Burned-out cars in UkraineI’ve written several books about pain and suffering, and in 2013 I wrote yet another one, titled The Question That Never Goes Away. It recounted my visits to three grieving places: Japan after the tsunami; Sarajevo after the civil war; and Newtown, Connecticut, after the school shootings at Sandy Hook. The book had only modest sales, not meeting expectations. Last week, however, I received the following letter from my publisher in Ukraine, which gives a heartrending account of life near the front lines.  As Dr. Paul Brand used to remind me, “A healthy body is not one that feels no pain, but rather one that feels the pain of the weakest part.Right now, that would be Ukraine.

Dear Philip,

While I was editing the translation of The Question That Never Goes Away back in 2015, I immediately realized its relevance to the war which was rising in Eastern Ukraine. We donated hundreds of copies to army and hospital chaplains. People were not only scared, angry and disappointed, but often full of existential questions of how the Almighty had allowed what was happening to them. Well, back then they couldn’t even imagine what was going to happen in 2022.

Heartrending grief in Ukraine

Today Zaporizhzhia, a city in Ukraine with a population of 710,000, has absorbed about 200,000 refugees, many of them from regions where the battles are severe. Although they might not have a scratch on their bodies, they are all deeply wounded emotionally. The amount of sheer terror and anguish they’ve experienced exceeds the limits of human endurance. So, not only do they refuse to demand anything, they often do not talk at all. They stare ahead with glassy eyes, or periodically start sobbing without tears, apparently having lost any interest in every aspect of life and human connection.

Each of the families who meet with the Christian counselors in Zaporizhzhia every day has a heartbreaking, even unimaginable story.

There’s a young woman from the small town between Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol’ whose husband served as a captain in the army. When the Russians came to town, she was raped repeatedly for several days by the soldiers—before the eyes of her 13-year-old son. The boy has stopped speaking since then. Somehow, they both, the mom and her son, managed to flee from the occupation. “I’m going to divorce my husband,” cried the woman. “I just couldn’t stand this shame.” A few days after she’d settled in the new place, she received a “killed-in-battle” notice about her husband.

Teen boy, suffering trauma in Ukraine

Another family arrived from the same area, a couple in their thirties expecting a baby in a few months. After six weeks of occupation, they were finally able to flee. All that time, the husband had been hiding in their house, to avoid being forcefully drafted into the Russian army. Meanwhile, his pregnant wife worked as a nurse at the local hospital. Each day she had to walk to the hospital and back via Russian roadblocks, ignoring the indecent glances and jokes from the soldiers. One day a recruit from Chechnya made a pass at her. He offered to marry her, and announced he would visit her soon.

Sure enough, he showed up at her house the next day. As he knocked on the door, the couple managed to escape through the rear window, cross the backyard, get in the car, and drive out of town under heavy shelling all the way up to Zaporizhzhia. They arrived safe but they’d lost the baby on their way. Later they showed to volunteers a tiny body wrapped in cloth in the trunk of their car. They haven’t spoken with each other ever since and the wife, who blamed her husband, wants a divorce.

Pastor talking with a refugee

How can you help all these people? How to ease their pain, and bring them back from the dead-end their anguish led them into? How to break through the heavy curtain of grief which blocks their souls? Moreover, how to tell them about God’s love and compassion, of His presence right in the middle of their situation?

As it happens, there’s a remedy.

The first and foremost task for volunteers is to get these damaged people to talk; otherwise, you have no access to them. At the beginning, nothing seems to work. The refugees just start crying. As you mentioned in your book, “We experience suffering alone—it ‘islands’ us—and for the people involved, scale doesn’t matter so much.” One of the main problems of the suffering person is that pain shrinks the whole world into a point. How do you expand their horizon back, to awaken any interest in the outer world?

The Question That Never Goes Away

And then our colleagues devised a trick. Instead of asking about their stories, they start telling stories themselves, true stories about other people who have suffered, including those you give in The Question That Never Goes Away. At the end, they give them your book with the encouragement to read more stories. In most cases, people agree.

For some readers, their enormous pain begins to gradually dissolve in the other stories of suffering they’ve heard or read. They start talking. They soften and even relax a bit. They start telling their own stories in more detail. They let the pain out and burst into tears. And then they start asking questions themselves… and even become ready to listen to answers. Not everything happens during the first conversation, but amazingly they seem willing to come back again and again.

It is hard, of course, to see the seeds sprout soon. Some of the refugees resettle in distant places, and we lose touch. Yet, most are fairly easy to follow: they want to stay near, and periodically visit the refugee centers for humanitarian aid—but also to grab further books, and to speak with a Christian counselor. Some show up in church in a week or two.
Refugee children find comfort, Irpin church

At least several people who ended up in the local churches can be traced back to reading your book, including those two families I mentioned above. The lady with a 13-year-old son has even started preparing for baptism this summer.

I hope these stories bring you some encouragement and warm your heart as an author.

Warmest regards from Ukraine.

(Letter edited for clarity and length)

——————–

I will keep this letter as a reminder, for days when writing goes poorly, or when I get slim royalty checks, or when I can’t rise above my own struggles to feel the pain of the weakest part. It will remind me of the 100 million people who are displaced around the globe today—including the 42 million children growing up with no place to call home—and of the faithful workers on the front lines who strive to bring a little compassion, some potential healing, and even joy, into their stories.

 

 

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24 responses to ““No man is an island…””

  1. Laranda Eakin says:

    Hello Philip,
    As I read this, I was also thinking of Middle Eastern refugees and some ministries that serve them. Is Questions That Never Go Away translated into Farsi? (Amazon search yielded nothing.)

  2. Meredith Bunting says:

    Philip – I’m embarrassed to write, being such a pauper of writing and suffering compared to your prolific accounts of endless worldwide trauma. But I’m compelled to find words to connect with the heart of the artist to write “ Thank you” for sharing your hard stories, facts and convictions.
    After decades of chronic pain from the ravages of Rheumatoid Arthritis, I finally wrote my story in “ Cutting and Pasting Truth”, published just this year. In it I share about my failing, fault-finding, floundering fight with God as I searched, and found over and over, His Truth within my suffering. I believe passionately in the deeper healing of story. Mine are funny, raw, and real. God has turned them into a healing balm for me and many others. In my brokenness I found purpose.
    So now I’m on a 6 week stint of recovery from shoulder replacement. In front me is a stack of your books, several I’ve already read, which are reinforcing what I know to be true – Suffering is redemptive, brings community, and has purpose. Its powerful and holy Truth is found in Story. Jesus is the Word, gave us the Word, and we share the Word. Thank you for being the warrior, “I write for my King” (Psalm 45:1).

    • Philip Yancey says:

      As I like to say, after years of hearing others’ stories: Pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed.

  3. KIMBERLY CASTLE DEARMAN says:

    Philip, your books are one of the most important books in my life, after the Bible. In finding your books, I found my voice and my spiritual confidence. I tell everyone about you and give out your books to anyone who will take them. I know sometimes the numbers don’t match up to the lives you are impacting. I am so thankful to you for putting words into my thoughts.

  4. Elsie Wietzke says:

    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We ask for blessing for those who comfort those who mourn. Theirs is a heartbreaking mission that becomes heartwarming and enabling through the power and compassion poured out by the Holy Spirit. Thank you Philip, for moving us to open our own hearts as we pray for relief and healing, for courage and strengthened faith. May we also be moved to provide aid, for I believe that is part of our mission.

    As always, I am grateful for your words.

  5. Joyce James says:

    Dear Philip, Once again I am thanking God for giving you such a gift to write so deeply about what matters most. And using your writings to bring healing and comfort where it is most needed.
    And heartfelt thanks to you for allowing God to use you in such a way.

  6. Peter Olsson says:

    Death’s People

    We the tired seed
    of the great humbler pain,
    wear disheveled masks
    of who we used to be.

    Our greatest terror
    the malignant metamorphosis
    of respect turned to pity,
    of love lost in premature grief.

    All efforts of ego turned inward
    toward fighting loss of self.
    Demands of relationships too great,
    for a soul consumed by suffering.

    Infinite loneliness
    the awesome climate of birth,
    now descends in renewal,
    at death it’s inevitable counterpart.

    Farewell life and health,
    your wealth we now honor.
    Memories become actors now,
    on Life’s twilight or maybe a dawn.

  7. Michael says:

    Thank you, Philip!

  8. Dianne Lami says:

    Dear Philip,
    In response to the previous comment, yes, your work does matter. A lot.
    I’ve heard stories of what other ministries are witnessing there in Ukraine; the food being passed out, the medical teams treating those with physical needs. I’m sure these Christian ministries see the shock and trauma and don’t mention it for some reason, or maybe I wasn’t listening well; but the two stories mentioned in the letter you received bring a whole new horror what is going on. And yet.

    God shows up through a ‘trick’ maneuver; the sharing of the counselor’s stories, or other people’s stories so that slowly the listener hears they’re not the only one who is in deep suffering.
    I’m so encouraged that our Father is so creative in reaching and touching grieving stuck people.

    Will pray differently now for those in this war-torn part of the world. Will pray for the counselors who hear these hard, hard stories. And for deep healing over time for the Ukrainians.

    Thank you, Philip, for bringing this story to us over here in the West.
    God continue to use you for His purposes.
    Dianne

  9. Richard Phillips says:

    Hi from my experience as a Christian counsellor people have to talk about their pain be it anger, Liss etc and lead them to forgive, accept and surrender.
    This is not easy and takes time with the help of the Holy Spirit there is no quick fix with those suffering.
    The woman who blames her husband for the loss of her baby will need to forgive or there will be no future in their marriage in Ukraine

  10. Susan Zeigler says:

    I have read your books since finding “Where is God When It Hurts?” in the 1980’s. Because of your writing, I have continued to be a seeker all of my adult life, while repeatedly losing my faith. I especially appreciated “Where the Light Fell.” Thank you so very much for sharing your soul.

  11. Joanne says:

    The Question That Never Goes Away is one of your more important books because is acknowledges both gutting pain and grieving God, God Who is with us in the worst of it, God Who is waiting in the darkest place with embracing love.

    Your memoir helps to explain how you discovered God’s compassion.

  12. Carol Godwin says:

    Thankful for your books. I know what they have meant to me & those with whom I have shared them. May God continue to bless & use you!

  13. Johanna olivier says:

    I have forgotten to pray for those in the Ukraine recently because I have been too self absorbed in my own problems. Praying for Ukraine. Please dear Lord. Show up in a mighty way for the people of the Ukraine. In Jesus name.

  14. Deryn says:

    Again, it hits the mark. Philip has a way of making our pain relevant for others. As a displaced person myself, I have a modicum of understanding for the people of Ukraine whose lifes have been disrupted by war. It is the emotional shattering that is hardest to heal.

  15. Deborah Cushing says:

    Once again you have opened a bridge to the heart of God and put my trauma and suffering into perspective. Keep your eyes on the Lion, His gentle breathe takes us on the most amazing adventures.

  16. so much anguish. Arthur Frank writes in The Wounded Storyteller, that shared stories of suffering help take the chaos out of individual experience and give it a place for meaning to be possible. Even in anguish, community shapes healing. Grateful for your work and for all those ministering.

  17. No words — but grateful for this post

  18. PJ Franklin says:

    This is so moving. People in our US church have asked, “why doesn’t God do something? Why doesn’t God stop the violence and suffering?” You help us think about these questions more deeply.

  19. Darin H says:

    Thank you Philip. I have a big tendency to get inside my own worries, which all seem petty when I read about what these poor people are going through. God’s blessings to you.

  20. Jacqueline King says:

    You may never lose your pain; you just learn to live with in a postive way. For me, that is what Jesus did. Pain becomes the bedrock of compassion.

  21. Mark says:

    So moving yet so wonderfully inspiring.

  22. Linda Hoenigsberg says:

    Phillip that was so touching. I have read that book, and my favorite so far, “Where the Light Fell.” As far as my opinion matters, anyone who hasn’t read one of your books is missing out! Another favorite of mine was “Soul Survivor.” I was going through the anxious-ridden time of deconstruction and I so appreciated how you wrote that book. My world opened up. God bless you and yours. Your work matters.

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