Articles

Building Toward a Biblical Perspective of Suffering

Brother Fitsum Kebede, Los Angeles

‘‘Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy’’ (James 5:10-11).

 

It was eleven years ago on one of the most beautiful Sunday mornings in the city of Cape Town. I was preparing to welcome the following week, never knowing that it could have been the last day of my life. When I was about to leave for church, I felt like kneeling down once more. So I did and committed the day to the Lord. As always, it took me two hours of train ride to reach Bellville, the place where we held our Sunday service.

The Ethiopian Apostolic Church in Cape Town was a newly established church by then. Before 2007, there were few Ethiopian apostolic believers in Cape Town who were attending various Protestant churches. They were not aware of the local apostolic church that left United Pentecostal Church for theological reasons and became part of the Apostolic Church International Fellowship. By the time I went to Cape Town to join a theological seminary, I realised the existence of a branch of Apostolic Church led by a South African pastor; and I encouraged brethren to be part of that particular assembly. Despite the church being located in a remote area, it became a blessing to the Ethiopians. Later, both the Ethiopians and the Afrikaans became aware that the cultural difference between them was wide. The Ethiopians were not able to fit in the Afrikaans-speaking ‘‘coloured church,’’ nor was the church was able to absorb the Ethiopians. As a result, an Amharic service was started for the Ethiopians under the headship of the South African pastor.

On that particular Sunday, we had a wonderful service and concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. Afterward, we had a fellowship and enjoyed Ethiopian food in a nearby restaurant. While we were in the restaurant, a brother came and told me that I was invited to a wedding ceremony. I was not interested to go, but all brethren insisted that the event would give us an access to reach the Ethiopian migrant community. So I canceled my other commitments so as to stay and fulfill the wish of my brothers. At the wedding, I was introduced to many Ethiopians though I never had a long discussion with any of them.

As the ceremony was taking place, my heart got so heavy; and I felt like I needed to find a place where I can stay on my knees and get rid of that burden. However, I realized that it was too late to get a train connection to the campus, and I had to spend the night there in Bellville. As the bride and groom were going to the banquet I persuaded a brother to drive me to his apartment, telling him I was tired and wanted to rest. After he had dropped me at his beautiful apartment he went back to attend the wedding feast. That evening, I had an amazing three hours of spiritual feast that I cannot forget ever in my life: Tears were flowing like a stream from my eyes, and I was rolling on the floor. I literally felt the move of God and it was as if the room was electrified with a very extraordinary power.

In the midst of that unusual experience, I heard the brother and his wife trying to open the door of the apartment. I remembered that when my brother led me into the room earlier he had left a spare key on the dining table and locked the door from the outside. As the couple was opening the door, three people with a gun and knives pushed them, followed them in and closed the door.  South Africa is one of the few places in the world where crime is very common; “Each day an average of nearly 50 people are murdered.”[1] I couldn’t believe what was happening before my eyes; for a moment, I felt like I was watching a movie. The robbers looked like they were surprised to find me in the locked house; they probably thought I was the owner of the apartment. Two of the three men wore masks, and they came straight to me. I started calling the name of Jesus. One of them was trembling while he was tying my hands; I saw him dropping the rope twice or three times. They threw me on the floor and beat me hard with their gun. One of the robbers was on top of my back, pressing me down to the floor, put the gun right on my head and said: “Where is the money?” I didn’t know if there was any money in the apartment. At that moment, I felt that I was very close to death, and I said to myself that I needed to commit my soul to the Lord Jesus Christ. I closed my eyes and began to think of my past, the experience I had a few moments ago, and my future. I tried to focus on the heavenly things, and my mind was quickly running through the verses that talk about paradise – the dwelling place of Jesus the Lord, the place where the throne of God is, and the resting place of His saints. It is unbelievable how much information the human mind is capable of processing within just a brief moment, especially when we bump against critical incidents such as that one. It didn’t take me long to realise that the earlier spiritual experience I had was for the life to come. I remembered Stephen saying, ‘‘Lord Jesus receive my spirit,’’ when he was stoned to death. I was expecting a bullet going through my head at any moment.

As my hand was tied, one of them took me to the bathroom. The owner of the house who  testified about the incident said later, ‘‘When I saw the robber taking him away from the living room, my eyes were in tears, for I thought he was going to kill him.’’ He also added that the guys were well informed about their properties; they came intending to kill him and his wife so as to rob their possessions. Realising that there is no key on the bathroom door, the man moved me to the bedroom. He made me lie down flat on the floor and beat my back hard until I was not able to move. They also brought the owners of the apartment to the bedroom and made them sit down on the floor. Then they began to search for ‘‘the money’’ everywhere in the apartment. After they took a large amount of money, cell phones and all that we have in our pockets, the living room became quiet. When the silence prevailed for a long time, we knew that they had eventually left. I was barely able to raise myself up from the floor so I dragged myself to the living room and fell onto the couch.

I spent the night suffering the injury and left the apartment early morning on the next day. I returned to the campus with tears and with many big questions not just about the incident but about life in general. “How did God allow such things to happen?” The Bible says, ‘‘For His anger is but for a moment, His favour is for life; weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalms 30:5). But sometimes when we go through consistent, repeated afflictions we ask questions like, ‘‘why are my nights prolonged? Why these things are happening to me?’’ It is common to entertain such thought-provoking questions when we get hurt, especially when our faith is weakened.

After the aforementioned incident, I was not capable of attending classes for many days. The occurrence made me look back my life’s journey and reflect on all the distresses I had experienced down the road. Raising questions like “Why have I encountered anguish now and then Lord?” I even went further and said to God, “I sacrificed everything to serve you yet I have to suffer severely for it.” The truth is it is not just a few people, but rather all human beings go through suffering and vulnerability is a human trait. Under such circumstance, it is common to hear people ask, ‘‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’’ However, a good man passes through agony as much as a wicked can be snared in despair and anguish. Hence, the question needs to be reformulated in a more comprehensive way to: “Why do bad things happen to everybody?” And the simple answer is because we are living in a fallen world. Years have passed since that deadly event happened to me. As the bible says, “Thou shalt forget thy misery, and remember it as waters that pass away” (Job 11:16), and it became a history through the memory is still fresh.

Some years ago, I read an interesting memoir of a Pastor, and it reminded me of those days when I went through the valleys. The pastor was about to lapse from his faith in God. He said that up to the age of 68 he never had a religious doubt. But immediately after the death of his wife, his faith crumbled. He wrote, ‘‘I became almost an atheist. …God has set his foot upon my prayers and treated my petitions with contempt. If I had seen a dog in such agony as mine, I would have pitied and helped the dump beast; yet God has spat upon me and cast me out as an offence – out into the waste wilderness and the night black and starless.” When I was reading his story, my heart went out for him because I know how walking in the shadow of death feels like. His words sound like those of the Old Testament prophets such as Job and Jeremiah who complained and cursed the day of their birth as they were going through enormous afflictions. “Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed…” (Jer. 20:14). Job also said, ‘‘Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived’’ (Job 3:3). He added that “He [God] will laugh at the trial of the innocent” (Job 9:23). However, a couple of chapters later we heard him saying, ‘‘though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him’’ (Job 13:15). These men of faith stood firm in the midst of their afflictions; they never gave up their faith. These heroes and their experiences are now in the pages of the Bible to teach us how to persevere in sufferings.

One thing that I have learned from these scriptures and experiences is that God is not the author of evil, and suffering (sickness, disease, death, etc.…) does not always come as a result of sin though it entered to the world through sin. This is very lucid in the book of Job, as it is clearly illustrated at the beginning of the first chapter. In his letter to Galatians, Paul established a principle which we often use to teach causality, “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). However, we read in the Bible that Paul himself went through various distresses irrespective of the good seeds he sowed. We should, therefore, be careful not to establish a doctrine based on a particular verse and perspective, as each verse has its own historical and literary context. It is also wrong to see the adversities we experience in life from one perspective; i.e., in light of verses like “Do good and you would prosper,” and “Your sins will find you out.” This is not to say that a righteous and a sinner won’t read a good and wicked harvest respectively, for it happens quite often in life as it is clearly explained in the book of Proverbs; Nevertheless, we need to take into account what the preacher (Solomon) said in Ecclesiastes in trying to understand the cause of afflictions. Solomon said that we can really work hard and we might probably achieve little or none (Ecc.1:1ff.). We witness this reality in daily life, for there are many incomprehensible injustices in the world. Thus, it is wise to look at sufferings that happen to everyone from both perspectives: without sticking to the one and neglecting the other.

When we personally pass through a painful circumstance, the advice of the scriptures is to focus on its purpose and take a lesson from it rather than questioning God’s fairness in His judgment. I once heard a story of a man who thought that he lacked patience. He asked his pastor to pray for him about it. His pastor said in his prayer, “I pray God to let this brother go through trial.” This sounds cruel, so the man was surprised and asked his pastor, “Why did you pray for me to pass through trial while all I want is patience?” In reply, the pastor read the words of James to the man: ‘‘knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing’’ (James 1:3-4). What James stated here is that patience is a natural fruit of trial. However, we should not generalize from this verse to say that we all learn from suffering because we can plunge into various afflictions yet emerge with nothing. Lindbergh said, ‘‘I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, then the entire world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.’’[2]

 

[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8668615.stm

[2] Clay, Catherine Elizabeth. Dear Demented Diary. Indiana: Author House, 2013