My first memory of world events was the Challenger explosion. I was in 3rd grade, and it was weeks after my 8th birthday. What was supposed to be a happy triumph became its opposite. The weird mix of shock, embarrassment, and guilt at watching people die on live TV embedded in my memory so deeply that, 34 years later, I felt apprehensive echoes waiting to see if Space X would become the first private company to launch humans into space.
My next memory of world events was happier: the fall of the Berlin Wall. But then a parade of horribles: the Gulf War, the Balkan Wars, the Rwandan genocide and — looming as a turning point around which all else was “before” or “after” — the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The hits kept coming: war in Afghanistan, the Beltway Sniper (2002), war in Iraq, the financial meltdown of 2008, the rise of ISIS, the volatility of our national government over the last several years, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, COVID-19, pandemic lockdowns, and mass unemployment, and now war in Ukraine and the specter of nuclear escalation around the corner. Also, two hurricanes, an earthquake, and a record-setting blizzard that hit my home all within three years of each other.
I’m tired of living through interesting times. We bear witness to ceaseless pain, suffering, and death, and for the most part we are utterly powerless to do anything about it — except, perhaps, help clean up afterward.
Remember truth, and finding comfort
In the face of such tumult, what would Jesus do? I’m pretty sure he would say, “I told you so.” Because he did: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:6-8).
This is, oddly, comforting. As often as we hear that we live in unprecedented times, our times are, sadly, quite precedented. The technology changes, as does the speed with which we can become aware of tragedy happening on the other side of the world, but otherwise war, privation, pestilence, and death are so common as to be timeless symbols of human affliction, immortalized as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Ezekiel and Revelation. There is nothing new under the sun.
I need to remember these truths. In the spring of 2020, a couple months into the pandemic, I had something close to a panic attack. Watching the economic collapse and social disruption, I feared what kind of social and political fallout we’d be enduring for years to come.
A few months later, we had the largest civil unrest in 50 years with the protests after George Floyd’s murder. Six months after that, we had the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Now, a year later, we have a major war in Europe.
The pandemic didn’t cause these things. But, as many others observed, the pandemic was an accelerant and a pressure cooker. The pandemic amplified a lot of what was already there. In some cases, it was maybe the thing that tipped the scales and made bad things more likely. I feel certain we are not done yet. Wars and rumors of wars; nation rising against nation.
God does not call on us to respond to all this with Buddhist detachment. The pain and suffering in the world is real, and it is bad, and we should eagerly hope and pray for it to end. Nor should we Bible-slap one another with a cavalier James 1 reminder to rejoice in trials of all kinds. That is wise counsel to help us prepare for suffering ahead of time, but often not the most helpful message to give in the moment of suffering.
How should we respond?
I suggest several responses to the misery we witness.
First, lament for the world. Many Christians have forgotten the spiritual discipline of lament. But the Bible gives us plenty of examples in the Psalms, in Lamentations, and elsewhere of crying out to the Lord, wailing before him, putting words to our grief and pain, asking boldly for God’s deliverance and mercy, and expressing our hopeful trust in him.
Second, love your neighbor. And by “neighbor” I mean “every human you meet.” Life is too short to spend it being a jerk. Everyone you meet has something they have suffered from or are suffering from right now. So, go easy on them. Love them with a kind word, or a smile, or a compliment, including your Uber driver, the lady behind the counter at the DMV, the guy who cut you off in traffic, and the annoying co-worker with bad social manners. Doing so helps share their burdens, and may help ease your own.
Third, cultivate your garden. This is how Voltaire puts it in the immortal final line of his novel Candide. In other words, take responsibility for whatever small patch of creation is within your care. Nobody reading this can stop the war in Ukraine (unless Vladimir Putin is reading this, in which case: repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand). But we can do a hundred small acts to steward our homes, love our families, and serve in our workplaces. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might,” and “be joyful,” and “take pleasure in all [your] toil,” (Eccl. 9:10, 3:12-13). Or as Paul says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,” (Col. 3:23).
I know it can sound trite, but “aspire to live a quiet life” is sometimes the best advice (1Tim. 2:2). It’s good for your mental health and, in aggregate, is also one of the best solutions to some of the world’s big problems too. And remember that the suffering we endure today is a bond of solidarity we share with generations past and future. In the new creation, those of us in Christ will meet our ancestors and our progeny and swap war stories about what we witnessed and suffered, and we will recognize that suffering well and cultivating our garden amidst the turmoil of our times is what gave us ballast, depth, and solidity — as well as compassion, empathy, love, and an opportunity to glorify God.