Updated: Apr 1, 2021
A couple of days ago a thought rooted in my brain: “We are in an unwinnable war.” That morning I read in Deuteronomy: “When you go out to war against your enemies and see horses, chariots, and an enemy larger than yours, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you of the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deut. 20:1).
Israel won many unwinnable wars. God planned it that way. Pinned between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, they were like a spider caught between the pavement and the soul of my shoe – pulverized! But then, God stepped in.
When Gideon’s 300 men attacked the Midianite army numbering over 100,000, they entered an unwinnable war, but for God. When Peter told those who shouted “Crucify Him!” that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” he could have been ripped to pieces, but God had a plan.
God’s people have fought many unwinnable wars, prevailing against impossible odds. Who would have guessed that persecution of Christians in China would be used by God to grow His Church 5,000 percent in 50 years? God sent David Livingstone to Africa at a time when most Europeans died within a year of entering the malarial jungles and unknown dangers there. Livingstone, and many others, died in Africa. But today African Christians outnumber those in Europe and North America combined, boasting 400 million souls! Through the darkness Livingstone saw a brighter day would come. He wrote:
“Future missionaries will see conversions follow every sermon. We prepare the way for them. May they not forget the pioneers who worked in the thick gloom, with few cheering rays to cheer except such as flow from faith in God’s promises. We work for a glorious future which we are not destined to see, the golden age which has not been but will yet be. We are only morning stars shining in the dark, but the glorious morn will break – the good time coming yet” (David Livingston in Mackenzie, 150f).
God’s people have prevailed in many unwinnable wars, or should I say, “God has prevailed.” Often God’s people have bled and died in protracted wars that lasted generations beyond the lives of the initial combatants.
Churches in America find themselves in an unwinnable war, as does the nation itself. Battle lines are drawn on many fronts, and these lines don’t simply exist between the Church and the world. Battle lines exist inside the Church. There are matters of sexuality, with ongoing skirmishes involving the LGBTQ agenda. The “right to life” of the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and the handicapped, has raged for 50 years or more.
Then, just when it seemed Covid-19 was the greatest threat of 2020, the world witnessed the life of a black man crushed under the knee of a police officer, with other officers failing to intervene, setting off protests and riots and untold suffering in the hearts and minds of every American and people far beyond our shores. Racial problems and division have existed since the early days of our nation, and throughout human history, but we are in a unique moment. This is different. There is hope, but there is also the danger that listening, learning and reconciling get overtaken by destructive forces. Parsing words with the precision of a butcher doing surgery with a hatchet destroys the opportunity to grow understanding and influence thinking. Some seem to think they can read minds, and spot malicious intent, as easily as spotting a fly in a glass of milk. Reasonable discussion, questions and context are hard to come by. “Silence is violence,” some say, but utter the wrong word and you’ll get “cancelled” before the day ends. It is an unwinnable war.
And lest you don’t yet see how unwinnable this multi-front war is, consider that we don’t agree on the meaning of history, or even what history is. Facts are our friends, but whom do we trust to give us the facts? The media? Which media? Most media outlets aren’t helping.
What about truth? Where do we find the truth told? From politicians? Are you kidding!? Preachers? Unfortunately, much of the world doesn’t trust us preachers to tell the truth without taint. Preachers can get political too, especially if we don’t stick to the Truth we know best and start spouting and spinning about that which we know little.
Add to these battle lines the fight for the family – fatherless homes, babies without parents, teens left to wander. It’s an unwinnable war.
As I was pondering this unsavory thought, I remembered a speech I’d read years ago. It was delivered by a 28 year-old Abraham Lincoln on January 27, 1838 to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The speech was occasioned by a racial problem in which St. Louis was burned. Slavery was still legal and America was tearing apart. It was ripping the Church apart too. Speaking of the possible death of the United States, Lincoln reads like a prophet these 182 years later. The full quote is posted at the end of this article for those who’d like to read it and marvel at the rhetorical brilliance of the man who freed the slaves and restored the Union. Here is the most pertinent passage:
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Twenty-three years after this speech the nation divided and war took 620,000 lives in 10,500 skirmishes and 50 major battles. The record states that the North won the war, and they did, but in a very real sense the war continued throughout succeeding generations and up to the present day.
This war will continue in some form until the end of time, because it’s a war that started in Eden. It was there that man divided from God, and began dividing from each other. In Genesis 3 we see the beginning of a distancing between humans, a covering up of sin, followed by brother murdering brother in Genesis 4.
Our leaders are not smart enough, or good enough, or strong enough, to lead us to victory in the war that is raging in America. And our churches aren’t that strong, either. All our unwinnable wars are rooted in human sin, and that root runs deep in the human heart, too deep to kill.
Depressed yet? Don’t be, because God shows Himself most visibly, gloriously and powerfully during unwinnable wars. No person turns to God until they are at rope’s end and realize they need God if they hope to survive. No nation experiences awakening when the people think they are the answer to their problems. Revival comes when the church is desperate, when it doesn’t know what to do or where to turn, and it falls to its knees, and buries its face in the floor’s dirt, and wets the dirt with tears, calling out to God for mercy, begging Him to show compassion and forgive sins, that’s when God shows up and wins the war … for a time. Not forever, until Jesus returns, will the war be finally and completely won because the war proceeds from the human heart. The war surfaces within families. It erupts between neighbors. The war is with those near and far away. God doesn’t give us the capacity to win the war without Him. Without Him we’re helpless. Without Him, we wrestle in vain against principalities and powers that kill, steal and destroy. Without Him, there is no peace, no life, no hope, and no future.
And remember, Israel didn’t win all their wars. Sometimes they were felled by tiny towns like Ai. Other times they suffered near annihilation and total humiliation. Their corpses were strewn in the wilderness and eaten by birds. Some were swallowed up by the earth itself. I apologize for the sad reminder, but not really, because if we think we can win the war, I mean really win, we’re doomed. Only God can win this war. We need Him. He’s a God of righteousness and justice. He didn’t let the tower of Babel stand when the people stood apart from Him, and He never will let us prevail in this war apart from Him.
The struggles that we face are mostly within ourselves. Racism is a heart problem, as is hate and bitterness and pride and lust and lovelessness of all kinds. It’s in the heart that the battle rages most fiercely. It’s the heart of every single person, of every color and hue, under heaven. Only God can win that war. Only the blood of Jesus can quell those flames. Only the Holy Spirit can spread the balm of peace that produces love one for another, sufficient to pursue righteousness and justice for all.
Without Jesus we have laws, courts, negotiations, punishments, coercion, threats, intimidation … and war. We need a system of justice, the best that we can build. But in the end, apart from Jesus, the war is unwinnable. Until He comes, His people must live as salt and light, loving sacrificially, seeking justice and preaching the Truth, even when the world does not understand.
Come, Lord Jesus. You are our only real hope. But You are enough.
Northwest Baptist Convention
Text of Lincoln’s speech quoted above:
“In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running…. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth…. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.
“How then shall we perform it?–At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
“I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.”
(to read the full speech of go to http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm).