Last month we learned of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive and twenty-one Egyptian Christians being beheaded. In light of these horrors, I was flooded with anger, disgust, and heartbreak – natural responses to unspeakable acts. On top of this chaos was the painful suggestion that we shouldn’t feel such emotions, because other atrocities were committed in the name of Christ several decades or centuries ago.
I’m not saying old atrocities don’t matter. What I am saying is that these new atrocities are here and now, and the pain and horror are fresh and real. How is it helpful to debate historical events when we are in the middle of new terrorist slaughters day by day? Such debates will not stop the terror, nor will they help the victims that are being added with each new incident.
I think the crux of my overwhelming emotions was that I just don’t know what to do. How do I, as a follower of Jesus, respond to these terrible crises so far away—yet somehow so close? There seems to be no human solution to the violence, because violence tends to bring on more violence in our world’s economy of revenge. But on the other hand, doing nothing also seems to bring on more violence, because there is no pushback to check it.
Right after the beheadings, my daily scripture reading resonated amazingly with my feelings of frustration:
Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
they set up their standards as signs.
They behaved like men wielding axes
to cut through a thicket of trees.
They smashed all the carved paneling
with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!”
They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.
We are given no miraculous signs;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.
How long will the enemy mock you, O God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
This psalm was likely written in the context of the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar around 586 B.C. The author’s horror and confusion echo my own. Mass murder and brutality rage all around him, and God seems to be doing nothing about it.
The psalmist and I agree: Surely God sees the senseless violence; surely he could fix the problem. Together, we beg for divine intervention: Why doesn’t God stop the evil? Why doesn’t he unleash hellfire and brimstone in swift, sure judgment on this wicked world? (As I wish for this, I forget of course that if he did so, I myself would also be included in the judgment.)
Quite frankly, that was the direction my heart wanted to go. As in Revelation 19, I wanted to see Jesus, the Lord of Lords, galloping in with eyes of fire to confront the killers. I wanted justice—fast and brutal—poured down on the murderers of those twenty-one brothers in Christ, the Jordanian pilot, and the scores of other men, women, and children slaughtered in the name of a hijacked religion.
However, the psalmist’s next thought was so striking that it set me back on my heels:
But you, O God, are my king from of old;
you bring salvation upon the earth. (v. 12)
In the next verses (13-17), the writer goes on to praise God for his absolute sovereignty over the seas, the beasts, the rivers, the heavens, and the seasons.
In this psalm, there is no transition at all between challenging the inaction of God and praising that very same God. It seems an odd juxtaposition. On top of the old question of why God holds back judgment, I now have new questions: Why doesn’t the psalmist continue to hold God’s feet to the fire, so to speak? Why change direction and start praising God instead?
As verse 12 so eloquently reveals, for all of these questions the answer is the same: although God is a God of judgment, he is also a God of salvation. His highest purpose is to bring salvation to every corner of the whole earth.
In my anger and helplessness, I am forced to widen my scope.
Once again, I think of those twenty-one brothers in Jesus, kneeling on the beach, preparing to have their throats slit and their blood flow into the water. They are not victims; they are martyrs—a word which means “witnesses”—bearing witness to the Savior of this dark world. In the video of their executions, their last words were declarations that Jesus is Lord.
Jesus said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). There was far more courage in those Christ-followers facing death with Jesus’ name on their lips, than in those who stood over them holding the knives. Is it naïve—or even offensive—to think that this scene, horrific as it was, may be less about Allah’s vengeance than about God’s salvation?
Like the psalmist’s, my focus is taking a sharp, unexpected turn. Though the questions and confusion are real, we must lift up Jesus—like those twenty-one witnesses now in his arms—and pray for the Middle East to be flooded with something new: not horror and heartbreak, but salvation.