I was operated of a tumor in late 2007. A few months later, the tumor grew again and in February, 2008 I went through another surgery and began treatment at the Oncology Department of the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Zaria. I missed a complete term in school. And during that period, my family spent the money we didn’t have. We borrowed. We begged. We did all we could to ensure that there was always enough money for the next trip to Zaria. I became a shadow of my former self–I was lean and bald. And for a family with very little means, it was not a beautiful experience.
Looking back at the whole experience now, I wonder if I suffered well. I don’t think I did. Through out the period of my illness, I honestly believed there was some spiritual force at work (and someone behind it). I was taught that bad things happened to me because my enemies didn’t want to see me make any progress in life (or see my “star” shine). I prayed the kind of prayers one would find being prayed in any Nigerian church heavily influenced by African Traditional Religion–I prayed against forces and arrows from my father’s and mother’s house, I sent spiritual arrows back to their senders, I commanded the powers in the moon and the stars. I prayed all kinds of prayer points. I was desperate. My family was desperate. No one enjoys suffering.
The sad reality is that many Christians in Nigeria (and probably even Africa) still do not know how to make sense of suffering. I know this because I have seen people suffer, and I have witnessed them suffer–probably even greater–in their search for answers and solutions. In the process of seeking solutions to the problems of life, many have resorted to deep spiritism. Christians pray naked, visit spiritual mountains or rivers, pray to manipulate the elements, and consume special foods–these are not strange occurrences among Christians in Nigeria. I know this because I have been part of such activities before.
But at the heart of these terrible responses to suffering is a faulty understanding of who God is. The average Nigerian, owing to their traditional religious roots, cannot imagine a God who doesn’t always choose to save his people when they suffer. The most popular preachers in Nigeria make altar calls with statements like this: “If you give your life to Christ, he’ll come fight your battles. Surrender to him and you’ll secure victory because he’s all-powerful and stronger than all your enemies.”
And growing up in a Pentecostal-Charismatic setting, this was my own understanding of God. Salvation was a ticket to a better life on earth. Having Jesus as Lord meant certain victory in all the battles of life: If I have Jesus, I’ll get a good job (because good jobs are scarce), I’ll have a blessed marriage (because good spouses are difficult to find), and I’ll be free from poverty (because he became poor that I may become rich). Sadly, this is a utilitarian view of God, and God is never portrayed as a deity that men used to acquire what they needed in Scripture.
The utilitarian view of God I see in many of the churches in Nigeria isn’t a direct result of the import of the American Prosperity Gospel (as many would believe). Our ancestors who were deep in traditional worship pledged allegiance to the strongest gods. Most communities served and were faithful to certain deities because of the benefits they enjoyed: they won battles, stayed the hand of terrible plagues and reaped great harvests. But when God becomes just another deity to us (a bigger, more powerful one), we come to the Bible with wrong ideas about God and interpret the Bible based on those ideas.
God is almighty and that is not a matter to be debated. As a sovereign God, he is at liberty to do as he pleases. Job said, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). But that does not mean he won’t do us good, because he also said, “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. . . I will rejoice in doing them good” (Jer. 32:40-41). He does work everything for our good (Rom. 8:28) and for his glory (Isa. 48:9-11).
Looking back at the previous seasons of my life when I have had to endure suffering or hardship, I now wish I knew that God was sovereign and working everything for my good. O what peace we often forfeit, o what needless pain we bear, when we lose sight of the sovereign, loving God that we serve. We can suffer well, displaying the joy of knowing Christ and trusting him completely. If there is one thing I wish I could tell a really young Eleazar and also keep in mind as I live everyday, it would be this: Whenever suffering comes (because it will), you can choose to suffer well.