Thursday, 6 March 2014

"Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD" ?

"Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD" 

(Photo credit: Marshall Astor, on Flickr) 

Do nations, countries, and empires rise and fall based upon their relationship to God? Does God's Word promise that America is doomed to decline because of her rapid secularization and apparent abandonment of her Christian roots?

This raises a lot of questions. The most controversial, in my mind, is: What exactly do we mean by a country with Christian roots? How does one define a 'Christian nation'?  Do we mean something different than the Holy Roman Empire? America might have put 'God' on a lot of buildings and in documents, and the Church has always been a celebrated and supported part of American life and society (until recently). But looking back over history and distinguishing vibrant Christianity from a deistic civil, nationalistic, religion is hard to do. And besides, while all this was going on, America committed many sins from the very beginning. I cringe over how kitschy it is to bring these things up, but it is true that we have in our history the deliberate and biblically-justified displacement of peoples and slavery, greed, gluttony (all sins worthy of many sharp Biblical condemnations - condemnations just as harsh as anything to do with sexuality). To claim that our contemporary sins are really the ones bringing judgment and our downfall, seems a bit historically naive (and Biblically selective) to me. I don't deny things have gotten, in many ways, worse and I think it's clear that we're in a cultural tailspin. But getting too specific seems, at best, messy and, at worse, pharisaical. 

One might say 'well, at least we used to acknowledge God, even if we made mistakes, now our society doesn't even want to acknowledge God.' Fair enough. Maybe. But if we're going to use the Bible to find parallels, we must note that in the Old Testament, God's greatest wrath was saved for those who worshiped God with their lips, but denied Him with their actions (see Micah, or the early chapters of Isaiah, as examples). The Bible doesn't give us good reason to say something like that. 

As a seminarian, I feel most strongly about the exegetical issues this all raises. And I want to propose that attempts to use passages like Psalm 33:12 to predict the decline of America, or diagnose America's (or any other country's) spiritual or political problems, or cite natural or other disasters as God's judgment, is a pretty serious misuse of Scripture. 

I will make a few exegetical points about why I think this is a bad interpretation, but then I do want to affirm some of the correct sentiments these interpretations represent. But lastly, and most importantly, I wish to show why passages such as these are meant most of all, to give us hope - not a spirit of condemnation or fear. 

First, Six exegetical problems: 

1. This interpretation ignores Scriptures that emphasize opposite truths. 

No, I don't believe Scripture contradicts itself, but Scripture must be used to help interpret Scripture. And if a particular interpretation is contrary, or chastened, by another verse - we need to rethink our interpretation. 

Consider these other verses: 

"He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:45) 

"Righteous are You, O Lord, when I plead with You; yet let me talk with You about Your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?" 

(Jeremiah 12:1)

Righteousness and success do not always go together, and the Bible attests to the fact that often, just the opposite is the case! 

The story of Job clues us into this dynamic, does it not? Job's friends keep trying to convince Job that his sins must be the cause of his suffering, but the story ultimately reveals that God's ways cannot be known. Sin and suffering on the one hand, and righteousness and success on the other, don't always go together. 

And we know this too from history. Many great empires have come and gone without recognizing God or Christ. The longest-unshaken empire is arguably the Chinese, largely Buddhist, dynasty. Rome was doing quite well before Christianity came along (its decline began around the same time). And while it is wrong to blame Christianity for Rome's decline, as Edward Gibbon did, it's pretty clear that Christianity did not save Rome (well, at least not in the West). 

So, whatever this verse means, it does not appear that it can mean that godliness and success always go together, for that contradicts a whole lot of other Scriptures. 

2. It takes the verse out of its immediate context

The second half of Psalm 33:12 is rarely quoted. The next clause reads: " the people he chose for his inheritance."

Who did God call 'his inheritance'? Israel. No one else:  "For Yehovah’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance." (Deuteronomy 32:9). 

This passage is not giving a general principle about all nations, but about the people of God - who had a unique relationship with God. 

The same goes for other passages cited along these lines: 

"If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land." (2 Chronicles 7:14)

To apply verses such as these to our own country is to blatantly rip the passage out of its context. These are promises toward Israel, part of God's unique and special relationship with Israel (and dealing with a particular period in time). For its contemporary relevance, as I will show later, we must apply it to the Church. 

3. Such verses don't necessarily promise political/economic/social success, anyhow: 

In fact, Psalm 33:12 was a prayer that reflected a promise that was true even in times of failure. It is a promise not directly about political success or prosperity. Even when Israel was chastised, they were still God's inheritance. And they were still blessed, even in their destitution and in their suffering. Even in their sinfulness. When Israel was punished by nations who did not know God, that did not mean that God's blessing had moved, been abolished, or had been traded for one people to another. His promise to Israel was still true (see Hosea 11, as an example). 

And so, it is a stretch to apply this verse to other nations. It was a statement about Israel's relationship with God, which did not directly have to do with Israel's material success. 

It is true that God prospered Israel in times of righteousness, and let her suffer in times of unrighteousness. So, for this one nation at least, there seems to be a correlation in certain ways, in Israel's history. But these were based on explicit promises God made with Israel (blessings and curses in Deuteronomy), not with all people - and God always revealed explicitly when He was casting specific judgment at a point in history. And, yes, there are nations that are judged in the Old Testament for their unrighteousness. But apart from a specific revelation from God, we cannot ultimately know when and how and why God is operating in one way or another. Scripture is clear (as I have illustrated above) that, unless God tells us exactly what He's up to, we cannot know or depend for sure on a correlation between righteousness and success. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike. The wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer. 

4. It ignores the New Testament 

Some (Dispensationalists) will disagree with me, but I maintain the traditional position of all Christian history, that the Church is the continuation of the people of God. The story of Israel is the Church's story. If we are baptized into Christ, we are Abraham's descendants. The Church is Israel. 

And thus, this promise to Israel, is ultimately (in light of the New Testament) a promise to the Church - not one that can be willy-nilly applied to any institution or country. The Church is blessed because God is her Lord. She is the nation of God. Indeed, the New Testament is filled with 'nation' and 'empire' terms used to describe the Church - using the Greek word 'ekklesia'  (which we translate as Church) which is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament for 'the assembly' of Israel.  The people of God, Israel/theChurch (one thing!) is blessed because she belongs to the Lord. The Lord chose her, formed her, made her, keeps her. When the Church humbles herself, the Lord heals her 'land' (which, in the New Testament age, I do not believe means we will become prosperous). 

5. It ignores the cross 

When God talks about punishing Israel for her unrighteousness, I believe He is setting up for the atoning death of Christ. It becomes clear, in the New Testament, that sin was a problem that no one could escape from (Romans 1). All people are under God's wrath. Jews and Babylonians, Americans and Nazis, Israelis and Al-Qaeda. God may deal in temporal judgment here and there (and He announces it in divine revelation), but on the whole, sin is judged, defeated, destroyed, and dealt with on the cross and ultimately at the final judgment. Jesus takes upon himself the curse of sin and fulfills the demands of sin, death, and justice. The clear message of the New Testament is that Jesus is, represents, and fulfills Israel - He purifies Israel from/takes on Himself, the sins God said He would punish her for. In the grand scheme of history, sin and justice have already been dealt with. 

 I do believe God disciplines His people, and those who He is drawing to Himself, in everyday affairs. And, it is clear that many sins have general consequences.  But to look for God's judgment in everyday affairs is to miss that the big picture of all the talk about judgment and purification in the Old Testament is pointing to the act of Christ and the eschatological judgment of God. America's sins, Israel's sins, are dealt with on the cross and at the final judgment, as are mine and yours - for those who accept this grace. To look for temporal judgment in history is to ignore the trajectory of Scripture pointing us to the cross. 

4. The People of God, Especially in the New Testament Age, Are Called to Suffer 

This is where, I think, the Anabaptists understand the Bible well. The people of God, in this time of waiting for our promised inheritance of righteousness to come (for the Kingdom to be established) are in diaspora. We are not in control, we have not yet inherited the earth. We will perennially suffer at the hands of the powerful. Anabaptists would be wary of any close relationship between Church and state for this reason - this side of eternity all power and dominion is the tool of evil. I don't go as far, but I am also uncomfortable with too close of a relationship - I fear that if the Church is in power, she is likely being corrupted (or at high risk of it). But whatever one thinks about all that, we are compelled to realize that the Church's power and comfort will wax and wane, and our predominant call is to suffer. But that does not mean God's promise has left us. We are still blessed, for we are the nation whose God is the Lord. What that means for a state that embraces the Church, I do not think we can easily say. If a society truly grasps the call of Christ, I'd think they'd be likely to suffer - and if they survive and proposer, it may mean that the call of Christ has not been really kept. I'm not sure it's quite that black and white, but those are categories worth considering. We must remember that the kingdoms of this earth, even if closely related to the Church, are not themselves the Church. They come and go, they rise and fall, but the Church remains - the beloved possession of God. 

We in America especially, have a tendency to associate 'blessedness' with material success. This is why we have such a problem with health & wealth gospel teachings in the West. But, in the New Testament, it is clear that the blessing of the people of God, the blessedness of the sons of Abraham whose God is the Lord, is the promise of the coming Kingdom (Ephesians 1:3). Our blessing is in heaven, it is yet to come, it is coming with Christ. And in the meantime e will definitely suffer. The blessing of the Lord does not mean wealth or success in this life. So, it is wrong to look for political or material success as a sign of God's favor or disfavor - certainly for the Church and, I would say, of a society that embraces Christianity (in some way or another). 

It is a false, and wholly unbiblical, attitude to tell anyone - a person, a family, a country, a government - that if they accept God they will suddenly be 'okay.' America could have a massive revival and still collapse. The Bible offers no guarantees about these things - and the closest it comes is to promise the exact opposite! Coming to the Lord may mean remarkable suffering, all the way to the loss of ones whole life! Complete and utter sacrifice, complete 'failure' by the world's standards, is what we celebrate every Sunday morning! To speak like this is to sell a false gospel, and a false promise, and to create a hoard of Christians (if it even works) who are not ready to follow Christ and will fall away at the first sign of trouble - like the disciples who all abandoned Jesus in Gethsemane. They were still waiting for Jesus to become the political hero they had expected - to take over society, to take over the culture, to pull it in by the reigns and make it godly, prosperous, and victorious. They were not ready to pay the price of walking to the cross with Him. They were not willing to realize that the real battle, is not against flesh and blood. That the real Kingdom is not of this earth. That the path of God's redemption plan was one of utter self-sacrifice and loss

Please, pray for our country! Serve the good of our country (and whatever country you find yourself in!) Seek revival, pray for revival! Tell everybody about Jesus and about the judgment that's coming!

 But do not sell a false Gospel. 

Countries, nations, kingdoms come and go. Material success and prosperity, and freedom and peace, will come and go. The Church will have power and influence some days and none the next. These things do not shake us. They cannot surprise us. And we may never know for sure what God is up to in all of these things. Our blessing and our inheritance is sure yet. 

But to be fair...

All that said, it is impossible to ignore the correlation between the decline of the West as a society, and the secularization of the West. Christianity has long been a crucial part of the West's roots, and the West is cutting off all its roots. Of course it is going to whither and collapse. Christianity gave the West so much of its culture and its vitality - free enterprise, hospitals, the early scientific revolution, abolition, philanthropy, the fine arts, its moral compass - all these bulwarks of Western civilization were strongly helped, if not instigated, by Christianity. And as a Christian I wear these things proudly. 

As the world changes drastically, we see Christians in the West scrambling to come to terms with the fact that there is only so much we can do, or (and I'd say) have the responsibility to do, to preserve these roots. We preach, we serve, we build, we pray, we influence, we hope - but we cannot claw to control the tides of culture of history, or we will lose our witness. That is not the attitude of a people of hope - it assumes that we are only succeeding if the culture or the kingdom is thriving, and accepting us. And this is why you hear some people say 'when America rejects God, we should go to _______ where things are better.' What ridiculousness. What a slap in the face of the Great Commission, of the call of the Church. When we abandon the 'hard places' we've really missed the whole point. We were never promised a happy, peaceful, God-honoring culture to live in and do our work. And the goal of our work is not necessarily a prosperous, godly, country (it's not wrong to hope for such things, but we can't set our hopes on them, when we are so consistently warned in Scripture that most of our call as a Church will not look like this, and the fact that times of comfort lead to times of apathy and corruption). We were called to go to all the earth, to walk like Jesus walked, into the darkest, most hell-riddden corners of this earth. 

  Yes, we must be prophetic. We can point to the depravity and futility of the world and culture around us, as the Church has always done.  And there may be times where we can point to circumstances as God's chastisement or discipline. But we must be very, very, careful about pointing to specific instances as God's judgment, or make theological predictions about the relationship between Christianity, Christian vitality, and the rise or decline of a people.  Where God has not explicitly spoken with historical specificity, these things we cannot know for sure. We can only point to the ultimate judgment, and the breaking of sin in the death and resurrection of Christ, and speak prophetically about the general judgment of God. 

In conclusion

Augustine witnessed the collapse of the Western half of the Roman Empire. Early Christian hopes that Christianized-Rome represented the Kingdom of God, were dashed in a few short years. Augustine put pen to paper and wrote one of the most important texts of theology ever constructed - Civitas Dei (City of God). The legacy of this text, and of Augustine's political thought as a whole, is complicated and wrought with contradictions (other writings of Augustine, arguably, undermined the message of the City of God).  Nonetheless, that thesis is important for us today: The kingdoms of this earth, are not the Kingdom of God. Empires, nations, countries, will rise and fall, but the City of God is not shaken. Our citizenship is to another Kingdom. 

“The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity,” 

― Augustine of Hippo, City of God

America might collapse, with or without embracing Christianity (just as Rome collapsed even after embracing Christianity). And the Church may suffer or prosper as she lives among righteous and unrighteous peoples. But whatever comes, her inheritance, her Kingdom, her promise, her blessing, is in heaven with Christ. And this gives us great hope. No matter kings that may fall, or kings that may rise, no matter what we suffer, our victory is secure. Indeed, as it was with Christ, our moments of greatest victory come when we let go and suffer unjustly. For that is when the glory of God is displayed against the depravity of this world. So do not be afraid of crumbling kingdoms, or of persecution, or of nations that reject the Lord and His people. God's power is as strong as ever, our inheritance, our blessing, is a sure as ever - and indeed, God's glory may be about to be displayed in new and glorious ways - just as occurred at calvary. His light shines brightest in the darkness. 

This people of God is blessed, because she is the Lord's inheritance. She is meek and she is poor, but she shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5). She is beaten down, but she is never destroyed (2 Corinthians 4). And at the last day she shall shine like the stars in the sky (Daniel 7) - the stars of Abraham's descendants (Galatians 3:29). 

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