June 27, 2023
Many of us woke up a few days ago—Saturday morning, June 24, 2023—to sobering wall-to-wall coverage of the news out of Russia. It appeared that a potential coup or civil war was about to unfold against Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia—the first such unrest against a leader with control of nuclear weapons. By the end of the day a deal was reached and the immediate crisis averted—while leaving lots of uncertainty in the air.
As so many incidents do, this one yet again stripped away the illusion of security in our world. (If you want more background on the situation, you can find the facts at any news outlet or the short “Background” summary at the end of this piece on my website only.)
All day Saturday, as many of us listened to the experts sharing what a big deal this could be, there was a real undercurrent of fear. I spoke with many people that day to hear how they were processing it—average moms, young people, and even the wife of a foreign policy expert (and who was intensely concerned).
One woman summed up what everyone seemed to be saying: “What do we do with this? What do we do with this fear? This could literally affect the whole world. And there is also literally nothing we can do about it.”
So what do we do in times like this? How do we respond?
On Saturday, one of my team members pointed out, “We are only just coming up for air from COVID and the fear that overtook so many people.” She wondered, “How can we as believers look at situations like this, with all its uncertainty, and stand against fear and all the ‘what ifs’ rather than triggering all that anxiety again?”
That is a great question. Especially since these sorts of security issues are not going away in our world. (And the Russia situation itself is still uncertain and fluid.)
I can think of four key responses that will help every Christian—and every church—to not give in to a spirit of fear during fearful times. These are just a starting point, but they will help us and our kids navigate these seasons. I’m sure many of you have other good ideas to share.
We must be aware of and talking about “faith not fear” in the church
First, I think we need to be talking with our families, friends, communities and churches about how to confront fear. A non-fearful response in the face of a fearful situation doesn’t simply spring up naturally! It is a muscle that has to be built.
We also have to be aware of things that could cause fear for us or others. If we are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves out in the world (Matthew 10:16), we have to know what is going on and be equipped to respond to whatever comes up.
That may sound impossible, but it is not, because our primary response as believers is to be people of faith rather than fear, regardless of the individual situation that is causing the fear.
For example, in the coming days and weeks the Russia situation could calm way down or explode even more. No one knows. Which brings me to my main point: The facts will change in the time ahead. But even as the situation on the ground changes, our response should stay the same: faith not fear. In an insecure world, the church must be a place that discusses these things and equips followers of Jesus to build that mindset in advance of whatever happens.
We must be praying
I am guessing that most of us think we know the power of prayer … and still don’t give nearly enough weight to it. The woman I quoted earlier said “… And there is also literally nothing we can do about it.”
But there is something we can do about it! God has told us exactly what to do in times of uncertainty.
- Philippians 4:6-7—“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
- Colossians 4:2—“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.”
- Romans 8:26—“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18—“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
There are dozens of such scriptures about the need to pray. After all, Jesus relied on prayer!
I think these scary incidents in our world are wake-up calls to the body of Christ. We must be praying not just individually but corporately for God’s divine hand of protection and purpose to move in our world. Ask yourself: What might be different if every church around the world made it a point to pray for world events each weekend during worship services?
God has told us that prayer changes things. So let’s pray.
We must proclaim a mighty God
The body of Christ has an awesome responsibility to an anxious world. We know what everyone else needs to know: That a mighty God is on the throne and in control.
That does not mean that bad things will not happen. Jesus said explicitly that bad things would happen in this fallen world. As Ukrainian believers have been saying for the last year and a half, we cannot know why God allows tragedies and tribulations, but He is still in charge. He still holds the universe together by a word of His power. He is the Rock we can cling to. (Psalm 18:2: “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”)
Which leads to the fourth and final response for now.
We must proclaim our trust that this mighty God loves us—and live differently as a result.
Last year, after Russia invaded Ukraine and cities were reduced to rubble, one key Ukrainian Christian leader provided an incredible perspective on faith in the face of fear.
In an article in Christianity Today, Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia, said that the Bible verse helping him persevere through such terrible tragedy was Isaiah 43:2: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
He pointed out: “It is easy to trust God when nothing is happening, but it is when we are in the middle of an evil that is sweeping all around that we must rely on God. The heart is bleeding; but as the love of Jesus shines through tragedy, we can still find hope and joy.”
Those in the body of Christ are called to be people of faith and peace in the face of uncertainty, tragedy, and even chaos. Our job is to point others to not just God’s power but His love. I love Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The church has had practice with the “faith not fear” dynamic during these last few years of the pandemic. So many of us wrestled mightily with anxiety and worry. That was one reason why I put out my Find Joy devotional, to help us understand how to find joy no matter our circumstances.
Hopefully, God has used even such a difficult time to build our faith muscles. So as we look at the news, now is a time when we need to use those muscles and consider how to help others (and ourselves!) hold onto the truth and not get lost again.
I’m reminded of the biblical story of Jesus and the disciples crossing the sea of Galilee in a boat at night, and a violent storm coming up and threatening to capsize the boat (Matthew 8 and Mark 4). The disciples, understandably, freaked out, while Jesus was sleeping soundly. The disciples woke Jesus up and He spoke to the winds and the waves. Immediately there was a great calm. Jesus asked why they were so fearful, and called for His followers to trust in Him instead.
It is not easy. But when all around us are, understandably, anxious and fearful, we MUST be those who instead are people of peace. Because we can point our families, our community—and ourselves—to Jesus and say, “He is in control, and we must trust Him.”
Bit of Background on the Russia Situation, For Those Who Want It:
In case it is helpful, I’m putting back on my public policy hat here, just to summarize what I see as the most important background—and the main reason for concern. (You can find good analysis and even live coverage at most major news outlets.)
The key facts:
As many of you know, overnight, June 23-24, 2023, serious tension (which still has the potential to lead to more) developed in Russia. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the immensely popular, charismatic, militant and brutal head of the private Russian-based army the Wagner Group, took over Russia’s main military base that supplies the war in Ukraine. For much of Saturday, he appeared to be making a power grab against Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, as his well-trained troops advanced north toward Moscow.
Experts were raising the slightly terrifying specter of fighting in the Moscow streets within hours, and a “trapped” Putin who still had access to weapons of mass destruction.
Late in the day, there was suddenly a brokered deal between Putin and Prigozhin. The Wagner army turned around 120 miles from the capital, and Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia. The immediate crisis was averted. But as of this writing, foreign policy experts are saying this situation is probably not over.
How we got here:
The official Russian army is much larger than the Wagner Group, but has been decimated by corruption, immense losses, and poor morale as a result of the war against Ukraine. So one of the key ways Putin has actually been able to prosecute the war against Ukraine for the last year is via supplying and partnering with Wagner. Wagner is smaller (about 25,000 men), but generally a much-better-trained private military with recruiting offices all over Russia, just like the regular army has recruiting offices (there is no equivalent to this in most other nations). But because Wagner includes many former special-forces troops and is much better-run, many of the best soldiers have signed up with Wagner. (Wagner also recruits men from prisons, but that’s another story.)
Prigozhin and Putin used to be friends, but relations between them have gradually deteriorated. Prigozhin has claimed that Wagner has not been given what they need to fight the war, that his men are being sent to the worst Ukraine fighting without proper support (and thus dying in great numbers), and even that Russia has attacked Wagner’s positions. Prigozhin recently even questioned Putin’s stated basis for the war in Ukraine (the propaganda that Russia was liberating the country from Nazis).
On Friday Prigozhin claimed that there were Russian strikes on Wagner that killed a “huge amount” of his troops. So he turned on Putin and took over the main town (Rostov-on-Don) and military bases in southern Russia used to supply the war with Ukraine. Wagner troops began a march toward Moscow, and Putin said that Wagner “traitors” would be fought and punished. (There were some early reports that Putin left Moscow, but that is unconfirmed.)
The main reason for concern:
On Saturday, there was a very real possibility of Russian forces fighting Wagner troops. And foreign policy experts say Prigozhin can still control his troops from exile. Yet average Russians view Prigozhin as a hero —he is a figure of immense popularity. So no-one knows if the Russian army forces would truly fight their fellow soldiers in Wagner, or if some or all of them would just give in. And if they gave in, that could leave Putin becoming more and more isolated and concerned, with no obvious solution for “solving” the problem.
Even if Wagner troops never cause problems again, this has been the first true internal threat to Putin in 23 years and it has showed his weakness. (Instead of being able to confidently put down the impending coup by a group much smaller than the supposedly mighty Russian military, Putin had to ask the president of a tiny country—Belarus—to broker a deal to get Prigozhin to stand down.) There has already been infighting within his military leadership and experts say this is likely to accelerate that.
The experts are concerned about what Putin might do if he feels “trapped,” since he has access to weapons of mass destruction. They are concerned that IF he feels his power is increasingly threatened there may come a point when he feels that he has to “use them or lose them.”
As of this writing, immediate hostilities are avoided. But hopefully you can see why we need to be praying for God’s protection, and for His hand to move in this situation.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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