My Grandmother was one of the most active women I have ever known. She swam in the icy cold waters of Long Island Sound every morning from Memorial Day through Labor Day. She served her family, friends, church and community in a variety of ways and was one of the most well read people I have known. She was the kind of person who did the NYT crossword puzzles every week and usually finished them. I was blessed to spend a lot of time with my grandmother, often standing on the rocks early in the morning watching her swim because there was no way I was getting into the cold water. My grandmother remained active into her 80’s and after she moved into a retirement center, she began to volunteer in a local elementary school where she learned from the children how to use a computer. To remain active, she needed a hip replacement and during her rehab suffered a stroke.
The stroke took my Grandmother’s ability to talk and read so all her means of communication were gone – which was devastating to her. Her stroke also woke me up. My grandmother always wanted me to be a minister but I was at a place in my life where I was pushing that calling aside and working at a movie theater. In the months after her stroke, the #1 movie at the theater was Dead Poet’s Society which made popular the phrase, Carpe Diem or Seize the Day. I kept asking myself what I was doing with my life and if I was making the most if it. If a woman as vital and active as my Grandmother could have her life changed in a moment, then life for all of us was short and I needed to make the most of it – I needed to Seize the Day.
My Grandmother’s stroke was a pivotal circumstance in my life because as I look back, it was the event which got me thinking about my life, my goals and God’s calling. It was that defining moment that helped me make the decision to quit my job and step out on a journey that led to Seminary, which is where my Grandmother always wanted me to go, and to ministry in the local church, which is where my Grandmother always wanted me to be. In all of our lives there are these pivotal circumstances that change us. Sometimes they wake us up, sometimes they bring us to our knees, sometimes they are filled with joy, but all of them can be used by God to grow our faith.
While God can and does use good circumstances to grow us, it often seems like it is the difficult and painful ones that are the most pivotal. C.S. Lewis said, God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain. The painful circumstances often give God the most opportunity to grow our faith because it is during the painful times of life that we often look to God for help. These pivotal circumstances can come when the doctor gives us the diagnosis of cancer, or when our spouse leaves a note saying the marriage is over. Pivotal circumstances come when we are turned down for a job or given our two week’s notice. It comes with accidents, bankruptcies or when we or our children hit rock bottom and come face to face with our addictions. Chances are you have faced some kind of situation like this – maybe you are walking through it today – the good news is that through this period of despair and desperation – God is present and God can actually grow our faith through it.
That God uses negative and painful situations to grow our faith is made clear to us in James 1:2-4. Let’s be honest, none of us really rejoices when life hands us these difficult challenges, sometimes the joy only comes after it is all over and we have made it through, but even then that joy is tempered with the pain of loss, but James is making it clear that God uses negative circumstances in our lives to grow us. Trials produce perseverance and perseverance is needed if we are going to become mature – or grow – in our faith.
Paul says something similar in Romans 5:3-5. Again, we may not celebrate when problems come, but if we will endure through them with God – then our hope will not disappoint – or our faith and trust in God will grow. While we should not ask God to bring painful trials into our lives so that we can grow – the Bible is pretty clear that these trials are part of our lives and God does not always take them away, instead God uses them to grow our faith, mature our trust and deepen our relationship with Him.
One of the most difficult questions for me to answer is the question of why bad things happen and why they happen to good, innocent people. If God really loves us, then why do these things happen? I don’t know and the reality is that most of the time there is not a good answer. I have found myself in so many situations where all I have been able to say is, I don’t know why this happened, but I do know this, God is with you. My very first funeral was for a still born child so I realized from the beginning that at times there are simply no answers to life’s pain and problems, but there is a truth to share and that truth is this: God is with us and God still loves us. What we learn from Jesus is that if we will trust him, God will use pivotal and painful circumstances to grow our faith.
The story of Jesus we are going to look at today is one that troubles many people because it seems to go against our understanding of Jesus and his unconditional love. What the story teaches us is that Jesus loves us so much and the growth of our faith is so important to Him that instead of taking away our pain and changing bad circumstances, God will sometimes use them to grow our faith. The story is found in John 11.
John 11:1-3. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were close friends of Jesus. As Jesus traveled through the region he would often stay at their home and the bond he shared with this family was strong. We can see that when the message Mary and Martha send to Jesus is simply that the one Jesus loves is sick. They don’t have to mention Lazarus’ name because they know Jesus will understand who they are talking about. This sets up the pivotal circumstance that will grow everyone’s faith. The best friend of Jesus is sick and everyone now assumes that Jesus will drop everything to come and heal Lazarus, but that is not what happens.
John 11:4-6. Jesus states from the beginning that this situation is going to glorify God and anytime God is glorified among the disciples it’s an opportunity to increase people’s faith, so we know that Jesus is going to do something significant here, but he doesn’t do what we might expect. It says that Jesus stayed where he was for two more days and it was during those days that Lazarus died. This is what makes the story so difficult. Why didn’t Jesus return sooner? Why didn’t Jesus heal Lazarus from afar the way he healed others from a distance? Why didn’t Jesus do something – anything? It seems like Jesus just allows Lazarus to die and the truth is that he does. Jesus allows this tragic death because he knows it will be an opportunity to grow everyone’s faith in the days to come.
It’s important to see that while Jesus didn’t prevent Lazarus from dying, it was not Jesus who caused him to die. Painful things happen in all of our lives and while God doesn’t always take them away it is not God who causes them. God doesn’t keep disease, divorce, financial ruin, job loss and even death from taking place in our lives – these tragic things happen because we live in a broken and sinful world, but if we are willing to hang in there with God, these circumstances can be used by God to grow our faith. This is not an easy thing to wrap our hearts and minds around, especially when we are going through the difficult times, but it is a truth we need to hear and remember so that we can hang on when these circumstances come, because they will come.
So Jesus’ friend Lazarus was sick and Jesus waited two days before he headed off to help him and it was during those days that Lazarus died. Jesus then returns to Bethany and this is where we pick up the story in John 11:17-21. And when Mary heard that Jesus arrived she said the same thing. John 11:32-35.
Both Mary and Martha said the same thing to Jesus, Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, and this is often the cry of our hearts when we are in pain. Lord, if you had been here, this situation would not have happened. Most of us have prayed this prayer or cried out to God in anger, frustration or desperation with similar words. God, you could have done something to change this. If we face these circumstances believing that God has abandoned us, then the pivotal circumstance turns us away from God, but if we can face the situation with just a thread of faith trusting that somehow and in some way God is with us, God will use it to grow our faith. Martha chose to look at this situation with faith, John 11:22. Even now there is hope. Even now – even though everything seems lost – with Jesus there is hope. If this can be our cry – the pivotal circumstance will grow our faith.
So here is Jesus, facing his friends and the crowds, who also wonder why Jesus didn’t come and help sooner, and he sees and feels the pain and heartache that they are feeling and it says, Jesus wept. This is the shortest verse in the Bible and it is one that reflects the amazing love of Jesus. Jesus weeps because he knows the pain and confusion that Mary and Martha are feeling. Even though Jesus knows he is going to do something to turn this situation around, he weeps because he knows that situations like this bring real pain and heartache to our lives. God doesn’t take all of our pain away – bad things happen and tragic circumstances take place and while God doesn’t take them all away – God is with us through it and he cares for us.. Jesus weeps with us, he is with us in the pain and if we can hold on to this truth, then this can become a defining moment and a pivotal time of growth in our lives.
It is easy to say all of this when we are not in the middle of the pain, but if you are facing a painful and heartbreaking situation today, all I really want you to know and hear is that God knows your pain. God loves you and cares for you. Jesus weeps with you and he is not done with you.
What also helps us make it through these moments with faith are the people who surround us. If we are surrounded by people who help us keep looking to Jesus and remind us that no matter what happens God is with us, then we find these situations often grow our faith. Without the support and faith of others, we often find these circumstances turn us away from God. That’s why they are pivotal – they can send us off in two different directions which is why we need to support people during their times of need. This is why small groups and being part of a church are so important because when the hard times come – and they come to all of us – we need the strength and faith of others to help us through.
Jesus weeps, but then he does something to turn the situation around. John 11:38-44. Jesus had the people roll away the stone from the tomb and everyone was quick to remind Jesus that this was not a good idea because after 4 days, the body of Lazarus was going to smell awful. Even after Jesus has told people to believe that he is the resurrection and the life, they don’t see opening the grave as a good situation – but Jesus continues to tell the people to believe and if they do their faith will grow stronger. So the stone is rolled away and Lazarus rises from the dead and is returned to his family. As the people rejoice – their faith and trust in Jesus grows.
Not every painful and tragic situation in our lives is resolved this way, but they all have the potential to grow our faith if we will trust God to be with us. If we will trust God through the disappointment and despair – our faith will grow because God brings grace into despair, light into darkness and life into death. God doesn’t keep bad situations from happening but God does redeem those situations to bring about His glory and through God’s glory come opportunities for us to see God and develop a stronger faith.
This is the story of Jesus and the cross. God could have taken the cross away or come in at the last moment to rescue his son, but he didn’t. Suffering and pain are part of Jesus’ story and suffering and pain is part of our story, but God will use that circumstance to grow our faith if will simply hold on. Beyond our own cross comes a resurrection. If you are going through a painful circumstance like this today and are struggling to hold on or struggling to have even a thread of faith – then ask God to help you see His presence because He is with you and as long as we can see him or have faith that he is with us – there is hope.
Pivotal circumstances are one way that God grows our faith. The good circumstances are easy to get through and it’s easy to see in them the power of God, but the difficult and painful ones are not – but they can be more powerful because it is making it through moments of defeat and despair that become the defining moments of faith development in our lives.
1. Can you identify a pivotal circumstance in your life that God used to grow your faith?
• Was it a good event or a painful one?
• Describe what you had to go through.
• How did God reveal Himself to you through this time?
• What growth did you see after you made it through?
2. As you have gone through painful times in life, have there been people of faith who have helped you through? What did they do support you?
3. If you are going through a difficult and painful circumstance today, seek out the support and help of others. Mary and Martha turned to their friend Jesus, who can you turn to?
4. Who in your life might need support today? How can you offer it to them in a practical way this week?
5 Through this series we have seen that God grows our faith through:
• Practical Teaching
• Providential Relationships
• Private Disciplines
• Personal Ministry
• Pivotal Circumstances
Which of these 5 principles do you see God using in your life and faith right now? What can you do this week and during the upcoming season of Lent to keep the growth?