Walking into the One-Hundred Bed Ward One in the Ladysmith Provincial Hospital, I approached the bedside of Mr. Bengu. The stench of gangrene permeated the air. My many trips to this particular ward prepared me for the common site of moaning diseased ridden people. In that ward, on this particular day, lay Mr. Bengu wreathing in pain, suffering double amputation of his legs.
Mr. Bengu long struggled with diabetes. With limited ability and money, he grappled, as so many diabetes suffers in Africa do, to obtain proper medications to control his affliction. It wasn't that Mr. Bengu didn't take his diabetes seriously. He just did not possess the means to combat the disease effectively. An all too common tragic story in Africa. At age fifty-four, shortly after his amputation, Mr. Bengu died. Performing his funeral those many years ago, I asked myself, "Why such suffering?"
Adults suffering and dying presented one level of agony to me. Children afflicted; sick, and dying presented a deeper harsher reality of anguish. In Africa, I often asked, "Why, why, why?"
It's not the first time the question has been asked. A song writer over three thousand years ago summed up his life,
I have been sick and close to death since my youth.
I stand helpless and desperate before your terrors.
Trying to make sense of my own suffering over the years use to occupy much of my time. The many child deaths in our MANNA Feeding Centers in South Africa took a toll on my person. The many traumas of carnage and death witnessed in the then known as "black townships" and villages around Ladysmith took its toll. Struggling with PTSD, I found myself constantly and angrily asking "Why?" It consumed my mind, life, and person. Learning to manage Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome helped me discover some answers.
Found The Answer
A friend of mine who specializes in PTSD recovery posed a great coaching question to me one day, "Don, how might you look at your life if you called your PTSD as a gift?"
Gift? Are You Kidding Me!?
Another friend challenged me just a couple years ago exclaiming, "Don, do you know what a tremendous gift God has given you?" That question reverberated again when my Christian therapist helping me learn to manage my PTSD posed the same question. Last year I shared my story for the 1st time in a church in California. It was excruciatingly difficult. At times, I am told, my voice so quieted the audience barely heard my words. A small petite woman approached me afterwards gently commenting, "You've realized that it's a gift. Good for you, good for God, good for those you are going help." It marked a personal Epiphany.
The Suffering Question
Most answers given for suffering, to me, come from those trying to explain something they know very little about themselves. I often listen to sermons about suffering from nontransparent messengers seeking to make sense out of the whole question. There appears, at times, no adequate answers, I suppose. However, for me, I've discovered some personal aha moments trying to make sense of it all.
After fifteen grueling years with this thing called PTSD my heart's capacity for empathy and compassion increases exponentially for others suffering. Feeling other's pain, something most resist, is something easily embraced and now personally welcomed. In my earlier years, I was always driven by a goal to get ahead, get to the next level, or pursue the next goal. Pushing ahead continuously to accomplish one vital thing or another gave significance and meaning. These days, significance and meaning come from connecting with the suffering others trying to make sense of it all.
To hurt with those who hurt and grieve with those who grieve is a gift. I see that now.
During my early years of ministry in South Africa, prayers were always offered at the bedsides of hospitals, homes, and mats on the floor of mud huts in African villages. A prayer was something I was taught to do. Be positive, give hope, give a compliment, and leave with a prayer. Good training. However, prayer connects in a deeper, more consoling way now. My heart and soul hurts with person I pray with. In the Bible, this verse comes to my mind:
"We can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive"
Suffering engenders identification and true compassion with those who suffer. The loss of a child, cancer, grandparents raising grandchildren, health, financial anxiety, domestic abuse, trauma, assault, betrayal, mental anguish, or familial ruin create so much more than just a story to endure or politely ignore.
Compassion can be a net result of suffering. If one chooses to accept and embrace suffering's value, good positive things happen.
Confidence? Yes! I've learned the value of these words:
"For when I am weak, then I am strong."
Contrary to what we hear from many, there is strength in weakness. It's there if you look for it.
Suffering provides us with a platform for personal growth. Through processing our suffering as an experience of growth rather than a negative of existence, life can be richer, deeper, and more meaningful.
Oh, yes, pain brings negatives. That is sure. Yet, pain also brings positives. Personal growth, motivation, and a willingness to venture out mark just a few possibilities.
Helen Keller epitomized this. Left blind and deaf from illness as an infant, she through much anguish discovered goodness in her suffering:
In her autobiography she wrote, "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved."
What is that thing in your life viewed as foe? What is the "Why Me?" of your life. What marks your path of suffering?
Maybe, just maybe, if you look deep into that thing, there exists a gift awaiting your discovery?
Wouldn't that change everything?
Just My Thoughts,
Don was born in North Minneapolis, Minnesota. Having served twenty-two years in South Africa as missionaries with his wife Kathy, and eight years pastoring in the United States, he shares unique perspectives about life, family, relationships, and ministry.