We must enter the pain of others, as God does

Ruth Padilla DeBorst calls for total commitment to caring

When faced with pain and suffering, the natural response for most of us is to run for the hills. While pain is unavoidable, few of us would choose it over comfort and safety.

But according to Ruth Padilla DeBorst – one of Latin America’s most influential theologians, missiologists and educators – those who follow Jesus must necessarily enter into the pain of others.

“God actually suffered in the suffering of my husband’s broken body and my broken heart.” – Ruth Padilla DeBorst

And, in doing so, they will certainly experience that pain themselves.

Padilla DeBorst is in Melbourne for this week’s Justice Conference, presented by TEAR Australia. Her task  as a keynote speaker is to call Christians to “places of pain” – something that she admits is a challenge.

“It’s obviously not an easy topic to address, as our society tends to skirt pain, avoid it, do whatever we can to escape it,” she says. “But then you ask, did God remain immune to the brokenness of our world?”

For Padilla DeBorst, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Her own terrible encounter with pain testifies to this.

In 1997, while she and her husband were working in Ecuador, three men carjacked her family, and shot and killed her husband. She and her two young children (four, and almost two) survived the attack. She was eight months pregnant with their third child at the time.

During the period of immense grief and loss that followed, Padilla DeBorst became deeply aware of the brokenness of the world, but also the reality of God’s presence in the darkest days.

“I always had this idea that God cares about us, that God is compassionate, but in that moment, I realised how much God had taken on suffering himself,” explains Padilla DeBorst. “It wasn’t just that God was looking down and saying, ‘Oh, poor Ruth, I want to comfort her’, but that God actually suffered in the suffering of my husband’s broken body and my broken heart.”

“That began a much deeper encounter with God for myself … seeing how God had entered into our pain and the messiness of our world in Christ.”

“I became highly aware of how vulnerable so many women are in the world.” – Ruth Padilla DeBorst

Padilla DeBorst says she also experienced God’s presence through her Christian community, who surrounded her with love and encouragement. But this also opened her eyes to the reality that many women face similar circumstances – with little to no support.

“I became highly aware of how vulnerable so many women are in the world, that are left widowed with children to feed and no resources or capacity or community. So I became more keenly aware of the brokenness of our world, the vulnerability of people, and in the midst of that all, God’s presence – and God’s presence made very effective, very tangible, through the presence of the Christian community.”

“Each of those are things that just set a track for the rest of my life.”

Padilla DeBorst now lives with her second husband in an intentional Christian community in Costa Rica called Casa Adobe. They share a multicultural home with refugee families from El Salvador and Venezuela, a single mother who is a Lutheran minister, and several young people who serve as volunteers.

Day to day, they work at building Christian community in their home, as well as engaging in ministry in their neighbourhood.

At the core of their lives is being good neighbours, caring for creation, and spiritual formation.

Padilla DeBorst acknowledges that her childhood also played a key role in shaping the distinct, deliberate way she lives today. The daughter of an Ecuadorian father and an American mother, she spent her formative years in Argentina, a country with a culture which places a high value on deep relationships. But even more than the culture, she says she was shaped by the values of her parents, whose Christian faith led them to open their home to people in need.

“Faith wasn’t just an idea that had to be assented to, but it actually filtered through all their choices, their values, the way they chose to spend their money, the way they related to people, and their attitude of giving and engaging in ministry in many different ways,” says Padilla DeBorst.

“That’s a very reduced understanding of the gospel.” – Ruth Padilla DeBorst

Padilla DeBorst’s father, theologian René Padilla, is renowned for coining the term misión integral (‘integral mission’) in the 1970s.

Misión integral is a conviction that Christian mission encompasses all of life, and it is something that Padilla DeBorst, like her father, is passionate about.

“For far too many Christians, the gospel – the good news – has been reduced to personal salvation from our individual sin so that when we die we can go up to heaven,” she says.

“And that’s a very reduced understanding of the gospel and, consequently, of the mission of God’s people in the world.

“When you look at Scripture, the good news begins with the good creation and with God’s good purposes for the entire created order. So if we understand that God has created everything and that Christ is Lord over everything, then we realise that the mission of God’s people is not exclusively dedicated to saving souls, but it actually has to do with the whole of life.

“So we’re not just talking about spirits, we’re talking about bodies; we’re not just talking about the future, we’re also talking about the present. We’re not just talking about individuals, we’re talking about communities.

We’re not only talking about what might be seen as religious or church life, we’re talking about life in the world in light of God’s purposes.”

“Jesus really was caring for the people the world was not caring for.” – Ruth Padilla DeBorst

Jesus came to give ‘abundant life’ (John 10:10) to the entire world, and Padilla DeBorst says this means that Christians cannot live in an “indifferent illusion” where they ignore the exploitation and oppression of vulnerable people.

“We are sent, as Jesus was, into the world, and the question is then: ‘How was Jesus sent? What were the markers of his presence, his mission, his engagement in the world?’ And it really was caring for the people the world was not caring for, it was touching the untouchable, it was speaking to those who should not be spoken to, it was lifting up the marginalised.”

Following in these caring footsteps of Jesus often will bring us into “place of pain”. Yet we can be reluctant to enter such places, due to fear. Padilla DeBorst says the antidote to fear is deeper trust in God.

“What are people fearing? Often there’s fear of change, fear of losing privilege, fear of losing something, because there’s this posture of insufficiency,” she says.

“So there’s misplaced trust in stuff, rather than in God’s provision. But [the Apostle] John, in his letter to people who are fleeing the power of the empire, says ‘perfect love dispels fear’ [1 John 4:18]. So, then, the contrast to placing trust in stuff is trusting God’s love, and that can dispel fear.”

“I don’t need to be afraid that change is going to threaten my identity, because I can change too. I might even find new ways of relating and my life might be richer … so I can step into the unknown and into relating to the unknown with the confidence that God is there.”

Padilla DeBorst wants to challenge the church – here in Australia and around the world – to live out the integral mission of Jesus. Even when it’s hard.

“Can the church in Australia recognise herself as sent as Jesus was into the world, not to nourish antagonism and rejection and discrimination and justifying their positions of power, but actually to serve and to show God’s love to the least, to the excluded, to ‘the other’, in a way that can build bridges rather than close doors?”

According to Padilla DeBorst, stepping into the unknown and showing Jesus’ love to ‘the other’ is worth it – even in the most challenging of circumstances. She shares a powerful personal story of a time when she found the strength to do just that.

“Here I am trusting my son to somebody who the world has labelled forever as a murderer.” – Ruth Padilla DeBorst

“For a while in Argentina, when I was single-parenting my children before I remarried, my church worked with drug addicts and had a rehab centre,” recalls Padilla DeBorst. “One young man had actually been in jail for murder. He had served time, but in jail he had gotten into drugs, and so he was in the rehab centre.

“He was doing really well – he was heading up the carpentry shop. And my son, who by then was six, really wanted to do some carpentry work, so this man said, ‘Well, if you want, he can come to the workshop with me some morning and I can show him some stuff he can do.’ And I said, ‘Sure.’

“And that afternoon he brought my son back to my house, and he said, ‘Ruth, you have no idea what this meant to me. Now I know, for the first time, I know that God has forgiven me’ – because, he said, ‘I know what happened to you.’ Because my husband was murdered – and here I am trusting my son to somebody who the world has labelled forever as a murderer. And so he has no redemption, no chance of a second opportunity; no opportunity to mend his ways or anything.

“And he said, ‘You know, everybody told me God forgives me … [but] I’ve never felt forgiven until now, when you entrusted your son to me.’”

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