I remember vividly how I felt in that classroom at the Agriculture University. Pastor Okoch’s hatred was palpable, and I began to wonder what I had said to compel this man to stand up and share all these dark secrets. My African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM) colleagues, Nelson and Jessica, looked at me in amazement, and I wondered if I should ask the pastor to end his testimony or allow him to continue. A silence that I rarely experience with African pastors and lay leaders filled the room.
A transformation, one that could only have been orchestrated by God, took place. By this time, Pastor Okoch trembled and tears flowed from his eyes. He used his tie to wipe tears from his cheeks. A number of participants wept with him; it was obvious that they had joined Pastor Okoch on his journey toward a renewed and healed heart. In that room I saw a fellowship of the wounded, but I also sensed that God was doing something new for this community—a community of believers from different tribes who had been enemies for a long time. Hebrews 12:14–15 states, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” God, in His grace, had given Pastor Okoch a new vision and a new heart. This man had realized for the first time in twenty-seven years that he could be set free, his heart and mind renewed.
As he continued to narrate his story, Pastor Okoch looked around the room and began calling the names of other pastors who were present, asking them to forgive him because he had hated them. He confessed that he was one of those who had worked to dismantle the Gulu Pastors Fellowship because he did not want to associate with pastors and church leaders from other tribes and other regions of Uganda. Pastor Okoch repented of his hatred to everyone, including the government of Uganda. He promised that on the following Sunday (two days later) he would ask his congregation to forgive him for being a bitter, hateful, and vengeful pastor. He asked for prayers that God, who had renewed his heart, would continue to renew his mind so he might bear the fruit of peace and love to all people.
After Pastor Okoch spoke, a few men and women stood up to offer forgiveness to our repentant brother and apologize for the sins of their own kinsmen during the ethnic violence that divided Uganda. Still many more identified with not only his woundedness but also his anger. Pastor Okoch’s honesty helped them—and me—to see how desperately we need to put on Christ. Thankfully, God’s forgiveness is a salve for our wounds and heals us in ways that we cannot imagine. Like a good doctor, God often interrupts us when we least want treatment, reaching through our tears and resistance to disturb old wounds. Whether we know it or not, this is the beginning of a holistic transformation. When God wants to clothe us with the virtues of holiness, He begins by touching our broken hearts.
A New Mind
Paul reminds the Colossians that because of their new identity in Christ, their thoughts must be renewed and refocused. Instead of focusing on earthly things, they must set their minds on heavenly matters by replacing carnal thinking with a renewed knowledge of Christ through whom people of every tribe, race, and socioeconomic status are forgiven and reconciled (Col 3:10–11). For Paul, a renewed mind gives actions their meaning. He instructs believers in Rome, Ephesus, and Colossae to have their minds renewed so that they may know and understand God’s will for their daily lives and Christian witness (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23; Col 1:9; 3:2).
It is not enough for God to touch and heal our hearts, because our minds nurse grudges and relive the pain and injuries caused to us. Our minds poison us with reasons why a person, tribe, race, or some sin, offense, or hurt should never be forgiven. In our minds, we condemn others without giving them the chance to clarify or defend themselves, acknowledge their guilt, or repent. Almost everything we put into action has been planned and executed in our minds. This is why the renewal of our mind is critical for altering our actions.
Transformation begins with a renewed mind, and Paul advises the Roman believers that a renewed mind is the antidote for worldliness. “Do not be conformed to this world,” he tells them, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2, esv). Anger, resentment, and unforgiveness corrode the mind. When our relationships have been injured by people who are close to us, our minds quickly forget the good and beautiful days we have had with them and fixate only on the wrong they have done. Soon we begin to plan how we might avoid them or even how to get even. Our minds give us reasons and justification for our own evil plans while blinding us to the role we have played in a broken relationship. Our minds ease us into blaming, judging, and even seeking revenge. Christians play along with this vicious cycle by responding to injuries, conflicts, and violence with a conscious forgetfulness of the desire of God for us to be kind to one another and forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us (Eph 4:32).
A good illustration of this kind of transformation and forgiveness is the story of Clementine. When I first met her on one of my visits to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she washed my hands and served me a meal. Clementine had told an ALARM staff member that she wanted to serve and care for the man of God who had founded the organization that had brought her “to the right mind.” I did not know Clementine’s story until the following day when my colleagues told me how ALARM’s teaching on biblical forgiveness was impacting Congolese families and communities that were suffering in eastern Congo.
Years before, Clementine’s heart had been hardened by a family betrayal. She was born out of wedlock to a young teenager and was raised by her grandmother. Because of the shame, guilt, and stigma associated with teen pregnancies and children born from such taboo relationships, Clementine had been “protected” from this information by family deceptions. She eventually learned the truth, however, in a painful episode one day before her wedding that left a big scar on her heart and sealed her mind in hatred and resentment of both her real grandmother (whom she knew as her “mother”) and her biological mother (whom she knew as her “sister”).
According to tradition, on the day before Clementine’s wedding, gifts were given to the family of the bride. One special gift was designated for the bride’s mother, and, to Clementine’s amazement and shame, the person she knew as a sister went forward to receive it. It was at that moment that Clementine learned the truth that her “mother” was, in fact, her grandmother, and the “sister” with whom she had shared laughter, tears, and life secrets was actually her mother. From that moment until almost thirteen years later, Clementine did not speak to her family. She hated them and, in her mind, she considered them dead.
As the years passed, Clementine could not think of anything except the wrong done to her. She later testified that she could never think of anything good, anything beautiful, or anything worthwhile about her “mother-grandmother,” her “sister-mother,” or other members of her family. She even took no joy in her own husband and children, because her mind could not allow her heart to feel love for them.
Clementine’s mind was renewed, however, when she understood the cost of her own forgiveness from God and God’s command to forgive others in the same way. She was ministered to by one of my colleagues, Marie-Jeanne, and ten other influential Congolese women who had attended my training on biblical forgiveness and reconciliation in Kigali. Upon their return to Goma, they had organized their own conference, which Clementine had attended.
Clementine learned about God’s forgiveness at the conference, along with Marie-Jeanne’s personal testimony of how she forgave the stepmother who had tied her hands together and doused them in kerosene, ready to set them on fire as punishment for her alleged theft of a slice of bread. Clementine realized that she also could free her mind of toxic thoughts by letting go of her resentment against her family. She felt God’s conviction that unless her mind was renewed and her heart delivered, she would continue to hurt her husband and ten children. Clementine then gathered the courage to ask the women at the conference to pray for her broken heart and renewal of mind. From that moment on, Clementine began a journey toward restoration, finding those who had hurt her in order to forgive them and love them again.
As hearts are healed and minds are restored through forgiveness, the result is new attitudes and behaviors that build up communities. When Paul exhorts believers to be compassionate, humble, patient, kind, tolerant, and forgiving in Colossians 3:12, he reminds them that this way of life will set them apart from others around them. Because members of the church come from different ethnic, social, and cultural groups, the possibility of tension always exists. While Clementine and some members of her family had been church members before her encounter with the practice of forgiveness, disappointment and shame had caused their physical and emotional separation.
Like many nominal Christians today in many churches, they sang of the grace of God but were never touched and transformed by it. They knew something was not right in their relationships, but they did not know how to address the problem, and their pastors were not able to help them. They lived as enemies even though they professed to belong to the source of reconciliation. They sang about God’s forgiveness of sins, but they failed to grant the same forgiveness to each other. Both their attitudes and their actions were impaired by their history.
By the time I met Clementine, she had already found her mother, grandmother, and other relatives and forgiven them. On the day of her graduation from our Pastoral Leadership Training Institute, Clementine’s husband told me that God, through ALARM’s teaching of forgiveness, had given him a new wife with a new heart and a new mind. Their marriage of fifteen years has had peace and tranquility since Clementine experienced the power of forgiveness.
Like Clementine, a new mind led Pastor Okoch to new actions. After his speech at the conference, he promised to go back to his church to ask for the forgiveness of his congregation and also promised that he would work with other church leaders to revive the Gulu Pastors Fellowship. A few weeks later, we learned that more than eighteen pastors from six different denominations in the war-torn city of Gulu had joined the fellowship; they were meeting in each other’s homes, sharing food, and planning an evangelistic crusade together. They began to teach and preach forgiveness and reconciliation.
However, forgiveness and reconciliation must also take place beyond the church, between former tribal enemies. ALARM brings widows together from warring tribes and teaches these women mutual understanding and that their futures are bound together. By working together in a business, they learn to trust each other, to support each other, and to depend on each other. These women are discipled together, and they pray together for their children and their businesses. They are hoping together, and they are building a new community that is committed to raising up their children in the spirit of forgiveness, nonviolence, and mutual acceptance.
Selection reprinted from “An Identity of Forgiveness in Colossians” by Célestin Musekura from The Self Examined: Christian Perspectives on Human Identity. Copyright © 2018 by Jenny McGill. Used by permission of Abilene Christian University Press. acupressbooks.com.