“Please do not take pictures of our Sudanese staff members and post them online, as this could invite persecution and endanger their lives.”
“They took me into a dark room and began to torture me.”
“When they attacked our village and burned our homes to the ground, we fled to the bush. The only water we could find was contaminated with urine and dung. We needed to keep our baby alive, so we boiled it as best we could, and mixed it with powdered milk.”
“If our journey doesn’t have sad stories, then we don’t have a journey.”
“God has given us two gifts: salvation and suffering.”
These sound bytes are indelibly stamped in my memory – each of them uttered by a staff member of ALARM (African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries) in the context of their first all-staff conference near Nairobi Kenya earlier this year. I was there in order to learn from, listen to, and encourage these faithful servants of Jesus who assembled from eight different East & Central African countries. Over the course of the week, my concept of blessing was profoundly altered.
In America, we often consider ourselves “blessed,” but maybe we need to rethink the concept of “blessing.” When things are going well for us physically or materially, the words “God sure has blessed us” roll quickly off of our tongues without a second thought. But what about when circumstances are difficult? What about when things do not go as planned? What about when we suffer a staggering loss? Do we consider such times a “blessing” from God? Our African brothers and sisters serving with ALARM do just that. This type of thinking sounds backwards and upside-down to most American ears, but Scripture backs it up.
A faithful pastor from Sudan shared a devotional from Philippians 1:29:
“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”
“Our salvation is a gift from God, and so is our suffering,” he said as he started his devotional. He went on to share three practically simple, but profoundly true points:
- Faith is strengthened by pain and suffering.
- When we are in pain, we can feel the pain of others and be of encouragement to them.
- In pain we are able to see God’s promises more clearly.
As he spoke, the heads of those bearing the physical and mental scars of persecution nodded in agreement. To experience pain is a gift from God. To suffer for Christ is to be “blessed.” My new pastor friend from Sudan is not the first to re-define “blessing” in this way. His words echo the message of the One whom he serves:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Perhaps we aren’t as “blessed” in America as we think we are. Perhaps we need to reform our understanding of the word so that it conforms to the Word. So, my prayer today, as I sit here typing on my laptop by the fireplace, is that God will turn my concept of blessing upside down. It is not my comfortable home in Tennessee. It is not my middle-class American income. It’s not the car that I drive. It is not even my relative healthiness.
My blessing is this: I know the God who weaves every circumstance together for His glory and my good. Every circumstance: the pleasant and the painful, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows. I know the God who comforts my African brothers and sisters in their persecutions and will richly reward them in heaven. I know the God who often leads his choicest servants along the path of pain, in order to more fully reveal Himself to them. I know the One who has promised to return and put an end to evil and injustice. I know the One who will one day wipe away every tear from the eyes of the faithful. I know the One who will make everything new.
May that day come soon, Lord Jesus!