

This is why I love the Book of John so much. The questions they asked 2,000 years ago aren’t far removed from the questions we ask today. Humanity doesn’t change very much at all despite the range of our environment. We’re still looking for why things happen, both good and bad. We still tie it to some kind of cause-and-effect reasoning.

It’s not always as simple as “x caused y,” though. In our reasoning we might draw lines and connections between places that aren’t necessarily related. Case in point, while the disciples thought that the man was blind because of sin, Jesus showed them the true reason for his suffering, “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” God made the man blind from birth, not as a punishment for something wrong that he did, and neither as a punishment for something his parents did, but so that at the right time God’s power could be made known through his blindness. So Jesus, proving Himself to be the “light of the world,” made the blind man see.

But the lesson of suffering doesn’t stop there. The healed man doesn’t just go on his merry way and live happily ever after. This is real life, after all.

After he’s seen to be healed, the man is taken to the religious leaders and questioned about how it happened. This is where we see the man shine, because he doesn’t break under the weight of his questioning. When he hears what the Pharisees think of Jesus in v.16, he doesn’t hide his own opinion, but stands with Him. When the Pharisees think he’s lying about his own life, that he was born blind, they bring in his parents, who at least affirm that part of his story, but also kind of throw him under the buss in v.21. When the Pharisees double down and press him even harder, accusing Jesus of having sinned, he stands in the truth of what happened, saying “Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I do know, that thought I was blind, now I see.” As the Pharisees continue to question and dig into him, he finally rebukes them, and says that Jesus came from God.

This is the point where it would seem he loses everything. The Pharisees, reacting against the man’s claims, throw him out of the Temple. This isn’t a temporary suspension either. This is excommunication from the center of Jewish culture. This would cut him off from all the temple sacrifices, the worship, the very faith of the Jews. From the eyes of an ordinary man, he’s lost almost everything.

Here we see the double goodness of Christ. He not only gave the man sight after being blind, but in an undoubtedly vulnerable moment for the man, v.35 says that Jesus found him. Jesus heard of what happened, and He sought the man out. He finally revealed Himself to be the light of the world to the man, and instead of sulking in the thought of what he had lost, the man worshiped Christ in the reality of what he gained. The man who had been blind his whole life could see for the first time, and he gazed at the face of the One who healed him.

While everyone who looked at the man saw loss, I don’t doubt that he felt anything but gain.

What would you do in the blind man’s position? What would you give up if you could get life itself in return?