Do you, like me, find yourself discouraged at times – wondering where God is when things are rough? Theodicy – trying to figure out how God can possibly be good when everything seems so bad – has probably been the subject that has occupied more brain cells in the human mind than any other in this world’s history.
But perhaps an encouraging word from the death of Lazarus and John’s use of a seemingly inconsequential Greek particle can buoy your spirits.
Let me explain.
I have been reading through the Gospel of John for my personal worship time and two days ago I came across an interesting grammatical nuance that, at first glance, seems to be a curious shift in the narrative. Lazarus, a man that was very dear to Jesus’ heart, has taken deathly sick and the word is sent from his sisters, Mary and Martha, to Jesus, to come quickly to heal him. The family knows, and believes in, the power of Jesus to perform miracles. So they figure Jesus, quite fond of Lazarus, would make a beeline for Bethany.
Further bolstering such an assumption, the reader of John is let in on the secret of how much Jesus cares for the family. “Now,” John explains, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister, and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
It’s a very simple sentence that is pregnant with significance on its own. But its inclusion primarily provides context for what comes next. John inserts a simple, yet very profound, particle in the next word (two words later in Greek). “So,” he writes. And what follows is where the rub is. The reader quite expects John to continue, “So . . . Jesus traveled as quickly as He could to Bethany, where He healed Lazarus.” After all, Jesus loves Mary and Marth and Lazarus!
But that’s not what comes after the particle. Instead, John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes, “So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (v. 6). And, of course, as the narrative goes on to say, it is during Jesus’ delay that Lazarus passes away.
Such a juxtaposition! Seemingly. John deliberately inserts that Jesus “loved” Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, yet in the next breath he describes how Jesus intentionally chooses to stay put rather than rushing to Lazarus’ to heal him.
What’s going on?
I think the particle makes all the difference. The word, in Greek, is oun. It can be translated a number of ways and carry a number of different meanings. Without getting into all the technicall nitty-gritty, it can be used in an inferential way, carrying the meaning of “therefore” or “consequently.” It connects the previous thought – namely, that Jesus loved Lazarus and his family – and says, “Consequently, He stayed where He was.” Fully contrasting with this, it can be used in an adversative way, denoting contrast. After explaining Jesus’ love, John thus would be saying, “However, He stayed where He was.” In other words, despite the fact that Jesus loved the family, He decided to stay away. Lastly, it can simply be used in a simple sequence of events, transitioning from one part of the story to the next.
It seems to me that one can legitimately make the case that all three could be an appropriate way to translate it. And they all carry their own theological significance. After all, when things go wrong in my life, I find it very assuring that even though God may not have wanted those things to happen to me, He still loves me. This is the particle in the adversative sense. God loves me, but things do happen that aren’t good – and despite the junk, despite the mess, I can still rest in the assurance that God loves me.
I think this is the case with a lot of bad things. I do not believe, contrary to hard Calvinism, and other deterministic philosophies, that “everything happens for a reason.” I do not believe that God wills for bad things to happen to anyone so He can teach us a lesson. I think He can take the bad and make something good out of it – if we allow Him to – but I would never propose that every bad thing that happens to a person is because God has deliberately wanted it to happen. There is, after all, a devil in this world – and it is his desire to bring suffering and hurt, not God’s.
However, I do also believe there are times when God does allow bad things to happen to us precisely because He is pursuing a higher good. And this story with Lazarus seems to be one of them. John explains to the reader that Jesus loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and – check this – precisely because He does love them He allows Lazarus to die. The oun is inferential. “Jesus loved them,” John writes, “Consequently, He let Lazarus die.”
The rest of the story plainly demonstrates this. After finally arriving in Bethany, and receiving a little guilt-trip from Martha, Jesus pulls back the curtain on this. “Did I not say to you,” he asks Martha, after requesting that the stone from Lazarus’s tomb be rolled away, “that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40). And then, of course, Jesus proceeds to call forth Lazarus from the grave, raising Him from the dead.
So this is the greater good! This is why, precisely because Jesus loved them, He let Lazarus die. He wanted Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to see the glory of God – which is also something He wanted His disciples to see (v. 15). Healing Lazarus of his illness would have been faith-building; raising Him from the dead was faith-cementing. It also grounded them to a greater degree in His love.
We cannot know, of course, in any particular moment if Jesus wants something “bad” to happen to us or simply allows it to happen. But we do know that He loves us and that, sometimes, in ways that don’t make sense to us at all in our near-sightedness, He always has a munch longer view in mind. Sometimes we are content with far too little. We want to experience healing; God wants to give us resurrection. We want to be spared of temptation; God wants us to experience victory through temptation. Even Jesus, perfect as He was, “learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).
Further, God wants to give us much greater evidence of His love, and a far greater belief in His power – but in our impatience and haste we, like Martha, are tempted to say, “Lord, if only You had acted sooner, then . . . . ”
To us, as to Martha, He says, “I love you . . . and because I do, I want you to be witness to far greater evidence of my love and power.”