Some days—September 11, December 7—forever stain our mental calendars, and this year March 11 joined those “days of infamy.” The date marked not only the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic but also the tenth anniversary of a tsunami that devastated a coastal region of Japan. The tsunami surge did its damage quickly and receded; the pandemic surge is still wreaking havoc across the globe.
The 2011 tsunami ranks as the most expensive natural disaster in history. Japan has spent three hundred billion dollars constructing sea walls, rebuilding roads, and replacing structures destroyed by the towering ocean wave. Meanwhile, a small army of workers still reports for work each day at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, trying to control contamination and prevent more catastrophic meltdowns.
I visited the area twice. The year after the tsunami, I met with some of the displaced families living in temporary housing and saw the relief work of Samaritan’s Purse and other Christian organizations. Six years later I returned with a pastor to visit his abandoned church in Fukushima, once a modern city and now an eerie ghost town. Each time, my hosts recited statistics of the damage caused in 2011: 410,000 cars destroyed, 19,000 people killed, half a million buildings badly damaged or destroyed.
Statistics don’t tell the human story, however. A local guide led me to an elementary school where 74 of 105 students died after school officials delayed instructing them to climb a hill just behind the school. Too late, the children were scrambling upward across snowy ground as the first wave hit, only to lose their footing and slip into the water’s certain death. Standing on the school steps, I watched a video recorded at that very vantage point, with the death-wave hurtling in and children screaming in the background.
A nearby gymnasium became an impromptu museum, housing children’s objects recovered from the mud and debris. For a year, volunteers painstakingly cleaned textbooks, dolls, coloring books, stuffed animals, school papers, scrapbooks, loose photos—any memento of the children who were lost. There I met a grief-stricken mother who was methodically sifting through the boxes full of debris. A year later, she was still coming to the gym, searching for some scrap that might have belonged to her daughter. Her image haunts me to this day.
In the early days of the pandemic I followed the charts of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 as diligently as some people follow the stock market or sports scores. By any measure, the United States ranks as the worst-affected of any country, with our 5 percent of the world’s population accounting for 25 percent of cases worldwide and a fifth of total deaths. The statistics took on a different, more personal cast when my brother in California came down with the disease.
From my brother I got a daily, intimate account of what hospitalization has been like for almost 900,000 Americans so far. For two weeks he lay in an open ward, hardly sleeping because of the moans of others, some of whom were hallucinating. Hospital staff, shorthanded because of COVID, did their best to cope, but often his summons for help went unanswered. No visitors were allowed, and his only human contacts came dressed in full PPE garb. “I have nothing to read, and no TV. There’s nothing to do, and I can’t get any sleep,” he complained. He spent an additional two weeks in a rehab center, but during that time staff managed only three sessions of physical therapy. Every day he pleaded over the phone, “Please, help get me out of here.”
Later, I interviewed a chaplain at a memory care facility for patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. After losing twenty-two residents to COVID-19, the facility imposed a complete lockdown, banning visitors. “Where’s my family?” the puzzled patients asked. “Why doesn’t anyone come see me anymore?” The chaplain, Diane Kamin, sat with some of these confused residents as they died, holding their hands and offering whatever comfort she could. Sometimes she FaceTimed the scene to family members who were sitting in the lobby, awaiting their loved one’s imminent death. Then she would go out into the lobby and share every detail of the patient’s last hours on earth.
Listening to Diane Kamin, I thought back to a film I had seen by the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who profiled Mother Teresa’s work among the dying in Calcutta (Something Beautiful for God). Statistically, he admits, she did not accomplish much by rescuing stragglers from the streets. He concludes with the statement, “But, then, Christianity is not a statistical view of life.”
I have been reviewing the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ miracles of healing, wondering what we can learn from them in a time of pandemic or natural disaster. They record the details of two dozen individual instances of healing, covering a wide spectrum of disease and disability: blindness, deafness, leprosy, dropsy, paralysis, chronic hemorrhaging, fever, demon possession, a withered hand—and three incidents of resurrection from the dead.
Sometimes Jesus led mass events of healing in which he “cured many people of diseases and afflictions” (Luke 7:21). These seemed to drain him, and he would flee the press of the crowd to seek solitude in the hills, or row across a lake. He preferred the personal touch, one-on-one.
Jesus healed everyone who asked. Not once did he demur with an explanation like “Blind from birth? It’s too late to connect all those brain neurons” or “The man’s been dead four days—sorry, he’s beyond help.” Although Jesus had the ability to set right the worst ills that plague us, he chose against the spectacular remedies proposed by the Tempter in the desert. His miracles were on local scale, usually prompted by simple compassion, and often he asked that they not be publicized. Similarly, Jesus had the power to shout down a storm and tame the waves that were terrifying his disciples. But he did not alter the natural processes that would produce typhoons and hurricanes—and tsunamis—in succeeding centuries.
C. S. Lewis described the natural world as “a good thing spoiled.” The tectonic forces that proved so destructive in 2011 are the same ones that formed the islands of Japan in the first place. Viruses are the most abundant and diverse beings on earth, and virologists estimate that only 1 percent of them cause disease—yet just one mutant strain can bring the world to its knees.
Creation has been groaning “as in the pains of childbirth,” Paul told the Romans, having no illusions about the state of our planet. Our only hope is radical intervention, that one day “the creation itself will be liberated” in a sort of cosmic rebirth. Jesus’ miracles—especially the Resurrection—offer a tantalizing clue to that restored creation, though with no immediate solution to the suffering that afflicts us now.
A new book by Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith, centers on the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35), as a lens through which we can glimpse a new perspective on human suffering. Moved by the grief of Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus wept with them, even though he knew he would soon resolve that grief through a dramatic act of resurrection. Jesus also knew that the miracle was at best temporary, for Lazarus would ultimately die again.
A hypothetical scene enters my mind, of Mary and Martha gathering around their brother’s bedside some thirty years after their encounter with Jesus. Lazarus is dying again, and their old grief returns. It’s different this time, though. They have no lingering bitterness against Jesus, for they watched in agony what he himself went through as part of the mystery of healing the planet. No, they’ve had three bonus decades with their brother, and not since he strolled like a mummy out of the cave have they doubted Jesus’ promise to return to the Father and prepare a place for them—and for us.
Oddly enough, they remember most acutely the image of Jesus bent over and leaning against the stone tomb, shaking with sobs. Though he knew the bright future that lay ahead, he understood that they did not. Rather than scold them for a lack of faith, he shared their tears. In a matter of days or weeks, they would share his tears too, for John 11 explicitly links the raising of Lazarus to the plot to kill Jesus.
I think back to the Japanese mother fumbling through boxes in a school gymnasium, weeping in that shy, unobtrusive Japanese way. Likely, she’s looking for stray belongings to place in her daughter’s bedroom, which she’s preserved intact since 2011. The school she’s sitting in has memorialized in permanent plaques the names of each child who died, as if they lived not seven or eight years but eternally. Whom we love, we humans keep alive in memory.
We cannot undo grief. Yet we can cling to hope that an omnipotent God has the power not only to keep us alive in memory but to resurrect us to a new and permanent state. “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him,” says the theologian Jürgen Moltmann. The Lazarus and Easter events do not solve the problem of suffering, but they do point forward to a solution. Until then, Jesus weeps.
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from Philip’s paraphrase of John Donne’s Devotions.
Philip, I know there is a great chance that you will never see this comment, but I am strongly compelled to express to you the great impact that the Lord had on my life through your books. My dad was a huge fan of yours and owned so many of your books. Since he passed in 2018 I have inherited most of them. I am currently reading, What’s So Amazing About Grace. It literally has not only changed my views of grace but it has changed my life. Since 2018 I lost a granddaughter, my dad, my stepmom, my mother in law and finally my husband of 35 years in 2020. Those were devastating losses but the single most devastating event was when I found out, in the middle of our fight with my husband’s cancer diagnosis, that he, my husband, had been unfaithful to me. He passed before I could resolve the deepest pain I have ever known.
I have been reading this book very slowly and have had to put it down numerous times to let your words sink in. You are an intellectual for sure and I am a blond to the brain, but I trust your insights because you stay brutally honest about yourself and you come at every issue from every angle..and I REAALY APPRECIATE THAT!!
I know you’ve probably heard from a million people that say these things to you, but please know that our God is still using you in huge ways and impacting lives in earthquake shaking positive ways!! I’m no writer and my words fail me…but thank you for answering the call and being so transparent.
I love your insight about the account of Lazarus — that Jesus wept with Mary and Martha in their moment of grief and did not deride them for a lack of faith. Recognizing that Jesus suffers with us / along side us is crucial.
In a few weeks I’ll be preaching in a small church (about 25 adults) in Taiwan, my home for the past 10 years. The topic is on prayer – specifically Matt 6:5-8. I reread your book on prayer and will be able to use part of it in my message. Your advice to ‘keep it honest, keep it simple, keep it up’ resonates with me.
Thank you too for sharing about your wife’s experiences as a hospice chaplain. This ministry, like yours, supports people going through dark times.
Thank you for reminding me/us that Jesus not only knows our suffering but has suffered also and so he can fully relate to what we have experienced/we will experience. His comfort is available but most of all his presence; when we cry out for help he listens and answers though at times not the way we want but he knows what is best for us. Whatever lies ahead (its expected to worsen) we who are in Christ have Hope HE is our HOPE.
Thank you and God Bless…..
Thank you so much for the deep insights!
Beautiful message. Beautiful sculpture of Christ. Who is the artist?
We bought it from an agency called Big Stock. The photo is in many places on the Internet, but so far we haven’t located the name of the artist. Sorry.
Thank you Philip, for your moving reminder of the sorrow that Jesus feels over the pain and suffering that we experience in our fallen world. I have wondered, however, if His tears are also in response to our unbelief. Could it be the Jesus weeps also because we do not believe that He is going to wipe away all of our tears?
I have to confess… though I live a most privileged life, the heartache of the age is overwhelming. I have found false refuges to ease the anxiety that prove they are indeed false and ultimately harden or totally break the heart.
Your words have been as a healing balm as the truth though painful is wrapped in Christ’s life and hope.
Simon Peter answered him,” Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”
Thank you so much on that reflection of Mary and Martha 30 years after Lazarus’ resurrection. I have never thought of that before, but it does make it clear that having seen the first resurrection and then experienced Jesus’ own, they would have viewed death very differently.
Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen but have yet believed.” But, do you not think there was some advantage to these first followers because they saw these things in a definitive way?
An advantage? Oh, yes, a major boost to the disciples who had seen Jesus’ miraculous powers. And yet…they still forsook him at the end, until his own resurrection. As I discuss in Disappointment with God, miracles rarely produce the certainty we yearn for.
Thank you, Philip!
Thank you for the timely article which remains our future hope in Christ. It is comfort that Jesus Christ also the partaker of our sufferings especially He wept with us. O! what a great truth. We are so blessed that have such a fellowship with God through His Son. Once again thank you the encourage and the comfort in the midst of this pandemic situation.
Maraming salamat po 🙏
I thank you for this timely reminder..
God bless your every work!
What a beautiful and thoughtful description of the world that groans and aches for our Savior’s return.Thank you for your thoughtful and godly words, I always look forward to reading more.
Thank you for writing this, Philip — these words are much needed today and in this season. Most mornings over the past couple of weeks I woke up with a song from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the Disney movie) persisting in my head: “God help the outcasts / the poor and down-trod.” In light of the ongoing pandemic and the Atlanta and Boulder shootings, it feels very much like hope and restoration are getting further and further away. But your post reminds me that even if we can only weep and grieve for the time being, Jesus always weeps and grieves with us. I’m holding on to the thought that he is nearest to those suffering most, and I think that in itself is a kind of hope that no circumstances can take away.
Thank you so much Philip! This is beautiful double edged thrust through the chaos, carving the path Jesus trod. On the one hand we are called to “weep with those who weep,” just like Him. On the other, to live in hope, resisting the temptation to power, control and triumphalism, just like Him. Thanks!
We know his timing is perfect but how can we not plead “come Jesus, come”
Thank you so much. This is very comforting. My husband passed away ten years ago now, when he was just 58, and then my daughter three years later. My 94 year old Dad just died, leaving me feeling very much alone. My mother died many years ago when she was just 51. The deaths of those I love have been very painful. I am 71 now and am facing life (and death one day?) alone. I know Jesus is with me. I know I will never truly be alone. But this beautifully puts it all in perspective. Thank you.
Thank you Philip. I was just searching for a blessing for our traditional crawfish boil on Easter Sunday. My younger brother died a few months ago. He was in charge of boiling the crawfish (which is a serious honor in south Louisiana). It was his day to shine! I wanted to say a few words of comfort to the family. I think “Jesus wept” will be so appropriate. I hope your brother survived COVID.
Thanks Philip for your words of encouragement in time of powerless.
Thanks for sharing these powerful reflections on suffering and loss. I’d never seen nor read the quote by Muggeridge before, but that’s running around in my head now and I suspect it will be for a while.
O Charlie, you did it again. Thanks for the remarkable insights of “Jesus wept.” I am preaching on Jesus’ second word at the Tre Ore in this Holy week. I picture Jesus weeping when He says to his mother and John: “Woman, behold your son; son behold behold your mother.” I know the text does not picture him weeping. Your article on his tears helped much
I read “A Time to Weep” this morning, minutes after learning of the death, by overdose, of a 49-year old woman. I’ve known this precious child since she was three years old. I officiated at the funeral for her infant sister some 40+ years ago. Her addiction took her and her family down the all-too-familiar path of destruction. Like so much that is tragic in our world, there are no easy, totally comforting answers for those who survive. You’re correct that “the Lazarus and Easter events do not solve the problem of suffering, but they do point forward to a solution. Until then, Jesus weeps.” Today, I weep with him for my friends with whom I wept so many years ago as they buried their infant daughter.
O Charlie, you did it again. Thanks for the remarkable insights of “Jesus wept.” I am preaching on Jesus’ second word at Immanuel Tre Ore in this Holy week. I picture Jesus weeping when He says to his mother and John: “Woman, behold your son; son behold behold your mother.” I know the text does not picture him weeping, but your article of his tears was so helpful.