Years ago I lent my copy of A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken to a friend. Evidently I didn’t exactly convey all of the main events of the book because one day she called me nearly in tears because she was so surprised and shocked by what had happened to Sheldon and his wife Davy. Up until that point in the book, she had been enamoured by its depiction of the beautiful love story Sheldon and Davy shared. She was even taking notes on their approach to marriage and their relationship and was thus shocked and saddened by the severe mercy that was dealt them.
I thought of that book and specifically the seemingly oxymoronic phrase “a severe mercy” two weeks ago as I prepared to teach from John 11. It’s a familiar account in the life of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. So familiar, I think, that we tend to dismiss or overlook the very real grief of Mary and Martha, and Lazarus too, and the severe mercy that was granted them.
Consider it: Jesus loved them. They knew this to be a fact and John takes great pains in his account to emphasize this point. He identifies Mary as she who anointed Jesus with ointment, highlighting the unique intimacy of their friendship, and tells us point blank, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” We see that Mary and Martha were confident in Jesus’ love for them as they sent the plea, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Not only were the sisters confident in Jesus’ love, but they knew He had the power to save Lazarus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” each sister tells Jesus in her turn.
So they knew He loved them, they knew He could help and heal, and despite their appeal Jesus didn’t come to them. They waited and Lazarus died without any word from their Lord. They were left to suffer: Lazarus unto death and Mary and Martha in their ensuing grief.
I think of Sheldon and how he questioned the Lord’s promises in his severe mercy. I think of my own seasons of waiting and wondering. I think of my friends who are suffering and who doubt the Lord’s goodness. Surely we have all had those seasons of crying out to God and feeling as if He were ignoring our plight.
Lord, the one You love is sick
Lord, the one You love has no idea how to deal with a rebellious teenager
Lord, the one You love has lost his job
Lord, the one You love is at her wit’s end with these children
Lord, the one You love feels trapped in the boring dailiness of life
Lord, the one You love is depressed
In John 11, Jesus makes the reason for his delay quite plain: it is so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Here is another truth that is easy for us to gloss over. Upon deeper thought we realize it can be a hard and bitter truth, a severe mercy, to realize God in His providence may allow great pain and loss for His own glory. Severe in its pain but merciful because through it we see the glory of God.
We think this story is about Lazarus but really it’s about Jesus and His glory and His ability to bring dead men to life. He tells Martha He is the Resurrection and the Life, not just for Lazarus but for her too, and for me and for you and for all of us who were dead in our sin and transgressions. We were dead but God made us alive in Christ so that He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace and glorify His Son Jesus.
How does this help us when we endure our severe mercies? We too can be confident in Jesus’ love for us! He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not with Him graciously give us all things? Indeed, what can separate us from this kind of love?
And because we are confident of His love, we can rest secure knowing that even though God does not spare us pain and difficulty these struggles come to us because He loves us. That seems topsy turvy to us but we can be certain that God has our best interests in mind. What is best for us? Himself! Jesus told the disciples He was glad Lazarus died–glad? Why? So that they may believe. He tells Martha that if she believes she will see the glory of God and what a demonstration! Lazarus, her beloved brother, back from the dead.
Do you believe? In the seasons of severe mercy can you know that through the pain God will give you something precious, something eternal: a revelation of the glory of the One and Only, the Son of God, full of grace and truth. He has brought you from death to life. He loves you. Believe Him.