Tatiana Perebeinis was a 43-year-old accountant working for a California start-up company in Irpin, Ukraine. She became famous this week as her photo appeared on the front page of the New York Times. It wasn’t a flattering photo. Along with her 9-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son, they were lying face-up on a paved street with armed soldiers kneeling over them attempting resuscitation.
Apparently, they had darted across a damaged bridge into the city of Kyiv when they were hit by a Russian mortar. The photo splashed on newspapers and websites across the country and around the world brought the reality of the war to those of us sitting comfortably in our homes, complaining about the price of gas or the unfairness of mask mandates. There is much suffering out there that most of us reading these words will never experience.
Whenever confronted with suffering like this, one of the most frequent questions people ask is, “Where is Jesus in this?” I’ve often said that if I were to be an atheist, it would be because there is no answer to the problem of how an all-powerful, loving God can allow the atrocities people experience every day. Where is Jesus in all of this?
We have comforted ourselves with the conclusion that “God’s ways are not our ways.” In other words, just accept that we can’t understand it; perhaps God will tell us someday. Some even believe God is using evil men and destructive acts to punish people and accomplish God’s will. Thus, we have screwball TV evangelists proclaiming that when Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans it was God’s punishment on homosexuals, and we have theologians who teach us that God destroyed the Canaanites so God’s people could have the land.
It seems to me this concept is flawed. They support the notion that God is all-powerful, but there doesn’t seem to be much love involved in God’s power. How easy would it be for Sergii Perebeinis, husband and father, to believe in a loving God as he buries his family? Where is Jesus in all this?
I’m confident you’ve asked that question yourself about a personal situation — perhaps a death, sickness, financial struggle, the list is endless. All of us have struggled with the problem in the past two years about the COVID epidemic and the staggering loss of life, probably close to 1 million Americans.
I discovered a book about two years ago that set my mind ablaze with a fire for understanding God that has only grown more intense since. The writer is Jim Palmer. The book is titled Being Jesus in Nashville: Finding the Courage to Live Your Life (Whoever or Wherever You Are).
Palmer’s premise is that we need to stop figuring out what Jesus would do (because we can’t do much of what he did anyway) and focus on simply “being Jesus.” Haven’t we always believed Jesus is omnipresent? He is everywhere. Jesus called out 12 men to go into the world for him. He established the church (you and me) to do the same thing. What Baptist hasn’t memorized Matthew 28, “go into all the world?” We are already Jesus in the world. Wherever we go, he is there.
There is a great TV series on Prime Video that captures this concept. I don’t know if it’s an accident or intentional, but it perfectly depicts what I think it means to be Jesus. The show, As We See It, tells the story of three autistic young people living in an apartment with a caregiver. That caregiver is Mandy. How she relates to the difficult situations posed by these young people is a clear reflection of how Jesus relates to difficult people and those who suffer.
Mandy shows how to love people who seem to be unlovable. She guides when they need help, lifts them after they make a mistake or do something inappropriate, reassures them of her love and presence when they are hurt. She doesn’t fix them (she can’t); she lives with them. She doesn’t judge them (they’ve already been judged); she guides them. She doesn’t scold them (they get that from everyone else); she understands how they feel. She cries when they cry.
As We See It is great writing but not nearly as good as the gospel of Jesus. Yet, we miss the story and don’t see Jesus.
We ask where Jesus is when a woman and her children are stretched out dead on a Ukraine street, and we miss the point. Too often, we answer it by thinking he is with the Ukrainian army as they fire rockets back at the Russians. We thought God was with Israel’s warriors when they annihilated the Canaanites. No! There’s nothing loving about that. God was with the Canaanites. Love means that when someone you love is suffering, you suffer with them.
Every parent knows this about love. How does it feel when your child is sick? It hurts. We suffer. Imagine if it hurts for us, how much more does it hurt for God whose love exceeds ours. The temptation is to believe that God is always with the victors, but the truth is that God loves “the whole world” (John 3:16 and many others).
“The temptation is to believe that God is always with the victors, but the truth is that God loves ‘the whole world.’”
Early in the Ukraine crisis, I watched a news video of women and children on a train, fleeing the bombing. The destination was Poland, across the border. These women had few possessions, only what could be carried by mom and her children. Many of them didn’t know anyone in Poland or any other country. They were running from certain destruction to a place where they didn’t know how they would survive.
As I watched the video, I asked, “Where is Jesus in all this?”
Then I saw him. There were crowds of people waiting for the train. One couple was interviewed. They said they had room for eight at their house, and they brought two cars to get them home. Agencies, Christian and non-Christian, had representatives to take people to shelters. Food and water were distributed. There was a stack of stuffed animals for the kids. Baby strollers were lined up next to an elevator for mothers exhausted from carrying a child. Jesus was clearly visible.
The question was posed to theologian Peter Enns about why the Bible contains “so many bizarre, offensive and un-Christlike images of God.” His response needs to be heard by all of us as we try to figure out how we got our notion that God condones hateful and violent experiences. Enns said, “Because God let his children tell the story.”
From our perspective as God’s children, we always want to associate God with the strong; God is omnipotent, after all. Jesus showed up to teach us that God associates with the lowly. The Apostle Paul understood this: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Next time you watch a news report with footage of a war-ravaged neighborhood, look for Jesus. He’s also battered, bruised and bleeding, looking much like he probably did hanging on the Cross. That’s how much he hurts when we hurt.
By the way, Jesus also may be seen in the midst of the Russian people, struggling to find food and get access to money, who are suffering economically because of this war. I’ll even suggest Jesus feels your pain as you pump 20 gallons into your Toyota, but it’s not nearly as painful.
Terry Austin says from his first day of life he was taught to love the church. He has lived out that passion in various ways as a pastor, church consultant, author and critic. He is currently a full-time writer and book publisher and actively engaged with house churches.
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