Entitled to Suffer

by Krista Horn

Several years ago, a missionary friend of mine made the difficult decision to leave the mission field because of serious health concerns that couldn’t be addressed in her host country.  She had spent a long time enduring physical suffering and attempting to find answers locally before her condition became so complex and so unbearable that she was forced to return to the States for medical help.  Once in the States she still endured a long and painful journey of recovery. In the midst of all that, my friend reflected, “In order to attain a theology of suffering, one must suffer.”

I have never forgotten those words.

They’re particularly poignant coming from an American worldview.  The American psyche does not accept suffering well. Our culture feels entitled to not suffer, as if all the hard work and thinking and planning and determination and zeal that were instilled in and passed down by our forebears grants us a “get out of suffering free” card.  This is our American Theology of Suffering: we have the knowledge and willpower to combat and defeat suffering if we choose to. We get confused at best, offended at worst, when we suffer anyway.

That perspective doesn’t seem to line up with a biblical view of suffering.

Living and working at a mission hospital in Africa has given us an opportunity to see how other cultures view and understand suffering.  While Americans (in general) experience comparatively little suffering and fight against it at all costs, Africans (in general) experience a lot of suffering and accept its existence in their lives as normal.  Death is known here. Death is fairly understood and even expected. And although death is greatly grieved, somehow it’s also accepted. While we struggle sometimes with how easily it’s accepted – we fail to understand the lack of “Why God?” in so many situations – we’ve also been learning something from our Kenyan brothers and sisters that is so hard for us as Americans: how to identify with our Savior through suffering.

Because of COVID-19, the entire world is suffering right now, and disciples of Jesus in this present age have an opportunity.  We have an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus and to know Him more by willingly walking down the road of suffering.

I would argue that “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, emphasis mine) is best done by suffering willingly.  I don’t mean welcoming suffering in a masochistic sense or never fighting against sickness and disease.  I mean that it’s beneficial to acknowledge that suffering is a part of this world and no one is exempt from it, and that for followers of Christ it’s beneficial to invite Him to use our suffering as a way of connecting with Himself – the man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3).

No one saw a global pandemic coming and no one saw the acute, increased suffering in our present world.  No one saw the sickness and death, the separation and isolation, the stress and anxiety, the financial failures and economic disasters.  No one saw a world imploding and crying out for answers.

Answers may elude us, but opportunities do not.  Opportunities abound for displaying kindness and compassion, for increasing our prayers and study of the Word, for choosing to connect and encourage each other in an era of social distancing, for giving of our limited resources because someone else has even more limited resources.  And another opportunity has presented itself: to identify with Christ through our suffering. 

Most of Paul’s writings on suffering refer specifically to suffering for Christ, for the Gospel.  “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29).  The average world citizen suffering in this pandemic is not suffering for Christ, for the Gospel.  But that doesn’t exclude the reality that suffering for its own sake is opportunity to identify with Christ.

Paul tells of a time when his “brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier” Epaphroditus became ill and nearly died, a circumstance that no doubt caused Paul great anxiety since he acknowledges that a deadly outcome would have spiraled him into “sorrow upon sorrow” with grief for his friend (Philippians 2:25ff).  God had mercy on Epaphroditus, and on Paul too. The life of his dear friend was spared. Yet I’m sure his experience of stress and anxiety (and for a time the loss of his fellow worker’s presence) caused Paul to lean heavily on Christ, the Savior who also knew stress and anxiety and the loss of His fellow workers’ presence.  I’m sure Paul turned to Christ for help and for comfort, and I’m sure Paul understood his Savior a bit more too.

Even for the times when our suffering is granted by God (such as Paul’s thorn in the flesh and of course Christ Himself who submitted to the “the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Isaiah 53:10a), we can take heart that God’s grace is sufficient for us.  His grace sustains us, it teaches us, and it helps us to know Him more.

Charles Spurgeon, who was no stranger to suffering, once wrote: “Will the Head be crowned with thorns, and will the other members of the body be rocked on the dainty lap of ease?  Must Christ pass through seas of His own blood to win the crown, and are we to walk to heaven in silver slippers that stay dry? No, our Master’s experience teaches us that suffering is necessary, and the true-born child of God must not, would not, escape it if he could.”

As we walk this road of suffering during COVID-19, let’s acknowledge the opportunity before us.  It’s not an opportunity to fight against our current suffering because we’re entitled to not suffer.  Conversely, we have the opportunity to endure suffering as people who are entitled to suffer as followers of Jesus.  And maybe, if we’re willing, there’s an opportunity to develop a biblical theology of suffering as we lean into this time of identifying with and understanding our Savior, the Man of Sorrows.


Krista Horn met and married the man who once took her on a date to go tree climbing, which just about sealed the deal then and there. After her husband slogged through seven years of medical school and residency (with Krista doing quite a bit of slogging herself between work, grad school, and becoming a mom), they left for the mission field with three boys 3 and under. Now they live and work at a mission hospital in Kenya. While her husband is busy on the wards, she stays busy with all the details of motherhood on the mission field.  When she’s not making meals from scratch or singing lullabies or chasing skinks out of the house, Krista loves to curl up with a book, bake chocolate chip cookies, and go to bed early.  Krista blogs at www.storiesinmission.blogspot.com.

What to Know Before You Go

Let’s say you are boarding a transatlantic flight and hear, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; this is your pilot speaking. I’m 21 years old, and I’m excited to tell you that this is my first commercial flight! But don’t you worry; I’ve flown my Daddy’s crop duster at least a half dozen times. What I don’t have in experience or education, I make up with passion. I’m just about as willing as they come; my heart is practically bursting with willingness! Now buckle up your seatbelts; we’ll be off as soon as I find that user’s manual.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be out of that plane faster than a fried egg off a Teflon pan.

Yet sometimes we approach missions in the same way. Willing hearts filled with passion are awesome, but they are not enough. So here’s where things get awkward: I’ve titled this “What to Know Before You Go,” when actually it should be more like, “What I Wish I Had Known Before I Went.” Because when I got on a plane to Tanzania almost twenty years ago, I was just about as bad as that pilot. Thankfully I didn’t completely crash and burn, but I learned the hard way, over and over again. Had I taken the time early on to do a little more study and a lot more wrestling, I could have spared myself a lot of grief, and certainly increased my effectiveness in those early years. Learn from my mistakes.

1. You need to have a basic understanding of worldviews.

This goes much deeper than a knowledge of world religions. For example, a person can call himself a Christian, but that doesn’t mean that his thinking, choices, and actions line up with the Bible. The same is true for those who follow other faiths. The religious labels people give themselves just scratch the surface of what they really believe. This is where a study of worldview comes in. If you are hoping to live, work, and have a gospel-impact on people of a different culture, that’s got to start with understanding their worldview–and your own.

Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures should be required reading for any new missionary.

2. You need to know how to interpret the Bible on your own.

Most new missionaries have been nurtured in spiritually rich environments–strong Christian colleges and solid churches that often include discipleship, biblical teaching, and small groups. This is wonderful–but what happens when you end up in a city where there are no strong churches? Or those that do exist are in another language? What happens when you find yourself in a spiritually harsh environment with only a small team of other believers who can help you stay afloat?

Online sermons can help. Rich Christian literature can help. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be you and your Bible. Do you have the skills you need to interpret it without a pastor or small group leader’s help? Do you know enough about the various genres of Scripture, the historical context, and sound interpretation practices so that you can be confident of what it’s really saying?

The technical word for this is “hermeneutics,” or Bible study methods. Our family favorite is Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks, but there are many other great resources out there.

3. You need to have worked out a biblical theology of suffering–or at least started to.

Of course, suffering can be found on every corner of the globe, in every social sphere. But any ministry that takes you up close and personal with the messiness of people’s lives, especially amongst the poor and disadvantaged, has the possibility of knocking you breathless with the depth of the suffering you will witness.

What will it do to your soul to see the blind child begging on the street corner? To be friends with the woman who lost her twins due to an unconscionable doctor’s error? To see the little albino boy whose arm was chopped off for witchcraft purposes….by his own uncle? If you haven’t already wrestled with God over the reality of suffering and the problem of evil, you may risk disillusionment, burn-out, or even losing your faith.  

Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts has had a profound influence on my life on this topic.

4. You need to know the theology of poverty alleviation.

What do you do about the beggars on the street corner? Or the constant requests by your neighbors for loans or favors? How do you assuage your guilty conscience when you go out to dinner or spend money on a vacation, knowing that people around you are hungry? Guilt will slowly strangle you unless you have already thought through how you will respond.

A theology of suffering answers, “How can God allow this?” A theology of poverty alleviation answers, “How should I respond?”

If you haven’t yet read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor….and Yourself, now is the time. It’s an absolute must-read for any missionary (or any Christian, for that matter).

5. You need to know the history of your host country.

Are you able to identify the five most important events in your host country’s history? Do you know how the government is structured? Are you familiar with the nation’s holidays and why they are celebrated? What is every child taught? If you want to get to the soul of a people, then you must understand where they came from. Take the time find out.

All of these areas can be learned by dedicated study on your own. I learn best by reading, so I’ve given my recommendations for my favorite books. But I’m sure there are audiobooks, podcasts, or videos on all of these subjects. If you’ve got other suggestions, please share! Utilize the massive amount of internet resources at our fingertips, and educate yourself on these important issues–ideally, before you go.

Risk and the Cross-Cultural Worker: An Interview with Anna Hampton, Author of “Facing Danger”

Dr. Anna Hampton, along with her husband, Neal, have lived and worked for nearly 20 years in war-torn Islamic countries. This includes almost 10 years in Afghanistan, where they started raising their three children. Their experiences led Anna to write 
Facing Danger: A Guide through Risk (Zendagi, 2016), which is based on her doctoral dissertation at Trinity Theological Seminary. 

Many cross-cultural workers recognize the need to develop a theology of suffering, but you write that a theology of risk is also necessary for resilience on the field. You cover this in depth in Facing Danger, but could you give a short elevator speech on how the two are different?

A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?

While risk and suffering are closely related and really go hand in hand, they are not the same thing. A theology of suffering does not answer the challenges of how to think, feel, and make decisions in risk. Instead, a theology of suffering answers how I am to respond to God in suffering, how I am to think, feel, and view God’s heart once I am in suffering. Suffering in many ways is more of a “static” scenario, whereas risk is inherently dynamic—one is moving toward or away from risk and danger, and the situation is often unstable and confusing. A theology of risk answers how I am to act on the opportunities presenting themselves in risk: Risk equals opportunity for both great loss and great gain.

Making this distinction is crucial to resilience, because our Enemy will use every threat out there to get us to back down and back away from pushing God’s kingdom forward. The unreached people groups are mostly now found in the most dangerous areas. Our Lord has commanded us to go to all peoples to make disciples, and this requires the ability to stay long-term in an area to build relationships to share the Good News.

As a young family in one of those dangerous areas, how prepared were you to face the threats, big and small?

I recall thinking we were prepared for Afghanistan: I had already traveled extensively in developing and third-world countries. Neal had lived a term in Albania as a single. We had each faced danger before as singles in cross-cultural environments. Our sending organization had asked us many hard questions and had had extensive dialogue with us ahead of time about many dangers, such as kidnapping and such. We were both very Biblically literate and generally stable individuals from stable Christian backgrounds with no presenting traumas or psychological problems.

But we found that as the threat level in Afghanistan changed, our theology of suffering was not able to flex and match the changing risk environment and level of confusion and suffering we were called to endure in. We were not equipped in how to think about risk for ourselves and a multi-million dollar project, and we didn’t know how to make decisions in risk.

What are some of the strategies you’ve developed to help in making those decisions?

Now we are very purposeful to work through risk-related decisions. We pay attention to our gut feeling about the matter. We evaluate—Is the situation of risk in line with our values and calling? We engage in real-time risk analysis using the four aspects of probability analysis: Severity, Frequency, Demographic Proximity, and Geographic Proximity. We seek counsel from those who understand the culture and situation and evaluate a wide variety of security and information analysis. We also look at the history of the situation, global politics, etc. We consider what resources are at risk and how we are called to steward ourselves, others, and resources in this risk.

We ask: “What do we sense the Holy Spirit is saying about the risk and our role?” “Are we in agreement as husband and wife?” And increasingly, “How do our teenage children feel about it?”

Because we are part of Barnabas International, we also make sure that our leaders are on board and have the information they need as well for decision making and support;

We also know ourselves and our limits, so quite often it is almost intuitive what we will say yes to and what we don’t feel called to. Of course, that doesn’t mean that God can’t call us to do something we think is beyond what we can handle, but then He gives grace and strength, and we’ve experienced that, too.

Facing risk with courage, resilience, and clarity can be done with calmness when we’ve evaluated it and know He is calling us forward.

You include several tools in Facing Danger, such as the grid Neal developed using the four aspects of probability analysis you mention above. Another helpful “tool” you offer is “B’s Robbery Recover Recipe.” Could you share how that came to you?

The evening of the robbery was on a Monday or Tuesday. This was when 10 Afghan men entered our home around 7:00 pm, during the month of Ramadan in the fall of 2002. It was a very scary experience for Neal and me.

Our friend, “Aunt B,” (name protected for security), told me the next day she’d come over on Thursday and work in my kitchen making cinnamon rolls, pizza, calzones, and donuts with one recipe and then leave the recipe and all the food for us, and also she’d clean up the kitchen. She knew that we’d want the home smelling “like home” and that comfort food would help us. We felt so loved by what she did and appreciated all that good food on Thursday! It was such a loving and practical way to minister to us during a time when we were very traumatized.

She also taught me that I could use the recipe even in the mornings if short on time when hostessing—that the dough will rise fast and be a tasty morning treat. It’s been a faithful recipe at numerous elevations with only minor adjustments of flour. I heartily recommend this recipe to folks going to live overseas especially and needing to be able to “whip up” a good food quite fast. The dough works for freezing, as well, and then is ready to be made when needed after a short thaw.

What a great example of understanding and empathy. Of course, those facing danger don’t always get that kind of response. Your book includes 12 myths (and you’ve added two more in your blog) that address the “comfort” people give that turns out not to be comforting at all. You also talk about statements that “overspiritualize” risk. Can you tell us about a couple of examples of these that you’ve heard most often?

This journey that I have been on to map out our experiences in risk in a way that is helpful to others has had an incredibly life-changing impact on me. I recognize that by putting structure to risk, which is such a confusing experience, makes it seem that there are strict “boundaries.” My goal instead is to increase the dialogue and get people to evaluate how they think and talk about risk, to realize what assumptions they may be making that aren’t helping in resiliency in risk, and, as well, to deepen their relationship with God.

When I sit and listen to missionaries’ problems in risk—for example, they have an active death threat against them—I don’t resort to the truth of God’s control and sovereignty over the matter. Honestly, this is when we’ve most often had people quote Romans 8:28 or I Peter 5:7 at us, which are entirely unhelpful things to say and a waste of our time, even though truthful. An active death threat by Muslims against Christians is a practical problem requiring real-time security analysis, evaluation of the types of information coming in and what should be paid attention to, consideration of mitigation measures, etc. It is not a time to spiritualize conceptual truths.

Some statements are inherently created to benefit the tellers and help them feel as if they’ve given an “answer” even though it doesn’t actually help the person in risk. Bible verses or theological truths are overspiritualized when reduced to a pithy, simplistic meaning. Theological truths may be comforting in some situations, but when they are reduced to a slogan-esque-bumper-sticker-style, they lose their spiritual potency. They don’t help the actual risk problem.

Much of cross-cultural risk requires discernment and wisdom, and the focus, when it comes to how we encourage folks in risk, is not “correct dogma” or the right conceptual “truth” but, instead, “What is the Holy Spirit’s leading?” and “What does the person in risk need right now?” When the focus is on “What do I need to say right now to make myself and the other person feel better?” we have missed the point entirely . . . and the opportunity to deeply soul-encourage others and help them work through a complex problem. A risk problem is usually complex and multi-faceted.

The West comes at problems and questions with “right” and “wrong” and “truth” and “not truth.” I advocate asking, “What is the Holy Spirit’s leading here?” “What do I sense this person facing danger (life and death) really needs to hear or talk through right now?” When we ask these questions, then our focus shifts both to Christ and truly loving our neighbors as ourselves.

In the case of I Kings 19, Elijah did not need so much the truth that God was in control, but he needed to be told to sleep and eat. Next he needed to hear he wasn’t alone (there were 7,000 others with him). Risk is exhausting and often we feel lonely in it.

Perhaps this still frustrates folks who want to be told exactly what the right thing to say should be.

The reality is that risk . . . life . . . has a lot more ambiguity, and that’s when we need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help us, because we simply don’t have all the answers. It’s right where God wants us . . . depending not on ourselves but on Him.

Anna and her family have lived for the past five years in Turkey and are currently on furlough in Minnesota. You can follow her blog at Behind the Veil.

[photo: “Warning!” by Ray Sadler, used under a Creative Commons license]