I intended to write a blog a month into my life here in Uganda to tell you how things are, and what the lay of the land is. But I only realized I was a month in a few days after the mark, and there wasn’t time to write until a week and a half later. If that doesn’t sum up life here, I don’t know what does. Africa sets its own time and pace; woe to those who try to fight against it!
There are so many things I could tell you—from my misadventures to meeting some new heroes in the faith out in the refugee camps, from how many times I’ve gotten lost in my tiny town to the whirl of impressions, colors, and accents this new life has been for me.
But instead I’m going to tell you about suffering. It’s not that my first month here hasn’t been amazing. There are certainly tough bits to life here, but overall it has been filled with amazing people, sights, and experiences. Through it all though, suffering has been a theme.
I’ve heard incredible stories of faith in the face of persecution from my believing brothers and sisters who’ve fled here from Sudan. I’ve heard testimonies of believers on my team who have been through deep, dark valleys in their walks with God. I’ve been through a week-long trauma healing training (see my previous post) to help prepare me for my work in the refugee camps. I’ve heard stories of terrible evil, hopeless brokenness, and blinding sorrow. We have also rejoiced at God’s hand in the suffering, but that doesn’t lessen the weight of it all.
In the midst of this focus on suffering, I’ve sometimes laughed, sometimes grumbled at the tiny ‘sufferings’ in my life. Why does the water go out just when I want to take a shower? How should I respond when there isn’t frequent enough electricity for my fridge to keep cool? How do I handle only eating foods I can buy and prepare in the same day because the ants or the lack of refrigeration keep me from doing anything else? I’m not sick often, but how do I glorify God in my irritating half-sicknesses from anti-malaria medication or mystery illnesses that come with adjusting to life here? How do I view them in light of my friends’ actual suffering, or greater still, in view of the cross?
I tend not to be a complainer. I’ll buckle up under inconveniences and ride them out or try to bear through difficult things one day at a time. So when I contrast the greater suffering of those around me to my little… inconveniences… I tend to write them off and pretend they don’t exist or don’t bother me. How can I complain about my defunct shower when brothers and sisters in the refugee camps have to wait in line for hours just to get a jug full of water just for their family to drink from?
The Lord answered this confusion with a passage in Colossians that Africa has given me new eyes to see. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…”
Paul wrote to the believers in Colossae that he was joyful in his sufferings because they served a greater purpose—they were part of his work as a minister of the gospel. They were a gift he could give his people to build them up. And in the verse above, 1:24, he explains that his sufferings are no small gift.
The pain he felt in his body actually made Jesus’ sufferings for them complete. Paul isn’t saying that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t perfect or wasn’t enough. He was saying that Jesus’ suffering alone didn’t finish the job of building up believers around the world into the Body of the Church. As chapter 1 goes on, Paul explains that his ministry allows him to show how wonderful God’s salvation is to people who do not yet believe. That, he says, is worth suffering for, and he’s joyful to give all his toil, all his struggle, all his energy for that purpose—to build up the Church into Christ’s body here on earth.
That’s kind of revolutionary to me. I’ve never heard teaching on this passages that explained how our daily toil and hard work is useful or honoring to God. Think about it! My sufferings get to finish off a work Jesus started, a work Paul participated in. If I suffer sleeplessness or uncomfortable temperatures or questionable food in the line of the work God has called me to, my suffering is a gift of sacrifice I can share to help build up God’s people. And this goes for everyone’s work.
You moms that are tired of washing the same exploded diaper contents out of the same baby clothes, you church members who are exhausted from giving your effort and energy to church events, you grad school students wishing that just once you could get a full night’s sleep, you receptionists who faithfully deal with grumpy people—all of your suffering gives you a chance to show that you act like Jesus in tough situations because he’s worth it to you.
We have all been called to our own type of ministry, in whatever line of work we’re in. Ministering to the people around us means that the little inconveniences that build up can be a holy blessing and sacrifice to them. Your thankless work as a therapist, your suffering in that unpaid or not-paid-enough church internship, your dedication to your school work, your endurance in a difficult job, your kindness to unkind people, all those are sacrifices that build up the people around you. They give you a chance to show that you’re joyful in your hard work and that you choose to take your sufferings as an opportunity to build people up and to draw them to Christ.
So the next time I’m frustrated because I have no electricity to power my fan, and the next time you are ready to throw in the towel because your daily endurance and hard work seem pointless, let’s remember that our suffering can minister to others. Like Paul, in our very own bodies we can fill up what’s left to do in Christ’s work of building up the church. If we choose to see it that way, our suffering can be a very important gift to the people around us.