In 1994, a photographer named Kevin Carter found himself in the Sudan taking pictures of that country’s horrendous famine. One of his images was of a small starving black child crawling feebly toward a UN food camp, located a kilometer away. Waiting patiently behind the child, stood a vulture, anticipating its next meal.
When the photo was published, it won the Pulitzer Prize and shocked millions, including me. The picture gave me chills. For months, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It summed up, in a single image, all the horrors of famine in the sub-Sahara region of Africa. I thought, “Where is God in this nightmare?”
Another photo that had a similar effect on my psyche was of a group of Vietnamese children — one of them naked – running down a street trying to escape the flames of warfare. What had these hapless children done to deserve to live in such a world? They were terrified, confused and helpless.
A third image also burned itself into my consciousness: two Asian men standing while one held a pistol to the head of the other and fired; an act of murder captured on film!
Just yesterday, I read a news report of a Mexican atrocity in which dozens of decapitated and mutilated bodies were discovered on a highway – apparently victims of that country’s vicious drug wars. To date, more than 50,000 have died within Mexico’s borders, many of them horribly mutilated to thwart identification.
Taken together, it makes one ask, “What kind of a world do we live in? It’s full of wars, famines, disease, murders, natural disasters and other horrors. Some of those humans can take credit for; others are “acts of God.” As individuals, we never know what’s going to happen next. We have little or no control over the mega-disasters that strike the world without notice. We may or may not find ourselves caught up in them.
Despite all this, there’s no better place for humans to live than planet Earth. This is our home in the universe. It’s a world over which God gave us a degree of dominion (Genesis 1:28). Yet, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all,” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
On some level, everything is cause & effect, but we all experience effects that someone else caused. Did that starving child in the Sudan choose her state of being? Did the fleeing children in Vietnam choose or create the war in which they were caught up? Did the man whose head was blown off by a bullet from his killer’s pistol choose his fate? The world is full of villains and victims. As the writer of Ecclesiastes writes, “…no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them,” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).
It is natural, in the face of all this chaos and brutal inhumanity to despair, to lose hope and to give up on the world. The Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Kevin Carter, who took the photo of the starving Sudanese child, did just that. Two months after receiving the coveted prize, Carter committed suicide. He left a note: “I’m really, really sorry,” he wrote, “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”
Another photographer, whose name I have long forgotten, said after soaking in the horrors of the Viet Nam war, “I could not deliver what my heart demanded, so I left.”
The world doesn’t know how to fix itself. This reality often leads to psychic pain and a sense of despair. For some tortured souls like Carter, death seems the only release. In Isaiah’s day, the situation was so bad that the prophet wrote, “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death,” (Isaiah 57: 1-2).
The world today is like Israel at the time Isaiah prophesied, “The way of peace they know not,” (Isaiah 59:8). “…ruin and destruction mark their ways,” (Isaiah 59:7b). The world, apart from God and his people, is “…separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world,” (Ephesians 2: 12).
The world’s religions have been unable to fix the world – for the most part, some of them have spread death and mayhem wherever they have gone. There’s no hatred like religious hatred.
Nor can godless humanism fix the world. The greatest democides (death by government) have been committed by godless despots like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. All were utopianists – believers in a better world through “social engineering.”
The world without God is a world without hope. The absence of hope leads to despair. The only real hope is in God – not religion, God. The fear of the Lord is only the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). The materialist world despises such wisdom. It wants to do things on its own, without the benefit of divine input. The world, as it is, is the product of godless humanism (materialism) and destructive religion. Political corruption exists on a grand scale. We’d all like to live in a better world, but given the kind of leadership we’re all subjected to, what chance is there? Power has corrupted and we’re all paying the price.
Jesus knew what kind of a world his disciples would have to do their work in. He said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves…” (Matthew 10: 16a). As in Isaiah’s day, “…whoever shuns evil becomes a prey,” (Isaiah 59:15b). In our modern world, Jews and Christians – those who seek to live God’s way – are viewed by the rest of the world as prey.
Until Messiah returns, the world will continue to morally degenerate. Godly people will increasingly experience persecution. Yet, we are the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth.” We seek to live exemplary lives as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must daily ask God for the grace to endure whatever comes our way – sickness, pain, natural disasters, treacherous enemies (personal or national), and other setbacks. God seems to allow his people to experience the full spectrum of pain and ugliness that this world has to offer. We are not immune. We don’t live charmed lives. We all encounter our “towers of Siloam” (Luke 13:4). Instead of being divided by sectarian differences, Christians can learn to recognize their brethren and seek to do them good. “Do not be deceived, God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to his sinful nature [flesh] from that nature [flesh] will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers,” (Galatians 6: 7-10).
The world is what it is. As I wrote above, Christians and Jews do not live charmed lives. We are all victims of chance, circumstances and the evil of both ourselves and others. Much of what happens in the world is because of sin (failing to live up to God’s standard). As the author of Ecclesiastes observed, “…one sinner destroys much good,” (Ecclesiastes 10: 18b). When evil or incompetent people find their way into power, the rest of us suffer. “Fools are put in many high positions…” (Ecclesiastes 10:6). The people over whom they wield power may suffer and die. Bad and evil leadership is responsible for much of the suffering in the world (Proverbs 29:2).
This life is “Boot Camp for eternity.” We are learning from all that we suffer, just as Jesus did (cf. Hebrews 5:8). In every circumstance, through every trial, we find ourselves turning to God and seeking his will in that situation. We never know what’s just around the next bend in life. As we age, we are faced with a myriad of new challenges: physical and mental deterioration, mobility issues, financial difficulties, ill-intentioned people taking advantage etc. etc. Even then we must invite God to help us through the fog and pain of old age. We must cling to God for dear life, for that truly is what’s at stake.
We had no say in where or when we were born. We could have been born into the horrors of famine in the Sub-Sahara regions of drought-stricken Africa. We could have found ourselves in the fiery horrors of war in Viet Nam or Afghanistan. Or we could have been born into wealth and privilege. Whether we are rich or poor, sick or well, we have a role to play. We can seek to glorify God in any circumstance. “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up,” (Romans 15: 1-2).
Meeting people at their points of real need is a paramount duty of Christians. All the chaos in this sinful world provides ample opportunity for godly people to do good. Each situation determines what is appropriate. No matter our station and circumstances, we are called upon to live, as much as possible, exemplary lives. If we are healthy, prospering and blessed, we share our bounty with others who are less fortunate. If we are poor, sick and broken, we turn to God for help and thankfully receive what He provides. The apostle Paul found himself in both states and he learned how to handle both (Philippians 4: 11-13).
In a world such as this, we often find ourselves living as prey among predators. As this Administration, and others around the world, increasingly turn against devout Christians and Jews, life will become incrementally more difficult for the people of God. We will need to draw close to God and seek his empowerment and protection. All the while, we have a duty to maintain the Standard. God has given us a way of life that we should seek to live out no matter what is going on around us. Paul wrote, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength,” (Philippians 4:13). Paul wrote that from a Roman prison (Philippians 1:12-14). Even there, he found ways of furthering the Gospel.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” (John 16:33b). He also said, “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations…(Revelation 2:26).