Prevailing in an Unwinnable War

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A couple of days ago a thought rooted in my brain: “We are in an unwinnable war.” That morning I read in Deuteronomy: “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses, chariots, and an enemy larger than yours, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you of the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deut. 20:1).

Israel won many unwinnable wars. God planned it that way. Pinned between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, they were like a spider caught between the pavement and the soul of my shoe – pulverized! But then, God stepped in.

When Gideon’s 300 men attacked the Midianite army numbering over 100,000, they entered an unwinnable war, but for God. When Peter told those who shouted “Crucify Him!” that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” he could have been ripped to pieces, but God had a plan.

God’s people have fought many unwinnable wars, prevailing against impossible odds. Who would have guessed that persecution of Christians in China would be used by God to grow His Church 5,000 percent in 50 years? God sent David Livingstone to Africa at a time when most Europeans died within a year of entering the malarial jungles and unknown dangers there. Livingstone, and many others, died in Africa. But today African Christians outnumber those in Europe and North America combined, boasting 400 million souls! Through the darkness Livingstone saw a brighter day would come. He wrote:

“Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet” (David Livingston in Mackenzie, 150f).

God’s people have prevailed in many unwinnable wars, or should I say, “God has prevailed.” Often God’s people have bled and died in protracted wars that lasted generations beyond the lives of the initial combatants.

Churches in America find themselves in an unwinnable war, as does the nation itself. Battle lines are drawn on many fronts, and these lines don’t simply exist between the Church and the world. Battle lines exist inside the Church. There are matters of sexuality, with ongoing skirmishes involving the LGBTQ agenda. The “right to life” of the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the handicapped, has raged for 50 years or more.

Then, just when it seemed Covid-19 was the greatest threat of 2020, the world witnessed the life of a black man crushed under the knee of a police officer, with other officers failing to intervene, setting off protests and riots and untold suffering in the hearts and minds of every American and people far beyond our shores. Racial problems and division have existed since the early days of our nation, and throughout human history, but we are in a unique moment. This is different. There is hope, but there is also the danger that listening, learning and reconciling get overtaken by destructive forces. Parsing words with the precision of a butcher doing surgery with a hatchet destroys the opportunity to grow understanding and influence thinking. Some seem to think they can read minds, and spot malicious intent, as easily as spotting a fly in a glass of milk. Reasonable discussion, questions and context are hard to come by. “Silence is violence,” some say, but utter the wrong word and you’ll get “cancelled” before the day ends. It is an unwinnable war.

And lest you don’t yet see how unwinnable this multi-front war is, consider that we don’t agree on the meaning of history, or even what history is. Facts are our friends, but whom do we trust to give us the facts? The media? Which media? Most media outlets aren’t helping.

What about truth? Where do we find the truth told? From politicians? Are you kidding!? Preachers? Unfortunately, much of the world doesn’t trust us preachers to tell the truth without taint. Preachers can get political too, especially if we don’t stick to the Truth we know best and start spouting and spinning about that which we know little.

Add to these battle lines the fight for the family – fatherless homes, babies without parents, teens left to wander. It’s an unwinnable war.

As I was pondering this unsavory thought, I remembered a speech I’d read years ago. It was delivered by a 28 year-old Abraham Lincoln on January 27, 1838 to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The speech was occasioned by a racial problem in which St. Louis was burned. Slavery was still legal and America was tearing apart. It was ripping the Church apart too. Speaking of the possible death of the United States, Lincoln reads like a prophet these 182 years later. The full quote is posted at the end of this article for those who’d like to read it and marvel at the rhetorical brilliance of the man who freed the slaves and restored the Union. Here is the most pertinent passage:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Twenty-three years after this speech the nation divided and war took 620,000 lives in 10,500 skirmishes and 50 major battles. The record states that the North won the war, and they did, but in a very real sense the war continued throughout succeeding generations and up to the present day.

This war will continue in some form until the end of time, because it’s a war that started in Eden. It was there that man divided from God, and began dividing from each other. In Genesis 3 we see the beginning of a distancing between humans, a covering up of sin, followed by brother murdering brother in Genesis 4.

Our leaders are not smart enough, or good enough, or strong enough, to lead us to victory in the war that is raging in America. And our churches aren’t that strong, either. All our unwinnable wars are rooted in human sin, and that root runs deep in the human heart, too deep to kill.

Depressed yet? Don’t be, because God shows Himself most visibly, gloriously and powerfully during unwinnable wars. No person turns to God until they are at rope’s end and realize they need God if they hope to survive. No nation experiences awakening when the people think they are the answer to their problems. Revival comes when the church is desperate, when it doesn’t know what to do or where to turn, and it falls to its knees, and buries its face in the floor’s dirt, and wets the dirt with tears, calling out to God for mercy, begging Him to show compassion and forgive sins, that’s when God shows up and wins the war … for a time. Not forever, until Jesus returns, will the war be finally and completely won because the war proceeds from the human heart. The war surfaces within families. It erupts between neighbors. The war is with those near and far away. God doesn’t give us the capacity to win the war without Him. Without Him we’re helpless. Without Him, we wrestle in vain against principalities and powers that kill, steal and destroy. Without Him, there is no peace, no life, no hope, and no future.

And remember, Israel didn’t win all their wars. Sometimes they were felled by tiny towns like Ai. Other times they suffered near annihilation and total humiliation. Their corpses were strewn in the wilderness and eaten by birds. Some were swallowed up by the earth itself. I apologize for the sad reminder, but not really, because if we think we can win the war, I mean really win, we’re doomed. Only God can win this war. We need Him. He’s a God of righteousness and justice. He didn’t let the tower of Babel stand when the people stood apart from Him, and He never will let us prevail in this war apart from Him.

The struggles that we face are mostly within ourselves. Racism is a heart problem, as is hate and bitterness and pride and lust and lovelessness of all kinds. It’s in the heart that the battle rages most fiercely. It’s the heart of every single person, of every color and hue, under heaven. Only God can win that war. Only the blood of Jesus can quell those flames. Only the Holy Spirit can spread the balm of peace that produces love one for another, sufficient to pursue righteousness and justice for all.
Without Jesus we have laws, courts, negotiations, punishments, coercion, threats, intimidation … and war. We need a system of justice, the best that we can build. But in the end, apart from Jesus, the war is unwinnable. Until He comes, His people must live as salt and light, loving sacrificially, seeking justice and preaching the Truth, even when the world does not understand.

Come, Lord Jesus. You are our only real hope. But You are enough.

Randy Adams
Executive Director-Treasurer
Northwest Baptist Convention

Text of Lincoln’s speech quoted above:

“In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running…. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth…. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

“How then shall we perform it?–At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

“I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” (to read the full speech of go to http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm).

Thoughts on Race and Justice in America

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Grief. Outrage. Fear. Disgust. Dismay. And struggling to see what good might come from this. These emotions and responses have been swinging back and forth in my heart and mind since witnessing the video of the gruesome killing of George Floyd. In the days since that horrible day on May 25, our nation has witnessed peaceful protests, violent rioting, additional murders and maimings, and now, as I write, the largest city in the Northwest is partly under the control of protesters. Seattle, WA has succumbed to an “occupying protest.” Neither Seattle’s Mayor Durkan, nor Governor Inslee, have revealed a plan as to how to deal with the occupation of six city blocks in the Capital Hill neighborhood, which includes a police precinct building. It’s an embarrassing display of lawlessness, fraught with danger, and filled with irony.

There are many concerns churning within each of us. My primary concern is for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the message of truth and justice and love and hope and forgiveness that we proclaim and live as we are enabled by the Holy Spirit. About one third of the churches of the Northwest Baptist Convention are led by non-Anglo pastors. Most of these pastors and churches worship in a language other than English, but we do have African-American pastors, and other ethnic minority pastors, whose congregations worship in English.

When I think of our diversity, I primarily think of language since that’s the biggest barrier to communication and understanding each other. Beyond language there are cultural differences. And then we get to differences in appearance, personal experience, age, etc. Several of our pastors have survived wars, genocides and severe persecution. Nearly two dozen came to our country as refugees from Burma, Cambodia, Bhutan, Vietnam, El Salvador and other countries. Many of our pastors grew up in the southern part of the United States, and the older pastors among us grew up with forced segregation of blacks and whites. I grew up in a small Montana town and never met a black person until I was in college. My first experience with someone of a different skin color were two Vietnamese boys whose family came to Whitefish, MT when I was 14. I got to know these boys by helping them learn English. By the time we graduated from high school they not only knew English, they drove two of the coolest cars in school because their family started a highly successful restaurant and they worked very hard to achieve aspirations made possible by coming to America.

We all have our own unique experiences, but what I want each of our pastors to know is that I love you. Even as I write, I know I say it out of ignorance as to who many of you really are, and love is not generic; it’s personal. This week I spoke with a pastor on the phone whom I met seven years ago but haven’t seen since. That’s the nature of our work and of our relationship. And yet, I love you because I trust that you have a love for Jesus and His people, as do I. I love you if for no other reason than the God who is in you, and who has laid claim to your life, is also in me and owns me. Whatever our particular views on issues and the things that are part of our human distinctions, I trust that we make Jesus and His Kingdom our primary concern.
This doesn’t negate varied viewpoints on how to remedy the injustices and disparities that exist in our world, but I do believe that our unity in Jesus is primary. If this is true, what does it mean for our cooperative mission work? God’s Word is the truth that must guide our thinking and behavior. From His Word, I would offer a couple things that I trust will be helpful. I do not intend this to be comprehensive, but I do believe it identifies key biblical truths.

First, the most fundamental truth about every human being is that he or she is created in the image of God. The Bible states this in Genesis 1:27 and it is repeated throughout the Scriptures. The dignity and value of every individual is tied to this fact. From this comes the Christian belief that individuals are precious and valued, not simply groups of people or nations of people or people of a certain color, but every individual person has equal value and dignity and the God-given right to be treated justly. It is correct to say that while individuals and groups have certain physical characteristics, we are fundamentally one race, the human race, distinct from all other created beings. God breathed life into human beings. We are His image bearers in a way no other living thing is. Acts 17:26 says that every nationality throughout the whole earth has descended from one man. The genetic variations required to produce the beautiful diversity in the appearance of individual human beings were present in Adam.

One reason human beings sometimes devalue or despise people of a different skin color (though skin color is not the only, or even the greatest difference between individual human beings) is because most people do not believe every single human being is created in God’s image and that we are all descendants of one man. Most people believe in some form of biological evolution of the origin of life. Although hatred of the other “tribe” has existed for thousands of years, for the past 150 years evolution has been used to support theories of racial differences and racial superiority. For example, in the early 20th Century an African pygmy was kept in the Bronx Zoo as an example of evolution (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-tragic-tale-of-the-pygmy-in-the-zoo-2787905/).

This was horrific, and clearly racist, but many historical examples and arguments have used the theory of evolution to argue that some humans are more advanced than others. About 75 million people died in WWII, three percent of the world’s population, because Hitler believed some humans had no value and weren’t fully human. The Armenian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, all happening within the past century, were predicated on the idea that some humans have more worth than others. Soviet and Chinese Communism led to the death of at least 60 million people because atheistic communism denies the image of God in each human being, and thus the worth of an individual. These cannot all be necessarily be linked directly to evolutionary theory. Scholars have specifically argued that Hitler did not believe Germanic peoples descended from apes, for example. But any theory of humanity that falls short of what the Scripture teaches, which includes all forms of racism and racist theories, ultimately leads to devaluing human beings. Christians must argue from Scripture the fundamental truths that there is one humanity, descended from one man, and each person is created in God’s image with equal value and worth.
Second, while every person has descended from the first Adam, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, has made peace between humanity and God, and between individual humans, through His death on the cross. Jesus Christ is our peace. God sent His son to reconcile humanity to Himself and to each other (Ephesians 2). Peace in the human heart, love in the human heart, love of neighbor and love of enemy is only possible in Jesus Christ. He is the only cure for hatred and bigotry because sin produces wrong and wicked thinking that only Christ can heal. Racism and all other sin will only be put to death when we are crucified with Christ and He comes to live in us. Even then, we are subject to acting in sinful ways. Solomon wrote, “The hearts of people are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Eccl. 9:3). But as Christians we have the objective truth of God’s Word, the power of the Gospel, and the indwelling of God Himself, which gives us the ability to resist and overcome sin.

I want to briefly add that Christians have sometimes used the Bible to promote racism, slavery, and various forms of bigotry. Whenever and wherever that occurs it is to our shame, embarrassment, and humiliation. The biblical truth I have shared above should guide our exegesis of Scripture whenever we are tempted to think certain Bible texts support any form of bias against others for characteristics intrinsic to them.
So, what should Christians do in the aftermath of the brutal, public killing of George Floyd and all that has happened since? We should advocate that justice be done. We should work for justice, knowing that we are moving toward the Day when God will render judgement and right all wrongs. The biblical perspective on justice is that we can’t achieve it perfectly here, but God can and He will. We should love God and love our neighbor. We should do acts of love for people who look similar to us and different than us. This requires intentionality in crossing barriers of color and economics and education and language, among others. And don’t forget our law enforcement personnel. These men and women come from peoples of every color and are serving under incredible pressure, even as they wrestle with their own deep emotions and pain.

Do we have a vital role to play in the politics of our nation? Yes. We must select leaders who believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, and we must hold them accountable, regardless of whether they’re in our favored political party. Regarding the election of leaders, Christians need to get more involved in local elections and primary elections because that’s where we have the greatest opportunity to choose leaders who adhere to the biblical truth of the worth and dignity of each person, and who lead with the conviction that they will one day stand before God to be judged by Him. Most of the political issues that affect our daily lives concern school boards, city councils, and state government. Do you know your local representatives? Do they know you? That’s where a pastor and church can have the greatest influence on things affecting daily life in our communities. By the time we get to national, general elections we mostly have a choice between two candidates. Often neither provide a satisfying choice, though one will typically represent biblical concerns better than the other. That said, quality candidates are best sorted out earlier in the process.

The bottom line for the believer is that we must make disciples of Jesus Christ and teach those disciples to think biblically about all of life. It begins with loving God. It continues with loving our neighbor. It’s easy to say. It takes a lifetime to learn how to do. I, for one, am still learning, and I want to be an eager learner. I want to learn by listening to others, with the heart and mind of a missionary, but mostly I need to hear from God, and learn from Him, how best I can love others and share Christ in meaningful ways.