You are my hiding place; you protect me from distress. You surround me with shouts of joy from those celebrating deliverance (Psalm 32:7).
Who can protect us?
Protection is a quite salient matter in a world full of dangers. Many want to speak of “the universe” as if it has some kind of specific will for us or will grant us certain things if we intend or behave in certain ways; yet scientifically it is beyond doubt that the universe is actively trying to kill us. Bacteria and viruses continually beset us. And we have all sorts of dangers in between: weather conditions and natural disasters, let alone what fellow human beings might do to us. It’s dangerous out there!
Some might want to think they live in greater danger today than those who came before us, but upon any level of investigation it would be difficult to sustain that kind of argument. If anything, our ancestors lived in greater dangers: various illnesses, wild animals and hostile weather conditions, natural disasters, and fewer ways to ameliorate the danger. Yet such kinds of comparisons ultimately prove futile: in truth, people have always been in danger; people will never run out of things regarding which they can be afraid and which they believe is dangerous; and therefore people have always looked to find some kind of protector.
As we have become ever more secular and skeptical of authority, many have come to suggest themselves as their own protector, or the protector of others. There is a whole American culture dedicated to the proposition of maintaining and upholding the honor and integrity of the family and friends through protection by any means necessary. It has deep roots in Americana; one easily identifiable source would be a particular Scots Irish frontier libertarian culture and mentality that elevated one’s ability to provide for oneself and one’s family without interference from authorities and protected with vigilance. Such types of perspectives easily meld protection within provision so that when many read, for example, that one who does not provide for one’s family is worse than an unbeliever (as in 1 Timothy 5:8), they understand it to mean not just to provide material and emotional resources but also protection, with violence if need be. We are now at the point when many profess the name of the Lord Jesus and will maintain weapons for violence on their person to be ready, at a moment’s notice, to harm or take the lives of others in the name of protecting those they love. Such is even done within the assembly of the Lord’s people, and is often commended as reasonable and sensible!
We understand the impulse; the desire to protect one’s own life and the lives of those we love and to whom we are dedicated is very strong. But is this the explicit will of the Lord Jesus? And who can really protect us?
The Lord Jesus spoke a word about protection through violence in Matthew 26:52: those who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. It was a message powerfully imprinted upon His disciples: Jesus had said as much to Peter when Peter had taken out a sword in an attempt to protect Jesus, and we never hear of Peter or any other Apostle using or encouraging the use of violence to protect themselves afterward. Such a posture only makes sense in light of what Jesus was about to do: He willingly gave Himself to suffer and die even though He had not done anything wrong. Peter himself would reflect upon this and declare that Jesus entrusted Himself to the God who judges justly and did not retaliate when harmed (1 Peter 2:22-23). Peter understood what Jesus had done as marching orders for those who would follow Him: they should go about doing good for others, even if they suffered for doing so, while entrusting themselves to a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:19). What would motivate anyone to do such a thing? The testimony of deep, abiding love of God displayed in Jesus for those who sinned and were alienated from God (cf. Romans 5:6-11). As God has loved us even though we have sinned and fallen short of His glory, so we are called to love others in the same way. We are to love those who would hurt us and pray for those who would persecute us (Luke 6:35). Jesus loves the criminal as much as He loves you, me, small children, and everyone else. Jesus wants them all to be saved: even the person who wants to hurt you (1 Timothy 2:4).
So who can protect us? In the days of old few men proved as mighty in battle as David son of Jesse. Yet after he confessed his sins before YHWH because they laid upon him grievously and commended this for others, he confessed YHWH was his hiding place, and that YHWH would protect him from trouble (Psalm 32:1-7). David was surrounded by those shouting for joy because God delivered them (Psalm 32:7).
Throughout the Psalms, in fact, David and other writers reckon YHWH as their refuge, strong rock, strong tower, and place of hiding and protection. They praise YHWH for deliverance. They also warn Israel against trusting in military might for their protection (cf. Psalms 20:7, 146:3). The prophets would utter a similar warning, exemplified in Isaiah 7:1-17: if God’s people trust in military maneuvering and foreign policy and not in their God, they will be humiliated, fail, and incur judgment. They were better off trusting in YHWH as their King and Protector, and YHWH would provide deliverance for them. They did not trust; they sought protection in chariots and foreign policy; and they were overrun and destroyed by chariots and foreign policy.
The faithful and wise people of God have always understood that God, and God alone, can truly protect them. How God has protected His people has manifested itself differently at different times and in different circumstances, and sometimes through very strange means. It is not as if there is no place for violence; God has established civil government to establish justice in the land and to punish evil; God’s people are to let them take vengeance and wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7). The rulers of old were held to that standard as well (cf. Isaiah 1:10-17). God helped Israel fight its battles time and again (cf. Exodus 15:1-19). Isaiah envisioned judgment on Aram and Israel to deliver Judah by the hands of the bloodthirsty Assyrians (Isaiah 7:1-17). The same kind of Roman soldiers and guards who helped to execute Jesus protected Paul from death at the hand of the Jewish people almost thirty years later (cf. Acts 21:32-26:32). God will hold all such authorities responsible for how they used and abused their authority; God does not hold responsible those who live, or those who suffer, under it.
It is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which it did not look like God protected His people. Plenty of God’s people have died at the hands of raging persecutors. Many others have died at the hands of violent men. Many have suffered exploitation in a thousand different ways. Untold thousands have died of disease or because of natural disasters. That’s a lot of suffering.
But what have we come to expect, and to what end? It is futile to imagine that we can truly protect ourselves or anyone else from every danger. We are not as powerful, and often not in control, as much as we would like to think we are. If protecting others through intimidation or force were as important to faithful Christian witness as many would imagine, why has God not spoken about it? Why did Jesus or the Apostles not model it, and just as importantly, why did Jesus denounce it when one of His disciples actually tried it? When we must speak frequently when God has not spoken it should give us great pause regarding what we are saying. Perhaps we have imported something that was never there in the first place. Perhaps we are not listening to what is being said.
It is a particularly modern delusion to think we are in control and can control our environment. Those who came before us lived by time and chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11); and if we would hear it, so do we. If we will be protected from dangers, it is because God is protecting us. If for whatever reason in God’s economy, be it the freewill decisions of others, the work of the powers and principalities, or perhaps even just unfortunate circumstance, we are called upon to suffer and die, it is not as if God has proven unfaithful. We brought nothing into this world; we cannot take anything out of it (1 Timothy 6:7). We are weak and frail; our strength should have always been entrusted in the Lord and His might (Ephesians 6:10-13). If we would truly want to see our families, friends, and loved ones protected, we do best to entrust them into the hands of God our Protector. If a mighty warrior like David thus trusted in God, perhaps we should also.
In the end, we will all be held accountable for what we have done in the body when we stand before the Lord Jesus (Acts 17:30-31, Romans 2:5-11). We do best to stand there having entrusted ourselves to our faithful Creator, even through tremendous suffering, humiliation, and degradation, than to stand before a faithful Creator with the weight of the pain, distress, and perhaps even the blood of human beings on our souls and our hands. We should stand before Jesus having followed His ways of humiliation and suffering so we might be exalted through the unimaginably fantastic glory of God, praising God as the Protector and Deliverer of our souls unto eternal life!
Ethan R. Longhenry