Written by Ben Pehrson. Edited by Matt Petersen.
As team leader for the Aitape West Translation Team in northern Papua New Guinea (PNG), Ben Pehrson works with translators from multiple languages to help each of them complete Bible translations for their communities. Here’s a story he wrote about a former translator named Joe.
In PNG terms, Joe was a “big man”—an important leader. Although his home was a remote coastal village where people live in a simple way, much as they have for centuries, Joe was highly educated. This is probably why he was elected several years ago to be the local-level government leader for his village even though he was still relatively young.
One day while he was at a translation workshop, Joe heard that several men had burnt down his house with all his books, translation papers, and records from his time as a village government member. We didn’t know if he would be able to control his anger and stop himself from seeking revenge for this offense. Reciprocity is deeply ingrained in almost every aspect of Papua New Guinean cultures, and revenge can be a strong pull in relationships.
Joe didn’t mention many details about what was lost in the fire, but he did say that the house burned down with “ol spun samting” inside. By saying it that way in Tok Pisin (the trade language of PNG), Joe only mentioned spoons, but it’s an appropriate way to refer to all kinds of different things that you might normally find in a house.
Before I heard about the fire at Joe’s house, I had been thinking about the matching silverware that we had in our village house. Our house in Ukarumpa (the mission center in the highlands of PNG) is supplied with mismatched silverware, and this is one of my silly pet peeves: If my place at the table gets set with unmatched silverware, I usually try to exchange a fork or spoon so that I have a set that matches.
So I was thinking about our set in the village house and wanting to take it with me when I flew out of the village. But I was going back and forth on the decision. I often feel an inner struggle between my own cultural background—which places a strong value on material things and personal ownership—and the subsistence lifestyle of PNG and local values of hospitality and group ownership.
When Joe mentioned the loss of his spoons, it suddenly seemed clear to me. Friends had been sending e-mails with words of encouragement and verses of Scripture for Joe, but I was glad that I also had something material that I could share with Joe. I wanted him to receive some peace about the silverware, but I especially wanted him to know that God knew about his situation.
I also wondered if I could somehow share how God had been working in me and the struggle with materialism that is in my blood from my own culture. Then perhaps Joe might be more willing to listen to God and control his desire for revenge that is so strong in his blood from his culture. But I wasn’t sure if I could talk like that in the midst of Joe’s anger without offending him even more.
I prayed, and I meditated on God’s Word. And in that moment, the Lord gave me an overwhelming peace that I didn’t need to worry about what I would say. He would make it clear to me when I was with Joe. I had recently been checking our translations of Luke, and these words rang in my ears: “Don’t worry about how to defend yourself or what to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said” (Luke 12:11b–12, NLT).
So I had Joe come to my house, and he sat and listened as I told him all about my silverware and how I wanted to give it to him. I explained how God knew his trouble and was close to him, and was preparing me to offer the silverware before I even knew that Joe had a need. But I didn’t say anything about culture and those things that just seem to be in our blood.
Joe sat quietly as I talked, and when I finished, he said, “Ben, I must tell you honestly. My spoons are okay. I didn’t actually lose anything like that. It’s mainly my books and papers that can’t be replaced.”
At first I felt shocked and embarrassed. Here I had told this long story about how God was at work, and now it would seem that it was all for nothing since Joe hadn’t actually lost his spoons in the fire. I felt like an idiot.
Then I realized that this was my cue to talk about our cultures and those things that are more difficult to follow God about since they are so inherent in us as a part of the normal culture that we have learned.
So I replied to Joe that the spoons were not the point. The point was that God knew Joe’s situation and wanted to work in his life. I never mentioned revenge or Joe’s culture, but I simply talked about my culture and how it was more difficult for me to come to a point of being willing to offer my silverware because it is so normal within my culture to claim my rights to the things that I own.
When I got done, Joe said, “Ben, I’ve heard what you’ve said and I caught your meaning clearly. In my culture, we must take revenge [because if people go unpunished it could happen again]. But I have heard you, and I will think about it and pray about it. If God tells me not to take revenge, I will not take revenge. But if He tells me to take revenge, I will take revenge and I will win. I have a gun, and I will use it if I have to.”
I could not take that conversation any further, but I put my hand on Joe’s and I prayed that he would truly seek God’s will and that God’s Word would make it clear to Joe what he should do.
On the last day of the workshop, I led a devotional for all the translators. I focused on James 1:5 that talks about God giving wisdom to those who need it and ask for it. And I also talked about how God’s voice to us today will not contradict what He has made clear in Scripture.
At the end of the translation workshop, Joe was the most outspoken translator about our need to remain committed to the task of Bible translation as our highest priority. He left the translation workshop with a changed heart and a commitment to seek God and follow Him. And he went back to his village determined not to seek revenge upon the men who had burned down his house.
Before this time, Joe had been experiencing signs of a serious illness. Although he continued to work on the translation, the symptoms grew worse and worse until he finally passed away about a year later.
During that year, Joe’s resolve remained strong; he never did take revenge, even though his enemies later threatened to destroy his garden—his family’s primary source of food.
Although Joe left behind few earthly possessions, his commitment to translating the Bible into his language and his decision to obey God’s Word at all costs leave a legacy with his family, his community, and his translation colleagues that no fire can ever destroy
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