CAN SUFFERING HAVE BENEFITS? Suffering Helps Us See Inside Ourselves

Tomb of Lazarus, Bethany, Israel

 By Frank G. Tunstall

Suffering can indeed have benefits. One of them is it shows what is inside us, with the goal to bring us to healing in some meaningful way (Deuteronomy 8:2). Too often we do not know ourselves, but keen disappointment, crushed expectations, or major illness will bring to the surface our secret heart and force us to face ourselves. This is not only true of the person who is suffering, but also his relatives, friends, and acquaintances who witness the process. Sickness makes us all face our mortality.

“The sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick’” (John 11:2).

When the women dispatched the message to tell Jesus Lazarus was sick, they used the phrase, “Lord, the one whom you love…” The Greek word for love here is phileo, meaning friendship love, and it describes their perception of Lazarus’ relationship with Jesus.

A number of people in the Old Testament are identified as having enjoyed closeness with the pre-incarnate Messiah. Two who stand out are Abraham and Moses. Some eighteen hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Abraham and Jehovah had warm fellowship and talked with each other often (e.g., Genesis 12; 15; 17; 18–22).

Moses too had a special relationship with Jehovah that opened the door for him to converse regularly with God.

“Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped each at the entrance to his tent. The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:8–11).

As had been true with Abraham and Moses, the bond between Jesus and Lazarus was obviously strong. Hence, the message to Jesus from Lazarus’ two sisters was urgent. “Sir, your good friend is very, very sick” (John 11:3 tlb). And the unstated request was “We need you, now! Please come and heal him.”

Jesus Response to the Message

“When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it’” (John 11:4).

The phrase, “When he heard this,” shows Jesus learned about Lazarus’ illness for the first time from the messenger. This statement is one of the Apostle John’s expressions showing how the Son of Man and the Son of God functioned as the God-man in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus learned from a messenger about Lazarus’ serious illness. How He handled the situation came from His Father, as guided by the Holy Spirit. Jesus had stated some months earlier at the unnamed feast in Jerusalem how He received guidance from His Father (John 5). It came in His discourse after healing the man at the Pool of Bethesda: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does” (John 5:19–20).

At the outset of this story, Jesus gave a prophecy about what the end-result of Lazarus’ situation would be: “This illness is not to end in death, but is to promote the glory of God, in order that the Son of God may be glorified by it” (John 11:4 Weymouth). Jesus statement affirmed a prophecy showing how this would apply to raising the dead (John 5:21). This prediction was about two days away from finding a grand fulfillment in the resurrection of Lazarus.

“Chariots of Fire”

“Chariots of Fire” is the true story of two British runners competing in the 1924 Olympics. Eric Liddell was a devout Christian and one of the finest runners in the world. Eric’s sister, Jennie, wanted him to leave competitive running to join the family on the mission field in China. Jennie felt Eric was putting running ahead of serving God, and she questioned his commitment.

In one scene, Eric attempts to help his sister see his point of view. Eric announces with a smile, “I’ve decided I’m going back to China. The missionary service has accepted…” but Jennie interrupts him.

“Oh, Eric, I’m so pleased….”
Eric continues, “But I’ve got a lot of running to do first; Jennie, you’ve got to understand. I believe God made me for a purpose, for China. He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt. You were right; it’s not just fun. To win is to honor Him.”
Cited from PreachingToday.com.

Eric Liddell made the choice to compete because he understood his running gave delight to his Lord. But the sovereign purposes of God are not always understood up front. In the case of Lazarus’ terminal illness, Lazarus did not even get to make a choice. Yet, when Lazarus was restored to life, Jesus’ purpose became fully understandable as they witnessed the glory it brought to the Lord as the Son of God.

Mary and Martha knew Jesus could heal, and thought about Jesus at the level of phileo, or friendship love. They had fed Jesus and His disciples many meals and hosted them many nights, and Lazarus was Jesus’ special friend. At a minimum they believed they had the right to expect Jesus to return the favor and extend the help He could surely provide; after all, that’s what friends do. They also believed Jesus had to be present to do it. This meant they needed Jesus, and they needed him now. Their situation was urgent; their brother was slowly dying, and they knew it.

What would the sisters’ response be if Jesus did not come, of if He came, but arrived too late to help Lazarus? It obviously had not occurred to Mary and Martha that Jesus might have a higher purpose. After all, they must have thought, what higher purpose can there be than healing a close friend who is dying?

Yes, suffering will make us look inside our hearts and face the attitudes deep within us. Do we truly believe Jesus’ agenda and purposes are superior to ours? Or, do we want Jesus to follow our agenda? Are we not much wiser to trust Jesus and His timing even in the most difficult circumstances of our lives?

It was a lesson learned by Fannie Crosby (1820–1915), even though she was blind. She expressed it in this memorable hymn:

All the way my Savior leads me;
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy
Who through life has been my Guide?
Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.

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