Steve on the Situation in Ukraine
MARCH 8, 2022
Years ago, two or three missionaries were killed in just a couple of months.
During that time, I suggested that the church recruit the biggest, meanest, and most intimidating Christians we could find, arm them, and send them to protect our missionaries. I even suggested giving the new mission organization a name: Christian Commandos International, Soldiers of the Cross, or even a new version of Knights Templar. It seemed reasonable to me at the time.
Pat Arnold—missions pastor of the church I was serving and one of the last missionaries out of Cuba when Castro took over—was horrified. He told me that Christians were people of peace and those murdered missionaries were the seed God would use to grow and build his church. While I quit talking about my idea, I wasn’t entirely convinced I was wrong.
I thought about that incident as we’ve heard the cries of those suffering in Ukraine. I have watched the videos and listened to the reports of death, suffering, and devastation in Ukraine. I am astonished at the power of evil. I wish someone would do something . . . somebody bigger than Putin. I understand the old farmer’s defense at his murder trial, “He needed killing.” I understand Bonhoeffer’s decision to assassinate Hitler. That’s probably a sin, but I’ll repent later if it is.
Probably with you, I feel so helpless. Our church took up a large offering for Ukrainian Christians, as did many churches. With Christians all over the world and in Ukraine, we are praying. Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms, willing to fight to the death for their country. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, has amazed us with his courage and leadership.
But it all seems so little and too late. Russia’s power, weapons, and sheer numbers are overwhelming. Everything seems so hopeless and futile.
Winston Churchill said, “Never waste a good crisis.” (Rahm Emanuel was quoting Churchill when he said it.) When Churchill and Emanuel say something like that, it is fairly cynical. But that’s exactly what God does. Nothing—including a major crisis like the invasion of Ukraine—is ever wasted in God’s economy. We may not see it, but God is sovereign, and every molecule in the universe is under his control.
So, what is God doing? I have no earthly idea.
When Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33), that included Ukraine. We live in a fallen and evil world. Scripture is clear on that and replete with illustrations. I can understand why so many are shocked by what is happening in Ukraine, but that should not be so with Christians. The preacher in Ecclesiastes said, “If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed . . .” (Ecclesiastes 5:8).
One of my favorite quotes is from Cyprian, Bishop of the church at Carthage in the third century, who wrote to his young friend Donatus: “This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide lands, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the high road, pirates on the seas, in the amphitheatres men murdered to please the applauding crowds, under all roofs misery and selfishness. It really is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and good people who have learned the great secret of life. They have found a joy and wisdom which is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are Christians . . . and I am one of them.”
And then there are the “signs of the times.” Jesus said to the religious leaders, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2-3).
It is appropriate for Christians to mark some signs.
For instance, I have been amazed at how evil has been unmasked. We live in a time when evil is ignored, explained, and denied. But, no matter your political, social, or cultural views, it’s hard to avoid seeing what is happening in Ukraine for what it is . . . evil in its rawest form. I hate the price being paid for that revelation, but still, when one sees the darkness of evil, it helps to see the beauty of the light. I’ve seen so many videos and heard so much from Christians in Ukraine and sing with Noel Paul Stookey, “When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?” On top of that, the way believers have spoken out and sent support to Ukraine is nothing less than astonishing. Paul said it best, “In the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” Christians “shine as lights in the world.” When it gets dark enough, you can see the light.
Another sign is the outpouring of prayer for Ukraine. No politician has called for a “Day of Prayer” (no surprise there), but they didn’t have to. As I was writing that sentence, I got a text (one of many expressing similar messages) from a friend in Atlanta, “I’m praying all day today that God will literally rain water and manna on Ukraine. Will you pray with me for just that?” Pastors, teachers, and leaders often call for “seasons” of prayer. I’m for that, of course, but frankly, it’s not going to happen until Christians are really scared, really confused, and really worried. We are that now and all of a sudden the “prayer closet” is filled with people. The farmer who said to his son praying in the middle of a hurricane, “Run, son! A scared prayer ain’t worth a damn,” was wrong. Sometimes we don’t get serious about prayer until we’re scared. At least that’s true for me. There is a correlation between my fear and my prayer. I pray best and most fervently when I’m scared.
Another sign is the “flicker” of grace and courage that one sees in the most difficult and dark circumstances. The country of Ukraine should have fallen under Russian rule in two or three days. Zelenskyy should have immediately fled or been assassinated. That’s what Putin (and, frankly, everybody else) expected. By now, Ukrainians should have been singing the Russian national anthem. We expected that, too. Instead, with tears streaming down their faces and joined by an admiring world, Ukrainians are singing the national anthem of Ukraine. Everywhere in the country, citizens—who should be running away waving the white flag of surrender—are, instead, running toward evil, waving the famous Gadsden flag with the rattlesnake reading, “Don’t tread on us!” I don’t know about you, but I find that inspiring. Heroes are never revealed when the sun shines and “all is right with the world.”
Then there is one other thing we should remember. History suggests that evil, even when powerful, is grossly stupid. Almost all the empires built by tyrants are in ruins, and the tyrants are dead and remembered for their evil. The Psalmist wrote, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord . . . He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psalm 2:1-2, 4). If I were Putin, I would be afraid . . . very afraid.
No, I’m not minimizing the evil or acting like everything is okay. This is a hard time, and I share the confusion, anger, and fear we all feel. But I’m also a Christian, albeit sometimes a poor one. Even poor Christians know the truth. Bottom line is we know that God is writing this story. When it’s finished—no matter how dark it gets in the meantime—we will sing “The Hallelujah Chorus” at the top of our lungs.
Oh, yes, Jesus said something more important in John 16:33 than just that we would have tribulation; he said, “But take heart; for I have overcome the world.”
He asked me to remember that and to remind you.