When the Victory of God seems like a Distant Dream

By Rupen Das

As violence rocked the center of Beirut again and as I have watched the crisis in Syria unfold with all its horrors, I’ve wondered where does God fit into all of this? The fear and anxiety is palpable. The political narrative has changed from a people genuinely desiring freedom, to one of a battle for dominance between the regional powers backed by their international supporters.

Yet in the middle of all this there is a different reality – one of a church and community of faith trapped in between, and anguished about its future. This is best portrayed by very different stories of two Syrian pastors.

As the intense fighting and shelling inched closer to his home, a pastor in one of the besieged cities talked about his struggle– as to whether he should stay to continue ministering, or whether he should take his family and flee. It is so easy for us to judge what he should do from the comforts of where we are – but we have no idea of the terror and fear from the fighting that is engulfing these cities. At the same time, I hear stories from another pastor in a different city who visits displaced families who spend their day begging for food. At night he goes to the park to find families who are sleeping under the trees, whose children have barely eaten for days. He recounts how the children hungrily devour the food that he brings. He talks about the brokenness and desperation he encounters when he asks if he can pray for them, and about the demand for Bibles from the majority community that he is unable to keep up with.

Is there a theology, an understanding of God that ties the two stories together – that a church under siege can make sense of? Our Creeds and teaching focus on the triumphant victory of God and the blessings on those who follow Him. Yet these ring hollow and are so far removed from what the church in the region is experiencing, as the Creeds have nothing to say of how to live in the midst of darkness and oppression. Philip Jenkins reminds us in The Lost History of Christianity that churches sometimes die and communities of faith are decimated.

On one occasion when the people of God had rebelled, God sought to destroy them completely. Moses reminds God that they are His people, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” Ex 33:15-16 (ESV). It was the presence of God that was central in Moses’ theology.

For a besieged church, anguished and uncertain about its future, it is this understanding of Immanuel, God with us, that is so unique and distinct from all the other faiths. The very presence of the living God comforts and sustains them. Yet it is also this very Presence that draws others to know and experience such a God.

The German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, writes about the crucified God. He refers to the Jewish Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s concept of the pathos of God, a pathos that is not what he calls the “irrational human emotions”, but about a God who is affected by events, human actions and suffering in history. Moltmann writes, “He is affected by them because he is interested in his creation, his people…” This pathos is contrasted with the apatheia of the gods, their inability to feel or their incapability of being influenced, that Judaism and early Christianity encountered in the religions of the ancient world. Centuries later the Church encountered Islam, where God was not one who suffers and therefore could not deal with the problem of human suffering. For most people God remains distant and uncaring.

The first understanding of Immanuel is that God is not distant but comforts us in the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23). He calls Himself the God of all comfort (II Cor. 1: 3-5). The pastor and his church who wonder whether they should flee or not, need to know that whatever their decision, God is present and walks with them.

The second implication is that the Church needs to live out the reality of the living God in their midst. Unfortunately, throughout history the besieged church has tended to withdraw into itself during times of crisis. Bishop Kenneth Cragg tells the story of Robert Curzon, the English traveler, who while visiting a monastery in Lebanon in 1849 looking for ancient manuscripts recalls a meal with the monks. “I have been quietly dining in a monastery when shouts have been heard and shots have been fired against the stout bulwarks of the outer walls … which had but little effect in altering the monotonous cadence in which one of the brotherhood read a homily of St. Chrysostom from the pulpit … in the refectory.” The massive walls kept out the world and its violence, and the Faith and the faithful were preserved.

Miroslav Volf instead writes from his experience in the Balkans, where the neutrality of the international community removed any moral restraint that there may have been, resulting in the massacres that ensued. While there may be a place for political neutrality, there is no excuse for being morally neutral. He writes, “Is neutrality the proper stance, however? For those who stand in the prophetic and apostolic traditions of the Scriptures, no neutrality is in fact admissible. These people hear the groans of the suffering, take a stance, and act”. The church in the midst of oppression has to be a voice for justice and a channel of compassion.

The strange paradox on this side of eternity is that the victory of God is not that the Church is triumphant, but that God enters into the darkness and walks with His people.

11 thoughts on “When the Victory of God seems like a Distant Dream

  1. فكرة قوية ذكرها الكاتب، لان كل تحركات الشعب اثناء رحلته الي ارض الموعد كانت عبارة ان اختبارات حية لحضور الله، السحابة نهاراً وعمود النار ليلاً، اريد ان اضيف هنا متذكراً اش55: 13 عندما قال” عوضا عن الشوك ينبت سرو وعوضا عن القريس يطلع اس ويكون للرب اسما علامة ابدية لاتنقطع” دليل على حضور الله معنا اينما نذهب هناط دليل على حضوره المميز في حياتنا و المواقف والازمات التي نمر بها كافراد او ككنائس

  2. When discussing the concept of the victory of God, we have to keep in mind that this will probably look very different than a victory we might envision. The concept of “Christendom” -where the Church reigned supreme and covered every aspect of life -was ultimately a failure, both functionally and morally. Remember that God crushed and crucified his only Son Jesus. Churches that exist under persecution, in places of strife and suffering, may be in fact where God finds the greatest victory.

    • Peter misunderstood Christ and wanted to protect him from the cross. Jesus told him bluntly that he was speaking the words of Satan. Jesus chose to be with us in our suffering. I think you are write that we have probably misunderstood the concept of the victory of God. God’s way of looking at things tends to be very different to our limited and fallen human way.

  3. Following the mention of God as One of all comfort, it is a circular active analogy chosen by Saint Paul to describe the Church’s role in midst of pain; he suffered and was comforted, now he can comfort others based on the comfort he once received (2 Cor 1: 3-4).

    Any discussion of how pain and suffering fit into God’s scheme ultimately leads back to the cross. ― Philip Yancey

  4. The scene of mass destruction, hungry children and people asleep under the trees in Syria, brought back to my mind many memories of the civil war in Lebanon. One thing that kept the church strong and unshaken was the Lord’s presence with His children during all these tough years. Thank you Rupen for reminding us of God’s care and comfort in the midst of the storms. God is in control! May the Lord grant our brothers and sisters in Syria His peace and the insurance that He will use all these circumstances to show His Glory!

  5. A very insightful post. I found the last sentence very touching and true. The victory of God may not always be the way we expect it to be. Just like salvation from sin and victory over death happened through the death of Jesus on the cross, triumph may happen in brokenness and suffering when we experience the hand of God who never lets go of His people. For the church is not only called to share Christ’s victory and glory but also His sufferings. It is how the church reacts and lives out its faith “in the valley of the shadow of death” which makes it triumphant. May the church in Syria truly realize that God is walking with His people in this darkness, chaos and madness. It is not easy to see that when one is so submerged in pain. I really pray God opens their hearts and eyes to this truth.

  6. Very insightful! Even though the Church in Syria is struggling, Jesus will never abandon His bride! Thank you for the reminder that having “Immanuel” in our lives makes all the difference. In times like these, we should be praying for the Church in Syria to make Jesus real to those who are suffering and broken.

    • It is so true Maher that Jesus will never abandon the church. He Himself said in Matthew 16:18: ” I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. Syria, and particularly the churches there, are in our prayers.

  7. Thank you for this reminder that Immanuel is the answer to our most essential questions in the midst of suffering- both “Where is God?”, and “How then are we called to live?”. Undoubtedly the “Why?” is also encompassed in the mystery of Immanuel. Perhaps a part of it is that we may experience more fully the power of God with Us.

  8. Thanks for this blog post. I pray the Holy Spirit directs the local church in Syria as well as the global body of Christ in navigating the sensitive waters of maintaining politically neutral while taking a moral stand. This is challenge given the politically charged environment of the Middle East. Like this post says, may the church’s agenda be one from above and not of this world.

  9. James Hollis writes in his book “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life”: The world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young.” I am convinced God is with His people and, but my prayer is for God to shine His light into this darkness so that His people may see the way forward in countries like Syria and Lebanon.

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