Why Does God Allow Pain? A Look at John 11

By Jonathan Moseley

So the sisters sent to him [Jesus], 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 11:5-6

Why does Jesus wait to visit Lazarus? Jesus knew Lazarus was ill. If Jesus would have left immediately to see Lazarus after hearing about his sickness, certainly Jesus could have prevented Lazarus from dying. But Jesus doesn’t leave immediately. He waits around two extra days before he makes the journey to see his ill friend. Consequently, Lazarus succumbs to the sickness and dies.

How could Jesus let Lazarus experience the bitterness of death? Not to mention, doesn’t Jesus know how much pain Mary and Martha will be in if they lose their brother? Is Jesus insensitive? Does he not care? He clearly has the ability to step in and prevent this tragedy, yet Jesus allows it to happen.

This does not seem loving, does it? Except that’s the reason John gives to explain why Jesus waits around. It says, “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” (11:5-6). In other words, Jesus stays where he is out of love. This causes me to ask, “How can love allow pain and suffering?” John is trying to help us understand the love of Jesus from this story. What can we learn?

Since God is love, anything that helps us know God is loving.

That’s probably the shortest way to put it. The most precious and beautiful and valuable thing that God could ever give us is himself—more so than a spouse, health, or a successful career. This is exactly what Jesus has in mind when he allows Lazarus to die. Jesus wanted to move them away from a concept about him into an experience with him. It’s one thing to say “I am the resurrection and the life”—it’s another thing to show it. The two sisters, Lazarus, and the crowd all see the glory of the Son as the resurrection and the life precisely because he allows Lazarus to die. Even though pain was involved, they witnessed Jesus’ power over death and the effects of sin. Jesus knew his decision to wait would bring great pain. He also knew this pain would bring everyone face to face with great glory. He uses this moment to help everyone there come into a fuller understanding of who he is. So, in love, he allows pain.

What can we learn about the true nature of love from this?

1) Love not only weeps with us in the pain, but also walks with us through it.

When Jesus finally makes it to his friend’s tomb, he sees the mourning of the crowd. He is greatly moved by the sadness he sees. He feels the depth of their grief and joins them in their tears. Emotionally disturbed, he too weeps (11:35). Love seeks to bear the same burdens we bear. And this is what Jesus does. He takes on our pains. But he understands pain in a way none of us can understand right now. Lest we think God cannot relate to us in our sufferings, he sent his son to experience the full measure of his wrath on the cross. Jesus gets pain. And because of his love for us, he embraced the cross securing by his death and resurrection an escape from all worldly sorrow. Jesus not only stays with us in our pain but promises deliverance from it.

2) Love is after our best interests, even when we can’t see them.

Whenever we face tragedy or loss, we also face the opportunity for gain, namely, our closeness with Jesus. It has not been the good seasons that have intensified my desperation and earnest desire for Jesus. When all is good, I often fail to trust God as my refuge and provider. But the sorrows of my life have driven me straight to God. They have acted as catalysts to deepen my dependency on him. Suffering can make it difficult to see any good beyond what we’re going through; yet, if we prize Jesus as our treasure—pain—like nothing else—drives us to trust him in greater ways we would not have otherwise. In this way, God is after our best interests when he allows pain.

3) Love aims at our belief and joy in Jesus, and at the same time, the glory of God.

The reason we grieve in our pain is because something or someone we found joy in has been lost. This is undoubtedly why Mary and Martha grieve at the loss of their brother. Even if Jesus would have gotten there early and healed Lazarus, sickness would would have one day overtaken him again. Maybe not that day, but certainly in the years following.  Eventually, all good things come to an end—all joys have an expiration date. That is, except if they are connected to Jesus. He wanted to make this truth known—and he does so by allowing Lazarus to die.

Jesus shares why he allows the pain:

“It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4)

“Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (11:14-15).

“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?” (11:25-26)

“Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).

“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me” (11:41-42).

True love will not let someone settle on joy that can be lost, but it will seek out for another a joy that is everlasting. This is why—I dare to say it—true love does not exist without God as its ultimate end. But when Jesus shows himself to be the resurrection and the life, he is turning the people’s attention to himself. In love (and in pain), he brings them to that everlasting joy—himself. He wants Lazarus to die, so that he can bring Lazarus to life. He uses this occasion in John 11 to capture their belief in him as the Son of God, for this hits what love aims for, namely, the glory of God and the joy of man.

Jonathan Moseley is the Director of Community and Operations at Renewal Church.