Ten-year-old Zlata Moiseinko is living in a schoolhouse in Ukraine that has been converted into a field hospital operated by Israeli medical workers. Russia’s invasion has now displaced half of Ukraine’s children, Zlata among them. She became so unsettled that her father risked his life to return to their apartment to rescue her pet hamster, Lola, to comfort her.
“I want peace for all Ukraine,” the little girl told an Associated Press reporter.
The human cost of this escalating crisis is staggering. The US Department of State released a statement this week describing “war crimes by Russia’s forces in Ukraine.” The Biden Administration announced yesterday that the US will accept up to one hundred thousand Ukrainian refugees fleeing the fighting. And NATO allies agreed yesterday to provide Ukraine with equipment and training to respond to a possible Russian attack using chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons.
In the face of such challenges, my claim across this week that Christians should reframe crises as opportunities for the gospel can seem naïve. We understand theologically that we are called to bring the “light of the world” to the darkness, that we are commissioned to make disciples of all nations, even those at war.
But it’s not enough to know we are called to be change agents in a broken culture—we must believe that we can make a transformative difference where we are, as we are. To that end, let’s close our week by focusing on the empowering ways God can change us.
What happens through us must first happen to us. Said differently, when something happens to us, it is likely to happen through us as well.
The only way to “find life and flourishing”
In Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life, biblical scholar Jonathan T. Pennington identifies two characteristics of biblical ethics: imitative and agentic.
Biblical moral standards are imitative in that God’s ethical demands are rooted in his own nature. According to Pennington, “Humans will only find life and flourishing when they imitate their Creator, when they learn to inhabit the world in the ways that accord with God’s own nature, will, and coming kingdom.”
Biblical ethics are agentic in that “we as moral agents matter.” As Pennington notes, “Who we are as people is significant—our understanding, our emotions, our motives, and our desires are wrapped up in what is right and wrong.”
This imitative and agentic ethic is a kind of “virtue ethics” that “focuses not just on the external issues of right and wrong but on our interior person and our development to be a certain kind of people. In the Bible, this means becoming more like God himself.”
Here’s the problem: we need God’s help to become more like God. Humans, because we are fallen and sinful by nature, cannot transform ourselves into a holiness we do not possess. I once heard our attempts to be good enough for God likened to a group of tourists who decided to swim from California to Hawaii. The best swimmers got further than the others, but all drowned.
“The condescension of compassion”
This is why, as Irenaeus noted, Jesus became one of us that we might be one with him. St. Leo the Great said of our Lord, “He took the nature of a servant without the stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity. He emptied himself: though invisible he made himself visible, though Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortal men. Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence. So he who in the nature of God had created man, became in the nature of a servant, man himself.”
Because our sinless Savior died for our sins, paying our debt by dying on our cross, you and I now can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). If you have asked Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Lord, his Holy Spirit now dwells in you, making you his temple (1 Corinthians 3:16) and manifesting in and through you “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
If we will repent of our efforts to save, sanctify, and justify ourselves, coming with humble contrition and repentance to our loving Savior, he will forgive everything we confess (1 John 1:9), separate our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19), and “remember [our] sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34; cf. Hebrews 8:12).
Then, when his love liberates us from our sins, through this grace “we draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:19), his Spirit demonstrates his “fruit” in our lives (Galatians 5:22–23), and we become changed people used by God to change the world.
“I am only one, but I am one”
You and I cannot stop Putin’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. We cannot stop all crimes, prevent all disasters, or heal all diseases. However, we must not let what we cannot do keep us from doing what we can do.
If our hope was in our abilities and resources, we would have no real hope at all. But our hope is not in us but in the One who indwells us, empowers us, and wants to use us as his universal body to continue the ministry he began in his physical body (1 Corinthians 12:27).
All Jesus has ever done, he can still do. What he did on earth, he can do on earth. What he did through his first followers, he can do through us.
Will we kneel before his throne as our Lord today? Will we use his blessings, not for ourselves but to advance his kingdom? Will we seek his glory over our own?
If we do, we can say with author and minister Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), “I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.”