Stepping into the Reality of Suffering
I recently sat across from a woman I wanted to adopt as a kind of nonna.(1) Originally from Croatia, she spoke with a soft accent and combination of wisdom and kindness. In observing my 5-year-old son with me, she noted, "He has a high sense of injustice." I nodded in agreement. My little guy has begun that tortured engagement with life—the wrestling of desire to shield our eyes from sorrow with the opportunity to see our part in the larger broken story around us and participate in facets of restoration.
Years ago it was in a broken place where I met Annie. I was nervous as I walked through the streets of Amsterdam's famous red light district, so different from anything I had seen before. About four hundred windows line cobblestone streets, a person behind each one. There are women of all ages, transgender and transvestite workers as well. Organized by nationality, it is a market of sorts, where the commodity for sale is the body of another. I was with the director of Scharlaken Koord, a Dutch organization that offers assistance to women working in prostitution.
I realized my nervousness was a reflection of my own insecurity. Truth be told, sex workers represented something threatening to me—a reminder of the enough I might never be, a kind of desirable I couldn't compete with, a kind betrayal I did not want to know. But when we talked with them, I saw them as women. They were girls I would want to be friends with, and what was alike far surpassed our differences. To be sure, if the same things that happened to them had happened to me, I would be standing on their side of the window. They were human beings trying to survive their own choices and those made for them, just like the rest of us.
So it was with Annie. She shared her story with us: a handsome Dutch man often traveled through the airport she worked at in a distant Asian country. He began to bring gifts each time he passed through—attention and interest too. Soon he proposed to her. Her family advised she would be foolish to give up such an opportunity; she would have a much better life than what could be afforded at home. The two married and Annie went to live in his home country with apprehension and hope. Upon arrival, he confiscated her passport, explained he now owned her, and put her up for sale behind a window. She tried to resist, but he only laughed. She didn’t have her documents. She didn’t know the language. Where would she go? Realizing he was right, she succumbed to beatings and abuse and ultimately performed as required.
When Annie learned she was pregnant, she was grateful for this reminder of life inside of her. But after several intentional blows to her belly by her husband, she miscarried. Later came the day she learned her mother had died. Well over her capacity to hold the injustice, Annie spilled over with regret and rage. Only because he was tired of her and had gotten what he wanted, her husband returned the passport and bid her good riddance.
Annie returned home. But when she told her family all that happened, they disowned her for disgracing the family name. Safety and dignity were stripped from her once again. So she returned to a window in Amsterdam. “This is what I am,” she said with resignation.
My friend asked Annie if she had considered going to church, and Annie let out a laugh. "I believe in God," she said softly. "I pray to God every night when I try to wash this horrible feeling off myself. But you tell me—if I walk into your churches, will they see me as a woman or as a prostitute?" My friend answered her honestly, "Some would see you as a prostitute. But that is not the way Jesus sees you. And many would be those who would come around you."
Annie shook her head decisively. "The problem with your people is they tell me I should leave. But they never want to let me forget where I came from either," she finished.
Her words remain ingrained in my mind. How easily we pin a chosen letter to the chest of another. Yet that is not the gospel message we are to live and tell. I have learned that my earnest desire to come alongside a woman who has been exploited and abused is honestly not enough. Efforts toward restoration certainly must be present, but what she really longs for is justice, an identity beyond what life experience has given her.
As believers in Christ, we do have something more—someone more—to counter the nightmarish face of injustice. We want to offer hope to the injustice we see around us. But if we are honest, we have all encountered a sense of injustice on a personal level. Do we believe the answer to be true for us, as it is for Annie? Because a person like Annie is able to read people in an exceptional way—she has learned to do so to survive. If we offer an answer we ourselves have not embraced in the midst of our own brokenness, she will certainly find our simply crafted answers downright offensive to her own powerful injustice.
This is the lifelong lesson my young son has just entered into. He faced injustice when a trusted friend unexpectedly shoved him down in front of others, and when his little sister provoked him into a response he then faced consequences for. But his sense of injustice has reached new levels. You see, he recently had another baby sibling on the way, and he was thrilled. When I delivered the news that the baby’s little heartbeat was struggling and it appeared the little one might go straight to see Jesus, his eyes filled with sorrow. "Can I ask Jesus for a miracle?" he asked earnestly.
Each day he prayed for his miracle with a childlike purity, asking Jesus to keep the baby safe, asking that God allow us to bring the baby home and be a family here. When the dreaded and painful process of losing that little one came upon us, oh how I cried in a new way. For I long to hold and to know that baby, whose tiny form now rests quietly beneath a weeping cherry tree. And I grieved also for my young son’s hope and faith so fresh. "Why didn’t Jesus answer my prayer?" he asked with grave disappointment, betrayal even.
Two disciples filled with sorrow at injustice unknowingly encountered Jesus along the road to Emmaus. Writer Jill Carattini said, "[Jesus] tells them that the suffering and death of the Messiah were not to be understood as a defeat of God's purpose, but as a necessary pathway to new life. And pointedly, profoundly, Jesus suggests that this is the very pattern of God: from death to life. . . . And out of the death of the Messiah himself God brings us to resurrection—first God’s, then our own."
The temptation to turn away from the sorrow of injustice is borne out of our shared desire to avoid pain. But the sense of injustice we and so many others around the globe experience does not cease to be if we look away. We are called to respond to injustice, to step into the reality of suffering. We will meet it within our own story, just as it abounds in atrocious forms around us. We have the opportunity to mourn, to grieve, to bear witness, to meet Christ beside us, to remember our shared need for a Savior who divinely counters injustice with his embodiment of pure justice itself, rendering us redeemed, free, and at last whole.
Naomi Zacharias is director of Wellspring International, the humanitarian arm of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) "Stepping into the Reality of Suffering" by Naomi Zacharias originally appeared in Lookout Magazine, January 8, 2017.