China's spy balloons: What we're now learning

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What we’re learning about China’s spy balloons

February 9, 2023 -

This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon (one of China's spy balloons) off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy via AP)

This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon (one of China's spy balloons) off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy via AP)

This image provided by the U.S. Navy shows sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recovering a high-altitude surveillance balloon (one of China's spy balloons) off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy via AP)

According to American intelligence officials, China’s spy balloon program is part of a global surveillance effort to collect information on the military capabilities of countries around the world.

Surveillance balloons, like China’s spy balloons, have advantages over satellites: they can fly closer to the earth and drift with wind patterns that are not as predictable to militaries and intelligence agencies. They can also hover over areas and their cameras can produce clearer images than those on orbital satellites. We now know that Beijing has used such airships to probe American airspace in the past—one other time under President Biden and three under former President Trump. China’s spy balloons have been spotted over five continents in total.

Did China’s spy balloons break international law?

Unlike satellites which travel in space, balloons are like other aircraft in that they are subject to international aviation law. According to such law, a nation’s airspace is sovereign territory that cannot be entered without express permission. As a result, surveillance balloons are clear violations of national sovereignty when they enter another country’s airspace.

In other news, Dutch prosecutors said yesterday that it was likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on a decision to supply missile systems to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The long-range anti-aircraft missiles were then used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July of that year, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

This attack was an obvious violation (PDF) of international law, one for which individuals and states are both responsible.

“If everybody got their time from somebody else”

These stories illustrate this fact: laws do not have the intrinsic power to change character. For example, America has more laws than ever, but murder rates are 30 percent higher than they were in 2019; other kinds of crime, including thefts and robberies, increased last year as well.

Laws can prevent illegal activity so long as they can be proactively enforced, but they do not by themselves alter human nature. Individuals and nations will still do what they consider to be in their best interest. Most will adhere to laws that prevent or alter their intentions only when they must.

Do you obey speed limits because you have an intrinsic desire to do whatever the authorities advise or because you don’t want to get a ticket for speeding?

Of course, the alternative to laws we feel to be arbitrary and invasive is to have no laws at all.

In my sermon last Sunday, I quoted Dr. Paul Powell: “Man needs some authority in his life. Without duly recognized authority, chaos would soon result in every realm of life.” He cited the Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, without which we would have no objective measure of weights and measurements. Without these standards, he noted, “inches and pounds would soon shrink or expand according to the wishes of the person doing the measuring. It would not be long until daily business could not be transacted.”

He then pointed to the Naval Observatory, also in Washington, DC, which gives us the correct astronomical time every day at 12 o’clock. What if we did not have such a standard? Dr. Powell answered: “If everyone got their time from somebody else, pretty soon we would have no idea as to what the time really was.”

Is this where our culture is morally?

Four transforming facts

David prayed, “O Lᴏʀᴅ, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Psalm 39:4). From his prayer we can discern the following facts:

  1. We do not know how fleeting our lives really are or how dependent we truly are on our Maker.
  2. Only God can reveal this to us in a way that transforms us, which is why David’s words are a prayer rather than an observation.
  3. If we will not ask God to show us our need for his help, we will waste our time and our lives.
  4. If we will make David’s prayer ours, we will use our time and lives well in response.

For example, as a result of his prayer, David could say to God, “I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers” (v. 12). This is a powerful metaphor for life on this transitory planet. We are all guests here. Accordingly, we must not invest our souls where they will not live permanently.

I often note that self-sufficiency is spiritual suicide. The contrary is true as well: Spirit-sufficiency is spiritual victory.

“Never interpret your numbness as his absence”

When Abraham offered Isaac (Genesis 22), God intervened and Isaac became a progenitor of the Jewish nation. The theologian Origen (c. 185–c. 253) noted: “Abraham offered to God his mortal son who did not die; God gave up his immortal Son who died for all of us.”

Will you trust such a loving God with your life today?

In Revelation 3, Jesus tells his people, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (v. 20). Commenting on this transforming promise, Max Lucado writes: “The world rams at your door; Jesus taps at your door. The voices scream for your allegiance; Jesus softly and tenderly requests it.

“Which voice do you hear? There is never a time that Jesus is not speaking. There’s never a room so dark that the ever-present, ever-pursuing, relentlessly tender Father is not there, tapping gently on the doors of our hearts—waiting to be invited in.

“Few hear his voice. Fewer still open the door. But never interpret your numbness as his absence. He says, ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). Never” (his italics).

Will you open your life to his lordship today?

NOTE: Lent begins in less than two weeks, and our current release was written to be started on the first day of Lent, Feb. 22. Empowered will take you on a 47-day journey into understanding and experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit. Each day’s reading is brief, biblical, and insightful and includes a daily prayer. Request Empowered today so that you may begin reading it on the first day of Lent.

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