Suffering That Equips

Abraham and Molly

Molly and Abraham are not their real names. Their names have been changed to protect the work they are doing with Muslims in the Detroit area. But this work is not what they initially set out to do. And the journey to it has not been what they expected. In Abraham’s words, “I feel like now we’re in Plan B, but it was never Plan B for God, you know? It was always Plan A. He always knew what was going to happen. We didn’t make a really bad decision.”

Abraham and Molly started to feel led into missions work during their time as students at Wheaton College. As they got involved in several of the college’s ministry opportunities, groups and gatherings, they felt God’s leading to pursue missions work and were able to get a more concrete sense of what that work would be. With each step on the journey the plan became more clear; through public health efforts in international settings, their work would be to raise up local believers amongst Muslims where the gospel had not yet found a foothold.

By the time Abraham and Molly graduated, they had found each other and were taking steps toward service on the mission field which would teach them about themselves and about the character of God. “He really isn’t very efficient,” Abraham says. “He’s not about efficiency so much as making us into the people that he wants us to be, to be effective. To be his holy temple.”

“He really isn’t very efficient,” Abraham says. “He’s not about efficiency so much as making us into the people that he wants us to be, to be effective. To be his holy temple.”

One of the initial steps was to spend about six months in West Africa with a team from a missions organization they were thinking about joining. The six months were both the most difficult thing they had ever done and the most wonderful thing, and it didn’t take them long to conclude God was calling them to return to West Africa on a more permanent basis.They were to spend some time in the United States finishing up Abraham’s master’s degree in public health and raising support, then board a plane and begin the rest of their lives.

Detour #1

Then they got pregnant.

And there was the question of health insurance. And then there was some difficulty in raising the needed support. By the time Abraham landed a job with benefits, they had used up most of their financial resources and had not yet raised the support needed to go overseas. It took two years before they were able to return to West Africa.

Within about a month of arriving, the challenges of their setting became too much. Molly had developed fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes debilitating pain. The child they now had had also gotten quite sick. The intense heat made it hard to sleep, which made everything more difficult. And to top it off, Abraham started having panic attacks every day.

“At one point,” he recalls, “I was talking to my in-laws on the phone and I was down on the ground and I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t move. I thought I was dying. It wasn’t getting any better; it would just come back at the same time every day.”

Their team leaders decided it would be best for them to retreat to the capital city where they could hopefully get some rest. In the conversations they had from the capital city, their leaders decided a return to the United States was needed, and arrangements were made.

“We lacked a real understanding of the Gospel actually,” says Abraham. “Even if we were missionaries and we were passionate about sharing our faith, we didn’t understand the relationship of how the gospel applied to us in our inadequacy.”

“We lacked a real understanding of the Gospel actually,” says Abraham. “Even if we were missionaries and we were passionate about sharing our faith, we didn’t understand the relationship of how the gospel applied to us in our inadequacy.”

“Neither of us had gone through a major failure in our life” Molly confesses. “And I don’t want to say that this necessarily was a failure because I believe that God used it all, and it was all part of his plan. But it sure felt like failure when we had to come back.”

An Occasion for Grace

Their circumstances had brought out some core issues that God wanted to deal with. The pain they were enduring was actually an occasion for grace and healing. As Abraham puts it, “What I hadn’t realized was that my identity in all those years since I felt a call to missions, my identity had become wrapped up in all of that. And so because that was my identity, I couldn’t fail. Because if I failed then I was no more, you know? What was I? Nothing. So, I had to work on that.”

When they returned, the shame Molly felt nearly kept them from attending a picnic with their sending church. But as they mingled with the people who had just recently made it possible for them to go, “no one expressed any disappointment in us,” she remembers. “Instead, we got so much compassion because they had been reading our letters and they knew how hard things had been for us.”

Through God’s body, the Church, they were able to see that God had allowed the suffering because of his love for them. They began to hear God’s voice saying things they barely had ears to hear. Things like “I love you no matter what” and “I do not love you because of what you do for me.”

The discomfort from Molly’s fibromyalgia was starting to enforce limits on the ministry she could do. Still, as they sought God’s guidance for the next step, they felt led to go back and face the fears that had paralyzed them and to live out the healing they had received.

They didn’t stay as long as they had hoped, but going was a good thing. Abraham’s panic attacks did return, but he was able to ride them out and to overcome the shame that had fueled his anxiety. Molly’s health deteriorated further, but in serving Molly, Abraham was able to reveal Christ to one of their close friends who then committed to following Jesus. “We discerned through our organization, our team leaders, others, that it was appropriate for us to leave and to go back for a time. We thought maybe a year,” Abraham says.

As it turned out, the next three years would have them visit Africa three times looking for a team to join. Each time, though, the teams they visited didn’t work out. It became obvious that the plan they thought they knew was changing.

It was a confusing time, and one filled with a lot of spiritual searching, praying, fasting and getting counsel. The instability in their lives forced them to depend on God, and eventually they were able to come to a greater peace about not returning overseas.

During that time, God started to connect them with people in the Detroit area, near Abraham’s hometown. According to Molly, “Up until that point, there wasn’t actually a lot of reason for us to be excited about the Detroit area. We had not had great connections. We weren’t seeing a lot of exciting things happen.” But God was preparing them for the good he had in store. They started to connect in a significant way with Muslims in the area. They developed a strong desire to move closer to the people they would come to count as close friends and to whom they would minister.

No More Meantime

They gathered a team of people together, people who knew them, had walked with them and who they could trust to be unbiased. Molly attributes this team with their ability to make a series of difficult decisions that came from such a thorough change of plans. “They were the ones that really helped us to finally make the decision that we were going to stay for the next step, that what we were going to do next is to settle in, move into the Detroit area, really make that our ministry instead of it being something we do in the meantime.”

The transition was a challenge. They had spent the past several years investing in a trajectory of international missions work. That was their vision. That was many of their supporters’ vision. Abraham’s master’s degree and all his studies were geared towards international missions. How could all this get used in a decidedly domestic setting?

“So there was a big trust thing of not feeling comfortable with whatever the Lord threw our way. Wanting to hold on, you know?” Abraham recalls. “I felt like my hands are real tight, holding on to what we had left.”

But contentment was in the forecast.

They began their ministry in the Detroit area through partnering with the ministries which were already active. In this case, mostly ministries that taught English. “We started at one place and learned a few things and realized after a year of volunteering with these people…that this wasn’t the right place for us,” says Abraham.

As they got to know more people and got the inside scoop on different ministries, they were able to hone their own philosophy and look for ways to use the passions and gifts God had given them. “God led Abraham to study the things that he studied,” says Molly. “It wasn’t just like ‘Oh, this is something that’ll work.’ It fits who Abraham is. To teach English is a very valuable thing, but that’s not really what Abraham’s passionate about.”

Molly and Abraham’s experiences in West Africa and throughout their schooling exposed a passion for empowering communities to identify and address the areas where change is needed. Such an approach works best through relationships built on trust. These were exactly the kind of relationships they had been working to build and they were exactly the kind of relationships they wouldn’t have been able to build had God not humbled them.

Because God had been refining them and continued to weed out their pride, they were now able to do those good works he had prepared in advance for them to do. “Often times,” Abraham says, “at least when I’m young in ministry, my only thought is give, give, give, you know, talk, talk, talk and whatever. And that’s not a relationship. There are needy people we work with and it’s so important for us to receive from those people as well and not just give.”

Because God had been refining them and continued to weed out their pride, they were now able to do those good works he had prepared in advance for them to do. 

Molly explains it this way: “When you’re in another culture that’s not your own, you feel like a little child so much. You’re like, ‘All I can do is speak like a little child. I don’t know how to do basic things that I could do in my own culture. I’m so needy.’ It feels very vulnerable. You feel bad like you always have more to take than to give. To have someone who is interested in what you do know about and your past experience, and cares, it communicates so much.”

Ministry in this fashion is not a fast-moving endeavor. Building relationships takes time and is not predictable. Abraham and Molly are walking toward Christ with individuals on as complicated a journey as they have been on. And they are doing so in a way that will prepare those individuals to walk toward Christ alongside their own friends and family as Abraham and Molly have walked alongside them.

Abraham puts it this way, “They see us and our lives. And that’s what speaks the loudest is our family, and our love, and our testimony, and our service. Basically God in us. And that’s what draws people to the Gospel.”

God has brought them through the journey they’ve been on, and in so doing has equipped them for the ministry they are doing where they are. “We’ve fallen and we’ve gotten up with the support of the body of Christ,” Abraham says. “We’re on this ride. We don’t know where we’re going but we definitely see God’s hand at work. We can keep looking back and say, ‘Yes, this is the Lord. Yes, this is the Lord.’”

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