Suffering. Pain. Unhappiness. Everyone has experienced this darker side of human existence to varying degrees. We have come to understand it as a part of life – almost a sad, but inevitable, caveat to the breaths we take on this earth. Sometimes circumstances or events can cause massive amounts of any of these three. Someone or something lost that possessed much of your love. An accident. An unforeseeable freak of happenstance. Even if you’ve never experienced large amounts of suffering personally, you surely have through relationship with someone who has.
As followers of Jesus we infallibly all are faced at some point with the question, “If your god is so loving and is responsible for creating all this, why do we suffer so much?” What a question. Often, what vast amounts of pain lie behind it. When not used as a trump card to win some argument about religion, it’s usually synonymous with “If God really loves me, why do I hurt so @#!*% much? How could he have let that happen?” What bitterness. What pain.
For me, it was in the afternoon. We were about four days into our three week camping excursion in the bush of South Sudan, charged with the mission of telling the Toposa people about the Bible. In the past week or so (it took us some time to arrive), I had never experienced such personal discomfort in my life. I had gone days without sleeping more than two hours a night due to struggles with jet lag that I couldn’t shake. The girl I thought I was going to marry and I had just broken up. I didn’t know my usefulness on the team. I wasn’t eating enough. It was hot. It was muggy. It was loud. It was different. And that was all before we had even left Nairobi, Kenya, one of the more westernized areas of that part of the country.
When we arrived in South Sudan, my problems only multiplied. Electricity, running water, anything that could be even marginally quantified as a “convenience” was tossed out the window. On the car ride across the Kenya-South Sudan border, I had to choose between dealing with the fact that I was riding shotgun next to a Dinka driver who didn’t wear deodorant or sticking my head out the window and getting a facefull of dust from the cars in front of us. Insects were everywhere. I encountered a massive scorpion inches away from my open duffel bag the first night. I had to fearfully keep my eyes on the ground while walking at night to avoid being bit by or stepping on one of the hundreds of things that could kill you. I thought every stick was a snake, of which there are more deadly than not. When buying supplies in the shambled-together huts of sheet metal somewhat resembling a town I was looked at like I was meat. I experienced being the different one. I saw hostility in a few eyes. And that was before we had even left our host missionaries’ compound for our three-week camping location, and their place seemed like heaven wrapped in cheese when we came back to it.
During my time camping, being directly injected into the Toposa life, my perspectives shifted as they had no choice but to do. Like so many who have experienced cultures different from their own, I was struck by the condition of the people within. I looked at them and only saw suffering. I saw pain. I saw sickness. I saw missing limbs. I saw what they didn’t have. Clothes. Any concept of modern medicine or hygiene. Clean water. Shoot, cold water. Or cold anything. I had to see kids who couldn’t walk due to physical deformities, things that could have been easily remedied if they had only been born an ocean away. I had to smile at children I knew wouldn’t live to my ripe age of 21 because of sickness. I saw teenagers who had a better chance of being killed in a tribal war than getting an education and seeing any other part of the world.. I saw women who would never know even a fraction of the independence the women in our culture do. I saw young women who would have received more love from a passing stranger saying hi on American streets than she receives daily from her husband, whose affection she competes for along with his many other wives. I saw young women being pulled away from our nightly worship circle by young men with the intention of rape. I looked at these people and only saw what they lacked, and it sickened me. Like most others who experience this, my reactions went through emotionally-charged and wildly different stages, though they all seemed to center around hatred.
I first hated the Toposa. How could they be so different? How could they commit such atrocious acts? Why can’t they give me just three minutes to myself? Why couldn’t they have more food so they didn’t have to stare at me with that look every time I was gagging down my evening rice and beans? It took all of ten minutes to realize how absurd all that was, so I moved on to varying degrees of self-hatred. For how I had been so sorry for myself, for how I had been acting. For being a white American. For having. It took a bit longer to get past that one, but I eventually saw how nothing good was going to come of thinking like that. So, one afternoon while hiking between villages under the relentless African sun I finally settled on hating God for doing this to them. He was responsible for this, and if he was responsible for this then I hated him. To cap it all off, it was as if he had tied it all up in some kind of sadistic bow because I was basically completely helpless to do anything about any of it. I couldn’t cure diseases. I couldn’t change their culture and mindset to accept modern practices of medicine and hygiene. I couldn’t pull clean water out of the air. I couldn’t perform miracles (trust me, I tried). I felt a little like a favorite musical artist of mine did when he said “You want help building your house to live in? Sorry, I don’t know how. But I can sing you a song about my feelings!”
Part 2 to come soon