A word of caution: this blog involves horrendous acts of violence and incredible suffering. A Cold Day in December
“My cousin wore a vest filled with explosives,” our local translator said. These were the words a few friends and I heard when responded to urgent physical and spiritual needs at the border of Turkey and Syria. It was a cold December day that I will never forget, and we were just a few miles from where ISIS was fighting to take over a large city. Thousands murdered, millions displaced, and our world forever changed.
As we dug holes, moved bricks, and worked to build a camp, our translator began to share his story with us. He was a young man full of ambition that was ripped away by the fury of ISIS. “They (ISIS) are dogs… not human!” he cried. We sympathized with his pain, with no words to say, only ears to listen. It is what he said next that opened the door for God’s grace to transform his heart. “she went to heaven and they went to hell”
Amid his pain, a quick smile filled his face—a sparkle in his eye. His demeanor changed to a more joyful posture, and he said to me, “Do you want to know what my cousin did?” He then embarked upon a story that happened a few weeks ago. “My cousin, a woman, wore a vest filled with explosives and approached twelve ISIS Jihadists. She told them that she wanted to join them, and they came near to her. When they got close enough, she ignited the vest, and they were all blown to nothing.” As the story ended, our translator was filled with pride and joy as he shared the victory.
He then explained to us that ISIS believed if a woman kills them, then they will go straight to hell. He then said that because of his cousin’s act of Jihad, that she went to heaven. He was happy because she got revenge, went to heaven, and ISIS went to hell.
ISIS and Us
I did not share his joy. I was perplexed; an uneasiness filled my soul. Surely ISIS is evil, but I cannot see more Jihad as the path to victory. His genuine joy in his heart struck me in response to such a sad event. I was utterly lost for words, as I tried to keep my thinking, understand my emotions, and see what God is doing in all of this. “Where is God, and what is His heart?” I asked myself.
As my thoughts continued in silence, what made me most perplexed is that I wanted somehow to tell this man that he was part of the problem. I wanted to say to a man, who had experienced his loved ones torn apart, family members raped, and children murdered that he needs to repent of his sin and trust in Christ, or else he will be potentially joining ISIS and his cousin in hell. I wanted to tell him that the same plague that filled his heart is not much different than that of ISIS.
Furthermore, I wanted to tell him about a Savior who confronts both his wickedness and the depravity of ISIS. I wanted to exhort him to believe a gospel that calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us—including ISIS. I desired to tell him of Savior who understands his pain and gently welcomes him to “come” with no conditions, promising rest for his soul. When you come to know this Messiah, revenge is not an option, but grace finally is.
As all this filled my heart and mind, I prayed, and God impressed upon me to share the story of the Good Samaritan with him (Luke 10:25-37). The story is compelling, and in short, Jesus uses the Samaritan, an enemy of the Jews, to teach a Jewish lawyer what it means to love your neighbor and inherit eternal life. It is not about superficially loving a neighbor just to tick the boxes of the law, but about having a grace-filled heart that loves all people. Jesus, through the Good Samaritan, was challenging the lawyer to love his enemy.
When I finished the story, the translator had tears in his eyes, and you could see he was broken inside. But this time, it what not over others around him. He looked at me, and with a quick breath as tears flowed down his face, he said, “my heart is dirty.” He began to explore the gospels and started reading the Bible with his family. He wanted to know Jesus because he realized that he needed to be washed clean. Soon after, he professed faith in Jesus and trusted in Him for salvation. To this day, he is an entirely different person, and one of the most peaceful, loving people I know.
Deep Wounds, Deeper Healing
Our translator’s healing was not in getting revenge from ISIS, but in realizing that he was a sinner who needed to be forgiven by God. The man was first a sinner against God before he was someone who was sinned against. He was not owed anything, but a debtor himself and his healing came from forgiveness in God and being reconciled to God, not by getting revenge. The gospel that confronts is the same gospel that heals, and God, through judgment, reveals the depth of His love for us.
Apart from Christ, we are enemies of God, of whom Christ died for so we could be reconciled to God and saved by Christ’s life (Romans 5:1-11). We are no more worthy of grace than the radical Jihadists, no more deserving than Paul, who approved the execution of Stephen, and who actively persecuted the young Church (Acts 7:54-8:1). But thankfully, the Son of God steps into our world and suffers the wrath due to murderers.
None of this means we should not pursue justice or that we should let evil reign. That is another blog post. However, the gospel confronts us all in our wickedness, welcomes us in our brokenness, and restores us in Christ’s wholeness. Let’s work for justice, but proclaim God’s goodness as we do. Better yet, let’s proclaim the gospel as we do good works of justice.
Would you take a moment and pray for this translator, for the suffering that is still felt by ISIS, and those who are working to make this world a better place through gospel proclamation and good works?