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The courageous work of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Denis Mukwege

Many years ago, I read a sentence that caught my breath and brought tears to my eyes. It was as if, in it, I could read my future.  

“Pity weeps and walks away, but compassion stays to suffer.”  

I haven’t ever been able to find the author of those words, but the stark contrast of helpless pity versus compassionate action wedged itself deeply in my heart and mind. I could never again be content with a distant feeling of sympathy.

Compassionate suffering

Those in history who have chosen to drink this specific cup of compassionate suffering have always captured my attention, simultaneously frightening and challenging me with their wild abandon to lay it all at the feet of Jesus.

The recent Nobel Peace Prize co-awarded to Dr. Denis Mukwege renewed this inspiration in me. The 63-year-old Christian OB-GYN physician from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is being recognized for his lifetime work of the surgical repair of women mutilated by the sexual violence of war.

When I read about Dr. Mukwege’s work, I am moved by his passion to bring healing to abused women. I am even more impressed by the emphasis he places on restoring dignity and recognizing the resilience of the women he serves. But most of all, I am staggered by the daily crushing grief Dr. Mukwege has embraced, due to the very nature of his job. His work is highly sensitive and painfully intimate. His bad days are really bad days.

Day after day, year after year, this man shows up to work and listens to grotesque stories of the most horrifying evil—the kind of stories that instantly make most of us sick to our stomach or dizzy with feelings of hate; stories that make us cover our ears and beg for merciful silence. He listens to them, because part of his ministry is giving ear to the nightmares these women have to tell—his mothers, his sisters, his daughters. Then he sets to work, painstakingly and compassionately restoring what violent acts have destroyed. He does this difficult labor of love again. And again. And again.  

How is Dr. Mukwege’s work possible?

It begs the question: How? How can he keep coming back for more of such horror? How can he show up daily for a job of such grief? Who could serve thousands of women this way?

The answer is simple: he has chosen suffering.

In an age where we are bombarded with 12 different articles on how to “survive” the hour we must spend with difficult family members at the Christmas table, Dr. Mukwege has chosen compassionate suffering. At a time when healthy boundaries have become confused with protective bubbles, and building a facade of total safety is the only way we can sleep at night,  Dr. Mukwege has chosen compassionate suffering. Like the God he serves, he has also become a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And in following these footsteps of Christ—these messy, scary, unglamorous prints in the ground—he has become a vessel of grace, a proclaimer of Good News, a light of The Light in the most hopeless darkness.

How can he do it? It is a tribute to the grace of God, the mercies of Christ, and the fellowship of the Spirit. It took practice and boundaries and discipline, and in the end, I am certain it has taken its toll. What a very great cost to bear the burdens he has! But consider the gain. He has taken the fight for justice seared in his heart back down to the deepest pit of hell, unafraid to stand with Nadia Murad and the thousands of other strong survivors who won’t back down. He has fought the good fight.

Dr. Mukwege’s commitment to suffer in his compassionate work gives me renewed courage for my own work, in my own small corner of the world. I know the tension between setting mindful boundaries and still bearing the weight of the sadness around me. I’ve prayed often for the guitar callus; I still want to feel, but I need just enough thick skin to be able to show up and play the music every day. In both Jesus’ and Dr. Mukwege’s example, I find that I must not give up the work because it is painful, because it is hard. Like Peter in John 6, I turn to Jesus in my moments of weariness and say, “Where else will I go? You hold the words of life.”  

I am so grateful that Dr. Mukwege’s work is being given the distinction it deserves. But long after the tributes and the glories fade, the beauty and merit of his service will remain as glorious as ever, laid at Christ’s throne. Thousands of women know through Dr. Mukwege’s actions that God has not forgotten them; they are seen and heard and valued. It is Christ who restores our broken pieces. These women will go on with eternal souls, changed by the love of Jesus through this man. And those, like me, who need to see present-day saints fighting the good fight with boldness and courage, so that we also run with endurance our own race—we will run farther and with gratitude because of his faithful example.

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