Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison, but there’s more to the story

DR. JIM DENISON

Yesterday, a Russian judge sentenced US women’s basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for bringing marijuana into Russia with criminal intent. However, this outcome was expected to clear the way for negotiations over her release, since Russian officials had said they would not consider a prisoner exchange involving Griner until her trial was concluded. Consequently, Russia and the US announced today that they are ready to discuss a prisoner swap.

And so what seemed to be very bad news for Griner may turn into very good news for her.

Meanwhile, the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri continues to make news. After a United Nations report stated, “The international context is favorable to al-Qaeda, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad,” the Economist noted that “Mr. Zawahiri’s death is unlikely to reverse the trend.”

Al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates have grown stronger in recent years, including those in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula. Given the decentralized nature of al-Qaeda’s leadership, the death of al-Zawahiri, while significant, will not stop this trend.

And so what seemed to be very good news may not be as good as we hoped.

Life is like an NCIS rerun

My wife and I have enjoyed watching NCIS reruns this summer. In case you’re unfamiliar, nearly every show begins with the discovery of a dead body. The rest of the hour is devoted to discovering who killed this person and why. Characters who seem to be guilty inevitably turn out to be innocent. Characters we are convinced are innocent turn out to be guilty.

Doesn’t life feel like a crime drama most days? What you thought was true is not true, or at least not the total truth. The plot twists and turns. Tomorrow, assuming it comes, will be as filled with surprises as today has been.

This is one reason the Christian faith has been so encouraging to me over these many years: despite the unpredictability and uncertainty of the future, I know my Father sees tomorrow more clearly than I can see today. And, as my home church pastor once told me, the will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain.

This is not the only reason I find the Christian faith so appealing. There is the promise of God’s unconditional forgiveness for our sins (1 John 1:9), the presence of the indwelling Spirit who leads us into “all the truth” (John 16:13), the omnipotence of a Father who “will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19), and especially Jesus’ assurance that “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26).

I could go on. So could you. Our salvation by grace through faith is indeed “the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). And what a gift it is.

“An insurance policy against hell”?

Here’s the problem, as I am coming to see it: none of this should be the ultimate reason I love and serve Jesus. The consequences of my relationship with him, while indescribably wonderful, should not be the motive for that relationship.

If I spent time with my wife only for what she could do for me in response, what kind of husband would I be? If I wanted to be with my grandchildren only so they could serve me in some way, what kind of grandfather would I be?

These thoughts were spurred recently by this statement by noted evangelical pastor and author A. W. Tozer: “It is my prayer that the evangelical church will discover that salvation is not a lightbulb only, not an insurance policy against hell, but a gateway into God and into his heart.”

When I read that statement. I asked myself: Do I want to go to heaven primarily to avoid hell or primarily to be with God? Do I serve the Lord so he will serve me or because I want to glorify him and advance his kingdom? Do I pray so God will answer my prayers or so I can be with my Father? Do I begin the day with worship so God will bless the rest of my day or because I simply want to be in the presence of Jesus?

How would you answer these questions for yourself?

Delivering a baby on a YMCA pool deck

A seven-year-old in California recently helped save the life of a toddler at the bottom of a pool. If you were that toddler, wouldn’t you feel you owed a great debt to the boy who rescued you?

An eighteen-year-old lifeguard in Colorado recently helped deliver a baby on a YMCA pool deck. If you were that baby, wouldn’t you feel you owed a debt of gratitude to the teenager who helped deliver you?

For much of my Christian life, I have looked at my relationship with my Savior in the same way.

Early in my Christian experience, I thought I needed to serve God to earn or justify his love for me. Then I learned that because “God is love” (1 John 4:8), he cannot love me any more than he already does. As a result, I learned to serve him out of gratitude for his amazing grace.

Now I realize there is a still deeper reason to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30): because he is worthy of such love. There is a deeper reason to be grateful for heaven: because I will spend eternity there with my Father. There is a deeper reason to serve my Lord: so I can experience his presence and offer others the grace I have received.

God loves us because it is his nature to love us. I am praying for his help to follow his example by manifesting love for my Lord and my neighbor as the first “fruit” of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). I am praying every day the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”

If we all made this prayer a reality, could the people we know be the same?

Could we?

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