Writing in My Bible, John 11, and When God Is Far Away

    One of the best things I’ve done is start writing in my Bible. For years, I never wrote in my Bible. I felt like it was sacrilegious, almost, like I wasn’t allowed to write in such an important text. I felt like I didn’t have a right to actively be involved in the word of God that way. Then, a year or so ago, I started highlighting verses. I still remember highlighting my first verse. I feel like it was 1 Peter 5:7, because that’s always been a special verse to me, but I don’t actually remember which verse it was. I just remember the feeling. I was tense. Anxious. I looked at my wobbly highlighter lines and the way they disrupted the page and bled through to the next one. There was a small part of me that was pleased, though. That verse had left a mark on me, and now I’d left a mark on it. It solidified my relationship to the verse and all it had done for me. I’ve started highlighting lots of verses since then, and even though it still causes anxious regret from time to time, it’s also been a great way to record my favorite verses.

     Last night, I was listening to a podcast from The Porch called “When God is Late.” You guys, this podcast took my breath away. It was one in the morning. My insomnia was running rampant. I’d decided to do some sort of Bible study, because I’ve been neglecting that lately, but I didn’t know what to do. Things have been rough, lately, and I’ve let Bible study fall to the side. When you are a believer and are sick for a bit, you often go right to God. You cling to Him and pray. And you do the same thing, even more intensely, when you’re chronically ill, because each day is a battle of begging for strength and having faith you’ll be given just enough to get through the day. Sometimes, though, it gets exhausting. You pray, and you pray, and you don’t feel anything. And when you don’t feel anything, and it’s taking up a lot of your limited energy to pray, you sometimes stop. 

     A few years ago, when my health problems first started to go downhill, I called out to God and felt nothing. It wasn’t that I heard a reply to wait. It wasn’t that I felt His presence but not His action. It felt like He wasn’t there. Like He didn’t care. That, combined with some false words about faith and illness from leaders in my church, wrecked my faith. I didn’t know if God existed. Even if He was real, I wasn’t sure if He was a good God. Looking back, though, I’m thankful for this trial. I see that He stayed away and let this happen for a reason. I’m thankful I’ve grappled with my faith, because it has made it stronger. I’m thankful, because it forced me to find answers on why I believe instead of just accepting Christianity since I grew up as a Christian. It not only strengthened my faith, but I think it will also allow me to better share the gospel with others. I pray it will allow me to help others and bring glory to the Lord. 

     So, like any rational person, I googled “best Christian podcasts,” stumbled across The Porch, and was scrolled through titles until one, “When Jesus Is Late,” caught my eye. This podcast was the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection like I’d never heard it before. The Lord heard that Lazarus was dying. Jesus loved Lazarus, not just as Jesus loves everyone, but as His earthly friend. This was a close companion of Jesus’, but when He heard Lazarus was dying, Jesus chose to stay where He was for two more days. He chose to stay away. John 11:14 then says, “So Jesus then told them [His disciples] plainly, ‘Lazarus has died. I’m glad for you that I wasn’t there so that you may believe. But let’s go to him.’ ”

    At first glance, this almost seems cruel. Jesus is glad His friend died? He is glad for Lazarus’ suffering, and the suffering of his sisters (also close friends of Jesus’)? Though Jesus had already told his disciples that He planned on raising Lazarus from the dead, He still allowed suffering He could have stopped. The thing is, though, that Jesus wanted to strengthen the faith of all those affected. He wanted them to believe that He not only could aid anyone, but that He would help them specifically. That He not only could work, but He’d choose to work in their lives. I think He was building trust, too. It’s easy to believe in the goodness of God when your life is good. It’s much harder when you are suffering. 

     When Jesus arrives and Martha (one of Lazarus’ sisters and a friend of Jesus) comes to meet Him, she is heartbroken and angry. She knows Jesus could have stopped this and doesn’t understand why He didn’t. I love the next few verses (John 11: 23-27). Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, and Martha is like, “Yah, yah, I know, He is alive in Heaven.” She still has faith, but she isn’t believing Jesus would bring back her brother. Then, Jesus tells her He will actually bring her brother from death and back to earth. He asks her if she believes this, and she says that He is the Messiah. That He’s all powerful and can do anything. By her tone, though, you can tell that she still believes, but she isn’t really believing in that moment. She is grieving and angry and believing all at once. She is saying all of the things a good Christian is supposed to say even though she isn’t at the strongest point in her faith at that moment. 

     Then, Mary comes to meet Jesus. She is just sad. She is destroyed by the death of her brother. And as God is with His friends, He knows Lazarus will be with them soon, but He’s also seeing the suffering of His friends in this moment. He seemed detached earlier as He stayed away, but now He is right there with them, mourning with them. And Jesus weeps. It’s the shortest verse in the entire Bible. John 11:35 just says, “Jesus wept.” On one hand, what else is there to say? These words are so powerful on their own. But there is so much behind them. The personal love of a Savior who cries when His people are hurting is so evident here. Jesus is so involved in our lives. He is always right there with us, going through every moment with us. Even when He allows bad things to happen for eventual good, He is upset that we are going through hardships. Even if no one else can understand our pain, He knows. Even if we can never express exactly what we’re going through to anyone else, He knows without us feebly trying to explain a hurt that words don’t exist for. He knows, and He cares, and He weeps there with us. 

     As funny as it seems, these parts of the story are the important parts to me. When I heard this story in church, all that was talked about was how Jesus brought Lazarus back. Which, granted, is a huge part of the story! And it is this act that shows the power of God, that He could bring back someone who had been dead for four entire days. The part that touched my heart the most was all of John 11 leading up to this, though. A story just like mine, where God was gone. He wasn’t there when his friends cried out to Him. But He had a purpose for it, and He wasn’t detached from the situation. This is the part of the story that changed me when I heard it. People have told me that God is always there, and yes, this is true. But they invalidated that I cried out to Him and felt nothing. I know He was there, but I did not feel Him, no matter what I did. And I’ve had church members say this doesn’t happen. That if you cry out to Him, you will immediately feel His presence. But that just isn’t biblical, and I’m so thankful for this story for letting me know I am not alone. Besides helping me feel less alone, it also helped me become even more thankful for my trials. 

     I grabbed my Bible about halfway through the podcast. I looked around for the right pen, my heart speeding up. None of my favorite pens were upstairs. I considered sneaking downstairs to find a pen worthy of writing on the word of God. I debated not writing anything in my Bible at all. But I wanted to remember this sermon and remember this story. So I grabbed a mediocre pen and stared annotating my text. I didn’t just highlight a few verses or write a heart or date by something. I full-out annotated the text. I didn’t get to write everything I wanted to. I didn’t write it the way I wanted to. My handwriting was atrocious. I had to mark words out where I wrote them incorrectly and left smudge marks in my wake. And it stressed me out. Looking back at this once pristine page in an absolutely gorgeous Bible, I felt anxiety at all the imperfection I’d put on the page. Thank goodness God doesn’t want or need perfection. Thank goodness that those imperfect words will be there when I need some encouragement and am so blinded by sorrow that I can’t remember what once made this passage so special to me. Thank goodness the Lord wrote a book for us to have and read as encouragement and guidance. Thank goodness it is full of stories of people experiencing heartbreak just like mine and redemption just like I hope for.