Helen Roseveare: Is it worth it? 

How one woman's darkest chapter brought light to millions

When you’re ten years old and smack dab in the middle of a tackle football game, the last thing you want to hear is the voice of your dear mother yelling, “Come on Philip, it’s time for the missionary meeting.” You consider running away and joining the circus; anything but obedience to that still small voice on the back step. And when you finally obey, and your hair is slicked and your clothes are pressed and you’re dragged to church where you find that the speaker is a short spinster with curly gray hair, you can’t help thinking of the huge sacrifice you are making and how grateful the grownups should be that you are not snoring by the first hymn. 

Dr. Helen Roseveare was at the podium that night. An English missionary to the Congo from 1953 to 1973, this skilled surgeon pioneered, practiced and taught medicine. I had plans of doodling and daydreaming, but when Dr. Roseveare launched into her story, I couldn’t stop listing. All across the country she received similar reactions.

On one campus the men in the dormitory were summoned to a meeting with Helen. Like me, they were less than excited. Draped over couches, slumped on the floor, they viewed her with suspicion. Thick glasses. Simple cotton dress. Gray hair pulled back a little too tight. Two minutes into her testimony, Helen sensed the lack of interest and stopped. “I don’t want to bore you with the details of my life,” she said. “It’s late, why don’t we just take another ten minutes and I’ll answer questions. I’d rather talk about the things that interest you.”

 

A hand shot up. “Yeah, I’ve got a question,” one said. “We’ve got missionaries coming through here all the time and they’re always talking about paying the price and suffering for Jesus. What did you ever suffer for Jesus?” 

 

Without a trace of bitterness, Dr. Roseveare quietly said, “Well, during the Simba Uprising in the Congo , I was raped twice.” The room grew deathly quiet. “Government soldiers came to my bungalow, ransacked it, then grabbed me. I was beaten and savagely kicked, losing my back teeth through the boot of a rebel soldier. They broke my glasses, so I could not see to protect myself from the next blow. Then, one at a time, two army officers took me to my own bedroom and raped me. They dragged me out into a clearing, tied me to a tree, and stood around laughing. And while I was there, beaten and humiliated and violated and ridiculed, someone discovered in the bungalow the only existing hand-written manuscript of a book I had been writing about God’s work in the Congo over an eleven-year period. They brought it out, put it on the ground in front of me, and burned it.”

As Helen watched the book go up in smoke, through clenched teeth, she said to herself: “Is it worth it? Eleven years of my life poured out in selfless service for the African people and now this?”

Like those students, I listened, spellbound, to her story. She went on, “The minute I said that, God’s Holy Spirit settled over that terrible scene, and He began to speak to me, and this is what He said: ‘Helen, my daughter Helen, you’re asking the wrong question. The question is not, “Is it worth it?” The question is: “Am I worthy?” Am I, the Lord Jesus who gave His life for you, worthy for you to make this kind of sacrifice for me?”’ And God broke my heart. I looked up and said, “Oh Lord Jesus, yes, it is worth it, for thou art worthy.”

Helen’s life of service was portrayed in the 1989 film Mama Luka Comes Home, which recounts her return to the Congo in 1966 to assist in the rebuilding of the nation. Since the hospitals she built were destroyed in the uprising, she helped establish a new medical school and hospital, practicing medicine until 1973.

Today, at 85, she lives in Northern Ireland, but continues to travel, speaking at conferences, and patiently answering questions from journalists like me who keep bringing up horrible events from her past, and secretly wondering how a dynamic but diminutive woman can be used of God to draw so many to Himself. “How do you come to the point of forgiving those who have abused you?” I ask. “Our newspapers are filled with terrible stories of abuse. How can those who have suffered come to a point of peace…even joy?”

“When I was being driven down the corridor of my home by those rebels, panic nearly seized my heart,” she acknowledges. “But God stepped in. I did not see a vision or hear a voice, but I just knew He was there, and in charge, and I had nothing to fear. God seemed to whisper to me: ‘Can you thank Me?’ And I was ready to almost shout ‘No! This has gone too far,’ when I realized that the Lord was saying: ‘Can you thank Me for trusting you with this situation?’ Amazing. Me trusting God, yes. But God trusting me? It was as though He said: ‘Yes, I could have prevented this. I could have taken you out. But I have a purpose. You cannot understand now, but are you willing to be part of My purpose?’ ‘Yes, God,’ I tried to whisper back. ‘If you have a purpose in all this, thank you for trusting me to be part of it!’ and immediately I was flooded by His peace and a huge sense of privilege.”   

Her words seem foreign to the world around us, but echo Philippians 1:29: “For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.” Aware that I sometimes complain about a hangnail, I ask, “But did you ever struggle to forgive those men?”

“No,” she replies. “There was no sense of bitterness or even anger. I was overwhelmed by the sense that God was graciously using me in His purpose. All He asked of me was the loan of my body. The consequences were His. A year later, when I went back to Congo , and actually had the opportunity to go to prison and meet the man who had humiliated me. I had to face the fact that I did carry some resentment, and I wasn’t sure that I had forgiven him. But God led me to accept from Him the forgiveness that only God can give, and He gave me His peace again.”

Born in England in 1925, Helen grew up in Belfast , Northern Ireland . She came to faith as a medical student at Cambridge University in 1945, and served as a missionary during the 1950s and ‘60s, then returned to England to nurse her dying mother. After arriving there, Helen began writing the book Living Sacrifice. A helpful and powerful book, it is also surprisingly honest. “I looked back on my 20 years in Africa ,” she admits, “to see how I had lived, and to ask myself, ‘Had I lived as my beloved Savior wanted me to live? Where had I failed?’ And I tried to draw lessons for us, as to what it really means to live sacrificially in these days.”

It’s convicting, hearing a veteran saint tell how she could have done a little better: “I could have given in to God’s promptings more quickly, been less selfish and demanding of others. But I just thank God for all He has so lovingly and patiently taught me through so many years, and that despite mistakes I have made, He has still allowed me to teach the Word and share the Gospel with others: and the overwhelming joy and privilege of leading others to put their trust in Jesus.”   

I ask Helen if being a “woman in the pulpit” has ever been an issue for her.

“For myself I don’t find it an issue,” she says. “But when I go to speak in a church where it is, I just accept that. Each one must be at peace as to how they see this issue. Personally, I believe that God gives His gifts to men and women, as he chooses. But,” she smiles, “I have never sought to be a ‘Reverend.’”

Sacrifice seems a dated word in a society where we deserve a break and comfort is the selling feature for most products. Many Christians are more inclined to ask, “Sacrifice? Are you kidding? I want all I can get out of this world and heaven too.”

But Helen shakes her head. “To be a Christian,” she explains, “you must embrace the fact that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, sacrificed His all, dying for us on the Cross, that we might be forgiven. Surely we should expect to live as closely like our Savior as we can. And in this world of ‘What can I get out of it?’ we can expect to sacrifice. Our whole emphasis has to be ‘What can I put into it?’ A Christian who speaks as you suggest cannot have fallen in love with Jesus, nor understood what God has done for him or her. We are so totally undeserving of God’s grace, how dare we demand anything?” Sadly many so-called Christians have lost a sense of sacrifice. It is not preached from many pulpits. We would rather hear platitudes because we have itching ears.

I confess to Dr. Roseveare that I wasn’t going to listen to her all those years ago. Until I realized I was in the presence of someone who had suffered with joy. “Tell me another story,” I ask. “Is He still at work today?”  

          “So many stories,” she laughs. “One day here in Belfast , waiting for a train, a woman came on to the platform. It was raining and I invited her to join me under my umbrella. Seeking a way to start a conversation with her, I pointed to a large poster of cigarettes, and said “That makes me angry.”  She looked puzzled: “Well, I happen to be a doctor, and I know that makes young folk want to smoke: smoking causes lung cancer: and lung cancer leads to death.” The woman started to cry as the train arrived. I helped her in and sat beside her. She said, “I have just come down from the City Hospital where they have told me that I am dying of lung cancer because I have smoked all my life. And I don’t know where I am going,” she added. I told her I know where I’m going and pulled out a small pocket Bible. I just had 10 minutes with her in that train, but long enough to explain simply the way of salvation, and God’s love for her in sending His Son Jesus to die for her: and her opportunity to thank Him for His grace and mercy. Isn’t God good to us?

What practical advice does she have for up-and-coming servants of God?

Above all else, take daily quiet time apart with God. Let nothing squeeze this out of your timetable. This is where you grow, where he can teach and change you into his likeness: where he can speak to you, direct you, encourage you, and where he maintains the spirituality of your service. Paul said, ‘Pray continually.’ Does this sound impractical? It is scriptural, and the Lord knows just how busy you are. The busier you are, the more you need to pray. We have to learn to use all the spare moments, and to bring everything to God in prayer. There is nothing too small or insignificant to bring to him in prayer. Talk everything over with the Lord—the disappointments, problems and joys. We can pray as we scrub up, as we wait for the traffic lights to change, as we peel the potatoes.”

Prairie Bible College alumnus Elisabeth Elliot Gren, whose husband Jim Elliot was one of five men who died trying to reach the Auca Indians for Christ, asked three questions, which echo the life and service of Dr. Helen Roseveare. Number one: Were they called? Number two: Did they obey? And number three: Was it worth it? And in answer to that last question—was it worth it—Elisabeth said this:

“Was it worth it? Does it make sense that five men with those kinds of qualifications should die for the sake of sixty people? By whose standards can we answer that question? Well, we say, lots of Auca Indians got saved. I’ve heard stories of thousands of volunteers to the mission field. I’m not sure if they’re there today. I know there are some. People everywhere tell me they were moved and changed by the story. Hundreds of young men have told me that the book, The Shadow of the Almighty, changed their lives. I don’t deny that for a moment. Suppose it’s all true—does that make it worth it? Let’s suppose for a moment that not one Auca Indian got saved, that not one person ever heard the story of those five men, let alone was changed by it. Would it be worth it?”       

And then she continued, “Yes! Yes! Why? Because the results of my obedience to God are the business of God almighty who is sovereign. It is the love of Christ which constrains us. There is no other motive for missionary service that will survive the blows of even the first year. We do it for Him.”

Helen agrees. When asked to summarize her magnificent adventure of walking with God, she says, “I believe it to be an inestimable privilege to be allowed to serve Him and to show Him my love. He has never failed me, never let me down. He is always there, and so quick to forgive and encourage, if I am quick to say I’m sorry.

As she enters her 85th year, Dr. Roseveare knows that her days of keeping a rigorous travel schedule are gone. My next question clearly takes her by surprise: “What are some keys to aging gracefully?”

“Keep on loving Jesus, fixing your eyes on Him,” she says. “Never count the cost, in the sense of saying ‘Is it worth it?’ Ask instead, ‘Is He worthy?’ and you’ll always know that He is absolutely worthy of anything you can give Him or do for Him. Growing older can be a very uncomfortable stage of the journey, but each day I am one day nearer home. I look forward so immensely to being with Him in glory, seeing Him face to face, and learning how to worship Him as I should.”

And what would she like to be remembered for?

“That I loved Him. That I longed to know and love Him more, and that I longed for all people to come to know Him as I had.”

Read more of Interviews.

Like to see Phil's article syndicated in your magazine or newspaper? Email us for info. © 2012 Phil Callaway. Read more of Phil's articles.