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Staying hopeful in a hurting world


“If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” This is an age-old question. TMS Global cross-cultural witnesses (CCWs) live in places that often expose them to more suffering than they would see in their communities of origin. We asked a few CCWs how they process this suffering in light of their faith, and how they manage to interact with the world’s pain without drowning in it.

Recognize that God is good, but the world is broken

There was a pivotal moment in CCW Sarah Wilson’s* life that helped her sort out what it meant to follow a God who is good, in the midst of a world filled with suffering.

Wilson lives in South Asia, where she and her husband Paul* help run a textile business that provides meaningful employment in a safe, loving environment for people caught in the devastating cycle of extreme poverty. One of the staff members, Aditi,* is an abusive marriage. One day Aditi arrived at the office badly beaten. She could barely get up the stairs. She lay on the ground on some mats the other artisans had arranged for her.

“In that room, here I am, the mature person in the Lord,” Wilson says. “And I just remember staring at her, like, what on earth do I say to you? There’s nothing I could say that wouldn’t feel hollow. That’s what was playing inside my head. Telling you that God loves you and that He’s with you does not sound like enough. Telling you that God can transform this pain sounds like a lie.

Then one of the other staff members, who had recently started following Jesus, said, “We should pray for her. We just read that if God gives us joy, nobody can take it away.”

So Wilson suggested that artisan pray for Aditi. “And after she prayed, Aditi did feel a real lightness in her spirit. And she got up.”

Wilson says she went home and wrestled, thinking, “If the gospel is not true at all times in all situations, is it true at all? If in this moment I can’t tell you that Jesus is enough, is He enough, ever? We have to reconcile at some point that we are just in this broken, fallen world, dealing with the effects of that. But that doesn’t lessen the reality of God’s goodness,” Wilson says.

Build your theology on the Bible, not on your experience

But how can we believe in a good God, when we don’t seem to be experiencing His goodness? Ari Morsella, director of member care at TMS Global, says there is a mystery in the gap between what the Bible says about God, and what we are experiencing.

“We want to fill in that gap,” Morsella says. “But we can’t build our theology on our experience. We have to build it on what the Word says, and keep going back to it.”

Morsella says when we find ourselves in the gap, we may hear three voices: the Lord’s voice, our voice, and the enemy’s voice.

“And very often the enemy will speak in first person, so it sounds like us,” Morsella says. “So when you’re in the confusion, between what the Word says and what you’re experiencing, the temptation is to either say, “okay, ‘there’s something wrong with God, or there’s something wrong with me.’ And that’s not going to be the case.”

In her role as director of member care, Morsella checks in with CCWs throughout the year, which means that she gets to hear both the good, and the hard things CCWs witness and experience. If she begins to feel weighed down with that information, she says she rolls it onto God’s shoulders, because His shoulders, not hers, were meant to carry it. Her community helps, as does worship. She also reminds herself of testimonies of God’s goodness.

“I just am convinced that He’s good, and so are His plans,” Morsella says. “My experience of finding myself on the other side of something that’s been hard has been that He was with me, and I’ve learned something new about Him and about myself. I’ve found Him to be faithful and true. He gave us Jesus. So how is He not going to be good?”

Journey with community

It seems that a key to navigating the gap between what the Bible says and what we experience, as well as other difficulties, is to not walk through these places on our own.

“I serve on a team. That’s a huge component in being able to work here and serve here and do it for the long term,” notes Thomas Hall.* He serves in Jordan, working three days a week as a counselor at a school, and one day a week with Syrian refugees.

“I serve with some really amazing wonderful people who listen and love and care for each other and pray together,” Hall says. “So there’s a lot of good that comes from those relationships.”

He says his team works in the same area with the same people, which allows for shared experiences.

"So you don’t feel like you’re alone. I fully believe that’s a huge reason why I’ve been able to be here and hear the stories that I do hear and yet to continue on ministering out of a place of wholeness and hope,” Hall says.

That doesn’t mean he never gets overwhelmed. Hall says it can be hard to hear about all of the things happening globally. But being one on one in counseling sessions is different. “Listening to their pain, being in the room with them, helping them to work through whatever they’re dealing with, gives me so much purpose and fulfillment,” Hall says.

He says he knows that that ability is from God, who wired Hall to be a counselor.

“In my position I’m able to offer hope because I know Jesus and because He lives in me and that hope lives in me,” Hall says.

But sometimes he does need a break. “Before this past summer I had hit a wall, and was emotionally very much spent,” Hall says. “I had heard a lot of hard stories in counseling and other places. Compassion fatigue set in. And I could feel myself shutting down.”

He says it’s important to know when it’s time to take a step back. He took a three-month trip to the US and was able to rest and invest in his relationship with God. Hall notes that he’s “not some spiritual saint” who is perfect all of the time. But he does say that practicing spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and worship, is vital to his ability to live and work in a healthy way.

Train before you go

Like Hall, Lynn and Sharon Fogleman feel that good community and self-care are essential for working amongst suffering.

They are both doctors who have served in Kenya, Appalachia, South Sudan, and Uganda.

“I remember as a younger doctor, with kids at home, I was the doctor in charge of a children’s ward in Kenya,” Sharon says. “And so often, I was overwhelmed by the number of children who were sick and dying from what are preventable diseases.”

Sharon says she built a wall of emotion to protect herself so that she could keep doing the work.

“And that’s not a healthy thing to do, long term. I would often come home and cry because I felt like it was too overwhelming,” she says.

Sharon notes that today people recognize that it’s important to take care of yourself when you’re carrying other people’s burdens and experiencing secondary trauma. But that wasn’t the case when she and Lynn first started out as CCWs with their prior missions organization.

“At the time we had nothing in training to help us and enable us to cope with those situations. They told us it would be tough the first year, and that was kind of what we learned,” Sharon says.

The Foglemans say it’s good that TMS Global is working to train people on trauma healing and self-care. Now based in the US, Lynn and Sharon travel and lead trainings in trauma healing work.

“Instead of us bearing trauma of someone else--we can’t do that--we have found through this a way that people can get help from others and God in healing, as opposed to trying to carry their pains continually,” Lynn says.

In their years working in hospitals abroad, the Foglemans learned from their African co-workers.

“I think about the nurses who worked with us in the hospital and went through a lot of these losses and pains with us,” Lynn says. “Because of where they grew up, what they had seen, the way they looked at the world, they probably handled it better than we did. They looked much calmer. We were aching through the experience, and we wondered, are they not feeling this? How are they doing it? But in fact, that was the world that they grew up in. Death was common. Death is common. Especially amongst children. So it wasn’t surprising to them.”

It wasn’t that the nurses weren’t compassionate or caring. But Lynn notes that Westerners often expect things to go the way we plan and envision, while some people in other cultures don’t have that expectation. Sharon notes that when people in African countries they served in experienced loss, the community played an important role in caring for others.

“People keep going by that community support,” Sharon says. “A major difference in worldview is not only that death is part of life, but also that the community is there for each one of us.”

Sharon says community is important for those involved in difficult work as well, noting that we feel less alone when we can talk about our experiences with others.

Her sense of calling has been another factor that has helped Sharon get through tough seasons as a CCW.

“I think I said multiple times during our years in Kenya, if I was not called there by God, and had my faith to lean upon, I never would have stayed,” she says.

Know what you are, and are not, called to

In South Asia David Carter* can identify with the importance of a sense of calling. He helps run the same textile business as Sarah Wilson, mentioned earlier in this story. He describes his city as a hard place to live. But that’s one of the reasons why he and his wife Allison* chose to move there. They wanted to live in a hard place where others didn’t necessarily want to go, a place that was unreached, and where there was great need.

“It’s easier to have a leg to stand on and something to go back to when you feel like there’s a reason and like the Lord has you there for something,” Carter says.

Carter says the need in his region can be overwhelming. He has to decide who he can and cannot help. Understanding his calling, Carter says, helps him make these choices. Ultimately, he notes, his calling is to pursue the Lord and know Him more. And God is asking Carter to live out his calling in a specific way.

“For me, every unemployed and poor woman in my region or child who is dying and hungry-- that’s not my specific call,” Carter says. “That would be overwhelming, and I could not do anything. But the 25 people that we now employ and their families, in that specific small little group, I think is my calling. So I can work hard and maybe have an effect on that small number,” He says.

Carter notes that he and his team could have 100 businesses like the one they have now and still not make a drop in the bucket, from a numbers standpoint. The need around them is so great.

“But that’s God’s problem,” Carter says. “He has called us to be obedient in this specific thing, and we have to trust He’ll call and move and do other things in other places with other people.”

It’s not always easy for Carter to live where he does, or engage in ministry there. But he says enjoyment isn’t the goal. He notes that when Christ calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him, He’s inviting us to join in His suffering. And living in a challenging place also invites a deeper dependence on God.

“I want to need the Lord,” Carter says. “I want to feel like daily I need to ask Him and go to Him for certain things, personally and for my family. That’s how I want my kids to grow up; it’s how I want to live. It’s how I want to relate to the Lord. And I want to be able to rely on Him and see Him move, and ask Him for things that I can’t make happen.”

After 11 years in South Asia, Carter says he has a different understanding of who Jesus is and a deeper understanding of His heart. His time there has shaped how he reads the Bible, as certain realities of life in biblical Jerusalem are things he experiences in modern-day South Asia.

Remember Aditi, from the beginning of this story? Carter says He doesn’t know why God is still allowing her to be in an abusive marriage. We don’t get to know the why and how God does things, Carter notes. But Aditi’s had dreams of Jesus, and the Lord is moving in her. And because of her employment in their business, some aspects of her life are better.

Carter’s teammate Sarah Wilson says the journey with Aditi has been tough, but “God has done some amazing things in her heart and mind, to where she knows her belovedness now in a way she didn’t before,” Wilson says. “And she does experience His comfort and His presence in the midst of her intense suffering, and it’s the only thing that gives her hope and relief. The situation has not changed, but He has changed her and met her.”

Develop a solid theology of suffering

Wilson says you won’t stand in hard places without a solid theology of suffering and a deep understanding of what God has done to suffering through His work on the cross.

“His death in particular, stripped naked, beaten, mocked, turned away from, betrayed--there are so many layers of suffering,” Wilson says. “He takes what was a mockery and what was meant to belittle, oppress, smash Him, His Spirit, the movement of God, and He transforms that into the greatest moment in history,” she says.

Wilson notes that we can even learn from Jesus’ posture on the cross, with arms fully outstretched.

"He gives us this model of facing our suffering, and doing so, in our case, with open arms to God,” Wilson says.

Wilson has a deep sense that God is good, and that He uses what the enemy has meant for harm for His purposes and His Kingdom, working all things together for the good of those who love Him. She also has a firm belief that God really can transform and redeem anything.

“Only the one, true God can cover all of the pain and brokenness and loss and sorrow and suffering and hardship with His own splendor,” Wilson says. “And just by the power of His presence, and His glory, and His goodness, just by being with us in the suffering He makes things okay. It’s part of the mystery of faith. I don’t even really fully understand it, but I know it is about surrendering to Him.”

In the 10 years that Wilson has been in South Asia, a shift she’s seen in herself is not a depletion of compassion or a lack of caring, but rather the ability to rest, because she knows that God is still at work.

“It’s the ability to celebrate and to experience joy even in the midst of hard things, because I can lean into God’s goodness, even in the midst of suffering,” she says, noting that rest, celebration, and practicing gratitude help keep her sustained.

“If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” This is a question that people have asked through the centuries and will likely continue to ask without a concrete answer until Christ returns. But for CCWs living around the world, not knowing why hasn’t stopped them from stepping into hard places and engaging with the suffering around them. With the help of training, community, and practicing spiritual disciplines, they’ve learned how to experience hard things while not being overtaken by them. And in the darkest of places, they’re seeing the light of Christ shine brightly, reminding them that, even though suffering and pain are ever-present, God’s goodness is present, and bigger still.

*Pseudonyms are used for security reasons.