Three Truths I Want Teenagers to Know Amidst War in Ukraine

On Wednesday night, February 23, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine increasingly imminent, my eleventh grade Bible study convened to study John 8. As providence would have it, my co-leader’s father is a career expert on Russian history, and we ended up talking for 50 minutes about the impending crisis in Ukraine. My co-leader and I both sensed that by the time these kids woke up in the morning, tanks would already have crossed the border and war would be upon us.

With the 10-minutes we had for the lesson at the end of an intense, educational conversation, we narrowed the lesson from all of John 8 to one verse: John 8:32.

Jesus said I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life (John 8:32).

The Sin of Human Hearts

Those closely following the war in Ukraine have quickly become familiar with the geography and battle fronts of the country. There is the intense theater in the south where the Russians have had success and inflicted unthinkable damage along coastal cities. There is the eastern front where the Ukrainian army has held its own and maintained the upper hand. There is the baffling quagmire in the north where a massive supply convoy sat motionless for the first ten days of the war. There are battles for major cities, such as Kyiv and Odessa.

And then there is the epicenter of the war in Ukraine: the human heart.

This international crisis started in the soul of a person, whom darkness and sin have overcome. His greed, pride, ego, insecurity, idolatry, hatred, envy, and callousness initiated this conflict. His total disregard for the welfare and dignity of human life have escalated violence, death, and destruction. His dishonesty has dragged tens of thousands of unwitting soldiers to endanger their lives for a nonexistent cause of false premises.

Human sin is driving this catastrophe.

Then there are the hearts of the people around this man. They have entrenched themselves in every way through nods and compliance to insane, poorly constructed plans to invade an innocent country. This posse has exchanged truth for personal gain, the lives of women and children for their own security.

Pain and suffering are inflicted through real-life, violent actions, and those actions originate in the darkness of human hearts.

In talking with my students, I wanted to make clear that the source of this tragedy originates at the spiritual and heart level.

God Moves Hearts

The book of Ezra opens with a shocking turn of events in the history of Israel. The Israelites had dwelled in exile in Babylon for two generations. They remained exiles after the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Then the Lord “stirred in the spirit” of Cyrus and he made a remarkably benevolent decision: “Go home Israelites. Oh, and you can take your gold and silver with you” (to paraphrase Ezra 1: 1-4).

This move really did not make much political or financial sense. Ancient Near Eastern kings weren’t known to give back land and treasure to peoples they had conquered. However, God moved in the heart of Cyrus. The liberation from exile occurred, not by force or strategy, but through the providential work of God in the heart of one man.

During another season in the history of Israel, God’s people faced certain doom. The Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites had come to conquer Judah. God’s people physically stood no chance given the size of the army amassed to take them down. King Jehoshaphat sought the Lord and prayed. The Lord reassured his people, saying, “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s” (2 Chron. 20:15).

Sure enough, God defended Judah. They prevailed….without lifting a finger. How can this be? Something happened in the hearts of the armies of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites. While Israel prayed and praised God, these foreign armies all turned against each other before conquest of Judah ever began (2 Chron. 20:22-23). The Lord “ambushed” them by turning their hostile hearts away from Israel and toward each other.

Against all odds, the Lord delivered his people by stirring and directing the hearts of people. The battle belonged to the Lord, but the battle was being fought within the hearts of human beings.

I want to convey to young people that, while human hearts have agency and a will, God still has the power to move and change hearts.

There Is Hope Because God Rules Hearts

At the end of the second week of the Ukraine war, I listened to a fascinating interview about the nuances and history of the Russia-Ukraine situation. SmartHer News podcast host Jenna Lee concluded the interview by asking her guest, David Satter, a career expert on the USSR and Russia, what we should be looking for in the coming week of the crisis.

Satter’s response caught me off guard. He essentially said that we should be looking for Russian troop defections. He said we should watch to see if generals or military leadership criticized the campaign. In a sense, we should be looking for Russian troops and leaders to have a change of heart about complying with Putin’s campaign against Ukraine.

For those of us with limited practical control beyond making donations and contacting our government leaders, we should pray for a change of hearts to bring about peace for Ukrainians and Russians alike. As we pray, we can ask God to change the hearts of Russian leaders.

Could Russian troops and officers experience conviction that they should no longer carry out the Putin’s schemes? Could the General Secretary Xi Jinping feel moved in his heart to tell Putin that he will not tolerate or support the Russian aggression? Could the Holy Spirit stir the hearts of those around Putin, leading them to non-violently remove him from power? Could God move the hearts of tens of thousands of Russians to protest the war to the point that Putin feels threatened and backs off?

Even more so, could the Lord Jesus work in the heart of Vladimir Putin and lead him to repent from his atrocious actions and to remove the Russian army from Ukraine? Certainly, before Christ saved us, we were all as lost before a holy God as Putin. That’s a fact.

Knowing the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead, we should pray for the Lord to move in the hearts of all parties involved in this war. We have seen in Scripture, history, and our own lives the power of his transforming grace through the Holy Spirit.

At the practical level, we should all faithfully take steps within our control to support Ukraine. We should make sacrifices to support justice. Simultaneously, we also should not underestimate the significance of prayer. We should not overlook the true epicenter of the war, the sinful human heart. And we should not lose hope, knowing that Jesus is King of all Kings and the Bishop of Souls (1 Pet. 2:25).

I want young people to have a vision of being people of both prayer and justice. Prayer really does matter in moments like this. God can turn the tide by moving in the hearts of the people involved. And within the realm of control that God has granted us, however limited that may be, we should take all faithful steps possible to promote the Lord’s justice in a fallen world.

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent since December of 2005, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition's Book of the Year (First-Time Author). Cameron has a B.A. in Latin and English and an M.A. in Education, all from Wake Forest; he recently completed his Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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