Going through Hell
Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” As a missionary in Africa, some experiences I had left me horrified and fearful. Calling them “hell” was the only way I could convey the depths of my pain. My husband and I worked in northern Togo in a small town called Kande. We translated the New Testament into the Lama language along with our team. Over the 21 years it took to finish the job we employed a number of young men. They helped us learn the language, discover the Lama worldview and put God’s words into their tongue. Together, we challenged the spiritual boundaries of Satan.
One of those young men was M’betere. We explained an assignment to him once and he understood. We left him alone with a job and he did it well and quickly. He loved God; the peace in his face displayed his deep faith. He was a gem that translators always hope to find. One day he went to the doctor with pain in his leg; it was cancer. The leg was amputated. He continued to work cheerfully with us. Then his lungs were attacked and he started the long, slow slide to his grave. He worked from bed checking Scripture with Neal until his last weeks. Since he was a Catholic, the local priests cared for him at their mission. He endured excruciating pain. A priest posted a sign on M’betere’s door: “Jesus suffering.” He died holding a cross over his chest. His last words to his caretakers were “Thank you.”
We lost other co-workers. Dahonde worked with us for twelve years until one day he died of an infection in his jaw. The doctor said he treated himself with native herbs and by the time he came to the hospital, modern medicine had lost its healing power. The grief we felt was compounded because this smiling barber felt secure in his church membership, but ignored many of Jesus’ words about the narrow path to heaven.
We lost Meretaar who begged us for money to pay his uncle, who practiced sorcery, to treat a stomach ailment. We offered to pay for a medical doctor’s visit and urged him to “stick to Jesus’ road,” but he chose another. The next time we looked in his eyes, they were those of a demon. In spite of Neal’s urging to let God deliver him, he refused.
We lost an enthusiastic literacy worker named Paul whose personality was suddenly twisted by schizophrenia. We lost John, another capable man, excited about supervising the literacy program. His lust for women drained him of strength and integrity. There were others snatched from our project.
Neal was not exempt to the onslaught. One day he was asked to give an ill man a ride to the hospital. He agreed and accompanied the man’s relatives to the home. He had the relatives place the man on a blanket on the back floor of the station wagon. The man was raving, spitting, and frothing at the mouth from the last stages of rabies.
Arriving home, Neal was careful to disinfect the car. He did not tell me the details. In the black of night, I had a dream of being in an airport waiting to catch a plane to the U.S. I was chatting with friends when suddenly I noticed Neal on the floor behind them, drooling. Rabies came to mind.
What seemed like only minutes later, I woke and noticed Neal was up and in the bathroom. I called out to see if he was all right. He returned and sat on the bed and said he was having trouble swallowing—the first sign of that dreadful disease. I was terribly alarmed. He said he had already prayed and thanked God for his life and was ready to meet Him! I quickly read our medical manual and desperately searched for something, anything to do.
At the crack of dawn, we rushed to the local hospital and talked with the doctor. He did admit that spittle from a rabid man could infect someone, but doubted Neal could have caught it. He tried to allay our fears. By the time we got home, and Neal was no worse, our emotions quieted down and we saw the attack from Satan for what it was. It was a weapon he so often uses: fear. Contact with a rabid creature can take up to two years before symptoms develop. I kept the secret of my dream those two years before I shared it with my husband.
We neared the end of our translation project in late 1992. Within three months, we hoped to return to the U.S. to get the Lama New Testament typeset. Neal developed a runny, but not painful, ear infection. We visited a hospital five hours to the south where American doctors prescribed a treatment, but it did not work. We consulted a French doctor who was passing through our town—his prescription brought no relief. The weeks passed on and fears of brain infection filled my thoughts. My panic kept mounting and we contemplated buying tickets to fly home only weeks before we were to see the project completed. Finally, the absurdity of the situation opened our eyes to our enemy’s plan. We began fighting him in prayer, in Jesus’ name and under His blood.
Our SIL director then suggested we come to the capital to consult with the ear specialist in town. We did so. A young African doctor ordered a culture (why did the others not think of this?), found the winning antibiotic, took Neal personally to the pharmacy to buy the injections and accompanied him to a clinic to oversee the treatment. After ten days, healing came. We returned home and arrived only hours ahead of the translation consultant, the one who was to give the final approval for publication.
Should we call these experiences “hell?” Do they mirror Dante’s 14th century paintings of tortured souls licked in flames and crying out for deliverance? A number of Scriptures point to hell as the farthest point from heaven (Psalm 139:8, Isaiah 7:11, Amos 9:2). Hell is the place where God is not. Anne Graham Lotz rightly said, “Don’t ever tell anyone to go to hell.”
Clearly, these experiences were not “hell.” But try as I might to put fear away from me and trust God, I often did not succeed. I remained very fragile and skittish. What was the purpose? When I watched the film Pilgrim’s Progress, I understood. There was Christian running the gantlet between two fierce beasts threatening him and breathing out fire. He was afraid, but he kept going through. They were just inches from him, but they did not, and could not touch him!
Until we ourselves walk through fire like that, we have little to impart to others about the life of faith. It is that fire that brands us with the name “Christian.” It is a terrible, terrible thing to survive but it seals our calling and our name and only then do we have authority to speak. Not, of course, because we did anything, but that we continued to believe God even when He looked almost like our enemy!
C. T. Studd, founder of World Evangelization for Christ, entered central Africa in 1913, a pilgrim in his own right. He had no illusions about the task before him for he said: “Some like to live within the sound of church or chapel bell. I want to build a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
If hell is the place where God is not, then it must be a black, depressing place, where hopes are futile of finding life-giving light. Jesus talked about that place outside of his presence as a place of darkness (Matthew 22:13). We are allowed, at times, to walk through what the shepherd David called “the valley of the shadow of death.” But as believers, Christ goes through with us. Sometimes we are told why we must pass that way. Other times we must wait in faith.
Do you have friends walking through a very dark place? Have they asked you to pray for them? Are they crying out for your help and yet feeling as in a nightmare that they cannot cry loudly enough to be heard? They may be going through a black territory of great danger. Terrorists are about; spiritual terrorists are also about. We call them demons, demons of fear, anxiety, doubt, and insecurity. Will you hold up a light? Will you pray? Will you stand a sentinel within a yard of hell?