In May 1978, I walked into a prison in Africa to speak with the nine men who were suspected of murdering my parents. After 34 years of faithful service to God, my missionary parents had been brutally murdered 10 days earlier near their home in Yagoua, Cameroon.
I struggled for days with the big question: “WHY?” WHY had my parents been given this kind of “reward” when they were so close to their retirement? Hadn’t they helped the poor, the sick, and the needy in their community? Hadn’t they taught people how to plant vegetable gardens and grow fruit trees? Hadn’t my father put up buildings for three medical institutions: a leprosarium, a clinic, and a hospital? Hadn’t my mother helped write and produce Christian literature to be used in discipling believers and teaching Sunday School? Hadn’t Dad helped translate the Scriptures into the Masana language? Hadn’t he taught the Bible to students being trained to teach and preach? Instead of staying home and resting on Sundays, hadn’t Dad and Mom often gone out to villages to preach the gospel of Jesus where people had not yet heard this Good News? WHY didn’t God stop the murders of my godly parents? Didn’t God see what was happening?
Of course God saw what was happening! He had prepared me for this from the time I was a child. My parents had taught me to forgive as the Lord had forgiven me. Now God was also teaching me that on the night my parents were killed, he was in the same place he was when he forsook his beloved Son to die on the cross for my sins. And he didn’t stop the crucifixion! I began to realize that God knew my pain, and he could use this event to fulfill his greater purpose of drawing people to Christ.
So I knew that I had to go to these nine men in prison to tell them I had forgiven them. With permission from the prison warden, I was permitted to enter the cell where the nine were incarcerated. I knew and recognized most of them. One was my parents’ yard man who thought of my parents as his own parents. Others were neighbors. I had grown up with some of their children. A couple of them I did not recognize.
I realize now that what I was about to say, facing these men alone in a locked cell, would be a defining moment in my life—and perhaps in their lives. My parents had taught me to forgive those who had hurt me. God now reminded me what I needed to do to avoid becoming an embittered and angry husband, father, and friend.
Looking at them, I said, “I have been told that some of you were involved in murdering my parents.” All of them denied knowing anything about this heinous crime. I continued, “I don’t know which ones—if any of you—are guilty of these murders, but because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, I have come to tell you I forgive you for what you have done to my parents and to my family.” Then stepping up to each one personally, I took his hand and repeated, “I forgive you!” Shaking each of their hands, I couldn’t help but wonder which of those hands held the knives that slit my mother’s throat and stabbed my father to death.
I have thanked God many times for what he did in my heart that day during that crucial time in my life. When I turned to leave, I felt cleansed. I was able to exit that prison cell a free man—freed from any bitterness, resentment, or anger against them. God had worked a miracle of grace in my heart. God instilled in me from that moment a compassion for these men. I began to pray that those who had killed my parents would come to know God and the salvation that only he can provide in Jesus Christ. God answered that prayer in part: A couple years later I had the privilege of leading two of the men convicted of these murders to trust in Christ as their Savior from their sin. What these men meant for evil against our family, God meant for good. (Compare Genesis 50:20.)
On leaving the prison that day, I could not know what else God would do with this. I did know, however, that I could trust my Sovereign God’s plan for my family and me, and for my African brothers and sisters who were hurting so deeply. The Masana people, whom my parents had served and loved for so many years, and among whom I had grown up, MY people, were now blaming themselves as a people group for what had happened to my parents. Their hurt was deep because they dearly loved my parents, who were their spiritual parents. They would have prevented these crimes from happening had they been aware of the evil planned against my parents.
Shortly after my parents died, a friend warned me, “If they killed the father, wouldn’t they also kill the son?” The nights after hearing that warning were filled with fear and terror for us. We were staying on the mission campus where my parents had been murdered. The keys for all the buildings on campus had been taken from dad after they killed him. Even though we locked the doors to the house we were staying in, they still had the keys! So we blocked the doors with furniture. Any noise inside or outside of the house terrorized us!
A month later, my family traveled to the States for a year of home assignment. It was a time of deep soul-searching, and we felt torn. Was God telling us our mission in Africa was finished, or were we to continue? Would God have us return to this place of fear and terror?
We finally concluded that God’s plan was for us to return to Cameroon. We returned and served for 17 more years. As the Masana people observed our lives and witnessed our love for them, they came to realize that we had truly forgiven them and that we loved them like my parents had loved them. This was all God’s doing. This was God using our lives as a portrait of his grace, mercy, and forgiveness as we lived among them. A Cameroonian colleague told me years later that our return to Africa after my parents’ deaths and our continued presence with them had served as a testimony to the genuine forgiveness and love in our hearts toward them and those who had offended our family. This was one way that God used our response to this event for good.
So who or what offends you to the point where you are unwilling or unable to forgive? Jesus understands and identifies with your hurt. I have found that in looking to Jesus, knowing his ways and his truth (Psalm 25:4-5), I can find peace, even though sometimes it may take a long time to process all that is involved.
Jesus loves us and mercifully forgives us, even though we have greatly offended him by our sin and lack of faith in him. He who knew no sin became sin for us and took the punishment we deserve upon himself on that cross. Jesus, more than we may ever know or understand, experienced the cosmic meaninglessness of being forsaken by his Father when he took our curse from us.
God provided for himself the only acceptable sacrifice to atone for my sin! In this way, God is both Just and the Justifier who has declared me righteous in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:26).
Rev. Jim Erickson and his wife Marilyn served 21 years as missionaries in Cameroon. Upon returning to the United States of America, they served congregations in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Mayville, North Dakota; and Fullerton, California. They are now retired and live in Ankeny, Iowa.