“Where is God in Ukraine?”
I was set to start my lecture when a student asked this disturbing question. Her sincerity was evident and by the reaction of her classmates, the question resonated. News feeds had been filled with heartbreaking stories and images of the devastation in Ukraine. Daily we had learned of civilians being targeted, cities reduced to rubble, and hospitals overwhelmed and undersupplied. I suspect what may have prompted her question was a recent report that Ukrainian women and children fleeing the war—often unable to speak the language of neighboring countries and unaware of whom to trust—were the targets of sex trafficking rings. A scenario too painful to bear. I asked her to elaborate.
“Well, my housemates regularly pray for Ukraine and it doesn’t make any difference. To be honest, praying only seems to make matters worse. I don’t get it. Why doesn’t God do something?” I decided to scrap the lecture and process with them—what in the world is God doing in a world that seemingly is spinning out of control?
It’s a question I’d been wrestling with since the start of the pandemic as death rates rise in our country passing the 1 million-mark, depression rates soar, and calls to domestic violence centers increase by nearly 70%. This last statistic is personal since I teach verbal and physical self-defense at domestic violence shelters in Orange County, CA. Like my student, I often find myself wondering why God doesn’t act in more overt ways in the presence of such suffering at home and abroad? My questions resulted in my writing a book, Eyes to See: Discovering God’s Common Grace in an Unsettled World (IVP). In this two-part blog, I want to provide a partial answer to my student’s question: Where is God in Ukraine? In part one, I will lay out the oft-neglected doctrine of common grace and in part two, specifically apply it to God’s relation to war.
God Can Handle Our Questioning
I affirmed my student’s transparency and courage in asking her question. Students at Christian universities often avoid asking hard questions for fear of being seen as lacking faith. This particularly applies to students who aspire to leadership roles and suspect—whether unfounded or not—that questioning God’s power or goodness will disqualify them.
However, that’s not what we see from biblical writers. Consider the following:
Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble (Ps. 10:1)?
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me (Ps. 13:1)?
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression (Ps. 44:24)?
How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever (Ps. 89:46)?
Two observations are worth noting. First, nowhere does the psalmist receive a rebuke or is shammed by God for asking pointed questions. Second, the psalmists voice these powerful emotions to God—they don’t cut off the relationship. In the end, God is big enough to handle our seasons of frustration and doubt.
How Do We Expect God to Act?
Expectations play a key role in shaping our perspective. How do you expect a spouse, or child to act toward you? What expectations do you have for your boss, co-workers, professors, or fellow classmates? Unmet expectations can dramatically impact any relationship. The same is true with God. How do we expect him to answer prayer, or to come to our aid in time of need? Jewish theologian Martin Buber speculated that God often seems silent and distant because our expectation is that He’d always communicate to us in dramatic ways such as a thunderclap or undeniable epiphany, “Thus saithe the Lord!”1 When we long for God to act, is that what we envision? Our goal as Christian communicators isn’t to limit God’s capacity to act, but rather, to expand it.
Common Grace Defined
We can define common grace as the undeserved blessings God pours out on the entire human race without discrimination or bias between one person or another. The Psalmist proclaims to a world in rebellion that the “Lord is good to all” and he has “compassion on all he has made” (Ps. 145:9). What is the good we experience? Jesus offers one example when he states that God makes the “sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Mt. 5:45). Paul reiterates this point when he informs unbelievers at Lystra that God is the one who sends “rains from heaven and fruitful seasons” (Acts 14:17). After the Fall, the earth didn’t just produce thorns or thistles, but equally plush vineyards, crops, oceans teeming with a myriad of fish, and minerals buried in the ground. The central feature of this type of grace is that all people experience it. Rebels and saints alike can count on regular seasons to plant and harvest crops, learn to build fires for cold nights, create language to communicate with others, discover medicines to fight off disease, formulate governments to help communities flourish, navigate long journeys by consulting the stars, learn the truths of mathematics for abstract thinking, and create art to imagine beauty and draw us up to higher ideals.
P. E. Hughes gives a nice summary of common grace:
Common grace is so-called because it is common to all mankind. Its benefits are experienced by the whole human race without discrimination between one person and another . . . To common grace, then, we must thankfully attribute God’s continuing care for his creation, as he provides for the needs of his creatures, restrains human society from becoming altogether intolerable and ungovernable, and makes it possible for mankind, though fallen, to live together in a generally orderly and cooperative manner, to show mutual forbearance, and to cultivate together the scientific, cultural, and economic pursuits of civilization.2
Theologian Wayne Grudem makes an interesting point when he asserts that “we should recognize that unbelievers often receive more common grace than believers—they may be more skillful, harder working, more intelligent, more creative, or have more of the material benefits of this life to enjoy.”3 Thus, the doctrine of common grace, when properly understood, carries with it an evangelistic aspect where Christian communicators can start positive spiritual conversations by acknowledging the good and virtuous actions of our neighbors. At a time when Christians are often seen as overly judgmental, pointing out and affirming virtuous actions can improve the overall communication climate and set the stage for further conversations with those outside our community.
Common Grace and Suffering
The doctrine of common grace is particularly relevant when we and those we care about face hardship. When we encounter racism or sexism, a pandemic, a personal tragedy, or watch the horrors of Ukraine unfold, we desire for God to show himself. During these times, Christ-followers—myself included—utter a haunting refrain: Where is God? That’s the question I wrestled with in my book—What constitutes God acting in a world of pain and turmoil? If we have a limited idea of what divine action looks like—dramatic answers to prayer, healings with no medical explanation, financial needs being met unexpectedly by total strangers—then we have lessened the power of common grace exhibited by antibiotics, financial planners, and thoughtful friends.
My view of common grace rests on two assertions. First, God is aware of not only what is currently happening, but what will happen. For example, did God know Adam and Eve would eventually rebel by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Yes. But, he’s not responsible for their rebellion; he simply knew what the first humans would freely do in the garden. The second claim is that via fore-knowledge, God knows what challenges humans will face in a rebellious world—disease, famine, war, pandemics, and sex trafficking, to name a few. Subsequently, he strategically gives us gifts—scientific discoveries, agriculture, antibiotics, ethics—that help us not only survive, but thrive. These gifts are given in partnership with us and constitute the core of common grace.4 In part two of this series I’ll explore steps God has taken to address our propensity for war in general, and in Ukraine specifically.
Which would you pick?
If you could travel back to biblical times to witness God in action, what would you most want to see? Imagine the possibilities. You shield yourself from the spray as Pharaoh’s chariots are consumed by raging waters. Trumpets blast as the seemingly impenetrable walls of Jericho fall with a deafening thud shaking the ground beneath you. Your hair singed as fire comes down from heaven consuming the prophet Elijah’s sacrifice as hundreds of Baal’s prophets are silenced. Or, perhaps you’d opt for watching Jesus heal the leper, raise Lazarus, or feed the five thousand?
How many would choose to watch early Christians collect food for the poor, help build sanitation systems for the city of Antioch, or provide aid to Roman citizens during a plague in 165 A.D.?
As we watch a world enveloped in suffering and pain it’s crucial we expand our view of what counts as an act of God, realizing that the ingenuity of designing a sanitation system and parting the sea are both divine. In no way am I discounting the dramatic acts of God that are the topic of movies or sermons. Nor am I suggesting that God doesn’t act in miraculous ways today—reports from missionaries abroad record miracles too many to ignore, and many of us have answers to prayer that defy natural explanations. Rather, I’m suggesting that if miraculous acts are God’s highlight reel, then common grace is the ever-present, but oft-ignored elevator music that plays in the background of our lives 24/7. If we start to acknowledge God’s common grace, we’ll soon see he longs to help with our problems and is active in dramatic answers to prayer and in the aspirin we take for a blistering headache and the church benevolence fund that helps in hard times.
This distinction will be crucial when in desperation we ask God to intervene. In the next post, I’ll directly address my student’s question: Where is God in Ukraine?
- Martin Buber, Between God and Man (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 7.
- P. E. Hughes, “Grace,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 480.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 663.
- This view should not be confused with open theism which asserts that God does not know the future because it is the result of fully free beings who have yet to make specific choices. Thus, if humans are truly free the future is unknowable even to God. For a summary of open theism and objections to it, see: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/is-open-theism-still-a-factor-10-years-after-ets-vote/