The inspiring yet heartbreaking story of one woman’s courage during wartime is the plot for the book and now the movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife. This true story, set in Warsaw during World War II, shows not only how war impacts women but also how they fight and risk all for their beliefs.

One wife’s courage saved over 300 Jewish lives from extermination. When Poland is occupied by the Nazis, zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina must report to the regime’s newly appointed zoologist, Lutz Heck. The Zabinskis covertly begin working with the Resistance and put into action plans that save hundreds from what became the Warsaw Ghetto.

While I realize one can’t compare the horrors of an evil regime (let alone the Holocaust) to the challenges of ministry, I take courage from—and find many similarities between—Antonina’s story and those of church planting wives.

  • Fighting the Powers of Darkness

In the movie, the Zabinskis face soul-crushing, potentially fatal consequences for their resistance. Eph. 6:12 says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” It’s said that the battle is fiercest on the front lines. Over and over, we see that as church planting couples establish a beachhead against the powers of darkness, spiritual attacks increase. This may manifest itself as sudden chronic health problems, family crises, a leadership crisis, depression, slanderous attacks that threaten to close down the fledging church—or drive its pastor and wife out of ministry altogether.

  • Recognition or Acknowledgement

Antonina loves animals, so she works alongside her husband, caring for them. She has no official title, but does the work. Like Antonina, church planting spouses bring unique gifts and abilities crucial to the job at hand, no matter who holds the degree or title. Similarly, at one of our monthly church planting wives’ gatherings in NYC, the conversation turned to the all-too-common experience of feeling invisible. Regardless of whether or not a wife has another job outside ministry, is known as a “planter’s wife” (the title of the movie is not an accident) or is recognized as “co-planter,” her role is vital! Yet it’s overlooked and underrated. (You’ll have to watch the movie to see where this happens to Antonina.) While it would be lovely to be recognized for what we offer, how much more valuable is it to live under the smile of a God who knows intimately the sacrifice involved in our calling?

  • Ambiguity

Antonina and her husband face constant uncertainty and ambiguity as they struggle to carry out their risky, life-saving plan. What will happen to them? What will happen to their son? Does what they do make a difference? Church planting wives face ambiguity about their financial future, roles, and ministry future. Will this church ever be established? Will we find a place to meet? Will my husband have to get a second job and be bi-vocational? If the church fails, will we have to move? Will our bedroom always be the church office, and our kid’s room the nursery? What expectations do people have of us, and will we disappoint them?

Consider all the stressful uncertainty you face. What is your go-to method for handling it? Fleeing it or fighting it? Overconsumption of food, alcohol, Netflix, video games and so forth are typical ways we flee. Developing plans, consulting professionals, cleaning house, working harder and creating massive strategies are typical ways we fight it. Either choice can be a form of lighting our own way (Isaiah 50: 10-11) rather than waiting on God in the midst of the unknown. I have acquired the unusual ability to simultaneously flee and fight. Is there any hope for us?

  • Saving Lives

Antonina knows she is saving lives—but doesn’t know how many, or whether the people she helps will be captured on the next step of their journey. I doubt any of us have a clue about how many lives we’ve saved, let alone influenced. I’m referring as much to physical lives as spiritual ones. I’ve had the privilege of hearing people trace their scarlet thread of redemption to a time period when I was involved in their lives. I might not even remember it and I’m definitely not the hero! But it’s enough for me to be shaken to my core that this God we serve is willing to use you and me in the saving of many lives. Just by showing up and being present, God can do mighty things through you. Don’t give up.

  • Courage

In The Zookeeper’s Wife, as the power of the Nazis becomes clear and the horror surrounding them more stark, evil threatens the very core of their marriage. When Jan grows concerned with Lutz’s attentiveness to his wife and accuses Antonina of reciprocating his interest, she pleads, “Don’t you see? He wants us?” Antonina recognizes that Lutz will do anything to destroy them as a couple.

Evil wants us too. It wants to destroy our souls, ours marriages, our ministry, and the light we bring to dark places. Don’t let it! Have great courage, my friends, because of Who fights for you.  

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  – Ephesians 6: 10-12

Shari