In Australia, suffering – widespread, significant suffering – can be held at arm’s length. While we are not immune to suffering, we have built safety nets to protect us from its impact. Here in the Middle East where we live and work, suffering is in your face every day.
Here, much of the population lives from hand to mouth on a daily basis. An accident or illness is unlikely to bring an ambulance, let alone decent hospital care. Insurance is almost unattainable. The police and legal system are just as likely to be perpetrators of injustice rather than protectors against it. Freedom to choose a government, speak your mind or freely follow any religion other than Islam are unthinkable dreams, despite the gains of the Arab Spring.
As people striving to live authentic Christian lives, how do we respond to our suffering and theirs? How far should we go to protect ourselves against suffering? What can we learn from it when it happens? How can we help others who are suffering?
Following a Messiah whose suffering was the very means of new life surely puts suffering at the centre of our faith. The Bible certainly does not promise believers protection from suffering. In fact, we are told to expect it, at least for being followers of Jesus. Paul tells the Philippians that, “For you have been given the privilege of serving Christ, not only by believing in him, but also by suffering for him.” We are also called to help others who suffer. The writer of Hebrews tells us to, “Remember those who are suffering, as though you were suffering as they are.”
One of the wonderful things about living among people for whom suffering is a normal part of life is what we can learn from them. Certainly, Christians in the Middle East have a very well-developed understanding of suffering. They have suffered martyrdom and persecution since the time of the apostles and even more so now than ever before.
When asked about a recent incident of religious persecution, one of my work colleagues replied, “God is good. What else can we expect?” This young man and his family live in an area close to us known as “The Jungle” because high-rise apartments crowd close together with little opportunity for sunlight to gain access. Unusual recent rain has turned the streets in his area into a quagmire though mostly it is a dusty track with an array of vehicles all vying to be at the front of the line. After his wife had a caesarean recently, the only way to get her to their 7th floor apartment was to have a chair at every landing for her to rest on briefly before she made the next attempt. She was rarely able to leave the apartment for many weeks until she had healed completely. Even before this, she (and most other women) would usually only go out to shop with her husband because of sexual harassment that is commonplace here. Not long ago his car was stopped by a local extremist group. He was forced to sign a paper of support for them before being allowed to continue on the only road out. We raged inside at the injustice of this – systematic targeting of Christians in vulnerable situations – and wondered when the suffering and persecution will end.
Eman*, a young mother working for a local project serving families of all faiths, fell from her fourth floor balcony while trying to hang curtains. She is now permanently paralysed after spending months in hospital with no physiotherapy or proper wound care. Her husband, who has been unemployed for some time, must now be her carer as they face a very uncertain future with their young children and no income. Her hospital stay was not free; there are no sickness benefits or pensions available for people like Eman and her family. They are totally reliant on family for support. Where is God in all of this?
One of things that we continue to learn about suffering here is that there are often no words to say. We are driven over and over again to pray: “God help us to be faithful….God help us not to let anger take over our hearts…God help us to respond to the needs with wisdom….God bring these people the justice and leaders they deserve…God may we see the people we see each day, work with, shop with, through your eyes of compassion”. Where is God in all of this? He meets us in our prayers and is here through the hands, feet, eyes, ears of His people who walk, work, and give; day by day making small differences in the places where people suffer.
Another thing we learn is that you can be content in suffering. We are constantly amazed and challenged by the cheerfulness of people who suffer every day. When there is nothing else to rely on for security and comfort, they seem to generate an inner strength. For believers, there is a reliance on God that rarely seems necessary in Australia. In the light of this strength and reliance on God, suffering need not be feared or avoided at all costs.
Finally, we are driven to ask of God, “What should I do to be Your hands and feet in the midst of this suffering?” This question will bring different answers for each of us, and we ourselves are constantly challenged by this. Praying, as we have already said, is the first and most important thing to do. But it is a cop-out to spiritualise our response to suffering to the extent that we do nothing to help those who are suffering. Let us not be the Pharisee who walked by on the other side of the road. Rather, let us recall that whatever we do for those who are suffering, we do for Jesus himself.
Jesus is suffering, with them and with us.
The authors are Interserve Partners in the Middle East
*Names have been changed
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