Sovereignty, Suffering, and the Work of Missions

Desiring God 2005 National Conference | Minneapolis

I don’t know why I am identified with suffering. I guess it is because suffering, like camping and wealth, is relative. No doubt when people hear my life story, they imagine themselves in my position and think, “Wow, he has really suffered.” They can picture themselves in my suffering much more easily than they can understand the incredible blessings and benefits that those painful chapters in my life have provided me.

Suffering, like many other events in life, is relative. I offered to take a friend down to the Amazon to meet my jungle family. Someone overheard our conversation and confided, “I don’t think that would be such a good idea. To Kevin, a night at the Hilton is ‘camping out.’”

Wealth is also relative. Years ago when my wife, Ginny, and I lived in Dallas, our neighbors frequently referred to the rich people living inside the beltway. Our friends inside the beltway referred to the wealthy people living in the posh neighborhoods just outside downtown Dallas. I guess people hear or read about the minor tragedies in my life, and in relation to their lives it looks like I have suffered. But I compare my life to the experiences of people I have lived with who are persecuted and threatened, who die from minor illnesses because they have little or no access to medical attention, and I think, “Boy, do I have it good.”

A Chinese Christian who heard me speak once asked me if I would write a tract about suffering for his fellow believers in the Orient. I told him I would think about it. But when I did, I realized that in comparison to those Chinese believers I knew very little about the topic.

I do know this: sufferers want to be ministered to by people who have suffered. When I was a teenager, I knew a family whose son was terribly burned when he ran into a car and the gas tank on his motorcycle exploded. In the hospital burn unit he begged his mother to just let him die. She responded by inviting friends to cheer him up, but he refused to see anyone. Finally one day there was a knock on his hospital room door. When his mother opened the door there was a stranger with hideous scars all over his face and arms standing there.

The mother slammed the door, hoping her son hadn’t seen the man. But he had, and insisted that his mother let the man in. His mother resisted, thinking the sight would further discourage her son. Instead of discouraging the boy, however, that man convinced the boy that there was reason to live.

People who suffer want people who have suffered to tell them there is hope. They are justifiably suspicious of people who appear to have lived lives of ease. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the reason that Jesus suffered in every way that we do, while he was here. First Peter 2:21 says, “This [your] suffering is all part of what God has called you to. Christ, who suffered for you, is your example. Follow in his steps” (NLT).

The Reasons for Suffering

The Bible identifies a number of reasons for suffering:

  1. God uses suffering as punishment. When David was punished for numbering the Israelites in 1 Chronicles 21:12, God gave him three suffering choices: three years of famine, three months of defeats at the hand of Israel’s enemies, or three days of pestilence and death at the hands of God’s angel.

  2. God also uses suffering to demonstrate his power. I was perplexed to realize that the poor blind man who begged outside the temple in John 9 had been blind his whole life just so Jesus could prove God’s power. That was a lot of suffering in a society without “Americans with Disabilities Act” laws.

  3. Suffering also builds perseverance and strength of character as revealed in James 1 and Romans 5. I actually hated the verses in James 1 that say, “Whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow. . . .” (James 1:2-4, NLT).

  4. Paul revealed in 2 Corinthians 12:7 that God would not take away his personal suffering caused by a “thorn in the flesh” because it kept him humble.

The Avoidance of Suffering

In the United States and most other highly developed and industrialized nations that have been exporters of Christ’s gospel, it is generally accepted that the avoidance of suffering is a respected primary objective in life. But in relation to missionary efforts, our lack of suffering is a great obstacle to our effectiveness in communicating Christ’s plan for hurting people in third- and fourth-world countries. Suffering people who think we never suffer are understandably cynical about our ability to understand them and care for their physical, emotional, and spiritual hurts.

“People who suffer want people who have suffered to tell them there is hope.”

To be fair, I have to admit that I think there is a great deal of suffering in the United States. Rich people suffer along with poor people, just differently. During the Great Depression, poor people weren’t jumping out of tall buildings; the jumpers were rich people who had just become poor. We are the richest country the world has ever produced — ever. And yet our suicide rate and crime rate are extremely high. Suffering is one of the few aspects of life that everyone gets a shot at. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the worst hurts are the ones you feel.

I remember spending a night in the hospital after having my appendix removed. I woke up around two o’ clock in the morning when they put another patient in my room. As the night wore on, he kept moaning and waking me up. Finally I asked him what could be so terrible that he couldn’t be quiet and let me get some sleep. He answered, “Mi pierna me duele; Mi pierna me duele.” I turned on the light to see what about his leg could possibly be hurting so badly. It turned out that he had just been hit by a car, and they had amputated his badly mangled leg. He didn’t even know yet that it was gone.

I felt like a schmuck because my worry over the tiny severed appendage on my intestine made me insensitive to a man who had just had his whole leg amputated. But my remorse was short-lived because, despite the significance of his trauma, my tiny operation was the trauma that impacted me.

Two Painful Chapters

Enough of general statements and the theology of suffering. The best way to illustrate that suffering offers significant benefits and should not be resisted is to share two painful chapters from my life. There have been plenty of others, but these two have been especially significant in giving me a passion for ministry to hurting people in what we generally refer to as missions.

When I was five years old my mother called me into her bedroom and told me that my hero, the man whom I wanted to grow up and be just like, the man in whom all my dreams and aspirations were centered, was never coming back to live with us again. It was my dad, and I remember thinking: but he promised me that he would teach me to fly. He promised me that. How could he leave? Then Mom said that he had gone to live with Jesus, and I thought, Oh . . . it was something we all look forward to, but I couldn’t understand why he didn’t come to take us with him, why he just left us behind.

It was an exciting time around our house that last Christmas my dad was home, and I can remember experiencing a great sense of expectation. Actually, Christmas Day had just passed, the memories of which are most vivid in my mind. Then I thought we were going to have another Christmas celebration because these friends of ours — the Elliots, the McCullys, the Youderians — were coming to our house. I thought: this is really good; let’s just keep celebrating. But I didn’t understand that the excitement was for a different reason: my dad and his four friends were about to try to reach a violent tribe of people in the jungle before an oil company moved in. The tribe had been trying to defend their territory by killing the oil company’s employees. So the oil company had approached the government, explaining that if the country needed oil, they had better get rid of “this problem.”

Revelation 5:9-10 says that at the end of time, members of every tribe and nation and tongue will be in God’s presence, and that God is going to make a royal priesthood of them. These had to be believers. My dad and his friends understood that and felt compelled to reach these people before the oil company carried out the solution to their problem. But it wasn’t fearful compulsion; it was something they were excited about doing.

My dad and his friends knew that they couldn’t just walk into the jungle and meet these people; others had tried to do that and failed, including the oil companies. This tribe killed everyone who had ever ventured into their territory. What my dad and his friends didn’t know was that the tribe habitually and rampantly killed its own members. The homicide rate within the tribe was the highest that anthropologists have ever studied. More than sixty percent of all the people in this tribe died as a result of being speared or hacked to pieces with machetes by their own people. I don’t know a single person in the tribe, similar to me in age, whose father died of natural causes.

My father and his friends knew that a universal way of showing friendship is exchanging gifts. Even though they didn’t know how to exchange gifts with the Waodani, they did know how to give gifts to let them know that they were wanted. Dad had devised a system of flying in tight circles so that, from the plane, they could suspend a bucket tied to a rope that would hang motionless just above the ground. They used this system to give useful gifts to the tribe. After about the third time, the Waodani not only took the gifts out of the bucket, but they also put gifts for us back in. They exchanged gifts in that way for thirteen weeks.

Then Dad found a little sandbar not too far from the village. They landed there and waited for the people to come — Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Suddenly on Friday, after the days of just waiting with nothing happening — plane idle on the sandbar near a little tree house built to run to if they were attacked — they heard voices from across the river. Two women and a man stepped out of the forest and walked across the shallow little river. They spent the day with my dad and his friends as if it was no big deal. We have a video of that movie film and the still pictures taken that day. We called it Friendly Friday. It was just so promising! Dad called my mom and told her what had happened and the word spread among the five wives. We knew that something exciting was going on.

On Saturday my dad flew over the little village to see why the man and two women hadn’t come back, but nobody was in the village. Flying back from the Domointado River, across the Tewaeno River, and then to the Awanguno River where they had been landing the plane, he looked down and saw a whole delegation of naked people on the trail. So he called my mom and told her the exciting news: “Looks like they’re going to be here for the early afternoon service.” Then he landed and told the others, “Hey, they’re on the trail.” Since they’d already had friendly face-to-face contact, they were so excited.

Three women stepped out of the jungles on the upper end of the beach. Jim and Pete started walking toward them while Dad and Roger and Ed hung back; they didn’t want to scare them. Suddenly, members of the tribe rushed out of the jungles — Gikita with Mincaye, Kimo and Dyuwi right behind, and Nimongo and Nampa up ahead just a bit — and they positioned themselves to separate my dad and his friends. Then Gikita struck out after my father, saying, “I’m going to spear the oldest one first.” (My dad was the one they recognized from the plane.) One by one they speared my father and his friends and hacked at them, and then they did something even worse by their cultural standards — they took what was left of the bodies and derisively threw them into the river to be eaten by the fish and turtles.

I didn’t know the details when I was a little boy, but I can tell you, their deaths still crushed my heart. The incident reshaped my beliefs in a way that I didn’t anticipate. Before this, I believed what a lot of you probably believe: when bad things happen, God merely allows them. I found out the details of my father’s death after my Aunt Rachel died. During all the years she had lived with the tribe, the death of her brother and the others was never discussed; she didn’t want them to think she would seek to avenge those deaths. When Aunt Rachel died, I represented the family at her burial, and that’s when a lot of answers came forth. Now that Aunt Rachel was gone, the tribe felt free to talk about the events leading up to the killings and the “family” conflict that precipitated the attack.

The death of the five martyred missionaries, and the amazing change in the Waodani that came about after Aunt Rachel and Elisabeth Elliott were invited into the tribe to teach them God’s “carvings,” is now a well-known story. Countless lives have been impacted by it; thousands of missionaries name it as the reason their hearts were moved to respond to God’s call. Our family has been blessed by the love and friendship — kinship — of the Waodani people.

Suffering aids our missionary endeavors.

Someone came up to me at a place where I was speaking and said, “You know, if your father and his four friends had done it differently, they wouldn’t have had to die.” At first I was repulsed by that suggestion, but then I realized he was right. They didn’t even have to go to the jungle. But then, I thought, if I had it to change, I wouldn’t change a thing. I simply look at the man standing beside me, one of my dearest friends in the whole world, and I realize that he wouldn’t be here now if my dad and Roger and Pete and Ed and Jim hadn’t died. We call him Grandfather Mincaye because he has become a dear member of our family.

God Planned My Dad’s Death

You know what my conclusion is? I don’t think God merely tolerated my dad’s death. I don’t think he turned away when it was happening. I think he planned it. Otherwise I don’t think it would have happened. This was a hard realization for me to come to. I once said that while speaking at a church, and a man came up afterwards and said, “Don’t you ever say that again about my God.” Afterward I found these verses in Acts 2:

“Men of Israel, listen to these words. Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through him in your midst, just as you yourselves know, you know he was God. You nailed him to a cross, you godless people. But he was delivered up to you by the predetermined plan of God.” (verses 22-23, AT)

Then I thought: Don’t anybody tell me that this can’t be. If God could plan the death of his own righteous Son, why couldn’t he plan the death of my dad?

God Planned My Daughter’s Death

I believe God planned my daughter’s death. In the years prior to her death, people started asking me to go around and speak, and I realized that there was a deficiency in my heart and life: I could not see the world the way God does. Oh, be careful what you pray for. I prayed and begged God and told Ginny, “I can’t keep doing this. I go out and I’m speaking from my head to people and it doesn’t work. I can’t keep going. I can’t speak unless I feel the passion of this.”

And so I started praying, “God, please, please let me have your heart for the hurting world out there. I see it, and I empathize a little bit but I don’t have a passion for it.” Now, don’t overrate this. Perhaps a lot of you struggle with the same thing. I just couldn’t keep going and talking about what I had seen God do without a passion to share it. And I had no idea if God would give me such a passion or how he would do it. I’m more mechanical; that’s what I do well. I fly; it just comes, it’s in the genes, I don’t have to figure it out — it’s just there. But passion is another story, so I begged God to let me see his heart.

We have an idea that if we do what God wants us to do, then he owes us to take the suffering away. I believed that; I don’t believe that anymore.

Ginny and I had three boys and then we finally had a little girl. I made her promise me that she’d never grow up; she broke her promise and went away to college. And then a time of suffering came because Youth for Christ asked Stephenie, who could play the piano beautifully as well as the bass guitar, to travel around the world for a year with one of their groups sharing the gospel. And you know what? It wasn’t worth it to me; I wanted my daughter home. I knew that some day she would probably meet a boy and go off.

She was tall and slim, and in my eyes, beautiful. She was Ginny’s bosom friend. She was our baby. She started traveling around the world, and it was a painful year. But finally the year was over and she was coming home. Ginny and I met her at the Orlando airport. Grandfather Mincaye was there too. We had made him a sign to hold up, Welcome Home, Stephenie, but he couldn’t read so he held it upside down. He was jumping around, big holes in his ears, wearing a feather headdress. He wasn’t blending! Stephenie came and saw him and tried to pretend that she didn’t see us, but Mincaye went up and grabbed her and started jumping around with her. Then we headed out for a welcome home party — it was a joyous time.

Later, I passed Stephenie in the hall, and she just leaned on me and said, “Pop, I love you.” I thought: God, just beam me up right now. Let’s go at the peak. Does it get any better than this? All of our children are following you, and Stephenie is home. And Ginny and I — we’ve had a twenty-seven-year honeymoon. Let’s just quit right now.

A while later, Ginny said, “Steve, Stephenie’s back in her room. Let’s go back and be with her.” So we ditched everyone else and went back. Stephenie had a headache and asked me to pray for her. Ginny sat on the bed and held Stephenie, and I put my arms around those two girls whom I loved with all my heart, and I started praying.

While I was praying, Stephenie had a massive cerebral hemorrhage. We rushed to the hospital. I rode in the ambulance while our son Jaime and Ginny and Mincaye followed us in the car. Grandfather Mincaye had never seen this type of vehicle with the flashing lights, didn’t understand why strangers had rushed into the house and grabbed Stephenie and hurried off with her. Now he saw her at the hospital, lying on a gurney with a tube down her throat and needles in her arm, and he grabbed me and said, “Who did this to her?” And I saw a look on his face that I’d seen before, and I knew that he’d be willing to kill again to save this granddaughter whom he loved.

I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know, Mincaye. Nobody is doing this.”

And just like that, this savage from the jungles grabbed me again and said, “Babae, don’t you see?”

No, I didn’t see. My heart was absolutely tearing apart; I didn’t know what was going on.

He said, “Babae, Babae, now I see it well. Don’t you see? God himself is doing this.”

And I thought, what are you saying?

Mincaye started reaching out to all the people in the emergency room, saying, “People, people, don’t you see? God, loving Star, he’s taking her to live with him.” And he said, “Look at me, I’m an old man; pretty soon I’m going to die too, and I’m going there.” Then he said, with a pleading look on his face, “Please, please, won’t you follow God’s trail, too? Coming to God’s place, Star and I will be waiting there to welcome you.”

Why is it that we want every chapter to be good when God promises only that in the last chapter he will make all the other chapters make sense, and he doesn’t promise we’ll see that last chapter here? When Stephenie was dying, the doctor said, “There’s no hope for recovery from an injury like this.” I realized that this was either the time to lose my faith or an opportunity to show the God who gave his only Son to die for my sin that I love and trust him. And then I watched. I watched my sweet wife accept this as God’s will and God’s plan. And you know what God has done through this? He changed my heart. He broke it. He shredded it.

God promises a glorious conclusion to the story, not that every chapter will be pleasant or easy.

And in the process he helped me see what he sees. I thought the worst thing that could happen in life was that people would go into a Christ-less eternity. There’s something worse than that. It is that our loving heavenly Father, the God and Creator of the universe, is being separated every day from those he desperately loves, and he will never be reunited with them again if what this book says is right.

I don’t know what role he has for you, but I know he has a role. His great passion is expressed in his Great Commission, and he has given it to messy, wimpy people like you and me. He has made us his ambassadors of reconciliation.

God’s Megaphone to the World

Mincaye and I traveled with Steven Curtis Chapman as part of a concert tour back in 2002. Each night after Steve and his band told the story of how Mincaye and I became family, with video and music, Maemae Mincaye and I would spend a few minutes speaking personally to the audience.

One night Mincaye was very intently trying to communicate with the audience. He very dynamically stated, “Waengongi (Creator God) does not see it well that we should walk his trail.”

I hesitated to translate what he had just said. That statement directly contradicted what I believed and knew Mincaye believed. Finally, I went ahead and translated what Grandfather had said. Fortunately, he resolved the conflict with one word. He continued, “Waengongi does not see it well that we should walk his trail alone!” He continued, “Don’t you think Waengongi loves all of his children?”

If we are going to emulate our Savior, we have to identify with the people to whom we take his good news. I don’t advocate that we look for suffering; life brings enough of it on its own. But what I do advocate is that suffering is an important prerequisite to ministering to hurting people. Christ took on our likeness and subjected himself to the suffering that plagues us.

I am convinced that we should not make heroic efforts and expend vast resources like the rest of our society does to avoid suffering. Not only would a willingness to experience hurt give us credibility with suffering people, but it would also give God a special opportunity to prove his sufficiency to meet our needs. As a wise man said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain [Macmillan, 1962], 93).

The poet Martha Snell Nicholson wrote a short poem that expresses this very eloquently. She wrote:

I stood a mendicant of God before His royal throne
And begged him for one priceless gift, which I could call my own. 
I took the gift from out His hand, but as I would depart
I cried, “But Lord this is a thorn and it has pierced my heart. 
This is a strange, a hurtful gift, which Thou hast given me.”
He said, “My child, I give good gifts and gave My best to thee.” 
I took it home and though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore,
As long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more. 
I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace,
He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.

(Martha Snell Nicholson, “The Thorn”)
is an Ecuadorian-born business entrepreneur, pilot, and author. He is the son of Nate Saint, a famous missionary pilot and martyr.