Theology in 3D

Questioning God’s Love Amid Delay

Layton Talbert | April 8, 2022

I love the approach of Easter, because it gives me an excuse to dive back into one of my favorite sections of Scripture—the Passion Week and the events leading up to it. To get your mind moving in that direction, I’m posting an excerpt from my book The Trustworthiness of God’s Words: Why Every Word from God Matters (Christian Focus, 2022). The excerpt concerns an event that John places not long before Jesus’ final Passover (Jn 11:55, 12:9-11). It demonstrates the trustworthiness of God’s words about his compassion for us, even when it may begin to look to us like he doesn’t really care.

When Lazarus fell ill, his sisters sent an urgent appeal to Jesus: “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick” (Jn 11:3). This was no seasonal virus. Clearly, they were concerned. Jesus, on the other hand, seemed not to be. His response was so casual that we might suppose he felt no particular attachment or obligation to this family. But John counters that misimpression: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (Jn 11:5). And yet, knowing that Lazarus is ill and loving them as He does, he stays put (Jn 11:6). For two more days! John offers no defense; he doesn’t suggest that Jesus would have gone immediately but other pressing business prevented him. Jesus just decides to delay.

Jesus loved … and yet … he stayed? Those two statements seem to clash. That’s why I connected them with the phrase “and yet.” But that’s not how John connects those two verses. Look at the conjunction he uses in 11:6. (And if you think conjunctions are insignificant, think again! Even a conjunction can carry significant theological freight.) John’s choice of conjunction seems awkward, unnatural, counter-intuitive—which is additional evidence that it was deliberate, not accidental. John’s connector between verses 5 and 6 is not a contrastive term like “yet” or “despite” or “nevertheless”—as though Jesus’ action was somehow paradoxical to his love. He uses a matter-of-fact term of explanation: “So [therefore, consequently, for this reason], when he heard that he was sick, he stayed two more days in the place where he was” (Jn 11:6).* Until he knew that Lazarus was dead (Jn 11:14). Jesus’ delay was prompted by his love. He didn’t delay despite his love; he delayed because of his love. “Now Jesus loved [them] … therefore … he stayed two more days in the place where he was.

That juxtaposition of thoughts is jarring. True love always acts immediately and races to the rescue, doesn’t it? Not necessarily. Not omnipotent love. Not love that is also in complete control. My sense of grief or loss is not the measure of the rightness or wrongness of God’s actions, or God could never send illness or take life. There are higher concerns than my immediate pain, and greater needs than my immediate relief.

Jesus’ love prompted his delay—in this case because he intended to do something far greater for this family than merely raise Lazarus from a sickbed. Others needed the impact of this incident as well: “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there,” he told the disciples, “that you may believe” (Jn 11:15). But our focus here is on the sisters.

It is no stretch to draw a parallel between this passage—Martha and Mary appealing to the absent Jesus via a messenger—and prayer. Especially the kind of prayer that can’t seem to break this world’s gravitational pull, and finally lies on the ground lifeless and silenced by lack of reply. What answerless questions hounded their thoughts during those interminable days before Jesus finally arrived, four days too late? Don’t you think they talked about that around their lamplit kitchen table every night after the messenger returned, and Jesus didn’t come? You can hear the echo of those late-night talks when both of them, independently, greeted Jesus’ arrival (finally!) with the same words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” (Jn 11:21, 32).

The unasked question that hangs in the air when those words are uttered—”if you had been here“—is a question about timing. They had no doubts about his power (“my brother would not have died”). But they could not fathom his timing. They’d sent for him. Why had he not come sooner? And what else did that delay at least seem to imply?

There is some dispute over exactly where Jesus was when he received the message from Bethany. Some say he was only a day’s journey away, just across the Jordan in Perea, and therefore that Lazarus must have died even before Jesus received word of his illness. Others believe he was in the northeast trans-Jordan region of Batanea, as much as four days away so that even if Jesus had left immediately he would still have arrived after Lazarus’s death.

Both explanations seem eager to exonerate Jesus for his delay. The fact is, we are given Jesus’ whereabouts in such broad terms (Jn 10:40) that even scholars cannot dogmatize or agree on exactly where he was. I’m all for background data and exegetical precision, but sometimes we can be so clever and complicated that we miss a text’s simple point. The structure of John’s account seems specifically calculated to call attention to the issue of timing, without relying on abstruse and uncertain computations of exactly how far away Jesus was.

John’s report of the illness (Jn 11:1), the message sent to Jesus (Jn 11:3), the careful mention of Jesus’ love (Jn 11:5) sandwiched between his diagnosis (Jn 11:4) and intentional delay (Jn 11:6), and the words of both Martha and Mary highlighting what could have been averted had he not delayed—all the details coalesce to emphasize that God may be “late” but never too late, his purposes beyond our comprehension, his ultimate answer beyond our expectation, his reasons righteous, and his motivation love, even when it looks to us like anything but love. It’s true that they did not question his compassion or his concern like the disciples did on another occasion (“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”)—at least not overtly. But John, guided by God’s Spirit in how he penned this narrative, anticipated that we might. That’s why the narrative takes pains to point our attention to Jesus’ love for this family, not once or even twice but three times (Jn 11:3, 5, 36). And if we need that reassurance, probably Lazarus’s sisters did, too.

We don’t recognize delay as merely delay until after the fact. Delay on the front end looks exactly like failure, silence, absence, non-answer; but as Martha and Mary discovered, they’re not at all the same thing as delay. Jesus countered Martha’s words by grounding her hope not just in an event (“Your brother will rise again”) but in himself: “I am the resurrection and the life!” (Jn 11:25). And he followed it with a pointed and personal question that you have to answer for yourself: “Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:26).

To say that there is no such thing as unanswered prayer is not a mere truism; it is a truth. Every prayer is always answered, and you know all the possible answers: yes, no, and not yet. Richly colored threads of theology and doctrine are woven into the pattern of this passage. But lying right on the surface of the text, within easy reach of the simplest reader, is an assurance about God’s timing in answer to our needs and pleas: God’s delays, however painful and disconcerting, are always timely, purposeful, and never at odds with his love. He really is as loving and compassionate and caring as he says he is. Always. His words about his character are worthy of your trust.

* Translators and interpreters who ignore the force of this Spirit-directed choice of words do a disservice to the sacred text and short-circuit its theology. Concerned to rescue Jesus from a charge of heartless negligence (knowingly causing grief through delay), some suggestions end up judging God by our priorities rather than judging us by His. The passage calls us to a higher theology, bigger goals (like the good of others, Jn 11:15, 42, 45), and greater concerns (like the glory of God, Jn 11:40).

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