EVEN IN THE touch-tone era, when you're in trouble, it can be hair-raising to wait for help to arrive.

Recently a young mother found herself dialing those three life-saving digits. She was preparing for company and, after checking on her two young sons playing in their bedroom, she opened the sliding glass door that led out to the pool, letting in the fresh Florida winter air.

She turned her back momentarily, just long enough for her two-year-old to toddle through the door and tumble into the pool. At the cries of her older son, she ran to pull the motionless body of her child from the water. Then she rushed to the phone and frantically dialed 911.

To her horror, she heard only silence at the other end of the line. She dropped the receiver and, clutching her lifeless child, dashed out into the yard in a desperate search for help, just as a squad car screeched to a halt in front of her house.

Police officers sprang out in time to revive her little boy. The emergency operator, having heard her cries, had instantly dispatched the closest rescue team to her doorstep. From the moment her call came through to the screech of brakes in front of her house, only sixty seconds had elapsed.

Centuries earlier, when Mary and Martha sounded a frantic call for help, their message got through, too. But the similarity ends there. Instead of dropping everything and flying straight to Bethany for a dramatic rescue, Jesus calmly remained where He was for forty-eight crucial hours. By the time He arrived in Bethany, death had claimed its victim, the funeral was over, and Lazarus had lain entombed for four days.

Now Mary faced a double crisis. Not only had she lost her beloved brother. She also felt intensified anguish by her disappointment with Jesus. Even John the apostle seemed perplexed when he wrote, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (John 11:5–6).

In a way, every grief is two-dimensional—the loss itself and the nagging thought that “all of this could have been prevented if only God had acted.” The disappointment Mary felt is familiar to us all. How many crises have we suffered where the simplest, most obvious solution was for God to intervene—something He was fully capable of doing? We prayed our hearts out. Yet the clock ticked away, days passed, conditions worsened and still we saw no sign of him. No fire from heaven, no breathtaking miracle, no stilling of stormy waters. Events played out without interference from heaven, and we were left in the numbing aftermath to nurse our shattered hopes and to try to avoid thinking about the connection between God's silence and the disastrous outcome.

Shortly after Jesus arrived in Bethany, the eager student sat at her Rabbi's feet, still full of questions, prompted now by her aching need to understand Him. Collapsing under the double weight of grief and disappointment, she sobbed out words He had already heard from Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32).

Strange as it sounds, Mary's struggle was as God intended. He brings us all here—to feel such pain and through it to know the depths of our need of Him. He works in the heart of a single woman suffering from interminable aloneness, the wife whose infertility brings shattering disappointment every month, the widow whose loss others have forgotten, while she feels it more acutely than at first. God uses our struggles to expose our need to know Him better and to draw us closer to Himself. Difficult as this is, we do our best learning here. In the trenches of life our theology ceases to be theory as we learn to trust Him who doesn't always fulfill our expectations.

Mary's crisis achieved its intended result. Although it broke her heart and brought her to the edge of her faith, instead of distancing her from Jesus, it drew her closer. Instead of undermining her faith, it multiplied her reasons to trust Him.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the shock produced at Lazarus’s tomb when Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out!” Every red-rimmed eye turned to the opening of the tomb. For a second, all was silent.

Imagine the look on Mary's face as she waited and watched, then as her brother, still bound in burial linens, staggered into the sunlight that splashed against the opening of the tomb. Then she gazed in astonishment at her Lord. This was a watershed moment for Mary!

We can only imagine the emotions that shot through her. Who is this Jesus? Yes, He is the Healer, Teacher, Messiah, and Friend. And, although this was surely enough to command her trust, it barely scratched the surface of what there was to know of Him. He is Lord of life and of death, the good Sovereign who always moves in perfect concert with His nature and according to His Father's plan.

Suddenly it makes a lot of sense why Jesus defended Mary's right to sit at His feet and what He meant when He said, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). It wasn't merely to enable women to keep up with men in learning deep truth. Jesus wanted Mary to learn because He knew how desperately she needed to know Him. When the bottom dropped out of Mary's life, what she knew of Jesus would be all she had to hold her up. Knowing Him wouldn't spare her from pain and suffering, or even from disappointment. But it would give her hope in the darkest moments and a pervasive sense of purpose in the most confusing times.

Not every sister's brother is brought back to life after being dead for four days. Not every mother's child revives after falling in a pool. In all likelihood Mary lived to weep once more beside the tomb of her brother.   

Sometimes we live the rest of our lives with an ache that never goes away. Yet one thing is sure. We all live out what we believe about God. Either we live in despair, believing God has abandoned us or that His power simply doesn't reach this far. Or we live with hope even in the midst of pain, knowing our good and loving God has marked out the race we are running and works in the present for our good and His glory. Hard lessons learned at Jesus’ feet transformed His student into our teacher.