Why Missionaries Need a Theology of Suffering

February 23, 2016


“They shared an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.”  –The Light of the World

Many of you know I write a lot about self care, and avoiding burnout, but I don’t want to ignore the fact that in our cross cultural work, and in life in general, suffering is inevitable. In fact, when we enter into ministry, we’re signing up to bear witness to the suffering of others.

It is these two opposite poles of self-care and entering into suffering that are so deeply interwoven into my life, strands of thread in a web that can’t be extricated.

I’m always holding the tension between suffering and self care like two weights I’m trying to balance on an uneven scale.

I write things like, “Take care of yourself,” and some of you are like “Yeah right, how the hell are we supposed to do that when we are confronted on a daily basis with pain?”

How do we deal with the fact that suffering is unavoidable in our calling, and even chosen, that we willingly walk into the dark, into the face of unimaginable things because of love?

We’re called to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn.

How do we take care of our hearts in the face of all that?

I hear you. I’ve been there. I grapple with these questions all the time as I try to forge a new way in the member care world.

And yet suffering is such a strange paradox, such a mystery of sky that you can’t count the stars as they blind you.

I cannot escape the beauty that often comes from suffering, any more than I can escape the laws of physics.

But I believe, healthy self care doesn’t mean the avoidance of suffering, it means that we have the reservoir of hope and joy to offer when it’s needed.

Resilience is defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what missionaries need to know about suffering in order to maintain resilience on the field, and much of it has to do with our theology of suffering.

Suffering can be a doorway to compassion

We think pain comes to steal from us, but what if meaning could be extracted from the very thing we run from? Last night I cried because I thought of my community in Uganda and how much I miss them, and I consider those tears a gift. I could not cry if I did not love, and it is those bonds forged in adversity and despair, those bonds tightened through sitting with someone in their pain and allowing it, which grants me greater access to God’s unfathomable compassion.

I feel His heartbreak, therefore I know His heart. I bring mine before him, and therefore He knows me more intimately.

I am grateful for pain because it teaches me I still have the capacity to love, to have a heart that is tender and penetrable.

This is the missionaries’ journey to allow oneself to be broken open again and again.

To enter into loving people and possible loss, is to enter into suffering, to enter into the daily hurts and heartaches. To soldier on well we must have an understanding of suffering or we will let it overwhelm us and stomp out God’s goodness, and then we become a martyr rather than an overcomer.

When you look at maintaining resiliency on the field, you must stumble through your own theology around suffering and decide what you believe.

I don’t know why there is senseless suffering. And I’ve screamed against the wind at God’s face so many times because I know He can take my anger. He can take all of me. Pretty or not.

There are many things I don’t understand. I don’t know why I can’t carry a pregnancy, or still struggle with adrenal fatigue, and I don’t know why missionaries I’ve known have lost their baby thrown through the windshield of a car. I don’t know why that little seven year old got pimped out by her father, or why war ravages on around us.

These things shouldn’t happen, but they do. Even in our service. Even in our meaning well and doing well.

So we must learn to face them, we must learn resilience, or we will be another casualty, our dreams wrapped in a body bag and shipped home.

We can’t run from it. In fact, most of us as missionaries have run towards it.

Understand that suffering is not your enemy

Suffering is not a bad word in our vocabulary. It is our teacher, even our friend, creating caverns inside us to hold more of God’s love. God uses it to mature us, to build character, to build reserves of empathy.

Suffering is an opportunity to imbibe more of Heaven’s grace and comfort. Ribs are broken and fashioned anew. We become more resolute, stronger, more dedicated, committed.

Suffering will refine you if you surrender to the sharp blade of its whims.

Understand just because you do good and are serving God does not mean you are guaranteed protection from pain.

This is a great lie that will gut you. That’s just not Jesus’ message. He entered into pain willingly to save us. He entered into the pain of others. We live in a fallen world and we have an enemy who wants to destroy us, who would use our pain to label us a “victim.”

But we will not let him. What is the lesson you can learn in the midst of this? What treasure can you unearth? Perhaps it is the strengthening of your character, perhaps it is understanding others more deeply. Perhaps it is wisdom and wise counsel. Perhaps it is seeking the counseling you’ve always needed. Perhaps it is cultivating gratitude. Scott Shaum in the book Trauma & Resilience writes:

There came a day when I prayed, ‘Father, I do not like this, I still want you to take it away, but teach me to steward this well. Teach me whatever I need to learn.'”

May this be our prayer of surrender.

God is close to the brokenhearted

Sometimes self-care looks like allowing yourself the space to grieve, to cry, to pour your heart out before your Father, even the things you don’t understand.

I cannot explain it, but it is these dark nights of the soul in which we can feel the presence of God hovering closer, reminding us He is there, He cares, He is enveloping us.

We can lean into adversity because we lean into our Beloved.

This intimacy carries us up out of the wilderness and strengthens our spirit. In our weakness, He becomes strong.

I was in the hospital in November, and I’ve never felt God’s love more acutely. I could hear His voice of love resounding inside me. These times of need are the times we can know Him more. Hunker deep and let Him heal you, slowly, one piece at a time.

One of the things I found in the hospital was that because I could feel God’s love so much, my heart melted at the sight of these girls who were in the beds beside me, who were abused, raped, pimped out, and addicted to meth. As I got better, I braided their hair and I spoke to them in soft, gentle tones, an octave they are not used to because so many people only see them as “worthless,” or worse, “crazy.”

What I learned is that all real love flows out of love we receive ourselves. If we’re too prideful to reach out to God in our own pain, or too busy placing blame, then we miss out on the vibrations of God’s love that pulse out from His very heart, the ones that say,

“You’re enough. You’re so loved. You’re mine, and I will protect you.”

Decide that God is still good

You can get angry and throw things, you can say you don’t understand, you can throw your pity party and devolve into a heap of cynicism and self loathing for a minute. God will still be there and He can take your temper tantrum. But eventually, you have to remember what you already know to be true: He is good. He loves you. He cares.

No, He didn’t want this to happen to you. No you’re not being punished for something. No, He’s not the author of your suffering, but He is the orchestrator of redemption.

Remember the milestones of His goodness: that one time you didn’t die from malaria, the call from a friend you really needed, the money that came in at the right moment, the safety on the roads as you traveled. And if all else fails, go outside and watch the way the sunflower opens, how the light fades into violet at the day’s end, how the earth smells raw and new after a rainstorm. Breathe in. You’re alive. And He loves you. Sometimes that must be enough.

Let go of the expectations

What causes us so much pain is the disconnect between what we wanted to happen and what actually does. Expect that there will be pain in this life and in what you do for the Kingdom. Decide that you won’t let it make you a martyr. Decide to not let the unfairness of this life make you bitter. You will face the disappointments and rise, because you know ultimately all things do work together for the good of those who love Him. He is working out the beautiful tapestry of your life in ways you can’t even imagine. He knows everything you need to fulfill your call. He doesn’t waste a single one of your tears. I believe He has a bottle in Heaven of each tear I’ve cried. He will not waste any of your suffering or any opportunity to shape it for your good and for the good of many others.

We don’t have to fix everything

When you witness suffering every day, realize that you don’t have to fix someone’s pain, you don’t have to save them from it, or offer all these solutions. You’re not responsible for making it all go away. Simply being present is enough. Simply allowing people the space to process, without judging them is kindness. Do the same for yourself. Allow yourself to feel it, to cry, to let it go. Understand you’re not responsible to fix everyone’s problems. Help where you can yes, but surrender your questions to Jesus and if you can’t offer a solution, pray for them. But realize God might be doing a work in someone’s life too. Some of the most incredible, faith filled, trusting, empathetic women I’ve known in Uganda were women who’d endured much suffering and yet still carried such joy in God’s goodness. I am a beneficiary of the lessons learned from their scars.

People can be God’s arms

Part of the beauty of suffering is we learn we have needs and that there are others around us who can help meet those needs. We learn interconnectedness.

We learn to lean heavier into one another instead of stamping out our own independence.

We need to share our suffering with someone who cares. It gives us a chance to allow people to be there for you, to practice humility in your own weakness and dependence. Often we feel God’s love most tangibly through our friends who come to the rescue, our church who billows around us, our partners who hold us as we weep. We also get the boomerang love effect of the community we’ve poured into. We get to be on the receiving end, just as we’ve been givers. We learn to live in relationship versus hierarchy or division of “helper” and “those being helped.” We become more evenly unified. And we even experience joy.

The reality is we live in a fallen world and yet we can still find meaning and even beauty as we gain greater empathy for one another, as we surrender our hearts to being healed.

What have you learned from entering into suffering?


*For those of you who might need help processing the grief and suffering you encounter on the field as cross cultural workers, I’m here to help through online Skype coaching/pastoral counseling. Email saritahartz@gmail.com.

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  • G Stephen Marie Goode

    Thanks Sarita for this excellent missionary article on the tension of self-care and developing a theology of suffering. We have been working in war zones, refugee crisis, tsunami and natural disasters, anti-trafficking and working amongst the poor for the last 36 years. Pain and Suffering has been a constant companion on this road. Leaning into God when one has serious life questions is so key. Being able to trust in his nature and character when all around you is falling apart is critical. God has a lot to say about all of this and it is like we never see it, read it until we experience it firsthand and then we need to see where is God in the midst of pain… We have just published a book that may be of interest, Bring Your Eyes and See….-our journey into justice, compassion and action. We will share your article so that many of our people working amongst the poor will be blessed by your heart and maybe connect with you. Again, thank you….

    • Stephen, you are so welcome. I completely understand. I never could have gotten through the pain on the mission field without leaning into God with my questions and my broken heart. Thanks for your years of service! Is your book on Amazon on how can I get a copy? Yes, I’d love for you to share any or all articles you find of interest on my site with others! Blessings

      • G Stephen Marie Goode

        Thanks Sarita, You can get Bring Your Eyes and See – Our journey into Justice, Compassion and Action by Steve and Marie Goode on Amazon at Kindle or Paperback. Thanks Steve..

  • Anna Wegner

    Thanks for the post. It had me tearing up. It is hard to try to find a way to live and work in a place with suffering, and trying to figure out self care in the midst of overwhelming needs. I have to go back to God’s goodness and His sovereignty even when the circumstances don’t make sense to me. And I remind myself that he is the God who sees.

    • Anna, I’m so glad you found this post helpful. You’re so right about going back to God even when we don’t understand. Thanks for sharing your heart

  • I love these truth-filled words so much! Thank you thank you thank you!