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Some examples from Robert Carr, with World Harvest Mission in Kenya, on how words carry different meaning in different languages and cultures. These examples are an outgrowth of his learning to communicate the gospel in Kenya.
One of the points focuses on the Justice of God and how he must judge us for our sin. To illustrate this, I ask them what they would do if someone came on three different occasions and stole from them and each time the judge let the thief off. I then ask, was this a good judge or bad judge? Most of the Christians (including the pastors) have been telling me that he would be a good judge! I sometimes think they automatically put themselves in the place of the thief, rather than the victim. Then when I ask them again, "what would you say if you were the one who received no justice? Then they are a little unsure.
When I asked my language helper about this, he showed me how to say "just judge" because "good judge" seems to connote the idea of "merciful".
These Biblical concepts of sin, judgment, and forgiveness are rather fuzzy here in East Africa. A word for "sin" can be the same word for "mistake". A "good" judge may be a lenient one. "Forgiveness" is often equated with being "excused". For example, we once had to fire an employee in Uganda for stealing. When she asked us to forgive her, she was shocked and angry when we said that we could forgive her but still had to fire her because trust was broken. If one is "forgiven" they may be "excused", thus avoiding the need for repentance or restitution. There does not seem to be different words for forgive or excuse.
Clear communication of these ideas is critical if our audience is to understand the grace of God. Why was Jesus crucified? How can one appreciate the substitutionary atonement of Christ without understanding God's justice in judging our sin? At the cross the judgment of God was fully met. "God made him who knew no sin, to become sin on our behalf, in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21, see also Romans 3:5-6).
The next time I preached this message, I was pleased to see a difference in their response. There was an outcry for justice on behalf of the victimized party - success!