There are constant reminders of suffering just outside our front door: the disabled girl who sits at the train station in her wheelchair selling tissues in all weather; disabled children forced to leave school to work in the family business; women forcibly married to ‘keep them pure’ or to prevent them pursuing a change of faith; projects forced to close as they are perceived to be encouraging women to interact and learn outside their home environment.
In the Middle East where we live and work, suffering is in your face every day. Much of the population lives from hand to mouth on a daily basis. An accident or illness is unlikely to bring an ambulance, let alone decent hospital care. Insurance is almost unattainable. The police and legal system are just as likely to be perpetrators of injustice rather than protectors against it. Freedom to choose a government, speak your mind or freely follow any religion other than Islam are unthinkable dreams, despite the gains of the Arab Spring.
As people striving to live authentic Christian lives, how do we respond to our suffering and theirs? How far should we go to protect ourselves against suffering? How can we help others who are suffering?
Following a Messiah whose suffering was the very means of new life puts suffering at the centre of our faith. The Bible certainly does not promise believers protection from suffering. In fact, we are told to expect it. We are also called to help others who suffer. In Hebrews it says, “Remember those who are suffering, as though you were suffering as they are”.
We learn so much from living among people for whom suffering is a normal part of life. Certainly, Christians in the Middle East have a very well-developed understanding of suffering.
Not long ago a young work colleague had his car stopped by a local extremist group. He was forced to sign a paper of support for them before being allowed to continue on the only road out. We raged inside at the injustice of this – systematic targeting of Christians in vulnerable situations – and wondered when the suffering and persecution will end.
A young mother working for a local project serving families of all faiths, fell from her fourth floor balcony while trying to hang curtains. She is now permanently paralysed after spending months in hospital with no physiotherapy or proper wound care. Her husband, who has been unemployed for some time, must now be her carer as they face a very uncertain future with their young children and no income. They are totally reliant on family for support.
We continue to learn that there are often no words to say about suffering here. We are driven repeatedly to pray, “God help us to be faithful … not to let anger take over our hearts … to respond to the needs with wisdom; God bring these people the justice and leaders they deserve … may we see the people through your eyes of compassion”.
Another thing we learn is that you can be content in suffering. Those who are suffering here seem to generate an inner strength. For believers, there is a reliance on God that rarely seems necessary in Australia. In the light of this strength and reliance on God, suffering need not be feared or avoided at all costs.
Finally, we are driven to ask of God, “What should I do to be Your hands and feet in the midst of this suffering?” Praying, as we have said, is the first and most important thing to do. But it is a cop-out to spiritualise our response to the extent that we do nothing to help those who are suffering. Let us recall that whatever we do for those who are suffering, we do for Jesus himself. Jesus is suffering, with them and with us.
The authors are Interserve Partners in the Middle East