The title of this post is much greater than the content I will be able to write about it, but with that as a disclaimer, here goes…
Some of you may know that this past week has been a pretty rough one for me. For those who don’t know, I began feeling sick again on Monday, with the severity of the sickness escalating to a peak last night. Prior to yesterday, I was having an on-and-off-again fever with general achiness, some stomach discomfort, and nausea. Wednesday night was especially bad, as I couldn’t sleep because every time I laid down, I felt even more nauseous. Thankfully I never threw up, but last night after supper the pain in my stomach hit a new high to the point where we had to have one of the doctors come over and take a look at what was going on. We are so fortunate and blessed to, of all places, be here at the hospital, where there are skilled physicians and readily-available medicines… perhaps the one and only place in Gabon that can offer those things. Anywhere else, and I would not be so lucky. Meghan and Dr. Renée went down and got the necessary meds for me, and as of last night when I went to bed, the pain began to diminish. God answered my prayers and gave me a restful night’s sleep and I woke up this morning feeling 100% better… no fever, no nausea, no stomach pain. Today has been so much better than the last several. I am still on the meds, and I would say I’m not quite back to normal, but definitely on the upswing. Thank you so much once again for all of your prayers.
After my bout with the intense pain last night, I started thinking about this issue of suffering. What I’ve been through over the past few days has sure felt like suffering, but can someone like me with little experience of pain and suffering really claim that I suffered? What is the definition of suffering, and how can it be measured? Is it purely subjective, based on what you feel you’ve endured, or is there a standard measure that can identify true situations of human suffering versus those that are less legit? Most of the time, I think we use the comparison method. Here’s one example of this… perhaps one of you back home has had a period of illness this week (maybe you stayed home, confined to your bed, and had to miss work), but because my illness occurred in Africa and had the potential to be more severe and/or deadly, I surely suffered more than you. If this is the comparison, did I suffer and you did not? But then I have to consider the people who live here and what would they do if they had a similar illness as me, but without quick access to a hospital, medications, clean water, and a sanitary environment? When I compare my experience and situation to theirs, I can’t even begin to think that I know anything about suffering.
Right now in Gabon, there is a strike that has all of the other government hospitals shut down, so ours is the only functioning healthcare center in the entire country! This means that all of the patients who were either getting or had hopes of getting care at these other hospitals have now come to Bongolo, which has put this facility in major overflow mode. When I consider the risks that people have everyday here of contracting malaria, Congo fever, TB, HIV/AIDS, and many other life-threatening illnesses compared with my life of comfort and ease, wealth to be able to afford medicines, and elite access to healthcare… I am again reminded of my privilege and blessing, yet heart-broken over the injustice and inequity for the majority of the world’s population who have to live like the people here do, or in many places in even worse conditions. So it seems to reason that to be born in Africa or a third-world country is to intimately know suffering on a daily basis for most or all of life.
I’ve also been reading through the Gospel of John recently, and this picture of suffering takes another turn but becomes much more crystal clear in the person of Jesus Christ. I can’t think of a greater, more vivid example of suffering than what Christ was made to endure in the events leading up to and including his death on the cross… the beatings, the flogging, the tearing of flesh, the blows to the face, the thorns in His brow, the cross on His back, the nails through His hands, the suffocation, the weight of the world’s sins on His shoulders, and worst of all, the complete separation from the Father. And here lies perhaps not the definition but the perfect model of what suffering looks like, the standard by which all other sufferings might be defined – not in terms of what can be called “suffering” and what can’t, but by which all suffering finds purpose and empathy from a God who has “been there and done that” and will endure with those who are even now enduring.
The boy with no skin on his back, the young woman with TB now also diagnosed with AIDS, the pregnant mother who just lost her baby, the boy who has cancer and can’t get further treatment here at the hospital… they all have a deep connection with the Savior – they’ve drunk from the same cup of suffering that Jesus drank from Himself. And surely He is near to them, enduring through their pain with them. And surely He knows your pain, as well. Your suffering and mine. And He will not let you suffer alone.