In this blog post, I want to surface a few lessons I am reflecting on from my time in war-torn Ukraine. These lessons relate to the reality of war, evil, suffering, courage, and hope.
Early in this war, I realized words seemed to fall utterly short. Words felt trivial, even dismissive of the evil being experienced in many ways. There was nothing I could say that would remove the suffering and hellish realities people were experiencing.
But what did seem to matter and speak a message beyond words was presence. Simply being there for them in their time of need through prayer, listening, sharing in their suffering, and the generous support of many individuals, churches, and businesses, sent a message that we are with them. Over and over, people in Ukraine communicated that this is what they experienced. Further, their ability to be together during this time in our “Places of Hope” safe housing locations was critical to their sanity. Being able to bear one another’s burdens and share in the sorrow and do life together made the unbearable more bearable.
Additionally, physically going and being present with them spoke volumes. The incarnation of Jesus took on new meaning even for me. Immanuel, God with us, has never meant more. The promise of the Holy Spirit being with us has never meant more. Presence matters sometimes beyond words.
Job’s friends got it right when they came and sat with Job in silence. It was when they began to speak that they only increased his suffering. And although Job thought he wanted answers from God, when God did speak, he overwhelmed him with his presence and the reality of who he is. In times of suffering, people need our silent presence. And this is profoundly powerful beyond words that might make us feel better but does not change the suffering people are enduring.
I was surprised during our time in Ukraine at the amount of laughter and humor we experienced and shared in together. Perhaps it was partly a defense mechanism that kicked in to not go entirely crazy at the weight of the evil and suffering we were exposed to. But it got me reflecting on the subtle and often overlooked value of humor in diffusing situations. Humor certainly doesn’t diminish the pain, and suffering people go through. But humor has a way of defying evil having the last laugh. It may be purely coincidental, but it struck me that humor and humanity in English share the same first three letters. Could it be that humor restores our humanity? That part of what it means to be human is humor? I ordered some books upon my return to dig a little deeper into the science and psychology of humor and its importance in society. All I know is that it felt good to laugh and share humor with our Ukrainian friends amid the terrible suffering they are going through. And it seemed to be needed. Our director even commented that she hadn’t laughed that much since the war began.
It struck me that life and beauty were relentlessly and stubbornly continuing to break through despite the darkness and destruction. Spring was afoot in Ukraine, and flowers were refusing to yield to the devastation. It reminded us of the promise we have in Christ of restoration and the renewal of all things. That no matter what Satan unleashes upon this world, no matter what wicked people and leaders bring forth upon others, beauty and life will emerge even from the ashes. Hope will rise even from ground zero. There is a lot of darkness in the world. But there is also beauty. And though it does not make the level of noise evil makes, still it remains and endures long after evil has done its work. For all the hell on earth, it only makes the promise of heaven all the sweeter.
War is terrible to begin with. But what I saw in Ukraine was a manifestation of pure evil. Civilians posing no threat were fired upon. Families trying to evacuate were killed just because soldiers could. Others were told to run, and then Russian soldiers fired over their heads to intimidate, humiliate, and make sport of. Young girls were sought out to be raped, including a three-year-old we heard about. People were left without food, electricity turned off, and residential homes, apartments, businesses, hospitals, orphanages, and schools were destroyed unnecessarily. Russian soldiers looted and stole from people’s homes and destroyed other items for no military objective but out of human jealousy and spite. We can’t deny the reality of evil in this world or this war. We can’t turn a blind eye to it. We can’t justify it, diminish it, deny it, or discredit it. We must face it head-on and call it for it is. It is pure evil.
I saw firsthand again the level of propaganda and misinformation Russia pumps out about this war and everything else to cause chaos, skepticism, confusion, and distraction. They throw out all kinds of narratives, false statements, and twisted lies to see what sticks and what people buy into. They project onto others what they are doing and are. We live in an age of misinformation, identity politics, deception, and fake news. We live in a world where truth doesn’t matter. Much of this has been created by Russian propaganda or inspired by their tactics. More than ever, discernment is needed. We are being played in so many ways, often via social media outlets, algorithms, bots, and fake accounts spewing out misinformation. The goal is not truth. The goal is not even a cohesive argument or logic. The goal is confusion and getting people to question what is going on. The goal is to get us to turn on one another. The goal is to distract us. Though more information is available than ever before, more propaganda is being believed than ever before. Therefore, discernment is needed more than ever.
I don’t want to end without noting the astonishing courage of the Ukrainian people. They have put up a fierce fight. Many endured the worst of it all in their homes and while helping neighbors. Others aided in evacuations. Still more stepped up to serve those in need despite their struggles. People are returning to cities early, even before electricity and water have been restored. They want to move on with their lives and go back to their lives despite all the destruction. They want to rebuild and show they will not be beaten by the evil perpetrated upon them.
War brings out the worst in some and the best in others. I have heard many stories and been with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Common people are becoming heroes and saints even if they don’t feel that way or see themselves in that light. Russia has under-estimated Ukrainians and the response of the world. And while the world has watched in horror at Russia’s war on Ukraine, the world has also been inspired by the Ukrainian response and resilience.
We can learn from what is happening in Ukraine. We see the importance of presence, humor, beauty, and courage. We also must be wise to evil and propaganda. The real enemy, Satan himself, is shrewd and cunning. But the God we serve is good, loving, just, and true. Evil may have its moment. But good will always overcome evil and conquer in the end.