Why Might God Wait?
The pain of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, people whom Jesus dearly loved, was real and intense. They had to wait in the dark, wondering why Jesus hadn’t shown up. He cared about their pain, weeping with them as he saw their grief, all the while certain that their grief would turn to joy. Our grief will also turn to joy — on earth, as we see and are satisfied in God, and ultimately in heaven, when we see him face to face. The most loving thing that God can do is to increase our faith in him, to show us his glory, to help us find our satisfaction in him.
Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:21, 32)
To me, this passage from John 11 is one of the most poignant in all the Gospels. It reflects the heartbreak of sisters who had been sure Jesus would save their brother — women who loved Jesus and sacrificed for him, a family that needed his help and called to him in their distress. Yet Jesus did not respond to his friends’ urgent request. He sent no answer, but simply showed up after their brother was dead.
On the surface, this story is shocking. It doesn’t fit with our definition of love. To us, love rescues and runs. Love doesn’t wait. Love does everything possible to keep the beloved from pain. Yet in understanding how Jesus loved this family, I have seen the depth of his love for me in my own suffering.
Lazarus’s Last Breath
Days before the words above were spoken, Mary and Martha had sent a message to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was ill (John 11:3). They likely expected that Jesus would leave immediately to see his dear friend, or perhaps even heal him right there with a word. They knew he was the coming Christ, the Son of God, and that God would give him whatever he asked (John 11:22, 27). They had witnessed Jesus heal countless strangers, responding without delay to their requests for help. Surely he would show up for his friends.
Yet Jesus didn’t respond to their urgent need, choosing to stay where he was for two whole days (John 11:6). He told the disciples that Lazarus’s illness was for the glory of God, that he himself would be glorified through it, and that others would believe because of it (John 11:4, 14–15). At the same time, Jesus knew his intentional delay would bewilder his friends.
I imagine the sisters waiting by the window where Lazarus lay dying, straining to see if Jesus was coming. I picture them reassuring each other that Jesus would surely arrive in time to heal Lazarus. I wonder what each was thinking as Lazarus took his last breath. Were they disappointed and disillusioned with Jesus, even questioning their relationship with him? Did they wonder if Jesus even cared? Did they doubt whether Jesus was the Savior they hoped him to be?
Whatever inner turmoil they were feeling, the sisters had to go on. They needed to bury Lazarus and prepare their home, which would be flooded with people who would come to console them. Some may have asked why Jesus didn’t save Lazarus, perhaps mirroring the question asked later by bystanders: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37).
Jesus with the Sisters
In the middle of their grieving, Jesus arrived. The sisters independently met him and uttered the same plaintive words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). Though they had lost hope of ever seeing their brother again, neither ran from Jesus in their despair, or stayed aloof to protect themselves, or pretended his inaction hadn’t hurt them. Instead, they went to Jesus, directly telling him how they felt.
Jesus responded differently to each sister, knowing what each needed. Martha needed truth; she needed to understand and reaffirm her belief in Jesus as God’s Son. Jesus told her that he was the resurrection and the life, and that whoever believed in him would never die (John 11:25–26).