God doesn’t always heal or give us what we want. But he does always give us what’s best for us — even when it hurts.
Even When It Hurts: How Christ Reveals Himself in Pain
Audio Transcript from John Piper Sermon Podcast
God Cares for You
It’s a thrilling thing to me to come to you in this confidence:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29–31)
So, from the tiniest little insignificant sparrow to the hairs on your head, you have magisterial, universal rule and close attentive hair care. We adopted an African-American baby 23 years ago. She’s going to get married in September. I watched my wife lean over her at 3, 4, and 5, braiding her hair. You have to get the hair right. If you adopt an African-American baby, you have to get it right. How attentive God is. She can’t count them; he counts them. He knows the number as she braids. So, I come to you in a world like that with a God like that.
Illness for Good
Let me set the stage. I’m going to read John 11:1–6 and draw out something you may or may not have ever seen in these verses. They have been life-inverting for me. Mary and Martha and Lazarus are very good friends of Jesus. You’ll see that as we read it again. And Lazarus is very sick. And Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus, “Come. The one whom you love is sick. Please come.” As I read these verses, look for death, look for love, look for glory. Ask yourself how they relate to each other.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 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. (John 11:1–6)
Focus on verses 1–2 just for a moment. The striking thing about verse 2 is that it hasn’t happened yet in the Gospel of John. Well, that’s odd. Mary’s going to anoint the Lord with her hair in John 12:3. And John says to the reader that this Mary who’s asking him to come, that’s the Mary who anointed Jesus. He hasn’t told us she did it yet, but that’s the one he’s talking about. What’s the point of that?
That’s the first instance in this text of how Jesus is going to draw out the endearing, special, sweet, deep, precious relationship between Jesus and this family. John is reaching forward to get a remarkable moment in the life of this woman who’s going to love Jesus like that, and mentions her that way here. So we can conclude at least this is special between Jesus and this family, especially Mary.
Glory Through Love
So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (John 11:3)
This is now the second instance of drawing out the fact that Jesus loves this family. Now John is mentioning Lazarus in particular. This man loves this family, and Jesus is underlining it. He loves them and he makes it explicit. He’s not dealing with a casual acquaintance saying, “Please come. He is sick.”
But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4)
So the first thing Jesus does is connect the news of Lazarus’s sickness with the glory of God. Not many people think this way — and we need to. He put it in relationship to the glory of God. It’s about the glory of God. It’s about the glory of the Son of God who’s going to be glorified through it. “Take a deep breath, Mary and Martha. This is all about my glory. This is not going to go the way you think, and it’s not going to go the way you want. It’s about my glory.”
“This illness does not lead to death” (John 11:4). The point of this illness is not death; it is the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. It’s like the blind man in John 9:1–7. The disciples say, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). And Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). All these years of blindness are about glory. The same is true with Lazarus. Lazarus is going to die, and Jesus knows he’s going to die. He’s going to let him die intentionally. And it’s all about glory.
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (John 11:5)
This is the third time the text references Jesus’s love. Jesus loved Mary, Jesus loved Lazarus, and Jesus loved Martha. When I say it’s all about glory, I’m overstating it, am I not? No, it’s not all about glory. It’s largely about love, and that’s what clobbered me in this text. This is about the fact that Jesus loved them. But he let Lazarus die. That’s what’s striking.
The Love of God for You
So, surely John the writer is writing this to help us come to terms in our experience with what the love of God is like for you. What is it like to be loved by Jesus? Love is not a minor theme in these six verses. It is a major theme. Three times he’s saying, “He loved them, he loved them, he loved them.” He doesn’t want you to miss that, and he wants you to put yourself in that situation.
I’ve been told that since I was little, “Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me.” And now, I don’t feel loved a lot of times. And these texts, this one in particular is in the Bible to help turn our world upside down when it comes to understanding the love of Jesus, because the world doesn’t get this. The world has no categories for understanding this kind of love that we’re about to see. But you should. Apart from the Holy Spirit, this text is inexplicable.
Now, the most stunning word in the text is the first word of verse 6. Verse 5 just highlighted for us the love Jesus has for these people. And then verse 6 begins with so or therefore — as a result and consequence of that great love.
So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:6)
I remember when I first saw this years ago. I thought, “Okay, I don’t want to overdo that. I don’t want to overinterpret this connection. So I opened Don Carson’s commentary on the Gospel of John, and he lit into interpreters who ignore therefore in this text. I’m not going to ignore it either. It’s really there. It’s not an accident. Jesus knew what this delay would mean. He knew exactly what it would mean.
In verse 14, Jesus told his disciples plainly, “Lazarus has died.” So he’s choosing not to rush and get there and do anything about that. He waits. And he doesn’t just wait a day or two. Jesus makes sure that Lazarus is dead four days. Were it only a day or two, perhaps someone could day that Lazarus swooned or fell asleep or was misdiagnosed. But this cannot be so with four days — not in the tomb, not wrapped up, not smelling. He’s really dead. And that was the plan.
All Around Death
Now, you might think it’s really not so bad because Jesus also knows he’s going to raise him. “It’s not that bad. It’s not that hard.” If that’s coming into your mind like it came into my mind, then let me tell you two things that came to me in response. First, Lazarus really did die. I have two cousins that just got cancer. They’re about my age. David Powlison, whom I know quite well, just passed away a couple of days ago.
Death is all around me. I buried more people than I married in my ministry. Death is not pretty. It’s not pretty for the one dying. It’s not pretty for those who love them. There are a lot of older people here like me, and you think about death. You don’t worry too much probably in a good church like this. You just worry about dying. I remember when R.C. Sproul said, “I don’t fear death. I just fear dying.” I get that. There was no palliative care back then. Lazarus died. He really died, and his sisters suffered that. So, that’s the first thing to keep in mind. They didn’t even know he was going to be raised. Jesus didn’t show up. That’s what they knew. “Jesus didn’t show up and Lazarus died and he’s buried and we loved him and he was too young.”
Raised to New Life
Here’s the second thing to think about. I think that John, in writing chapter 11, is intentionally inviting us to see our own resurrection in relationship to Lazarus’s — our death and our resurrection as parallel to Lazarus’s. Why do I think that? You might want to drop your eyes down to verses 23–26.
Jesus said to her [Martha], “Your brother will rise again.” (John 11:23)
So, when he gets there, he gives them the hope that Lazarus is going to rise again.
Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:24)
Now, here’s the connection. Jesus could have said, “Yes, and isn’t that wonderful news?” What he said was,
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25)
That resurrection has come into the world. That power, that control, that life-giving force is me and I’m here, and let’s show you right now what that’s going to be like. Because I want you, Martha, and all of you to put the connection between Lazarus’s experience and what you will experience. So he continues,
“Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26)
In other words, my raising your brother from the dead will be what will happen to you. Which means that the way to think about Lazarus’s death is as a forerunner, a little trailer of our death and our resurrection. So now as you step back then and think about Lazarus dying, and Jesus not going and letting him die because he loved him, you shouldn’t whitewash that, diminish that, or minimize that by saying, “Oh, he’s going to raise him four days later.” Because he’s going to raise you too. And the difference between your death and resurrection and Lazarus’s death and rising four days later are virtually the same — except yours is better. You never die again. Poor Lazarus, he had to go through this twice.
If you’re going to minimize Lazarus’s experience, you better minimize your own. “It’s no big deal to die. I’m going to rise in four days anyway — I mean, more or less.” And you don’t do that. You know you don’t do that. You don’t minimize your death. You don’t minimize your loved one’s death. You take it seriously. You groan, you grieve, you ache — and that’s the way we should feel this.
Love That Doesn’t Save
So, let’s look again at the logic of verses 5–6, because this is the main point I want you to feel. It turns your world upside down. We see that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. And therefore, because of that love, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. And that’s what we have to understand. How is that love? How is it love? That’s what we are supposed to see.
Glory for Death
John intends and Jesus intends for everybody who reads this to ask that about your experience. He loves them, therefore, he does not heal them. He loves them, therefore, he does not save him from death. How are we loved when we’re dying? He doesn’t heal him. He just lets him die. How is that love?
The answer is given, I believe, in verse 4: “This illness does not lead to death.” In other words, he’s going to die, but that’s not the point. What is the point? “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” So, the point of his death is not death. The point of his death is to reveal the glory of God, and particularly, the glory of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
More of God
So, now you step back and you say, “Okay, the so or therefore at the beginning of verse 6 says that the meaning of the delay and the death is love. And verse 4 says that the meaning of the delay and the death is the glory of God.” And what would you do? How would you preach the sermon from here on now? What would you draw out for your life? Here’s what I’d draw out.
The world doesn’t understand what love is. What is love? Love is doing what you need to do in order to reveal most fully and most durably the all-satisfying glory of God in Jesus. To be loved is to be shown glory — the glory of God. If we’re not a God-centered people who see God himself in his Son as the greatest treasure, the most beautiful reality, the most all-satisfying friend, experience, and Father, if we’re not that way, that makes no sense
If you go out and do an interview on the street with any unbelieving person in Belfast and say, “What is love?” they won’t go here. They would never say, “To love is to have anything happen to me — life, death, sickness, anything — that will show me more of God.” Nobody’s going to say that.
If God is all to you, it’s true. If God is minor, if God is marginal, if your life is your most important thing, if your kids are your most important thing, if marriage is most important, your health is most important, that won’t make any sense. But if God is all, if God is beautiful, if God is the supreme treasure of your life, then to have more of him is to be loved. That’s the point of the so at the beginning of verse 6.
Love at Any Cost
Here’s my definition of love based on this text: Love is doing whatever you have to do — or whatever God has to do — at whatever cost, in order for the glory of God to be shown. Look at verses 14–15:
Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Jesus is glad that Lazarus has died so that they might believe. Now, how does that relate to the glory being revealed? What’s the counterpart between the glory of God being revealed and the human response of belief? There’s just so many, many times when we take belief and just say, “Oh, believe,” and we don’t even think through what believe means.
Better Than Life
What does it mean to believe the glory of God revealed? It means to be satisfied with the glory of God. So, glory is revealed through Lazarus’s death and being raised. The glory of God is revealed as a demonstration of love, because to be loved is to see more of God, even through pain. And belief is the receiving and the experience of that revelation of the glory of God as your treasure.
The Gospel of John is written for this, isn’t it? “These [things] are written so that you may believe” (John 20:31). These things are written so that you may see the glory of the Son of God — the glory of God revealed. I receive it through faith, and that faith is the experience of the glory of God as my supreme treasure, which is better than life itself.
Joy and Satisfaction in Love
My whole life since about 1969 has been devoted to trying to understand, live out, and make plain this sentence: God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. And if you wonder where I get this sentence, I get it from texts like this. John 11:4 says this is not about death. This is about the Son of God being glorified. And verses 5–6 in their logical connection say this is about being loved. So, if it’s about being loved and Christ being glorified, then surely I’m being treated well. I am being given joy and satisfaction now and forever by the revelation of that glory.
And therefore, God is glorified. Christ is magnified to the degree that, in the face of death, I have my deepest satisfaction in him. He doesn’t look good if we walk toward death and have no delight in him. We don’t make him look good that way. But if we walk toward death with satisfaction in the revelation of his glory, he looks good. Love is doing whatever you have to do, God or man doing what you have to do through suffering — whatever it costs — to reveal the greatest glory for the greatest enjoyment to God’s people. That’s what I think the logic of John 11:5–6 implies.
God’s Glory at the Center
This is a very strange love. I admit that. You have to spend your whole life trying to get yourself right side up because we’re born upside down. We’re born with ourselves at the center. And this text is saying that this won’t make sense if you stay at the center of your life. If you are your treasure, this will be insanity. If God is your treasure, this will make sense. You’ll understand what love is because you understand glory. His glory is the center of your life.
So let this text, the strange love of Jesus, turn your world upside down. Love is not what the world thinks it is. It’s not the removal of pain. It’s not the removal of death. You were made for the glory of God, not just the removal of pain. If you walk through life thinking that minimizing pain is the essence of love, the Bible will be a closed book to you.
It’s not a closed book. This text is about revealing the glory of God, revealing it through a very strange kind of love, namely, Jesus staying two days where he was and letting Lazarus die. The glory of God in Jesus is the only thing that can satisfy your soul. God knows this about you. He made you this way.
The glory of God in Jesus is the only thing that can satisfy your soul. You were made for this. Therefore, if he must take away health for you to see that, if God takes away wife for you to see that, if he must take away your life for you to see that, that is love. Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha. He loved them. And therefore, he let Lazarus die, so that they could see the glory of God.