From Rage to Repentance

Hamid* unexpectedly walked in just as the service was beginning. At once I felt anxious chills in the back of my head and neck, my body’s way of telling me that it feels threatened. The last time I had seen this man had been five years previous – and he had been screaming at me in the middle of the street, raging, spitting insults. A friend I had begun to trust had turned into a wild beast. Weeks of horrible text messages had followed. Now, years later, he had walked in on a day when it was my turn to preach, a day when I already felt exhausted and anxious. I silently prayed that the panic symptoms that sometimes overtake me in times like this would be held at bay. Hamid, for his part, seemed relaxed and perhaps even a little self-conscious, a posture which helped to put me somewhat at ease. We extended brief polite greetings to one another, and the small service mercifully progressed without any drama.

After the service, I took a deep breath and went over to welcome Hamid more fully.

“Remember the last time we saw each other?” Hamid asked with a smile.

I noticed that it was not a cynical smile, but a kind one.

“Yes, I do. That was a difficult night.”

“It was 2 a.m.,” Hamid continued, “We had been walking up and down the cafe strip of Peace Street, arguing for hours!”

I remembered it well. What an awful night. Hamid had been one of the first local believers to gather with our fledgling church plant. Though discipled by someone else, he had had no church in the local language to attend, so began joining our efforts. Things began well, until my colleague tried to emphasize the exclusivity of Christ in conversation with him. Hamid completely lost it, blowing up at my teammate and insisting that Jesus would never send honest and good Muslims like his parents to hell. My colleague of course maintained the truth of John 14:6 – no one comes to the Father except through Jesus. Hamid continued to rage, and then followed up this conversation by showering my colleague with scores of abusive text messages.

My personality tends to calm people down, and sometimes this can be of strategic use in ministry. So my colleague and I agreed that it would be good for me to have the followup meeting with Hamid, in hopes of talking some sense into him. This attempt completely failed. As I tried that night to gently press Hamid on his beliefs about the exclusivity of Christ he got more and more agitated, eventually spewing all kinds of heresy and hatred. I began to lose my cool as well, bluntly pressing him to question the genuineness of his faith in light of his current beliefs and his conduct. Everything I said was true, but I was beginning to give into my anger as well. Hamid only got worse and worse, more and more given over to rage and anger. We left on a cold note, both of us utterly fed up with the other. While grateful that Hamid’s inclusivism and character were exposed, it was also a deeply disheartening experience, one of many small betrayals we experienced in those years from local believers that we had such high hopes for.

Hamid continued to send angry text messages for a season. We responded with scripture. This elicited more hatred. Then we stopped responding altogether. I prayed for his repentance regularly for several years to follow, then eventually stopped using the prayer list where his repentance was requested. Eventually, after moving to another city, I heard that he had made some kind of apology to my teammate and had asked about my welfare. I received the news cynically.

Now here we were, casually revisiting the last time we had seen one another, a night that I would have preferred to forget.

“You were very upset with me,” Hamid said, laughing.

“Yes, I’m sorry for any words that I said that night in anger,” I responded.

“You know that I apologized last year to your colleague, right? And I had wanted to talk to you also. But I think you changed your phone number.”

I nodded, one part of me wanting to believe Hamid, and one part deeply skeptical.

“I’m very glad that you came today,” I said, knowing that this was an honest statement even though another part of me was somewhat freaked out in Hamid’s presence. He did seem different, though, seemingly too at peace to have come back with an old axe to grind.

We practice close communion at our church plant, where unbaptized believers are asked to abstain from the Lord’s Supper until they have obeyed through baptism. This is unique in our city, and often acts as a prod for locals to desire to take this difficult step of obedience. Hamid felt this prod during this first service back and approached my colleague immediately afterward, requesting baptism.

“Really?” I asked my colleague when I found out. “You think it’s genuine?”

“Let’s have him come to men’s discipleship this week and share his testimony with us and the local guys, and see if we’re all in agreement about moving forward with it.”

I furrowed my brow. “Some measure of clear repentance for the past is going to be needed before I’d be at all comfortable with moving forward.”

“Same for me,” said my teammate, “but I’ve seen some of that. And I think we might see even more during our men’s meeting.”

Neither of us could have been prepared for the depth, humility, and preciseness of Hamid’s story of repentance that following Tuesday night.

Normally, unbelieving locals never apologize or ask for forgiveness. Local believers have come a long way when they are willing to apologize publicly even in general terms. “If I have sinned against you” comes out much more than we’d like it to. Indirect apologies are still the norm among most believers, even years into their discipleship. Such are the realities of working for reconciliation in an honor/shame culture.

But there was nothing indirect or general about Hamid’s repentance. After detailing how he had initially come to faith, and explaining the gospel in wonderfully biblical terms, he then went on to detail our conflict.

“At that season of my life, my father was hospitalized with a deadly disease. My mind was really messed up because of this. So when these good brothers here, (here he motioned to me and my colleague) spoke to me of Jesus being the only way, I couldn’t accept it. I got so angry with them and I said terrible things. But everything they said to me was right and true. I knew it at the time, and I know it now. Jesus is the only way to be saved. But I got so angry and then I sinned by leaving the church.

“I was still caring for my dad though and so I kept desperately praying for him. One day I learned that the hospital wanted to amputate his leg, but that they had little hope that he would recover at all. For all this they would still charge us an exorbitant sum of money. I despaired, and I begged God to somehow heal my father. That same night I got a call from a friend in another city. He told me of another hospital with a new treatment. If we asked, they might accept my father. We asked, and to my surprise they not only accepted my father as a patient, but they successfully treated him – for free! He completely recovered. I knew that God had graciously answered my prayer, even though I had been so stubborn and angry and sinful. And he just kept on answering my prayers in that season. Even though I didn’t deserve it, he was so merciful to me. It was this mercy that softened my heart and convinced me that I needed to come back to the church and repent. I have apologized in the past, but I want to now repent publicly and in front of these men ask for your forgiveness. Will you forgive me? I was so wrong for what I said and how I left. And you men were faithful to speak truth to me in spite of it all.”

My colleague and I had stopped cracking our pile of sunflower seeds – a snack ever present at men’s discipleship – and were staring wide-eyed at Hamid. We had seldom heard a local repent in such explicit terms. We had certainly never seen it done publicly like this.

I felt any opposition I had to Hamid’s baptism fall away as I extended forgiveness to him. The local brothers followed up with some good questions, including “What took you so long to come back?” A couple weeks later Hamid was baptized in a lake on a scorching summer day – the very last weekend of the picnic season until the heat breaks in September.

I watched Hamid’s baptism from the rocky shore as my colleague and a local brother read him the questions and put him under the water. Years of prayers for his repentance had not been in vain, in spite of my doubts. His faith had been genuine, since the Spirit hadn’t let him go, in spite of his anger and in spite of his rebellion. In spite of me giving up on him.

Now I no longer get nervous when I see Hamid come through the door with his big smile and thick spectacles. Instead, I feel joy. The joy of knowing a brother truly repentant. The joy of true reconciliation.

*names changed for security

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

This One Only Comes Out After Three Years

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

This week I heard more fully about Harry*, a friend from our former city whom I thought had fallen away from the faith. Three years ago he left our fledgling church plant, furious that we insisted on Jesus being the only way to God and that true believers must also hold to this truth. His mother was very sick at the time, which added personal fuel to the fire. Harry’s departure, full of anger and insults and personal attacks, was so extreme that I thought he was gone for good. Or at least that he had demonstrated his faith to be a farce. But I kept praying for him over the last three years, helped by the example of George Mueller and his simple, persistent records of prayer requests and answers. Nevertheless, I was shocked and then excited this week to hear that Harry had not only started coming back to the church again, but had actually repented to my teammate in tears for his conduct and words three years ago. He confessed that since then, God’s hand has been heavy on him. This is a stunning confession. In our context, it almost seems harder for a professing believer to repent of his sin and reconcile than it seems for someone to come to faith. Harry’s remarkable about-face has encouraged me afresh to keep on praying for my friends who have fallen away or flamed out. As John Piper has said, we always resist the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is powerful to overcome that resistance anytime he pleases. May the Spirit continue to be pleased to overcome Harry’s resistance – indeed, my own resistance – to his glorious work.