It was Sunday morning, Feb. 27, and I was getting ready to deliver my final sermon at church. Shortly after 9 am I received a push notification that Vladimir Putin, just days after invading Ukraine, elevated Russia’s nuclear forces to “special combat readiness.” This is Russia’s highest level of alert.
It was a surreal moment considering that my text was Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
My immediate response was fear, which surprised me. All the cold war feelings of the early 80s rose up and said, “Privyet. Kak dela?” I didn’t panic, thankfully, but I had to process my emotions for a moment. My heart rate and breathing sped up. I walked out of my bedroom to the living room and sat on the couch. I asked myself: Is this real? Why is this happening?
It didn’t take me long to rein in my thoughts and return to baseline. I reminded myself of the passage I had been studying and the notes I had made. I thought of other promises in Scripture and found hope and peace in God’s sovereignty over the nations. Lastly, I knew that while Putin may have his finger on the proverbial “button,” within the providence of God he is limited in his ability to act.
These are not wishful thoughts of self-delusion. These are words of faith and comfort that are found in Scripture and are promises to God’s children. Verses such as “it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18) gave me the peace of mind I needed to process the invasion itself. And in processing the invasion, I began to relive my experiences in Ukraine.
I first went in 2011. It was a quick turn-around, from Wednesday to Sunday, and was designed to establish partnerships for future trips. I was one of four men who went. We stayed at the Kiev Theological Seminary and spent most of our time in and around Kiev, travelling back and forth across the Dnieper River. In between meetings with local partners we were driven around the sprawling city to take in the sights and see some of the history and architecture. Despite the cold (it was Feb. 3-6), the snow, both fresh and stained black along the sides of the roads and walkways, and the gray skies, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the monuments and the bleakness of the Soviet-style apartment buildings. Saint Sophia Cathedral, with its golden domes, stood out in the heart of the city testifying of a better country, while the Motherland monument, with its stoic facade facing Moscow, pointed to something decidedly less-blissful.
My second visit was summertime 2013. The bitter cold of the previous trip was replaced by a stifling heat. I spent very little time in Kiev, heading west to Dubno for two weeks. Dubno, a historic center of Judaism and, later, the location of a Soviet airbase, is in the Rivne Oblast along the route to L’vyv and ultimately Poland. Rivne is best known, though not widely recognized, to Windows users as the setting for the “Tunnel of Love” photo of train tracks disappearing into foliage. The town of Dubno is shaped like a poorly formed Pillsbury crescent roll that is angled towards 7 o’clock, and I stayed in a dacha in the upper right corner of the city. My team worked with нове життя Церква (New Life Church) running camps for children, both local and from other parts of the country. Many of these children were orphaned or functionally orphaned by parents who sent their children to live with relatives while they found work in other towns or countries. While we did not speak Ukrainian or Russian, we were able to communicate with ease. This was due to the presence of translators. Children around the world value the same things: attention and interaction. We provided these despite our language and cultural differences.
My memories from Ukraine, only a few of which I have mentioned here, continue to flood my mind. Since the initial invasion, the actions of the Russian military assault have become more and more inhumane – not that invading a sovereign nation is a humane action to begin with. As of the writing of this post, a women’s and children’s hospital has been bombed in Mariupol, thermobaric vacuum bombs have been used, despite laws preventing their use against civilians; there is concern that biological and chemical weapons could be employed by Russia under the false pretenses of retaliation. There is even speculation that Putin might use tactical nuclear weapons, especially if he feels that Russia is losing the war. Sadly, due to Putin’s erratic nature and desire to dominate his objectives, this thought cannot be easily dismissed.
Which brings me back to where I began: my emotional reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Immediately I thought about the potential of nuclear escalation, which was the environment in which I was raised. What was America’s answer in the early 80s? Red Dawn, Firefox, and Rocky IV. Send in Patrick Swayze, Clint Eastwood, and Sylvester Stallone and “the Commies” would never know what hit them.
That’s not the real world and never has been, not then, not now. In the real world, tyranny exists. Dictators want to conquer and subjugate other nations and cultures, and they will inflict pain and suffering to do so. This has been true since the dawn of civilizations, since Cain killed Abel, since the Fall. What we are witnessing in Ukraine has been done before and will be done again until Christ returns. That may be both comforting and discomforting. Reality is often both, at times simultaneously.
Which raises the question: how do I process this, especially since my heart is hurting from the senseless pain and suffering that will be a way of life for so many from this point forward? I know that ending the armed conflict will not diminish the trauma that has already occurred in the people of Ukraine. Fear. Uncertainty. War. Hunger. Fleeing. Explosions. Death. These cannot be glossed over or merely forgotten.
For the answer, I can only go back to Scripture. In Matthew 24, Jesus says: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains” (vv 6-8). Jesus Himself tells His followers – us – not to be overly alarmed when we witness or hear about wars. This is not a denial of the horror, it is an acknowledgment that God is still in charge, even during the times when it seems least likely.
Conflict, on any scale, is the normal result of a fallen world. Yet wars are not the end but point to the end, to a time when wars will forever cease. [Without going too deep into eschatology, I hold to the belief that the “end times” is the period from Christ’s ascension to His return.] In this passage, Jesus is saying that just when things seem to be at their worst, and signs of defeat are everywhere, then take heart because He is on His way.
From this truth I turned to one of the greatest gifts and weapons that has been given to all Christians: prayer. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” While the immediate context refers to philosophies and teachings that are in opposition to Scripture, the broader context includes all spiritual warfare. Prayer is a weapon of divine power.
The Bible makes it clear that Christians have been commissioned by God to pray about “all things” (Philippians 4:6), which includes the actions of a power-hungry despot. I should pray, and continue to pray, for the situation in Ukraine: the Ukrainian people, its leaders, and military; the Russians, its people, leaders, and military, and; the conflict itself. I should pray that God would restrain the evil and allow help to get to the victims. I should pray that the gospel would go forward despite the war, that God’s kingdom would expand notwithstanding these evil acts. And I should pray knowing that God already knows these requests before I ask and has promised that He will work all things according to His will (Matthew 6:8, Ephesians 1:11, 1 John 5:14-15).
I am still heartbroken at what is happening in Ukraine and to the Ukrainian people. Wars and rumors of wars are a devastating testimony of our fallen nature. Thanks be to God that He is not only in complete control, but that He also inclines His ear to our prayers.
May the grace of God protect the people of Ukraine.