No one is an island

1112138276The recent news of a pastor beheaded by ISIS in a central Asian republic brought to me by a trusted friend reminds us of the continual challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in parts of the world where living openly for Christ really does mean putting their lives on the line.

The writers of the New Testament letters frequently referred to suffering when they wrote to encourage their flocks.  They regularly stressed that it was normal, that we had been warned in advance about it, and that it’s all part of the cosmic conflict in which we are on God’s side.  Jesus said that the world would hate us because it hated him first (John 15:18ff).  We in the West have been mostly insulated by the ‘Christian’ nature of our culture from the normality of suffering which is only too familiar to people in Asia, the Middle East and north Africa.

The Apostles’ teaching did not deny the tragedy of their suffering, but placed it into a larger context.  We read of Peter and John rejoicing that they had been considered “worthy” of suffering shame after they had been flogged (Acts 5:41)!  Paul talks about “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17) and says that the suffering of this life cannot be compared to the glory of the next (Romans 8:18).

For millions of Christians around the world, but particularly in the 10/40 window, their faith means that life is a daily struggle to get served in shops, find jobs, be treated fairly by police, and avoid government oppression or mob lynching.  We in the West can help them by funding agencies like Open Doors which work among our persecuted family to protect, empower and advocate.  We can keep informed about their sufferings by following websites like persecution.org, and we can pray using resources like the World Prayer Map.

It can be so tempting for us just to shrug our shoulders and think it’s just another person we don’t know in a country far away.  But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is our family, we will meet them one day in heaven and rejoice in the stories of their faithfulness even to the point of death (Revelation 12:11).  But until then we are parted from them, and as John Donne wrote in his poem No man is an island:

…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

On the road to Jericho

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

There is one small but significant word which is often overlooked when reading – and preaching – on the story of the Good Samaritan: ‘down’.  In Luke 10:30 Jesus makes it perfectly clear which way the traveller was going: down.  ‘Down’ is repeated in verse 31 – the priest was going down the road too.

This does not immediately come to the attention of English speakers since we customarily use the expression ‘down the road’ to mean ‘along’.  But in this instance it is topographically specific: ‘down from Jerusalem to Jericho’.  And that road is indeed a downward route, which drops over a kilometre from 754 metres above sea level to 258 feet below.

Yet it is not the topography which is the point being made in the specific use of the word ‘down’, it is the spiritual implications.  Why were the priest, and by inference the Levite too, going down?  At that time, it was common for many of the priests to live in Jericho, with its abundant water supply, warmer climate and good supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, than in Jerusalem.  They would go up and stay in Jerusalem while it was their turn to serve in the temple, and then return home.  So these two had just finished whatever their ministry called for them to do, and were returning to their ‘normal’ life.  They were off duty.

The unspoken criticism of them is that their religious activity had not had any impact on their relationship with their fellow human beings.  They should have had compassion, but it took an outsider who wouldn’t even have gone to the temple to show them how to live with compassion on those less fortunate.  And ‘compassion’, in Biblical usage, does not mean the bland sense of “oh, what a shame” that it conveys in contemporary English, but means “to be gutwrenched”, so eaten up with feeling that we get a physical response to what we see and hear.

This speaks to those of us who find beggars coming to our church premises, or trip over the homeless sleeping under the lych-gate.  If our relationship with God counts for anything, it should be working itself out in our compassion for the needy.

And so it does, in many cases.  Churches are largely the impetus behind food banks in this country.  Many people working for overseas development agencies are Christians.  Many of those agencies have Christian roots.  And many of us give sacrificially to these agencies, making up the lion’s share of emergency donations in the UK.

But we can easily become weary of doing good.  Particularly when it hits closer to home.  How compassionate am I when a homeless person starts sleeping in the lobby of my block of flats?  How much do we care about the plight of Syrian refugees if compassion means Britain letting into our country hundreds of thousands of them like Germany has done, and having to build more homes, schools and hospitals (at taxpayer expense)?  When push comes to shove, our compassion hardens.

Next week, we’ll be looking at some Christian responses to the current refugee crisis, but in the meantime let us remind ourselves of the words of St Paul:

Let us not grow weary of doing good.

(2 Thessalonians 3:13)

Bruised, confused, abused

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This term was used recently in a discussion by a colleague reflecting on how many mission workers return to the UK, whether permanently or short-term, with serious emotional or spiritual damage.  It may be somewhat overstated but nevertheless expressed well what many of us working in member care see regularly.  Quite apart from the normal stresses of living cross-culturally, many of these people had been victims of their own organisations and leadership.  Incompetence, error and even malpractice are far too prevalent in the senior echelons.

We at Syzygy are not happy to highlight the weaknesses we come across in churches and agencies, or the personal shortcomings of some of their leadership, but we come across this sort of situation quite frequently and from time to time we feel the need to bring it to peoples’ attention.  When mission workers are harmed by their own people/organisations, something is desperately wrong.  It is not honouring to God, it’s not loving to our brothers and sisters in Christ, not a good witness to the people we are working with, and it’s not a sensible way to treat what we all acknowledge is an extremely limited and valuable resource – our people.

So why does this happen?  We have already blogged about the fact that many leaders feel pushed into a role they’re not ready for, with the result that they either abdicate responsibility or become dictatorial in enforcing their authority.  Add into this the pressures of increasing age, the cross-cultural stress which most people in a mission environment work under, the shortage of finance and personnel in most agencies, and unrealistic demands of supporters and sending churches, contribute some compassion fatigue and some cross-cultural exhaustion, and the result can be a number of people who are not really fit to be on the field themselves let alone be in a position of managing others.

So what can we do about it?  Here are some suggestions from Syzygy’s own experience:

Specific training for leaders.  We suspect that few mission workers ever have the opportunity for personal development as they transition into a new role.  Professional training on such topics as managing people, communication skills and understanding team roles would be an appropriate part of such a package, as well as specific training on areas where new leaders self-identify as vulnerable.

Mentoring for leaders.  Leadership can be a lonely place.  There are issues you can’t talk about with your friends, and decisions you have to take alone.  Many leaders are aware they are struggling but have nobody they can honestly talk to about it: they may well be afraid that their church or agency will terminate their support if they think they can’t handle the pressure.  So facilitating somebody from outside the organisation to be an independent mentor for each leader would be a big step forward.

Downsize the agency.  Many agencies believe in perpetual growth, and to be honest there is always more work we can do.  But just because there is a need we don’t have to meet it ourselves.  Rationalising what we do, withdrawing from some areas or ministries, and reducing the number of team members may all be good responses to an overworked leadership.

Encourage better self-care.  No matter how busy leaders are, time when the phone is switched off, families relax together, people can go on holiday or retreat, or engage in hobbies is always worthwhile.

Provide better member care.  Member care in some areas is still unreliable.  More people with a pastoral role focussed towards the mission workers will help keep self-c are on the agenda.

Syzygy provides support for mission workers and agencies in all these areas.  For a totally confidential discussion email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

World Watch List shows persecution on the rise

WWL

Last week Open Doors published its influential World Watch List, in which it rates countries according to the degree of religious persecution.  Many of these come as no surprise, as once again North Korea tops the list.  But the news which gives most cause for concern is that the frequency and severity of persecution is clearly increasing.  For example, in 2013 the 50th country on the list scored 35 points.  This year, the 50th country had 53 points.  And frequently the reason that some countries are dropping down the list is not that conditions there are getting better, but that persecution is growing even faster in other countries.

This reminds us that despite what we might feel in the relatively secure West, the world as a whole is not a safe place to be a Christian.  The ongoing threat from global terrorism, dictatorial nationalism and religious extremism not only from ISIS and Boko Haram but also in, for example, India, reminds us that the unprecedented levels of comfort and safety that the West experiences is not shared either by the global church or the historical church.  For much of the church’s history, persecution has been the norm.

Persecution has even been seen as evidence that our faith is genuine – the world hates us because it hated our Lord (John 15:18-21).  In this passage Jesus said that the reason people persecute Christians is that they do not know the One who sent him.  Our response therefore, as well as supporting the oppressed and campaigning to protect them, should also be to strive to make sure that the persecutors really do get to know the One who sent Jesus.

You can read a summary of the report, order your copy of the World Watch List and find out how to pray for persecuted Christians by clicking here.  And remember:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church –

there is one church.

Featured Ministry: Open Doors

hist_beetle_driveIn 1955, a young Dutchman went to a youth congress in communist Poland carrying hundreds of Christian tracts to distribute.  During his visit he discovered an isolated evangelical church struggling to retain its morale in the face of communist persecution.  The young man, now known throughout the world by the name ‘Brother Andrew’, embarked on a life travelling to difficult and dangerous places, smuggling Bibles to a needy church, inspired by the words of Revelation 3:2 –

Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.

Driving his battered VW Beetle all over the Soviet bloc, Brother Andrew smuggled Bibles into communist eastern Europe.  But his exploits did not stop there.  He pioneered work into China, and then the Middle East and parts of central Africa.  Open Doors, the organisation he founded, has gone on to print Bibles, broadcast the Gospel by radio, coordinate international prayer ministry, keep the church informed about persecution  and become well-known for delivering practical support to the suffering church.  They also advocate on behalf of the oppressed, and their annual World Watch List is a must-have for Christians seeking information about how to pray for countries where Christians are oppressed.

60 years on from Brother Andrew’s first journey, Open Doors has become a worldwide agency working in over 60 countries through nearly 1000 workers – most of them national partners, because in the places they work people who are obviously foreign can’t always be effective.  Many of them work in challenging and dangerous places, training up new generations of church leaders and equipping the church to survive in the most hostile places on the planet.

All this is true to the adventurous spirit of Brother Andrew, who is famous for pointing out that there are no countries which are closed to the gospel.  There are of course countries from which it may be hard for Christians who preach the gospel to come back alive, but Brother Andrew has proved throughout his escapades in places like Palestine, Iraq, China and the Soviet Union, that God really can shut the eyes of the authorities and open doors.

Today tens of thousands of suffering Christians are supported and encouraged by Open Doors’ campaigns of aid and encouragement.  You can read more about these on their website, where you can find more details on how to pray for them and to join in the ministry.  As the UK CEO of Open Doors, Lisa Pearce said at a recent celebration of 60s of Open Doors’ ministry:

There isn’t a persecuted church and a free church – there is one church.

Or as St Paul put it: “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Let’s be inspired by the example of Brother Andrew and his many colleagues to relieve the suffering and pray for the parts that suffer.

So thick-headed!

On the road to Emmaus

On the road to Emmaus

The Message translates Jesus’ words to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus as sympathetically as it can, but it is still a clear rebuke for their lack of understanding.  Which is not unreasonable since the Gospels all make it clear that Jesus had done his best to explain to them in advance that he would be killed, but would rise again from the dead (Luke 24:6-7).

In Luke 24 (verses 13-35) we are given a picture of two traumatised disciples.  Just three days before, their Messiah had been crucified, destroying their hopes of national redemption.  And now they were confused by rumours of him appearing to people.  Confused, Cleopas and his companion were heading home despondently to Emmaus.  They talked things over on the way, trying to make sense of what had happened.  But a stranger meets them on the road, and the ensuing discussion is an excellent example of how to do a debrief:

  • He asks them what the problem is.  He asks open questions, allowing them to tell their story.  He listens.
  • When they have had their full say, he leads them back to scripture.  He explains it to them so that they can understand.
  • In the process he clearly encourages them (verse 32).
  • In the final revelation, they are inspired to return to where they were supposed to be, and tell their story.

In this story, in a matter of a few hours two discouraged disciples regain their vision for ministry.  Sadly in our world it often takes a lot longer.  But this story reminds us that for all the skill and ability of professional debriefers, there is no substitute for letting Jesus do the real work in the lives of his wounded followers.

We accomplish this through prayer, and there is no substitute for many people to be praying into the debriefing situations of burnt-out mission workers.  Syzygy runs a prayerline so that we can mobilise prayer for the people we meet with.  You can read more about it here.  We really need your help in interceding for Jesus to work in people’s lives.  If you would like to partner with us please let us know by emailing prayer@syzygy.org.uk.  We sent out updates two or three times a month, and they are usually just a couple of sentences, so the work is not onerous!

We are grateful to Pastor Neil Le Tissier for the thoughts on Luke 24.

Job – the last word on suffering

William Blake: Job's vision of God

William Blake: Job’s vision of God

As we bring to an end this series looking at suffering which has taken slightly longer than was originally anticipated, it is appropriate to leave the final word with Job.  This ancient story is celebrated for its exploration of the theme of suffering, and for challenging the idea that bad things only happen to bad people, which is a persistent theology that has its current manifestation in the prosperity doctrine: if you are dedicated to God, God will bless you.

Job endures unparalleled loss, and his friends insist that it must be because he has done something to deserve it, while Job proclaims his innocence.  Clearly traumatised by the sudden loss of his family, health and possessions, he wishes he had never been born (3:3).

What we must note from this event is not the lengthy discussion (which frankly few of us ever read in full) but something that we often miss – Job did not have the opportunity of reading chapter 1.  He had no idea what what was going on, or how God was using him to demonstrate faithfulness under pressure.  All he knew was that he had done nothing wrong, yet he was suffering.  That is a condition common to most of humanity – we generally have no idea what God’s purpose is, we can only endure.

We must also remember that even in the midst of his pain, Job comes up with one of the greatest statements of faith in God found in the whole Bible:

I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last day he will stand on the earth; though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh will I see God.

Neither did Job get any answer.  There’s no indication that he ever found out what was behind his suffering.  But he did receive a revelation that put it into perspective.  For four chapters (38-41) God speaks to Job revealing God’s power and wisdom through the whole of creation, which puts Job firmly in his place.  He retracts his complaint, recognises the awesomeness of his creator.  May our suffering lead us into similar revelation of the majesty of God!

Should I stay or should I go?

ClashKnowing when to leave is always one of the biggest challenges for mission workers, particularly when a crisis occurs.  A topical application of this issue would be the earthquakes in Nepal, as a result of which some mission workers have left the country, whether by their own choice or because their church or agency chose to withdrawn them.  Other mission workers stayed.  Who has made the right decision?

A few years ago, in a discussion facilitated by Emma Dipper, a group of HR managers were asked how risk-averse they had been when they were living abroad.  Most of us were so un-averse that we could be considered irresponsible, gung-ho mavericks.  We were then asked to think through how risk-averse we are when we think about the mission workers in the field for whom we currently have responsibility.  As we thought that through, we realised we would hit the panic button much quicker.  We would pull people out quickly because we had health and safety responsibilities, issues concerning ‘due care’, and trustees with legal responsibility holding us accountable.

red buttonGiven the litigious nature of western culture, it’s not surprising some churches and agencies would pull their people out of Nepal.  Suppose a mission worker were killed in the second earthquake, or one of the 200+ aftershocks, and the agency were sued by an angry relative.  We would be unable to mount an effective defence, knowing there had been a risk but not having done anything to mitigate it.  So it seems prudent to pull our people out, even if they don’t want to leave.  We have to consider the agency’s reputation.  But this will also give the mission workers huge guilt issues – they’ve had the luxury of going to a safe place while their local friends have to sleep outdoors and hunt for clean water.  Have they run away, or deserted their posts?  What will their Nepali neighbours think when the Christians run away at the first sign of trouble?

Those who stayed in Nepal are having a huge impact, channeling relief funding, facilitating reconstruction, organising counselling and debriefing for traumatised Nepalis, and demonstrating the love of God in their commitment to staying.  Many Nepalis will be encouraged that they cared enough to stay when they could so easily have left.  But the price is the trauma the mission workers will suffer, and their fear for their children.

The Bible leaves us with no easy answers either.  Jesus walked determinedly into Jerusalem knowing that he would be killed but on an earlier occasion slipped away from a mob in Nazareth that wanted to lynch him.  Noah built a boat to escape in, and must have been traumatised by the cries of those trying to escape the flood whom he didn’t let in.  No wonder he took to drink afterwards!  Paul was bundled unceremoniously out of Damascus to save his life, yet on other occasions showed uncommon bravery.  Yet the general tenor of the New Testament is that we should expect to suffer.

Perhaps our best hope of a making an appropriate decision is to ask the local church.  They will be much more aware than we are whether our ongoing presence in their community is likely to bring danger or protection, or to help clear up or be a hindrance.  At least one agency I know of makes all their personnel responsible to the national church leadership, so that the decision to evacuate is taken out of the hands both of the mission worker and the church/agency.  Perhaps that’s a new paradigm for missions – trust the locals to make good decisions!

Deep Calls To Deep

9781841017310-l“Much of our spirituality is geared toward relieving our pain and finding ways to ensure happiness, success and well-being… Those who face struggles in their walk with God are accused of unbelief or dismissed as lacking in faith or strength of character…”  So writes our favourite author Tony Horsfall in his latest book, Deep Calls To Deep.

So when we are suffering, where in the Bible can we turn to for encouragement?  To Job, who rails against his situation and receives a revelation of God which silences him but brings no understanding of what actually happened?  To Paul, who seems to brush suffering off as “momentary, light afflication” (2 Corinthians 4:17)?  Or to James, who tells us to be glad because it’s worth it in the long run for our character development (James 1:2-4)?

Tony suggests we should turn to the Psalms to find authors who really understand what we’re going through.  He reminds us that many of them were conceived in pain, whether in David’s fugitive years or the subsequent exile in Babylon.  In Deep Calls To Deep, Tony effectively uses Walter Brueggemann’s observation that the Psalms contain psalms of orientation (when all is right with the world), disorientation (when everything has gone wrong), and re-orientation as the psalmist reconciles the difference between the world he experiences around him and the worldview which he holds.  Tony selects some psalms which show evidence of these characteristics to unpack and expound, looking for the encouragement even in the dark places that God deliberately takes us into for the sake of our own spiritual formation.

Tony taps into the honesty and emotion we find in the psalms in a way that helps us to engage with the writers and realise that they shared the feelings that we struggle with, yet held onto God in the midst of pain and confusion.  Tony comments:

We can never squeeze human suffering into a box where we can understand it, analyse it or fathom it. And recognising that God uses the difficulties of life to shape and mould us is not meant to trivialise suffering or offer a simplistic solution to the pain we face. What the Psalms teach us is to trust in God even when we don’t understand, when there seems to be no reason for our pain, and indeed our suffering seems disproportionate. They teach us to be content with mystery and not-knowing. This is part of the work of formation that God is doing in us in the darkest of nights, and the only way that faith can come to maturity is through the path of suffering.

Tony HorsfallIn a unique innovation, Tony accompanies every chapter with a letter from someone who has been through their own darkness and soul-searching, among them the pastor suffering from depression, a young couple with a severely ill baby, and a couple who have both suffered from long-term illness for 20 years.  These are not necessarily fairy tales in which they all lived happily ever after, but show how ordinary people grapple with suffering and come out the other side.

Deep Calls To Deep is short, well-written and easy to understand.  We thoroughly recommend it to anyone struggling to come to terms with the suffering they have undergone or witnessed.

Deep Calls To Deep can be bought direct from the publishers BRF Online.

Supporting traumatised mission workers

pastoralMany people in the mission world are exposed to significant levels of suffering.  Whether it’s walking past vast numbers of the destitute on the streets of Asian megacities, watching people die of diseases that could be cured in the west, or supporting the millions of people worldwide living in refugee camps, mission workers witness a lot of suffering.  Sometimes it’s a passive experience which can be part of life in their field of ministry, or sometimes an active one as they devote themselves to providing relief.

Others of us experience suffering ourselves, perhaps through the car accidents which are all-too-frequent in the sort of places we work, robbery, kidnap, assault, or natural disaster.  We may experience broken relationships, spiritual abuse within toxic agencies, or exploitation by those we are aiming to serve.

Such exposure to suffering can have a variety of impacts.  It can lead to compassion fatigue, with people becoming uncaring as they steel themselves to withstand the suffering around them.  It can lead to burnout as they strive compassionately to personally meet the needs of everyone they come across.  And it can, in extreme circumstances, lead to severe theological doubts or even a loss of faith as people struggle to come to terms with the presence of suffering in a world created by a loving God.  Not to mention conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

How do mission workers suffering from such trauma find relief for it?

  • They need to get away. People working in traumatic contexts should withdraw regularly for rest and healthcare, to make sure they stay well enough to do their jobs.  In the process they’ll need to feel helped not to feel guilty for leaving those who need their help.  By withdrawing to recharge their batteries, they will in the long run be able to be help more people.  Fortunately there is a growing number of retreat centres worldwide where mission workers can get a break and, if they want, also find debriefing.
  • They need to engage spiritually with the situation. Where is God to be found in this mess?  What is God saying to them?  How is the Holy Spirit empowering them to do their ministry?
  • They need to have a proper debrief. It’s important with people engaging with trauma that they don’t merely have a brief chat with a colleague, but meet with professionals as part of a process of unpacking their emotions.  Ministries like ARREST, Healthlink360, Interhealth, and Le Rucher specialise in providing such focussed support.
  • They need a supporting church that can care for them when they come “home” for a break, by providing hospitality, love and support, and an opportunity for them to talk if they want to, while respecting the fact that they may want to keep silent and think things through in their minds rather than verbalising everything. They need to feel involved without having lots to do, as they will need space to work through what is going on inside them.
  • They need to be accepted for who they are at this moment. One of the big challenges for mission workers with doubts about their faith is that there are few people they can talk to honestly.  They are frightened to tell their agency that they are constantly tearful and feel guilty of their relative wealth and security for fear of not being allowed to go back.  They fear they will lose the support of their church if they say that after what they’ve seen, they can’t believe in a God of love any more.  An accepting, non-judgmental environment in which mission workers can express such doubts can go a long way towards their healing, though sadly what we hear most from mission workers is that they have nobody who understands.

In order to prevent the build-up of stress in a mission worker to an unhealthy state, they should have a good understanding of a theology of suffering, recognise their own physical responses to stress so that they can take appropriate action, and have supportive relationships where it is safe to talk openly about the challenges they face.

Far too many mission workers are invalided out of the field because they weren’t properly supported and cared for… by church, by agency, and by themselves.

God meant it for good?

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Tardieu: Joseph recognised by his brothers (1788)

Last week we introduced the theology of suffering with the general idea that the Bible, far from promising us the unlimited blessing of success and prosperity that some have found in isolated verses, has a dominant theme of preparing us to expect suffering.

While this emerges most strongly in the New Testament, with its context of a minority church resisting attempts by both Jewish and Roman authorities to make them submit to anything other than the kingdom of Jesus, the Old Testament has plenty of suffering too.  While much of this is interpreted by the Bible writers as God’s just punishment for Israel’s failure to follow God faithfully, much of the suffering is undergone by the faithful through no fault of their own.  We only have to think of Abel, Joseph, David, Job, Jeremiah and many of the prophets to realise how many were persecuted for their faith.

Let’s examine the case of Joseph.  He seems to have been an arrogant youth, bragging about his dreams, so it’s no surprise that he earned the hostility of his brothers.  But he didn’t deserve to be sold into slavery or to be falsely accused of attempted rape by a rejected woman.  Yet the outcome of his misfortune was the survival of the Egyptians through an unprecedented famine, the rescuing of his own family from starvation, and character growth in himself and his eldest brother Reuben, who took responsibility for the youngest son of Jacob, when he had not been able to save Joseph some decades previously (Genesis 42:37, cf 37:22).  And after the brothers had been reconciled, Joseph comments:

You meant it for harm, but God meant it for good.

(Genesis 50:20)

Does that mean God caused all that suffering?  We in the West hate such an idea, because it implies that we are merely pawns in God’s game, to be moved or sacrificed as God sees fit.  It affronts our sense of democracy, individualism and personal sovereignty.  If however, we came from a number of other cultures across the world, we wouldn’t even be asking this question.  It wouldn’t even occur to us.  We would simply assume that God has the right to do anything God chooses with God’s creation.  We would have a far less inflated impression of our own importance.

But since we’re not from such a culture, we have to deal with that question.  We don’t believe that God is an unfeeling, distant despot, but rather a loving Father who wants the very best for us.  This is certainly what Jesus teaches us in his parables (Matthew 7:9-11, Luke 15:11-32).  But we also believe in the forces of evil, whether at work in selfish or malevolent humans or personified in Satan.  We believe in God’s law of cause and effect at work in this world, and the freedom for all of us to choose to do harm or good.  This creates a world when it becomes very easy for bad things to happen to people, whether accident, abuse or sickness.  Does that mean God causes these things?  No!  But it does mean that God didn’t stop them either.

The plain fact is that God allows suffering to continue in this world.  Why?  While we cannot determine what is going on in each individual case, we can find in the Bible some reasons why suffering might have a purpose.

  • For some, suffering might drive us towards God, perhaps for the first time, and we know of people who have found God because a believing community reached out to support them (2 Corinthians 1:9).
  • For others who observe suffering, it is an opportunity for them to show compassion and develop their own character
  • It may be an opportunity for the victim to develop character and grow more like Jesus (James 1:2-4).
  • For some it is their chance to demonstrate to a watching community the grace of God at work in their lives as they suffer (2 Corinthians 4:10-11).
  • We can encourage others who suffer, turning our experience of hardship into a resource (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Many of us who have suffered and come out the other side will say that it was worth it for what we learned of God and ourselves in the process.  That doesn’t mean we deny the pain of it, or even understand why God allowed it.  We simply recognise that the benefits outweigh the cost.  As Jesus himself did (Hebrews 12:2).  In this life we will probably never know the reasons why God allowed our particular suffering.  What we can know however, is that one day every injustice will be righted, and we will be comforted:

And He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall no longer be and death, there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying or pain – these things have passed away.

(Revelation 21:4)

Earthquake in Nepal

62 - Anna with PalomaHearing about the terrible disaster in Nepal last weekend reminded me of a time a few years ago when I led a short-term trip to Peru.  We landed just one hour after a major earthquake and after some discussion changed our programme to travel to the disaster area and help feed people, and start clearing up.

Shortly after we arrived, a young Peruvian girl carrying a crying toddler came up to one of our team members and, saying nothing, handed the toddler over to her.  Somewhat surprised, our team member set about comforting the toddler, and while the rest of us went about our work, she spent the rest of the day playing with the toddler and encouraging her to eat.  By the end of the day she had one happy child with her.

Later on, when we had all returned to our base, she said to me “I don’t know what that accomplished”.  What she didn’t know until I told her, was that the toddler had lost both parents in the earthquake, and hadn’t stopped crying for seven days.

It underlines one of Syzygy’s mantras for world mission: it doesn’t take much to make a difference – you just have to be there.

Many Christians, both Nepalese nationals and foreign mission workers, will be making a difference in the aftermath of the earthquake as they help to clear up and comfort the afflicted, even while suffering with their own fear, uncertainty and grief.  Please pray for them to be effective and for the Nepalese people to see the love of Jesus at work in their communities through them.

If you want to donate money to help, why not avoid the uncertainty of the international bureaucracy and mass appeals, and give directly to a Christian charity which has been working in Nepal for over 60 years – INF.  You can give through their website at www.inf.org/earthquake-appeal-europe.

Making sense of suffering

1112138276This week we begin a 5-week mini-series on the theology of suffering.  We referred to this some weeks ago when we considered For the Good of Those that Love Him.  As we said in that blog, there is a prevailing attitude in the west that largely assumes things will go well for us, God will protect us, and we will succeed.  So when a major disaster strikes, it can cause us to question our beliefs if we do not have a good understanding of how and why suffering occurs.

This is what is known as a theology of suffering, and churches, bible colleges and mission agencies are all keen to ensure that their members appreciate that things can go very badly wrong in the mission field at times and that they are prepared to deal with some tough questions.

Many of us will know of people who have lost a close relative, suffered serious injury or disability, been kidnapped or unjustly imprisoned, or suffered spiritual or emotional abuse in the mission field.  Others have been persecuted for their faith, as Christians are even today in places like north Africa, the Middle East and west Africa.  Many have questioned aspects of their faith as a result, or even lost it completely.  So how does this come about?

Has God been caught off-guard?  Was God busy with more important issues?  Has Satan outwitted God?  It can certainly feel like that when we’re looking for answers but God HAS to be bigger than that.  Suffering bothers us because it affronts our desire to be in control of life.  It reminds us that life – and God – is much bigger than we are, as Job found out when he complained that God wasn’t keeping up his side of the bargain: I’ll worship you as long as you deliver health, blessing and prosperity.

Suffering contradicts our sense of entitlement in a way that would seem absurd to many in developing countries who know only too well that life is hard.  The reality is that life is messy and bad stuff happens.  Whether you believe it to be the consequence of the Fall or just the impact of human greed and selfishness at work, the world is full of harm and hurt.  And that is a normal aspect of human life.  Christians suffer just like others.  Christian refugees have recently been drowned alongside Muslims crossing the Mediterranean.  Christians have been killed in Iraq alongside Yazidis.  Christians have probably died in the Nepal earthquake alongside Hindus.  Being a Christian does not give us a ‘get out of jail free’ card.  Jesus pointed out that the sun shines on those who try to follow God and those who don’t (Matthew 5:45), and when asked if people killed in a disaster somehow deserved God’s judgement, he pointed out that we all deserve judgement and should take the opportunity to get right with God (Luke 13:1-5).

Moreover, the Bible is realistic about the existence of suffering.  The writers of the New Testament clearly thought it was normal to suffer, and particularly to be persecuted for being a follower of Jesus.  Jesus talked about it a lot (see Matthew 5: 10-12, Mark 13: 9-13, Luke 21:12, John 12:24-26 among several other verses).  And what can Matthew 16:24 mean if not to communicate Jesus’ teaching that he expects us to suffer?

If you want to follow me, forget about yourself.  Pick up your cross and follow me.  If you want to save your life, you will destroy it.  But if you lose your life for me, you will find it.

And of course, Jesus knew what he was talking about.  He understood that it was God’s plan for him to suffer and die on the cross.  And although it was hard (Luke 22:42), he embraced it with determination.  And he expected us to follow him.  Joni Eareckson-Tada, a well-known quadriplegic woman who has had a prominent ministry bringing encouragement to suffering Christians commented that “Suffering drives us down the road to Calvary where otherwise we would not be willing to go.”

So when suffering strikes, no matter how terribly painful or unjust it feels, the best way to deal with it is to follow Jesus to the foot of the cross.

To find out more about a theology of suffering, check out these links:

  • Dr Ken Williams has put together a very helpful study with a huge quantity of Bible verses
  • Smallgroups.com has a helpful 5-session Bible study for groups on this issue.
  • Many authors including D A Carson, C S Lewis, R C Sproul and Philip Yancey have written on this subject but we particularly recommend Is God to Blame? by Gregory A Boyd.

For the good of those who love him?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

Bad stuff happens to mission workers.  You don’t have to be in the world of mission for long before you hear of people who have been kidnapped, killed in car crashes, caught terrible diseases, been lynched, suffered emotional or spiritual abuse, or lost their faith as a result of what they’ve experienced.  That is the lot not only of mission workers but of many thousands of Christians worldwide, particularly in communist and moslem countries.

But when these things happen to us and our loved ones, it can make us doubt either our faith or God’s goodness, because most of us in the West subscribe to a triumphalist theology: God is in control and everything will work out.  We build our worldview on three principal tenets:

  • God loves me and wants the best for me
  • God is able to do anything to help me
  • God is fully aware of all that is going on in my life.

House of cards

While each of these beliefs is true, it’s naïve to build them into a house of cards without reference to other variable factors in the way God created the world, like freewill, cause-and-effect, teamwork and prayer.  And the fact that we are in a battle with the kingdom of darkness.

The result is that when something goes badly wrong it challenges our belief system and therefore our faith.  We wrestle, like Job, with the problem of why bad things happen to good people (Job 10:3).

But a belief system such is this is based on a false premise: the consumerist view that God is there for me, and that if God doesn’t deliver to make my life more comfortable/safe/happy, he has invalidated my faith in him and disproved his own existence.

Vivien Whitfield wrote:

Can we go on trusting God even when terrible things happen and God seems absent?  Only such altruistic trust is the basis for a true relationship with God, shorn of ulterior motives.  God is to be loved and obeyed for himself, not for what we can get out of it.  God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos – not only for me; we sometimes need to be reminded of that.

From The Passion of the Christ

From The Passion of the Christ

If God’s purposes are for the entire cosmos, there are times when his plans may not be in our own interest.  He may ask us to do something hazardous not because it’s good for us but because he needs it to be done.  In doing so we become more like Jesus, laying down our own lives in obedience to God’s will.  There was no way that being crucified served the immediate interests of Jesus, but he chose to be obedient to God’s plan instead.  And sometimes God’s plan for us may be that God has asked us to do things that are clearly not in our own interest but enable him to accomplish something in and through us for the greater good of the Kingdom.

When we don’t understand what is going on, and why something bad has happened, we often turn to Romans 8:28: “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.”  Taken on its own, out of context, it looks as if all we have to do is love God and everything will go fine for us.  But that is just Christian superstition.  We need to read on to verse 29 to find out the definition of ‘good’.  It means being conformed to the image of the Son.  It doesn’t mention wealth, or happiness, or safety.  In fact St Paul makes the opposite clear: this is in the context of “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword!  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer!  How can that be?  We conquer, not because everything goes well for us, but because when it doesn’t, we don’t give up, we don’t compromise, we don’t retaliate.  We become more like Christ.   That doesn’t make our suffering any easier.  But it does, at least, make it tolerable.