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A God who Grieves - a Saturday reflection from Jessica Miller

A God Who Grieves
John 11:1-6, 30-35

Today is Saturday of Holy Week and tomorrow resurrection Sunday, but Jesus’s followers and friends didn’t know what Sunday would hold. Good Friday disrupted their lives. Jesus died. Their loss and grief was real, even if momentary. 

I’ve been sitting in John 11 for a few days now. There is so much that could be said regarding this story, too much for a blog post. The raising of Lazarus is the last of Jesus’s miracles in the gospel of John. Most of us are probably familiar with this story and how it ends: Standing before Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus has the stone rolled away and calls to the dead man “come out.” I’ve read this passage many times, but today I’m particularly struck by some of the details leading up to the miraculous raising of Lazarus.

Mary and Martha are confident of Jesus’s love and affection for their brother so they send word: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (v 3). The sisters desire for Jesus to come and offer physical healing like he has done for many others. Jesus responds to them, “This illness does not lead to death.” What good news! I’m sure Mary and Martha found comfort and reassurance in Jesus’s words (according to Tim Keller it’s likely they received word back from Jesus). Their brother was going to be okay. And yet, they watch on as Lazarus gets worse. Surely their brother will turn the corner. Isn’t that what Jesus said? But he doesn’t, and the sisters watch Lazarus die.

We are currently living through a worldwide pandemic, witnessing first hand a virus that is stealing the health and lives of many. And yet, COVID-19 isn’t the illness that leads to death. Jesus has dealt, fully and finally, with the illness that does lead to death. He has taken care of our soul sickness—our sin—on the cross. That is a glorious and life changing reality to live out of, but it doesn’t require us to gloss over the disappointment, loss and suffering that is peppered throughout all of our stories. The resurrection doesn’t require us to whitewash our pain. Anything less than Eden is disappointing. The realities of living in a world marred by sin and death are real. 

Lazarus really died. Mary and Martha buried their brother. Their loss and grief was real, even if momentary. 

Jesus arrives in Bethany and finds that Lazarus has been dead four days (v 17). When Mary heard that Jesus was calling for her, she went out to meet him and fell at his feet, weeping. The text says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (v 33). According to the various commentaries I’ve read, the English translation for “deeply moved” doesn’t do the original Greek text justice. The Greek literally means “to snort, as of horses.” It connotes a vehement agitation. With Mary weeping at his feet, Jesus saw before him the momentary triumph of evil in the death of his friend. He saw the great sorrow it caused Mary and Martha. And so Jesus, moved in his human spirit, grieved even while knowing Lazarus was moments away from resurrection. The Pulpit Commentary puts it beautifully:

“He [Jesus] entered with vivid and intense human sympathy into all the primary and secondary sorrows of death. He saw the long procession of mourners from the first to the last, all the reckless agony, all the hopelessness of it, in thousands of millions of instances. There flashed upon his spirit all the terrible moral consequences of which death was the ghastly symbol.”

If Jesus, who is our example of what it looks like to be truly human, mourned and grieved then surely he invites us to do the same. Jesus’s tears didn’t signify a lack of faith. Rather, he offered an honest response to the reality of suffering and death. Again, the Pulpit Commentary beautifully offers this regarding Jesus’s tears:

“The great wrath against death is subdued now into tears of love, of sympathy, and of deep emotion. Jesus shed tears of sympathetic sorrow … These tears have been for all ages a grand testimony to the fullness of his humanity, and also a revelation of the very heart of God. [It was a] profound and wondrous fellow-feeling with human misery in all its forms, then imaged before him in the grave of Lazarus.”

Jesus entered his friends’ sadness with heartfelt sorrow. He didn’t gloss over their loss. He groaned and bellowed; he grieved and wept. 

If our God pays such careful attention to our tears that he bottles them (Psalm 56:8), if he is moved in his spirit by our sadness (John 11:33), if he grieves with us even when resurrection is coming, then surely we are to do the same. We are free to truthfully name the desolate places in our life. We can sit in the stories that have disrupted our lives; stories marked by bodies that break, marriages that don’t make it, babies lost to miscarriage, infertility, long and unwanted seasons of singleness, depression, mental illness, life altering medical diagnoses, the death of loved ones, chronic illness, joblessness, mass shootings, addiction, abuse, neglect, racism, systemic injustice, poverty, and the list could go on. I don’t know your stories of loss. Perhaps it’s subtle and you’re tempted to minimize your disappointment—maybe it’s a shift in a once dear friendship, a marriage that has grown stale, a strained relationship with your son or daughter, an emotionally absent parent, or an abrupt end to your senior year of school due to a stay-at-home order. We were made for Eden and anything less than that is disappointing. While these aren’t the “illnesses” that lead to death, they are worth our tears. They are worth us pausing and considering how these moments have shaped us. Our stories of grief and loss are real, even if momentary. Resurrection Sunday is coming, God will ensure that. Until that day, I hope we have courage to weep and wait at the feet of Jesus knowing he weeps with us.

John 11:1-6, 30-35
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 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.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept.

Jessica and her husband, Chad, have been involved at Northside Church for almost seven years. She particularly loves the way people at Northside show up for each other in significant and lovely ways. 


  1. A beautiful reflection on this Holy Saturday, Jessica. Thank you for challenging us to make space and hold the tension of this agonizing Saturday.

    "If our God pays such careful attention to our tears that he bottles them (Psalm 56:8), if he is moved in his spirit by our sadness (John 11:33), if he grieves with us even when resurrection is coming, then surely we are to do the same. We are free to truthfully name the desolate places in our life."

    Praying that our body would take this day to truthfully name the desolated places in our lives and express grief for our larger community. Knowing that Sunday will come!


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