I don’t even know where to begin other than with sorrow.
My heart is full to the brim with sorrow over the deaths of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach at the hands of ISIS militants.
And where there is sorrow, many other emotions can quickly follow. I know for me there’s an indignation that wells up in response to this extreme persecution. I want these ISIS militants to pay for what they’ve done.
But almost at the same time a real feeling of helplessness arises too, since I know that violence almost always only results in more violence.
So how should I, a follower of Jesus, respond? What’s a gospel-centered reaction?
Initial Reaction to ISIS
It’s hard, if not impossible, to control one’s first response to something. It just happens.
And my first response to the news out of Libya was sadness. My heart fell for the families of the slain. I was deeply saddened by inevitable damage done to Christian-Muslim relations. And I was heartbroken at the way that so many would surely talk about God, violence, and retribution, whether Christians or otherwise.
In fact, as I first heard this news one line of Scripture continued to run through my head: “Darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88.18b). This must be the sentiment of so many right now: the family, friends, and neighbors of the deceased; most people living in Egypt and Libya; many of my friends here in the US who originate from Egypt; most Muslims; most Christians; all Coptic Christians; and, frankly, most people in the world.
The sorrow caused by the actions taken by ISIS is real and can’t be minimized. No words or actions will mitigate it. Time will not erode it. It will just be there — to be sure, more acute at some times than others.
But sorrow can’t be the last word of this story. Sorrow can’t win the day. There has to be a broader response — a reaction that will embrace the darkness but prepare us for God’s glorious light.
And that response is trust.
Don’t get me wrong, trust is probably the hardest thing to do right now. Who can we trust if people are capable of this sort of evil? What government can we trust to keep us safe if buildings in the USA, offices in France, and beaches in Libya are all compromised? And how can we trust God if he allowed this atrocity (and ones like it) to happen?
This is my contention: We must trust or the only choice we have is to give in to the darkness. And I, for one, will not give in to the darkness! I refuse to let the shadows of this life cause me to forget that the light that’s on the other side of the thing casting the shadow.
And this is no pie-in-the-sky kind of hope I’m talking about. No. What I have in mind is a level-headed, open-eyed trust.
This is what it might look like…
Trust in the Wake of ISIS
How can I trust anything or anyone, much less God, in the wake of the horrific crimes committed by ISIS? Here are a few initial ideas that might help. However, I fully realize my limited perspective and expertise and I am fully willing to listen to any other ideas that you might have. Please share them in the comments below.
- Don’t be surprised. When something awful happens we’re always surprised. What’s up with that? It’s as if we’ve forgotten the reality of what it means to be human. We’re horrible to one another. Horrible. People have always done disgusting, inhuman things to one another. And yet we’re always surprised. And it seems that Christians might be the most surprised group of all. Why? Have we not read our Bibles? Have we not read the words of Jesus himself? Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15.20). He also said that with blessings come persecutions (Mark 10.30). Jesus knew that his message of the good news of the kingdom of God will butt heads with the kingdoms of this world. He knew that danger and drama could be real possibilities for his followers. And this has come true in each generation of followers of Jesus. Persecution is a reality that we must deal with until Jesus brings his kingdom to fruition when he comes again. So, friends, let’s not be surprised when it comes! Instead, let’s prepare for it, trusting in the goodness of God in the face of the greatest evil humanity can muster!
- Pray. There’s no way to move forward through this mess without prayer. What ISIS has done (and will likely continue to do) is horrible. And our chief response shouldn’t be warmongering, hatred, and wide-sweeping generalizations about all Muslims. No. Our chief response to the horror brought on by ISIS should be prayer. Let’s turn to God with our complaints, pains, and confusion. Let’s seek his wisdom during this volatile time. Let’s pray like Nehemiah, the Psalmist, and others, begging God to deliver vengeance on behalf of his people. Through prayer we are reminded of our place in this world — and that place is certainly not on the seat of judgment and revenge. That is God’s seat alone. But our prayers should also be for peace, the comfort of those who are mourning, and a swift resolution to this crisis. Moreover, our prayers should also be for our enemies. Jesus couldn’t be clearer about this: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.44). Could there be a harder command to fulfill right now? How are we, am I, supposed to love and pray for ISIS? I’m not sure exactly, but here’s a starting place. I need to remember that I am a sinner, through and through. I’m worse than I know that I am. I’ve done more wrong that I can recall, I’ve left more good undone than could ever be recounted, and I’ve consciously and subconsciously participated in systemic sin from the moment I was born. I’m a wretch. And if it wasn’t for the grace of God in Jesus Christ, I would be far, far from God right now. I’m in no place to judge anyone. Is what the ISIS militants did wrong? Of course. Unequivocally. But I’ve done so much wrong in my life too. Only God can judge us. So what can I do if not judge ISIS? I can love them by praying for them. I can pray for God to intervene in their lives. I can pray for God to give them dreams of his love and beauty and healing. I can pray that they will experience the same life-giving grace that I have in my life. I must pray for them. Why? Because otherwise I will hate them and not love them, which is in direct violation of Jesus command to love my enemies. In order to trust God through this ordeal, I must turn to him in prayer.
- Embrace the mystery, the unknown, the scary, and the awkwardness. In order to move forward and to trust again, I must simply embrace the fact that this world is messed up. There are many things that are beyond my comprehension and control. I can’t understand how ISIS could do this heinous act. I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that God did not intervene. I can’t deny the fact that I have experience some truly illogical fear over the last few days. And I can’t get over the frustrations I feel regarding each of these things. But, if I’m honest, there is so much of life that is mysterious, unknowable, scary, and awkward. I shouldn’t be surprised that these events have reminded me of this reality. Friends, we must admit that we can’t figure everything out. There is a God, and not one of us is him.
Well, that’s all I have. We must learn to trust God again. We can’t let time-bound circumstances influence our eternal relationship with God. We have no choice by to turn to him, to place our full faith in him, and to continue to follow him.
If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, please do so in the comments below.
(Just FYI, I will be moderating the comments carefully, so please abstain from hate speech, racist remarks, bad language, and the like. Thanks!)