Suffering, The Uninvited Companion: A Scott Shaum Interview
When you’re in the middle of deep suffering sometimes all you can do is exhale anguished prayers between sobs. Those prayers sound more like “Help” and “Please” than they do anything intelligible. All you can manage is to play worship music over yourself and let the words believe for you when you can’t utter the sounds. All you can do is put your hand over your heart and repeat, “You’re going to be ok. It’s going to be ok.”
Suffering is often the uninvited companion in our journeys and yet for missionaries, entering into known suffering is often a choice and accompanies the job.
We go out unprepared if we believe that doing God’s work will somehow insulate us from personal pain and trauma.
We aren’t seeing with true eyes if we believe all suffering is bad.
Yet God doesn’t need our martyrdom either.
For me, suffering has been a gateway, an archway crossing over to a secret garden where I unearthed treasures.
It’s where I’ve understood, Immanuel, God with us.
I found it interesting that there’s something called a lychgate, which is a gateway covered with a roof found at the entrance to a traditional English style churchyard. This is also known as a “resurrection gate.”
One man who shares many of my own beliefs around suffering is Scott Shaum. 10 years ago while serving in Cambodia, he contracted a virus that attacked his auto immune system and eventually his nervous system leading to chronic fatigue and diminished physical and mental capacities. For someone who was very active biking and hiking in Colorado, this was a huge blow.
And yet He’s taken his pain and suffering and through experiencing God’s love, has come out the other side transformed in beautiful ways.
He’s humble, more compassionate, and full of wisdom. These are the kind of people I want to be my teachers.
I’m honored to be able to share some of Scott’s pearls from our interview recently which is centered around his new book, The Uninvited Companion.
1. What’s your unique perspective of suffering and why do we need one in missions?
“We all experience hardship. Even our God has suffered. Suffering is a normative experience in a fallen world. Further, as I explain in the book, God does amazing, redemptive work in and through us in our personal sufferings. All these are reasons why we want to think well on suffering. Often we erroneously think: ‘If I do what God says, life will go well for me.’ But what if pain is not necessarily a bad thing but rather another means through which God chooses to draw us closer to Himself?
Of course I’ve thought, ‘Couldn’t God have protected me?’ Those are normal questions. They must be processed and dealt with, but we get stuck in doubt. What if this is the very instrument God chooses to show things of Himself I wouldn’t otherwise see?
2. What would you say to the missionaries on the field who are going through trying circumstances, or the people who’ve had to leave the field due to physical illness or spiritual attack? These are people who’ve given everything to serve God and feel they’ve gotten burned.
“You need some place to process in unedited form, to get that story out and be heard, so your experience can be normalized. This really does happen to all of us. You didn’t fail or God didn’t let you down; It’s part of life in Christ- and its part of service for Christ- we will pay a price- In healing with our scars we are more qualified to serve others. It doesn’t disqualify us- even if we morally fail there is opportunity for redemption. There’s an opportunity to demonstrate Jesus that doesn’t happen when life’s going well. When we’re hurting, that’s an opportunity for Christ to show up. We’re all a mess. It’s an illusion to think otherwise.”
3. How can missionaries grapple with the personal risk or cost they make in bearing the sufferings of others?
4. You mention God uses suffering as an instrument. Do you believe God causes our suffering or just uses it?
“These are deep waters and you have to be tethered to who our God is. If our image of God is that he is this cosmic moral score keeper than any time we mess up we expect we’ll pay a price. Our God is a Father and doesn’t stand at a distance- He is self sacrificially giving himself to us all the time. God will not do anything that is evil, that’s outside His character. Did he cause a suicide bombing? Of course not because He is not evil but He is powerful enough to redeem it in my life. Is God just mean? Or is God using a difficulty in our lives for a greater purpose? I know who my Father is now. So He’s not withholding something from me, He’s offering something to me. He once said to me ‘Scott I’m not trying to take something from you- Trust me.’ I wouldn’t trade what I’ve learned over these years. I’m content with my life. But there is mystery here, things we don’t understand.”
5. When did things begin to shift for you in your journey?
“In the first 18 months of seeing specialists and not getting any answers there was a lot of fear. One day as my wife was driving me back towards our home, I remember leaning my head on the glass and saying, ‘Lord as long as it will take use this however you want to in my life.’ It was a different orientation moving from the ‘why’ question to a ‘how’ question. I could say, ‘I don’t like it but here I am. How do I accompany you in this new reality?’
6. How has going through suffering benefited your life?
“Suffering has become more than a theology for me. If before I thought I had answers or fixes for people, now I’m left with a lot more ‘I’m sorry, I wish it wasn’t this way.’ It has softened me, and grown empathy and compassion in me. I’m slower now with a quick response. It’s slowed me down a lot. I’ve been a driven person my whole life. It’s helped me to see others more clearly. I’ve experienced deeper levels of God’s love which has made me more willing to sacrifice. We’re not created to be independent of God or people and suffering turns my gaze back to God.”
7. What are some of the best ways to cope with suffering?
I was angry and confused and undone for several years. It was a disorienting time. God felt absent experientially and yet people were experiencing God through me. I needed something reorienting. Just showing up is part of the deal. I made more time for God. Sitting down and journaling in morning, reading books on suffering and lament. Staying in the Word even when I didn’t feel like it. And staying in community, not isolating myself. I had spiritual directors and people I could debrief with who kept pointing me back to Truth. God was doing things in my heart I couldn’t see until later. His ways are higher than mine. I’m learning to relinquish cognitive comprehension; I would rather have relational interaction. Eventually there was a lightening in my Spirit. Like waves of the ocean lapping against the shore and gradually the shoreline was reshaped.
8. You mention a stripping of “your performance based identity.” What does that means to you?
I had an identity built on what I did and what others said about me and that’s a terrible life sentence. If God had allowed success to pile upon success, I would never have realized I’m an adopted son, not a slave. I had to cancel speaking invitations and yet I was still experiencing His care for me. I’m not what I do and I’m not loved because of what I do. This is one of the great gifts of suffering. I had some choices, some lies I had to let go of. One was that relational silence was a form of punishment. He showed me silence is an ok way to be with someone. Now if I go through a season where He is quiet, I know He hasn’t left me and isn’t angry with me.
9. You mention in your book redefining success. What does that mean to you in the world of missions?
I had thoughts when I was younger going into China thinking I was going to change the world only to come to realize God was actually interested in changing me. I look at the life of Jeremiah. The people he ministered to didn’t change very much, so then did he fail in his mission? True success in the Kingdom is a matter of faithfulness. Did I go and do what God asked me to do? Did I show up? Was I faithful to my spouse, friends? Then I’m successful- I leave results to God. This is a quiet success.
10. You mention we need to be true to our inner reality. How should missionaries deal with feelings of anger at God?
“If it’s in there its going to leak out. Get to some people who are trained to process with you in a safe environment to share your unedited story. We are not created to heal on our own. We don’t need to wait until we are in crisis to go to a debriefing or do self care maintenance. I need to be shepherded first before I can shepherd others.”
11. How do you do self care/self compassion now?
We need sustainable sacrifice. I am called to lay my life down, but do I have a life to give away or am I a frantic, frenzied person? Self care should be integrated into my life. Seasons of great commitment need to be followed by seasons of pulling back. When are my winter times? Daily, weekly, and annual practices. I don’t like to put things in a box. What do you like to do? Chop wood, write; paint, run, garden, exercise, hang with friends, have a Sabbath, expose yourself to beauty–these are all helpful. Put your phone on a shelf- don’t be accessible to your email all the time. Engage your heart and right brain and put words to your story. We have a choice whether we take ourselves into the wilderness or whether God disrupts our lives and takes us there, not because He’s mean, but because he wants to draw us into a better version of ourselves.
We want to hear from you! Please comment below: How are you handling your suffering or how’ve you seen God using it?
**Please pick up a copy of Scott’s book, The Uninvited Companion: God’s Shaping us in His love through Life’s Adversity’s. It’s a life changing read as we develop a theology around suffering.
***Scott Shaum is a Shepherd at heart. He’s on the leadership team for Barnabas International and provides spiritual direction and debriefing to global workers. He writes at tendingscatteredwool.com.
***If you need to work on your own self care please download my free eBook on my homepage.