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  • Writer's pictureWayne Shelton

Life Under the Cross

1 Peter 4:12-19

Helen Roseveare was an English missionary to the Congo who passed away at the age of 91 in 2016. She was born to a Christian family and raised within the church, yet she would remain unconverted until her college years. She attended Cambridge University to study medicine.

There she joined the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) and became an active participant in the prayer meetings and Bible studies, reading the New Testament for the first time. But she later said that her understanding of Christianity was more head knowledge than heart engagement.

In the winter of 1945, the Lord seemed to meet her in a personal way during a student retreat. She gave her testimony on the final evening, and Bible teacher W. Graham Scroggie wrote Philippians 3:10 in her new Bible, and told her:

Tonight you’ve entered into the first part of the verse, “That I may know Him.” This is only the beginning, and there’s a long journey ahead. My prayer for you is that you will go on through the verse to know “the power of His resurrection” and also, God willing, one day perhaps, “the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death.”

She felt an increased sense of calling toward missions, and publicly declared during a missionary gathering in North England, “I’ll go anywhere God wants me to, whatever the cost.”

In mid-March of 1953, at the age of 28, she arrived in the northeastern region of the Congo (later named Zaire).

In the first two years, she founded a training school for nurses, training women to serve as nurse-evangelists, who in turn would run clinics and dispensaries in different regions.

In October 1955, she was asked to transfer seven miles away to run an abandoned maternity and leprosy center in Nebobongo. Working with local Africans, Helen helped to transform the center into a hospital with 100 beds, serving mothers, lepers, and children, along with a training school for paramedics and 48 rural clinics. Outside of these facilities, there was no other medical help for 150 miles in any direction.

Exhausted, Helen returned to England in 1958 for a furlough, during which time she received further medical training before she returned to the Congo.

The Congo became independent from Belgium in 1960, and civil war broke out in 1964. All of the medical facilities they had established were destroyed. Helen was among ten Protestant missionaries put under house arrest by the rebel forces for several weeks, after which time they were moved and imprisoned.

She describes the horror of what happened after she tried to escape:

They found me, dragged me to my feet, struck me over head and shoulders, flung me on the ground, kicked me, dragged me to my feet only to strike me again—the sickening searing pain of a broken tooth, a mouth full of sticky blood, my glasses gone. Beyond sense, numb with horror and unknown fear, driven, dragged, pushed back to my own house—yelled at, insulted, cursed.

Her captors, she wrote, “were brutal and drunken. They cursed and swore, they struck and kicked, they used the butt-end of rifles and rubber truncheons. We were roughly taken, thrown in prisons, humiliated, threatened.”

On October 29, 1964, Helen Roseveare was brutally raped.

She later recounted:

On that dreadful night, beaten and bruised, terrified and tormented, unutterably alone, I had felt at last God had failed me. Surely He could have stepped in earlier, surely things need not have gone that far. I had reached what seemed to be the ultimate depth of despairing nothingness.

In this darkness, however, she sensed the Lord saying to her:

You asked Me, when you were first converted, for the privilege of being a missionary. This is it. Don’t you want it? . . . These are not your sufferings. They’re Mine. All I ask of you is the loan of your body.

She later pointed to God’s goodness despite this great evil:

Through the brutal heartbreaking experience of rape, God met with me—with outstretched arms of love. It was an unbelievable experience: He was so utterly there, so totally understanding, his comfort was so complete—and suddenly I knew—I really knew that his love was unutterably sufficient. He did love me! He did understand!

She also wrote:

[God] understood not only my desperate misery but also my awakened desires and mixed up horror of emotional trauma. I knew that Philippians 4:19, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” was true on all levels, not just on a hyper-spiritual shelf where I had tried to relegate it. . . . He was actually offering me the inestimable privilege of sharing in some little way in the fellowship of His sufferings.

After returning to Africa in 1966, she soon left Nebobongo to establish a new medical center in Nyankunde in northeastern Zaire, producing a 250-bed hospital, maternity ward, training college for doctors, a center for leprosy, and other endeavors.

In 1973, Helen returned to the UK for health reasons, settling in Northern Ireland. She traveled, wrote several books, and served as a missionary advocate. She went to be with her Lord, from whom she counted it a privilege to suffer, on December 7, 2016, at the age of 91.

In 1 Pet 4:12-19, the Apostle reminds us as God’s exiles: don’t be surprised, confused, or ashamed when fiery trials come our way as we do what’s right. Suffering, he tells us, is an essential part, an indispensable part, of the normal Christian life. We, therefore, brace ourselves and face the fiery trials that come on us. And we even do so with joy, because we know that suffering while doing God’s will is His refining fire, and He is so radically in control of all things—even of our suffering—that He has made it so that trials do to our faith what fire does to gold. See you this Lord’s Day!

Grace to you,

Pastor Wayne

For this article, I am indebted to Justin Taylor’s blog post: A Woman of Whom the World Was Not Worthy: Helen Roseveare. For personal enrichment you may want to listen to an interview with Helen Roseveare on Why Does God Allow Suffering

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