With all that’s going on in the world, we’re sometimes tempted to ask God: Whose side are You on? Does He love the Russians more than the Ukrainians, or the Ukrainians more than the Russians? Whatever, we’re sure He loves our own country, whichever that is, just a little more than everybody else’s.
You know I’m being facetious. But those thoughts flashed through my mind recently as I gazed across the room at one of the funnest tins in my collection. It’s a small rectangular box, ruby red (of course), with a scene of the onion domes of the Kremlin decorating one side of the top. On the opposite side is the golden ball of the FIFA (soccer) World Cup.
You also know how much we love soccer. Here in Chile, we’re already gearing up for the 2022 championship to be held in Qatar in November (not June as usual, because of the extreme summer temperatures of the Arabian Peninsula). Back in 2018, when Russia hosted the World Cup, I collected soccer stickers for a commemorative album with a bunch of missionary kids. (Sheepishly, since I can’t even blame the obsession on my own kids anymore.)
But we had a great time, and they gave me the tin, which originally held a super-pack of stickers.
Even though Chile wasn’t in it that year, do I remember who won the Russian World Cup? You bet I do: France over Croatia in the final match. I’m pretty sure God loves the Croatians as much as the French, and yet, well, not everyone can win all the time.
Whose side are you on? Naturally, you desperately desire for your own team to win. Ever prayed about the outcome of a game? I admit (sheepishly again) to considering it. But it hardly feels fair to implore the Almighty to take sides. Our Chilean friends joke that they don’t bother when we play Brazil anyway, since the Brazilian team usually has so many Christians.
Among soccer fans, though, the World Cup often seems to be all about nationalism and who’s intrinsically (not necessarily athletically) better than who. If our country’s not involved, then we root for one of the other South American teams, not the Africans or Asians even when we admire their skills.
And if we ever did win the World Cup (a highly unlikely dream scenario for reasons we reluctantly acknowledge, but bear with me), Chileans would paint every town in the country red-white-and-blue and no one would go to work or school for at least a week. It’s a kind of self-validation as we identify with the national team, I guess.
“When you live on a round planet, there’s no choosing sides.” –Wayne Dyer
But the God who “made from one man every nation of mankind…having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26, ESV) works in every nation in His own time and way. He loves and judges all. “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,” the Apostle Paul told the Athenian Greeks (v. 27).
A dear friend asked me to write a story about how great it is to be an American. And you know, it truly is. God bless the USA and all those who died to preserve it.
But that premise also begs the question: As opposed to…what? I confess I flinched. Because almost all of us came from somewhere else in this world that Jesus loves and died for.
Recently I read Isabel Allende’s horrifying (albeit fictionalized) account of the conquest of Chile in the mid-1500’s. Her narrator’s point of view is that of a Spanish woman in the New World, part of a “superior” bunch who think nothing of snatching whatever they like from the native peoples and putting them to work. The locals deny aid of any kind to the suffering newcomers. And the mutual cruelties perpetrated on both sides simply stagger the mind.
“Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” –C. S. Lewis
Rather than wondering about sides, sometimes you can’t help pondering where God was at all.
But I’m reminded of one of my favorite old time-travel movies, The Philadelphia Experiment, in which a WWII sailor is catapulted forward to 1984. When he inquires about the outcome of the war, he’s flabbergasted to learn of present-day alliances. “You mean the Japanese and the Germans are our friends now?” Thank God, things change.
Joshua, biblical captain of the nation of Israel, encountered a stranger with a drawn sword outside the enemy city of Jerico. When asked, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” this “man” doesn’t answer directly. He only says, “No, I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come” (Josh. 5:13-14).
God is here–and there. God has come. And he is for us.
All of us.
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). He is on our side. And yet on nobody’s side.
Perhaps the same goes for military conflicts, political contests, and economic competition as for sports events. Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes we must stand up and take a side. Somebody, my husband says, needs to cheer for the underdogs. And you can’t choose peace over truth where evil men, evil governments, and evil policies are gaining the upper hand.
Yet, in many of these polarizing games we play, we forget the goal amounts to more than a fleeting win, a gold medal, and a few days of “We-are-the-Champions” euphoria.
The clearest memory that leaps to mind when I see that red Russian tin isn’t the World Cup four years ago, but the world-sweeping changes of the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. Do you remember how thrilled we felt to watch the Iron Curtain drawn aside and Russia (and Ukraine and other ex-Soviet bloc countries) open up to the gospel of Jesus for the first time in almost half a century? Talk about opportunities for transformation.
These places that hardly anyone had ever visited soon became new tourist destinations as well. Lots of friends here longed to travel to Moscow for Chile’s debut at the Confederations Cup in 2017 (an unmitigated disaster we won’t detail, sheepish giggle) and again the next year for the World Cup. But it was so far…
Sometimes Russia seems farther away all the time, too. The tired Cold War, now reheated into hot spots around the globe, cools love, burns shaky bridges, destroys whatever budding friendships we might achieve.
“A bridge has no allegiance to either side.” –Les Coleman
Instead of figuring out whose side is right (perhaps impossible!), may God help us to pray for the people in every place. Let’s leave the nations to the Great Referee who calls in absolute fairness, makes no mistakes, and misses no injustice.
Let’s spotlight the bridge…
…that spans every country and continent, every tongue and time zone—Jesus. He reaches across troubled waters and works amid terrible times. As much as I love my “home and native land,” I suspect we need to think more about being on God’s team rather than partisans of a particular clan, color, or culture.
While the nations continue to compete on playing fields and battlefields, our God offers a win that endures forever and won’t need to be defended again in four years. He gives a love that surpasses soccer passion and a joy that outshines even the greatest victory celebration we can imagine.
God loves the Russians, my friends, because God so loved the world. And we are (all) the champions when we cling to His side.