Book Review: Jesus in Isolation by Scott Sager
What does Jesus teach us about isolation from his own seasons of loneliness?
Having faced pandemic lockdowns and struggled with screen addictions, many of us are no stranger to isolation. Isolation can hit us in various ways, even sometimes when we’re in the crowd. In Jesus in Isolation: Lazarus, Viruses, and Us, Scott Sager invites us to explore Jesus’ own experience of isolation. In a world reeling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sager brings a timely message to turn our grief, despair, and loneliness into hope, wonder, and community. If you’re wondering how a Christian can face loneliness and isolation with courage, this book is for you. If you’re seeking to deepen your faith and belief in the power and majesty of God, you’ll find that this book helps.
The book opens with familiar scenes from our recent pandemic: horizons of uncertainty, climbing numbers of loss within our cities and neighborhoods, daily ongoing research by the medical community. Social distancing, unfamiliar vaccines, and safety protocols are fast becoming the norm in our new not-so-normal. Against the backdrop of this premiering virus, Sager introduces original sin as the first virus that effected all humanity, with the Adam of Genesis 1 being the first “patient zero.” Sin, death, and decay would become the weight we would all live under.
Sin, death, and decay would become the weight we would all live under.
This introduction leads into chapter 1 where we see King David in his own narrative of family strife, grief, and death. At one point in his life King David writes, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1) In despair, David feels alone. Jesus will echo these very words from the cross, in the darkest moment of his own isolation. What do we learn from these emotions, shared by both King David and Jesus?
The next few chapters lead us through an imaginative retelling of the story of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, and the key people in it: Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. If you have read John 11, you’ll recall that it tells us how one of Jesus’ closest friends was ill then died and was in the grave four days.
“The story of the death of Lazarus is a monumental moment in the ministry of Jesus,” writes Sager (pg. 3). “Jesus is the primary actor. He, not Lazarus, is the focal point of the story, for only he can absorb the incredible grief of this broken world—and heal the virus infecting us all.”
“Only he can absorb the incredible grief of this broken world–and heal the virus infecting us all.”
We sit with the grieving through these pages. And in the isolation, we find that Jesus sits there with us. In a conversational way, Sager helps answer questions such as “Why would God allow suffering?” and “What if I’m disappointed with God?” He allows us to bring questions (listed out in the end of the book as well) and find answers in the grief, joy, and grip of this story that won’t leave us alone.
Jesus could have met with Lazarus in time to heal him from sickness, but he chose not to do so. He chose the harder path of waiting, then meeting up with two grieving sisters, and then visiting the tomb of their brother’s rotting corpse. Then he prayed, and did the impossible, raising his friend to life!
With Sager, we ponder what must have been the depth of searing emotion that Mary, Martha, and Jesus felt. With historical context in place, we get a fresh perspective when we imagine what it would have been like to walk along the path toward the tomb, or to hear Mary weep as she later poured out her perfume, or to wonder at what Lazarus did with the rest of his life renewed. Interestingly, Lazarus apparently had quite an impact in his community for King Jesus, seeking the good of his city (Jer. 29:7), so much so that the city in which Lazarus lived changed its name to “El ‘Azariiyeh”–the City of Lazarus– and bears his name to this day.
The sadness and death described in John 11 became Jesus’ own experience soon after in the lonely prayers of Gethsemane and his lonely death on Golgotha.
Sager describes how the sadness and death described in John 11 became Jesus’ own experience soon after in Jesus’ lonely prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane and his lonely death on a cross on Golgotha a few hours later. Yet, as in John 11, the sadness and death are transformed into joy and life when Jesus rises from the dead. John’s writings go on to describe the joyful togetherness and heavenly unity that characterize God himself (John 17:11), the church (John 17:24), and the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:3).
For the believer in Jesus, seasons of isolation are swallowed up in an eternity of loving community.
This book is a timely reminder of how God walks with us through our sorrows, and how he helps us move through them and eventually rise above them. It gives us a historically accurate, richly contextualized narrative, yet sees it through an imaginative lens to bring fresh insight and perspective while keeping grounded. Each chapter is finalized with a brief poem or hymn to summarize the focus of the chapter, and these literary conclusions are part of the book’s winsomeness.
God walks with us through our sorrows.
You’ll find yourself encouraged not only by Scott Sager, but by the words of G.K. Chesterton, John Donne, C.S. Lewis, and Isaac Watts. Each chapter also ends with discussion questions for the readers, inviting us into conversation and community.
It’s refreshing to be reminded that God is with us through our seasons of isolation—which means we’re never as isolated as we might feel.