When I was in high school, I was convinced I was going to be a doctor in West Africa. I researched medical schools. I took French as my language elective, because French is the official language of West African countries.
I listened to talks by the missionary doctors and nurses who came to our church. I watched movies like The Mission, and a more low-budget film called First Fruits, in which two (very handsome and single) missionary guys get malaria while they’re working in a developing country.
Working in medicine overseas seemed thrilling, hopeful, helpful and even romantic.
Fast forward to now, when I’m serving in Togo for three months.
I came here less naive than my 15-year-old self. But still. I thought this experience was going to be an emotional high. I thought I would fall in love with everything about Africa. I knew it would be physically and emotionally draining, but I thought any downside would pale in comparison to the rewarding experiences.
The day after I got here, we took a woman to the O.R. who had a massive infection because she got into a fight with her husband’s other wife, who bit her arm. (Polygamy is very common in Togo.) The bite got infected, the woman had a fever of 103, and by the time we got her to the O.R., the surgeon said, “She’ll be lucky if she doesn’t lose her arm.”
I was changing her dressing the following morning when her husband came to visit her. She stared daggers at him. He stood above her, barking at her in a local dialect I couldn’t understand. It wasn’t quite the picturesque mopping-sweat-off-a-patient’s-brow experience I’d been expecting.
Then there was a woman who came in with a huge cut on her arm. Her husband had tried to decapitate her with a machete. When he swung the blade at her head, she flinched and the blade hit her upper arm instead. When the surgeon got an x-ray, he saw that the knife had not only cut her skin; it had severed the bone in her arm.
When I was working in the hospital over the weekend, we had a patient who was coding, and while I was bagging them, another patient tapped me on the shoulder. He wanted to know his test results. He sees that there’s a patient actively dying, yet he thinks this is a good time to interrupt CPR so he can find out if his diarrhea is caused by an amoeba or not.
At the outpatient clinic, security guards have to escort patients into the triage area one at a time. Otherwise, brawls break out over who gets to be seen first.
When I’m seeing a patient in my exam room, other patients sometimes barge in without knocking, demanding their test results.
Come on, people.
There have definitely been some gratifying patients, some adorable babies, some people with dramatic recoveries. But there have also been lots and lots of patients who are, to put it simply, not that fun to take care of. People who have not only malaria — but also STD’s and scabies.
I was talking to God about it one morning and finally, in exasperation, I said, “God, I love these people but some days I really don’t LIKE some of them!”
I feel like a terrible person for saying that out loud, but it’s honestly how I feel some days.
And I think God gets it.
John 3:16 says that God so loved the world, not that God so liked it.
God got exasperated with, and even angry at, some people he loved. Jesus got angry at hypocritical religious leaders, and cried over others who were too dense to hear, let alone accept, the good news he was trying to tell them.
I’m sure there are many times now when God stands in heaven watching the selfish, insane, hypocritical, mean, dumb things we do and shakes his head. “I so love these people,” I’m sure he says to Jesus. “But I don’t so like them.”
And yet — God keeps loving us anyway.
In I Corinthians 13, we get the most comprehensive picture of what love is like. Love is patient, kind, long-suffering. Love is not easily angered. Love perseveres.
In other words, love is not always a dopamine surge or a pleasant emotion. Love is often the undeservedly generous response to people who have not earned it and don’t deserve it.
When I encounter situations I wish I could change, and people who I wish acted differently (both here in Africa as well as back home in the U.S.), I’m discovering real love.
As I persevere, as I respond generously even when I don’t want to, as I give patiently even when it costs me a lot, I’m learning about what God’s love is really like.
And I’m becoming more and more grateful for the God who so loves the world.
For the God who so loves me.