All these disasters – how can we respond?

Feb 25, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Just yesterday I received three emails from different Christian organisations, each describing a tragic situation and asking for my support for the suffering and those risking life to help them. They were: an Indian evangelical group monitoring the persecution of Christians, mostly in small towns, by Hindu nationalist mobs. A large NGO working in northern Syria, where

“…more than 900,000 people, including at least 600,000 children, have fled their homes since the start of December alone due to intense conflict. Freezing winter conditions and a critical lack of shelter have led to children dying in open fields – parents are risking everything to get their children to safety, only to see them die in their arms.”

Then, a missionary supporting the church in “a large East Asian country”, asking for urgent prayer as the Coronavirus takes hold.

These are just three examples of a catalogue of terrible events that we hear about: the ongoing but perhaps forgotten murderous conflicts in Yemen, DRC, Venezuela, northern Nigeria. The appalling plague of locusts in East Africa; flooding in Shropshire and Worcestershire; aftermath of fires in Australia.

Listing all these disasters brings to mind judgements mentioned in the bible – in fact the epithet “biblical” has been used several times by journalists ever since the famous Michael Buerk report from Ethiopia in 1984But in addition to visible crises brought about by ‘natural disasters’ and human conflict, there are also unseen killers, psychological and spiritual in nature, often taking place in otherwise safe and affluent communities. Recently I listened to a BBC radio chat show, where the topic being discussed was loneliness, after the launch of a campaign to bring the sense of isolation and alienation that many people feel, especially the elderly. The conversation quickly broadened to more general mental health concerns, even suicide resulting from feelings of being unable to cope with the stresses of modern life.

And last Saturday I was at another conference facilitated by Anglican Mainstream, explaining once again the real problem of ideologically-driven sex education in schools: how it runs directly counter to Christian, Muslim and Jewish values, and contributes to a dangerous environment for all young people. The ‘progressive’, secular humanist values which have provided fertile soil for the sexual  revolutionaries, polluting our minds and restricting our freedoms, have also infiltrated the church. As leaders of mainline denominations in the West are often unable to publicly affirm historically-acknowledged truths of apostolic Christianity, attendance at Sunday worship continues to decline, young people from Christian families turn away from faith at unprecedented rates, and making new disciples is increasingly challenging.

The nature of media today makes it almost impossible to avoid a relentless stream of bad news. How should Christians deal with it?

There are some responses which are not helpful – but not uncommon. For example there can be a danger, especially with certain personality types, of feeling that the solution to a particular problem depends on me. I pour all my energy and personal resources into a project, not resting properly, getting angry with those who don’t seem as committed, and burn out. Or perhaps I don’t have a focus, but flit from one latest good cause to the next, driven by what’s just come up on social media.

It’s also easy to blame others based on our particular political bias, rather than actually do something simple to help. Some of the recent media treatments of loneliness have, encouragingly, given examples of young people intentionally taking time to befriend an elderly neighbour, rather than giving the microphone to predictable voices moaning about government cuts. Similarly, joining in the local community tree planting day, encouraging your children to eat vegetables and taking fewer car journeys or flights is a positive and achievable contribution to the health of the environment compared to some more extreme demands.

Having said this, it’s better to do something than nothing. As DL Moody was reported to have remarked to a critic “I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” While its good to avoid an over-zealous, unfocussed or party political approach to the world’s serious problems, apathy and inaction is sadly more common. It might be a general feeling that it’s the government’s business to sort things out (for example, care for the elderly), or that the issues are too complex and we cannot act, even by giving money, unless we have all the facts (as in contexts of poverty or conflict in other countries).

In evangelical church circles, there is sometimes a reluctance to get more involved in these issues of mass suffering, or in defending the innocence of children and the lives of the unborn, or contending for the preservation of biblical teaching in the church. Common excuses include the need to be “positive”, aware of the evangelistic impact of a constant sunny outlook and the danger of people being put off by negativity. Or perhaps a more theological reason: the church, some argue, should not get involved in worldly issues such as social action, as its priority is building up the local congregation. It may be that underlying this is a subtle form of prosperity theology, unable to reconcile belief in God with the reality of suffering, justifying the sinful nature’s love of ease and comfort, and recoiling from sacrifice for the sake of others.

What should we do when faced with constant stories of “wars and rumours of wars”, human misery and hearts going cold towards God and his word? Here are some brief suggestions:

  1. When responding to a disaster, try to understand more of the background – history and geography of the country, its politics and the state of the local church. Websites of trusted organisations make this information much more accessible than in the past.
  2. Reflect on the biblical teaching, the “now and not yet” of the Last Days. This doesn’t necessarily mean reading lots of books, certainly not delaying action until we have done so. I have heard small children expressing faith in God’s providence, and interpreting what he might be doing and saying in a tragic situation with great wisdom.
  3. Pray: individually, and corporately (with family, friends and church); systematically and in a focussed way; specifically (using concrete examples not just general prayers). Here is a great resource for Lent from Gafcon.   
  4. Decide as individuals/family/church on a policy of how to make a decision about what to support financially. An example might be: focussing on one disaster relief programme, two church-based development/advocacy programmes, three evangelistic/discipleship programmes. Then implement by giving generously.
  5. Evaluate our attitudes. Have we been greedy/lazy/fearful? It might be necessary to repent, to ask God’s help for individual and corporate changed lifestyle. It cannot be business as usual in the midst of crisis.
  6. It might be necessary to speak where we have been silent, but always with grace, remembering that on one hand we are not saved by our good works, nor can we take pride in them, but on the other, for evil to triumph it is only necessary for good people to do, and say, nothing.

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