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How I find hope in times of sorrow

iStock/artplus
iStock/artplus

My grandchildren used to have rabbits. One was named Fuzzy. The other was named Cotton. You’ve probably heard about the reproductive efficiency of rabbits, and I can confirm that those rumors are absolutely true. Little Fuzzy and Cotton had many offspring during their lifetimes.

But my granddaughter, Allie, came crying to me one day and told me that Fuzzy the Rabbit had died. “It isn’t fair!” she kept saying between sobs.

I told her that Fuzzy had lived a long and fruitful life and left many, many offspring behind him. Probably around 80 bunny children, according to our estimates. (If there’s a rabbit version of Tinder, he was a power user.) I told Allie that I didn’t know if we would see our pets again in Heaven, but we will always come to love our new pets.

I’m not sure that’s the best answer, but it was an honest one. And her grief was honest, too. I agree with her: Death isn’t fair! It’s harsh and mean and rips those we love away from us.

Every personal tragedy leaves us reeling. Every mass shooting is heartbreaking. Every death of a loved one leaves a gaping hole in our hearts. I speak from experience: My son Christopher died in 2008. It was the worst day of my life. Last summer we marked 15 years since his death. He would have been 48.

One of the certainties of our lives is that all of us will die someday. No one can escape death, but our culture isn’t exactly comfortable talking about it. We use vague language like “he passed away” or “she went to a better place.” We call our graveyards names like “Memorial Park” or “Eternal Rest.”

But the truth is that death is harsh and final and real. It takes people in the prime of life and cuts their days short. It leaves behind sorrow and heartache. Death is not a friend. Death is our enemy. That’s not my opinion — that’s in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 16:26, Paul wrote, “and the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (NLT).

In the Garden of Eden, God did not want people to die. There was no death in the first hours of creation — no pain, no tears, no suffering, no police or military. But mankind rebelled against God and sin entered the world. Death came with it.

The Gospel of John tells a fascinating story about death and a family who experienced a tragedy. They also felt it was not fair, and I can identify with them.

The death of Lazarus

According to John 11, a man named Lazarus lived in Bethany, a town near Jerusalem, with his sisters Mary and Martha. The family members were friends of Jesus, so when Lazarus got sick, the sisters sent a message letting Jesus know. When Jesus got the message, He remarked that the sickness wouldn’t end in death, but waited a few days before leaving for Bethany to check on his friend.

By the time He got there, Lazarus was already dead. Martha and Mary questioned Him about it. “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha said (John 11:21, NLT). He recognized the sadness of the family and Lazarus’s friend. The Bible says He was deeply troubled and gives us one of the shortest and most powerful verses in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35, NLT).

Jesus weeps with us in times of pain. He felt their pain and heartache. He understood the tragedy of a life cut short. But Jesus also told the family that Lazarus would rise again. He instructed them to move the stone in front of the grave. When they did, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!”

And miraculously, Lazarus stepped out of the grave, alive, with his hands and feet still bound in grave clothes. What do we learn from this story?

1. The reality of death

First, this passage confirms for us something we understand already: Life is filled with pain and sorrow, and the death of loved ones contributes to that sorrow. It’s a harsh truth but it’s true, nonetheless. No one gets a pass on human suffering. Don’t be shocked when it happens to you.

I understand the trauma and emotion — believe me, I know it all too well — but it’s always a little surprising when someone who suffers a sudden loss says, “Why me?” It would be more surprising if you didn’t suffer from some kind of terrible loss.

1 Peter 4:12 speaks to this. “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you” (NLT).

Thankfully, most children don’t have to come to terms with this reality, but as you get older the inevitable begins to happen. Your grandparents die. In time, your parents will die. This is the reality of our short time on earth. But sometimes, we experience the unexpected deaths of others. Friends. Colleagues. People who are our age. Many of us will have to walk through the “fiery trial” of the death of someone close to us, like a spouse, sibling or child.

This was the experience of Mary and Martha.

2. The love of God

Second, this story confirms something else, and it’s a more welcome reality: God loves us. Don’t rush over that statement. God loves us, and we know that Mary and Martha understood that. Otherwise, why would they have appealed to Jesus in the first place? They didn’t send Him an invitation. They didn’t make a request. They didn’t ask Him to come at all.

They just informed Him that Lazarus was sick and expected that to be enough. Hearing this, they assumed, Jesus would head their way as soon as possible. John 11:5 says, “Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus” (NLT). Believe me: Those sisters knew it.

They provide us with an excellent example of what to do in a moment of crisis. When someone is sick or when we are in great need, we call on the Lord. We let Him know of our need. (Of course, He knows already.) We bring our troubles to Jesus.

At the same time, Mary and Martha didn’t necessarily tell Him what to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking for the removal of our problems — James 4:2 says, “You don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it” (NLT) — but at the least, we should put our troubles in the hands of Jesus.

3. The timing of eternity

Third, this story shows us that we will not always understand God’s timing. Jesus loved Lazarus, but He waited a few days before He went to Bethany, and that delay was long enough for Lazarus to succumb to his illness and die. He could have run full-speed to save His friend. He could have found the fastest horse and ridden there. For that matter, He could have just appeared in Bethany! God isn’t bound to our rules of space and time.

But Jesus intentionally waited. He even missed the funeral. He delayed His arrival to Bethany because He loved Lazarus. That may sound like a contradiction: If Jesus really loved Lazarus, why didn’t He go heal Him immediately? We ask the same questions when we face hardship and tragedy. If Jesus really loves me, why did He allow this to happen?

It’s hard to see through eyes filled with tears. We can’t see how the situation will end or why it has come upon us, but we know that God loves us. His delays are not necessarily His denials. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has made everything beautiful for its own time” (NLT). Our perspective is time-bound but His perspective is eternal.

"Where were you when Lazarus was sick?” Mary and Martha asked.

We have our own questions: Where were you when our parents divorced? Where were you when my child got addicted to drugs? Where were you when my loved one got cancer and died?

Note that Jesus didn’t scold Mary or Martha when they questioned Him. It’s not sinful to tell God how you feel. They brought their doubts and questions to Jesus and He listened. A bigger tragedy would be if your pain makes you so angry and bitter that you withdraw from God.

Mary and Martha may have been looking at the “small picture,” but Jesus was considering the BIG picture. In response to them, He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” (John 11:25-26, NLT). We think about what will make us happy and comfortable now, but He had eternity in mind. Do you believe it?

Clinging to His promise

Let me close by asking one more thing: If the Lord did tell you why things happen the way they do, would that ease your pain and heal your broken heart? I don’t think so. I think it would raise even more questions.

We live on promises, not explanations.

There have been times in your life when you wondered, “Where are You, Lord?” I have known those times of trauma and tragedy myself. They hurt immensely. They still hurt. But Jesus joins us in our hurting. Isaiah 43:2 says, “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown” (NLT).

God was present when my son, Christopher, was born on April 1, 1975, and He was present when Christopher left this world on July 24, 2008. He was there with me in those deep waters. He was present when I heard the news that threatened to drown me with sorrow. And God is still here with me today as I write these words.

He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and He is with us on our good days and bad days. That is a promise I cling to. Paul wrote that death is our “enemy,” but the good news is that nothing happens outside God’s control and death was ultimately destroyed. People still die, but the sting of death is sin. It brings judgment, and Jesus defeated sin at the Cross of Calvary. When Christ rose, Death died.

And unlike Lazarus, it has not been resurrected.

Greg Laurie is the pastor and founder of the Harvest churches in California and Hawaii and Harvest Crusades. He is an evangelist, best-selling author and movie producer. “Jesus Revolution,” a feature film about Laurie’s life from Lionsgate and Kingdom Story Company, releases in theaters February 24, 2023.

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