Have you ever walked through tough times in your life and come out on the other side, only to be plunged back into difficulties? It’s one of the most discouraging things in life to think you have finally hit some smooth sailing and then your boat overturns again. In my life, these times have rattled and shaken me to the core. I have felt defeated, like the sun was never going to shine again, and have often felt like maybe God is mad at me for some reason to have allowed more trouble in my life. Of course, there are all the cute quotes out there that remind us God is always good and is always working for our good. Heck, I even believe that, but man, sometimes I don’t feel it. I sit and wonder what God is up to and why there are times it feels like He yanks me out of a pleasant place only to drop me into a difficult, depressing or downright terrible place. If I’m being totally honest, it makes me question His goodness and wonder why He doesn’t just put me (or others) in that pleasant place and let us stay there. Sometimes it is life circumstances that just hit us, but sometimes God actually calls us out of the good places for a reason.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about a man named Lazarus. Many of you may know of whom I am speaking, but let’s take a look at it for a moment. Lazarus was a dear friend of Jesus (and also the brother of Mary and Martha). He became extremely ill, so Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus telling Him, “Lord, the one you love is sick,” because they KNEW Jesus had the power to heal him. It probably seemed like a no-brainer that Jesus would come and heal his friend, especially since the Bible tells us that Jesus not only loved Lazarus, but also loved Mary and Martha. They were a dear family to Him, and you’d think He would immediately run to take care of it. But He didn’t. He told the messenger, “This sickness is not going to end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Then He stayed where He was for two more days before telling the disciples “let’s go back.” When they asked why, Jesus told them that Lazarus was asleep and He was going to wake him up. The disciples crack me up because they told Jesus that if Lazarus was sleeping, then he would get better. As usual, they missed what He was saying, so Jesus had to clear it up by saying, “Lazarus is dead and for your sake I’m glad I wasn’t there, so that you may believe. Let’s go.” That sounds a little harsh, but Jesus also knew his disciples needed some strengthening of their own faith.
When Jesus got to where Lazarus lived, He found that he had already been in the tomb for four days! Martha hears that Jesus is coming so she takes off to meet him. She gets to Him and says, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!” I always feel like Martha was irritated or even scolding when she said it, like “you took too long and now look what happened!” So Jesus tells her that her brother will live again, but Martha misunderstood and thought He was talking about the resurrection. After a brief conversation, Martha goes to get Mary.
When Mary reached Jesus, she fell at His feet in anguish, crying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Same words, different emotion behind it. The Bible says it was her anguish that deeply moved and troubled Jesus. He asked where they had buried Lazarus, and then He began to cry. Yes, He cried openly. As a result, some people thought, “See how He loved him,” but others started to criticize. They said, “He opened the eyes of the blind, couldn’t He have kept him from dying?” What happens next is best read in the verses themselves (John 11:38-44)…
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When He had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Most Christians use this account to share the incredible miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead, and it IS miraculous. We hear sermons about how God always shows up right on time, even when we think He is “four days late.” We hear preachers and teachers talk about Jesus’ love for His friend and the emotion He showed in weeping openly over the situation. Those are all great things to consider, but how often do we look at how Lazarus probably felt? If I was Lazarus, I would have been ticked off! Think about this for a moment: Here’s a guy who had been really sick and was miserable. He eventually succumbed to his illness and died, but in that moment, he was immediately in the presence of God. He was in Paradise! He has no more pain and doesn’t have to worry about anything anymore. As a child of God, he is finally home. I imagine him hanging out with Moses and Abraham, or maybe some of his loved ones who had already died. What a great homecoming! What a great time! All the crap he had to endure on this earth was finally passed, and he could relax. But then, from beyond the grave, a voice calls to him, “Lazarus, come forth.” If I was Lazarus, I would be thinking, “Are you kidding me? After everything I’ve been through, You are calling me BACK?!! I’ve attained more than I could imagine and You are yanking me back into a world full of trouble, evil, pain and suffering. Leave me here!” We don’t know what actually went through Lazarus’ mind, but I think of how I would feel if it happened to me.
There was certainly a bigger purpose for bringing Lazarus back than just relieving the grief of his family. God used that event to show who He is and that He IS who He says He is. He used it to show His power, but also his mercy and love. Look, there was no denying the miraculous nature of what happened. The Bible tells us that Lazarus was in the grave for four days already and that he stunk! No one could deny he was dead – I mean “dead” dead! There was no way to say what Jesus did was a parlor trick or anything else. It was most definitely effective! Not only that, but the disciples needed their faith strengthened, and Jesus knew that bringing Lazarus back would accomplish that. But again, what about Lazarus? What good did it do HIM to be brought back? He lost all of the perfection of Heaven, AND he would have to go through an earthly death TWICE! Is it just me, or does that seem mean to anyone else? I’ve felt bad for him on that piece, because it really feels like he got the short end of that stick. I think that’s why we don’t often talk about this piece of the story. We don’t want to think that God would purposely bring us back from something amazing – or even perfect – just to drop us back into something where we are going to have to struggle. We can say all day long that we’d be ok with it since it for His glory, but I really don’t think that’s how our hearts react when it happens.
So what was in it for Lazarus? Think about it this way:
- Lazarus got to see Heaven and knew exactly what it was like.
- Knowing what was waiting in Heaven, and that death was not to be feared, would most likely have caused Lazarus to live with a boldness and courage he never had before or might not have had any other way.
- He got to experience what the rest of us have to take on faith. He believed God, but he actually got see his faith realized with his own eyes, ears and hands. That would definitely give you a new certainty most people don’t get.
- He was free when he died and went to Heaven, but he was liberated when Jesus called him back to this world. One of the definitions of being liberated is “releasing someone from a state or situation that limits freedom of thought or behavior.” By coming back after experiencing Heaven, Lazarus was liberated from fear and anxiety over death. He was liberated from any doubt that God’s word was true. He had seen it and it changed him.
So back to present day and all the troubles we endure in life. I don’t have the big view that God does. I know that His word tells me that “all things work together for good to them who love God and are the called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). I know that God loves us and cares about everything we are going through. When we cry, He cries (remember how He was moved by Mary’s grief). He knows exactly where we are, all the time. Jesus knew Lazarus was dead without anyone telling Him. He told it to the disciples even though he had not received that message from anyone. God knows what we’ve endured to get to those pleasant places in our lives – places HE has actually created. So why call us back away from those places? Because it can change us for the better if we let it. It can liberate us if we look at things differently.
When things are going well for me, I need to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m sure Lazarus wasn’t worrying about things on earth after he died. He was simply enjoying being in Heaven. I need to do the same thing in life’s pleasant places. I need to just sit back and marvel at how true God’s word is, and that He has taken care of me just as He promised He would. I need to just relax in that place and not worry about what else might or might not happen. I’ll be honest, that is NOT a natural or easy thing for me to do, but it would be so much better for me. When we worry about what might be coming next, we drain all the joy and peace out of the pleasant places in life. When we do that, we wring the joy and confidence in God out of our lives as well. Then we wonder why we are so stressed or why God feels so far away.
In those times when we are called out of the pleasant places back into difficulties, it’s so easy to be frustrated and even angry with our Heavenly Father. We may say, “it’s ok because I know He is working this for His glory and my ultimate good,” but it often becomes just words. It hurts to be pulled back from the pleasant places. It hurts when we have to endure challenges after we think we’ve conquered them already. It is frustrating and so often causes us to immediately lose sight of everything God has done for us or how He has, in the past, brought us through trouble TO the pleasant places. We need to learn to think differently about the challenges. Rather than seeing them as a punishment or reprimand, we need to recognize that God needs people in this world who have seen first-hand what He can and will do. He needs people who have unshakable confidence in our eternity so that we can live liberated lives here. He needs people living courageous lives, in spite of their circumstances, because that kind of life touches and changes the lives of others. Through that kind of life, we have opportunities to share what we have seen and know to be true about our God who loves us so much.
One last thought about this story: Notice that Jesus called Lazarus by name. He didn’t just come back to the grave and say, “come out.” Do you know why? Because if He had done that, everyone who was dead would have come out. He specifically called to Lazarus because God does not operate in generalities. He operates specifically, personally, on a one-to-one basis. He has specific plans for each of us, and each of us has a different journey to walk. In spite of our different callings, God wants ALL of us to have peace, confidence and joy.
So the next time I hear, “Deanna, come forth,” I’m going to take a quick look around before I leave the amazing place in which I’m standing, and consider all He did to deliver me from trials in the past. By doing that, I can walk back into this flawed world with complete confidence and security in the truth of His word. Only then can I live a liberated life, free of worry and fear in my circumstances, because I have seen His glory and His fulfilled promises first hand. THAT knowledge and experience in the pleasant places is what will change the way I live in every place else.