Christian Responsibility and the Inauguration

January 20, 2017

At noon today Donald Trump took the oath of office and became president of the United States. Barack Obama greeted and applauded the new president. Among those present were past presidents Carter, Clinton, and Bush. Each of those past presidents opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump; all honored his inauguration.

Forty years ago, I came to understand how unusual and how precious that is.

In November 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford in a close election (Ford would have won had he received about 11,000 additional votes in Ohio and 15,000 additional votes in Mississippi). Two months later, I traveled to western Kenya to teach secondary school. My students were particularly interested in the recent inauguration. After one of my first classes, a group stayed afterwards to discuss American politics. They asked me:

“Why did Gerald Ford leave office?”

That seemed a strange question. I replied, matter-of-factly, “Because he lost the election.”

“Yes, we know he lost the election. But why did he leave office?”

That is: Why did the man holding the most powerful office in the world, the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world, voluntarily step down from power rather than wielding that power to remain in office?

Kenya, a scant thirteen years after independence, had never experienced a change of presidents. There was no history of peaceful transition of power among presidents in Kenya – or anywhere else in Africa. Indeed, there was little faith in Kenya’s constitution, little of the faith on display at the Capitol today: The faith in the democratic system of government. We Americans have more faith in Democracy than we have in our preferred parties and candidates. We believe that even if our preferred candidate loses, even if the winner advocates ideas we abhor, we should not try to subvert the election process. We believe we are better off fighting back in the next election.

My Kenyan students didn’t understand that; they did not realize that had Ford tried to remain in power despite the election results, 99 percent of those who voted for him would have opposed him.

So, two exhortations:

First: No matter whom you supported in the primaries or the general election, no matter whether you think Donald Trump is a great hope for our country or a great danger, thank God that you live in a country where such peaceful transitions take place. Thank God that past presidents of both parties publicly welcomed the new president. Thank God for His mercy in allowing this country to continue these democratic traditions despite our many sins and failures.

Second: Remember these words of the Apostle Paul, quoted today at the inauguration by Franklin Graham:

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:1-6a).

Paul urges us to pray for those in high positions of civil authority. Why? So that instead of having life and livelihood threatened daily by government officials or marauding bands, we might live peaceful lives of witness to the truth of our Lord Jesus, proclaiming His redemption and living out His love.

Remember: Paul wrote these words when Nero was emperor of Rome. He prayed for the emperor and commanded others to pray for the emperor not out of political support, but out of Christian obligation.

So regardless of your politics, pray for President Trump. Pray for the Vice President, for cabinet officials, for others of high position. Pray for wisdom. Pray for repentance. Pray for humility. Pray for peace in our land and effectiveness in bringing peace around the world.

And pray that in this peace, the Gospel might go forth as a testimony to all nations, so that the end may then come (Matthew 24:14), and our Lord might return, ushering in His eternal Kingdom of righteousness and peace – the ultimate, once-and-for-all transition of power. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

 

Do Our Actions Please God?

January 6, 2017

How can you please God?

Can you please Him by working on His behalf?

We often think: If we would just witness more (or more effectively); if we would just give more to the church, or attend services more regularly, or pray more, or help the poor more diligently then God would be pleased with us.

Is that right?

Consider what Jesus said to His disciples after interacting with the Samaritan woman, telling her He was the longed-for Messiah: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

Jesus has quoted Deuteronomy previously, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus loves the word of His Father. He delights to do His will. He finds sustenance and satisfaction and fulfillment in accomplishing the Father’s plan. So, in this particular case, He found joy and sustenance from seeing this woman whose life was a wreck come to saving faith as He shared the Good News of the coming of the promised Christ.

So Jesus found joy in following God. Surely we too should find joy in following Him.

But what about the flip side of that truth? Does our activity, our accomplishment, our obedience please God?

We have to be careful here. Scripture makes some subtle but vital distinctions in this area. Consider, for example, Psalm 147:10-11:

His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the legs of a man,
but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.

We never impress God. However strong we may be, however great our accomplishments might appear, God doesn’t jump up and down, saying, “Awesome! I’m so happy you did that! Do it again! Show me what you can do!”

Instead, what gives God pleasure? He rejoices in our dependence on Him, in our acknowledgment of His power and authority, in our trusting in His love for us and commitment to us.

Furthermore, consider 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” That is, God’s will is for you to be made holy. For you to be set apart for Him. For you to be like Him, like Christ.

So putting these biblical thoughts together: We, like Jesus, delight to do God’s will and to accomplish His work. But God’s work and God’s will include not only actions on our part, but also our becoming like Jesus: Having patience, love, kindness, devotion, endurance, gentleness, piety, and self-control. So He desires us to become like Jesus – and for us to help others to become like Jesus. That never happens through our own strength, through our own will-power, through “the strength of a horse” or “the legs of a man.” No. That only happens as we devour His Word, as we depend on His grace, as we submit to His wisdom, as we rejoice in His love. Activity in and of itself does not honor Him. Becoming Christlike and acting Christlike honor Him.

So, no, in and of itself working on God’s behalf does not please Him. He takes no delight in my puny strength, my puny abilities, my puny accomplishments.

But God takes great joy in our fulfilling His purposes for us – as we become more like Jesus inside and outside, in thoughts and attitudes as well as in words and deeds.

So by all means witness – out of the overflow of your joy in Christ. Give generously – knowing all you have is a grant from God to be used for His glory. Worship corporately – in spirit and in truth. Help the poor – with the compassion of Christ for the glory of Christ. Become like Jesus – and act like Him. This is how you can please God.