The Story of Hope"My prayer for you is that God would grant you the gift of repentance and the gift of salvation."
“Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.” —Psalm 139:16 NASB
My upbringing made it hard for me to believe in a loving and caring God. I was born and raised in Uganda, a country in East Africa with a population of about 35 million people. In his book, “My African Journey,” Winston Churchill called Uganda the Pearl of Africa. He was impressed by the country’s “variety of form and color, its profusion of brilliant life.” When I was growing up there, I did not see any variety of form, color or brilliant life.
I tell you my story not to induce pity or to reflect poorly on where I grew up. Instead, I tell you my story to testify to God’s sovereignty. My story is actually not about me; it’s about all God has done for me, about His faithfulness and about His ability to make all things work for good.
My appreciation for God’s love and care came after many years of doubt, confusion and despair. I couldn’t imagine that a loving God could allow the harrowing day-to-day events I lived through growing up.
The country of Uganda, which became fully independent in 1962, was formed from many distinct kingdoms, and about 40 languages are spoken. The roots of conflict stem in part from tension between these many ethnic groups. Idi Amin ruled as dictator in the 1970s, when I was a child. Under his orders, the authorities expelled Uganda’s Asian community in 1972 and seized their property; they expropriated the property of the Jewish and Indian communities and terrorized intellectuals. Public order rapidly deteriorated, and murder, destruction of property, looting and rape became hallmarks of the regime.
His reign of terror saw the deaths of thousands of people in my country. The killings were brutal during his eight-year presidency. My own father was marked for death, only to be reprieved, thanks to an influential family friend. Milton Obote followed Amin, and several more rulers seized power by force, including Yoweri Museveni, who continues as president today.
The protracted civil wars during my early years meant that death and gross violations of human rights occurred every day. I was in constant fear of death or rape. People I knew were killed or raped, and death was constantly on my mind. It was the only sure thing I could count on. I was in a constant state of fight or flight, and thought nothing about the future. Since life was either now or death, we lived for the day. I adopted the mindset of “whatever you do, do it with all your heart” to cope with the miserable drudgery of everyday life. When I played, I played with all my heart. When I rebelled, I did so with all my heart.
The Ugandan Bush Wars saw the government fighting rebel groups from 1981 to 1986. During this time, I was attending St. Joseph’s Boarding School in Nsambya, Kampala. I was around the age of 12, and I was caught in the thick of it, far from the protection of my parents. The war escalated quickly, so quickly that parents had no time to pick up their children from boarding school, especially those around the capital city. I stayed with my friend’s parents in Kampala. The National Resistance Army (NRA) under the power of Yoweri, on their way to capture the national Uganda Radio station in Kampala, descended on our building in search of opposing troops. They found my friend’s family and me in a parking garage and made us run across the street as they cleared the building. With the noise of bullets over our heads, during the race for our lives, I prayed, “God, if you save me, I promise I will become a missionary in Africa.” No pun intended! When that war ended, streets were littered with dead bodies for weeks and months. We picked up where we left off and life continued, devoid of color or thoughts of a better future. I thought that life was meaningless. The darkness of death, pain, suffering, torture and fear seemed to have no limits.
Hopelessness and powerlessness have a way of bringing what matters to the surface even as a child. Why was I born? What is the purpose of my existence? Is there life after death? The relentless conflict, corruption and death around me felt inescapable. At the time, I didn’t realize that the peace and security I wanted could not be found in an earthly government; I needed a Messiah.
I did catch glimmers of hope in rare moments, such as when my family went to church. Even though we mainly attended to account for who was alive, dead or sick, some of the songs we sang from the Church of England hymn book sparked my imagination. Looking back, I think God used these songs to help me think there might be a better future.
One of the songs we sang had the words Tewali munsi munno mulongofu (There is no one righteous in this world). Well, that was a plain truth. I had seen enough to confirm it. But then the song went on to say So nga tewaliba mu ggulu (and they will be none in heaven). What? So there is no one righteous on earth or heaven? I was confused. The song continued: wabula abantu be yalongoosa N’omusaaiyi ogwa Yesu yekka (except the people washed in the blood of Jesus). My confusion grew with these seemingly contradictory phrases.
As I meditated on these lyrics, I developed another kind of fear. What about when I die? Where would I end up? I felt there was more to life than what I was experiencing but I didn’t know where to turn. I thought that religion was full of contradictions and false hopes, and that people who professed to be Christians were living an illusion.
When I turned 16, I started attending a different boarding school, Namassagali College. This secondary school was run by an autocratic principal who mistreated students. Their authoritarian leadership deepened my distrust of authority. Reflecting on it now, my unwillingness to believe in a loving, caring God was partly due to the ongoing conflict in my country and partly to my rebellious nature.
One holiday, I returned home from boarding school and discovered my friend Robin had joined the ranks of the simple minded. You know, the crazy, weird, unintelligent people called (Abalokole) born again Christians. A Christian’s lifestyle was the opposite of what I grew up knowing. We did not live for the future because we believed there wouldn’t be one. Christians lived beyond today, in contrast to the typical lifestyle of seeking gratification in the moment. There was only one explanation for Robin, I thought. She must be about to die. I was wrong.
Robin kept pestering me to go to church with her. I agreed just to get her off my back. During the service the preacher asked people to come to the front of the room to be prayed over and make a commitment to Jesus. He kept pausing to say again and again that someone in the crowd still needed to come forward. “Was he talking about me?” I thought. “Maybe he is.” So I moved forward. At the service I heard about the author of life, the One who went from Heaven to Earth that I might have abundant life; that I might experience true peace and true security. I saw my need for a Savior. I asked God for forgiveness for my rebellion toward Him. In return He gave me a brand-new lease on life.
Even though our backgrounds are very different, we all share some universal challenges.
- Have you ever felt that no matter what you did, all odds were stacked against you?
- Have you ever felt that there is more to life than your circumstances but didn’t know where to turn?
- Have you felt close to death, or lived in fear of it?
- Have you ever wondered about the future, or doubted its brightness?
The size of our worry list tells us something about the size of our God. To be completely honest, before I understood the full scope of God’s intervention in human history, God seemed a lot like Jupiter: big, out there, far away and uninvolved in my life.
It turned out, as I got a clear understanding of who God is, that He was not offended or intimidated by my thoughts about Him.
Because God created us, He has the right to tell us how to live. He revealed His righteous and loving will when He created the heavens and the earth and assigned our place in it. As recorded in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, we messed up. Sin became our standard. I do not refer to sin here as theft, murder, lying, etc. These are sin’s effects. When I responded to the call to consider God as Savior that day, it was as if someone turned on a light and suddenly, I could see clearly. Before, I saw everyone as evil, and my rebellion was rationalized away. I was not as bad as other people. However, that day I realized that before God, I was not as innocent as I had assumed.
Jesus came to die in my place, to take the punishment I deserved for my rebellion against God. As Jesus died on the cross, the awful weight of all our sins fell on His shoulders. The sentence of death God had pronounced against rebellious sinners was lifted by Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus died for you and me.
The warring factors in Uganda had names like Uganda National Liberation Front and Uganda Freedom Fighters, but the truth was that they could neither liberate the country nor deliver freedom. The Bible records that Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Those people were thieves; they stole, killed and destroyed.
What I yearned for was peace, stability, security and freedom. Luckily for me, for all of us, Jesus came that we might have abundant life; that we might thrive and not merely survive; that we might have real freedom, freedom from known and unknown fears.
Becoming a Christian did not change the facts of my experience. It changed my perceptions and meaning of the suffering I witnessed. It is no longer about who I am or what my life is about but whose I am and what His life was all about. Apart from God, life used to be a lot of suffering with moments of joy. Life with God is a life of joy with some moments of suffering. I no longer feel alone, afraid, hopeless or powerless. The God of the universe is my Father. And that was the beginning of the abundant life He promises.
The good news is that your freedom, like my freedom, is already won for us by Jesus Christ–the promised Messiah. The Prince of Peace. To understand the freedom Jesus Christ offers, we must first grasp our shortcomings in light of God’s standards. In my case, good governance was desirable, but when the people in it are not good, they cannot stop holocausts from occurring. It is true that the atrocities I witnessed were a result of evil and corrupt men, but these atrocities were not the deepest cause of my troubles. They were simply symptoms of the same rebellion against God that I freely took part in. The Bible explains that by nature, we are all in a state of ruin. The plain truth is not hard to see: humans have a natural propensity towards selfishness, self-centeredness, lying, violence, anger, revenge, racism, lust, greed, pride–you name it. It is in this kind of the world that the prophet Isaiah’s message takes root: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). The darkness referred to here is not physical but the darkness of life without God; in other words, a life without true peace, security or joy.
My suffering and your suffering can be redeemed to serve His greater eternal purpose. For so many years, I believed there would never be peace on Earth. Violence and hate seemed too strong, but the Gospel story changed all that. Today people continue to be caught in war and conflict, in places like Syria and the Congo, to name a few. Political turmoil in more stable countries is having a major impact on citizens of otherwise prosperous nations and revealing deep divisions within and between societies. I know from experience that Jesus is truly the Prince of Peace. What a gift! It is His eternal government that brings peace and that government can be established today in each of our hearts and lives. Will you open your heart and invite Him in? My prayer for you is that God would grant you the gift of repentance and the gift of salvation.
Hope Wilson is senior policy analyst for vulnerable populations for The Salvation Army National Headquarters in Alexandria, VA.