Saber-rattling between international leaders is a military tactic probably as old as saber swords themselves. But when those sabers are nuclear warheads, the threats come with a very sharp edge to them. Over the past several months, our president here in the States and the leader of North Korea have exchanged threats via state media, mass media, and social media. North Korea has been testing nuclear bombs and perfecting its long-range missile program. In response, our president has said the following about future threats: “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In a speech, he went so far as to say, “The United States has great strength and patience. But if it’s forced to defend itself or allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Those are strong words, and they are backed with movement. As we speak, the U.S. has three aircraft carrier strike groups in the western Pacific, a significant military buildup meant to get North Korea’s attention. With international tensions high, we get this question from Amber in Virginia. “Hello, Pastor John. I love your podcast and your overall ministry has deeply impacted me. North Korea has been in the news a lot lately. With threats of a nuclear attack, Christians around me are starting to fear. I know so many Christians who talk of stocking food, water, and supplies — even a few considering buying and installing an underground bomb shelter in the event of such attack. When it comes to this new cold-war era (new to a lot of us), how should Christians plan wisely?”
Well, I need to make a confession right off the bat here. Eighteen years ago, as Y2K approached — does anybody even remember that? — there was all this hysteria about how the computers would not know how to handle the switch from the 1900s to the 2000s.
People thought there would be major infrastructure breakdowns and the electricity and water would go off. They thought everybody would be forced off the grid and there would be rioting in the streets and no food available for weeks. As I watched this hysteria work its way into the church, I frankly was disgusted. I’m sorry. This is a confession. I watched Christians justify their own fear and self-protection by saying they would use their generator and their extra food for ministry purposes. Really? I wonder if the watching world saw it that way. Well, I didn’t see it that way.
To me, that very bent towards self-preservation and hoarding was a bad ministry in itself. It all made me angry, and I preached that this was not the mindset of the church in the New Testament. When I say, “Let me confess this,” I do mean that there probably was sin on my part in some of what I felt about the preppers during Y2K.
But I still feel most of what I felt, so I may have to confess again — may God help me. So, if you’re one of those folks, you’re just not going to get a lot of sympathy from me. I’ll try to explain why in the next few minutes, so here we go. I’ve got five reasons why.
First, danger and risk are normal for the Christian life, not exceptional. The dominant New Testament approach to this fact is not self-protection, but self-sacrifice — the sacrifices of love. That’s the flavor. That’s the tone that we should see and experience.
“Danger and risk are normal for the Christian life, not exceptional.”
For example, Paul describes his life like this:
Countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:23–27)
Jesus had promised that’s the way it would be: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16–19).
Now how in the world did Paul press on? What was his bomb shelter? He said,
At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. (2 Timothy 4:16–18)
So you can see what he means there: “Evil deeds will not destroy my faith. I may die, but I’ll make it to the heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever.”
Our True Shelter
Second, major efforts at self-preservation are inevitably going to obscure to the world the basic message of Jesus — namely, Matthew 16:24–25: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
“The dominant New Testament approach to threat is not self-protection, but self-sacrifice.”
Third, if you are known as a person who devotes lots of money and effort and focus on creating a refuge, it is going to make the psalms sound hollow in your mouth.
You are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. (Psalms 31:3–4)
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. (Psalms 61:3)
On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Psalms 62:7–8)
Here is the text of the five missionaries who went to the Huaorani tribe in 1956 and were all killed by the spears:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. (Psalm 91:1–6)
Stay, Don’t Flee
Fourth, it is allowed in Scripture, when danger comes, to flee or to stand and suffer. John Bunyan, who spent twelve years in prison for standing firm, wrote to defend both possible paths of obedience as biblical — both to flee or to stand.
“We misrepresent the value of Christ if we give the impression that death is the worst thing possible.”
I just don’t think Americans need more encouragement to flee. So when it comes to what I want to emphasize (what I’m doing right now), I preach stay. Pastorally and prophetically, flee is just not the need of the hour. I don’t think we need to encourage Americans, saying, “Oh, you really should stop being so risky. You really should stop suffering so much. You really should stop so much self-sacrifice. Let’s all be more self-protective in our bunkers.” I think pastorally and prophetically the need is almost entirely in the other direction.
And finally, fifth, it misrepresents the value of Christ and heaven to give the impression that death is the worst thing that could happen. If we are really doing all our self-preservation out of love, what about the people who are going to die eternally for lack of the gospel? Are we taking the same steps as seriously to preserve them for eternity? Bottom line: How can we make Christ look like he really is — the supreme treasure of our lives? How can we say to the world Psalm 63:3, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life”?