Depth of Insight

During my sabbatical, two experiences occurring within three days of each other reminded me of a text in Philippians, and how challenging it is to walk with discernment in today’s complex world.

This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.               Philippians 1:9–11

Experience #1

For some time, Micki has had a heartfelt longing to greet our returning troops. We finally went up to BWI and joined Operation Welcome Home for an afternoon, preparing bags of snacks and waiting for the plane to arrive with 240 soldiers and sailors.

Unlike the current war in Afghanistan, I have never believed that the second Iraq War was justified. But my political views about the war take nothing from my admiration for the men and women of our armed forces, and the families who must get by without them. They have sacrificed a great deal to fight the evil of terrorism, and I am grateful to them beyond words.

What a thrill to greet each one with loud applause as he or she came through customs, shaking hands, welcoming them home, thanking them for their service and asking God to bless them. They are all heroes, and deserve to be greeted as such on their return.

Experience #2

The following Sunday, I traveled to Washington DC to attend a prayer meeting sponsored by an organization I support, Barnabas Aid. Barnabas Aid exists to support persecuted Christians anywhere in the world. At the prayer meeting were leaders of the churches of Iraq and Syria, in our country to meet with members of Congress.

One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, Iraqi Christians lived in relative stability under Saddam Hussein. While Hussein was a monster in many ways, he had no interest in persecuting Christians. In fact, Hussein’s Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Chaldean Catholic.

Since the war, all that has changed. The country has disintegrated into a civil upheaval of the major factions, none of whom have any interest in respecting native Christians. Christians have been widely threatened, killed and dispossessed. The British leader of the prayer meeting I attended personally saw a young Christian publicly crucified in the center of Basara, while the Coalition military leader he was visiting indicated that they were committed to not intervene. The Christian population has gone from 1.5 million (in 1990) to 400,000 – many now live in Syrian ghettos, as they forfeited all their belongings and savings. Their plight has received very little coverage in our news media, and less comment by our leaders. They are one of saddest examples of collateral damage in the war against terrorism.

So, in the span of several days: welcoming our troops home as heroes, and then asking God’s forgiveness for the way our nation inadvertently opened a door for the persecution of those who bear Christ’s name.

It would be nice if all moral issues were simple. As it is, we need depth of insight to discern what is best.

Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven?

On April 21st, CNN referred to a Facebook page consisting of a tongue-in-cheek prayer asking God to take President Obama’s life. As of the writing of this blog, 1,145,231 people “like” this page.

While I am sad to see yet another hyper-polarized political response, I am more concerned with the support registered by Christians. Some even assert that Psalm 109:8 justifies such a prayer.

May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership.

I am very concerned about this, especially since “may his days be few” is clearly explained in the next verse as death.

Please understand that I am not a fanboy of the President. I appreciate some of his initiatives and take issue with others. I respectfully communicate my thoughts directly to him and to my congressional representatives. He has an impossible job, and I would not want it.

The main reason I am concerned is not political. I am concerned because I sense a very serious misunderstanding about how to interpret the Bible in general, and how to pray for our leaders in particular. Please take these remarks, then, not as a political argument, but rather as the comments of a pastor concerned for brothers and sisters whom I love and respect. So I will comment first on Psalm 109, and then more generally on imprecatory prayer (prayers that invoke curses).

I went through all of David’s psalms again to put Psalm 109 in context. The vicious attacks of his enemies were one of David’s most frequent subjects. Most of the time, those enemies were nations and their armies, but sometimes his prayers focused on political enemies among God’s people. David’s pattern was very consistent. Over and over, David cited the desires and intent of his enemies, and then asked God to bring upon those people essentially the same things they wanted to bring upon him.

In the case of Psalm 109, verses 6-18 are a summary of the things wicked men were saying against David, things which David asks God to instead visit upon them (cf. vv. 18-20). David summarized similar sentiments against him elsewhere. In fact, notice how David’s words in Psalm 41:5 closely parallel those Psalm 109:8-9.

My enemies say of me in malice, “When will he die and his name perish?”

This explains the stress in verses 9 and 10 on the destruction of David’s children – a wish by his enemies not only to end David’s life, but also his dynasty.

It is important to understand that David’s pattern was not to invent arbitrary curses to call down on his enemies. Rather, he first reflected to God what his enemies were saying or doing against him, and then in essence asked God to turn their curses back upon them. That is what David is doing in Psalm 109:8, and why that verse was referenced in Acts 1 to speak of Judas, who bought a field with his blood money reward and found that his true reward was death.

This makes Psalm 109 one of David’s many applications of a basic Old Testament summary of justice.

If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.   Leviticus 24:19-20

A fundamental definition of justice in the Old Testament is that a person’s “reward” should exactly mirror what he or she has earned. Those who do right should be proportionally rewarded, while those who do wrong should be proportionally punished. This is exactly how God will judge the world one day (cf. Romans 2:6-16).

However – and this is important – before Judgment Day, this kind of retribution is both required of, and limited to, the authority of civil government.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.
Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.   Romans 13:1-4

Why is this the authoritative function of government? Because since the Fall, God has temporarily suspended the weight of his divine judgment upon the human race in order to establish and spread his gospel of grace. Because of that, God authorizes human government to put boundaries around sin so it can’t again rise to the level it once did in Genesis 6. God raises up every governmental leader to administer a taste of his righteousness until Judgment Day – every leader, from Nero to Lincoln. (And a nation’s prosperity depends in part on how well its leaders do their job.)

David sought the condemnation of evildoers because that was his job as King. Because of his office, it was his responsibility to ask God to glorify himself by judging those who wished evil against God’s Anointed King. He wasn’t speaking personally as a citizen; he was speaking as the King. (Note that before he was King, he refused to seek personal retribution against King Saul).

It is true that Christians share in Christ’s kingly office, and part of that office is the judgment of the world (Luke 22:28-30), but we will not take part in that until Jesus does, himself (Revelation 6:9-11).

In this age, the administration of retribution is forbidden to private individuals. In particular, Jesus’ commands his followers …

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”   Matthew 7:1-2

It does not matter whether or not they are friends of the gospel.

The people [in a Samaritan village] did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them.   Luke 9:51-56

It does not even matter whether we consider them our enemies.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”   Matthew 5:43-44

Notice that Jesus specifically instructs us that the business of retribution accurately summarized in the Old Testament is off limits (outside of government) to anyone who wants to follow him.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”   Matthew 5:38-42

So how are we supposed to pray for our leaders? We don’t have to wonder; we are clearly told.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-3

Paul taught this in the context not of a Lincoln but of a Nero. He prayed for Nero – not that God would destroy him but that God would bless him, thanking God for raising up someone for the purpose of curbing sin. Why? Because as important as the deficit and health care and housing prices and foreign policy are, what is most important is the simple social stability that allows Christians to bring a taste of Christ’s kingdom into our hurting world. And if we aren’t willing to use every opportunity we already have to minister God’s grace, what difference would more prosperity or a better foreign policy make in the perspective of eternity, anyway?

In America, we are free to debate social issues as robustly as we like. We are free to participate vigorously in the election of those who lead us. We are free to disagree with policies and argue for alternatives. Christians have a perspective the fallen nations need to hear, and we honor God by courageously sharing it, openly declaring what is good and what is evil. There is even room for civil disobedience, when giving Caesar his due must give way to giving God what is due him.

But it is a serious mistake for Christians in this age to call down judgment upon anyone, especially civil leaders. Did Daniel pray for Nebuchadnezzar’s death? Did Esther ask God to strike down Xerxes? Did Jesus pray for Pilate’s ruin? Can anyone imagine Paul “liking” that Facebook page?

As for prayer, we may humbly ask God to forgive us our national sins – in which we all have a share. We may ask God for just and wise leaders, perhaps even better leaders than we deserve. We may ask God to guide the leaders he has already given us, and graciously overrule their folly. We may pray for Christ’s return, when perfect judgment will be rendered.

But asking God to send fire from heaven before that day is sure to earn us the same rebuke given to the original disciples.