Billy Graham told a gathering of world Christian leaders a few years ago, “We have heard the anguished voice of history, crying out from a crucible of pain, telling us lessons that we never seem able to learn.”  What is God really doing to relieve the pain of an anguished world? And how can we get involved? The answers are found in these truths:  God has been doing and is now doing all he can to rescue mankind from destruction.  God’s unalterable desire and plan is to bring glory to himself throughout the world.

Human beings are rebels who cannot be easily convinced of God’s love, despite their distress. Information alone will not work. The person-to-person imparting of Christ is require.

One morning I was awakened in my hotel room in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil, by sirens. Fire trucks were stopping outside. I pulled on apair of pants and a jacket and went downstairs and out. Across the street a 25-story building was burning. A column of fire was shooting up the center of it, and the stairs and the elevator shaft were burned out so that everyone inside was trapped.

On the roof about a hundred people were looking down on the fire below them, sure that they would be rescued. Many more had climbed out on the ledges outside their windows. I stood there horrified as I saw the fire leap from section to section. The flames would burst through another room, there would be an explosion and the glass would shatter, and people at that window would fall back and die or else fall to the ground.

The building was too high for the hook-and-ladder trucks to reach everyone. Helicopters flew over and tried to drop ropes to the people, but the updraft from the fire was too great and the helicopters couldn’t get close enough. As I watched the vain attempts of the fire department, I thought, Why can’t they do something?

For three hours I watched 190 people die. It was hard for my mind to take in what I was seeing. Luke 13:4 kept running through my mind: Jesus was commenting on the headlines of the day—eighteen people had died when a tower had fallen on them. He asked those around him, “Do you suppose those eighteen people were the most wicked people in the city, and that’s why they perished?” Did God decide these eighteen were so bad he had to do away with them, so he herded them underneath the tower and let it fall and smash them? “No,” Jesus said, “but it reminds you that unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

After the fire was over I was walking through this city of eight million, being jostled by the crowds that are always in the streets, and suddenly I realized what Luke 13:4 really says. It meant every person in Sao Paulo was in that burning building. In fact, every person on earth is there. We are all terminal, and disasters remind us that unless we repent we will all likewise perish.

As the truth of that hit me, I found myself saying to God, Why don’t you do something? Look at all these people on earth and things seem to be going so badly. Aren’t you committed to the Great Commission? Why don’t you do something?

I went to the Scriptures to find out what in the world God is doing. I spent several months meditating on this, and I want to share with you some of the things God taught me.

God has always done all he could to rescue mankind. He is doing all he can and he always will be doing all he can. He is committed to it. It’s a theme that flows through Scripture.

For years I viewed the Old Testament as the story of God picking out one group of people who were really his favorite, giving them everything under the sun and just letting the rest of the world go. But actually he chose Israel because they were so unlikely a choice that if anything good came out of them, the whole world would look and say God had to do it. Abraham, the founder of the nation of Israel, was a good man most of the time but sometimes he wasn’t. His son Isaac was lackluster, and Isaac’s son Jacob was the original con man, the prototype for all con jobs from then until now. Jacob’s sons were noted for selling their brother into slavery after first planning to kill him.

With Jacob an old man, Israel consisted of a band of about seventy nomads, probably illiterate. During a famine they wandered in hunger to Egypt to get food. There they went into slavery for four hundred years—and slavery is not the most conducive environment for the development of a culture.

But then God made his move. He led them out of Egypt into the wilderness, and in one of the most incredible events in all history he gave them a sophisticated culture through a set of laws and regulations. Through Moses, God told them to obey these regulations carefully, “for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations” (Deuteronomy 4:6). God was raising a people out of nothing, and doing it in such a phenomenal way that the people of the earth would look and say, “It has to be God.”

God said to Israel, “Now don’t think I’m doing this for you because you were so many and so great, because as a matter of fact it was just the opposite—you were so few. And don’t think I’m doing this because you are so good and holy and righteous, because actually you are really a stubborn people.” In his dealings with Israel, God was calling the world’s attention to himself, and it worked. In the time of Solomon, when the nation of Israel was at its zenith, the whole world beat a path to Solomon’s door to hear his wisdom.

But it went to Israel’s head. The people forgot where their affluence came from, and they began to indulge in it. So God said he would scatter them, and in that scattering he would still accomplish the same objective of bringing glory to himself throughout the world. He said, “I will send some of those who survive to the nations… and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations” (Isaiah 66:19). So when God scattered Israel, it made no difference, because God was after one thing: that all the nations would know he is the Lord. And God is on the same track today. He is committed to the Great Commission.

But you say, “That’s not very convincing. If God is God and he really wants to do something, he could do something spectacular.”

Like what?

“Like show himself.” Well, you know, he did that. “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4:4). “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). If you have any questions about God or ever wonder what he’s like, take a look at Christ. He is the exact representation of God’s being.

You say, “That didn’t do any good because he came incognito. Nobody recognized him. Why didn’t he come in a flaming chariot and do something really flashy?” Well, he did do some spectacular things. Probably the most spectacular thing you can imagine is rising from the dead.

But you say even that didn’t do any good because he only showed himself to his friends. If he really wanted to convince the world of who he was, if he really wanted to shut everyone’s mouth, he could have gone back to the temple and said, “Look! My hands and my feet—you killed me, but here I am!” It would have settled it once and for all for everyone.

I wondered about that for a long time. Why didn’t Jesus do that? Because it wouldn’t have done any good. The basic problem in man is not lack of information or even lack of proof. The basic problem in man is rebellion. If Jesus had appeared again in the temple, he would not have succeeded in reconciling anyone to himself who had not already come to him through his words and his life.

Man is a rebel in conflict with God. This has profound implications on how we handle our part in God’s rescue operation to get man off that burning building. Information is not enough to persuade a rebel. If he is going to respond, it will take more than just telling, more than just explaining. It will take demonstration.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. As long as I am in the world, walk in the light so you don’t stumble and fall.” Then he said to his followers, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before men that they can see your lifestyle and know who God is.” The ultimate recourse God has in rescuing man from the disaster moving toward him is you. You are God’s recourse.

So not only is God revealing himself through history, not only has he revealed himself in Jesus Christ through his life, his death, and his resurrection, but he is revealing himself today through those who have become like Christ. The disciple of Christ is God’s means of getting to the world. A disciple of Jesus learns from Jesus. He thinks like Jesus, he acts like Jesus. His lifestyle comes from the word of God. In short, he is the incarnation of the gospel. Someone can turn off what you say, but if your lifestyle reflects the word of God he cannot ignore what you are. In that sense you are the light of the world.

God is doing his part in the rescue operation. He has done all he can. We also have a part. How are you doing with yours?

How has our part gone in history? Well, it’s been spotty. In the first century it was tough. The church had to operate underground, so they met in people’s homes. It was a nuisance, you know, forty people coming in on Sunday morning, crammed wall to wall in your living room. The leaders were probably somewhere else, so you had to do the teaching, studying the Scriptures all week to get ready. Yes, there were a lot of handicaps in the first century—but the church exploded throughout the world.

Then came Emperor Constantine, and Christianity became respectable. They could get the church out of your house and onto the corner where it belonged. And they could educate the clergy. Instead of everyone searching for truth in the Scriptures, you could train some guys to really preserve the orthodoxy. One man could teach five hundred.

And so we did that. We have preserved the orthodoxy. And it sure feels good not having that living room full of people every Sunday.

But what has happened to our rescue operation? We have lost sight of the basic problem. We think it’s a matter of information. We really believe one person can stand up and tell five hundred people how it is, and have something happen in all their lives. We have forgotten that the problem essentially is rebellion—a problem of the will, of self imposed alienation from God, and it just takes more than information to overcome it. Instead of looking each other in the face, we sit and look at the back of each other’s head.

We’re going to have to make some changes. Now I’m not suggesting that we tear down the structure of the church. Anybody can destroy something, but it takes someone with vision and insight to build something constructive.

The answer is for each of us to be involved individually in the lives of non-Christians, sharing our lives and our faith person to person, face to face. We have to abandon the idea that we can reach non-Christians only by bringing them in to preach at them. I believe every person who breathes is reachable if we understand that it takes not only the testimony of our mouths, but also the witness of our lives through exposing ourselves to them—letting them see how God has turned on the light in our lives.

I have a brother twenty years younger than I. My wife and I were in Brazil when he graduated from high school. One night we were going out to spend the evening together, and stopped first at the post office downtown to pick up the mail. There was Tom’s graduation announcement. We took it with us, and as we were sitting and talking later, we realized suddenly that we had both been out of high school twenty years, and it seemed more like five or six. Where had the time gone?

I said, “Honey, how have the years been?” She answered, “Not easy, but they’ve been good.” I asked her why, and she began naming individuals whose lives God has changed through our ministry to them. And I thought, That’s really where life is, the only thing that counts. There is no meaning anywhere except in being aligned with the things God is committed to.

“Honey,” I said, “how would you feel if we came here tonight and opened Tom’s announcement and looked at it, and I asked you if these twenty years had been worth it, and you said, ‘Well, we haven’t really accomplished anything. We’re here. We survived.’ Wouldn’t that be terrible?”

Every person has a need for significance. It’s one of the most essential needs of humanity. And men do incredible things just to achieve some distinction.

But there is no significance to anything that doesn’t come from the heart of God. If you want to have it in your life, commit yourself to what God is committed to—reconciling the world to himself.

Jim Petersen