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). And later, he assured her that if she believed, she would see the glory of God (John 11:40). Mary, on the other hand, needed tears and comfort, and she wept at Jesus’s feet as soon as she saw him (John 11:32). Jesus wept with her (John 11:35).
Then, of course, Jesus told them to remove the stone, and he commanded Lazarus to come out. And Lazarus walked out of the grave (John 11:38–44)!
This miracle has layers of purpose and meaning. Jesus’s raising of Lazarus caused people to believe in him (John 11:45) and established his power over death. And from it we see the nature of love as we understand how Jesus’s delay was the most loving thing he could do (John 11:5–6).
Following Mary and Martha
I remember reading the Bible one night when my world was splintering. I had been crying in the dark, wondering how I could go on. The unthinkable had happened, and I couldn’t understand why God hadn’t stopped it. I had been faithful. I loved Jesus and knew he loved me. So why hadn’t he rescued me from my nightmares?
I got up, pulled on my robe, and opened my Bible to John 11. As I reread this familiar story, I identified with Mary and Martha’s words to Jesus. If Jesus had shown up for me, this never would have happened. Since he didn’t respond to my pleading, my begging him to fix it, it seemed like he had abandoned me when I needed him most.
Yet I saw that even in their despair, the sisters went directly to Jesus, their words intimating their unspoken question: Why didn’t you come? I realized that I needed to go to him too. I told him my frustrations and fears, my utter disappointment that he hadn’t shown up for me. I asked him to help me, to meet me as he met these sisters, that I might see the glory of God as well.
Glory in My Grief
I approached Jesus feeling desperate, full of raw emotion, terrified of the free fall I was experiencing. Nothing felt stable or familiar. And yet, in that moment, God came near. I felt the unmistakable sense of his presence and love, coupled with the absolute assurance that everything was under control. There was purpose to my pain, even when I couldn’t understand it, even when all I could see was loss.
I realized that God was giving me a sight of his glory. I sat in the stillness of the night, bent over my Bible, tears streaming down my face. This glimpse of God’s glory was far better than a pain-free life. Far better than healing. Far better than any pleasure I’d known. This was a foretaste of heaven, where ecstasy in God overshadows everything else.
Then I understood. Just as the psalmist questioned God’s fairness until he entered the temple (Psalm 73:16–17), I now saw my situation differently. And like the psalmist, I could proclaim despite my disappointment,
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:23–26)
Being with God, having his guidance, knowing he will one day receive me into glory was all I needed. I finally saw why letting Lazarus die was the most loving thing Jesus could do for this family. He knew that helping them see the glory of God firsthand was the greatest gift imaginable. It would cement their belief in him, their certainty that he was indeed the Son of God, and their assurance that Jesus had power over death.
God’s Greatest Act of Love
The most loving thing God can do is to show us his glory. All physical healing is temporary since we will eventually die (unless he returns first). But anything that helps us see and experience God’s glory will last throughout eternity. It will change us. It will help us treasure Christ and will give us lasting joy. Believing in Christ, seeing the glory of God, is a gift. Not everyone sees it. Those who have experienced it will view their life and their suffering with new eyes, in light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
From this story, we see that God’s love does not shield us from suffering. 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. Truly, if we believe, we will see the glory of God.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner