A few years ago, I was introduced to a man from South Sudan, who had come to the U.S. for a missions conference. Earlier in the evening, he had shared a report on conditions in his region– all the horrible details you dread hearing–displaced families, homeless refugees, orphaned children, shortages of food, clothing, shelter, blankets, and medicine, constant fear of being attacked by one side or another in the ongoing conflict. Throughout his report, he emphasized the sovereignty of God, and his hope that he and his team could continue to help those most in need. As I got a chance to speak directly to “Robert” *, I told him that I would pray for peace to come to his region. I was shocked when he stopped me. “Please don’t pray for peace,” he told me. “Pray instead that God would give us the resources and the strength to be faithful and to keep helping.”
Then he explained. It wasn’t that he didn’t want peace to come, but he wanted me to pray for whatever God willed for his region. The Kingdom of God, not earthly peace, was his highest priority and his greatest urgency. Because of the circumstances of war, people were desperate. Their world had been turned upside-down, and they were in great need. But war had also opened up opportunities– not only opportunities to help those in need, but opportunities to show the Love of Christ as it had never been known to the people there. The people who were coming to refugee camps were meeting, sometimes for the very first time, people from other villages, other cultures, and other faiths– people they had considered enemies. Suddenly, they were seeing these enemies as fellow sufferers, fellow human beings with the same injuries and losses, needs and longings as themselves. They were also “seeing through” some of the lies they had believed about “the others” in their midst. Their circumstances were desperate, but their biggest need was for hope and help. Help was coming from around the world– United Nations’ agencies, The Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and several Christian relief and medical organizations. These groups had been kept out during peacetime and even in the early stages of fighting. Not only were they able to help with immediate relief; they were able to provide medical care for victims of AIDS, and childhood diseases, care that had long been denied. Along with practical help, though, these groups were providing hope– hope to rebuild, hope in the midst of despair and chaos, hope of eternal life and a relationship with God.
“Robert” was not saying that he didn’t long for peace, or that peace would be a bad thing for the people of South Sudan. Of course not. But the greatest need was not for an immediate end to fighting– it was for the kind of peace that only God can bring. As far as I know “Robert” is still working with refugees and displaced families in South Sudan. The work is difficult and often heartbreaking. Resources are stretched, and chaos still haunts the land. But progress is coming– slowly, but surely. Lives are being changed, reclaimed, and renewed. And I pray that he and his team are being strengthened and encouraged even as their circumstances continue to be desperate.
I share this story because I am still learning that Prayer isn’t about what I want or think is best; it isn’t about getting my way, or asking for the easy “fix” or the happy ending. It’s about seeking God’s will, His way, His answer, His timing, and His grace. Suffering, whether we are experiencing it or hearing about it, reminds us that we live in a fallen and dying world. We long for peace. We long for healing. We long for rest and comfort and happiness. But in this world, there will be trouble and injustice, death and disease, pain, suffering, betrayal, and unanswered questions. We don’t understand God’s timing, his plan in allowing innocent people to suffer the cruelties of war or poverty. And if we are living in peace and comfort, it makes us feel guilty and even fearful– why them and not us? When might we face unexpected hardship? So we ask God to remove all the discomforts, the struggles, the pain. It is not wrong to want healing and peace and all the other good things– we should seek justice and mercy and peace and joy. But we also need to recognize that God may choose to bless us in unexpected ways through our hardships and agonies. And he may be calling some of us to take action– to be His hands and feet– to reach out with the resources he has given us to help others. He doesn’t love those others less; he doesn’t love us more– he loves to see us love each other in His name!
God’s ways are not my ways; his timing isn’t the same as mine– it is better. It is perfect. In the end, there will be peace in South Sudan. There will be Peace on Earth. There will be healing and justice, and peace and joy. There will be answers for all the questions, and happy endings. But in the meantime, may God give all of us the strength and resources to help those in need, the faith and discipline to keep going in the midst of chaos, and the wisdom to make peace and spread love wherever and whenever we can.
*Because “Robert” is a Christian worker in an area of intense persecution, his true identity is being protected. Please pray for all those who are risking their lives and livelihoods to live, work, and worship as Christians throughout the world. And be thankful if you live in an area where you risk little or nothing to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.