What you and the pope have in common

Pope Francis recently concluded his six-day visit to the war-torn country of Colombia. The hope was that his presence would lend gravitas and perspective to the trying circumstances surrounding the government’s recent peace agreement with the rebel group FARC. The two factions had been at war for roughly half a century, and the violence left behind multiple generations’ worth of scars that must now heal if the country is to go forward united.

Rodrigo Londono, the former leader of FARC, recently published a letter in which he wrote that the pope’s “repeated expressions about God’s infinite mercy move me to plead your forgiveness for any tears and pain that we have caused the people of Colombia.” Pope Francis told the Colombians on both sides of the conflict, “Do not be afraid of asking for forgiveness and offering it. It is time to defuse hatred, to renounce vengeance.”

While it would be only natural for such words to fall on deaf ears given the decades of pain and violence countless Colombians have experienced, there is hope that the pope’s message can bring about a real and vital change. As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos noted, “Colombia is one of the most Catholic countries in the world.” President Santos would go on to say that the pope “comes in the perfect moment” and that he “has tremendous leadership, and what he says is heard with tremendous attention here in Colombia.”

Many hope that the pope’s message to Colombia will be heard by those in neighboring Venezuela as well. Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, the archbishop of Caracas, told reporters that his people were eating garbage and dying of treatable diseases because of the deteriorating circumstances under President Maduro. Venezuelans have been pouring over the Colombian border in recent months looking for a better life, and Pope Francis met with several of their bishops. It remains unclear, however, to what extent his influence will bring about real change there.

You see, despite the pope’s best efforts, the situations in Colombia and Venezuela remind us that even the spiritual leader of some 1.2 billion people—40 percent of whom live in Latin America—can only influence those who will listen. Scripture is clear that there are those who will harden their hearts to God’s word and refuse to heed his truth, whether it comes from the pope or anyone else the Lord chooses to use (Matthew 13:11–15).

Often, one of the most difficult things for us to learn is that no matter how hard we pray or how many times we try to speak that truth into someone’s life, it is ultimately their choice to accept it. In a culture where people increasingly feel entitled to their truth rather than the truth, that reality is only going to become more common. As Christians, we can either see that and give up on those around us, abandoning them to the hardened nature of their hearts, or press on to help them come back to the Lord.

There will be times when both are necessary. Jesus instructed the disciples to shake the dust off their feet as they left behind those who rejected his message (Matthew 10:14). But he also urged them never to give up on the lost, pursuing them tirelessly until they came to salvation in Christ (Luke 15). The key is understanding which strategy will be most effective in a given situation.

Fortunately, we work under the guidance of a God who knows the hearts and minds of people better than they know themselves (Psalm 139). If we let him, the Holy Spirit will give us the necessary wisdom and discernment to know when continuing to press will only drive people further from the Lord or when it will help us finally move past whatever walls they have constructed to keep God out.

After all, surely the One who created and gifted us with the free will to decide for ourselves if we will serve him understands how best to work with that free will to lead the lost to salvation. The question we have to answer is if we will rely on his understanding or our own as we join him in that process.

Which will you choose today?