Christian Ministry in Time of War
How are we to do Christian ministry in time of War? We need a theological understanding of war; but we also need a theology for practical ministry – both during war and in its aftermath. Even through the horrors of war, however, Jesus is building his people, invading all nations, and leading us to Victory. A solid theology will show Christ is in our midst, not only in peacetime and in recovery from war, but in the midst of the madness. We must help the Church Militant fight its real battle, the spiritual battle for men’s souls.
Wars begin and wars end, and whether a war is a ‘just war’ or not, it leaves in its wake destroyed property and multitudes of torn and broken people. Historians will record and debate, chronicle and evaluate. But life will go on, and people must rebuild their lives. Christ, however, is not only present in the aftermath. He is with us in the midst of the mess. Ministry is especially needed at times like these.
We need a solid theological understanding of war to guide our practical ministry – both during war and in its aftermath. A proper theology will instruct our view of Mankind and culture and history and mercy, affecting our ministry in practical ways, even showing us what Jesus means when he says to “Love our Enemies”.
We must provide a theological perspective for all of life (including war), providing the hope of the Gospel, as well as directing the many types of ministry that flow from it.
How can we minster Grace in time of War?
A. Ministry to Soldiers in Time of War
Nations at war tend to call on religion for vindication of their just cause. “In all pagan nations, in all ages, the secular and the spiritual powers have been blended as inseparable parts of the same governmental machinery.” But it is false prophets who incessantly claim that “God is on our side.”
The Church must be very careful on this point, for we serve a higher Kingdom. The Scottish church and Southern Presbyterians in the USA have insisted on a doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church. This doctrine was tenaciously defended by Stuart Robinson and James Henley Thornwell. By “Spirituality” they understood that the Church’s main focus and allegiance is to spiritual matters, and although by her speaking she may influence society and politics, the church must maintain a separate stance, speaking independently. Her members, however, may and should engage the culture, speaking and participating actively as private citizens.
If we are not careful to maintain this independence, we may end up serving “the Beast”, becoming a false church serving an unjust government in an unrighteous cause. Revelation calls this “the Great Harlot” when a religion serves the government, instead of serving God, her husband.
We must carefully examine our theology, bringing a faithful and prophetic word to our own nation – supporting righteousness. We must preach that “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Pr 14:34) Repentance must also be part of our message to our own people.
If our nation allows official chaplains, then we must remember that our main calling as chaplains is to minister God’s word, and not to serve the earthly world powers. Part of our ministry is to bring a Kingdom perspective on such issues as these: patriotism, obedience, duty and service to your country, pride, bravery, boldness, Providence and the Sovereignty of God, showing mercy, humane treatment of all men, protection of property, dealing with collateral damage, leadership, etc. These are messages that the warrior needs to hear.
There is a proper ministry of the church to the citizen at war, and we must indeed carefully instruct soldiers, ministering the one, eternal Gospel to both Christian and non-Christian.
In order to minister, we need a Theology of War that encompasses fully the Sixth Commandment (that the command “not to murder” is not the same as “not to kill”), along with a Reformed understanding of that command. As the Westminster Larger Catechism states in Question 136:
What are the Sins Forbidden in the Sixth Commandment?
The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labour, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.
Sin, hated and war begin internally, and this commandment envisions this internal warfare in Question 135: “the Duties Required in the Sixth Commandment” include “resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any.”
Along with these ministrations designed specifically for soldiers, we must also provide ordinary Christian ministry to soldiers, including the regular preaching of the Word of God, the sacraments, fellowship, and continued evangelism and discipleship among the troops. This is especially needed and effective in time of war, since men are especially sensitized to their own condition.
We must also bring balance to the soldiers who are at war, helping them make war without hatred. They mustn’t dehumanize the enemy. They should respect the image of God in him, even if the enemy doesn’t see himself in that way. Our goal in war is not his destruction. Our goal is to stop his advance, to change his will to fight, and not to murder him. We should only make war because we love peace and defend the helpless.
B. The Soldier’s Self-Image
Several years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I shared a train compartment with a drunken Afghan veteran who boasted, “I’m a Major of the Soviet Army, and I have killed men with these bare hands!” His identity was bound up in what he had been, and he couldn’t escape the past.
Men who are skilled in the art of war are trained to deaden their feelings, much like warhorses. Horses are gifted by God with the instinct to respect human life and to avoid trampling men. Yet, some horses and men can be trained to destroy, training them against nature to kill and maim their fellow creatures. Yet, there are consequences to our destroying the image of God in man. Men weren’t created to kill men, and doing so mars something of God’s image in our own selves, causing psychological damage.
Men’s feelings, however, can even be so damaged as to become cauterized. 1 Timothy 4:2 speaks of men who are “branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron.” Peter speaks of some hardened men being reduced to a beastly nature: “But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing.” (2 Peter 2:12)
Even King David was marred by all his valiant warring. God felt it inappropriate that he should have the honor of building the Temple of God. David said, “But God said unto me, Thou shalt not build a house for my name, because thou art a man of war, and hast shed blood. Howbeit Jehovah, the God of Israel, chose me out of all the house of my father to be king over Israel for ever.” (1 Chronicles 28:3–4)
Yet, killing and war are in our history as a race. “And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.“ (Genesis 4:8) Cain was hardened by the experience. He even rejected redemption, going “out from the presence of Jehovah” and bringing forth the “Seed of Cain” in his own image of boasting, pride, and murder (Genesis 4:16ff).
Once men’s natural feelings have been altered, it is hard to restore them to their natural state.
Man is made in the image of God, and when we destroy that image, it affects us.
Police forces have special procedures when a policeman has killed a person in the line of duty. We humans are shaken to the core. We are ourselves violated in the act. It leaves emotional scars that are not easily removed.
We rejoice with our faithful soldiers when they return, and we honor them. And we should. Yet, they are not the same men who went to battle. They are changed. They are “war-hardened”. And they have needs – needs that only the Gospel can fully meet and restore. There are emotional scars, as well as physical ones, and these take time and counsel to heal. It is our place to minister to their emotional needs with a Gospel that forgives and restores and gives hope.
C. The Church in Time of War
The church is itself wounded in time of war. It is bereft of its sons and heads of household, and we must plug in the holes of those who have left our ranks. The members must serve as citizens in support of its war effort. We also must minister to the relief efforts, bringing humanitarian aid, comforting the wives and children, opening doors to refugees, visiting hospitals, and volunteering in various ways – all while continuing our regular ministry. We also pray with and for others, and lead others to address God in prayer. This is a time when men welcome our words and our prayers.
But the church also has a special role, bringing orientation to the Kingdom of God. The church as a whole needs a theology that can help it deal with the challenges, bringing the Word of Christ to our fellow men, doing evangelism, instructing others in a proper understanding of war. We can only do this if we have a proper view of God’s Kingdom and proper church/state relations, preaching Christ and not nationalism.
D. Ministry to our Enemies
We must remind all – soldiers and citizens alike – that we are called to Love our Enemies. This sounds ludicrous at any time, but especially in time of war. Yet, we must understand the meaning of Love in this context. Love is not a feeling, but thoughts and actions that are faithful to the Law of God.
Jesus calls us to treat our enemies according to the Law of God. The specific law is expounded in the Westminster Larger Catechism questions #135 & 136. With regard to our enemies, we must remember especially these sins forbidden in the sixth commandment: “the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge…, provoking words…”.
As for the Duties Required in the Sixth Commandment, these also extend to the treatment of our enemies: “avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; …readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succouring the distressed.”
Yet, how do we reconcile this with teaching on Just War? Can you fight and even kill in war without hating your enemy? We must carry out our duty dispassionately.
Calvin wrote of the duties of the civil magistrate, specifically addressing the role of a Christian in such a public role: “the reason for carrying on war, which anciently existed, still exists in the present day,” but…
But all magistrates must here be particularly cautious not to give way, in the slightest degree, to their passions. Or rather, whether punishments are to be inflicted, they must not be borne headlong by anger, nor hurried away by hatred, nor burn with implacable severity; they must, as Augustine says (De Civitate Dei. Lib. 5 cap. 24), “even pity a common nature in him in whom they punish an individual fault;” or whether they have to take up arms against an enemy, that is, an armed robber, they must not readily catch at the opportunity, nay, they must not take it when offered, unless compelled by the strongest necessity. For if we are to do far more than that heathen demanded, who wished war to appear as desired peace, assuredly all other means must be tried before having recourse to arms. In fine, in both cases, they must not allow themselves to be carried away by any private feeling, but be guided solely by regard for the public. (Calvin Institutes IV.20.12)
In the American Civil War, Robert L. Dabney was adjutant general to the famous General Stonewall Jackson. He was also a pastor and a Southern Presbyterian theologian. Both he and General Jackson were devout Presbyterians. Dabney taught that soldiers should not fight out of hatred. They fight because of duty to family and country, and especially their duty to God. In writing about deception of the enemy in wartime, Dabney notes:
The moment he is disabled from aggression, or turns to a better mind, his rights to truth revive, as do his claims on our charity and forbearance. Hence, while the good man will righteously deceive his invading enemy with stratagems, the moment a flag of truce appears, or his enemy is disabled and captured, he is bound to act with as perfect sincerity as towards his bosom friend.
Our love for enemy is also a type of love that stands for truth, resisting his lies and deception. This is “tough love” and not an effeminate affection. After all, Proverb speaks of “heaping coals of fire on his head” through our righteous actions (25:22). The most loving thing we can do is to represent the Kingdom of God in all our actions, even if it means to resist our enemy’s ways by force of arms. He may also be deceived, thinking that he also is fighting for a righteous cause. Our goal is not to murder and maim, but to convince him to lay down his arms and give up aggression. We also want to leave open the door by our humane treatment so that when hostilities end, we may work toward reconciliation. After all, we are Peacemakers.
E. Ministry to those Affected by War
Wars create Refugees. Yet, this is also a tool God uses to open doors and hearts to the Gospel. As the church ministers, she should realize that her humanitarian efforts will not be distinguished from her spiritual ministry. She expresses the care of Christ, in word and deed, in a way that all other relief agencies cannot. Only she can bring the eternal perspective. And it is not only a temporal ministry, but one that can have eternal effects in the salvation of the lost. In one sense, this is the greatest need of the refugees, the grieving, and the wounded: to look up, realizing that Jesus Christ is here with us: to care, to comfort, to love, and to heal. He is the Savior. He is our shield and our defender.
When I served as a missionary in Portugal in the late 1970s, Portugal had opened its doors to the refugees from African wars and decolonization, especially in Angola and Mozambique. Our church received cheese and milk from the Netherlands to distribute to the poor, and we provided counsel, prayer, and social help. In this way we saw churches planted in the shanty towns and ‘favelas’ of Lisbon, and most of the people eventually integrated into the larger culture.
But there were also many who came to faith. This was a great opportunity to minister to people at a time and in a way that they welcomed, and by which they were eternally changed. Even though we are ourselves distracted in time of war, we must be diligent in our service – spiritual, physical, and moral service.
F. Ministry to Both Sides after a War
Bridges must be rebuilt after they have been torn down in time of war. After firing ceases, trust must be rebuilt, and that takes time. Both combatants and civilians need restoration after war, restoring relationships, restoring the psyche of soldiers, restoring marriages and families, etc. There must be rebuilding, rehabilitation, reconstructing life and culture. They must deal with resentment, hatred, loss, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks, and broken and divided family relationships. These needs bring added stresses to already-stressed relationships. There is also a strong desire for Revenge, which can create an endless cycle of feuds and war, from generation to generation.
G. The Brokenness of Victory
Even a victorious army is itself deeply marred by the experience. In the recent book (and Hollywood film) Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand entitled chapter 35 “Coming Undone,” cataloguing the broken condition in which American prisoners of war returned to the United States in 1945 – victorious, yet broken by their horrible experiences.
As Ms. Hillenbrand writes, many were broken physically: lost limbs, blindness, disfigurement, disease, and bodies crippled for a lifetime. Their death rate was astronomical. In addition to a litany of diseases, they suffered ongoing emotional injuries: flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, PTSD and other psychological disorders, stress, and imbalance. They had psychiatric impairment, depression, various levels of disability, a difficulty in distinguishing illusion from reality, illogical fears, screaming, sobbing, lashing out, hoarding, eating disorders, rage, and memory loss. In short, they exhibited an extraordinarily larger percentage of disorders than the general public, covering the whole range of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
Then, there was the constant sense of loss of their comrades who didn’t make it – along with survivors’ guilt. Besides all this, they had a cultural dissociation from their previous lives, making them outcasts in their own land, having been expatriated for 4 or 5 years. Often, their experiences led them to race hatred and prejudice toward their former captors.
The prisoners of war often dealt with this stress in destructive ways: alcoholism, violence, and even suicide. They suffered deep Loneliness and isolation. They found themselves unable to communicate their pain to others – and others were likewise incapable of understanding. Most around them wanted to forget the war and the suffering that these men so much needed to share.
In large part, they continued to suffer from the humiliation and dehumanization drilled into them by their captors. As Ms. Hillenbrand wrote, “Their dignity had been obliterated, replaced by a pervasive sense of shame and worthlessness…. For these men, the central struggle of post-war life was to restore their dignity…. Some retreated into brooding isolation or lost themselves in escapes.”
And for some – there was a deep, consuming desire for revenge.
Who can help such people? Proper psychological help is certainly needed, but it is the Church that is uniquely placed to give help in many of these areas. In particular, the Church can bring the gospel to bear in the most overwhelming area of that “central struggle …to restore their dignity” and to be freed from their thirst for revenge.
The story of Zamperini is glorious for this: that he was enabled to forgive.
Where does that come from? How can people overcome such overwhelming challenges? How can such broken men find restoration – not only of bodies and relationships, but of their souls?
The Gospel has exactly such power. Zamperini ended up under the preaching of Billy Graham, where the Holy Spirit overwhelmed him with God’s sovereign love. Having reached the end of himself, he immediately knew release – from alcohol, night sweats, nightmares, hatred, and murder. His heart was circumcised of all that, he was renewed, and his heart was filled with the love of God – a love that overflowed in gratitude and immediate forgiveness.
H. Ministry in a Defeated Nation
And, what if our soldiers lose the war? Then, there are other things the Church must face. Christians may be persecuted, if the enemy hates the church or its actions. We may be unable openly to minister to the needs around us; we may suffer persecution for ministering to needs; but we must minister.
Even as a defeated people, the Church of God will always advance the Gospel. Even in captivity, God’s people always gave witness. Note, for example, God’s people in Egypt and in Babylon. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego amazed their captors, as did Joseph, Daniel, Esther and Mordecai.
The conquered soldiers will suffer all the above-mentioned ailments plus the humiliation of defeat, doubt of the rightness of their cause, and the humiliation of having the victors write their history, define their borders, determine their rights, and decide on the lives of their families.
Here, too, the Church can help. We bring a perspective from above! These men can realize they are not alone, that God is still present with his people, as He has been so many times before in their humiliation. And we need to humble ourselves under God’s hand. The Apostle Paul wrote: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8)
We must submit ourselves and our nation to the hand of the Sovereign God who raises up and puts down nations and rulers. Daniel as a captive in Babylon praised God for “making known to us the king’s matter,” stating that God “changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.” (Daniel 2:23,21)
This does not diminish our grief, however. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die;… a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;… a time for war, and a time for peace” (Eccles 4:1-6). Let us weep with those who weep. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” (Ps 137:1)
I. Forgive and forget?
In the 100th commemoration of the American Civil War, some stickers were printed that said, “Forgive and Forget.” Some Southerners (those who lost the war) printed instead a Confederate soldier saying, “Forget, HELL!”
There’s a clear intention by some to maintain the past. Some of this desire is based on the honor of a lost cause, and some is based merely on pride and prejudice. This is a dead end, however, that leaves us forever justifying our forefathers and fighting lost battles of past ages. It keeps old wounds alive. But a central teaching of Christianity is forgiveness.
Some cultures, however, see forgiveness as a weakness, rather than a virtue. In the book Peace Child, we read of the aboriginal tribes of southeast Asia who were only able to make peace on the basis of a practice of formal adoption. This was the entry point for the Gospel into those societies. It showed the way of Peace, but it cost their tribe a child.
Forgiveness is not simply a good thing for Christians; it is the ONLY way to real peace in the world.
Time sometimes heals. But the only way to get there truly is by what the NT teaches us: dying to self. We have ‘human rights’, but we must sometimes give them up, viewing others’ good as more important than our own. Scripture says, “Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies and pray for them. A soft answer turns away wrath.” The world looks at these phrases and laughs, but this can lead to the most drastic of consequences: unbelievers also envy the Church! Some of them would LIKE to forgive. They recognize its honor, but they don’t have the power. They are powerless against ongoing feuds, ulcers, regret, destruction, endless blood-letting, and ‘counting coup’.
The way forward is a forgiveness that enables us to forget offenses. We MUST forget, although we must do so in the right manner. The way forward is not necessarily a denial of the past or a betrayal of our forefathers and their honor. All political constructs and values change with time, and the causes of yesterday are redefined by subsequent realities.
When we lose a war, we also lose the right to write the history of the war. To the victor belong the spoils, and we must choose our battles. What is truly worth fighting for Today?
In Ukraine, some are willing to give up parts of their past, and others aren’t. Some want to honor Stepan Bandera and literally continue bearing the torch for him on his birthday. Others, notably the Communists and pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine, want to maintain the honor of the USSR. Each of these has a certain perspective that includes honor and remembrance. Yet, there are sometimes larger events and perspectives that ñõîóëä cause us to give up some causes.
In 1861, the Battle Flag of the Confederate States of America represented a democratic hope for my forebears. Yet, that war was lost, and that flag came to represent something else entirely. It now stands for racism, regionalism, rebellion, and regression. Symbols change their meaning over time, and we must change with them, while still holding to honorable values.
Which, then, are the values that Ukraine should keep, and which should it discard? There are parts even of our individual past that we would like to cherish, and those we would wish we could forget. But HOW?
The Apostle Paul said he was forgetting in order to go forward: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus“ (Php 3:13–14). It is only Paul’s larger perspective of the Kingdom of God that allows him such license.
We can also at times give up fighting for the past because of the perspective of the coming Judgment of God. In time, God will set all things right and reveal all Truth. Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Lk 12:2–3). But this takes faith.
The Lord’s Prayer instructs us to forgive those things that are done against us. The biblical Patriarch Joseph is a great example of bearing offenses. He was certainly wronged – and that, by his own brothers! Yet, he was able to forgive. He wasn’t eaten up with regret and resentment. God then restored him: “And two sons were born to Joseph… And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: For, said he, ‘God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ And the name of the second called he Ephraim: ‘For God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction’ “ (Genesis 41:50-52). Not only did he forgive, he also was enabled to forget. When his father died, his brothers couldn’t believe that he had truly forgiven them. How could he? It is clear he only did so by having a Kingdom perspective: “You meant it for evil, but God worked it for Good” (Gen 50:20). This is a powerful message that only the Church can bring.
They say that ‘Time heals all wounds’, and there is a certain truth to that. Time must pass for feelings to run their course. Yet, such pain can also leave long-lasting emotional scars unless they receive the healing balm of the Word of God.
J. The Ministry of Reconciliation
Having been reconciled to God, we can minister to men. This is the first level of reconciliation. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ro 5:1 ESV) When we know God’s forgiveness, we are enabled to forgive. He who is forgiven much loves much (Luke 7:47).
Our first level of ministry to the war-torn, then, is the Gospel: they must themselves be forgiven in order to forgive and to deal with all their pent-up hatred and self-pity and desire for revenge. They cannot forgive on their own. They will forever carry their burdens unless they come to Jesus, whose burden is light.
Secondly, now that we are reconciled, God honors us by making us members of his own people. We have a dual nationality.
And there is more! God also gives us the honor of being Ambassadors. We no longer represent ourselves or our own earthly nation. We no longer need to defend our own honor or that of our forefathers. We are ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. We can seek reconciliation with ALL men.
This Ministry of Reconciliation is a miraculous thing. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” (2 Co 5:18–20)
We have a wonderful vision to share with those who have lost everything! God offers them acceptance in Christ, a new identity, and a great honor.
What is the future for eastern Ukraine? If the war ended today, there would yet remain the large question of reconciliation and restoration of Ukrainian peace. How can the sides truly reconcile? Is it possible? At times, it seems impossible. Look at divided Ireland or North and South Korea. Or worse, Arabs and Jews! Yet, let us also remember recent examples of international reconciliation: In the years following WWII, the USA and Japan became trade partners; Germany and other Europeans formed the EU and even share a monetary system!
One of the most lasting divisions of Mankind is between the Jews and the non-Jews, called ‘Gentiles”. This division traces back 4000 years to the time of Abraham; yet, God has even overcome this barrier. God chose to send the Savior of All men through the Jewish nation. God therefore guarded it until He should come. Yet, when Christ came, he tore down that very dividing wall, creating One People of God from the two. Paul wrote in Ephesians:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near…. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Eph 2:14-17,19 ESV)
As Paul said, the Prince of Peace “killed the hostility” through the Cross. There is no longer any wall between any of God’s people, and this unity is available to people of all nations – in Christ.
K. Kingdom perspective
We have noted several times that the Church brings a special perspective into the lives of the people to whom we minister. This is crucial. So, what is this “God’s Kingdom” perspective that Jesus brought into the world?
Geopolitical conflicts and wars come and go. Jesus himself reminded us to keep perspective in a sinful world: “And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet The Ånd. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matthew 24:6f).
But there’s another kingdom being raised in the midst of all this human conflict – the Kingdom of God. No, this is not an earthly Israel or the Palestinian conflict. Even the Disciples of Jesus got confused about this. In Acts 1:6, “They asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” But Jesus told them: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Mt 24:14).
Which Kingdom? It is not an earthly kingdom at all: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” (John 18:36) “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation… for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20 f)
This is the Kingdom for which we struggle – both within our own selves and throughout the world, until “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Hab 2:14)
But how do we struggle? It is not against flesh and blood, but a spiritual struggle.
L. Crying for Justice and Mercy
The Bible – both OT & NT – reflects the duality of the Christian’s experience and desires. On the one hand, our hearts cry out for Justice! On the other hand, they cry out for Mercy! These seemingly contradictory desires do have a resolution in God’s economy, however.
First, examine the cry for Justice. This cry flows throughout the Bible, beginning with the blood of Abel that cries out from the ground for justice. (Matthew 23:35)
The litany of cries for Justice run to the very end of Scripture, in Revelation 6:10. The souls of the martyrs under the altar cry out, reflecting numerous Psalms: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
This cry will not go unanswered. The Unjust will answer for their work. Scripture makes clear that this Judgment will not delay. “God is not slow concerning his promise” (2 Peter 3:9). It may seem slow to us, but it will come at just the right time. All Christians pray together: “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done.” God hears, and He will answer.
Those torn by war need to understand this. It is not wrong to cry for Justice! The imprecatory psalms extend a visceral cry and vivid imagery. God is Just, and he will bring Vengeance! Let us cry, but let us cry unto Him!
Second, there is the balancing cry, the cry for Mercy. None of us deserves mercy. If it were deserved, it would be merited, and God would be obligated. Salvation would be a debt owed to us by our Creator. But this is clearly not the case. God’s mercy is totally undeserved.
In fact, God gives us more than mercy. Not only is mercy given to us undeserved, forgiving us for our own sins and injustices, but there is added Grace! God’s favor is given to us in every way! We who deserve nothing but condemnation and eternal judgment are granted friendship with God, welcomed into his family, and given an inheritance of the saints. Every benefit is granted to us: every good and perfect gift, all things in Him.
Those torn by war also need to understand that we do not deserve his mercy, and we should cry out for mercy upon our own souls. Those torn by war must also realize that God’s mercy is far beyond our own. His mercy extends to thousands of generations. It even extends to our enemies. How can we comprehend this? It militates against our sensibilities.
M. Justice and Mercy Kiss
Somehow, Justice and Mercy find their resolution in the perfection of God.
There is a certain Balance in God’s economy between the Already and the Not Yet. We don’t understand HOW they are balanced, since we simultaneously experience both desires – a desire for justice and a desire for mercy. It appears that these two will eventually be reconciled, but this reconciliation has not yet taken place. In the present age, we SHOULD feel both, and we SHOULD feel the conflict between them. The Universe is still experiencing Spiritual Warfare; the battle rages between the forces of God’s army and the Evil One. It is not yet the time for the fullness of Justice or the fullness of Mercy.
The Bible reflects this duality of the Christian’s experience and desires. In the OT, there is the call to war, and the psalms call for God to arise and crush the enemy. The enemy will fall into the pit he has dug. God’s people will be victorious. Even the evil offspring of the evil enemy (who would otherwise grow to emulate their fathers) will finally have their heads dashed against the stone – even as the enemy has often done to the sons of the righteous. It is a gruesome picture, but it shows the ugly results of evil. It is also a picture of Hell itself.
However, the OT also reflects the call for mercy. Mercy is even shown to some of the Gentiles. In the very call of Abraham there is the intent to include blessings for the Gentiles (Gen 12:3). Several Gentile women are even included in the royal line of David. The Messiah also comes as a blessing on the nations. The Gentiles wait for him: “Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far” (Is 60:9; Cf. Is 42:4).
The Law itself reflects this duality – based on the character of God: “For I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:5f). It is the very character of the Triune God that shows these two characteristics: righteous jealousy and steadfast love. But, although there is a duality of these within our experience, there is no dualism in God. This does not mean that he is fickle, or that he is a dualistic being. He is Perfect – and perfect in all his attributes.
N. The Wonder of Angels
God’s very nature calls forth responses of Justice and Mercy in such a complex way, that even the angels cannot fathom it. Angels are God’s ministers of justice: “Of the angels he says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire’” (Heb 1:7 ESV). It is the Angels whom God sends to carry out justice on the earth. Yet, Peter wrote of “things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel …—things into which angels long to look.” (1 Peter 1:12 NASB)
Those torn by war should take comfort to know that God has angels at his command who will surely and swiftly bring Justice. In fact, they are anxious, too. The examples of Scripture should comfort us: “He sent upon them His burning anger... a band of destroying angels” (Psalm 78:49). Some Israelites grumbled and “were killed by the destroying angel” (1 Corinthians 10:10 NIV). “The LORD sent a pestilence on Israel ... the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it.... The LORD relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, ‘It is enough; now stay your hand’ ” (2 Samuel 24:15–16).
It is also angels who are sent with the vials of destruction in Revelation: “Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished” (Rev 15:1 ESV). The pouring out of the wrath of God is concluded in Revelation 18 in the destruction of the Great City, Babylon. There is then great rejoicing by the holy ones: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev 18:2) and the response of “the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” (Rev 19:1f ESV)
In that day, when all is made clear, we will no longer desire mercy on the Unjust. It will be clear what they deserve, and God’s just judgment on them will also be clear. We will no longer be conflicted when we sing along with them. It is WE who will be shouting out in Heaven: “Hallelujah! Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”
Wrath and rejoicing. Justice and singing. Vengeance and praise. How can such things stand together? They will only meet on the Judgment Day. But they have met once before: “Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Ps 85:10)
Where did that happen? At the Cross of Christ. There, Ultimate Justice was meted out in final payment for the sins of God’s people. Yet, this ugly picture of Justice is also the most beautiful picture of Love in all of history. Here, at the very center of history, God comes down to his people in both judgment and mercy. “Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10).
O. Living in the Paradox
Yes, there is resolution, but only in Christ. Here, in Him, believers enjoy the ‘Already’ of salvation, redemption and restoration. That is a great message of comfort to those torn by war. Yet, there is also the ‘Not yet’ – when believers will know the rest of that Redemption. This is our hope. In the meantime, we live in this Paradox, inwardly crying out for Justice while also crying out for Mercy.
How can we live in such contradiction? It is by Faith, for faith applies God’s character to our situation, bringing both comfort and hope.
Faith tells us that God is Just: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thessalonians 1:6–8)
Faith enables us to put off the inward demand for justice and revenge, for God is the Avenger: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:19)
Faith also tells us that God is a God of Mercy: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” (Romans 9:14–15)
Faith also tells us God is Faithful, so we can await God’s Great Day with patience: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now…. We …groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom 8:19-25)
Such Christian patience is not laziness, disengagement, or isolationism. It is a patience that calls for diligent activity. We each have our calling. Not all are called as soldiers, but the drastic events of such a dark providence as War should awaken us all. We cannot go on with life as usual. It should make our own job clear, reminding us of the urgency of our message and making us bold.
What is your calling? Let us sharpen our swords. Let us train our hands for war – the warfare of the Kingdom of God.
P. Harsh Providence and Ultimate Blessing
The Puritans took special comfort in God’s Sovereign Providence, noting that every trial of evil should be a reminder of eternal things. The great theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote in his 57th Resolution, “Resolved, when I fear misfortunes and adversities, to examine whether I have done my duty, and resolve to do it; and let it be just as providence orders it; I will as far as I can, be concerned about nothing but my duty and my sin.”
Thus, even evil happenings and great tragedies can work Divine Grace in the lives of God’s children. This, too, is a special message for those torn by war.
A number of evangelical hymns grew out of tragedy. Horatio Spafford, a friend of Dwight L. Moody, wrote “It is well” in 1873, after all four of Spafford's daughters died in the sinking of the SS Ville du Havre in 1873. As he sailed near the spot where his daughters had died, he penned these lines:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul!
God works Grace in the lives of his people through tragedy and suffering. It is anything but pleasant, but if it is a gracious Providence, it will reveal His smiling Face. God’s countenance is the ultimate blessing. This is summed up in the Aaronic Blessing:
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
Let us minister out of this blessed hope to those torn by life’s tragedies.
May his Shalom, his Peace, come quickly upon the earth, until the Kingdoms of this world are transformed into the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Dabney, Robert L. Systematic Theology. St Louis: Presbyterian Publishing Co., 1878; reprt. Banner of Truth, 1985.
Graham, Preston D. A Kingdom Not of This World. Macon, Georgia: Mercer Univ. Press, 2002.
Hall, David W. The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding. Prepublication copy. 1999.
Hart, D. G., and Muether, John R. “The Spirituality of the Church”. Ordained Servant, vol. 7, no. 3 (July 1998), pp. 64-66.
Henry, Matthew . Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.
Hiebert, Paul G. Cultural Anthropology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1983.
Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Random House, 2010.
Luzbetak, Louis J. The Church and Cultures: An Applied Anthropology for the Religious Worker. Techny, Illinois: Divine Word, 1970. Repr. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Lib., 1976.
Motyl, Alexander. “Ukraine's Donbas Is Like America's Deep South.” Huffington Post, 5 January, 2015. Online: www.huffingtonpost.com/alexander-motyl/alexander-motyl_b_6414802.html
Richardson, Don. Peace Child. Regal, 2005.
 Preston D. Graham, Jr., A Kingdom Not of This World (Macon, Georgia: Mercer Univ. Press, 2002), 203.
 Ibid., 108.
 Matthew Henry and other Reformed writers have identified the Harlot of Rev. 17 as the Roman church, which united itself with Roman civil government, losing its prophetic voice to serve another master. Cf. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2482.
 Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (St Louis: Presbyterian Publishing Co., 1878; reprt. Banner of Truth, 1985), 426.
 Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken, ch. 35.
 Psalm 137:9
 Sometimes it is ‘enough’. But enough for what? Enough to accomplish God’s purposes at the time. Enough to work repentance in the people. Enough to defend the honor of God’s holy name. Only God know what is enough.
 Psalm 18:34
 Jonathan Edwards, Resolutions, entries for June 9 and July 13, 1723.
 William Cowper wrote in the hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774), “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning Providence, He hides a smiling face.”
 Nu 6:24–26 ESV.
 Revelation 11:15