(Name changed and representative photo used for privacy.)
Toben and his father were alone in their home in northern Nigeria when his father’s phone suddenly chirped. It’s late, he thought to himself, who would be calling at this time of night?
Muting the television, Toben waited as patiently as a 10-year-old boy could. But when he finally turned to his father to find out what was taking so long, he was suddenly struck by the fear.
“Why are you saying this daddy…I don’t understand”
Toben straightened, eager to hear some of the conversation. But the voice on the other end of the line was too rushed to make any sense. And his father said little.
He didn’t have to say a word—his eyes, the tremble in his hands said it all.
And Toben felt the fear squeezing in the pit of his stomach as he asked, “Daddy, what’s the matter?” But he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know the answer.
His father bowed his head as he flipped his phone shut. After a long exhale—seeming to gather his courage—he looked Toben in the eye and whispered, “Be strong, Toben. I need you to be strong.”
It was as though a dam broke in Toben’s heart. He could barely get the words out as he cried, “Why are you saying this daddy? I don’t understand.”
His father pulled him close and kissed him on his head. “Please, Toben. You must lock the doors and hide. Do this for me son. The Lord will protect you.”
Then Toben’s father rushed out the door and was gone…
an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria was marching through the city streets. With shouts of “Alluha Akbar” (God is the greatest), they were firing their machine guns at random, burning houses and abducting women and children.
When the commotion came close enough for Toben to hear, he couldn’t stop the tears. His father was brave—the head of security in his small city. That’s why he had to respond to the crisis. Toben’s young heart knew this, but he feared he’d never see his father again.
I should have held him tighter, Toben thought. I should have forced him to stay. Moments felt like hours. More gunfire erupted. And Toben couldn’t wait any longer. He had to know. He had to know if his father was still alive.
Dialing his father’s phone, Toben whispered a prayer too deep for words…
“Who is this?” a voice growled. Toben remained silent. He heard shouts and screams in the background and the line crackled with static.
“I don’t know who this is or what this man is to you,” the voice mocked. “But he’s dead. We have killed him.”
“I don’t know if I can ever forgive my father’s killers”
Hours after the assault, on the ground teams from Open Doors found Toben. He was paralyzed by shock and hidden in the corner of his living room. He still clutched the phone in his hands.
Toben’s devastation cut deep below skin level. But even in the chaos of his emotions, Toben fought his eager need for revenge. Because of his faith in Jesus, he knew violence could never be the answer—that’s the way of terrorism.
Even after weeks of trauma counseling, Toben still fights against tension today between the anger he feels and his desire to forgive. But Toben is strong. He’s courageous. And he still has hope . . .
Toben says, “I will never forget this. I don’t know if I can ever forgive my father’s killers. But I’m trying. And I hope. Please pray for me.”
Overwhelmed by the senseless violence
After reading Toben’s story, I had to stop and take a breath. My heart was overwhelmed by the senseless violence. And shaken that an innocent little boy would have to bear the weight of such cruelty for the rest of his life.
But more than that, I was angry. My tears of sympathy dried much too quickly. And I found myself shouting, “Why God? Where are you, God? Don’t You Care? What does it take to get Your attention? Have You lost control?”
There was no heavenly voice. No answer—loud or soft. Just a stillness. Like the quiet after a raging storm. But it was in that peaceful moment when I realized my sudden outburst was less about Toben’s story and more about my own…
Confronted by forgiveness
I like to think I’m sensitive to God. I pray. I read my Bible. And I talk pretty openly about my faith. But I’ve got this weird thing about forgiveness. It’s like I’ve built this huge door in part of my heart. And anytime I’m confronted with forgiveness or feel the slightest need to forgive, I slam it shut and lock it up tight. Even when I asked Jesus to come and live in my heart, I didn’t welcome Him in that specific area.
When I force myself to think about it, forgiveness makes me uncomfortable because it means I have to be willing to:
- Give up control.
- Let go of my perceived need for resetting the scales of justice.
- Tear up every accusation I have against someone and believe God knows best.
Forgiveness also makes me uncomfortable because it really is about me. It’s a decision I have to make by myself and for myself. To tell the truth, 99% of the people I have written on my “list” probably don’t even know they’re on it. Sometimes I wish they did. I’ve even imagined moments and scenarios when I tell them. And when I make the decision to tear my “list” up before God—I know they won’t suddenly feel some strange spiritual release or a sudden transformation. But I will. Because forgiveness changes me.
But Toben’s story helped me see forgiveness in a whole new light…
Forgiveness in a whole new light
I think the power of Toben’s story, and why it affected me so much, is that presents forgiveness in a completely different way.
When I first started writing this article, I’d considered writing an “open letter” to the an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria soldier who killed Toben’s father. Of course, I knew he would never see it. That’s not really the point. But it was my way of better understanding why Toben’s efforts to forgive this soldier were so powerful.
And it hit me…
Toben’s willingness and even eagerness is one of the most courageous acts I’ve ever heard of. Because at the most fundamental level, it means Toben isn’t afraid. He isn’t so scared by the thought of this soldier—or even the recollection of his voice—to give him control over his past, present or even his future.
With this act of forgiveness, Toben is telling his father’s killer, “You took my father’s life. But I won’t give you power over mine. My life is my own and it belongs to Christ.”
If Toben had taken the easy way out—if he’d held on to his anger, entertained fantasies of humiliating this soldier or took vengeance into his own hands—he would have given up his God-given potential to truly live.
There’s life in forgiveness. But there’s also much more.
The gospel and forgiveness
The gospel and forgiveness are really opposite sides of the same coin. In essence, you can’t truly have one without the other. There is no gospel without forgiveness. And, at the same time, there’s no real forgiveness if the gospel doesn’t exist.
And the gospel and forgiveness are both about life. And not just a ho-hum kind of life. But life to the very fullest.
When we’re unwilling to forgive, we can only experience a portion of the power of the gospel in our lives. More than that, because we’ve stunted our ability to fully experience life to the fullest through unforgiveness—our lives will only reflect a shadowed glimmer of what God has intended to be a gloriously blinding light to the world.
Forgiveness is the greatest power of the Kingdom.
That’s why Toben’s story is so powerful. Because this 10-year-old boy recognizes that if he refuses to forgive, his unwillingness will be like a “thief” that comes to “steal” his future, “kill” his reflection of God and will ultimately “destroy” his life (John 10:10).
And that’s what’s at stake in our own lives. The very Kingdom. That we’ve been commanded by Jesus to build here on Earth through our lives and example.
Please pray for Toben. Forgiveness is a daily fight. And a moment by moment choice. And in every sense, he has a long road ahead, with the constant threat of violence from an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria. Pray Toben’s life won’t be wasted. For God to protect him. And use him to reflect the glorious light of the gospel.
Pray for your own heart. Dig in deep. And ask God to help you remove any unforgiveness—or anything else—that may be preventing you from actively engaging His call in building His eternal Kingdom. And if you’re willing, share your story in the comments.