Sally seemed unusually tense, brow furrowed, eyes narrowed, lips pursed and fists clenched. She is a beautiful woman with two adorable children. Sally is a Sudanese refugee. As fellow believers, the church was quick to respond with practical help to this little family. Despite their poor English, Sally and the children quickly became much-loved members of the church. Today, though, Sally was looking at a new face in the church, an Arab fellow, sitting just across the aisle. Sally squirmed in her seat, and eventually, gracefully but urgently left the building, followed closely by Jean, her friend and mentor.
“Sally, what’s wrong?” Jean asked, as the young woman collapsed into racking sobs. Eventually Jean pieced together the story. The Arab man in the congregation reminded Sally of the Arabs in northern Sudan – oppressors of the southern black tribes. In seeing him, memories came flooding back of the invasion of her village. She thought of her parents, killed in their own home. Her father had been unable to flee after a stroke; her mother was too loyal to leave him. She remembered those awful days on the road as the infant in her arms struggled to live. He was malnourished and then sickened with a gastric upset after she tried to supplement her diminishing breast milk with water. Her husband and older children, if they were alive themselves, still did not know of the baby’s death. They had fled as fast as they could. Her husband travelled ahead with the older children, hoping and praying that in separating the destitute family on the road to safety in Egypt, at least half the family would survive.
Jean was aghast as she heard Sally’s story. And she had thought she had problems! Jean herself was very angry and bitter towards a young man in the church – one who had recently behaved most improperly towards her daughter. Jean’s heart was filled with a mother’s righteous anger.
Both these ladies needed to forgive and move on. What does God’s word say to us in situations such as these? Not surprisingly, we’re taught to forgive, but the Bible divides into two categories such issues of forgiveness.
In Sally’s case, her persecutors were unbelievers. Sally’s direction is quite clear, although unfathomably difficult. In the Sermon on the Mount, preached two thousand years ago, our Lord may well have been preaching to Sally herself when he spoke thus. “You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons (and daughters) of your Father in heaven…. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-45, 48 NIV).
In the same sermon, Jesus also taught the people how they should pray, and this issue of forgiveness came up strongly again. Jesus modelled for them, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors….” (Matthew 6:12 NIV), and then continues by way of explanation, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV). These are sobering words indeed.
Jean’s dilemma is different in the eyes of God. She is justifiably angry with a young man who claims to be a believer, one who has grown up in the same church. Of course Jean is furious – all her motherly instincts of protection have come to the fore. Can she be expected to forgive this young fellow?
This sweet lady is not only called to forgive, but to go yet further. God’s word teaches that when the offender is a Christian, we must engage in confrontation. Jean is commanded to “go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV). If they get to the pagan or tax collector stage, then she can join ranks with Sally, forgive him and move on without further fellowship with him as a believer. However, this is the worst case scenario. God-willing, the young man will respond in repentance and a request for forgiveness well before that stage … if indeed he is totally at fault.
Poor Jean – she has a very difficult path ahead. Jean, like many Christians in the church today, is a quiet gentle lady, quick to reach out in love to refugees like Sally and anyone else who may need her. But she hates confrontation and avoids it at all costs. Furthermore, this confrontation could prove very embarrassing to her family. Yet God’s word instructs her to confront this young man. How many of us are ‘Jeans’ in our church today? How do we respond when we perceive ourselves wronged against by believers?
We need to focus on God, confront fellow believers, forgive, love and pray with them. These are easy to talk about but very difficult to do. Perhaps an understanding of how much we have been forgiven in our rebellion against Almighty God helps somewhat. Forgiveness is almost impossible at times.
We are called to be God’s people, standing out from the world, perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect. Our story will be different to Jean’s or Sally’s, but the response should be the same – focus on God, confront if necessary, then forgive, love and pray for the offenders. Let’s pray together with these two women, perhaps with gritted teeth and in obedience of mind if not yet heart, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12 NIV).