One of the most frequent reasons missionaries return home is due to interpersonal conflicts.
When one of our American missionary women first arrived in Eastern Europe many years ago, I asked about her previous experience.
She told me that after finishing college, she'd worked 2 years with a small mission in Africa, where she taught school for the children of missionary families.
"That must have been a wonderful experience," I said.
"Oh no," she replied, "it was awful!"
She explained that ministry with the children was great, but living on the mission compound was awful due to infighting between the missionary families.
Within 2 years the conflict had become so serious the mission center closed down.
The closing created a domino effect that closed other mission centers and, tragically, led to the folding of the mission.
Growing Strong in God's Grace
What happened? Why did people who loved the Lord and wanted to make Him known make choices that led to such heartache?
The answer, I believe, is that those families failed to live according to God's grace.
Unfortunately, this story is repeated often, not only on the mission field, but also in the lives of individual Christians and their churches.
And it could happen to us.
As this Easter season approaches, I believe all of us need to take a fresh look at God's grace and how to grow strong in the grace that comes from the Cross.
I first began thinking about this topic several years ago, while memorizing the first few verses of 2 Peter. Verse 2 says, "Grace and peace be multiplied to you."
What does it mean to have grace multiplied to you? I began to ask myself.
It occurred to me that many of the Epistles mentioned something of grace and peace in their opening greetings. I looked at 2 Timothy 2, which begins with Paul's admonition to Timothy to "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus."
What does it mean to be strong in grace? I wondered.
Of course, I understand and can give the definition of "grace" -- God's unmerited favor -- and I can even give the clever acrostic for grace -- "God's riches at Christ's expense" (GRACE).
But what does this mean in an experiential sense? How can we live according to grace and avoid the mistakes of that mission compound? I began searching for some deeper, yet practical, insight into what it means to be "strong in grace."
The answer, I discovered, was quite down-to-earth: We grow strong in grace when we understand God's unconditional forgiveness of us, then learn to unconditionally forgive others.
Understanding the Cross
Although Easter rolls around just once a year, we should, in reality, celebrate Easter every day by reflecting on what Christ did for us. Christ's death on the Cross is more than just an event in history, or a symbol of Christianity. It represents the very foundation of God's grace.
If we hope to grow strong in grace, we must develop a deeper, more personal appreciation for what Christ did on the Cross.
"But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8, New International Version). His love for us is unconditional. We do not earn His grace:
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8, NIV). Salvation, and God's forgiveness, is a free gift! We don't deserve it.
Though once we were enemies of God, according to Colossians 1:21,22, now, through His shed blood, we are set free and reconciled to Him. He canceled out the certificate of punishment and death against us through His shed blood on the Cross.
This is only a sampling of what God reveals to us in His Word about the meaning of the Cross. We need to continually study the Scriptures to understand, deep in our souls, just what Christ did for us. We deserve nothing, yet through the Cross, God gave us everything. This is grace.
I personally begin virtually every prayer time, whether privately or in a group, with an expression of my deep appreciation to God for redeeming me. I spend time thinking and reflecting on His redemption of me.
He sought me out when I was in rebellion, and He brought me unto Himself. I am deeply grateful.
Indeed this attitude of gratitude should be the foundation of our worship and service.
Giving Grace to Others
God wants us to grow strong in giving grace to others. Giving grace to another person is simply to forgive them, unconditionally, just as God forgave us through Christ.
"Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:13, NIV).
Just as we don't deserve God's forgiveness, someone you know may not deserve yours. It doesn't matter: We are still commanded to forgive them.
In our family, when we apologize to one another, we don't just say, "I'm sorry." Rather, we make sure that each person specifically admits what he did wrong and then specifically asks forgiveness for that wrong.
The person forgiving must reply with a specific "I forgive you" instead of saying, "Oh, it's OK." It wasn't OK. It was wrong! It is, however, forgiven.
As we have trained our children, we've sought to teach them the true meaning of forgiveness and to see that even though a person is wrong, you can still forgive them, and apply grace to the person who wronged you.
The opposite of forgiving can become tragic. We see tragedy in the case of the mission center and, much too often, in individual relationships, the workplace and even in the church.
There is no middle ground with forgiveness. We either apply God's grace or we follow a road toward bitterness.
Hebrews 12:15 tells what happens when we fall short of grace:
"See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many" (NIV).
Not forgiving means to fall short of the grace of God, and that results in bitterness. A root of bitterness doesn't destroy the other person, but instead destroys ourselves and those closest to us -- just as it destroyed the mission compound in Africa.
God's Far-Reaching Forgiveness
For me personally, learning to extend grace toward others and forgive unconditionally has been one of the most important lessons that I've learned.
Indeed, God is still teaching me this lesson. I often fall short in my relationships and responsibilities with my family or co-workers. I then must humbly come and ask their forgiveness.
Likewise I must be forgiving to my wife, children and fellow staff when they fail. In the role of a leader I have endured some very difficult experiences that could have led to holding a grudge or developing a root of bitterness. These truths of giving grace to others and not harboring a root of bitterness have preserved and protected me.
The choice is clear, and extremely serious. Determine not to fall short of the grace of God.
Remember that Christ forgave you far beyond what you deserve, and forgive others in the same way.
Give up that grudge or bitterness. Forgive that family member, friend, associate at work or other person with whom you have a problem.
The stakes are high, for if you fail to grow strong in grace, and are unable to forgive, you are charting a path to pain and heartbreak-not for the other person, but for yourself.