In whose presence do I walk? In whose hall do I enter? He is the one who burns with all-consuming fire. He knows all and sees all, including every detail of my life that shames me. Each is well-lit, easily seen by His eyes. Yet, He lavishes me with grace. He pours love over me. He died and rose so that I might live and walk here in His presence. Here I stand–trembling boldly in His presence.
I see the panic in some people’s eyes. I see the confusion. They seem to be saying, “What happened? I thought we were a Christian nation.”
The point of this blog post is not to debate if the Founding Fathers of the United States of America founded it as a Christian nation. The answer to that question seems to depend on the perspective from which one begins. Clearly, in the early 1800s, Christianity in its Protestant and comparatively speaking, evangelical form, had an enormous influence over the direction of the country. What some stand in shock of today, the loss of that influence, began gradually in the late 1800s, but it has accelerated exponentially in recent years. In other words, we shouldn’t be shocked.
Also, we should not panic. On one hand, we should not retreat from the public square, build walls around what remains of us, and scream and shout at those outside. The Pagan Empire that I refer to in the title is not the USA but rather the Roman Empire. Christianity has been in this situation before today. In fact, it thrived there. It may thrive again if we prove ourselves to be faithful, which brings me to the other hand.
We must not give in to the temptation to compromise with the world, to heed the call to “modernize” or “post-modernize” or whatever philosophy rules this month. So-called progressive Christians who encourage us to compromise with the world so that we can continue to have a voice are terribly deceived. First of all, to compromise Biblical truth in exchange for worldly influence (yes, some conservative, fundamental Christians are guilty of this as well) is not progress but regression. Also, historically, such assumptions have proven false. Sociologists Peter Finke and Rodney Starke in their book, The Churching of America 1776-2005, point out that the churches that thrived in the USA were “aggressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness.”(Finke and Starke, 2005, p. 1) They also assert that those churches and denominations that “rejected traditional doctrines” and “ceased to make serious demands of their followers” declined.
So, the the first step for Christians and churches to thrive in our present situation is to accept it for one it is. We are one voice among many competing voices, some of which also claim to speak for Christianity. We live in a pluralistic nation, but we do not accept pluralism. (For a more in-depth discussion of that last sentence please find and read the book that I reviewed here.) Yet, we have the right to speak (at least for now) and to proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us do so faithfully and boldly. And let us learn from Scripture–from those who came before us–how to live as Christians in a “pagan” world.
Over the next several days or weeks (I don’t know yet), I will write blog posts about Scripture passages that speak to how we should relate to government and society, even when both stand against us. Today, I dealt with the first step we must take–accept reality for what it is. We do not live in a Christian nation, nor do Christians have the influence that they once enjoyed.
Our priority is to share the Gospel and make disciples. But the Bible says other things about how to relate to those around us. What will follow are steps that have no particular order. I hope to write a blog post on each one.
- Pray for leaders, for our nation, and for the church.
- What the Bible says about paying taxes.
- What the Bible says about obeying laws.
- What the Bible says about doing right to all people.
- What the Bible says about the priority of obeying God above all others.
- What happens when the price for following God is high.
*Yes, I am using Christian here to refer to conservative, evangelical Christianity. Yes, I know there is a broader meaning. I do not mean to exclude so much as not to have to explain what I mean in every paragraph.
Why? Why should a Christian memorize, study, and read Scripture? Why should a follower of Jesus pray and fast? What should motivate us to discipline ourselves spiritually?
In his classic work, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald S. Whitney looks to 1 Timothy 4:7 for a purpose for discipline. “But have nothing to do with irreverent and silly myths. Rather, train yourself in godliness…” (1 Timothy 4:7, HCSB). Godliness is a desirable result. We can endure a great deal when we feel the result is worth it.
For example, I occasionally feel the motivation to get into better physical shape. I just started week four of my latest surge of motivation. I’m jogging and doing exercise. Do I enjoy it? No, I have every second of it. I am not one of those people who would post on social media, “I just ran 10 miles and feel great.” If I were honest, I would be more likely to write, “I just ran maybe two miles, and I feel the dry heaves coming on.” Still, I feel motivated because I desire the results—better health and more energy.
So, the end result can motivate us, but when it comes to spiritual disciplines, I want to suggest that the motivation for godliness begins somewhere else. Godliness in the context of 1 Timothy 4 is a deep sense of devotion to God. It is a desire to do what pleases Him and to be with Him. It is a desire for God Himself.
Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commands.” (John 14:15, HCSB) The motivation for godliness begins with love toward God. Because we love Him, we desire to spend time with Him through His Word and prayer. We desire to please Him (to keep His commands) because we love Him. Spiritual disciplines are not acts of duty or drudgery, but acts of love toward God.
There are days that I struggle with being down. One may look at me and my situation and say, “Well, you have a right to be.” However, there are many who have much more right than I do. There are those who have experienced horrific trauma. There are brothers and sisters in Christ who face real persecution and threats of violence, because they follow Jesus. There are others who because chemical imbalances in their body need medical intervention to help them with their depression.
None of those situations describe me. God has blessed me beyond what I deserve. So, what right do I have to feel depressed? I can ask with the Psalmist, “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?”
That question is a repeated refrain in Psalms 42 and 43. The Psalmist answers his own question: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Apart from circumstances such as those I mentioned above, feeling down can be a sign of a misplaced hope. We hope for change in circumstances, for change in someone else, for someone to notice, for help to come, or any number of things. But God asks us—commands us—to hope in Him.
The first step out of a downcast spirit is toward God. Psalm 42 begins with the Psalmist expressing his absolute desperation to restore nearness with God. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?”
Being downcast is a sign that we desperately need to draw close to God. When I struggle with being down, it is warning light that I need to renew my thirst for God. It is sign that I have misplaced hope. Every disciple’s first urge of each day should be to drink deeply in God’s presence. It is there that we move our hope back to Him. It is there that we look beyond a nearsighted view of our circumstances toward the long view of an eternity that is in God’s hands. Even those experiencing trauma, persecution, and clinical depression have hope when they begin there.
If that is where their hope begins, can the rest of us believe that we can start someplace else? Let us look up from our circumstances, look away from misplaced sources of hope, and toward our hope found in God alone through His Son, Jesus Christ. Let us help others find eternal hope in Him as well.
Doctrinally Correct Yet Lifeless
We repeat the words so often that they become dry, thought-free, emotion-free, and lifeless if we are not careful. We pray, “Thank You for saving me by your grace. Thank You for sending Jesus. Thank You that He died for my sins. Amen.”
Doctrinally, that prayer is perfect. God saves us by grace. Jesus came. He died for our sins. But does the doctrine have life in us? Are we in awe of what those words really mean?
Renewing Awe with God’s Word
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1 (ESV)
Jesus is the Word. He was with God and was God, and has been and is eternally God. This Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14) The apostle Paul described it in this way:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5–8 (ESV)
Touching Heart and Mind with Truth
We pray the words because we know the truth. We need to let that truth also shape the response of our hearts. God the Son who created all things did not stay in heaven and leave us in our sin to face an eternal hell because of our rebellion. He became a man.
The Son of God was not born to wealth, but into the family of working class parents. He was not born to a powerful nation but to one that was conquered and was oppressed. He did not live in luxury but had no place to rest His head. (Matthew 8:20) He did not hang out with the rich and famous in the centers of power but walked with fishermen and ate with the outcasts and sinners in rural towns.
The Son of God did not lead a political movement. He did not raise an army. He did not overthrow a government. He did not abuse women or children. He did not use His authority and power for his own gain. He made disciples of a small group of men. He taught them all that they were to do after He left this world. He made a people. He lifted up all those around him. He lived a selfless life and a sinless life.
And at the end of it, He was executed on the cross for crimes and sins that He did not do. He died for the sins that I did. He died the death that I deserved. The Word was with God. The Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the Word died in my place. That is the Gospel. That is the good news, the message of first importance.
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 (ESV)
Praying with a Heart to Match the Doctrine
With all that truth running through our hearts and minds we should pray. “Thank You for saving me by your grace. Thank You for sending Jesus. Thank You that He died for my sins.” Awe at God’s grace should fill our praying.