‘Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’ John 12:24
This is the epigraph to one of the greatest modern literary commentaries on the question of suffering, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final novel, The Brothers Karamozov. The characters in this book wrestle with their conception of God in a world of suffering, especially suffering of the innocent. In a sense, they ask the ageless question: “How can God let bad things happen to good people?” Recent news from western Africa has brought that question to the surface yet again.
Kent Brantly is a 33-year-old family doctor from Texas who is also a husband and father of two young children. Last year, he chose with his wife to go to Liberia as a medical missionary. He currently struggles for his very life, having been infected with Ebola, a disease with a high mortality rate and no cure. He contracted it while serving the needs of patients who had fallen ill with the same virus. So fast is the course of this disease that his recovery or death may be known before this article can be read.
When I read of these sad circumstances, I remembered the day we were evacuated from the Democratic Republic of Congo, called Zaire in 1991. The military had revolted, the streets were filled with tanks, and we were told to leave before things got worse. I, too, had a wife and two children of similar age. I, too, was serving in Africa as a medical missionary. I chose to go. Dr. Brantly chose to stay. (His wife and children are in the United States, having already returned for a wedding when he became ill.)
Can both decisions be good? On what basis do we accept risk, calculate risk, even embrace risk, specifically when we seek to live out our faith and express the love of Jesus Christ in a dark and scary world?
First, this world is dark and scary. Many of us live in a modern world of convenience and control, where the most relevant international concern may be what kind of ethnic cuisine to eat tonight. In abrupt contrast to this false sense of security, the biblical testimony exposes a dark world where the forces of evil are active (Eph. 6:12). In fact, Scripture goes as far as to say that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Ebola wreaks havoc in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, bombs drop on civilian populations in Israel and Gaza, and ethnic hate in South Sudan leaves millions hungry, because at present we do not yet see the full subjection of everything to the authority of Jesus Christ. It is a world still ruled by the prince of darkness.
Second, Jesus loves the whole world. It is not surprising that people like Dr. Brantly, who for many years had a love for Africa, would end up there to express his commitment to follow Jesus Christ. Does that mean he chose to disregard other commitments and irresponsibly put his young family in harm’s way? The crucial distinction is that Dr. Brantly did not choose danger or seek suffering. He chose to follow Jesus. I did not choose to enter a war zone when I took my young family to Africa, though I knew there were dangers. At the time Dr. Brantly’s family went, while they knew there were risks, they did not blindly walk into active danger.
Third, we should never be surprised by the likelihood of suffering if we choose to follow Jesus. The entire first letter from Peter is written to a persecuted church so that they will not see their ordeal as strange but almost natural (1 Pet. 4:12). Suffering and death appeared suddenly and uninvited one day in the community where Dr. Brantly and his family had chosen to go and serve. They did not choose this danger or plan for this risk. He chose to stay, as one uniquely qualified to serve the people ravaged by the disease. He carefully followed infectious control protocols, not seeking to be sick but hoping to stay healthy so that he could serve others. He contracted the disease despite every good effort. He is not alone. He stands with more than 100 African health care workers who have been infected with this virus, half of whom have died.
There is no golden rule for staying or going in the midst of danger. I chose to leave. It was clear that things would grow worse, and I had little to offer in the military crisis. There was even a possibility that the presence of foreigners would only add to the trouble of our fellow Congolese Christians. But I do not rest in certainty that I made the right decision to go. I cannot help but believe that Dr. Brantly made the right decision to stay. But there is no consolation in knowing we are right, or in being able to prove that God is just when bad things happen to good people. Our consolation must have deeper roots.
Jesus’ words in John 12:24 are given in the context of a request, not unlike the words in a song sung at my church this past Sunday. “We want to see Jesus,” said some Greeks in Jerusalem to worship during the Passover feast. How little did they, or do we, understand what is being asked. If we want to see Jesus, we will have to lose our life, not literally in most cases, but then who knows. If we are following Jesus and not asking him to follow us, then “where I am, my servant will also be” (John 12:26).
In the great love of Jesus Christ for the whole world, and especially for the least, the lost, and the left out, we should not be surprised to find Jesus in Africa in the middle of an Ebola outbreak. The presence of Dr. Kent Brantly in Liberia in July 2014 is a clear and beautiful display of the heart of God for a broken world in our day. I for one am thankful—very thankful—for his life.