I must say, the attack by Russia on Ukraine has hit home a little harder than other wars around the world. Doubtless some of it is due to Ukrainian influence in my life (our area of Alberta had a significant presence of Ukrainian settlers). Probably it has a lot to do with the closer historical ties that Canada has had with Europe and events there (participating in both World Wars, being allied with the US during the Cold War). It makes me feel kind of sheltered and callous that I haven’t been as impacted by other wars over the years, but I also think it’s somewhat natural to be more impacted by events that seem more closely related to you.
Probably one of the biggest reasons for the shock that many of us feel is just the sheer injustice of the situation. While Putin doubtless had his reasons (NATO sucking up former Soviet Republics and therefore Russia feeling threatened), the rationale seems incredibly weak and nonsensical. I have never seen any indication that NATO was making any effort to threaten Russian militarily, and it could be argued that Russia is better off with stable European countries – peace seems to help everyone prosper. But more specifically, I don’t think most of us can figure out what, exactly, Ukraine did to deserve to be attacked by Russia. This feels like a naked power grab by Putin.
With that in mind, my mind and heart turn to the countless citizens of Ukraine suffering due to this conflict – hundreds of thousands, now even millions, fleeing the country due to the warfare; people unable to flee forced to hide or fight; the complete lack of access to food and necessary resources; the apparent targeting of civilians by Russian forces (and, even if it’s not clear how “targeted” they are, the clear death of many civilians due to the conflict). The entire situation seems unnecessary and completely unjust, and my heart cries out both for resolution and with a desire to see God “solve” the situation – to rise up and protect the weak and helpless, a theme we see often in the Bible.
As my heart cries out, it is easy to ask, “Where is God in all of this?” This is the type of event that causes many people to doubt that God even exists. As many have voiced in the past, if there really is a loving God, how could He allow something like this to happen? How can He stand by while a dictator runs amok, an army invades, and thousands of people – many of them completely innocent – die? We face this internal conflict – on one hand crying out for God to intervene, on the other, giving up completely on Him and even denying His existence. And this type of internal conflict isn’t just limited to this war. It arises through many different challenges we all face in life, both big and small. Sickness, accidents, tragedies, death, corruption, injustice, destruction… At times, both personally and socially, we feel surrounded by evil and injustice, and it makes us long for God’s salvation – or despair that He cares not or exists not.
So how do we deal with the incredible unfairness of life and still believe in a loving God?
One of the most enlightening exercises for me in this regard is to ask myself, how would God stop this from happening? If we think about the war, God could have:
- caused all the Russian military weaponry to malfunction
- miraculously prevented them from entering the country (“What do you mean, ‘All the vehicles are out of gas’?”)
- destroyed the Russian army before they attacked (a la Isaiah 37)
If we push things back a bit further in time, God could have:
- prevented Putin from even contemplating this idea
- had Putin “removed from office” somehow (coup, assassination, struck dead, etc.)
- given different advice through his advisors
Or, if we want to go a different direction, God could defend the Ukrainians by:
- providing angels to guide them to safety (like Peter in Acts 12)
- providing “protective shielding” to keep them safe (Daniel 3, anyone?)
- bringing the dead back to life (Jesus’ ministry, Paul a few times)
There are probably lots of other ways that God could correct these injustices if we thought hard enough, but my realization is this: To end injustice, God would have to miraculously or directly intervene, either completely overriding the will of one or more individuals or preventing the anticipated result of someone’s actions, thereby making their choices completely irrelevant. And this is only speaking about the Ukraine situation. If we start addressing all of the personal injustices that we face, God would have to micromanage every aspect of humanity’s interactions. Basically, we would be nothing more than God’s playthings. By preventing every injustice, God ends up controlling everything. We can have free choice or we can have perfect justice, but we can’t have both.
But what about…?
This raises the question, though… What about the fact that God has intervened in human history, as I have referenced above a few times. As Christians, we would argue that God does answer prayer and does still perform miracles. At times, sickness is healed, injustice is rectified, and miracles happen. How can we believe that God does work at times, but still say that He doesn’t work at other times?
I see four factors that impact our understanding of God’s work in the world.
First, we need to understand God’s relationship to the world as a whole. It seems that God set this world up as our world, and gave us the responsibility of governing and developing it (Gen. 1:26-30). I think we could make an argument that we were to have this authority with God’s assistance (God bringing Adam the animals to name, for example), but Adam and Eve rejected that shared authority for their own path. The result is that humanity is governing the world without the guidance of God, and making all of the unwise choices that accompany even our best intentions. The biggest result is that God stepped back. I would argue that for the most part, he does not directly intervene in human history. Even if we consider all the stories in the Bible and all the reports that we sometimes hear of miracles, the vast, vast majority of life is governed by us making our own decisions and God allowing it.
The second factor is God’s overarching plan. When we read the Bible, it appears that humanity will not exist forever, but that eventually, our existence will end. There’s a lot of debate about what that will look like, but that seems to be the story. And throughout the Bible, we seem to see God developing a plan to save as many as possible – first Abraham, then the nation of Israel, then Jesus… He seems to be working in history so that when things conclude, as many as possible will enter into life instead of death. And in so doing, it seems that He directly intervenes at times to keep things on track and to further his plan. It’s not outright control, but it is “shaping” it to avoid the worst consequences and open as many doors as possible to as many people as possible (just as we shape our kids’ experiences to guide them in good paths – sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly).
The third factor is similar, but on a more personal level. God desires that each individual come to know Him and that they be transformed into His likeness and become the person He created them to be. At times, there is divine intervention in human lives for individual purposes – answering specific prayers at key moments, sending dreams and visions, healing people, doing miracles. But the opposite is also true – often God refrains from doing these things for the same reason: To help someone in their personal growth, their understanding of Him, and to place their trust in Him. Most of the time, God seems to trust that the guidance He’s given us (revelation in nature, our conscience, specific revelation through the Bible and history) should be sufficient for us to question life and seek Him out.
The final factor is perhaps the key to all of this. God is a person, not a “force” or principle. That means that there is no clear way to identify God’s reasons for allowing injustice on one occasion, and intervening directly in another. There’s no “secret formula” that will get God to answer our prayers or save us. It’s not that God is capricious, randomly tossing out miracles or favouring some people over others. It just means that He’s got a far broader perspective than we do and we will often never fully understand them. We look at a situation and say, “If God only intervened here, then I would praise Him, and people would love Him, and everything would be better!!” But God knows better. I mean, look at Jesus – he did non-stop wonderful works and his reward was not commendations and a joyful praising of God, but rejection, betrayal, and crucifixion. So when we think that we or others would praise God if only He would intervene, then we are deceiving ourselves about the true nature of humanity. God knows best when to intervene and when not to. And mostly, He seems to choose not to, in accordance with the desires of Adam and Eve – and, to be honest, ourselves.
A Different Gift
God has chosen to interact with humanity in a completely different way than we expect. Rather than overwhelming us and controlling everything, or responding to our every whim (basically we control Him), He has chosen to work with and alongside us, to the extent and limit that we allow. This shows up in two ways:
- In Jesus, God lived this imperfect, unjust existence with us. He experienced the worst that humanity has to offer, including an extremely painful, unjust death. Whether it’s in the middle of a war zone, then, or in our own daily struggles and injustices, we experience not a God who miraculously solves all of our problems, but a God who is with us, who sees everything we experience and gets it. It is the gift of companionship and understanding. And when we add to that his victory over death, it is the gift of hope and perseverance in the middle of our trials. Life will win, and justice will be served. There are times when this doesn’t feel like enough, and we think He should do more. But there are countless testimonies from many people of the deep comfort that has come from knowing that God understands, is with us, and will handle all of the injustice in the proper time. The people of Ukraine are not abandoned. God is there with them, and He will bring both justice and peace in the proper time.
- Just as God gave us this world as ours, to develop and govern, so He calls us to be His hands and voice in the world. He does not control us or intervene in most situations, but He offers to walk with us as we tackle the injustice of this world. This is most evident in the Church (although imperfectly), where God grants His people His Holy Spirit to do His work and follow His leading. But it is also seen outside of the Church, where people respond to the general revelation God has given and to being created in His image, and do the good works that He desires – whether they know or acknowledge God or not. God’s response to injustice is not to solve the problem miraculously, but to call us to respond appropriately. He created us for this purpose, and is more than happy to walk with us as we do our job.
At the end of the day, as much as I struggle at times with the question of “Where is God” and the desire to see Him intervene, I come repeatedly to the conclusion that God is, indeed, present in every situation. And while He might not intervene miraculously very often, there’s nothing wrong with asking Him to do so! And in the meantime, He is with us – each of us, whether we acknowledge Him or not – and is gently lobbing the question back to us: “This is your world, My gift to you. Where are you in the midst of this? How are you helping? I am with you, too, so let’s see what we can do.”
May God guide us as we respond to the injustice of this war and the world around us.