God’s Sovereignty Amidst Turmoil

Published in Anchored in the Storm: Faith at Work in the Trials of Life, edited by Irene Howat (UK: Crusade for World Revival, 2001).

Ajith Fernando

When Sri Lanka experienced its first of many recent violent uprisings in 1983 the truth that God burned into my heart more than any other was that he is sovereign over history. No other truth has helped me in my life and ministry as much as this as we have experienced waves of violence and unrest in the 17 years since then. The Tamil race comprises about 18% of Sri Lanka’s population. And Tamil militants are waging a war in order to have a portion of the country as an independent Tamil homeland. Over 60,000 people have died in this war since 1983. In the late 80s a militant group from the Sinhala majority attempted to overthrow the government and, while no one knows how many died in this uprising, the figures go up to as high as 60,000. Amidst all this turmoil the church has been growing. But this has prompted a new wave of persecution on the Christians with the burning of churches and attacks on new Christians and the evangelists who introduced them to Christ.

Not every group of Christians has grown during this time. But those who have grown have been characterised by a refusal to give up evangelising and serving the people. Their faithfulness has been buoyed by their conviction that God is sovereign even in the bleak situations they faced. Suri Williams was the Youth for Christ leader in the war-torn North of Sri Lanka for 15 years. When the war was raging fiercely and he and his wife and two little children were in a very dangerous situation in the city of Jaffna, we asked him to return to Colombo in the South, which is where he was originally from. We told him that it was not safe for them there. He refused to return saying that he cannot leave his people at this their time of need. Besides, he said, “The safest place to be is in the centre of God’s will!”

I saw an illustration of how this belief sustains Christians shortly after Suri and his family had returned to Jaffna after a staff retreat in Colombo. They had planned to the take the train on Tuesday but they suddenly changed their minds and took the Monday train. That night, unexpectedly and without warning, the war started fiercely after a few months of peace. No more trains went up North. If they had not changed their plans they would have been able to remain in the security of Colombo without going to a place of great danger. A few days after they had left I met Suri’s mother. I was afraid to face her. Here I was, her son’s leader living in the security of Colombo, while her son and family were in a very dangerous place. Parents have scolded me for much less serious reasons. As she saw me, she said, “Isn’t the Lord wonderful! He knew my son has some important work to do, so he made him leave a day earlier so that he could get there before the roads were closed!” My initial shock and relief over her statement gave way to praise to God for the courage of a brave lady who believed in the sovereignty of God.

This belief is what takes away fear from our lives. Satchi, a YFC staff worker in Colombo went with two volunteers to the East of Sri Lanka for a weekend of ministry. The Indian Army was in the East at that time on a peacekeeping mission, and while our team was there a high ranking Indian officer died in an explosion. This caused the soldiers to go berserk. They shot many to death that day including the person who had organised our meetings. Satchi and the two volunteers were taken in by the Army and assaulted badly. They were warded in a hospital with head injuries and they called us requesting for someone to come by vehicle to bring them home. They could not use public transport with their heads bandaged as the situation was quite volatile and people seeing the injuries might think they are terrorists and harm them in their anger.

At that time we had one vehicle in YFC—a brand new van (we do most of our travel on small motorcycles). Many advised us not to take the van as we had to go through areas where the terrorists were active and they were known to grab this type of vehicle. Some advised us not to send senior staff persons on this journey because if something happened to them YFC would be in serious trouble. But we knew that the senior people could not palm off such a sensitive assignment on the junior ones. During the time of deciding what to do I was so nervous that my stomach felt extremely tight. We prayed and asked many others to pray, and we finally decided that it was God’s will that the two most senior people, Tony Senewiratne and I, should make the trip using our new van. The moment we arrived at that decision, I felt like a huge burden fell off my back. We had discerned that this was God’s will and therefore there was no reason to be anxious and afraid. We had a lovely trip to and from the East.

Of course we learned that fear is a natural response to dangerous situations, and that we should address this fear with our belief in the sovereignty of God and concentrate on obedience. During the revolution in the south the government instituted a commission to inquire into why the youth were rebelling against authority so violently. They asked those involved with youth to make submissions to this commission. I thought this would be a good opportunity for us to express our Christian commitment to justice. I gathered our staff together and asked them to give reasons for youth rebellion. I recorded these observations and sent it to the commission under my name. But it was quite an explosive document, which placed a lot of the blame on the authorities. This was a time when some people who publicly criticised the government had been killed, and so I was very concerned that they might come after me too. For about a week after sending that document, I would get up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking that they had come for me! This was a natural reaction to danger. But by addressing that fear with the belief that God is sovereign we are able to follow the path of obedience.

If God is sovereign and working out his good purposes even amidst difficult situations then the Christian response to such situations is patience. Christian patience includes a positive attitude to trials, which looks for good to come out of difficult situations and acts with this positive perspective in view. When the city of Jaffna was being pummelled by shells the people had lost a positive approach to life and this was seen daily on the streets. Garbage was strewn all over, with no one to pick it up; the yards of the homes were neglected, with weeds growing where flower plants once grew. Suri and Shanthi Williams decided that their home is going to reflect the beauty of Jesus. So they tended their garden with great care and made it into a beautiful place. They cleaned the portions of the road that was beside their home. An Indian army officer once saw them do this, and he got his soldiers to clean the rest of the road!

Once Shanthi’s birthday fell in the middle of a period when a 24-hour curfew was in force for several days. Food was scarce, and things like cake were impossible to make or purchase. Suri somehow wanted to celebrate the birthday. With great difficulty, mainly by walking over people’s gardens and avoiding the roads, he managed to get to a grocery store in which the owners were living even though the shop was closed. All he could get was a box of biscuits. He brought it home and the family had a surprise party for Shanthi with no guests and only a biscuit packet but with a generous dose of the love of Jesus, which made it a beautiful celebration.

This story shows that we can have joy even when things around us are really bad. But there is a joy that is even more basic than this that we can have even when a biscuit packet is not available. This is the joy of the Lord (Phil. 4:4). During the revolution of the late eighties, the situation in the country was getting to be almost unbearable to me. As a youth worker it was terrible for me to see that thousands of young people, some of whom I knew, were dying. There never was a time when there wasn’t a dead body floating along the river that bordered the city of Colombo. Schools were closed for sometimes as long as six months at a time. For a few weeks the militants forcibly stopped public transport, and if we had to keep our office open we had to transport all our workers from their homes and back. There were three of us on staff who could drive, and we took turns to do this three-hour, twice-daily chore. We had just returned from a wonderful seven-month sabbatical in USA when I was able to write two books. I would complain that I am a Bible teacher, not a chauffeur! The terrible suffering of the people was also really getting me down.

Many were leaving the country, especially for the sake of their children. I had received some unsolicited offers for jobs abroad, which seemed to give me the opportunity to concentrate on the things I like most to do. But we believed that God would have us stay on in Sri Lanka however bad the situation got. We had, however, to think of our children’s welfare. We decided that one of the best legacies we can leave our children was a happy home. But my moods were not helping us carry out this resolve. One day when I was in a terrible mood, my wife told the children something so that I could hear (our wives have a way of doing that!), “Father is in a bad mood, let’s hope he goes and reads his Bible.” She had stumbled upon a great theological truth. When we are surrounded by terrible temporal circumstances and everything around us looks bleak, we need to fix our eyes on the unchanging truths in God’s Word. These tell of a world that will not change, of a God who is sovereign and who will ultimately conquer evil. This God loves us and is with us, to comfort us and help us amidst the confusion all around and to turn even the terrible situation into something good! The security of this eternal, unchanging world of God’s programme brings the joy of the Lord back to our hearts. I have learned to linger in God’s presence in prayer or with the word or with my hymnbook and not to give up doing so until the joy of the Lord returns. Through this means theology addresses experience and challenges its mood of despair; the mind addresses the heart until truth penetrates the heart yielding the joy of the Lord.

We have indeed experienced a lot of pain because of the turmoil in the land, however I think that even greater pain comes when there is turmoil within the body of Christ. I experienced this a few years ago when our ministry faced a huge crisis. There was a major division of opinion about the way that we were going to resolve a serious situation that had arisen in the work. I had always worked on resolving crises using the strength of the unity of our leadership team as a basis for action. Now even the leadership team was divided. The leaders in YFC know my weaknesses and usually try to compensate for them often even laughing about them. But as often happens in a time of crisis, people were now blaming the crisis on my weaknesses. People I loved dearly were very angry and disappointed with me.

I thank God that, though the leadership team was dysfunctional at this time, I still had colleagues and Board members with whom I could share and pray. However I felt that at this time I was leading YFC more through personal prayer than through any other thing. I learned the need to spend long hours, sometimes whole nights, seeking God’s face. Out of this period of pain came one of the most important principles of ministry that I have ever learned: in a time of crisis, we must first meet with God and only after that meet with hostile people. Our ministry springs from the security and joy of God’s acceptance and anointing rather than as a reaction to people’s rejection. If we react in the flesh when faced by hostile people we will aggravate the situation. Leaders need to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” if they are going to be agents of healing in situations of conflict (Eph. 6:10).

Another comforting truth that has helped us is that God never permits us to be tested beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13), and that with every problem comes sufficient grace to tide through it (2 Cor. 12:9). If fact God often sends us his comfort in some wonderful ways which gives us the assurance that he has taken a personal interest in our situation (see, for example, Acts 18:9-10; 23:11; 27:23-24). Many of us will testify to the amazing way in which our Bible reading for the day clearly spoke to the situation that we were facing at that time. This made us realise that God, in his miraculous providence, arranged for us to read that passage that day.

But there are also other ways in which God comforts us. When the bombing got very bad in Jaffna, Suri and Shanthi Williams went with their two children to a school that had been converted into a refugee camp. Suri would lead devotions each day with those staying with them in their room. One day when he gave an opportunity for prayer requests, Shanthi asked for prayer for an egg to give her little boy. Suri was a little embarrassed because food was scarce and an egg would almost be a luxury. But the request was made in public and it had to be prayed for. The next day there was a severe round of bombing and a shell fell on the home of a Christian lawyer next to the refugee camp. The poultry run they had was destroyed totally, and the only thing that remained was a solitary egg. The lawyer’s wife remembered that there was this Christian worker with a little boy in the camp next door. She decided to give the egg to Shanthi who was thrilled by the specific way in which God answered prayer. Shanthi says that such acts of God’s comfort were a great boost to her and helped her in her resolve to stay on in Jaffna despite the troubles.

Many of the truths presented above are illustrated in the events surrounding the arrest in 1998 of YFC staff worker Jeyaraj who was at that time a volunteer in our ministry. Jeyaraj’s identity card states his place of birth, which happens to be a place from which many militants hail. So he is often arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist. On one of his seven previous arrests he was tortured so badly that he had to be operated for injuries to his stomach. As soon as I heard of his arrest I went to the Police station around midnight along with a Christian lawyer, armed with a letter guaranteeing that I know he is not a terrorist. The arresting officer chased us out of the station. Jeyaraj was subjected to torture in the Police station and then sent to the remand prison. There he was in a state of deep discouragement. It is emotionally very painful when Christians are arrested for being terrorists when, at great cost to themselves, they refuse to condone the use violence as a means of struggling for rights.

After a few days in the remand prison, Jeyaraj was transferred to a special prison for those condemned or suspected of being terrorists. There he met another Christian and his spirits picked up. The two of them started a Bible study in the prison and this became so popular that they soon had to divide it into two studies. Then they began a Sunday service, which attracted about 55 people each Sunday. In order to bring some brightness to the lives of his fellow inmates, Jeyaraj also organised sports, drama and music programmes and general knowledge quiz competitions in the prison. Realising that some of the young people there could sit for the public exams he also helped foster some educational programmes in the prison. The inmates spoke Tamil, but the prison personnel did not speak this language. So he began to act as an interpreter and then a mediator when there were conflicts between prisoners and the authorities. Some of the hierarchy of the militant organisation were not very happy with some of the things that Jeyaraj did, and this meant he was taking a big risk in being obedient to God’s call in the prison.

I will never forget taking a group of YFC staff and volunteers to the prison on Christmas day 1998. We provided a good Christmas meal for all the 800 people there and also conducted a Christmas service. Tears flowed freely as brothers in Christ from outside and inside the prison had fellowship with each other. Several inmates told us that they were thankful to God that they came to this prison because in the prison they met God. I met the young man who had carried out a bombing of a military building next to my son’s school. I had heard the sound of the bomb, and when I made inquiries I was told that it had gone off at my son’s school. It was probably the scariest day of my life. I rushed on my motor cycle to as close to the scene as I could get to. Then I ran to the school through private properties jumping over walls as the roads were closed. Fortunately my son had only a slight cut on his face. Now I stood in front of the man who had planned the bomb. I was told that he was close to committing his life to Christ. When I heard who he was there wasn’t even a tinge of animosity towards him. Such feelings were buried amidst the thrill of knowing that God had been working so powerfully among these people.

Though there were no specific charges that could be made against Jeyaraj, the case was postponed so often that he stayed in prison for 15 months before he was finally released. We would often send word far and wide the day before the case came up in the courts asking for prayers for his release. But after seeing everything that God was doing in prison through him, we began to add, “…if it is your will,” when praying for his release. Shortly before his release a pastor came in to the prison, also as a terrorist suspect, and he has been able to continue the good work. Before he was released the head of the prison told Jeyaraj that he could come back to continue his ministry. On his release Jeyaraj joined our full-time staff, and he now visits the prison often and also ministers to the families of the prisoners and to those who have been released from prison.

So our belief in the sovereignty of God not only brings comfort and strength to us amidst turmoil, it also enables us to keep serving and being part of God’s action to turn even the greatest tragedy into something good.