Tensions soared yesterday between Russia and the West over concerns that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine. The US Defense Department announced that up to 8,500 American forces have been placed on “heightened alert” for potential deployment to eastern Europe. The State Department has ordered families of US Embassy personnel in Kyiv, Ukraine, to begin evacuating. The British Embassy in Ukraine will withdraw some staff members as well.
What is happening in Ukraine? Why? What difference can the Christian faith make in this conflict?
Russian demands and Western response
Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly views Ukraine as part of Russia’s “sphere of influence” rather than an independent state. Consequently, Russia has amassed an estimated one hundred thousand troops near Ukraine’s border. It is demanding that NATO promise to never allow Ukraine to join its alliance and wants alliance troops currently stationed in former Soviet bloc countries to be curtailed.
The Associated Press reports that since Russia’s demands are “nonstarters for NATO,” a deadlock has been created that “many fear can only end in war.” NATO is increasing its military presence in the region, with member countries sending warplanes and ships and promising to send more troops. The European Union has also committed to increased financial support for Ukraine.
For its part, Russia denies that it is planning an invasion and claims Western accusations are a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations. Though it has surrounded Ukraine with forces from the north, east, and south, Moscow is now citing the Western response as evidence that Russia is the target, not the instigator, of aggression.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last Friday and said the US would give Russia written responses to Moscow’s proposals this week. Observers say this might delay any invasion for a few more days.
“They go from strength to strength”
Seventy-eight percent of adults in Ukraine identify as Orthodox Christians. (By contrast, only 63 percent of American adults identify as Christians.) This constitutes some thirty-five million Ukrainian Christians.
If you were one of them today, what difference would your faith make? How would following Jesus differentiate you from those who do not follow your Lord? We could ask the same question of American Christians facing growing animosity against biblical morality and of believers facing persecution around the world.
We know that one day God “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
But skeptics are likely to ask: What difference does our faith make in the meantime?
The Bible is filled with promises of God’s presence and provision for those who trust in him. For example, Psalm 91:3 states: “He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon said of this text, “No bird of paradise shall die in the fowler’s net.” The psalmist wrote: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion” (Psalm 84:5–7).
But these promises come with a condition.
“Good reason to be anxious about everything”
God’s word instructs us, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6a). Frederick Buechner writes that Paul “was evidently in prison at the time and with good reason to be anxious about everything.” However, the apostle continued: “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6b).
Buechner comments: “He does not deny that the worst things will happen finally to all of us, as indeed he must have had a strong suspicion they were soon to happen to him. He does not try to minimize them. He does not try to explain them away as God’s will or God’s judgment or God’s method of testing our spiritual fiber. He simply tells the Philippians that in spite of them—even in the thick of them—they are to keep in constant touch with the One who unimaginably transcends the worst things as he also unimaginably transcends the best.”
Buechner continues: “Come hell or high water, they are to keep on asking, keep on thanking, above all keep on making themselves known. He does not promise them that as a result they will be delivered from the worst things any more than Jesus himself was delivered from them. What he promises them instead is that ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
“The worst things will surely happen no matter what—that is to be understood—but beyond all our power to understand, he writes, we will have peace both in heart and in mind. We are as sure to be in trouble as the sparks fly upward, but we will also be ‘in Christ,’ as he puts it. Ultimately not even sorrow, loss, death can get at us there.”
“Let me use danger as material for courage”
Let us pray today for war to be averted in Ukraine and for peace to rule. Let us pray for wisdom for our leaders and for those with whom they are negotiating. Let us pray for protection for our soldiers, embassy personnel, and others who are potentially in harm’s way.
And let us pray for our Ukrainian sisters and brothers in Christ to turn their anxiety into intercession and to confront their fears with faith. When they do, they will “shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:15–16). Skeptics will see the powerful difference Jesus makes in those who trust him not just when their lives are easy but especially when they are not.
And let us join them by asking God to redeem our present challenges in ways that deepen our faith and glorify our Lord. The Scottish minister John Baillie prayed:
Let me use disappointment as material for patience;
Let me use success as material for thankfulness;
Let me use anxiety as material for perseverance;
Let me use danger as material for courage;
Let me use criticism as material for learning;
Let me use praise as material for humility;
Let me use pleasures as material for self-control;
Let me use pain as material for endurance.
Why do you need to make his prayer your own today?