The first time I heard Dallas Willard’s line, The world is a perfectly safe place to be,” I laughed out loud. I had just returned to the US from an intensive year of service amongst communities ravaged by war, poverty, oppression, and abuse. I had listened firsthand to pastors in Northern Nigeria grieving the kidnapping of their daughters by Boko Haram, to young women in Sri Lanka disclosing repeated sexual abuse at the hands of soldiers and fathers alike, and to Christian leaders around the world suffering persecution, poverty, and personal trauma. As I sat in the first residency of my Renovaré Institute cohort, I couldn’t hold together the sights and sounds that I had taken in with a view of the world as a safe place, lovingly held and governed by a Good Shepherd.

I suspect many of us feel this way after viewing recent media images coming out of Israel and Palestine. I was just there last week and made an unplanned exodus to escape the war. Upon my return, I was surprised to find that people back home seemed even more traumatized by their second-hand experience of the events than I was from actually being there on the ground. Some of that has to do with the fact that, though I heard machine gun fire in the distance and felt the ground shake under rocket impact, I did not experience the violence through the images shown in the media. The graphic nature of these atrocities — and others around the globe — enters the mind’s eye and leaves the soul rattled.

How are we to think and feel about a world in which such things are happening? How can we prayerfully engage without completely losing our sense of sanity or peace? 

As followers of Christ who pray Your kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven,” we are already practicing a dual vision, in which we look with one eye at Christ’s perfect reign in the kingdom of heaven and with the other eye at the mess that comes when humans reject and oppose that kingdom. These can be very difficult realities to hold together, particularly when those who present world events to us do so with no real vision of God’s very present reign. And yet Jesus’ disciples are called to cultivate faith eyes” (Matthew 13:14 – 16) — to learn to see him actively present in the world’s devastation, supporting the suffering, tending the sick, receiving the dying, and restraining evil’s full force. Not a sparrow falls apart from his care. Not a victim is harmed apart from his tender ministrations. 

But victims still fall. And rockets still explode. Part of our role as citizens of Christ’s kingdom is to be his ready servants who can carry out his answers to our prayers — to respond to the needs of the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed, as Jesus did (Luke 4:18 – 19). This is exactly what I have witnessed Christian communities doing around the world. In August, I led a spiritual retreat in Ukraine for pastors and seminary professors who have served as aid workers over the past 18 months, converting their churches and campuses into refugee centers to care for those harmed and displaced by the war. This morning, I was encouraged to hear of churches in Gaza doing the same.

Sadly, no matter how much we give or do for these causes, as Jesus said, we have the poor” with us always (Matthew 26:11). The issues that make the world not a safe place perpetually plague us, tempting us either to quit engaging or to burn ourselves out trying.

I admit to having ridden the pendulum between those two extremes, feeling the need to choose between my own well-being or that of the world. Inevitably this heightened sense of angst has come at times when I have been overexposed to the traumas of the world and underexposed to the vision of Christ as its Good Shepherd. 

Somehow it is easier to live within the vision of the Kingdom when green pastures and still waters abound. But how do we maintain this vision of a well-tended world while also accounting for the atrocities that so many of its people face? In my years of stepping in and out of some of the more extreme situations of our world, I have learned a few lessons for how to remain fruitfully and sustainably engaged.

1Read the news; don’t watch it. Images, once seen, can’t be unseen. If the goal is to be aware of what is happening in the world, that can be accomplished through reading print without traumatizing the mind’s eye. Print gives information. Images impart second-hand experience.

2Better still than reading the news, read reports and prayer letters from Christians living in the parts of the world that are affected. The media makes its living off of drama and fear. This isn’t to say that events they are reporting aren’t real. But the media often focuses on how bad things are and leaves us with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Local Christians are often involved in responding to the needs within their society. Though their responses may be just a drop in the bucket of need, at least something creative, beautiful, and good is being done which testifies to the goodness of God in the midst of the mess.

3 When giving financially, find ways to support local communities as they respond to the needs around them. This can best be done by letting someone in the context of the need know that you are praying for them (if you are) and asking if there is some further way you can support them. If you don’t already know someone in that location, getting in touch with a church or missionary there is a good start. This is how Christians in the first century responded to humanitarian disasters they became aware of in other parts of the world. The Apostle Paul was constantly carrying support from one province to another, which created a deepened sense of global community and allowed each one to contribute as they became aware of a need somewhere else. Doing something about a need reduces our sense of helplessness while also benefiting the other party.

4Occasionally, the ministry of presence does more than we might imagine, whether through an in-person visit or through correspondence with someone from a suffering community. Rather than telling them how burdened you feel, ask how you can help shoulder the burden they are carrying. They may simply need to express what they are going through to someone who is outside the situation, but offering your listening presence requires first relinquishing the need to fix it.” Your attentive listening is an act of incarnation, representing Christ’s care for them, as well as that of the outside world, and giving them the strength to persevere through suffering.

5Recognize when you need to step back and recenter around God’s goodness in your own life. Empathy can be both a gift and a curse. The grace God gives to the ones undergoing the trial is rarely given to those outside it. Empathetic engagement in a situation that is not our own can lead to virtual drowning. Remember to live in your own skin and the set of circumstances God has assigned to you before attempting to connect with what someone else is going through. Feeling guilty that you have it better than they do doesn’t help anyone; it simply denies the sufficiency of God’s grace for each of us.

6Pray in faith, not in despair. This does not mean that the situation will go away or be immediately resolved. Engaging in global suffering requires getting over our need for everything to be tidy, secure, and OK.” But it offers us the opportunity to meet Christ in the mess, which is exactly where He already is. 

visio divina exercise I’ve found helpful involves visualizing the person or situation on my heart until I can picture Christ there with them. 

  • I allow his gaze to become my focal point, until I am more aware of his presence in the situation than I am of the situation itself. 
  • I then ask him what is on his heart for that situation or person, listening for the longings that emerge in my own heart as his response. 
  • These I offer back to him in prayer, groaning along with him over the not right” in his creation and asking him to make it new. 
  • Before leaving the time of prayer, I rest the situation in his pierced, capable hands, taking with me only whatever course of action or ongoing prayer he has asked me to keep carrying.

As you pray, groan, and engage with the sufferings of God’s beloved world, may you be drawn further into His own heart for it. And in the process, may you move deeper into the Union with God for which we were all put on earth in the first place. 

Photo by Zaur Ibrahimov on Unsplash

Text First Published October 2023 · Last Featured on October 2023