I stumbled on an exquisite little bit of language recently in Psalm 74 that I’d never noticed before. Grieving over God’s rejection of His people and the hardship they have suffered, the psalmist cries out for aid and intervention in verse 11:
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
This is an astonishing word-picture. According to the psalmist, God’s right hand is hidden within the folds of His garments. In other words, God is standing there with His hands in His pockets. Unmoving. Restrained.
It’s an uncomfortable image – or at least it ought to be. We like to imagine God’s hands moving, doing, rearranging things, descending, intervening. What feelings does it evoke for us to think of God standing, His hands hidden inside His garments?
The same discomfort resonates in John 11, when Jesus doesn’t show up in immediate response to Mary and Martha’s message that Lazarus has died. His lateness is clearly purposeful; upon receiving the message, He remarks that it is for God’s glory.
But every time I think of His declaration upon receiving that message from the sisters, I cringe a little bit. Because I am thinking, too, of two sisters watching their brother die and slowly fade, walking to the door and looking out between vigils, hoping to see a familiar figure walking down the path. Looking and looking, waiting and hoping, until the body grows cold and they stop looking out the window to tend to the burial instead.
When Jesus arrives, the reaction of the two sisters is noteworthy. Martha meets Him at the gate, notes that if He had been present Lazarus would not have died, and then says, “I know even now that God will give you whatever you ask.” Although she is confused when Jesus promises that Lazarus will rise again (she assumes He is referring to “the resurrection at the last day,”) the door to her heart seems to be open: I have the impression that she is waiting to see what Jesus will do.
But it’s Mary whose response resonates most with me. Mary – Mary who sits adoring at Jesus’ feet – does not come to meet Him. Is it possible that those who love curling up at Jesus’ feet feel the most crushed when He seems to be absent? Scripture states plainly that she stays home. And though it’s entirely possible that her staying home was a necessity, her response when she finally sees Jesus makes me wonder. When she is called out to meet Him, her response echoes Mary’s – minus the affirming overtones. Instead she says, simply, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – and she falls crying at his feet.
Jesus cries, too.
Here is what I know: there are time when God holds back, deliberately, even in the moments that He could intervene. He keeps his hand inside the folds of His robe. And even when we know that there is a reason for that restraint (even if we do not know what the reason is), the delay causes us pain. Sometimes a lot of pain. Mary’s grief and sorrow is real. The raw-throated, desperate cry of the psalmist is real. When God shows up late – or what we perceive as late – it hurts.
The truth we often don’t like to discuss is that God sometimes holds back. And He does it, sometimes, knowing it will cause us pain and that it is something we are begging not to endure.
But here is what I also know from those verses: God’s feelings are tied up in these painful moments of delay. There are many scholarly debates about why Jesus wept, but I believe in my heart of hearts that at least to some degree He was hurting with and for Mary. He only cries after He sees her obvious grief and the grief of those accompanying her. Our sadness saddens Him. The God of great compassion grieves with us even as He resists intervening on the schedule we would prefer.
And out of all of this I remember one of Christianity’s great mysteries is the great exercise of faith through pain: believing in God’s character and believing in who He says He is means believing that His reasons for holding back are more important, more necessary, and more loving than my desire for Him to intervene immediately and spare me pain.
This is a hard truth.
But there’s no way around it. And eventually, when you find yourself standing at the precipice of a needed change – when your circumstances seem unendurable and everything about your situation is primed, waiting for God’s intervention – God is not going to be where you want Him to be. He is not going to respond when you want Him to respond. You will hold vigil, and you will keep going to the door like Mary, like Martha, but you won’t see Him coming down the walk to make it better when you expect He will.
When He finally does come, He will seem late. And in the human reckoning of time, He is. But God knows what we often forget in the middle of our crises – and what Mary and Martha saw for themselves – which is that for God there is no such thing as too late. There is no sorrow so profound it cannot eventually be taken away. There is no hurt so dire it cannot be healed. There is no tragedy so permanent it cannot be undone.
The cost is only our faith, and the waiting, and the hurt we bear in the interim. But should you find yourself in that moment, I pray you are given the grace to realize that God is bearing the hurt with you, too. Keep enduring. Nothing lasts forever, and God’s restraint does not imply a lack of care.