“Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
John 11:21 (Common English Bible)
Here is an example of the destructive nature of regret. Martha has lost her brother, Lazarus. Rather than accepting that death is inevitable for each of us, that Lazarus’ death was not the result of an unfortunate accident or tragedy, Martha begins to question what could have been done; what might have been executed differently that would have prevented this loss. Martha has engaged in the most common form of grief, the “If only…” cycle of questioning that impedes healing. We are familiar with this form of grief; “If only you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” “If only I had arranged things differently.” “If only I had made a different choice, taken another turn.” We recognize Martha’s sentiment as our own. It is a response that flows from unnecessary and harmful personal responsibility.
This appearance of grief is usually born on the morning after a loss or crisis. And it sometimes continues until we draw our final breath—holding us in an unwarranted prison of self-blame. It is a sorrow that drains away vital strength, a grief that consumes our life. The crippling result is the loss of an inward peace and the capacity to meaningfully to live for others. Others who love us, who look to us for encouragement, strength, and direction are deprived of our friendship. We are simply crushed under needless regret. “If only I had called the doctor earlier.” “If only I had noticed the signs, had paid more attention.” One devastating loss now precipitates another. We may still have breath in our lungs but no longer do we bring value to our homes, our communities, or to our network of relationships.
Suppose for a moment that there was something we could have done. Suppose that we could have made a different choice or might have taken another course of action. What then? The question that presses from this passage of scripture is, who is our God? Martha identifies Jesus as, “Lord.” What does the lordship of Jesus mean for us. Martha’s profession of faith, of her belief in Jesus’ capacity as Lord startles. It is a faith in a lord that has limited ability. She confesses—though unintentionally—a belief that Jesus’ redemptive power is only available while Lazarus remained alive, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” But her brother has died. Hope in anything more is abandoned. Nothing more can be done, apparently even by Jesus. Jesus didn’t arrive in time.
The Bible tells us that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. There has been considerable conjecture as to why Jesus wept. The Bible remains silent on this question. Some have suggested that Jesus simply gave expression to the natural human response to the loss of a dear friend. Others have offered the suggestion that Lazarus’ death provided an entrance into paradise, to everlasting life with God and now, Jesus was about to take that away by bringing Lazarus back to life. Each of these suggestions completely ignore what Jesus heard from the lips of Martha, “if you had been here.” Jesus heard an incomplete faith, “if only.” The very gospel of Jesus’ power is that things that are broken are repaired. If unintentionally we have gone astray, Jesus is the one who makes the crooked straight and gives life where the world only sees death.