“God loves you!” You’ve heard it before, especially if you were exposed to the kind of Christian teaching I received throughout my childhood.
These three words formed the overall message I learned about God as a child. It seemed that for every Sunday school lesson, every religion class at the Christian academy I attended, and every time someone told me about God, the summary statement was “God really loves you.”
Don’t get me wrong — we should be deeply grateful for the generation before us that built ministries upon this amazing biblical truth. And it is wonderfully, unfathomably true. But when we are hit in the face by real life, we can’t stop with “God loves you.” We must take the next step and ask ourselves, how does God love me?
If we don’t ask this question, we inevitably interpret God’s love for us through our own personal definitions of love. Then, when the details of our lives do not match those definitions, we stumble. At best, we walk away confused. At worst, as so many young people are doing, we walk away from God completely, assuming he is not loving like we have been told — or perhaps not real at all.
Hit with Reality
I was ten years old the day my world changed. “There’s something I have to tell you,” my mom said as the tears began to well up and her voice began to tremble. “Your dad is in the hospital. He had a massive stroke.” That’s all she could get out before bursting into tears.
My dad was supposed to die that day. Through the grace of God, he actually survived. But the harm had been done — he had severe brain damage, and none of our lives would ever be same.
For the next several years, I struggled to reconcile the truth that God loves me with the reality of my family’s pain. It took over a decade for me to find the answers I was looking for, but when I read through John 11:3–6, I finally began to properly interpret my pain through the lens of God’s love. The answers in this passage are not easy, but when we take these verses at face value, they are extremely beautiful and healing. These four verses hold the answers our hearts are looking for as we seek to embrace God’s love while also being honest about the pain we each experience.
A Love That Lets Die?
John 11:3–6 teaches us that God does indeed love us, but his love often looks so different from what we expect:
So the sisters sent to him, 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.
The last two sentences are perhaps the two most shocking sentences linked together in all of Scripture. Most of us just don’t know what to do with these verses, especially with the word so that starts verse 6. Jesus loved Lazarus and his family, so he let Lazarus die? What are you supposed to do with that?
Not a Translation Issue
Well, in the 1984 NIV Bible translation, which I grew up reading, they just changed so to yet. It reads, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” In the NLT, the translators added an although: “So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days.”
But as John Piper explains in his Look at the Book lab covering John 11:1–6, the Greek word at the beginning of John 11:6 introduces an inference, which calls for the translation so or therefore. I believe we come up with these alternative ways of translating this verse because our understanding of the way God loves us is so different from what John writes here. It’s easy to just assume there is a translation issue since it seems to make no sense in our human minds that Jesus lets Lazarus die because he loves him.
The problem is that we are trying to jam our understanding of God’s love into this verse, and it’s just not fitting. The word is clearly so, and we must deal with that. Jesus loved this family, so he stayed away. We have to let that sink in.
Apparently, God’s love is not expressed at its greatest and highest form by saving us from trials, but instead by glorifying himself through our trials.
Love at Its Highest
God’s love for you is always expressed in its highest form when Jesus Christ is glorified in your life. This is what John 11:3–6 teaches us. God loved Lazarus, so God glorified himself by exalting Jesus Christ through Lazarus. Lazarus’s greatest need was not to be healed, but to see the glory of the Son of God.
And because God loves you and me just as much as he loves Lazarus, God’s plan for us is the same. The details will be unique for each of us, but God’s definition of love doesn’t change. God is always willing to allow short-term pain to produce eternal glory and pleasure through Jesus Christ in those he loves.
The external details of your life might be similar for the rest of your days. You might have the same boring job for the next thirty years. You might never get married. Your marriage might never get much better. The brain damage might remain. But if you learn to love God’s glory in your life — in both trials and triumph, in both boredom and excitement, in both pain and pleasure — you will experience the freedom Jesus came to give. When your joy is no longer tied to your life events but to the life of Christ, you will be free in the purest sense.
If you can grasp this truth expressed through that one word so that links these two wildly enlightening verses, everything will be different for you. If the center point of your life becomes the glory of God in all the highs and lows, nothing will ever be the same.
God does love you. So he is going to do whatever exalts himself the most through your life.