“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.’ ” – (John 11:14-15)
I first met Tony, a tall handsome man with a greying beard and the air of a wizard about him, through a small group bible study I had been leading. Our meeting ultimately led to a friendship in which we not only had the opportunity to worship together in the same church, but to also work together professionally in the same company.
Tony’s friendship and mentorship became a very influential and guiding force in my life. His wisdom, integrity, humor, and deep walk with the Lord all conspired to help me grow at many levels.
Working for the same company also afforded us the daily opportunity to get our exercise in through lunchtime walks where we would converse over all manner of topics. Over the years he would regularly challenge me both professionally and spiritually. He often shared with me the importance of living life within the framework of biblical truth with Jesus as the principle foundation.
I will always remember that fateful day when Tony shared with me during one of our walks that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He was so matter of fact about it, like it was just another topic on our daily walking agenda. From the outset he completely trusted in the Lord for whatever the outcome might be.
Over the next two years he was subjected to all sorts of treatments and surgeries. I had occasion to visit him in his home and in the hospital at times. Those visits often left me saddened as I watched the body of this once great and wise friend wasting away as the disease progressed on its relentless course.
Yet Tony’s faith in our Lord remained.
All during that period many, myself included, prayed fervently for a healing miracle from God. But none would be forthcoming.
I received the news of his passing while at work. I left my office and walked a short distance along a small trail that led to a picnic area on a lawn covered hill near our office. The area offered an overlook of the hills that surrounded the valley we were situated in.
I prayed through the tears and sorrow that befell my heart on that day. It seemed so final, yet I knew that he was in Heaven, in a far better place, but I also wondered why God had not healed such a humble and faithful servant.
I remembered in his book “If Ye Shall Ask,” that Oswald Chambers shared that God always answers our prayers. Even Jesus said; “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” ( Matthew 21:22 (ESV) )
Both were bold statements!
In the months that followed, I was in somewhat of a spiritual struggle, contrasting the words of Jesus against the reality of Tony’s death. On the surface it seemed as though God had not answered our prayers for healing.
In the end, I found myself faced with one of two possibilities:
- Prayer was not real, it’s just a nice vehicle to help us through some difficult times.
- Prayer is real and God always hears and answers our prayers.
I concluded that if one presumed that prayers were simply feel good actions on our part that served no greater purpose, then one must also conclude that God was not real, and by inference, the scriptures were not a reliable source for understanding God and his plans for humanity.
On the other hand, if God is real, and if I can trust the scriptures as reliable, then I must also presume that God’s intent in his answers must serve a higher purpose, perhaps even a purpose for which I may not fully grasp.
I worked through both possible outcomes and concluded that the evidence overwhelming supported the reality of God. Furthermore, I also knew that the reliability of the scriptures stood on very solid ground. And to be sure, I also appreciated from firsthand experience in my own life, that the God who loved me first is a personal being that desires only to give me His very best in this life.
For a time the topic of prayer and the experience I had with Tony’s death was never far from my mind. One evening as I was reading the scriptures, I came across a story about a guy named Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus.
It seemed that Lazarus was also the brother of Martha and Mary, two sisters whom Jesus had befriended during times when he and his disciples stayed in Bethany, a small village on the Eastern slope of the Mount of Olives in Judea. The village itself was about a mile and half East of Jerusalem. Even today the town is called el-Azariyeh (the place of Lazarus) by its resident Arab population.
Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem at the time he heard that his friend Lazarus had become very ill. The scriptures record that upon hearing of his friend’s condition, Jesus elected to stay in Jerusalem for an additional two days. At the end of this stay he told his disciples that Lazarus had died. But then he said; “...and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” When I read this statement I thought to myself; “what puzzling thing to say to his disciples.”
With my interest peaked, I continued to read and learned that when Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, it was revealed that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. (John 11:17) In other words, Lazarus likely died the same day that Jesus was told of his illness by the messengers sent by his sisters Martha and Mary. (John 11:3) Yet Jesus delayed his return and did not heal his friend from what would ultimately become a terminal illness.
When Jesus arrived at their home it was Martha who initially came out to meet him. Of the two sisters, Martha had a history of being the anxious one. We know this from what Luke recorded in the scriptures.
Luke noted an earlier incident when Jesus was visiting in Bethany with his disciples; evidently Martha was busy preparing and serving food while Mary was sitting around and listening to Jesus teach. (Luke 10:38-42) Martha complained to Jesus about this apparent inequity. Jesus responded by sharing that Martha should not be so troubled and should spend more time doing likewise.
After Lazarus’s death, when Martha saw Jesus arrive, her first words where not words of greetings, but words of underlying disappointment and frustration with Jesus. She told Jesus that “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Clearly she understood and believed that Jesus had the ability to heal others and knew that her brother’s death was preventable. In her defense, Martha did ultimately conclude that Jesus could bring her brother back from the dead, and Jesus confirmed that with her. But in the moment she thought that he was speaking of the end times when all believers will be resurrected in their new bodies. After affirming her belief in Jesus as the expected Messiah she alerted her sister Mary of Jesus’s arrival.
Jesus spoke with Mary and together they all walked to where the tomb containing the body of Lazarus was located. Jesus requested that the stone seal be removed and the tomb be opened. Martha, the ever anxious one, still did not understand fully what was about to happen, instead she was worried about the terrible odor that would come from the tomb should it be opened after four days. (John 11:39)
Nonetheless they did remove the stone seal. Jesus looked up and prayed to his Father and then yelled in a loud voice; “Lazarus, come out!” Immediately Lazarus came out from the tomb, with his hands and feet still wrapped in strips of linen. Jesus told those around him to “take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Many of the Jews that had come to visit Mary and Martha, and to mourn with them saw what had happened and immediately placed their faith in Jesus. They realized for the first time that He was much more than a teacher, but he was their expected Messiah!
Scriptures would later record that it would be these same Jews and others that would greet Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on that fateful Passover week prior to his crucifixion. (John 12:17) The Jews who had witnessed Lazarus being raised from the dead not only became believers, but they also spread the word to many others.
As I finished reading about this incident, I pondered how the outcome might have been different had Jesus simply healed Lazarus and not allowed him to have died. Many Jews would not have known of Christ as their Messiah. The story of Lazarus would not have been recorded in the scriptures to give us further evidence of Christ’s power over death, and the very town where the event took place would not today bear the name of Lazarus some two thousand years hence, still testifying to the power over death that Jesus demonstrated, even before his own crucifixion and resurrection that was yet to come.
I concluded that sometimes when our prayers don’t seem to be answered, that God has in fact answered them already, but His answer speaks to a higher purpose for which I may not fully appreciate or even understand in the moment. Therein lies an element of my trust and continued faith in His promises to me.
The prophet Isaiah said; “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
In the end Chambers reminded me that I must always keep in mind that prayer is to bring glory to God, and that what appears to be silence is in fact the first sign of His intimacy.