Examining the Problem of Suffering

Reading Time: 7 Minutes

When Jesus Seems to be Silent

John 11.1-6 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Mary, Martha and Lazarus were friends with Jesus. They were some of his close followers and Jesus had been a guest in their home. They were familiar with Jesus’ healing ministry. It is entirely appropriate for the sisters to send Jesus a message, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (verse 3) and expect Jesus to come to their need.

Verses 5 and 6 tell us that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus, but that he also stayed where he was for two more days.

Friendship with Jesus and prayer

(1) This passage teaches us that living in a friendship-relationship with Jesus is not a guarantee of perfect health, prosperity and a trouble free existence.

(2) The request of Mary and Martha is an excellent picture of prayer. Their statement, “Lord, he whom you love is ill,” simply presents the need to Jesus. Simple faith brings our needs to Jesus and trusts Jesus to do the rest.

Revelation 3.20 instructs us that prayer is opening the door of our lives for Jesus to enter and work with us. We don’t have to give him the diagnosis or help somehow help him accomplish his work. We DO need to open the door and allow him access to our needs.

Revelation 3.20“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

How do we respond when Jesus seems to stay away from our suffering?

Two stories came to mind, as I thought about times when Jesus seems to not be present in our time of suffering. The first story involves Dr. Gerald May, a psychiatrist who began his practice in the Vietnam era. Dr. May wrote about his experience of suffering in his book, Addiction and Grace.

When May was a boy, he had a vibrant relationship with Jesus. Jesus seemed to be his friend and companion in a very real and personal way. When May’s father became ill, it was quite natural for Gerald to ask for Jesus to heal his father. He believed with the simplicity and faith that a child would have for his father’s healing to take place.

Instead of being healed, May’s father died. The twelve year-old Gerald immediately changed how he thought about God and life at the time of his father’s death. People who study suffering make it clear people who suffer often do as May did. Suffering does not make them better. Instead, it changes how they view God and life in general.

The young Gerald May told himself that the only person he could trust was himself. He quit believing in God and poured himself into becoming self-sufficient. His drive pushed him through medical school and he became a psychiatrist.

As a psychiatrist, Dr. May began his career with military men, suffering from substance abuse. He applied all of his skills and personal effort to help the men under his care, but no one got better.

At the facility where May worked, some men were getting sober from their various addictions. As he sought out what was happening, he found they were not attended by a professional but by one of their own. One of the men was leading an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

May got interested in AA and began listening to the stories of the men in their meetings. Their stories, often punctuated by personal suffering from the Vietnam War, led him back to his childhood faith.

Dr. Gerald May’s story has a happy ending to his experience with suffering. He lived the rest of his life as a leading psychiatrist, author and committed follower of Jesus.

Unfortunately, there are some who wanted God to “show up” in their time of need and, to them, he didn’t. Sadly, they are the one’s who say, “I tried God and he let me down.”

Dr. John Strange’s story of suffering

Dr. John Strange was my Hebrew professor in seminary. By my fifth Hebrew class, there were only four remaining students. We had the privilege of meeting with this wise and gentle professor for eight very meaningful weeks in a small group setting.

I remember the time I presented a paper with all of my twenty-four years of wisdom. I was talking about faith, when Dr. Strange put his hand on my arm to interrupt me. His wife had just died less than three months previously from a very painful bout with cancer.

I still remember Dr. Strange saying, “When my wife got cancer, we prayed for God to heal her. He didn’t do that. When she got in so much pain, we asked God to take her. He didn’t do that either.”

You can imagine the impact his words had on the class. Then he gave to us his definition of faith that was birthed in the midst of terrible suffering. He said, “When we don’t know what God is doing and when he seems to be silent, faith is continuing to walk with him no matter what.”

Our world is suffering today.

Before I posted this article, I checked on the number of corona virus cases and deaths.

The World:
Cases – 1,133,888
Death – 60,089

The United States:
Cases – 277,953
Death – 7,114

How do we pray for the suffering?

Jesus told Peter, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail . . .” (Luke 22.31-32).

Let’s join Jesus and pray for those who feel like they are being sifted in the suffering of the corona virus. Let’s pray that their faith may not fail and that they will continue to walk with God in the midst of their pain.

James instructs us to pray for the sick in this manner.

James 5.14-15Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.

Please use this prayer promise from James to pray for the sick as often as the Holy Spirit prompts you. We probably won’t see the results, but God will honor our prayers by healing someone, somewhere in the world.


  1. Father I pray for the sick & suffering alone & in pain. That they my find your hand outstretched & open to receive salvation.
    I pray for there families father for your peace to blanket them from guilt shame & remorse. I pray for your will be d ok ne on earth as it is in heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank You, Jesus for Your work amidst this pandemic.
    May this revival of faith in You spread throughout the world and bring more than physical healing in our nation and beyond. May we who love You display our faith even in the midst of suffering and loss. Amen “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.”
    1 Corinthians 15:58 (NLT)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Seeing the results of prayer isn’t even the point. Believing in what we pray is, even if we don’t see it. I am so blessed to be able to have lived long enough to see many of the most fervent prayers of my life answered, but maybe they pale in blessedness compared to the fervent prayers of my grandmother that never lived long enough to see them answered. This to me defines faith. May we remain strong in our faith to God.

    Liked by 1 person

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