I have just spent the past 10 days in Africa – Sierra Leone, to be exact. This is a nation that endured an 11-year civil war. Rebel forces opposed the government and its forces across this nation. Actions committed by these rebels will go down as some of the most inhumane atrocities in human history. No one was exempt from their terror. Villages were destroyed. Men and women lost limbs due to brutal amputations. Children were drugged and forced into military service by these rebel forces. It was an awful time.

Further, this nation also contains pockets of demonic activity that still maintain a grip on the religious climate of parts of the nation. In the remote regions of Sierra Leone there are places where child sacrifice is still practiced in the name of religious ritual. In fact, during our visit this past week, we met a man who was chosen to be the sacrifice for his village about 28 years ago. He was a 10-year old boy and the lot fell on him. It is a long story – but his sister “kidnapped” him and stole him away and they literally ran for their lives.

He later became a follower of Jesus Christ and is now leading a significant church-planting movement in Sierra Leone. However, his life has been touched on numerous occasions by persecution and personal suffering. He survived the first attempt on his life as a child. Yet, he has faced death several times since. The church planters who work alongside him have paid a rich price for their willingness to take the Gospel to the darkest places of their nation as well.

Our time with Pastor Immanuel was precious and powerful. He loves God and he loves the people of God. He also loves the lost people of the world. He knows that following the call of God in his life will continue to be costly. He told me that the trials and suffering that he experiences are simple a part of his journey. He doesn’t question them. He doesn’t seek them. He doesn’t “enjoy” them. But, God has used those trials to strengthen his faith and purify his relationship with God. He has pursued a depth in relationship with God because of his suffering.

I also have spent time with numerous missionaries and other indigenous believers in Sierra Leone. Each of them has a story to tell about suffering and trial. Their experiences are fresh in my mind as I type these words. The depth of their commitment to Christ has inspired and challenged me, to say the least.

So – I am just emerging from a nation that has suffered. I am thinking about the stories I have heard and the things I have just seen. I am also still processing the impact of Pastor Immanuel on my own life and ministry. I was drawn to him and blessed by his winsome spirit. Needless to say, I have spent some time in the past few days reflecting on the topic of suffering.

In a place like Sierra Leone, suffering is not just an academic topic to be explored and discussed. It is not just some remote possibility that is beyond the reach of most of the people’s experience. No – suffering in Sierra Leone is just a plain fact. It is a part of their recent national story and experience. And, it is, for sure, a part of the Christian experience in numerous places across this tiny nation.

Many of us have been shielded from the kind of suffering I have just described. We have not been through the horrors of a war in our homeland. We have not experienced persecution because of our commitment to Jesus. We are not facing the religious opposition that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing.

And – I didn’t write about all of this to make any of us feel guilty about it. We can’t help where and when we were born. However, we have all experienced suffering and trials. We have all experienced times of pain and loss. Occasionally, we have all wondered “Why?”

The reason for the universal experience of suffering? None of us are exempt. It is just that simple. We live in a broken, fallen world. Sin and evil are present realities in this age. Human suffering and trials are going to be with us until God “makes everything right.”

With regard to suffering and trials – I have two concerns. These are mainly concerns I have about the contemporary expression of Christianity in America. The 21st century American church does not have a mature theological perspective on suffering. Certainly, our general life experience has created a context for this to be a reality. I don’t mean that there are not some Christians in our churches who fully understand suffering and trials. Of course there are. There are many of them. Our churches have mature believers who have overcome great trials in their lives.

But – I am painting with a broad brush. I think in general American Christians have a very limited and immature perspective on this topic. I will cite three “symptoms” that cause me to express this diagnosis:

  1. We tend to be “surprised” by suffering and trials. When they occur, it often catches us off guard. It seems to be so “out of the ordinary” that it shocks our system and our beliefs.
  2. We also tend to associate suffering and trials with punishment. There is no doubt that sometimes our trials are the result of our poor decisions. However, sometimes suffering comes for the people of God for simply doing what God has called us to do.
  3. We often tend to believe that hard times and trials are indicators that we must be out of the will of God. If we are suffering, we must be in a place of disobedience – is our reasoning.

Now – each one of these might actually be true on occasion. However, they all three can be absolutely untrue as well! There are numerous examples in the Bible where God allowed His people to suffer in spite of the fact that they were living in full obedience to Him (think – the Apostle Paul, Stephen, Peter).