When we lived in Africa, John, a young missionary with Campus Crusade for Christ asked me to speak out in one of the villages. I would talk to his church through an interpreter.
I agreed and we set a date—three weeks hence. As my speaking engagement drew near, I couldn’t nail down a topic. They were simple African tribesmen who had eleven words for the color of a cow but only one or two to describe human emotions. A discourse on the Trinity or the deeper Christian life would go right past them.
I met with John a week before the appointed date and asked him what his people needed. He smiled and said that they needed everything we did. Mostly, they were honored that I would come all the way from America to speak in their village. I asked if it would just be his church people. He said that since I was an important American (!) it wouldn’t be unusual for outsiders to attend. I asked if that might open the door for trouble-makers. John said that a witch-doctor had been in the area. Not good.
I told my wife about our conversation and we re-doubled our prayer efforts. I reflected on my casual acceptance of that simple assignment—to talk to a bunch of farmers and cow-herders. I suddenly felt overwhelmed. Not only must I bridge the cultural gap, but John’s comment raised the possibility of demonic opposition. I realized I’d been approaching a spiritual task—the proclamation of the kingdom of God—in my human strength. I’d seldom felt my inadequacy so acutely.
Later, I felt the Lord was impressing on me to speak about a very specific topic—Christ’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation from Matthew 18. Each evening after we put the kids to bed, I studied about forgiveness—what it meant, what it took, why it was necessary to make things right between man and man, and what Jesus did to make things right between man and God. The parable of the prodigal son and his father’s unqualified forgiveness came to mind. Jesus probably told that parable because, just like now, forgiveness was so little understood and seldom practiced. Certainly in our world today, people don’t take the steps to restore relationships if they’ve been wronged, or if they’ve offended someone else. Our first impulse is to stuff the hurtful incident under the rug, rationalizing our actions—“they’ll get over it … he should’ve known … I have rights, too … some people are so touchy …”
Conflicts are inevitable, particularly with those we’re closest to. Resolution begins by owning our part—no if’s or but’s—and going to the other guy and saying, “I realize I hurt you by my insensitivity … what I said … what I did.” Ask for his forgiveness and wait for an answer. Make restitution if needed. Relationship is always more important than money.
The appointed evening finally arrived. John drew laughter when he introduced me, using his growing skill with the language. He welcomed my family and our friends, who’d come along for support.
My interpreter was a confident young man who smiled easily. After awhile, I got into the rhythm of how much to say before his interpretation. Those breaks allowed me to look over the crowd. I knew they’d all hurt someone. One man looked so angry—would he storm out if
Jesus asked him to give up one of his cows, to make it right between him and the brother he stole from? And that young girl with the downcast eyes—will knowing that Jesus cares for her help her forgive herself for what she’s done? Of course, those were my imagined scenarios, but if you look at any crowd you’ll see hurting people. Unresolved conflicts—no forgiveness. Towards the end, I told how I’d hurt other people and what I needed to do.
Some looked bewildered, as if they couldn’t believe the cultured American could have been selfish, or proud, or coveting. I assured them I had—I was just like them.
Afterward, a few came up to talk. John said they are typically a reserved people; the fact that they came up indicated they heard what I had to say.
The witch doctor didn’t show, and I was glad of that. But negative thoughts that come from the father of lies would have us procrastinate in doing the right thing. Our consciences tell us when we’ve wronged another. Don’t wait—pray for God’s help; then go deal with it right away.