In April 2006, unapproved photos of flag-draped caskets were released to national media outlets. One showed the belly of an Air Force plane, where three long rows of soldiers' coffins were being unloaded. A single soldier saluted the dead. If we had tried to pretend that the war wasn't costly before, there was no pretending any longer. The war was costing us the lives of hundreds of young men and women, and the death toll was rising dramatically every week.
In May 2006, the news was dominated by photos of humiliating abuse of Iraqi prisoners - at the very hand of American troops charged with freeing Iraq from humiliating and deadly abuse! Within days after those photos were released, Muslim extremists released video of the brutal execution of Nick Berg, an American hostage. Through it all, election-year political campaigning at home made the debate of whether we should even be in Iraq a volatile, daily issue in the national media.
The wear and tear of the war on terror left us as a country in great need of an encouraging word. Thankfully, the Bible has some very clear encouragement and instructions for us. The words come from Paul, who often identified himself as a soldier for the Lord. Because he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel, you could argue that Paul was a prisoner of war when he wrote to the Philippians. Even there, he was encouraged, and was busy giving out encouraging words.
The Bible would have us to remember, as a country enduring difficult days, these truths.
I. Even in difficult days, God is always at work
Paul had a different life situation than we have. Instead of a difficult war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had a war of personal proportions in a variety of small prison cells. He had known chains, locked doors, forced travel, insufficient food and poor health. He had been stoned, whipped, caned, beaten, and the target of multiple execution attempts. And as if physical punishment and imprisonment had not been difficult enough, some of his fellow preachers were saying hurtful things about him!
As Paul refers to all of those difficulties, however, he puts things in a wonderful perspective.
As for the hurtful messages against him, Paul insists, "What does it matter? Just that in every way, whether out of false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed. And in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice." Phil 1:18 (HCSB)
One of the most important attitudes we'll ever possess is the optimistic belief that God is always at work, even in the midst of difficult circumstances. Paul was able to see his imprisonment as a way to share his faith with Roman guards! In a short while, the message of Jesus was moving throughout thousands of soldiers employed as palace guards (1:13).
In the midst of a difficult war, it is vitally important for us to remember the good that has been done because of the war.
Just a few months ago, Saddam Hussein and his sons reigned terror across Iraq and the Middle East. Today, this brutal dictator awaits trial. The terrorists who once had free reign in both Iraq and Afghanistan find life to be incredibly difficult today, and American borders are much more secure, as a result of a difficult war. Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the most overbearing governments in the world on their own people, are moving toward freedom. Education and health care in those countries are rapidly coming of age. Girls are going to school in Afghanistan for the first time in years.
Freedom of thought is exploding in Iraq. Before the war, the country had just four daily newspapers, and half a dozen weeklies. All were tightly controlled by the government. Today, estimates say there are between 140 and 200 newspapers being published in Iraq! (Source: "Iraqi newspapers flourish in post-Saddam revival," San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 10, 2004.) At first glance, that may not seem like the most dramatic news. But when there is a free exchange of ideas in a country that has not known such freedom, it won't be long until a fiercely Muslim country might be willing to hear an explanation of Christianity. In due time, Christian missionaries will have more freedom than ever to share the news of Jesus Christ in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In less than three years, an amazing about-face has taken place, and for that, we should be grateful.
In the midst of very difficult circumstances, we must have the faith to believe God is at work, advancing His purposes. Was Paul completely convinced that the difficult things happening to him were serving God's purposes? To be truthful, he probably had his doubts. But he had enough faith, in some very difficult days, to believe that God's hand was at work anyway. We must do the same.
II. Our faith in Christ should lead to courageous living
Paul knew his imprisonment might be his last. He spoke openly of the possibility that he might be, "poured out as a drink offering, Phil 2:17 (HCSB), and he debated the value of living and dying. "Now if I live on in the flesh, this means fruitful work for me; and I don't know which one I should choose. I am pressured by both." Phil 1:22-23 (HCSB)
The important thing, Paul knew, would be his attitude in the face of a life-threatening situation.
I love what author Harold Kushner had to say as he reflected on the end of his own life. "I have no fear of death because I feel that I have lived. … There is no way to prevent dying. But the cure for the fear of death is to make sure that you have lived." (Source: When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, Harold Kushner)
Paul had lived. He had given everything he had for the cause of Christ. After the beatings and execution attempts, Paul's body must have wondered how much punishment it could take. Scourged an amazing five times (2 Corinthians 11:24), there must have been hundreds of scars on his back from that punishment alone. Through it all, Paul had lived for Christ. He had let it be known that the scars were for the Gospel, and saw those scars as a way to promote the message he loved so dearly.
As Paul lived with such passion, he came to fear death less and less. In fact, he came to look forward to the day when he would die, and even long for it. Once his fear of death was diminished, he was able to live ever more boldly for Christ.
Would a soldier in warfare be of much value if he was too frightened to fight? If she cowered in a corner while the battle waged, would she contribute to the victory? Of course not. The only soldier of any value to his country is the soldier not afraid to risk his life, when the time comes to actually fight.
In the midst of prisoner abuse scandals and a raging debate back home on the value of fighting a war in Iraq, Pat Tillman reminded us of the nobility of fighting with courage.
Following the terrorists' attack on America on Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman quietly signed up with the Army's Rangers, wanting to get on the ground in the thick of the battle that would soon arrive. The only thing that made Tillman's enlistment a little different than the thousands of other noble enlistments that took place after the Sept. 11 attacks was that Tillman left a pretty good job. In fact, as he signed up for boot camp, Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract to keep playing football for the NFL Arizona Cardinals. When he died on April 22, Tillman was rushing back into danger to rescue another company. He'd already fought his way out of a firefight, but when he realized another group of soldiers was trapped, he went back into the thick of danger to help out. It was there, in the midst of a rescue effort, that Tillman died. (Source: "Tillman is the epitome of a hero," Gregg Easterbrook, NFL.com, April 23, 2004)
Wherever the battle finds us, let us fight as if we're not afraid to die. As Christians, let us be reminded that there is no need to fear death, because of the battle already waged on our behalf. And before the day of dying comes, let us live with great courage.
More than likely, you won't have to face dangerous situations in Iraq. But you might face a battle of your own, right here at home.
Perhaps it is your time to speak out on social issues in your community, or in your nation. That might involve writing some courageous letters to your local newspaper, and certainly to your elected representatives. Even more frightening, perhaps your voice needs to be heard at your place of business, at school, or where you spend your leisure time. Perhaps your family needs to hear you speak up about godly values. If so, that could be nerve racking. In fact, if you choose to go against an increasingly unbiblical culture, sooner or later, courage will be a prerequisite. Your faith in Christ, however, should lead directly to courageous living. After all, "to live is Christ" … and do die is even better.
III. Difficult days put a greater premium on unity
Unity is always a desirable trait in any group. When young Army recruits learn to march, for instance, the unity of boots stomping the ground together is a wonderful sound. The unity of the march is representative of weeks of boot-camp training, and a sign that the troops are becoming a single unit. Who hasn't thrilled at the sight of graduating troops, marching together with their color guard, shouting with one voice the readiness for duty?
Put those same soldiers on the ground in combat, however, and the idea of unity multiplies rapidly. No longer is it important to march in unison and look sharp on the parade grounds. Suddenly, unity is the key factor in staying alive, and winning the battle. Unity means clear communications from intelligence to commanders, and from commanders to every branch of the armed forces. From communications squadrons to fighter pilots, to medics to office personnel, to Marines on the front line, unity simply is not an option for a country at war. Unity is a basic necessity of life.
Paul turned to the army of Christ and said, in effect, "If you ever hope to win a culture war and make a difference in your community, you cannot escape the call for unity."
Think on those words, "standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, working side by side for the faith of the gospel." We live in a day of great difficulty, with a promise of more difficulty to come. The church must remember its calling in such days, and the importance of unity.
Following Sept. 11, 2001, churches across America were filled with people looking for answers, comfort, and hope. In fact, estimates say that almost half of America attended a church service the Sunday following Sept. 11. In less than a month, however, most churches saw attendance slip back to normal. (Source: "Church Attendance Back to Normal," Fox News, Sept. 11, 2002) Did unity - or the lack of it - have a role to play in the way seekers found something else to do on the Sundays of October, 2001? How many churches were so divided internally that they missed the opportunity of a century to influence non Christians? God forbid that we ever miss another opportunity to present a unified front for Christ. This is our battle, and we must not lose it. Unity is not an option.
As you read encouraging words from Paul to the Philippians, it is impossible to miss the comfort Paul himself had because of his faith in Christ. Though his death was imminent, he wrote the Philippians the most joyful of any of his letters. His certainty of eternal life gave him priceless assurance that comforted him in the most difficult of situations. He would live for Christ, until his death gave him far greater gain.
That kind of assurance is still available today.
The 1990 spring thaw in the Sierra National Forest revealed a profound tragedy. On March 1, 1990, Jean and Ken Chaney, while attempting to negotiate a little-used road in those parklands, skidded off into a huge snow bank. With a blizzard swirling around them, the 68-year-old woman and the 75-year-old man decided to sit tight. As they waited for help to arrive, the couple began to keep a diary of their actions. Writing by the fading glimmer of their glove compartment light, the Chaney's slowly began to see the fatal truth of their situation.
They wrote: "We began to realize that we were on a road that isn't maintained during the winter. Truly a miracle if anyone comes by ... We have no idea what lies ahead ... so here we are completely and utterly in God's hand!! What better place to be!!"
During the next week the Chaney's ate Rolaids, a stick of gum, and two of those restaurant packets of jelly. They scraped frost off their car windows for drinking water. But the Chaney's endured those days by singing hymns together, quoting all the Bible verses they could recall, and praying. Still no one came.
On March 18 - 18 days after the ordeal started - Jean Chaney made the following entry in their diary: "Dad went to the Lord at 7:30 this evening ... It was so peaceful I didn't even know he left. The last thing I heard him say was "Thank the Lord." I think I'll be with him soon ... I can't see. Bye. I love you."
The bodies were not found until May 1, when the spring thaw had finally progressed enough that a forest ranger could make it down the road they had been trapped on for so long. But although the loss of their lives was a human tragedy, the Chaney's did not die alone or in despair or in fear. Huddling together in their car, they celebrated their faith and love for God with every fiber of their strength. They were not complacent about death, but were confident in their faith, hopeful for God's presence, and secure in the knowledge that they were surrounded by God's love.
Do you know that confidence?