Ten years on . . .


May 18 marked the 10th anniversary of the beheading murder of my missionary husband, Lance Gersbach, in Atoifi, Solomon Islands. We mourned the loss of a husband, father, brother and friend. 

Great tragedy and grief is gruelling. It crushes your spirit. It suffocates. It overwhelms. At the time it leaves you feeling bereft of hope, purpose and a future. Yet amidst the anguish that pervades every fibre of your being, God is never far away. Seriously? Do you believe, beyond doubt, that God is there? Does the God of the universe really pay close attention to our loss, our despair and our apparently insignificant lives here on planet earth? Perhaps this type of cliché is a good example of “Christian spin”. What is the evidence?

How dare he ask me to offer total forgiveness for such a heinous crime . . .

As a nurse educator, I often ask my students for evidence to substantiate rationales for their actions/practice. Evidence is vital for without it our words are just that—unsubstantiated words.

Facing the future as a “new widow” with two young daughters to feed, clothe and provide schooling for, I was afraid. In the first few months, grief was crippling. I could not hold down a job. I struggled to cope with my own emotions, let alone those of my daughters. Questions flooded my mind. How could I provide for my family into the future? Yet Scripture promises that God will supply our needs in Christ Jesus. Did that mean spiritual needs only or physical needs too?

A few weeks after Lance’s death I journalled a prayer to God: “. . . I want to share our needs only with You God, so You can demonstrate and fulfil Your promise to provide for us.” I committed at that time not to discuss our financial needs with anyone. Not family. Not friends. Not strangers. I would talk only to God.

The first credit card statement arrived and I panicked. Turning to God I told Him it was up to Him to do His thing! Over the ensuing weeks we were overwhelmed with the love and generosity of people, known and unknown. Monetary gifts came in unmarked envelopes from church members and strangers I had never met. Gifts, that to this day bring tears to my eyes, reminding me of God’s faithfulness. I have often been reminded of the promise in Isaiah 65:24: “Before they call I will answer.” In my experience it is irrefutable that God heard our prayers and honoured His promise to provide for our needs. He has continued to provide for us in so many tangible ways for 10 years.

The first 24 hours after the murder are hard to put into words. I couldn’t sleep and every time I closed my eyes I had a vivid picture of Lance’s mutilated body. I felt fear, horror and despair. In desperation I cried out to God, “Take this image from me, I can’t cope another minute!” Immediately the image was gone, but not only did it go, it was replaced with a favourite memory picture of Lance. To this day I have never again been haunted by those initial images. God has kept me in His perfect peace. I have certainty in knowing within my spirit that God is with us, even in the darkest of life’s experiences. 

Ten years on I have learnt that being single in a Christian church environment is not always easy. Irrespective of the intent, churches tend to focus on family, the nuclear family of dad, mum and the kids. Sometimes it seemed easier to stay away, to avoid having to face the reality of being alone, being single. Yet time has also shown me that there were those who looked beyond singleness and included me openly into their hearts and homes. 

There is enormous value being in a community and we have been blessed by those who reached out and included us into their lives. I will always be incredibly grateful to the men in our church Pathfinder club, who mentored the girls through their teen years. The skills they taught, the exciting challenges, the fun and encouragement that these male role models provided made a huge impact on our family, providing yet more evidence of God being so very close.

Has it all been easy? Let me assure you that is far from the truth—we have had, and continue to have, challenges and difficulties. However, learning to trust God more completely and seeing evidence of His working in our hearts and lives has brought comfort and hope for the future.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced was dealing with the acquittal of the two murder suspects and subsequent closing of the case. It left me reeling, crying out for answers. I believed God placed enormous value on human life and I was certain that He would see to it that justice would be served. However, that was not to be. The accused were acquitted and allowed to go free. I struggled with anger and a sense of betrayal over what had occurred. The injustice and apparent lack of consequences for the perpetrators plagued me. I longed for closure, yet I felt trapped, chained to the crime and unable to break free.

Evil cannot be condoned; we cannot ignore it, pretend it has not happened or that it does not matter. Being Christian does not mean I must overlook the wrong. It does matter and it matters to God. However, there is one significant flaw in the law of revenge. Unforgiveness never settles the score.

Midway through 2006 I reached a point where intellectually I knew there was little hope of finding any human resolution. I had made a choice to forgive the perpetrators and asked God to forgive them, but my heart and emotions lagged behind. I found myself moving through a range of emotions, but always I came back to that inner desire and need for closure.

In August 2006, I made contact with an anthropologist who informed me of an impending visit to Sydney of the chairman of the Kwaio Council of Chiefs. This man was the most powerful man in Bush Kwaio and one who had an inside knowledge of the happenings within the community where we had lived. On September 1, with just two hours’ notice, I jumped into my car and travelled to Sydney for a one hour visit. This would be my first opportunity to speak openly with a Kwaio leader about the murder.

I arrived at the appointed meeting place feeling intense emotion—my head full of questions—not knowing what to expect. After brief introductions, the chief spoke of the events of that dreadful day and we shed tears together. I then informed him of my deep desire to find closure to enable me to move forward. I was in no way prepared for his response. After pausing for a few moments, he lifted his gaze and looked me in the eye.

“Jean,” he said, “you have two options, but only one offers a way forward. They are not easy options, but very difficult options.” I listened breathlessly.

“You must come back to Malaita, meet with the accused, pray with them and offer your total forgiveness.”

To say that I was stunned is an understatement in the extreme. I was speechless. I felt angry and betrayed. After all, I was the victim here. How dare he ask me to offer total forgiveness for such a heinous crime, while the perpetrators go free! His request was unreasonable, even irrational. The visit concluded and I said my goodbyes, still reeling from his outrageous suggestion.

As I drove home, I recounted his words over and over: “Pray with them and offer your total forgiveness.” I recalled a quote from a book on forgiveness by RT Kendall: “You must totally forgive them, unless you forgive them you will be in chains, release them and you will be released.”

Slowly it started to make sense. He was asking no more of me than what Jesus had already done on my behalf. When I considered what God had forgiven me, I realised I could do no less. Jesus died the cruellest of deaths so that I could have hope and a future. He accepted and forgave me totally—no conditions other than I accept. I didn’t deserve it, I didn’t earn it. He gave me Life. The love of God meant Calvary. Nothing less. 

The more I thought about it, the better it sounded. I felt a sense of peace begin to wash over me and the tears flowed like a river! As I contemplated the total forgiveness option—both intellectually and emotionally—I sensed a feeling of freedom. 

I was not in a position to return to Atoifi, so in January 2007 I wrote a letter, expressing that I wanted to offer my total forgiveness—that my forgiveness was based on what Jesus had done in forgiving me. The letter was sent and received. A huge weight was lifted and God has brought closure for me. The inner peace I experienced was tangible. God alone enabled me to take that step forward. There is no way I would or could ever have done this in my own strength. God gently brought me to this decision and I thank and praise Him for His patience with me. It took time—four years—to come to that point. Yet God never pushed me or made me feel guilty. Gently He carried me through until I was ready to leave it totally to Him. 

I don’t know the reason God allowed Lance to be murdered, but one day I will. Jesus’ death on the cross is proof to me that God always has a purpose in the circumstance, and that His purpose and His plan will prevail and triumph through any circumstance. In the meantime, I know He sees, I know He cares and I know He loves. The evidence is there. 

Has God been close these past 10 years? Absolutely. Nothing will dissuade me from knowing that God is with us and continues to be involved in the lives of His children.

Jean Gersbach writes from Newcastle, NSW, where she is a nurse educator at the University of Newcastle.