Hope in the Midst of Suffering

If you grew up reading missionary biographies like that of Bruce Olsen and Amy Carmichael, the stories were so engrossing and somewhat impossible to comprehend. You walked away with amazing ideas of blending into the culture and translating the Bible into a language never written before. Somehow the pages that mentioned the dark days of suffering, exhaustion and downright failures somehow melted away into short-term memory while you said to yourself, “I want to go there! I want to be her!”

The ugly truth is that being a missionary isn’t romantic or a fairytale story with happy endings. A boy who fell out of a tree and is paralyzed has a bed-sore that won’t heal because he is malnourished. His grandmother is at his bedside because the rest of his family has abandoned them. Loving folks on our team, Togolese and ex-pats, make sure they can eat. While in the hospital he is subsequently diagnosed with cancer. Although he is getting cancer treatment, the medicine is making it impossible for his bed-sore to heal probably. The surgery to help heal and cover his wound must wait until the chemotherapy is finished—that’s 4 months away.

I’m sitting with a woman at clinic who is here because she hasn’t been able to get pregnant after 6 years of marriage. She holds her head down in shame, knowing that her entire worth as a woman is held in this expectation of motherhood. Her husband already has a first wife who has a 1 year-old child, so the medical problem is sure to lie with her. We discuss options—which are few. We both know that if she can’t conceive her husband has the right to send her back to her family in shame and dishonor and he will take a different wife. She would never get married again and likely her family would refuse her as well. I give her the price of a procedure that will determine if her fallopian tubes are open or closed. It’s possible that chronic infections have already sealed her fate, but we will have to wait until her next appointment to find out. I can’t help but think that it might be better not to know.

I haven’t seen little Paramen in a year—Not since we took out a large cancerous tumor on her kidney. We didn’t have all medicines she needed but we had enough to shrink the tumor so it could be removed. We hoped it was enough so that the cancer didn’t return. I thought of her often, but her Fulani family was never great with keeping appointments. I walked into X-ray 6 days ago to find a beautiful young girl of 6 years old wearing a Burka and enjoying a cherry lollipop. She smiled and I could never mistake the striking beauty bestowed on such a young child. She looked amazing and I hugged her and asked dad if she was sick. “A little cough,” he said. I stared at her X-ray images in disbelief and disappointment. Within 15 minutes I would be, once again, poking her with needles to deliver weekly chemotherapy to try and reverse the metastatic cancer that was now filling her lungs.

Life is exhausting.

Sometimes I don’t want to be here, but I would never want to be anywhere else.

I was once criticized on an evaluation during my training as a Pediatrician that I would have to beware of “compassion fatigue”. I laughed at the time, and I still think the warning given was ridiculous. The idea, however, is quite real. I wonder if the moments Jesus took away from the disciples to be alone with the Lord was after the times of greatest “compassion fatigue”. Not that one is tired of being compassionate. More that one is fatigued as a result of true, non-relenting compassion. True compassion involves stepping into someone’s moment, someone’s world of suffering, fear, doubt and pain. It involves the giving of gifts you have that can meet the needs of those needing compassion around you.

It also means that if you aren’t being filled by God’s grace and mercies through time spent apart with Him, you will quickly be empty and have nothing else to give.

I think the great missionaries that have gone down in history as faithful warriors of the missions movement who understood how to fight against compassion fatigue. They understood the necessity of mercy ministry and that joining someone in their suffering can bring great hope. They also understood that every day could only be an outflow of their time spent with the Lord.

Our feisty friend who is both paralyzed and going through chemotherapy has a chance at life as our nurses and nurses aids train his grandmother on how to care for him. In a society where the handicapped are often left to die, his cancer diagnosis has allowed us to keep him here and show his family that he can still live and love well.

Our sweet patient struggling with infertility may have the chance to hear how her value before Christ is not based on her ability to conceive. And if the Lord allows her to be a mother one day, how much sweeter will her joy be and ours along with her as we walked along side her.

Paramen’s mom has faithfully kept her appointments every Friday, despite not fully understanding the situation her daughter is facing. But who can deny the providential timing of her return and the availability of a medicine that we never could obtain before. We will hold tightly onto the hope that she may yet be healed on this side of Heaven.

More and more I can’t wait until this world passes away, when time spent with the Lord will be a permanent state of worship before the throne.

More and more I realize that watching someone be healed isn’t as satisfying as the day will be when there are no diseases needing healing.

More and more I realize that reading the Word day by day cannot compare to when we will hear His voice face to face.

More and more I realize that the sweetest melody will never compare to the trumpet sound on the day of His return.

The truth is that Jesus resides in the center of suffering, waiting for us to see His purposes amidst the storm. No one likes to be beaten by the rain. But nothing can grow without it, including us.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come. I’ll be in Mango, waiting.