I was 35 and homeschooling my four kids in our bush house in Cameroon. My husband worked long days installing wells for the Fulani. And then, our lives veered into pain.
If I had known beforehand of the suffering on the mission field we would experience, I would have said, “No, not going. Can’t handle that!”
The Day My Life Changed
One day in March, I received a message that my dad had lung cancer. A godly man, he’d always taken such good care of his health. I was stunned.
My dad really thought he would be healed. He agreed to everything doctors suggested, including chemo and radiation. We all prayed with him.
But he continued to decline. And with that came extreme suffering both physically and mentally. We all went back to see him for a month in September.
But three weeks after we returned to Cameroon, he died.
My family was able to return to the States for a year following his death, spending time with my mom. She was adjusting and attempting to cope with her new reality. When we left at the end of that year, we felt she was making good strides.
So it was nothing short of jarring when three months later, doctors discovered an inoperable tumor on her kidney. They predicted she would survive three more months.
I felt devastated. Helpless. Why pray when it hadn’t seemed to work with Dad?
Mom also suffered the kinds of deaths cancer wrenches upon the human body. When she died, I felt like my trust in God had vanished. I was not sure how I could handle the grief that went along with losing both parents.
Why would God allow his children to suffer such painful deaths? Didn’t he care? Or was he just going to accomplish his purposes no matter how I felt?
When It Rains–
Not long after my mom’s death, we took a vacation to a game park about a two days drive away. It was right before Christmas; dry season had just begun in West Africa.
The total lack of water at the game park meant we bathed in the river, washing the dust from our skin. We had a wonderful time seeing giraffes and many kinds of antelope. Our kids had lots to talk about as we went to bed that night.
Just as we were drifting off to sleep, a knock came at our door. We hesitated to open: Who could possibly be visiting us way out (well, even further…) in the bush?
On the other side was a fellow missionary we barely knew, from a town about three hours from the game park. He’d traveled to tell us the word he’d received through two-way radio.
My husband’s mother had died suddenly of a stroke.
Shock rippled over us in waves. At first light, we loaded our Toyota truck and headed home. John radioed JAARS–an off-grid mission aviation org–and flew directly to the city, then grabbed a flight to Nebraska. It was December 15. Almost Christmas.
But wait. There’s more
The kids and I managed as best we could that first week without my husband. But it soon became clear that the river we’d bathed in while at the waterless game park was not without consequences.
Lissa, our 8-year-old daughter, developed an eye infection that wouldn’t go away.
Living so far out in the bush away from a hospital had taught me to always carry my medical bag. I’m not a doctor or a nurse, but I had a very handy little book, Where There is No Doctor. The book would describe a set of symptoms, then the treatment needed for that particular malady.
When Lissa developed a fever, I began to treat malaria. We had all had malaria at one time or another so I knew how to treat that one.
But she didn’t seem to get better. And then the boys began to also get sick, one by one.
Our little clinic up the road was run by nationals who didn’t have the right medicines or any hope of better treatment.
One night shortly before Christmas, Lissa was lying on the couch by the Christmas tree. Her fever had been particularly high and she began crying.
“Mommy, people are coming with knives and taking our Christmas presents!”
Our oldest son, Jonathan, ran to get the “helpful book” and began to search until he found a disease that perfectly matched her symptoms.
“Mom, I found it! But, the patient dies within seven days!”
The Train Ticket I Needed
While I knew this was not her diagnosis, I also knew I needed help.
I remembered the story of Corrie Ten Boom’s father explaining to her that as her father, he would never give her a train ticket before she needed it, but he would always give her the ticket when she was ready to board the train.
God would give his grace to her just when she needed it. Not before.
God gave me that grace. It came in the form of contacting our nearest missionary neighbors, an hour’s drive away via our trusty two-way radio.
They called JAARS, who whisked us the next day to the mission hospital. Note to parents of small, sick children on a small Cessna: Prepare for vomiting. Not a fun flight as there was plenty of vomiting with sick kids aboard a small Cessna!
But we made it. And our bodies and spirits were lifted by doctors and friends who surrounded us. Lissa’s diagnosis: malaria and a bacterial infection. Three of the boys had malaria. Thankfully, I was spared.
“It Took Years To Trust God Again”
Yet my pain extended far beyond that hospital trip. I wrestled with profound loss and the depression that went with it. A missionary doctor prescribed medication for me when I began to feel suicidal.
The fact that I was struggling so much in my faith made the burden near-crippling. How could I be a missionary and feel this way?
And as I looked around at the Fulani people we worked with, my suffering on the mission field seemed small in comparison with what many of them lived with daily.
It took years before I felt like I could trust God again.
My own journey out of the pit was long and hard but it began with a choice. I could choose to trust God or not. Simple as that. But I needed to choose.
I may never know the “why” of our suffering on the mission field. But when I chose to trust God, I didn’t have to know why he acts as he does.
It is enough that he knows why.
SUFFERING ON THE MISSION FIELD: Never disregarded, never wasted
My own road out of depression was as complex as the suffering and questions causing it. And if or when you face depression and/or anxiety on the field–all very common for global workers–your own healing will be just as complicated, just as sweeping.
But Christian suffering on the mission field or elsewhere is set apart. It is never without purpose, never wasted. It is never meaningless. And it is never, ever disregarded or unseen.
We are suffered with.
We know this to the extent that God chose Himself not only as the greatest hero of our suffering, but also its greatest victim. As author Dorothy Sayers puts it, “He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine.”
Personally, I’ve seen how he’s altered my capacity to help others in their pain (2 Corinthians 1:6). he’s made me more like Himself (2 Corinthians 3:18). And someday, I’ll have the muscle to withstand the eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
And that applies to my parents’ and kids’ suffering, too.
But I’m not God’s pawn. And my pain isn’t his utilitarian purpose. I see this in how he responded to Lazarus in John 11, knowing he’d raise Lazarus in just a moment. He was still overcome by weeping and even anger at the sweeping effects of loss on this planet.
Somehow, in my pain, he moved me beyond how he could use me…and into a reality that I was fiercely loved, no matter what wreckage I endured.
The greater reward
I don’t know what pain you might experience whether you remain in your passport country, or choose to follow him overseas.
Yet I believe along with Jim Elliot that “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” I believe whatever God asks of me, he is more of a giver than a taker. The sweeping rewards he promises stand far grander than whatever I’ve endured.
And it’s why my husband and I, and our kids, now adults, feel confident to follow him anywhere.
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Gala Dallmann raised five children in three different African countries over 20 years (whew). Her husband John is a water engineer who brought clean water to many remote villages. In her words, their ministry consisted of “baby wipes and water pipes!” She now writes from Colorado Springs, where they serve with Engineering Ministries International.