God’s Goodness and My Desire for a Pain-Free Life

“So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’” (John 11:36-37).

If you believe God exists in order to make your life trouble-free you will be severely disappointed. Furthermore, if you live by the unarticulated notion that God’s love for you is determined by how many good gifts he gives you (“good gifts,” of course, as defined by you), I fear you may end up hating him in the not-so-distant future. Case in point: John 11:36-37.

You know the story. Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died. Although his plan is to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus doesn’t spare Lazarus’s family from experiencing the pain of his death. (More on that in a moment.) When Jesus arrives on the scene, Martha, Lazarus’s sister, runs up to him and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (V. 21). Martha’s sister, Mary, says the same thing to Jesus when she sees him: “Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’” (V. 32). Jesus was outraged by what death had done to this family (V. 33, 36) and he was determined to intervene (V. 34). Taking note of this, the Jews exclaimed, “See how he loved him!” (V. 36). But then the Monday morning quarterbacking began: “[S]ome of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’” (V. 37).

Before you lash out at the questioners, check your own heart. Do you see God as nothing more than a cosmic bellhop? Do you value the glory of God more than you value a pain-free life? Look, Christianity is not Greek stoicism. It’s not wrong to pour out your pain and emotion to God. The Bible is filled with laments (see the Psalms). But I fear that unless we in the West (particularly in America) have a full-orbed biblical theology of God, suffering, and pain we may not be able to endure the future. I think John Piper is right: “Christians in the West are weakened by wimpy worldviews. And wimpy worldviews make wimpy Christians.”[1]

Let’s be honest. For the most part when we wake up in the morning our desire is to get through the day without any hassles; we want to achieve our goals without anyone interrupting us; we see other people as (basically) existing to make sure our day goes smoothly; then we’ll return home, have a nice dinner, and watch some T. V. to unwind. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. This addiction to ease and comfort isn’t checked at the door when we come to God. Hence, Richard Foster’s observation: “The doctrine of instant gratification is a primary spiritual problem.”[2]

Perhaps you’re nodding your head as you read this. You agree that we’re addicted to comfort, ease, and instant gratification. What is more, you can see how this has affected your relationship with God. What can be done?

First, realize that you may have an unbiblical understanding of God’s love. As Americans we tend to view love as unconditional affirmation. This leads us to believe that love should always involve the immediate alleviation of pain. These definitions, however, clash with Jesus’ actions in this passage. Put verses 5 and 6 together and see if you find anything fishy: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (emphasis mine). “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8), yes, but God chose not to spare the family grief. Yes, he raised Lazarus from the dead. But that only meant that Lazarus would die twice.

Second, trust God’s promises more than you trust your perceptions. We live in a Genesis 3 world. Things have fallen apart. Pain and heartache are part of the air we breathe. And sometimes, let’s face it, God seems absent and distant. Who can’t identify with Job?: “I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me” (30:20). Or King David?: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Ps. 22:1-2). Our perceptions tell us God is absent. But God promises that he’ll never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5). Christ died . . . but he rose. Thus, in the words of David Zahl, “The cross reminds us that God is present, especially when it looks like he is not.”[3]

 Third, bring your helplessness to Jesus. There are so many things we don’t know. We don’t know why certain things happen. We don’t know why we’ve been hurt the way we have. We don’t know why God brings pain into our lives or into our loved ones lives. We don’t know. So what do we do? We pray. “What is the attitude of heart which God recognizes as prayer?” asks O. Hallesby. His answer is short and sweet: “Helplessness.” He goes on: “Prayer and helplessness are inseparable.”[4] Likewise, author Paul Miller, in his book A Praying Life, writes, “Prayer is bringing your helplessness to Jesus.”[5]

God is not the byproduct of our imagination. He is the God revealed in Holy Scripture. This means he is outside of us. Therefore, I dare not lean on my own understanding (Prov. 3:5). I need God to tell me what is true of me and my life. Thankfully he is with me (Matt. 28:20), he is for me (Rom. 8:31), and he promises to do good to me (Jer. 29:11).

 

[1] John Piper, Spectacular Sins And Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 13.

[2] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (NY: HarperCollins, 1998), 1.

[3] David Zahl, “Exodus 32:1b,” in The Mockingbird Devotional: Good News for Today (And Every Day), eds. Ethan Richardson and Sean Norris (Charlottesville: Mockingbird, 2013), 63.

[4] O. Hallesby, Prayer (trans. Clarence J. Carlson; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994), 18.

[5] Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2009), 55.

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