For we do not have a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15, 21st Century KJV)
In January 2021, we found out we were having twins, taking our family from three to five children. This much welcomed news introduced a series of big life changes that we could not have anticipated. In the midst of the pandemic, travel in and out of our African home was unpredictable. For a time the borders had been closed and there had been no flights available. Flights had resumed; however things still felt uncertain.
On top of that, we had been facing an immigration crisis. Many of our colleagues’ visa and permit requests were being denied, and ours were coming due. We had seen many missionaries forced to leave their ministries. While our team was pursuing various options, we had no guarantee we’d be able to return to Africa long term if we left to have the babies in the U.S.
For these and other reasons, we made the very difficult decision to leave the place we had called home for the past 11½ years and move to the U.S. to allow ourselves time to adjust to our new family dynamic. Because I hadn’t had complicated pregnancies with our three older girls, we planned to travel at the end of my second trimester. Considering my age and the fact that this was a twin pregnancy, our doctor encouraged us to give ourselves four additional weeks. So we sold our possessions, said our tear-filled goodbyes, and flew off into the foreign familiarity of our passport country.
Four weeks later I went into labor at just 26 weeks pregnant and our twin girls were born, one naturally, one by cesarean section. Both girls were just shy of two pounds and required breathing support. We spent the next 114 days with them in the neonatal intensive care unit. During that time, we were busy getting ready to move into a new home, and our older girls were being taken care of mostly by grandparents. We had made the decision to live in the same town as my parents, which was not the town I grew up in, as they had just recently moved there themselves. It felt like starting over in every way.
I found myself in a state of intense grief over all that I had lost while gaining our precious girls.
So much has changed for our family in these last two years that it is sometimes difficult to process all that has taken place. Change of place, change in family, change in identity. Years ago I remember hearing the statement, “All change is loss, and all loss must be mourned.” And thus I found myself in a state of intense grief over all that I had lost while gaining our precious girls. My sadness felt crippling at times and I often felt very alone. I desperately wanted someone to walk with me through this grief.
And so it was that I discovered the power of empathy.
My husband and I reached out to our branch’s stateside chaplains to see if they would journey with us in this season. We knew they had also lived overseas for a time and had moved back to the U.S. with their children. We spent time talking with them over Zoom on a regular basis. I knew they couldn’t take away the grief I was going through, but more than anything else, I found so much comfort in the “I know, I get it” and “Same here, I remember that” and “I agree, it’s really hard.” They had traveled a similar road, but here they were in front of us — not beaten down, not destroyed, not abandoned. There was hope.
It means absolutely everything to me that Jesus walked this earth and felt our pain. He not only came to save us; He also knows intimately what it is He is saving us from. He felt the pain of death and loss and grief (Luke 19:41-44; John 11:35-36). Without the assurance of His empathy, how could we ever hope to appeal to God’s mercy?
Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that just as Jesus was able to experience the spectrum of human emotion, He likewise was able to empathize with the quintessential human temptation to doubt God’s goodness. Grief and pain are the enemies of trust, amplifying the voice of doubt inside of us. “Does God really love me?” Jesus’ response to this temptation was to lean into His trust in the Father and to give the greatest demonstration of love there has ever been — by dying, being raised back to life, and thus proving that death will not have the final say (John 15:13).
It means absolutely everything to me that Jesus walked this earth and felt our pain: the pain of death and loss and grief.
All of the life changes and transitions we have experienced these last two years, in spite of many rich blessings, have involved losses to be mourned. In the pain and grief, I need Jesus’ ability to empathize with me as I pray, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” And as I pray, I am confident that He hears, is moved by our pain, and will restore all that is lost.