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Suffering – Gigi’s Story

The following story is an excerpt from “Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” by Tim Keller.  It is posted here in the hopes that it might be an encouragement when we face our own struggles.  For more context to this topic check our recent sermon on suffering as a spiritual discipline.

 

“Growing up in the inner city of Oakland, California, in a predominantly black community, I identified as brown, even though I was Brazilian and Amish.  With time, I became very passionate about how the gospel engages social issues such as poverty, race, and socioeconomic issues, and I devoted my life to serving in low-income areas for these very purposes.  All the while viewing such issues through the lens of a person of color.

“Then, in 2009, I moved to South Africa.  Overnight, I became white.

“I was well aware that South Africa continues to be one of the most racially polarized countries in the world.  In 2010, I married an amazing black South African man, becoming one of the very few interracial couples in this country.  We instantly became a threat to the very fabric of a society built on racial hierarchy and separation, even post-Apartheid.  Wherever we went, we felt the piercing stares of the masses.

“Just before we met, my husband had planted a church in the largest township in South Africa: Soweto.  Townships in South Africa, by definition, are exclusively black communities begun during the oppressive system of Apartheid.  Today, they are vibrant communities full of life, culture, and beautiful people, as well as poverty, crime, and much suffering.

“In short, overnight I became a ‘white’ woman living in the largest all-black residential area in a country still hemorrhaging from its long legacy of racial distrust, hatred, and anger.  I never could have expected what awaited me in this beautiful country among these beautiful and broken people.  I longed to be an agent of healing among such devastation, and I continually prayed that God would make me more like Him to serve here.  Little did I know how He intended to answer that prayer.  It seems that some fruit comes only from suffering.

“One month before our wedding, my husband’s closest friend and his most trusted leader in the church was exposed in having multiple moral failures with vulnerable young women in our church.  As it turned out, he’d been living a double life for quite some time and hid it from all of us.  Having been an elder, he was removed from leadership to go through a restoration process.  Though he appeared repentant with his words, it soon became apparent that he was out for vengeance.

“On our wedding night, while we slept, there was a fire in our room, which quickly filled with smoke.  I woke up feeling like I was choking.  We were taken to the hospital and told by the doctors that we never should have survived.  They said we both should have died that night.

“As a result of the smoke inhalation, chest X-rays showed, I had gotten pneumonia very badly.  I was barely conscious for those two weeks of our honeymoon and I don’t even remember most of it.  We came home after two weeks to a divided church and vicious rumors circulating.  The elder who had been living a double life had made appointments with each of our leaders alleging that we had grossly mistreated him after his sin was exposed.  He told many of our trusted leaders and members that I, in particular, had refused to forgive him and wouldn’t even speak to him.  Given the great mistrust of white people in this community — and seeing as how I was now considered white — people readily accepted his story as truth.  Within six months, we lost seventy-five percent of our church as a result of these lies.  We lost most of our closes friends in this web of deceit, and many of them walked out of our lives with unashamed hatred toward us.

“My health continued to decline.  I found out that I had contracted a medically incurable tropical disease, which cause severe exhaustion and weakness most of the time.

“By 2011, our thriving, vibrant ever-growing church had dwindled down to thirty people, many of whom still questioned if we could be trusted.  As a result of the rumors, some people lost confidence in us, and our salary was cut almost in half.  We struggled to pay rent, buy food and gas, and live day to day.

“I felt utterly lost and alone, hated and alienated among the very people I left everything to love and serve.  I also felt abandoned by God.

“By October of 2011, I was so sick that I struggled to live day to day.  Living in a poor community in South Africa also meant that pollution was really bad where we lived.  My doctor told us that if I continued to live in Soweto, I would likely die within two years.

“This shook us to the core,  After much prayer, however, we felt the Lord was saying otherwise; that we were to stay and I would be restored.

“As we neared the end of 2011, a momentum was finally building in the church again.  We had been gutted by the countless trials and were still trying to recover, but the process of rebuilding had begun.  We thought the worst was over…only to find it was yet to come.

“During these two years full of rejection and hatred and violent slander, there was only one person who stood with me through it all.  One person who refused to listen to rumors, who was not afraid to speak the truth to those who lied, the only one who openly stood as a friend in a time when it was very unpopular to be associated with me, the one person I could say was like a sister to me.

“On December 30, 2011 — my thirty-fifth birthday — that one person, my closest friend in South Africa, drowned.  And another close friend of ours also drowned trying to save her.  Words cannot describe the force of this grief and loss.  Losing her was like losing ten people.  At that time, she was the sum total of true community for me.  We spent about three full days driving around the city delivering the horrible news to her family and her closest friends.

“One week after that, my husband and I were assaulted at gun point by seven cops for no identifiable reason.  It was a terrifying twenty-minute ordeal.  I was left wondering, What kind of a wilderness have I come to where those threatening my life are the very ones I’m supposed to trust?

“This is merely a ‘list’ of events that we’ve suffered, but the internal turmoil and suffering is incalculable; immeasurable; indescribably.  In one of the darkest moments, the Lord drew near.  After months of crying out to Him and wondering why He felt so far in the darkest moments, He drew near in a way that I could sense and feel.  I was reading Isaiah 52: ‘He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised….  He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors.’

“In some sense, my God ‘left’ the comfort and glory of heaven to put Himself on earth in the weakness of human flesh.  That, in and of itself, is unbelievable.  But that wasn’t all.  he put Himself on earth, laying aside His privileges of being God (Phil 2) for the sake of saving fallen mankind, the single most selfless act in human history…only to be ‘despised and forsaken of men’; to become ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’; to be numbered with the transgressors.  My holy, righteous, omnipresent, omnipotent God who spoke all of creation into being at the sound of His voice was regarded as a transgressor.  Though He was perfect and innocent, regarded as a transgressor.  For the first time in three years, I felt deeply His nearness.  I, too, left everything, coming to South Africa as a brown girl longing to love and serve.  I, too, was to be numbered with hatred as something that I am not, as a white oppressor with the scores of injustices perpetrated.  Though I am far too fallible to be compared with our glorious Savior, I saw His story in mine.  I somehow felt for the first time in so long a sense of redemptive purpose in the midst of unspeakable suffering.

“I saw it was the gospel message.  Although there are seasons of the Lord’s discipline, I saw that suffering is the inextricable base color thread woven through the fabric of the gospel.  It is the canvas upon which salvation has been painted.  Somehow in modern-day Christian circles, we tend to see God’s faithfulness as saving us from suffering.  And yes, sometimes, in His great mercy, He does save us from suffering.  But that is not the mark of His faithfulness.  We see in Scripture that many of those He loved deeply are also those who suffered greatly.

“This great moment of nearness with my Father didn’t remove the pain or the unspeakable grief, but it filled it with purpose and redemption.  By the end of 2012, my health was steadily improving and my relationship with the Lord is steadily being restored.  It has taken moments of drawing near to Him, but I am now standing on my feet again.  Still healing, but definitely standing.  I see the fruit of suffering.  And I see His story in mine.”

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