How can you answer troubling questions about God that have no easy answers? How can you talk about God’s love to traumatized people in a war zone, when God seems so distant and disengaged from their suffering? During my weekly Bible study that I conduct for a group of 20-30 doctors (pictured below) in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I’m often asked, “What should we say to our patients, whose family, friends, or neighbors have been driven from their homes or brutally murdered?” In Eastern Congo, some six million people have died due to violence, starvation, and disease over the past 25 years. Their nightmare has raised earnest questions about God that are difficult to answer, such as, “Does God care?” and “Why didn’t God protect us?”
Meanwhile, in Europe, Russian troops are wreaking havoc across Ukraine, thousands are being injured or killed, and over three million people have been forced to flee the country in a matter of a few weeks so far. In Asia, as you well know, the crisis in Myanmar continues unabated and the suffering keeps multiplying. Everywhere there is great suffering from injustice and violence, the same kinds of questions keep arising among Christians. Even my Burmeses theological students want to know, “Are we suffering because God is punishing us?” “Is God ignoring us?” “Should we expect any help from God?”
In my role as seminary professor and Bible teacher in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia over the past 15 years, I’ve been asked these kinds of questions repeatedly by people who are being traumatized by genocide, war, or oppression. However, rather than try to make up answers to unanswerable questions or offer up false hope, it’s been far more helpful to admit the limitations of human understanding about God and to focus practically and realistically on how we know that God works in the midst of great evil.
As I have struggled with my own understanding of what to expect from God, I have longed ceased to put my hope in God’s sudden appearance out of nowhere to save the people. I’d be delighted for any miraculous intervention God may choose to make, and I pray for God’s help and deliverance daily. But most of my hope rests on how God works in, among, and through those who know, love, and serve Jesus Christ.
I have never had a vision of Jesus, but I see Jesus in his body of believers all the time—in their compassionate acts of kindness, self-sacrificial service, hospitality, and generosity. They are riddled with all sorts of imperfections and failings, yet they treasure their relationship with God. They keep drawing from the well of God’s love and grace for light and life in the midst of their darkness. They love Jesus, and they genuinely want to share Jesus’ love with others. And do so, sometimes even at great personal cost.
It’s been inspiring to me to see the outpouring of support for those who are suffering in all the places where I serve— including, Ukraine, Myanmar, and the Congo—both from faithful followers of Christ within the countries and from a wide variety of caring people internationally. This is surely part of God’s plan to minister to those who call upon the name of the Lord in their distress.
There are no easy answers to the cries and confusion of people in a war zone. Nevertheless, when we, as the body of Christ, fulfill our purpose to be the heart, voice, hands, and feet of Jesus, the world will know that there is a God who cares. The power, presence, and love of God will be evident for others to experience through us. And we who serve in Jesus’ name will be less overwhelmed by the evil all around us, because our eyes will be focused more on what we can do and less on what we can’t; on what God is doing through us, and not on just on what we hope and pray that God will do for us.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
This video was inspired by conversations with Burmese people inside of Myanmar, who feel powerless to stop the oppression, to keep their country from becoming a completely failed state, and now, to stem the advance of COVID-19, which has recently begun to spiral out of control. Hundreds of people are dying every day in Yangon alone, and COVID has spread to 90% of the townships throughout the country. The junta is increasingly shutting off access to oxygen and pharmacies for the people. Many are just waiting for someone in their family to get sick and die.
No one knows how long these crises will last or how much suffering they must endure, just as many others throughout the world live under the constant threat of abuse, exploitation, or unbearable hardship. While many are praying, watching, and waiting to see how God may intervene to help, at times it is easy to feel hopeless. It’s precisely in such moments that Jesus’ offer to help carry our burdens is so relevant and needed. Jesus’ presence, in and among us, is God’s great gift to comfort, strengthen, and encourage all those who follow him, especially when there seems to be so little hope for our circumstances to change.
Ahlone, mingalarbar. I’m Dr. Tim Geoffrion, a biblical professor with another spiritual word of encouragement for my friends in Myanmar.
This is a horrible time for all of you. I know very well that your suffering is great. As I listen to the news and talk to so many of you, I know that many of you feel very frustrated and are discouraged. Every day is a living nightmare. You may be praying to God for help, but the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better. More and more people don’t have enough food to eat. Just today, I got another message that more and more people are dying due to COVID. It’s hard not to feel hopeless sometimes.
If that’s how you’re feeling, Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew are especially for you today. As Jesus was spreading the Gospel and teaching people about God’s love and God’s ways, at one point, he turns to the crowd and says,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
As you know, out in the villages, you can easily find carts being pulled by animals. When there are two animals, they are usually joined together by a common yoke—which is often a wooden frame that goes over the necks of both animals. By being yoked as one, they move together and work together, and the result is that their work is easier than if just one of them had to pull the cart by itself.
The spiritual meaning or image is clear. Jesus knows very well how heavy our loads can be and how tired we can get trying to carry them. And so his message is a word of encouragement for those who believe him and who put their trust in him. If we will take on his yoke, then we don’t have to carry our load by ourselves anymore. He will always be with us, and his presence will be an abiding source of strength for us. And furthermore, compared to trying to go through life without God or trying to handle all our stresses and problems in our own strength, Jesus’ yoke is “easy and light.” Life is not easy and light, but putting Jesus’ yoke on us, submitting to his ways, trusting him, following his ways make it easier for us to find our ways through this life and to handle the darkness when we come into it and have to face it. He also said that he is “gentle and humble of heart,” he says, and if we are willing to learn from him, we will find rest for our souls.
For me, my relationship with God through Jesus, is my absolute lifeline. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious, which is in the past five or so months has been pretty much every day, the best thing I can do is to reach out to God, not just to ask for deliverance from my enemies and problems, but to simply connect with the Source of my life. I may get away by myself to pray or meditate on Scripture, or I’ll step out into Nature or look at the stars at night, just to remind me that I have a Creator and that there is still some beauty left in the universe.
Another way that I like to experience Jesus’ presence is by meeting with other followers of Christ. The idea is this, as Jesus is in me, so he is in them, so that when we gather together in Jesus’ name, his Spirit truly is present among us. And that’s what I experience.
This past week, for example, I joined a dozen colleagues from Myanmar for a prayer service online. We read Psalm 143 together, and each person shared how the psalm had spoken to them and had given them encouragement. We listened to one another and prayed together. And at the end, even though on the outside, things were still very dark and dangerous throughout Myanmar, everyone who was there felt stronger and encouraged because of our time together. And that was just one experience of the week. Every day, I’ve had many other such experiences with brothers and sisters in Christ who are going through tough times; but what we all have in common is that we share the yoke of Jesus Christ. We look to Jesus for guidance. We look to God for help, not just to solve our problems but to be our source of strength to face our problems.
The spiritual truth from these verses is this: When so much has been lost and the future is frightening and uncertain, you still have a hope that cannot be taken away from you. In the midst of so much that you can’t control or change, the presence of God through the Spirit of Jesus is the one solid rock you can stand on. Keep praying for God’s deliverance and intervention, but in your time of watching and waiting to see what will happen, don’t forget to also keep reaching out to Jesus. He’s the one abiding source of peace and strength that you can draw on to help you through the night.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day, as I have been.
ကိုယ့်ကိုယ်ကို ဂရုစိုက်ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
In this short video, I talk about where I see God’s light shining amid the darkness in Myanmar’s current crisis. The darkness is great, but the power of God’s love is inspiring and very encouraging, as lives are being nourished, strengthened, and changed among those who are actively seeking to reflect the light and love of Jesus Christ.
Ahlone. Mingalarbar. I’m so glad you are watching this week’s video. I’m Dr. Tim Geoffrion, a biblical professor and a friend to the people of Myanmar. I’m particularly looking forward to sharing something with you that has been really encouraging to me this week.
But first, in case you haven’t been following the news, the situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate. Since just February 1, there are now some 175,000 newly Internally Displaced People (IDP’s). This is on top of the 370,000 IDP’s that were already living in camps or church yards or makeshift structures prior to the current crisis. Many of these new IDP’s are running for their lives. They have become extremely vulnerable, living in the jungles, in caves, and small villages, some of them just waiting to die. As the rainy season begins, many of these people will not have adequate shelter, food, or medicine.
Some of the stories I hear are horrifying and very frightening. And every day, I’m terrified thinking about will one of my students or colleagues or acquaintances be arrested, beaten, imprisoned for years, or even killed. These are indeed dark and difficult days for all those who live in Myanmar, and it’s that way for all those of us who love the Burmese people.
In this video, as I suggested at the beginning, my purpose is not just to update you on all the darkness, but also to talk to you about where I am seeing God’s light, shining in the darkness, and why I feel so encouraged.
Every day, I keep hearing new stories about individuals and groups of people, all over the country, who are providing rice, advocating for the defenseless, praying with the broken-hearted, helping people escape from danger, listening to one another’s stories, visiting the sick, and so much more. The love is coming from so many different places and going out in so many different directions. As a result, many people are surviving who would not otherwise; many people are finding some strength, and encouragement that would just not be available if it were not for those reaching out to them; and, among those who are giving so generously of themselves, even at great personal risk, I’m seeing more smiles on their faces, energy in their voices, pride, satisfaction, and inner strength. It’s really beautiful, and very encouraging, because it says to me, God is present, and God is at work. There is hope.
From a spiritual point of view, what I’m talking about is what happens when we accept God’s call to be a conduit of his love to those around us. By letting God’s love flow to us and through us, we experience the abundant life that Christ came to give us. We rediscover the hope that the Holy Spirit wants to breathe into our hearts. We find meaning and purpose, because we are taking our eyes off ourselves and giving our lives to serve others, just as Jesus taught us to do and showed us how to do by his amazing example (Mark 10:45)
I like the way the Apostle John explained it when he said, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; whoever loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).
This past week, I was particularly encouraged by hearing about one young seminarian, a person who chose to become an instrument of God’s love and light to some fellow refugees. He, himself, had recently barely escaped after a dozen rocket propelled grenades were fired into his home, in a compound where he lived. After moving from place to place, just to survive, he finally settled in a place, at least for now, and he got the idea one night of holding “family devotions,” something he experienced as a child growing up. But he did it with nine other refugees, who weren’t actually related, but in those circumstances, they were a small family, victims of the same catastrophe, huddled together, so far away from home, facing the same fears and dangers. Under this young man’s leadership, they spent time reading Scripture, praying, and just talking and listening to one another about their fears and experiences with one another. By his own account, he didn’t have much to offer them, but he gave them what he could. And that was something really precious, in that moment, for that day, in that hour, when people in need needed to experience Jesus, and needed to experience God’s love.
So, it’s stories like this one that are encouraging me so much this week. This is where I see the power of God’s light and love sustaining and changing lives, in the midst of so much darkness and evil.
Until the next time, let God’s love flow through you. I’ll be praying for you every day.
ကိုယ့်ကိုယ်ကို ဂရုစိုက်ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
မြန်မာပြည်အမြန် ငြိမ်းချမ်းပါစေ (Peace be upon Myanmar soon.)
Today, I’m going to talk about a spiritual practice that has been very helpful to me when I feel so powerless and angry, especially in those situations where someone I care about is being treated unjustly or being mistreated, and when I feel so limited in my ability to help. This is the second short video (6 minutes) in the current series, “Light in the Darkness.” I’m creating these videos in support of the Burmese people who have been suffering greatly in Myanmar as a result of a political coup on February 1, 2021. (Video is in English with Burmese subtitles.)
I’m not there in Myanmar facing danger every day, the way that so many of you are, but every time I hear about another killing, or that one of my students is fleeing through the jungles to escape capture, or that refugees don’t have enough food or medicine, I want to do something to help. But, in so many cases, there’s nothing I can do. I feel so frustrated, frustrated. I feel angry. I feel helpless.
At such times, I’ve learned how important it is to be willing to accept my powerlessness, to lament, and to reach out to God for comfort and help.
In Psalm 137, we find a great biblical example of lament. The ancient Israelites had been conquered by the Babylonian army and forced to live in a foreign country. It was miserable for them. They hated it, but they couldn’t do anything about it. And we get this picture of masses of exiles, sitting down by a river, just weeping with sorrow, and shaking with rage.
Listen to just a couple of the verses from this psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion [their homeland]. … O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”
I used to wonder, how could such violent words be in the Bible? But after all that’s been happening lately in Myanmar and in many other places around the world, I think I understand better now. The Israelites had to get all all their sorrow and grief and rage out of their system. And they had to reach out to God to help them, and to reach out from a place of emotional honesty.
When Mindat was under attack, recently, I was so upset and angry. I kept looking for ways to do something, anything that I could to help. Yet, it seemed like there was nothing I could do. I had watch helplessly as people were being hurt and people were fleeing for their lives. I could feel myself almost getting frantic in my desperation, but then I remembered what I’m supposed to do when I feel this way.
So, I found a quiet place. I took a deep breath. As painful as it was, I let myself feel my powerlessness. I didn’t stop caring, but I reminded myself that I have to accept my limitations. I have to wait until God shows me what I can do; and until then, I have to rely on God or someone else to do what I cannot.
Well, as I began to let go of what I could not control or do, I began to feel more peace. And with greater peace, I began to feel more strength. And little by little, I didn’t feel so powerless anymore.
The spiritual truth behind this practice is this: When we feel so much distress and pain, and our lives have been so wounded, and when we feel so overwhelmed and consumed with fear or despair, we need God. We need God’s help. We can’t face these things on our own. And so, we need to cry out to our Creator, who is the Source of our life. We need to cry out to the one who can renew our life when we feel as if we are about to lose it. We need to sit with our power-lessness. We need to lament, and we need to wait for God’s power-fullness, which comes to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
As the Apostle Peter said, “Humble yourselves…under the mighty hand of God, so that he may life you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pet. 5:6-7, NRSV) Amen.
Trust this. Let go of your powerlessness. Lament. And then reach out to God, reach out to Jesus Christ. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the life that you can’t get in your own power.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day.
ကိုယ့္ ကိုယ္ ကို ဂရုစိုက္ပါ (Take care of yourself.)
ျမန္မာျပည္အျမန္ ျငိမ္း ခ်မ္းပါ ေစ (Peace be upon Myanmar soon.)
I’m in the process of creating a series of short videos to support and encourage the Burmese people and all those who need and want God’s help in the midst of their suffering. Each video focuses on one spiritual truth, based on the teaching of the Bible, my faith journey as a Christian, and decades of experience as a minister and professor of New Testament and Christian Spirituality. Though the immediate context for this video series is the attempted military coup in Myanmar, the spiritual truths discussed are applicable for all those who are facing overwhelmingly difficult times and who are looking to Christ for guidance, strength, and courage to face their darkness. (This video includes Burmese subtitles.)
Today, I want to talk with you about where we can find some light in the midst of this present darkness. And I wish I could tell you when this nightmare is going to be over, but I can’t. Instead, I want to share with you something that I’ve learned, which helps me in difficult times.
There’s a well-known story in the Bible that explains how our Creator reached out to us to shine light into our darkness. When I reread that story this week, I realized again that this is not just a story for history, this teaching expresses a spiritual reality that is relevant today, especially in times of great evil.
You know the story. It’s about Jesus and the life that comes to all those who put their faith in him. The Apostle John put it this way. He said: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5, NRSV). That’s the critical point. The darkness, did not, does not, and will not overcome the light of God.
You see, when all we can see around us is darkness, we need to remember God has not abandoned us in our suffering; and through Jesus, we have a continual source of light, strength, and courage to face whatever it is we have to face, because he helps us to know that there is something more than the darkness. Through the Holy Spirit of Jesus, we have a deep source of love that we can draw on, love from God for ourselves and also love that that we can draw on to spread his light and love to other people.
Now, it’s true, evil-doers are going to do whatever they can to try to swallow us up in their darkness. But they will not succeed. Oppressors can suppress and try to control us; but, they cannot force us to believe a lie. Darkness cannot overcome the light. Once we have seen the light of God, we will never accept the darkness as truth. Once we have seen the light of Jesus, nothing can extinguish the hope that he brings, not now and not for eternity.
Jesus himself said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). He didn’t say that there wouldn’t be darkness. There’s a lot of darkness all around us. Rather, he’s saying that in the midst of the darkness, through himself, through Jesus, we will always have light to guide us and to comfort us.
Think about how helpful it is to have a flashlight, or, some kind of light on your phone or from a candle, to shine into the darkness when we have to be outside at night, or when all the lights are off inside the house. The darker it is, the more valuable and precious is the light. If everything is light around us, we don’t need a flashlight. But that’s not our situation now, and that’s certainly not the situation in Myanmar. Right now the night is very, very dark these days, we need Christ’s light more than ever.
Friends, I don’t know how much darker things will get in Myanmar or how long until we see light at the end of the tunnel. But I do know this: There’s light that comes from our Creator God that is available to you right now, and this light can shine faith, hope, and love into your hearts. There’s life that comes through Jesus, which can give you strength and courage, peace and even joy, such as when you are with the people you love. Or when I sometimes experience the most joy is when I stop focusing on my problems and take time to share God’s love with others by caring for them in their distress and need.
This is our Creator’s plan for how we may encourage one another. This is how Christ shines his light in the darkness. So, look to Jesus as the Light of the world; and keep bringing his light and love to one another, and see what a difference that will make.
Until the next time, I’ll be praying for you every day.
There’s a lot of screaming going on right now. Emotions are running high, political opinions are polarized, and each side is predicting the end of democracy if the other candidate wins. November 3 is the official, designated Election Day, but who knows when all the votes will be counted and the country as a whole will agree who has been chosen as the next President of the United States. And Christians are in the thick of the debates, consternation, and furor.
Discerning the will of God
Disagreement among Christians is nothing new. In the early church in Jerusalem, there were “sharp disputes” among the leaders when it came to the right interpretation of the Gospel in various contexts (e.g., Acts 15:1-21). Paul and Barnabas disagreed, on at least one occasion, on the best candidate to accompany them on their missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). Christians disagreed on lifestyle matters and religious freedoms, and they were prone to judge those who believed differently than themselves (e.g., Romans 14:1-5). At times, there was even inadvertent discrimination against various ethnic groups and leaders were charged with neglecting certain minorities, causing an uproar in the church (e.g., Acts 6:1). So, it should not surprise us today that sincere Christians would, at times, vehemently disagree with one another. There simply is not just one correct Christian view on community values, priorities, freedoms, policies, treatment of immigrants and minorities, etc.
The challenge for Christians does not come from the fact that we are disputing with one another and have sharp disagreements. No, the real issue is how do we do so in ways that honor Christ, glorify God, and truly lead to constructive outcomes. The Bible does not give a clear formula for how a church or society can always discern God’s will for the community. Rather, the biblical ideal calls Christians to learn how to listen to one another and seek God’s leading and will together. As individuals, we are called to submit ourselves to God, offer our lives as “living sacrifice” in the service of God and others, and to seek personal transformation by renewing our minds, so that we can discern the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2).
Of course, most biblical teaching refers to the Christian community and not the secular state. Furthermore, the political situation was different then from what it is today in the USA. Though the United States is republic, as was ancient Rome, prior to the empire, most early Christians would not have been Roman citizens or have had the right to vote. Yet, we can extrapolate from the teachings and examples in the New Testament to draw the following, simple guidelines at election time.
Biblically-based guidelines for making a responsible decision
Take your status as a member of society seriously and fulfill your responsibilities. Biblical writers taught Christians to be good (moral, responsible), participating members of society to the extent that was available to them (e.g., Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).
Be prayerful, discuss issues with other believers, and seek wisdom from God (e.g., Acts 15:6; James 1:4-7).
Listen to your conscience, have the courage to have your own opinion, and then act in faith. Whatever your position, Paul says, “Be fully convinced in your own mind” (Rom. 14:5).
Don’t judge those who take a different position or who choose to vote differently than you (Rom. 14:1-4).
Whatever you say or do, be thankful in your heart for your privilege and opportunity to vote as a citizen in a free society, and always seek to bring glory to God by your actions (Rom. 14:6; 1 Cor. 10:31).
Trust God to work for good in your individual life as well as in the nation, regardless of the outcome of the election (e.g., Romans 8:28-30).
In other words, in the secular context, in America, when it comes to voting for a particular presidential candidate, discerning the will of God mostly comes down tobecoming well-informed, being prayerful, staying open to the leading of the Holy Spirit to change your heart and mind when need be, making the best decision you can, and then filling in the little circle in front of your chosen candidate’s name on the ballot in time for your vote to be counted.
The upcoming election: Our choices
While most of us are going to choose (or have already chosen) between Trump and Biden on Election Day (rather than a third party candidate), the positions people take are more complicated than just being for or against a particular candidate. As I see it, there are roughly six different clusters into which we could group ourselves as well as other people. The first three clusters of citizens would likely vote for Biden, the second group of three for Trump.
Identifying the various groups helps me understand myself better–where I fit, how I may still differ from others who are voting the same way, and how I might be able to explain my choice more easily to others who are voting differently. It also helps me better understand someone else who is making a different decision, and to realize that, when a friend or family member votes for a candidate I’m not choosing, it doesn’t mean that he or she has lost all sensibilities, values, or faith!
Cluster 1: Extreme left. Variously defined, they will include socialists, communists, antifa, anarchists, et al. They will vote for Biden (or some third-party candidate) because he is far closer to their views than is Trump.
Cluster 2: Genuine supporters of Biden, who generally embrace the Democratic platform (e.g., universal health care, reform criminal justice system, special emphasis on protecting civil rights widely, etc.). They are not extremists but are proudly liberal on many issues.
Cluster 3: Those left-leaning independents, moderate Democrats, or disaffected Republicans, whose greatest concern is the potential negative effect of four more years of a Trump presidency. These folks may even favor some of the Republican platform policies but consider Trump and his leadership to be a bigger threat to the future of America than a Democratic president and Congress.
Cluster 4: Those right-leaning independents and moderate Republicans, who appreciate many of Trump’s accomplishments and actions taken as president, though they may be critical of his undesirable characteristics and behavior. For these folks, the Republican policies and platform are more important than how well they like the individual candidate.
Cluster 5: Those who both embrace the Republican platform and greatly appreciate and admire Donald Trump as an individual. They view him positively, possibly even the political, social, and religious (rights) savior of America and champion of Christian causes (most notably, pro-life/anti-abortion). They are conservative and probably very religious.
Cluster 6: Extreme right wing. Variously defined, they include libertarians, white supremacists, white nationalists, and Ku Klux Klan. These folks will vote for Trump (or some third-party libertarian) either because they discern that he is more or less secretly one of them or because Trump will lend support to their causes far better than Biden ever will.
So, which cluster is most suitable for a Christian? For whom should Christians vote on or before Election Day?
The answer is, there is no “right” answer–that is, one that is right for everyone. The decision is up to you. If you’ve done your homework, if you’ve been prayerful and open throughout the discernment process, if you have been willing to think for yourself, and if you are willing to act according to your own faith and conscience, then your decision is the right answer for you.
You may not like your choices (few of us do). You may be afraid of making a mistake or of being criticized by others for your choice. But, don’t let any of that hold you back. This is what comes with taking your responsibility as a citizen seriously. Please vote for someone of your choosing. It’s what you can do.
The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they [do something they don’t believe in], because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
The test of democracy is not simply about how well we follow the rules in selecting our leaders and participate in the process as citizens. The real test is in how we handle the results—and in how we treat the other side going forward.
No matter if our candidate won or lost, we need to find ways to work together with those who think differently than we do. It’s not going to be easy, but we have to get past thinking about politics as a win-lose endeavor. Especially as Christians, win or lose, we are called to think about the common good and the interests of others, not just our own. (Philippians 2:4)
If our candidate won, we don’t gloat but we keep trying to engage in respectful dialogue with those who think and vote differently. We think broadly, and seek to create policies that serve as many people as possible, not just “our own.” If our candidate lost, we don’t pour contempt on the winner, sulk, or withdraw. We roll up our sleeves and do whatever is still in our power to work for a better nation, doing whatever we can to represent our views to decision-makers.
What does this mean practically? It means the same thing it has meant for the past eight years under Barak Obama, for the two terms Bush served in the same office, and for the past two hundred forty years since the beginning of our republic. Each of us has a voice, and each of us has the privilege and responsibility to participate and contribute wherever we can.
We work for good on the local level. We advocate for our views on the state and national levels. We try to build bridges to those who see things differently. We work even harder to present and express our views to those who don’t understand or accept them. We contribute to charitable organizations and political activist groups we believe in. We even protest loudly and visibly, when need be, but without violence or malicious actions that only cause further damage or alienation.
In other words, there are right ways to participate in a democracy, and there are wrong ways. There are constructive options, and there are destructive ones. Especially at this time in the USA, after such an ugly and offensive campaign season, our country needs to find ways to pull together.
The Apostle Paul taught us to use the freedoms that we cherish so much to build up and not destroy (Ephesians 4:29-5:1). When teaching Christians how to conduct themselves both in the church and in society, the Apostle Peter said, “Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1). And then later on in the same letter, he commanded his readers, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:16-17). In other words, we are expected to live what we preach. We are charged to model what we say we believe about human rights, dignity, tolerance, and decency.
Going forward, some of us will be in position to be political or social game-changers. If you can do something big, by all means, do it. Most of us, though, will find our greatest opportunities to contribute simply by trying to be our best selves in our families, at work, at church, and in our local communities. We will make a difference by relentlessly seeking to be Christ-centered and Spirit-led in every possible dimension of our lives, no matter how others behave or react toward us.
The day after the election Hillary Clinton quoted the Apostle Paul to encourage her supporters to stay engaged in society, even though they lost the election. It’s a good verse for all of us, no matter who you voted for. Paul said, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
Each of us can choose our attitude going forward, and each of us always has options for taking action. Nothing can stop us from contributing if we are determined to do so. The question is never, “if” we can do something, but “what,” “how,” and “when”?
This fall, I’ve been far away from the United States, teaching seminary students and other Christian leaders in Myanmar. I voted by absentee-ballot, but otherwise could only observe the American political and social scene from a distance. I continue to be distressed and embarrassed by the name calling and hostility back and forth between opposing sides. I am anxious about how the new leadership will conduct itself. I worry about the fallout from the ongoing culture wars in America . But I’m choosing to not to focus on what is outside of my power to control. Instead I’m focusing on what kind of person God is calling me to be and the opportunities he’s giving me to make a difference.
At the very least, I pray that Christ’s love and light will shine through me in all my dealings with others. I will keep asking the Spirit to empower me to live by my values, to be the best husband and father I can be, to serve well in all my responsibilities, to keep working to build a stronger global church, to do my part to be hospitable to foreigners and marginalized people in my own country, and to promote better international relationships when I am teaching and ministering abroad. Beyond that, I plan to stay alert to whoever may be negatively affected by governmental policy changes, especially those who cannot advocate for themselves, and to use whatever power I have to stand with those who have less power.
This is what it means to me to serve Christ and to be led by the Spirit in the real world, with so much conflict, distress, uncertainty, and suffering. No politician, governmental policy, or authority figure can take these possibilities for doing good away from me, from you, or from us as we keep working together. Some of our goals and efforts may be opposed or thwarted, but if our cause is right, God will work for good in some way through us.
Whether your candidates won or lost, may God enable you to stay rooted and grounded in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the leading the Holy Spirit. May God give you eyes to see all the open doors before you to work for the common good, and give you strength to not grow weary in doing all you can for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.
Once in awhile someone asks me or implies that Christians should vote for one particular candidate over another. I vehemently disagree with this point of view in almost every situation I can imagine. Rather, I would say all citizens, including Christians, have a responsibility to be as informed as possible about the issues and to vote. Their decision should be based on their best effort to determine the issues, and to listen to their consciences. Unfortunately, too often, the most responsible vote requires choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, choose we must.
I value prayer as part of the discernment process for me, not as an infallible guide but as a resource to help me to sort out my own thinking and values. We have to be careful not to identify one or two issues as the whole measure of whether a candidate is acceptable to Christians. Rather, our responsibility is to vote for the candidate and party that, on the whole, will best serve the interests of our country at this time, under the current circumstances.
Then, from the perspective of faith, we must also put our hope in what God is doing—not to elevate one candidate over another, but to produce the kinds of changes needed at a deeper level within individuals and society. One of the students at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, where I am currently teaching, sent me a link to a very interesting essay written by an Asian-American pastor on Christians and voting. In it he urges Christians to look beyond the candidates to God, the one who is continually at work for good in the world, no matter who wins. Looking to God is not instead of voting, rolling up our sleeves, or otherwise working hard to alleviate suffering and provide better governance. Praying and seeking God’s help is acknowledging our limitations and our dependency on God to change our hearts and minds in ways we don’t seem to be able to do very easily on our own.
Our country and world are in mess, but that is not exactly news or a modern phenomenon. Since the beginning of human history, we have been continually in a struggle to make the world a better place amid so many destructive forces both within us and among us. We need to do all we can to address the plethora of challenges facing us, but no American politician is going to be the Savior of the world. That role belongs to Jesus Christ, and no matter who wins the election, we are going to need all the help we can get from him.
May God give each of us the ability to be a good citizen at this critical time, and to increasingly let the love of Christ flow through us to others all the time.
A Prayer from the Apostle Paul
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” —Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV)
Do you know that “all mixed up” feeling? Your stomach is churning, and you’re just not yourself. You’re feeling a lot of inner turmoil, and you don’t know what to think or what it all means. You realize you’re getting a signal that something important is happening within you, but you’re not sure what to do with the feelings or how to go forward.
Maybe you’re feeling that way right now. I am.
Since returning from Africa a couple of weeks ago, I have felt all mixed up inside. I feel like I have gotten in way over my head, and am being called to go even deeper.
Seeing firsthand again how much suffering is still going on in Rwanda is very upsetting. The genocide ended in 1994, but thousands of orphans, widows, violated women, and maimed individuals have had to carry on, often with very little help or resources.
Now that Jill and I have informally adopted one of these surviving orphans (pictured above with me), we are learning more and more about how difficult life truly is for some people. I feel increasingly disturbed and unsettled by Théoneste’s plight (https://spirit-ledleader.com/?s=Theoneste), and I am desperately trying to work through my emotions.
In my distress, I can feel myself being drawn to God. I need comfort and I want help. So, on the way home from Rwanda, while in Chartres to drop off our “Africa suitcase” for our trip to Congo this winter, I found my way to the Cathedral to pray.
I sat awhile in front of Jesus of the Sacred Heart statue, contemplating Jesus’ compassion, and asking God to alleviate the suffering of the Rwandan Christians. I stayed even longer in apsidal chapel (pictured above), contemplating the crucifix. Surely “the Man of Sorrows” had something to say to me that might help.
What was I supposed to learn from everything I saw and experienced? Is God calling me to do something? What?
Many thoughts and ideas raced through my head. However, the most powerful notion was not of any specific heroic act of service.
Rather, what I sensed in that quiet place of prayer was simply a call to keep going. The Holy Spirit was saying, “Take the next step of faith. Don’t stop now. Don’t be afraid, and don’t worry about what I might ask of you. Let all that you are experiencing penetrate your heart as deeply as you can, and let it change you. I am taking you deeper and deeper in our relationship, and I will show you what I want you to do for these people….”
There are countless reasons why you may be all mixed up inside today. However, why you are upset is not as important as what God wants to do in you through your distress. Your turmoil is an opportunity to draw closer to God and to be transformed in some way.
Jesus’ life and death shows you the way forward. God may be allowing you to suffer with others, or even unjustly at the hand of others, so that you might become more willing to suffer for others. The Holy Spirit is teaching you to love.
We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:16-18, NRSV)
The Point: In the midst of all of your inner turmoil, God is certainly at work in you, even if you feel all mixed up at the moment. Keep looking for how God may be transforming you through your distress and teaching you to love. As you increasingly embrace the suffering of others, say “Yes” to the Holy Spirit, and keep going in your day-by-day, step-by-step, walk of faith.
Prayer: “Loving God, please help me to trust you in the midst of my turmoil, to embrace better my own pain and distress, and to not be so afraid to see and feel the depth of others’ suffering. Grant me grace to feel the fullness your compassion, to respond more and more fully out of your love, and to take whatever steps of faith you are placing before me now.”
Her husband and children had been killed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, along with over 800,000 others. Hacked to death actually. In this case, by her next-door neighbor.
The killer was sent to prison, but his wife and children still live in the same place. Every day for the past 15 years, “Sarah” has had to walk by their house and be reminded of the horror of that night, of all she has lost, and of all that she must continue to suffer because of what happened. On top of it all, the killer’s wife resents Sarah for causing her husband to go to jail, and is cold and rude toward her.
Then, about two weeks ago the unthinkable happened. Sarah decided she couldn’t take living under this cloud any longer. She took a friend from her church and knocked on her neighbor’s door.
When the woman saw Sarah standing there, she screamed. She left the door hanging open, ran into the interior of the house, and locked herself in the bathroom. When her children begged her to come out, all she would say was, “Run away. Run away. Don’t you know they’ve come here to kill us!”
Sarah and her friend sat down inside the living room and waited. Yet, when the woman refused to leave the bathroom, they decided to come back later with a different friend who knew the woman well. When Sarah returned the next day, this time the neighbor nervously let them in.
What happened next is beyond my comprehension.
Sarah fell on her knees and began pleading with the woman. With tears streaming down her face, she begged for forgiveness. Sarah was sorry that she had been so judgmental of her neighbor. Could she forgive Sarah?
At this, the neighbor dissolved into tears. “No, no! I should have been the one to go to you to ask for forgiveness,” she cried out. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me!”
A miracle was happening.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Sarah to live next door to the family of the man who killed her husband and children for all those years, let alone comprehend living with the memory of their brutal murder. But going to ask the man’s wife for forgiveness?? What in the world?
Yet, there she was. She did it. And in an instant, years of hatred, guilt, shame, fear and grief were transformed. I don’t think for a minute that all of their pain is now gone forever, but real healing took place in a way that I have never experienced or heard of before.
I heard this remarkable story from Agnes (pictured above), one of the participants in the Pastors Leadership Training Conference I was leading in Musanze, Rwanda, last week. Agnes runs a ministry to promote reconciliation between about 200 Hutu and Tutsi women, and offers in-home care for many of those who are especially struggling, some of whom are HIV positive due to being raped at the time of the genocide. Her face was literally radiant over what had just taken place the week before, and she kept bubbling over with joy as she told me all that God was doing in so many different lives in the community.
I, on the other hand, was absolutely speechless. I wanted to run out of the room and find some place to weep. I don’t cry that easily, but I had been hearing so many tragic stories of human suffering from the genocide. What few seem to realize is that the nightmare is still going on for thousands upon thousands of orphans and widows living in poverty, struggling to survive without their husbands and fathers, and constantly being reminded of the massacre in myriad ways.
I had been working with 50 pastors for the week, and I was feeling the unimaginable heaviness that each pastor carries from the ongoing legacy of the genocide. The traumatization was evident in their tired eyes, grim faces, and slumping shoulders. Many of them clearly bore deep scars, and perhaps deeper secrets they could tell no one. They were clearly people of faith and dedication, but I didn’t even know if true healing under such circumstances was possible.
But apparently it is.
Sarah’s authentic expression of longing for healing collapsed a seemingly impenetrable wall of judgment and mutual hatred. And in the face of such humility and vulnerability, the neighbor woman refused to cling to her defensive denial and projection of her guilt and shame. Their heartfelt response to one another made real repentance and reconciliation possible.
I still don’t really get it. But I want to learn from these women. And I want to spend more time with people like Agnes and many other men and women I’ve met in Rwanda, who show Christ’s love in such practical ways, and who work tirelessly to help survivors and perpetrators alike to build new lives post-genocide.
And I want to never forget that the unimaginable is not only possible on the side of darkness and evil. God also does unbelievable works of grace in the lives of those who look to Jesus Christ for healing and help, who cry out to him in their longing and despair, and who obey the leading of the Holy Spirit and step out in faith.
I realize now that my flood of emotion when Agnes was speaking was only partly due to all the pain and suffering I was seeing. My heart was breaking because I suddenly knew I had given up on God too easily. Some part of me had stopped believing that such miracles were still possible. I was in Rwanda to inspire, teach, and encourage pastors and leaders, but I needed to hear Sarah’s story to break through my own despair and to revitalize my own faith and hope once again.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:13-18, NRSV)
The Point: Just because we can’t imagine how God can help in certain dire circumstances doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit cannot exceed our imaginations. We serve an unbelievably compassionate and powerful God, who can do unimaginable works of grace in the lives of those who depend on and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Prayer: “Loving God, please forgive our lack of faith and despair when we cannot imagine how we might forgive others, or experience healing and transformation. We believe, yet we need your help to dispel our lack of belief. Please do in us what we cannot do in ourselves or by ourselves. Thank you.”