The story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead is arguably one of the most beautiful passages in Sacred Scripture. It reveals to us the reality of the resurrection and it demonstrates God’s great love and mercy. There is also a deep under-current within the narrative that deals with the complexities of how human beings respond to suffering and how Christ suffers alongside of us in this life.
As Fallen human beings we struggle to understand and see as God sees, so we often are confused or even opposed to God’s working in our lives. This is especially true in the face of suffering. We all have a difficult time reconciling the sufferings of this life with a God who is love and mercy itself. The reality is, however, that it is often through suffering that God can unleash the power of love both within ourselves and throughout the world. The story of Lazarus provides us with a glimpse of how God works through suffering.
Oftentimes when we are confronted with a debilitating or deadly illness, the loss of a loved one, the end of a marriage, poverty, and other forms of affliction, we cannot see how God is bringing about good through our situation. That good may be within ourselves or it may be in those around us. His glory is often hidden from us in these times of our lives and it isn’t until later that we come to realize how much the suffering we experienced was necessary for our own sanctification and the sanctification of others.
God’s greater glory through suffering
In John 11:3-4 we see a glimpse of how God uses even illness and death for His glory. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are close friends of Jesus’. When Lazarus becomes ill, his sisters send word to Christ saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” “But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Our Lord tells His disciples that Lazarus’ illness will not ultimately end in death. We know that eventually Christ raises Lazarus from the dead as a pre-figurement of His resurrection from the dead on Easter.
What Christ tells His disciples in this passage of John, reveals to us something about the inner-workings of God. ‘His ways are not our ways’ is something we have all heard and experienced in our own lives. Suffering is one of those areas where we battle mightily to understand why God would allow certain people to suffer more, why certain people die younger, are born into difficult circumstances, become chronically ill, die violent deaths, are hungry or thirsty, or suffer in a myriad of ways. We see suffering as the greatest evil in our lives. It is true that this was not how it was meant to be, but it is our lot in this Fallen world and God uses it bring about His divine plan.
As we progress on the path to holiness, we come to see the necessity of suffering. It is the principle way that God purifies charity and expands our hearts so that we can love Him more completely and love others as ourselves. Our Lord stating that Lazarus’ illness is for the glory of God, helps us to see that the suffering in our own lives is also meant to glorify the Son of God. We are supposed to give our suffering over to God so that He can use it to bring about greater good.
Suffering unleashes love
When we unite ourselves fully to Christ on the Cross in our suffering, we allow God to transform us and the people around us. It is often through suffering that profound conversions, healing, reconciliation, and deeper love take place. God may allow suffering in one person in order to draw them back to Himself or in order to bring another person into deeper communion with Him. Our suffering united in love of Christ may be used by God for the conversion of souls. Suffering often teaches us to be more open to those who suffer around us and to seek greater connection with others.
“In the messianic program of Christ, which is at the same time the program of the Kingdom of God, suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a ‘civilization of love.’…At one and the same time Christ has taught man to do good by his suffering and to do good to those who suffer. In this double aspect he has completely revealed the meaning of suffering.”
(Salvifici Dolores no. 30 taken from Praying for Priests: An Urgent Call for the Salvation of Souls by Kathleen Beckman, L.H.S.)
The ultimate meaning of suffering is love. That doesn’t make any of this easy and the process is extremely painful, especially when someone we love dies. Even so, we know that death does not have the final say. Christ has conquered sin and death and we await in hope the general resurrection at the end of time. We are a people who always hope in Christ despite the agonies we experience in this life.
The joy that awaits us when we come before the Beatific Vision and reside with the angels and saints for all of eternity is worth all of the pain and suffering we endure. The story of Lazarus–which is one of the Gospel selections for this coming Fifth Sunday of Lent–is a reminder that our suffering is used by God for His greater glory when we give ourselves fully over to Him.
Jesus weeps with us
We are also reminded that Christ suffers with us. In John 11:35 “Jesus wept.” He weeps alongside of us in our afflictions. He weeps with us when we receive the news we never want to hear that we are dying or that a loved one is dying. He weeps with us when our children walk away from us or the Faith. He weeps with us when we lose our job. He weeps with us when we lose a child in miscarriage. He weeps with us at the gravesides of our dearly departed. He weeps with us when our husband or wife abandons us. He weeps with us when the pain from chronic illness becomes unbearable. He weeps with us when we hunger or thirst. He weeps with us when we are lonely. He weeps with us when we are rejected and betrayed by the people we love the most. He weeps.
We will all deal with tremendous afflictions in this life. Christ asks us to unite our suffering to His so that He can unleash His love and mercy out upon the world. He wants to work through our suffering in love to draw others to Himself and to deepen and purify our love for Him. We first must relinquish our pain and give it over to Him trusting that He will bring about good in some way. We probably won’t understand it at the time, just as Martha and Mary did not understand that Lazarus would be raised from the dead by Jesus. God doesn’t tell us what good He is going to do. He simply asks us to trust Him.