Leveraging the Pain of Our Past

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Wess Stafford is the former president and CEO of Compassion International, a child's advocacy ministry. His story shows us how God can leverage the pain of our past, bringing good out of evil. The son of missionaries in Africa, Wess was sent to an isolated missionary school when he was only six years old. Unbeknownst to his parents, he and the other children were subjected to unspeakable acts of cruelty for infractions as minor as opening their eyes when they were supposed to be napping or leaving a wrinkle in a bedspread. Their persecutors threatened them, saying that their parents' ministry in Africa would be destroyed if they ever disclosed what happened in the school. Because Wess loved the Africans in his village, he kept silent, believing his silence would lead to their salvation.

One day, after a visit with his family to the US, just as he was about to board a plane that would transport him back to Africa and the school, he blurted out the truth to his mother. A minute later he was whisked away along with the other children before his mother could process what her son had just told her. She and Wess's father followed by boat. During the month-long journey, struggling with what her son had told her, his mother suffered a nervous collapse. When the staff at the school caught wind of what had caused her breakdown, they became enraged.

Hauling him in front of his classmates, one of the house parents forced ten-year-old Wess to stand on a chair and then handed him a birthday candle with a wick at both ends. "Children," he announced, "you cannot serve both God and Satan. Wesley has tried. You cannot burn a candle at both ends without getting burned. Watch what happens when you try." Then he lit the match.

In that moment, Wess received his calling.

"As flames licked closer to my skin, from deep within me arose a gust of strength I cannot fully explain to this day. I had a desperate thought: I could win this time...if I could endure enough pain...I felt the evil and injustice to the core of my soul. I was not Satan's tool. I was a little boy with a broken heart who had found his voice and cried out for rescue. So, enough--enough shame, enough abuse, enough lies. It had to stop somewhere, sometime. I made my decision: It stops now! I'm not letting go!

Nothing was going to make me cry out or drop that candle. This is where I would take my stand--this was my little Masada.

I shook violently, tears brimming in anticipation of burned flesh.... All I could hear was the pulsing of blood in my ears. I clenched my teethe, tightened every muscle in my body, and pinched the candle as fiercely as I could. I stared as the edges of my fingers turned red. A blister popped up. I was transported out of my body. I floated above this terrified boy, watching as if it were happening to someone else....

Just then, a child in the front row couldn't stand it any longer and he jumped and slapped the candle out of my hand.... The meeting was over. But standing there alone on my chair, I had received my calling. In an instant, I had gone from victim to victor. From that day forward, I would protect children. I would forever speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves." 1

Asked how he moved from pain to deliverance, he answers:

"At age seventeen, I realized that those who hurt me would never apologize. They weren't even sorry. But I could no longer bear carrying the pain of my past, so I chose to forgive them anyway. 'Get out of my heart. Get out of my mind. Get out of my life!' I remember saying, 'What you did to me will not define me. You stole my childhood, but you cannot have the rest of my life. Get out--I forgive you!'"2

At that moment he learned to stand up against evil and then to transcend it through the power of forgiveness. Wess leveraged his painful past and has since used it to champion vulnerable children throughout the world.

1. Wess Stafford, "A Candle in the Darkness," Christianity Today (May 2010), 22-26.

2. Wess Stafford, "Forgiving an Abuser," Christianity Today (July2010), 43.


Originally published September 01, 2020.