Last Friday I went with a group of pastors to check on two of the New Life Mission churches on the other side of Goroka, Papua New Guinea (PNG). Two of the leaders in this area had a relational problem that was preventing them from having common fellowship. These men were both pastors and had temporarily stepped down from their respective pulpits because of the relational issue. I, along with the council of New Life Mission, went to see if we could help these brothers resolve their relational concern.
The importance of relationship is one of the major cultural differences between Papua New Guinea and our home culture in America. In America you can have a relational issue with one person, but it does not tend to affect other spheres of life. We compartmentalize our relational issues and go about life as normal. For Papua New Guineans, relational issues in any sphere of life affect all of their other spheres. In the extreme, this often means that if you are sick and go to the hospital, the hospital will not treat you if you have a problem with someone in your family or community. They will send you back home to fix the relational issue and then you can return for medical treatment. This is all to say that relational equilibrium is a very high value for Papua New Guineans.
While these two brothers were explaining their problem to us, one of them used a Tok Pisin [the trade language of PNG] phrase that I had not heard before. He told us that the other brother had said, “Mi stik bilong yu.” This phrase had upset him to the point that he could not speak to him any longer in public or in private. After he finished his story, I asked him to explain what the phrase, “Mi stik bilong yu” means. He said that it is a traditional phrase that means you brought a problem into our lives and now I am the one stuck dealing with it. So for his fellow leader, brother in Christ, and extended family member to make this statement inferred that he was a troublemaker and was not being a helpful member of the community.
After both brothers told their side of the story, or “autim bel” in Tok Pisin, they said they were sorry and were ready to be reconciled. We completed their reconciliation with a feast of sweet potato, greens, rice, pig, and chicken. As we continued to eat and talk I could not quit thinking about the words the men had used to describe their problem. This phrase, “mi stik bilong yu,” is a superb analogy for the work of Christ. We were the ones who were under the curse of the law and he took that curse upon himself (Galatians 3:13). To use their analogy, Christ became our stick. He is the one who has to deal with the sin that we brought into the community between us and the Father.
To bring it back around to the issue between these two brothers, Galatians tells us to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” So in some sense, we are called to become the “stick” of our brother. If he injures us or our community, it is our burden to bear in love. My brother’s sin against me becomes an opportunity to glorify Christ because Christ’s blood that has redeemed me also covers the sin of my brother against me.
Bonnhoeffer says it better than I can in “Life Together”:
Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the common life, is not the one who sins still a person with whom I too stand under the word of Christ? Will not another Christian’s sin be an occasion for me ever anew to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Therefore, will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches me that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ?
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (2004-11-15). Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: DBW 5 (pp. 36-37). Augsburg Fortress. Kindle Edition.
Sadly this reality is not always lived out in our lives, mine included. In those moments where forgiveness of our brother eludes us, we cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24-25). But thanks be to God that Christ is even now interceding for us to the Father, and the Holy Spirit is remaking our desires and affections, day by day conforming us into the image of Christ. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” indeed!
As we sat around and feasted together, celebrating a reconciliation of brothers, we discussed how Jesus became our stick and how many times over in this life we will become the stick of our brother, and at times when I sin against my brother, he will become my stick bearing the burden of my sin. May God transform our hearts not to shun this privilege of bearing one another’s sins, but to embrace it with the love of Christ.