“Remember when you see a missionary coming home broken in body and weary in soul, it isn’t the privations or dangers or things he’s done that leave a deep hurt; it’s the things he couldn’t do that break his heart.” –Anonymous missionary
As we are about to return to the States, I find myself returning with a great heaviness of soul. Why is this? It is because of the sickness? The hunger? The dangers that were faced on the field? The tireless work? No, none of the above. Like the quote above says, it is because of all the brokenness I have witnessed these last few years that remain…broken.
Let me tell you about Nancy* who moved in with a young man several years ago. Now, after more than a decade together and 6 children, Nancy realizes what a mistake she’s made. Take a moment to think about her life with me. Every morning she walks for miles carrying two children and prodding the others along to arrive at their field. She labors there under the hot sun for hours and then returns home with a huge load on her back, still prodding the children, still carrying her toddler and newborn. She then goes to sell produce at the market, only to have her oft-drunk boyfriend demand that she give him the money so he can go spend it on more alcohol and new clothes for himself. At the end of all of her labors, she and her children are still often hungry.
A couple months ago, one of her sons had a cut on his finger which got infected, which for lack of money was neglected. When they finally discovered the child’s finger would have to be amputated, this woman’s boyfriend asked Dave for money. Dave readily helped only to later find that the boyfriend had taken the money to get drunk. He then beat Nancy and the young children for complaining about it. Dave was enraged, but the village chief did nothing, nor did social affairs. This is Nancy’s life. Her life was broken when I met her…and it is still broken. Nancy is why I return to the States heavy-hearted.
And then there is the story of the three adorable children in our village who were once giggly and carefree. However, their father is a dishonest drug-user who sells pieces of land to multiple different buyers. Their mother finally got fed up and left him and the children. Then the police came looking for the father who then fled to the jungle to avoid the law. The three children now wander around the village, hungry and with no one to parent them. They are no longer carefree, they are suffering. And they too are the reason I return to the States heavy-hearted.
And then there is the story of the handicapped young woman whose mother beats her and screams at her. Her mother often tells her that she wishes that she had never been born because she is such a burden. She wishes her own daughter dead because she is “useless.” The rage that I feel inside from this situation simply cannot be undone by the niceties of the US and so…I return heavy-hearted.
Is not your soul also tormented when you hear these stories?
How do we react to the suffering?
I have noticed that most Americans, myself included, when we see problems, we immediately start brainstorming about how to solve them. We serve a great big God who is has no limits, so why not dream big and pray big, right? Did not God bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt? Did not God bring about the end of slavery in the US? If God can do these great things, then he can end the mob violence in our village right? He can help people like Nancy, the three children, and people like the handicapped young woman.
On the other hand, I have spent a lot of time with our friends in the village, most of whom are fatalistic. There are many sayings that you hear every day to the effect of “Well, this is just how things are, what can we do?” (Answer: nothing). There are many stories of grown children withholding money from their dying parents so that they could throw a big party at their funerals. Not only is this fatalistic (the hospital would not be able to help my parents), but it is also evil (I am going to take advantage of the death of my loved one so I can get drunk and have sex with someone new). Life is short, so eat, drink, and have a good time is the mentality that hangs in the air.
Is this what God wants? Does God want souls that will not rest until change happens? Does he want hands thrown up in the air at the face of suffering? I believe the book of Ezekiel helps us answer these questions.
Help from Ezekiel
The prophet Ezekiel had a tormented soul because he witnessed the rebellion of his people against the God he loved. Not only that, but he then lived through God’s violent judgment against his own people, whom he loved.
At one point, God gave Ezekiel a vision of the sin that was taking place inside the temple in Jerusalem. Specifically, those who were supposed to be leading Judah in worship of the Lord instead had their backs to him and were worshipping the sun, from inside the temple.
“And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east.” (8:16)
Not only were there atrocities taking place inside the temple, but there was incredible violence happening outside of it.
Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here that they should fill the land with violence and provoke me still further to anger?” (8:17)
The Lord waited and waited and sent prophet after prophet to call Judah to turn from their wicked choices, but they were stubborn and did not repent. Therefore, the time had come for the Lord to destroy them for their wickedness. But, before this judgment, God commanded that a specific mark be placed on the foreheads of those who were tormented by the sin of those around them. And when judgment came, they were spared.
And the LORD said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity.” Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the house. (9:4-6)
God is honored by the groanings of the righteous
There is so much that we can learn from this passage. For instance, we can observe that the Lord was honored by the sighing and groaning of the righteous over sin. While it is true that their torment did nothing to change the wickedness of their neighbors, God was pleased with them simply for their emotional reaction to this wickedness.
What a treasure these few verses can be to missionaries and Christians all over the world. For instance, I loathe the sounds of mobs of people screaming at one another and beating one another outside my window at night. Yes, sometimes we intervene, but lovers of violence will in the end always find a way to be violent. How can I stop them from beating one another?! I often think. But as I read the verses above, I am reassured that torment of my soul in response to these fights is intrinsically honoring to God, even if change never comes. The hatred of sin is never wasted.
The groaning of the righteous is assurance of salvation
We can also observe in this passage that the groanings of the righteous were the very proof that they were of God. They were more in line with what God loved and hated than they were with what their neighbors loved and hated. This heart attitude was in fact their assurance of their salvation. In the same way, when an entire culture embraces something that God hates and the Christian recoils in disgust, he can take heart that he, in the words of CS Lewis, is certainly made for another world.
The groanings of the righteous will be rewarded
In the days of Ezekiel, there were two groups of people: lovers of wickedness and lovers of righteousness. The wicked are always more numerous than the righteous which gives them the allusion of safety in numbers. But once God’s time for judgment has come, he will thoroughly destroy his enemies. We see this in Ezekiel 9 above which says, “Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women.” However, those with the marks on their foreheads were spared. This reminds me of the Psalm which says:
In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. Psalm 37:10-11
I’ve recently told a small group of Kwakum believers who were overwhelmed by the depravity of our neighbors that the village in fact belongs to us and one day God will go through and pluck out all the violent, all the sexually immoral, all the haters of good. The only ones who will be left will be the meek, those who wept and groaned over sin. There is indeed a reward for groaning and sighing over sin.
Sometimes all the righteous can do is groan
We again see in the book of Ezekiel that God did not judge those who were tormented by their evil neighbors for not doing more. They demonstrated that they were on God’s side through their emotional response to evil and that was sufficient in God’s eyes. Should we try to change nations? Absolutely. And yet, oftentimes our zeal to see change is not sufficient to bring change about. In those times, we can rest assured that the Lord is pleased at the groaning, sighing soul in the face of evil. If weeping over sin and suffering is a beautiful thing in God’s eyes, then the tear-stained cheeks of missionaries who are returning home are not a sign of defeat, but of success.
Blessed are you who weep. – Luke 6.21b