By 20 March 1839, Joseph Smith and his companions had languished for months in Missouri’s Liberty Jail and the Saints were being driven from Missouri. Unable to be with them or to help them in any other way, the Prophet penned a famous prayer:

“O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?  How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?  Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?”  (Doctrine and Covenants 121:1-3)

Joseph was scarcely the first to wonder about what seemed the Lord’s slow response to the Saints’ desperate entreaties.  Consider, for example, the words of the Psalmist:

“How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?  How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those that trouble me rejoice when I am moved.”  (Psalm 13:1-4)

Probably everybody reading this column is familiar with persisting trials of faith, with prayers that seem to have gone unanswered and earnest pleas that seem to have been unheard.  In such cases, the further words of the psalmist might be encouraging.  He follows his piteous appeals to the Lord with this:

“But I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.  I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me.”  (Psalm 13:5-6)

Perhaps, too, we can learn from the time when the Lord himself was physically present with his people.  How did he act during his mortal ministry?  The story of Lazarus, told in John 11 is rarely if ever cited in connection with the question of delayed answers to prayers, but it’s relevant to them.

With his sisters Mary and Martha, Lazarus lived in the village of Bethany—the modern Arab town of al-Azariya (named after Lazarus).  It lay directly east of Jerusalem, at a distance of “about fifteen furlongs” (11:18), or roughly two miles, over the Mount of Olives.  The three siblings were particular friends of Jesus – “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” (5) – and were well aware of his power over disease.  So, when Lazarus took seriously ill, his worried sisters sent a message to the Savior, saying “Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick” (3).  Implicitly, they sought his help.

Jesus was down in the Jordan River Valley at the time, across the stream in today’s Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  He was, in fact, at the very place where John the Baptist had earlier performed baptisms.  (See John 10:40-42.).  Assuming that place to be the modern Qasr al-Yahud—my own preferred location—he was about thirty-two miles from Jerusalem, and only slightly closer to Bethany.

When he received their message, Jesus commented rather enigmatically that “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby” (4).  The New Testament provides no further explanation.  Curiously, though, after hearing that Lazarus was gravely ill, “he abode two days still in the same place where he was” (6), thirty miles from Bethany.  Plainly, he was in no great hurry to undertake the steep, long, slow walk up to Bethany.

Finally, though, after waiting a couple of days, Jesus said to his disciples “Let us go into Judaea again” (7).

This surprised them, because one reason they were down in the trans-Jordanian desert was to evade plots against his life by the authorities in Jerusalem.  During the just-completed feast of “Dedication” (Hanukkah), he had spoken openly of his deity and had identified himself as the Son of God.  Angered, Jewish leaders had accused him of blasphemy and taken up rocks to cast at him.  (See John 10:22-39.)

“His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again?” (8)

But he was resolved.  In belated response to the plea from Mary and Martha, he would head back up to the vicinity of Jerusalem:  “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth,” he told the disciples, “but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep” (11).

Unsurprisingly, since he had spoken metaphorically, they misunderstood:

“Lord,” they replied, “if he sleep, he shall do well.  Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep.  Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead” (12-14).

So, needing no earthly messenger to tell him, he already knew that Lazarus was dead.  And yet he had deliberately waited for two days.  Why?

“I am glad for your sakes that I was not there,” he told the (no doubt) puzzled disciples, “to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.”

Here, a note about “Thomas, which is called Didymus,” needs to be inserted.  Yes, Thomas is sometimes called Didymus.  In much of Christendom, however, because of the story related in John 20:24-29 he is best known as “doubting Thomas.”   But that isn’t really fair to him.  At John 11:16, when the disciples question Jesus’ decision to go back up toward Jerusalem, it is Thomas who courageously says to his fellow apostles “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Thomas deserves to be remembered for that, too, and not merely for his brief but understandable doubt after the resurrection.  (Ancient traditions relate that he later preached the gospel in India, where he was martyred for his faithful witness of Christ.)

By the time Jesus and his party approached Bethany, Lazarus “had lain in the grave four days already” and friends and relatives had come to offer comfort and condolences. (17, 19).

When the sisters heard that Jesus was near, Martha hurried out to meet him.  But Mary remained, sorrowful and disconsolate, in their house.  (See verse 20).  This fits the portrait of the two faithful sisters—one active and bustling, the other inclined to thoughtful reflection—given in Luke 10:38-42.)

“Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.  But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” (21-22). Whereupon follows one of the greatest declarations in all of scripture:

Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again.

“Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

“She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world” (23-27).

Martha now summons Mary to emerge from the house and speak with the Savior, who is apparently still outside the town (30).  Reaching him, she falls at his feet and utters precisely the same (perhaps slightly reproachful) expression of faith that her sister had uttered shortly before:  “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died” (32).

Seeing Mary’s grief, and the sorrow of the friends and kinfolk who had come to mourn Lazarus, Jesus “groaned in the spirit, and was troubled” (33) and asked them to direct him to the tomb.

Then comes another of the most significant verses in all of scripture, though it is probably famous primarily because it is the shortest:  Jesus wept” (35).  (See the reference given below.)

“Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him!” (36).  Whereupon, in the familiar story, Jesus orders the stone rolled away that sealed the burial cave—foreshadowing his own emergence from the tomb perhaps only two weeks later—and calls Lazarus forth from the dead.  Lazarus emerges, to the astonishment of the watching crowd.

It is worth reflecting that this miracle strengthens and confirms the faith of some, while it confirms and even inflames the murderous determination of the enemies of Jesus:

“Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.  But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done. Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.” (45-47)

What can we learn from this story about our own trials and our own appeals for divine help?  One obvious lesson is that God doesn’t operate on our schedule.  After receiving the sisters’ appeal for help, the Lord waits two days before he beginning the ascent to Bethany.  Another is that his reasons for delay may well remain unclear.  (Perhaps, someday, they’ll be apparent.  But not necessarily in this life.)

“This sickness is not unto death,” he said regarding Lazarus, “but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.”  However, Lazarus did die, as Jesus knew.  But still he waited.  For what?  We’re not told.  It was also, Jesus said, for the sake of the disciples, so that they (whose following him showed that they already believed) “might believe”—perhaps yet more strongly.  And we’re told that the events “glorified’ God and Christ–perhaps they afforded the opportunity for one of the greatest statements ever made about Jesus and the resurrection.

In the end, we must have faith in the Lord.  There is, really, no other choice, unless it be to fall into faithless despair.  Happily, the testimony of the prophets is that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning”—however long that night may be.  As the Psalmist put it,

“I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.  He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.  And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord” (Psalm 40:1-3).

Answering Joseph Smith’s impassioned prayer from Liberty Jail, the Lord responded:

“My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes” (121:7-8).

That “small moment” lasted somewhat more than five years and culminated in the assassination of the Prophet and his brother Hyrum.  In her deep sorrow, their mother, Lucy Mack Smith, prayed, “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken this family?” Later, she recalled, “A voice replied, I have taken them to myself that they might have rest. . . . As I looked upon their peaceful, smiling countenances, I seemed to almost hear them say: mother, weep not for us; we have overcome the world by love; we carried to them the gospel, that their souls might be saved—they slew us for our testimony, and thus placed us beyond their power—their ascendancy is for a moment—ours is an eternal triumph.”

The famous lyric of Joseph Smith’s friend William W. Phelps pictures him “crowned in the midst of the prophets of old”—a promise that God gives not only to prophets, but to all the faithful.

For some thoughts on “doubting Thomas,” see my recent blog entry “Are there arguments and evidence for theism?  Should there be?”  (  For reflections on John 11:35 and God’s sorrow, see “Divine Emotions: A Contradiction to Aristotle’s Best Thinking on God” (