Her husband and children had been killed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, along with over 800,000 others. Hacked to death actually. In this case, by her next-door neighbor.
The killer was sent to prison, but his wife and children still live in the same place. Every day for the past 15 years, “Sarah” has had to walk by their house and be reminded of the horror of that night, of all she has lost, and of all that she must continue to suffer because of what happened. On top of it all, the killer’s wife resents Sarah for causing her husband to go to jail, and is cold and rude toward her.
Then, about two weeks ago the unthinkable happened. Sarah decided she couldn’t take living under this cloud any longer. She took a friend from her church and knocked on her neighbor’s door.
When the woman saw Sarah standing there, she screamed. She left the door hanging open, ran into the interior of the house, and locked herself in the bathroom. When her children begged her to come out, all she would say was, “Run away. Run away. Don’t you know they’ve come here to kill us!”
Sarah and her friend sat down inside the living room and waited. Yet, when the woman refused to leave the bathroom, they decided to come back later with a different friend who knew the woman well. When Sarah returned the next day, this time the neighbor nervously let them in.
What happened next is beyond my comprehension.
Sarah fell on her knees and began pleading with the woman. With tears streaming down her face, she begged for forgiveness. Sarah was sorry that she had been so judgmental of her neighbor. Could she forgive Sarah?
At this, the neighbor dissolved into tears. “No, no! I should have been the one to go to you to ask for forgiveness,” she cried out. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me!”
A miracle was happening.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Sarah to live next door to the family of the man who killed her husband and children for all those years, let alone comprehend living with the memory of their brutal murder. But going to ask the man’s wife for forgiveness?? What in the world?
Yet, there she was. She did it. And in an instant, years of hatred, guilt, shame, fear and grief were transformed. I don’t think for a minute that all of their pain is now gone forever, but real healing took place in a way that I have never experienced or heard of before.
I heard this remarkable story from Agnes (pictured above), one of the participants in the Pastors Leadership Training Conference I was leading in Musanze, Rwanda, last week. Agnes runs a ministry to promote reconciliation between about 200 Hutu and Tutsi women, and offers in-home care for many of those who are especially struggling, some of whom are HIV positive due to being raped at the time of the genocide. Her face was literally radiant over what had just taken place the week before, and she kept bubbling over with joy as she told me all that God was doing in so many different lives in the community.
I, on the other hand, was absolutely speechless. I wanted to run out of the room and find some place to weep. I don’t cry that easily, but I had been hearing so many tragic stories of human suffering from the genocide. What few seem to realize is that the nightmare is still going on for thousands upon thousands of orphans and widows living in poverty, struggling to survive without their husbands and fathers, and constantly being reminded of the massacre in myriad ways.
I had been working with 50 pastors for the week, and I was feeling the unimaginable heaviness that each pastor carries from the ongoing legacy of the genocide. The traumatization was evident in their tired eyes, grim faces, and slumping shoulders. Many of them clearly bore deep scars, and perhaps deeper secrets they could tell no one. They were clearly people of faith and dedication, but I didn’t even know if true healing under such circumstances was possible.
But apparently it is.
Sarah’s authentic expression of longing for healing collapsed a seemingly impenetrable wall of judgment and mutual hatred. And in the face of such humility and vulnerability, the neighbor woman refused to cling to her defensive denial and projection of her guilt and shame. Their heartfelt response to one another made real repentance and reconciliation possible.
I still don’t really get it. But I want to learn from these women. And I want to spend more time with people like Agnes and many other men and women I’ve met in Rwanda, who show Christ’s love in such practical ways, and who work tirelessly to help survivors and perpetrators alike to build new lives post-genocide.
And I want to never forget that the unimaginable is not only possible on the side of darkness and evil. God also does unbelievable works of grace in the lives of those who look to Jesus Christ for healing and help, who cry out to him in their longing and despair, and who obey the leading of the Holy Spirit and step out in faith.
I realize now that my flood of emotion when Agnes was speaking was only partly due to all the pain and suffering I was seeing. My heart was breaking because I suddenly knew I had given up on God too easily. Some part of me had stopped believing that such miracles were still possible. I was in Rwanda to inspire, teach, and encourage pastors and leaders, but I needed to hear Sarah’s story to break through my own despair and to revitalize my own faith and hope once again.
Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Agnes. Thank you, Lord.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:13-18, NRSV)
The Point: Just because we can’t imagine how God can help in certain dire circumstances doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit cannot exceed our imaginations. We serve an unbelievably compassionate and powerful God, who can do unimaginable works of grace in the lives of those who depend on and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Prayer: “Loving God, please forgive our lack of faith and despair when we cannot imagine how we might forgive others, or experience healing and transformation. We believe, yet we need your help to dispel our lack of belief. Please do in us what we cannot do in ourselves or by ourselves. Thank you.”
4 responses to “Forgiveness Beyond Belief”
Praise God for his mercy and for his teaching to us through difficult circumstances. Thank you, Tim, for reminding us how compassionate God is and how he works in each of our lives to bring transformation and true forgiveness. How can we even doubt his grace and power? I can not imagine what the past 15 years have been like for “Sarah”. Unimaginable are the burdens the pastors (who attended the conference last week and others who experienced the genocide of April 1994) must carry in their hearts and lives. As I prayed for you and Jill last week in Rwanda, I will continue to be praying for the lives of the people impacted at your conference. For the Pastors, Agnes, “Sarah”, and the others.
Tim, Thank you for sharing this incredible story with us. What a privilege it is for God to have you doing such wonderful work for so many around the globe. Hearing stories like this really puts into perspective how fortunate most of us are, even in the worst of times. Best wishes.
This really makes the petty problems in America obvious. Pretty sad when people in the church can not find forgiveness for things like the color of a choir robe or what song is sung on a Sunday!
Thanks, Tim, for sharing that story. It touched my heart and made me realize that our human hearts are capable of great hurts, and also a great capacity to forgive when yielded to Christ. I am humbled to think of the petty things I can’t seem to let go and forgive/forget. Our God is so merciful and PATIENT!!! Amen!