Eternity in Our Hearts

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.

Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God. 

Don Richardson didn’t know it, but God had prepared the way long before he and his family moved to one of the most dangerous places in the world.

In 1962, the Canadian missionary, his wife Carol, and their seven-month-old son settled in western New Guinea – now known as West Papua, Indonesia – a spot that until then had remained largely untouched by modern culture.  Richardson hoped to bring the message of Jesus to the Sawi tribe, a group notorious for its violence and cannibalism. 

When he finally had the opportunity to sit with the leaders and tell them the story of Jesus, they were indeed impressed – with Judas Iscariot. 

The Sawi embraced deception as their ultimate value.  They were consummate actors, building friendships with the members of other tribes by continually offering expressions of trust.  Then, just when the new acquaintance felt fully confident that all was well, the Sawi would strike. 

What followed was a feast in which the “special friend” was served up as the Special of the Day.

The Sawi found Jesus to be uninspiring.  As Richardson later wrote, he was “just the dupe to be laughed at” – a fool to be mocked.  The real hero of the story was Judas, who tricked his way into Jesus’ inner circle and then sprang the perfect trap, sending his master to an inglorious death.

After several years, Carol and Don lost heart.  There seemed no way to penetrate the Sawi’s value system.  They prepared to return to North America, especially after witnessing the 14th bloody battle between the Sawi and their hated enemies, the Haenam tribe, just outside the Richardsons’ hut.

Hoping the missionaries would stay – especially because Don had been willing to share his steel tools – the Sawi promised to make peace with the Haenam.  But Richardson wasn’t buying it.  How do you prove your sincerity if deception is at the heart of everything you do?

That’s when members of the two tribes gathered again in his yard, this time to stage an elaborate ancient ceremony. 

The chief of the Sawi tribe walked toward his wife.  She screamed in despair as he took hold of their six-month-old son, holding him high in the air.  Then he gave the baby to the chief of the Haenam.  An interpreter explained to Richardson that the chief of the Haenam would rename this little boy and raise him as his own. He was now the Peace Child.  As long as the child survived and thrived, there would be peace between the tribes.

From time immemorial, in a trust-impoverished culture, this had been the only strategy the tribes had ever devised to make, and to keep, a lasting peace. 

Suddenly it dawned on Richardson that this was the breakthrough he had been seeking.  He later wrote, “If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted.”  The Peace Child was a “redemptive analogy” – an ancient story embedded within the Sawi’s long history, one they could understand. 

He gathered the Sawi leaders around him, and “with a pounding heart and dry throat,” explained that God had taken the ultimate risk by sending his own Son to live among his enemies.  He was the Peace Child for all humanity. 

Don and Carol spent the next dozen years amongst the Sawi.  Scores of them chose to become followers of Jesus, and Christ’s teachings now lie at the heart of their culture. 

Richardson went on to write Eternity in Their Hearts, a fascinating collection of “redemptive analogy” stories from missionary fields around the world.  The book became a must-read at many seminaries, including my own. 

Mission workers have long reported “ah-ha” moments when it seems, as if out of the blue, the mention of a particular word or idea sparks a breakthrough with an otherwise hostile or indifferent audience.

One indigenous people group had long cherished a story, faithfully passed on for generations, about the sacrificial death of an animal with a white wooly coat – a creature that was unknown to them.  When a visiting missionary described sheep, and Jesus as the Lamb of God, the group’s leader sprang to his feet.  “This is the news we have been waiting for!”  The entire tribe, in line with their leader, became followers of Jesus. 

The title of Richardson’s book comes from Ecclesiastes.  After Solomon writes, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time” – a phrase we noted yesterday – he declares, “He has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). 

“Eternity” is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘olam, which literally means “beyond the horizon.”  It connotes something everlasting – the recognition of an enduring truth that is just beyond our line of sight. 

It’s as if God has placed a homing beacon in every human heart – a yearning that compels us to look beyond our happiest day, our most memorable vacation, and our greatest accomplishment and say, “I know there’s something more to life than this.” 

Redemptive analogies aren’t limited to faraway groups in faraway places. 

Perhaps you’ve spent years praying for a family member or friend, hoping against hope that one day they will experience a flicker of spiritual recognition – an unexpected something that nudges them toward God.

Don’t give up

God has placed a hunger for eternity in every heart.

And even before it occurred to us to hope and pray for the ones we love, God was already preparing the way.