Like many international workers (IWs), I did not embark on my journey with a well-developed theology of suffering. Rather, it has evolved over the years and continues to grow and change. Walking through my own painful experiences, accompanying others on their journey through suffering, wrestling through Scriptures, and ultimately surrendering to a God whose mysterious ways and purposes cannot be fully explained have all been part of the process.
I grew up reading missionary biographies. The ones which inspired my young heart and soul contained descriptions from the worker facing great difficulties and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, ultimately triumphing over them. The stories of pioneer workers martyred for their faith also gripped my heart deeply but left me with many unanswered questions that surfaced from time to time.
As I prepared to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) as a nurse-midwife on an established field, I reasoned the danger of persecution or contracting a severe illness was much less likely than in years past. Nevertheless, I anticipated struggles as I adapted to the culture, language learning, and medical conditions where my nursing skills and limited experience would be tested to the limit.
At the time, my theology of suffering went something like this: If I am obedient to God’s call on my life, I can trust Him to protect my loved ones and me and to keep me safe. I can also count on His supernatural power at work in my weakness to help me surmount the challenges and difficulties.
My father’s sudden death due to a farm accident shortly before I went overseas brought my core belief into question as I was suddenly plunged into grief without warning and preparation. Wrestling through the pain and sorrow of such a significant loss was my most profound experience of suffering at the time.
Working in a medical capacity in lower Congo brought me face to face with additional levels of suffering I had never encountered before. Due to diseases that could have been prevented with earlier treatment or more access to resources, children’s high mortality rates were heartbreaking. Seeing parents struggle to raise their children and earn an adequate living in the face of so many odds was also very difficult. The contrast between life as I had known it growing up in Canada and life experienced by many of my Congolese friends was great. I was significantly impacted by the resilience and strength many of my Congolese Christian friends faced in their trials. Their attitude to suffering was so much more robust than my own. While I registered this fact on a cognitive level, my primary response was to work harder and to do all in my power to alleviate suffering.
When HIV/AIDS started to rear its head among the patients we treated or among the women who delivered their babies at our hospital, the questions of our medical staff’s personal safety became more of a concern. Much about the disease was still unknown, and because its presumed origin had some links back to Congo, there was a stigma surrounding it. Many people either denied its existence or tried at all costs to hide their symptoms. Friends and family back home constantly asked about my health. One friend made me a beautiful cross-stitch picture depicting God’s protection based on Psalm 91. Another friend gave me a poster with the words of that psalm, which hung in a prominent place in my home. I clung to the beautiful imagery and powerful promises of protection for the one who rests in the shelter of the Almighty.
As I fast forward a few years, I was asked to be part of a team to work with an unreached people group closer to the capital city of Kinshasa; a group historically resistant to any outside influence over the past decades. Now, some mission organizations had begun to travel in the region, sharing the story of Jesus. Small fledgling churches began to spring up, and new believers were being discipled. With the recognition of the region’s high infant and maternal mortality rates and the difficult access to medical resources and clean water, village leaders were asking for some input and resources from mission organizations to address these needs. Barb Ihrke and I, both nurses, were asked to join the Hotalens, newly arrived American workers and a team of about fifteen Congolese missionaries and pastors. Our role was to help develop community health initiatives, reach out to the Bateke women, and help equip newly emerging church leaders.
I accepted this invitation with both excitement and trepidation, clearly sensing God’s leading in this new venture. What a joy it was to be part of a cross-cultural team, united in our desire to be the hands and feet of Jesus. However, I was totally unprepared for the hardships as we went into territory where the Enemy had held sway for so many years. Spiritual opposition was palpable as we would drive into some villages and see the degree of bondage many lived under. Sorcery and witchcraft were rampant. The harsh conditions under which some of my teammates lived took their toll. Several of my teammates lost children, sometimes due to lack of medical resources and sometimes from unexplained causes. A couple of my teammates also developed chronic and debilitating illnesses.
And then came the event even more challenging to accept or understand. My teammate Anne and I travelled out one day to a nearby village to do a ladies’ retreat with one of the Congolese pastor’s wives. Upon entering the village, we found the pastor’s house surrounded by people and the whole village in mourning. The same day, word had arrived of the pastor’s body being discovered in a ditch close to a major roadway. As the story was later pieced together, it became apparent he had been shot and killed by soldiers who patrolled the road. He had been on his way home from an evangelistic trip, carrying some Bibles and his notes in a briefcase. The soldiers stopped him, believing he had money in the briefcase. When they realized their mistake, they shot him and threw him and his briefcase into a nearby ditch. It all seemed so senseless and unbelievable. Gaston was our most experienced and zealous evangelist, a beloved mentor and friend to all of us on the team.
Our plans to meet with the women were cancelled, and instead, we went with the pastor’s wife to identify her husband’s body and bring him back for burial. In the process of doing this, we had a very hostile encounter with soldiers, possibly the very ones who had taken Gaston’s life. I remember the sense of outrage and, yes, even hatred welling up in my heart toward these men. It all seemed so senseless, and I realized my view of suffering did not include a scenario where God would allow such evil to prevail in the life of one of His most faithful servants. Maybe, I reasoned, we were somehow at fault because we had not operated with enough prayer coverage. And yet, even as I thought those thoughts, the voice of God reminded me He had allowed His only Son to endure an agonizing death.
Itwas just a day or two before Good Friday and the reality of Christ’s suffering, with the Father’s full permission, struck me forcefully.
During the Easter holidays, I went back to Psalm 91, my favourite psalm. In fact, I had a message to prepare on one of the names of God for a retreat for our team members. Our North American missionary team profoundly met God when we had been together a couple of years earlier and had studied the names of God under the teaching of Dave Petrescue. One of the names stood out to me then, and I was preparing to speak on God Most High, the name mentioned in Psalm 91.
As I studied Scripture and the context of the name, I slowly surrendered to the sovereignty of God, who sits high and lifted up above the world yet dwells so powerfully among us, caring for us and allowing nothing to touch us, which has not first passed through His hand. There were no satisfactory answers as to why this particular event happened, but perhaps a beginning of the realization of God’s ultimate purpose to conform us more and more to the image of His Son. I may not choose or like the circumstances involved in the transformation, but I asked myself, can I trust those circumstances to a loving God, a God who is good all the time?
Might Suffering Be a Big Part of the Message?
Around this time, I also began exploring the role of suffering in piercing through the darkness where the light of the message of Jesus has not yet penetrated. There is no doubt the Enemy does not want to give up territory he has presumed to be his for so long. I thought of the quote I had heard when studying church history, a paraphrase attributed to Tertullian in 197 AD, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Many have linked the quote with the passage in John 12:24, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Throughout church history there are multiple accounts of spiritual breakthroughs following persecution. Yet there are other times, as in the early Church in Acts when God pours His Spirit out on believers, and many come to know Him in great numbers. Other times the breakthrough appears to come after much prayer and fasting without the loss of life.
As I thought of the suffering endured by so many people who live among and work with unreached people groups or in hostile environments, I began to wonder if suffering was somehow an integral part of the message itself. We proclaim a Christ who willingly suffered on behalf of mankind to obtain their salvation. We are invited to participate in Christ’s suffering. Is there something in the manner we as message bearers respond to suffering that engages the attention and curiosity of those to whom we minister? Does Christ become more visible as we demonstrate perseverance, love, and grace through our suffering?
These thoughts and questions are not original ones, but ones that various authors and speakers on the topic of suffering have alluded to, as demonstrated by the life of the Apostle Paul and other followers of Christ. Perhaps again, another part of the mystery of God’s plan and purposes is in suffering.
Going Even Deeper
The events which happened to me in Congo were part of the catalyst God used to move me to a ministry of Member Care to international workers across West Africa. As a result, I became part of the Mobile Member Care Team based in Abidjan, Republic of Ivory Coast (RCI), to equip and come alongside workers in the midst of trauma.
An early workshop we developed was to equip peer responders and leaders to come alongside their colleagues in times of crisis and suffering. One of the modules was Developing a Theology of Suffering. This module was birthed out of the realization the more we, as caregivers, have intentionally wrestled through our own suffering, the better equipped we would be to come alongside others.
My assignment was to develop a module providing tools for caregivers and mission leaders to develop their own theology of suffering. I spent time pouring through Scripture and reading various authors on the topic. One book, in particular, had a profound impact―When God Weeps, written by Joni Erickson in the years following the diving accident which changed the trajectory of her life. The book’s theme is that God is not only with us in suffering but that He suffers with us. Her probing questions surrounding suffering prompted me to develop some key questions on suffering we would wrestle through with Scripture during our workshop. Questions such as, “What is the origin of suffering? To what degree is suffering an anticipated event in the believer’s life? What role does suffering play in our lives? What is the fruit of suffering? What does God promise us/not promise us in the face of suffering?”
Joni’s book also underlined how our view of God and His character dramatically influences how we experience and respond to suffering. A developing theology of suffering would include a thoughtful examination of our own core beliefs of God. Another piece of the theology would be to acknowledge the gap between our cultural beliefs of suffering and a biblical view, examining which areas need to be aligned more closely to Scripture.
A couple of years later, I was again plunged into circumstances that brought my theology of suffering to the forefront. Our team was in a northern city in Côte d’Ivoire doing a workshop when gunfire during the night alerted us civil war had suddenly broken out. Our guest house complex was located between rebel and government forces. For eight days, the sound of heavy artillery surrounded us as we hunkered down in our building. Those days were filled with anxious moments punctuated by so many miraculous provisions, including an adequate food and water supply, one phone line to the outside world remaining open, and protection against heavy gunfire. Eventually, the city was secured, and we were escorted to safety.
The most challenging part for me, though, was after we came back to the city of Abidjan, where we lived and had set up our office. We chose the city primarily because of its stability and good access to the surrounding countries we served. In addition, several of the mission leaders who were part of our board also lived in RCI.
The workshops we had prepared to equip mission leaders and peer responders were up and running as we travelled across West Africa. A few months earlier, I read Psalm 84, and I felt the Spirit of God nudging me as I read verses 5 to 7. Verse 5 talks about the blessing there is for those whose strength is in the Lord and who have set their heart on the journey. Verse 7 says, “They go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion.” I loved the picture and promise of strength; it felt like God was so at work in those early days as a team.
However, it became apparent that Abidjan would no longer be a suitable home base as the civil war continued. We would have to find another country, another home, and while we did this, our ministry would be on hold. In the months following this incident, we waited on God for the next steps and eventually moved to the neighbouring country of Ghana. We combed the streets of Accra looking for a new residence/office and finally found a fixer-upper house we felt would work. After several weeks of getting the house repaired, we moved in.
Unfortunately, the first night in our new home, we experienced a robbery and a significant sum of money from my teammate’s briefcase was stolen. It was not the new beginning we had expected. Where was the strength He had promised, I wondered? Why did I feel so weary? Again, the Lord took me back to Psalms 84: 5-7. This time verse 6 leapt off the page. “As they pass through the Valley of Baka (often translated as the Valley of Weeping), they make it a place of springs, the autumn rains also cover it with pools.” How had I not seen this part of the passage earlier? I realized, on so many levels I was now in my own valley of weeping.
During the following months, I heard three separate messages on the Valley of Baka, reinforcing the Lord’s provision and His presence even through the difficult times. The months I stayed in the Valley of Baka were some of the most difficult and the most transformative I had ever experienced. God gave me new insights about Himself as I spent more time in solitude, new priorities in ministry, and a renewed sense of dependency and trust in His purposes. Another chapter in the development of my theology of suffering was being written.
Coming Alongside Others who are Suffering
It has become increasingly evident that while God is so present in suffering, His purposes and plans for each of us who suffer are unique. Therefore, as a caregiver to those going through difficult times, I need to trust His work and timing in their lives. It is not my job to quickly pluck them out of the valley of suffering or to try and ‘fix’ them. They do not need, at the time, to hear my thesis on suffering and how I have developed it. Instead, they need someone comfortable and available to come alongside and sit with them in the valley, trusting God is the One who will administer healing, comfort, and grace to walk through.
Pat Russell, as quoted by Scott Shaum in his chapter from the book, Trauma & Resilience, sums it up nicely: “Suffering is not a question that demands an answer. It is not a problem that demands a solution. Suffering is a mystery that demands a presence” (p. 15). This is not to say God will not use, at the appropriate time, a listening ear, a Scripture, a song, a suggestion of a book to read. However, what will speak loudest will be my non-judgmental, enduring presence with the one who is suffering, presence mirroring God’s posture toward them at such a critical time. I have come to see the journey of accompanying someone else in their suffering is one of the most sacred privileges we are given.
Suffering: A Lifelong Experience
I do not think we ever get to the point of a completed theology of suffering. One of the people who has been instrumental in my ongoing journey has been Scott Shaum with Barnabas International. I was privileged to hear him speak on the topic at the Mental Health and Missions and Pastor to Missionaries Conferences. I have also read some of his writings. Shaum shares from his own experiences of suffering and extensive search of Scripture. He mentions how broadly the term suffering is used in Scripture to describe all kinds of afflictions, adverse circumstances, and trials that come our way. His definition of suffering then is “any experience that causes internal or external duress physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally” (Trauma & Resilience, p. 6).
The loss of my sister to cancer after a valiant fight and the ever-present hope that healing was in sight brought up fresh awareness of the complexity of suffering. Watching my ninety-four-year-old mother, who had so faithfully served God over her lifetime, deteriorate mentally and physically in her final two years of life was another situation to wrestle through. What purpose was there in her suffering? Did she not deserve to be cut free of her pain and be with the God she so desired to meet? How was God’s promise of His presence manifest in the midst of her confusion and helplessness?
During the past couple of years, my theology of suffering has again been challenged and enlarged as we go through a global pandemic. If we accept the definition quoted earlier saying suffering is whatever causes us duress on the physical, emotional, spiritual, or relational level, then dealing with the impact of Covid-19 clearly fits into one or more of those categories. I have found myself asking questions such as, “Where are you, God, in the midst of this pandemic? What are the opportunities You want Your followers to embrace? How do we as believers respect one another, care for one another, and encourage one another when there have been so many different responses and divisions within the Body of Christ? How do we persevere with courage and grace when the end is still so uncertain?”
There is so much I still do not understand about suffering. I know some of my questions will remain unanswered. The mystery inherent in suffering will not be fully revealed on this earth. But I am confident the God of all comfort who comforts us in our grief and uses our own losses and sorrows to comfort others will continue to reveal Himself through suffering. He will continue to be with us and suffer with us in every difficult circumstance.
This is an excerpt from the book, On Mission Volume 4. Download your free copy today.
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