The Ukrainian war has turned everything upside down in our lives in a matter of a few days. We see a tragedy and untold suffering unfolding before our eyes, and we ourselves have been knocked for six and old certainties have melted. We need to walk with Jesus in this, and here I wanted to share seven observations that I’ve made over the last few days. This isn’t meant as a ‘biblical view’ of the war, or a theological statement. They are simply pastoral and personal observations as I try to come to terms with what is happening.
- A proper response should involve lament
Good Calvinists like me run quickly to God’s sovereignty in these situations because the hope of God’s absolute control brings huge comfort. And, of course, I have done that myself, have counselled others to do that, and will continue to do so. The problem, though, with good Calvinists like me is that we jump over lament. We want to do what every man wants to do: fix things. We want to fix things with God’s sovereignty.
Don’t misunderstand me. The Lord’s control of all things is a wonderful, powerful, glory-filled encouragement. The problem isn’t that we focus too much on his sovereignty, but that we focus too little on biblical lament. It is clear that the Scripture, when read carefully, is full of lament, groaning and crying. Take out lament, and you will lose a large part of the book of Psalms.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
It’s striking that the destruction of Jerusalem led to the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament. Maybe the assault on Kyiv should do the same in me?
Accordingly, as we look at Ukraine, we need to learn to stay in the emotion, and lament with Jesus over the evil, destruction and mayhem there. The Bible shows us that suffering isn’t something that is quickly ‘fixed’ with doctrine, but it is to be borne, carried in our emotions and cried over.
- Courageous leadership is very powerful
President Zelenskyy has already become a great war-time leader, rallying his military and people by personal example. He has demonstrated statesmanship, strength and, above all, incredible bravery. Videos of his speeches, both before and after the invasion, have trended all over the internet. He has stood his ground, refused to leave his city and not fled to the US when he easily could have. Here we have a comedian-turned-president who has found his courage at the most frightening of moments. It is, of course, one thing to deliver great speeches in a time of peace, but something else to do that when you may be shot or blown up at any moment. I know nothing about Ukrainian politics but this man, who, it seems, had been facing declining popularity, has now risen to the occasion. The crisis has drawn character out of him. The impact has been obvious: his courage and willingness to sacrifice himself has become the rallying cry for the rest of his nation. It has inspired the world. Courage, like fear, is a virus: it spreads.
We’re not used to seeing such courage. We’re accustomed to leaders looking for votes and popularity rather than laying down their lives. In recent times, a good number of church leaders have been exposed for being immoral, self-serving and abusive. More generally, our cultural priorities are comfort and self-preservation, rather than service and self-sacrifice. One has to wonder to what extent we have forgotten courage in our lives? What are we really living for? What will we die for? What is ultimate in our day to day? What kind of leader am I?
While I’m thankful for Zelenskyy, and admire him for his courage, I also know that we have one greater than Zelenskyy to inspire us. Courage is ultimately driven not by a human role model, but by the cross. Of all the people on earth, Christians should be the most courageous as we have both the perfect model for this life and the sure hope of life beyond death. Let’s find our courage there.
- Gender difference is real
If there is any subject that is explosive in our culture at the moment, it is the question of gender. Given that background, it’s striking how gender differences have become very obvious in our present crisis. With the advent of war, the women and children have been, and are being, evacuated from Ukraine, while the men stay to fight.
Now, of course, I know that women are also fighting, and making Molotov cocktails (praise God for their courage too!), but no one bats an eyelid over the evacuation of women, do they? As terrifying as it must be for any man to stay and fight, it seems that everyone recognises that there are obvious gender differences that kick in. We can avoid the Bible and what it says, but we can’t escape God’s natural law. This is how God has made the world.
- We will need a full understanding of what evil is
The last week has made clear that our liberal, relativistic, therapeutic culture does believe in real evil. It has been happy to condemn Russia and Putin. One former British politician said, on-air, that people shouldn’t call Putin ‘mad’, but ‘bad’. In other words, we do still believe in bad-ness. This presents us with a challenge though, and we will need a very nuanced, carefully thought-through understanding of evil in the weeks and months ahead.
Firstly, we will need to be wary of an easy ‘us versus them’ worldview. Scripture teaches us that sin and evil run through all of us: Russians, Brits and Ukrainians. No one is innocent.
‘There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.’
This means no culture can throw condemnatory stones at another culture, and Christians must resist all kinds of jingoism. Even as we confront evil we know that the seeds of the worst things are within our own hearts too (and British history has enough evil in it to fill plenty of books).
Secondly, we believe that evil is ultimately spiritual.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms
That means that we can look past some of the easy caricatures our culture will make of the ‘enemy’. We know that the real ‘enemy’ is the Enemy. So, while we know that certain kinds of evil have to be fought on the battlefield, we also know that Evil itself can only be defeated spiritually - with the word of God and the blood of the Lamb.
They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
Thirdly, with all the above said, we also need to be careful, as believers, that we don’t come across as bizarrely relativistic. The problem can be that, in our eagerness to say that we’re all sinners, we can make it sound like every action is just as evil as any other action. Christians can end up saying that, ‘we’re all Hitler or Putin deep down.’ That is a wrong way of explaining sin, as the Bible (and life) makes an obvious distinction between different kinds of sins. We all participate in Sin, but we don’t all sin in the same way and sins are very different from each other. A jealous heart is not the same as genocide, and impatience is not equal to invasion. When Jesus says, for example, in Matthew 5:27-28 that lust in the heart is adultery, he is not erasing the distinction between a lustful thought and an affair. Rather, he is making sure that we know that our hearts and secret thoughts matter to God. We’re not all guilty of the same things, nor do we all sin to the same degree.
We will need a full and complete understanding of what evil is as we face the months ahead.
- Justice requires that we pick a side
The developments over the last week have been remarkable. Within the space of a few days, long-term neutral countries have left their neutrality behind. The EU is sending weapons to Ukraine. Germany has increased its military spending. An incredible and unforeseen development has transformed international politics. Countries have picked sides.
So should we. In the face of injustice, to do nothing is to accommodate evil. Of course, some might ask why we should support Ukraine in this conflict, and why that is the ‘just thing to do’. A full answer to that isn’t possible here, but we can say that the invasion is a basic contradiction of just war as it has been defined by Christians down through the centuries. (See https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/a-brief-introduction-to-the-just-war-tradition-jus-ad-bellum/ for details). That makes the war fundamentally biblically unjust. We have to take a stand. Of course, it is often right for us, particularly pastors, to keep our mouths shut on political issues and current affairs. We don’t need to speak out on every issue, and we should be careful not to conflate our faith with a particular opinion. There are, though, other times when we must speak, pray and act in clear ways because the Bible calls us to act justly.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
We have to stand and defend the oppressed and victimised. CS Lewis said, ‘It is not your business to succeed but to do right; when you have done so, the rest lies with God.’ We need to pick sides. Of course, we should also understand our context, who is in our congregation and what the various issues are. We can do this carefully - but we should do it. And, in doing this, we don’t need to think that Ukraine is sanctified, nor that it is without sin, just as we don’t think that about the UK. We don’t defend people because they’re sinless but because they are sinned against. God’s justice calls us to act.
- We live with the danger of nuclear war
I remember having nightmares about nuclear apocalypse when I was a teenager (which is a good few years ago!). I have never been concerned about nuclear annihilation since that time - until last Sunday afternoon when Putin mentioned taking Russia’s nuclear weapons to a higher state of alert.
As a result, I’ve been pressed to ask myself the terrifying question, ‘would God let nuclear war envelop us?’ It is a question we really don’t want to think about but we are forced to from our circumstances. God’s sovereignty is a great place to start in thinking this through. His sovereignty reminds us that catastrophic events are mysteriously under his control.
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.
Even as Putin’s finger is on the button, there is one who holds the atoms in his finger together, who keeps his heart beating and who allows the electrodes to fire in his brain.
In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels towards all who please him.
The world hasn’t spun out of control and we’re not subject to the whims of an autocratic regime.
A further hope is found in the covenant with Noah.
I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.
The Lord promises never to annihilate the human race again. There will be no more all-encompassing flood. The Lord Jesus will return to the earth to judge, and there will be people there to see him come as lightning across the sky (Luke 17:24).
However, we also know that God’s sovereign care, purpose and love can strangely, mysteriously and, provocatively, still allow the Holocaust and the Black Death to happen. Catastrophes and terrible wars still come. So, while we can be confident in God’s ultimate purpose for the world, we also know that civilisations come and go. There doesn’t seem to me to be any biblical reason why some kind of nuclear exchange could not happen. Our bit of the world can be wiped out - as other civilisations have been wiped out - even if the world itself can’t be.
This is obviously not particularly comforting, but it should, as the reality of death and judgment forces itself upon us, galvanise us:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
There are kingdom priorities for our lives. The gospel needs to be preached. Whatever happens, let’s go to heaven ‘with our boots on’ living for and making Jesus known.
- This second crisis is our second chance
In the space of a few weeks, we’ve moved from the frying pan of a pandemic into the fire of war. We have lurched from one disaster to a new catastrophe. Of course, this is a different kind of crisis with a different kind of impact, and, maybe there will be peace. On the surface though, it looks like it will get worse.
The only upside to this is that at least we’ve had one go already at dealing with a global crisis. We have already had a lesson in learning that tomorrow is uncertain (James 4:13), and to be less afraid when old certainties fall apart (Psalm 46:2). Over the last two years, we’ve already learnt a lot about how crises work, and how we ourselves work. Now we get to try it all over again - even if it has a different feel to it. There may well be things that we wish we had done two years ago, but now we get a second chance. Let’s not squander it but make the most of what God has given us.
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.
We may have regrets about how we responded and lived during the pandemic, but now we get another go at caring, believing, hoping and evangelising. And we don’t have to do it all in front of a computer screen!
We would, very understandably, much rather be without everything that we’re facing now. But, by faith, we can walk into it, knowing that this is a road that has already been mapped out for us by our Father in heaven.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”