Suffering and Solitude
March 29, 2020
The raising of Lazarus is one of the most powerful stories in all of scripture. It’s full of emotion and drama. In it we see a vivid picture of death, and also of Jesus’ power over death. We see a portrayal of Jesus as both human and divine. Jesus weeping with the mourning sisters is a sure sign that God weeps with us in our suffering. Even if God sees the full picture, like Jesus who knew He was going raise Lazarus, God still enters into our suffering and weeps with us.
One of the most curious things is that at the beginning of this passage Jesus actually waits to give Lazarus time to die. He doesn’t come to the rescue right away. What do you think went through Lazarus’ mind when Jesus didn’t come to heal him? Imagine the suffering and feeling of abandonment Lazarus felt on his deathbed. Where was Jesus when he needed him most? Mary and Martha must’ve wondered this too. They express deep sadness and confusion at their Lord’s absence. Jesus feels their pain so much that He is moved to tears.
So why did Jesus wait? He tells His disciples that it is so the glory of God may be revealed. And obviously when Lazarus rises from the dead this glory is revealed. But why does it take someone suffering and dying to reveal God’s glory? And what role does all the waiting play into this? Perhaps these questions ran through Mary and Martha’s minds too, and they remain very relevant questions today. When we consider the mystery of suffering, it’s important to remember the point of last week’s message in the healing of the blind man: Jesus makes it clear that it’s not punishment that made the man blind. Likewise, it’s not punishment for Lazarus that he gets this illness. And Scripture does not tell us God purposely made Lazarus get sick and die. But rather, God will use whatever the suffering of this world is to transform it. Without suffering there is no healing. Without the dark nights there is no dawn. Without death there is no resurrection.
I think it’s important for us to remember this at this time of the coronavirus. Whether it’s a worldwide pandemic, or war, or famine, or natural disasters, or a crashing economy—God does not pick and choose who suffers and who doesn’t. Rather than seeing suffering as some kind of punishment, we should look at it as an opportunity for transformation. Remember the words of St. Paul: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” Perhaps this provides a glimpse into the mystery of suffering. Our trials lead to further growth. Our pruning leads to bearing fruit. Our struggle leads to transformation.
I’ve heard many talk about the difficulty of this time. Whether it’s the challenge our medical professionals are experiencing right now, or the fear many have in losing work and financial stability, or the loneliness of being stuck at home during the quarantine. In these trials Jesus speaks to you a word of hope. Know that if you are vulnerable or your work puts you in harm’s way, God will walk with you through whatever trials come. And trust that the Spirit can use this time to deepen your connection with God.
For those of you stuck at home during the quarantine, I want to encourage us to recognize this time as a period of special solitude. A good way to deal with isolation is instead of resisting it, welcome it. Sink into it. Be in it fully. Don’t resist it or run from it. Embrace the loneliness and welcome the quiet time. Loneliness can be a wonderful teacher. Cultivate a space where you can be present to yourself, just you and God—and dwell in the silence.
I recall a story I learned in my pastoral counseling program. The author Sue Mcgrath tells this almost comical story about the psychologist Carl Jung. She writes, “The story goes that a middle-aged gentleman came to Jung complaining of his terror of being alone. At the end of his first session, [Jung] recommended that the man spend one full hour every day in solitude. The following week, the man returned for his session, and Jung asked how the assignment had turned out. The man exclaimed “I found out that I can’t stand myself.” To which Jung replied, “See what you’re inflicting on the rest of us?”
While it hopefully brings us a chuckle to think about, Jung’s point is a good one. Mcgrath continues, “We are a culture that seems almost terrified of being alone and goes to great lengths to avoid it…We might not like what we discovery when we enter the lonely place. Solitude and silence are the crucible of soul work.”
Like Mcgrath says, it seems our whole culture is built around avoiding solitude. We usually have to be incredibly intentional to create space for solitude. But nowadays with this quarantine it seems like we have to be very intentional to avoid solitude and silence.
At our first Tuesdays Together time of prayer and devotion I shared with some of you what Irish priest, poet and author John O’Donohue has to say about solitude. He says, “If you are outside your self, always reaching beyond your self, you avoid the call of your own mystery. When you acknowledge the integrity of your solitude, and settle into its mystery, your relationships with others take on a new warmth, adventure, and wonder.”
These writers make clear that dwelling in solitude is a spiritual practice, even though it might feel like a type of death sometimes. We might feel like God isn’t even there and grow frustrated with our unending thoughts or become lonely or bored. In solitude we’re more vulnerable to depression, and old griefs we’d thought we moved past erupt from within to torment us again. But it is in these trials that the Lord is with us even when we don’t feel like it; and it is these cathartic moments that lead to transformation. Of course, if you’re dealing with clinical depression it’s essential to reach out for help. But for most of us who are bored or lonely, don’t be so quick to run away from solitude.
Most of the time our society is so fast paced that we can barely keep up. Now we have time to slow down and dwell in the sacredness of what it is to be alive. And so, I invite you to dwell in your solitude and see this quarantine as a spiritual practice. Take time to be alone, to dwell in solitude, to look deeply inside and glimpse the incredible mystery of your own being. Think about it like Lazarus’ time in the tomb, a time necessary for transformation. Trust that God is with you, even when you cannot feel it. And allow the Spirit to use this time to prune your soul.
And beyond just the immediate future, I hope you learn to see all times of trial as an opportunity for growth and transformation. Like Lazarus on his deathbed, who couldn’t understand why Jesus hadn’t come, we might feel confused about God’s apparent absence in our lives. But we know we can trust the one who raised Lazarus from the dead. We know we can trust the one who died for the world. We know we can trust the one who reconciles the world with God. Let us pray for the world, and that we seize every opportunity we have to bring some good out of this. That we come together in solidarity and that a crisis like this wakes us up to what’s most important in life. And whatever happens, know that Jesus Christ is with you, suffers with you, weeps with you, and is walking with you your whole life long.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Mcgrath, S. (2019). My burden is light: A primer for clergy wellness. Eugene, OR:
O'Donohue, J. (1997). Anam cara: A book of Celtic wisdom. New York: Cliff Street