During tonight’s State of the Union Address by President Barak Obama, the president said, “The future we want – will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.”
What I’ve found is that find that most Americans have grown tired of politics, weary of the rhetoric, cynical of public servants, and fearful of the future of our nation. What is it about our times that government has ceased to work? Why are people simply so angry? Regardless of your political persuasion, it’s easy to be mad or, at least, frustrated by what’s going on in Washington.
How should we respond to the frustrations that so many of us feel with the current state of the union and future of our nation? How do followers of Jesus respond to politics, politicians, and government?
A Brief Historical Perspective
As long as we have had human government, godly citizens have disagreed with the policies, decisions, and activities of their governments. Times of dissent can escalate into a crisis. It’s then the we must decide, if we should actively protest or patiently wait on the government leaders with respect for their authority. Where should the line be drawn?
In the second century AD, the respected Roman scholar Celsus leveled an accusation of atheism against followers of Jesus. Because they did not worship the gods of Rome nor revere Caesar as a god, Celsus accused them of treasonous, atheistic beliefs. When persecution came their way, the early church endured it. There is little evidence of anything resembling early Christian resistance to government persecution.
But in World War II, Christians were among the boldest defenders of another oppressed people group. Faithful followers of Jesus played a major role in organizations such as the Dutch resistance, the French underground, and others that opposed Nazi aggression. In Germany, followers of Jesus arose in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to Nazify the German Protestant church and stood up against the Nazi persecution and extermination of Jews. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a founding pastor in the Confessing Church, was involved in a conspiracy with members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler, primarily for the sake of the Jews. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and executed by hanging in April 1945 while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp, just 23 days before the German surrender.
Closer to home, we find in the founding of the United States of America, biblical preaching and teaching within the churches provided the justification for the revolution against Great Britain and the establishment of a new government. Alice Baldwin, writing in The New England Clergy and the American Revolution, says,
“The teachings of the New England ministers provide one line of unbroken descent. For two generations and more New Englanders had . . . been taught that these rights were sacred and came from God and that to preserve them they had a legal right of resistance and, if necessary a right to . . . alter and abolish governments and by common consent establish new ones.”
The founding of this country – civil disobedience to colonial rulers as well as the framing of the key political documents – rests upon a Christian foundation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the United States is a Christian nation, although some framers used that term. But it does mean that the foundations of the U.S. government presuppose a Christian view of human nature and of God’s providence.
A Broader Biblical Perspective
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was political chaos and government crisis in Jerusalem. King Herod, the reigning king who was paranoid and felt threatened by the prophecy of another king, murdered all the boys under the age of two (Matthew 2:16-18).
Thirty years later, as the disciples walked the lake shore of Galilee with Jesus, they were gradually learning to embrace the principles of the kingdom of God while living under the authority of the Romans. They began to sense that their miracle-working Teacher was fulfilling the prediction of the prophet Isaiah, who said:
For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7).
Could it be that Jesus was about to fulfill the words of the prophet? Could He be the long-awaited Messiah? With anticipation of a divine takeover of the world, imagine the disciples’ wonder—and confusion—when this King told them that they owed a pagan emperor their money and respect! Yet in the days just prior to Jesus’ execution on a cross, that’s exactly what the disciples heard Him say (Matthew 22:15-22). The disciples anticipated political liberation. Shockingly, Jesus taught His followers to respect even a pagan ruler.
But what if the government tells us to renounce our faith, or abort our children, or serve in a military waging an unjust war? The Scriptures also make it clear that respect for leaders does not mean unqualified compliance or complete silence. The New Testament apostles showed us that there are times to appeal to a higher authority. When the Jewish rulers commanded Peter and John to stop talking about the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles responded, “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). When there is a direct conflict, Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).
Centuries earlier, Daniel had similarly refused to comply with government actions when they forced idol worship on all the people of Babylon. For his courage, Daniel was thrown into a lions’ den. His gracious but courageous response to this injustice clearly shows that he did not have issues honoring the authority of King Darius. When he emerged unscathed from the lions’ den because he trusted God, Daniel said to the king,
“May the king live forever. My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t hurt me, for I was found innocent before Him. Also, I have not committed a crime against you my king.” (Daniel 6:21-22).
When we have issues with our government in Washington, we would do well to consider the way Daniel respectfully resisted King Darius. When weighing our response to the government for the sake of our conscience, we must also consider how we are to respond to an institution that has been established by God. It’s an exercise in balance and perspective, requiring careful wisdom.
In our current political climate how should followers of Jesus respond? God has given us two clear guide-rails from Scripture as dual citizens of Heaven and of the United States or wherever you live (Ephesians 2:19; Philippians 3:20):
1. Trust God’s Sovereignty. God is the One who has established government and it’s leaders as a servant in His hand to accomplish His purposes and plan.
1 Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. 2 So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. 4 For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. 6 And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. 7 Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. (Romans 13:1-7; underlining for emphasis)
Governments – both good and bad – are established by God as His servant. Therefore, He will provide the submissive, obedient follower of Jesus what is good from His perspective (Romans 8:28-31) – even when He allows adversity and suffering by the hand of those in authority.
God is also the One who moves the hearts of rulers whom He has established as His servants. King Solomon, intending to prepare his son to rule in his place over Israel, gave his son the following wisdom in governing a nation: “A king’s heart is like streams of water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever He chooses.” (Proverbs 21:1) A farmer directs water by digging irrigation canals. Similarly the Lord directs the hearts of kings – for example, Pharaoh (Ex. 10:1–2), Tiglath-Pileser (Isa. 10:5–7), Cyrus (Isa. 45:1–6), and Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:21; Neh. 2:1–8). God is sovereign, therefore, no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel, no government, no president will prevail against Him (cf. Prov. 21:30).
Governments, people of position and office, as well as the decision-makers in Washington, may appear to wield power, but they are really under the enthroned authority of God (Isaiah 40:22-23). He can dispose of any human leader because He is over all of them. He can dispense with any government just as easily as He can make flowers wither and blow chaff away (cf. Isaiah 40:6–8). He can reduce them to a state of comparative nothingness. God is not only superior, but sovereign. Whatever form of government we may live under, God is still in control of it’s past, present, and future. Trust Him.
2. Pray for God’s Servants. God answers prayer that shapes both governments and our individual lives.
First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 1 Timothy 2:1-2
Paul used four different ways to describe the kinds of prayers we should offer on behalf of our governments: petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings. Although the first three of these words have similar definitions, it is likely that Paul intended to emphasize the different ingredients that should be part of our prayer life for those God has placed in authority over us. Taken together, Paul’s call for such prayers reminds us that God wants us to pray continually for all those He has placed in authority over us in order to express our confidence in God’s authority and sovereignty that are His alone. Pray to Him for them.
Henry David Thoreau, in Civil Disobedience and other Essays wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” At times, it feels, like we are experiencing frustrations with government that lead to desperation like never before. Quite frankly, I’m fed up with the Fed!
It’s during times like these when I look out and feel beat down that the best option is to look up – to keep looking to Jesus. How should we respond to government frustrations? Trust God in His sovereignty and pray for the servants He has placed there – even and especially the ones in Washington.
Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.