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some mission workers have left the country, whether by their own choice or because their church or agency chose to withdrawn them.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.