The conventional wisdom of cause and effect would suggest that suffering is God's punishment for one's mistakes, sins, lack of faith or spiritual deficiency. In spite of the numerous examples from Scripture of those who suffer for no fault of their own, there are still some in the church who hold this view--whether implicitly or explicitly.
The last seven years as president of World Relief have led me to believe that nothing could be further from the truth. My wife, Ruth, and I have met many who have reason in human terms to be disappointed with Jesus, but time and again we have seen that the opposite is true.
How is it that, despite being deprived of so much by the circumstances of life, many around the world cling tenaciously to the conviction that they are truly loved of God? And how can those of us who are called to comfort the afflicted offer hope in seemingly hopeless situations?
I believe that the following three stories reveal vital principles for enduring suffering and offer insight for leaders seeking to minister to those in misery.
Rhoda sits alone, begging in the dust of the streets of Lilongwe, the capital city of the East African country of Malawi. Rhoda is blind, and no employer would be prepared to adapt a job to suit her skills.
Each day is occupied with obtaining enough money to eke out a frugal existence for herself and her mentally-retarded husband. His problems make it impossible for him to work, and they have to be satisfied with living together in a hovel with no bed or furniture of any kind.
All day long she cares for her infant granddaughter. Rhoda's own daughter died from AIDS when the child was only a few days old. Now the blind grandmother is the only one left to care for the baby, and the child is almost certainly infected with the HIV virus that will have been transmitted from the mother.
Rhoda is a Christian, but on the particular morning that my wife, Ruth, met Rhoda, this poor blind lady had just discovered that her water jar, her only earthly possession, had been stolen. Ruth asked, "Do you have any message that you would like me to take back from Africa to your brothers and sisters in the West?"
"I want you to pass along the message that Rhoda is doing well, and that all is fine for me here," was her instant reply. "Please say to my brothers and sisters that I have everything I could need, because I have Jesus!"
Faced with this kind of situation, many would retreat into despair or disappointment, asking how it is that a loving God could allow this to happen. However, it is the one who has fully embraced life in the Spirit who is able to recognize the presence of God in the midst of extreme suffering. Though most do not face trials as drastic as Rhoda's, all must endure periods of hardship in life.
We may wonder where God has gone, but--as Rhoda's response indicates--He is still very much here with us. The greatest comfort we have to give those suffering is the awareness of Christ's presence with them in their calamity.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus were bemoaning their disappointment with Jesus' death when He appeared to them, walked with them and opened their eyes to the purpose of His suffering. For most of their time together, they were completely unaware of the presence of the One who could provide comfort and ultimately make sense of their disappointment.
Oftentimes, it is not possible for us to erase the raw physical and emotional pain--but it is possible for the Holy Spirit to give peace in the midst of even the most horrendous suffering. Instead, our job is to direct and encourage those who are suffering to fix their eyes on Jesus "who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2, NKJV).
Our suffering on earth is but temporary--in a few short years, our lives here will be over. An eternity without suffering stretches before us. Like Jesus, we must focus on "the joy set before us"--and it is a joy worth focusing on!
As I walked the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, in the immediate aftermath of the awful devastation created by Hurricane Mitch, the smell of unburied corpses filled the air. I met a little old lady dressed in ragged clothing and striding purposefully down the street, so I asked where she was heading.
"I have lost everything," she said. "I've lost my home, my furniture and my clothes. And I've lost my market-stall, and everything that I used to try to sell from it. So I am going to church."
With my sympathies thoroughly aroused I tried to understand how it was possible that she could still want to go to church, want to worship a God who had allowed a situation to arise in which she had lost all of her possessions?
"I just think that the Lord is trying to test us," was her simple and straightforward explanation.
"I believe that He wants us Christians to show non-Christians what it is like to live when you have lost everything that you own, but you still have Jesus."
If God is not to blame for such suffering, the other tendency is to invariably suggest that calamity is the byproduct of faithlessness--or punishment for some hidden sin.
To the contrary, it is faith of the kind that this Honduran woman demonstrated that allows God to carry us through the bad times and not just the good. One has only to listen to the apostle Paul reciting his catalogue of sufferings and shipwrecks to realize that faith in Jesus was never intended to guarantee us a trouble-free existence (see 2 Cor. 11:23-27).
Jesus specifically declared that the 18 people who died when the tower in Siloam fell down on their heads were no worse sinners than anyone else. Nor were those victims of Pontius Pilate's violent repression of a Galilean insurrection, who were unfortunate enough to have had their blood mingled with that of their animal sacrifices (see Luke 13:1-5).
It was not their own sin that created the context for human barbarity or natural disasters. They were simply involved, as we all are, in the totality of a human race sold out to Satan and bought into sin (see Rom. 5:13-14).
Satan never discriminates--he is always unfair. He will never measure the amount of suffering he inflicts on members of the human population in direct proportion to the measure of their own guilt and sin. In fact, he takes particular delight in watching the innocent suffer.
That is precisely why Jesus instructed His hearers on the occasion in Luke 13 that they had to repent. For sin and its dreadful consequences started on earth, not in heaven, and it will only be in eternity that redress will be made and both sin and suffering obliterated.
God often works through suffering in order to bless and direct our lives. Jesus does not allow suffering to come upon those He dislikes, but to those He loves. Satan, who is the enemy of our souls, may initiate our sorrows, but he consistently overreaches himself. Time and again God turns apparently bad things around to produce good results.
When we are told that all things work together for good to those who love God (see Rom. 8:28), the meaning is self-evident: It is not times of comfort, ease and well-being that make us into the people that God wants us to be. Instead, He uses our rough and rocky times to mold us into those He wants us to become.
We must help those who are suffering in our midst understand that their suffering and pain is not "God's fault." When people shift the blame onto God, bitterness, anger and resentment are allowed to fester.
Their relationship with God becomes fragmented, the channels blocked. The Holy Spirit is not given the opportunity to do His job, the job He desperately wants to do--to bring comfort, peace and reassurance to the hurting soul. Suffering people stay soft toward God when they are confronted with the suffering that He Himself has endured for their sake.
Those in pain need to be constantly reminded that Jesus has been through it and that He wouldn't allow them to go through it unless there was a greater purpose behind their pain, a purpose that will ultimately lead to total victory over pain and death.
Clementine was 17 years old when genocide came to Rwanda. She and her family were not churchgoers, but they fled for refuge to a local church. There the militia discovered her and dragged her off in an open truck to the fields outside the capital city of Kigali, where each of the 20 men brutally raped her and then poured the acid from the battery of the vehicle into her private parts.
After a total hysterectomy, Clementine discovered that she had contracted HIV/AIDS as a result of the assault. It is no surprise that she became consumed with bitterness and hatred toward society.
Then four years later she met another man. This one was so different because he spoke of knowing a Friend who could clean out the bitterness and hatred inside her, and could even give her the strength to forgive those who had committed this atrocity.
When I met Clementine two years later she was too sick to work and lived in total poverty. Despite the dreadful squalor that surrounded her, Clementine spent each day speaking to all the other people living with AIDS around her of the way she had met Jesus, and how He had changed her life. Clementine is dead now, but one day we will meet her, because she had not wasted her sorrows.
God ultimately directed the dreadful experiences of Clementine's life for His glory. For He is always intent on bringing glory to His Son. Sometimes, He will do this through the power of His Spirit in bringing an immediate, spectacular healing.
Yet at other times God works in a different way. Many of us prayed for Clementine, who was never healed, but she touched and changed her world in amazing ways, and all because of what she learned of Jesus in the confines of her dying body.
Do I understand it? No. But if God is truly God, then we must be prepared to allow Him to act according to His own divine timetable and will, rather than our own very human alternative. There He teaches us to persevere and endure.
Our question then will not be one of asking whether or not we are disappointed with Jesus. The real issue is whether Jesus is disappointed with us, and how we have ministered to the poor and needy in His name and how we have shared in the suffering of those He loves.
If everyone suffers, what makes a believer any different? The difference lies in the fact that we have not been left to suffer alone. Jesus is here with us, sharing our pain. So, we must not waste our sufferings when God is at work in us, nor be disappointed just because we cannot yet understand quite where He is taking us.
That is not where the focus should be.
Relief from suffering and pain often comes when we turn our attention toward the hurts and needs of others. I've seen time and again how those who could quite easily have curled up in their homes and cursed their lot in life have broken the shackles of their own suffering by reaching out to others in pain.
Amid a spiritual climate today that fosters an attitude of focusing on God meeting my needs and healing my pain, God desires to shift our focus from self to others. Hurting people need to know that God wants to use their painful experiences to touch someone else in a place of despair. Through their suffering, God can use them as a channel of encouragement and healing.
Clive Calver, Ph.D., is the former president of World Relief (www.wr.org). Calver and his wife, Ruth, live in Ellicott City, Maryland. They will continue to serve as ministers-at-large for World Relief through March 2005.
How the global church can partner to meet desperate needs with short-term relief and long-term development.
In the midst of crushing poverty, sickness, war and disasters, local churches overseas can easily be overwhelmed by the magnitude of hurts and needs.
In vivid contrast, America has a fraction of the world's population but possesses 80 percent of its resources. That's where we--the church in America--can step in to help fulfill the role of the church worldwide, offering real hope to those in need.
In Cambodia, Southeast Asia, World Relief supports the home-care ministries of indigenous churches, providing food, friendship and encouragement to victims of AIDS.
World Relief staffer Geof Bowman recalls a visit to the dilapidated home of a 40-year-old Cambodian woman suffering from AIDS.
"She squatted in the corner, incredible sadness filling her eyes," Bowman said. "At times, she turned and stared at the wall. Her daughters, ages 10 and 13, huddled close. It was heartbreaking to watch their despair."
When Bowman asked if the girls could come to his home to play with his daughter, their mother brightened. Then, seemingly out of the blue, she said she wanted to receive the peace of Jesus. "Tears flooded my eyes as we prayed with her," Bowman recalled.
The next week, when Bowman returned, he was greeted with a wide, crooked-toothed smile--a smile that was unimaginable just a few days before. "It gave me the overwhelming sense of God's presence, and I was suddenly humbled that God had allowed me to experience this moment," he added.
Meanwhile, in a remote area of the war-torn Congo, central Africa, relief workers called at a thatched hut. A woman came to the doorway and welcomed the visitors with the local greeting, "Jambo." She continued: "There are five of us inside; we're widows who farm the fields together."
When the relief workers asked if they could talk to all the women about their needs, the woman in the doorway replied: "One at a time, please" and ducked inside the hut. The women emerged one at a time and the relief team noticed they seemed to be dressed exactly alike.
As the team thanked the fifth woman for her time and turned to leave, she added: "I wish you a safe journey on behalf of us all. You see, we have only rags to wear except for this one dress that we share, and our shame makes us hide."
To give perpetual handouts to the poor is to treat them as beggars and rob them of their God-given dignity. "People don't think of themselves as poor and needy; they think of themselves as having a life, having a family," explained World Relief's Karen Lewin in Cambodia.
Immediate, short-term relief is important, but long-term development that empowers people to lift themselves out of despair--coupled with the witness of Christ--is vital. Around the world, people are looking to the local church for leadership in community development and for genuine hope amid their struggles.
Now is the time for the church in America to support our suffering brothers and sisters--with emergency relief aid, yes, but also with a long-term vision that builds self-sufficiency and self-respect.
Julian Lukins, World Relief