Dominus Regnavit: Donald Trump and the Idolatry of Politics

Dominus RegnavitLast week Wednesday signified a paradigmatic shift for America and perhaps the whole world. Though I personally followed the electoral race closely, in TIME – explaining my incredulity that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton – discussions and debates around the two candidates were unavoidable, even on the distant shores of South Africa. When the result was announced my social media feeds exploded, with everyone seeming to feel that their opinion now needed to be heard. But the American system (that is, the electoral college and not the slim majority who voted Clinton) has elected Trump president for the next 4 years, regardless of how much people spew and spit online. There are no take-backs, despite some of the drivel being shared online that suggests otherwise. Instead of contributing to the sound and fury, largely signifying nothing, I found myself looking for meaningful commentary on the results and America’s future, even the future of geopolitics.

In God’s providence I was down to preach Psalm 97 last Sunday. The psalm has the Latin title Dominus Regnavit, meaning ‘the LORD reigns,’ but you do not have to be able to read Latin, for the first verse says just that. Belonging to a small collection within the psalter (Psalms 93-100), the psalmist is celebrating God’s cosmic kingship; James Hutchinson says these kingship psalms reassure God’s people that Yahweh is “the world’s Creator-Ruler-Judge” (The Psalter as a Book). Preaching on Sunday, I commented on how many Christians are taking to social media to remind each other that the LORD is still enthroned, even though Trump will take the helm of America in January. Unfortunately, my guess is that the truth that God reigns is only being touted by those who feel they lost in these elections. But God’s sovereign rule and ordering of our world should always determine our confidence for the future, win or lose. Our God is enthroned: “justice and righteousness are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:2), and the heavens speak of his justice (97:6). For the Christian this is not a cliché, but real assurance that God is working all things for his glory and good of those who love him. And for the Christians who voted Trump it is a corrective, reminding them where their real hope lies. That the LORD reigns is not cheap consolation for the political losers, nor is it to be confused with the rulers of the political winners.

Christians ought to know this. But then why are so many speaking as if they do not? The answer can be found in Timothy Keller’s excellent work on idols, Counterfeit Gods (see his chapter titled The Power and the Glory). Keller observes how American politics has become hugely popular and powerful idol. The indications he cites are numerous, with all of them having been remarkably apparent in the recent elections. The opposition – candidates and policies – are demonized. Despair, bordering on a kind of existential death, is felt by supporters, when the result does not match their hopes; they can be heard exclaiming “This is the end! There is no hope,” in defeat. Fear and disillusionment flow from an unfounded dependence on the outcome. Reactions to the results are extreme, with people openly talking about emigration. Observing the trends is fascinating, but Keller goes deeper, arguing that the overblown hype and radical expectations are the result of investing in political leaders the kind of hope that was once reserved for God and the work of the gospel. He then quotes philosopher Al Wolters, “The main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identity something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of something that cannot be the ultimate good.” The heated and hateful fallout in America – and across the world – only reveals that we struggle to believe that the LORD reigns. We look to our idols for the security that he provides.

William BlakeRussell Moore makes a similar point to Keller in an article well worth reading, “The most important lesson we should learn is that the church must stand against the way politics has become a religion, and religion has become politics. We can hear this idolatrous pull even in the apocalyptic language used by many in this election.” The religion of politics will in the end thoroughly disappoint those who hoped in it, for ‘all who worship idols are put to shame, those who make their boast in anything that is not God’ (Psalm 97:7). Again, that verse cuts both ways, comforting the losers and warning the winners. The Christian takes their stand first with the LORD who reigns, rejoicing in his universal dominion (97:1, 12) and resting in his just judgments (97:8). These emotions do not leave no space for feelings of anxiety, wariness, and deep concern, but they must temper them. Dominus Regnavit.

What Easter Teaches Us About Prayer

Timothy Keller muses, in Prayer, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure than ours is today. Yet in these prayers you see not one petition for a better emperor, for protection from marauding armies, or even for bread for the next meal. Paul does not pray for the goods we usually would have near the top of our lists of requests.”

Giotto - Kiss of JudasThe point, as Keller goes on to develop, is not that we should never appeal to our heavenly Father for change or respite during hardship and suffering, but that we must take care that our prayers are neither limited to nor led by these requests. As Paul writes in a verse most readers will be familiar with, “In every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul then provides the antidote for anxiety, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Prayer is entrusting ourselves in faith to God, not necessarily receiving our petitions, but knowing his peace. But what does that have to do with Easter?

In Gethsemane, Jesus models prayer that is submissive to the Father’s will despite remaining unanswered. As Mark Jones puts it in Knowing Christ, “He knew his hour had come; but this ‘hour’ would be his most difficult hour, and he would need strength from God to undergo the massive trial that was yet before him.” As I wrote in another post, Jesus is neither valiant nor stoical as he prepares himself for the task at hand. He pleads with the Father. He begs, “Let this cup pass from me.” His soul was deeply pained (Mark 14:34) and he experienced agony as he prayed (Luke 22:44). The disciples had not seen their master looking more pitiable and pained. Jesus looks weak. However, his faith is strong as he prays, “Not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith is not challenged by unanswered prayer; it is evident through it.

Giotto - CrucifixionIn his short prayer, offered up three times, Jesus boldly entreats his Father yet is ultimately resigned to the Father’s will. And it is striking that as his enemies approach to arrest him, Jesus’ resignation turns to resolve, to fortified trust his God and Father. When the band of soldiers call for Jesus, he confidently answers, “I am he” (John 18:5). That shift takes place so quickly that we rarely appreciate what has happened. Prayer has emboldened Jesus’ faith despite being denied what he asked for. Prayer was Jesus’ means of entrusting himself to the Father’s will. Despite the God forsakenness that Jesus anticipates beyond his arrest and trial, having pleaded with the Father to take the cup from him, Jesus’ prayers ground his trust in the Father’s purposes.

Reflecting on Jesus’ prayers should cause us to reflect on and even change our own, both how we pray and what we pray for. The content of our prayers should not be entirely shaped by our circumstances. Our faithfulness in prayer should not depend on God answering us. As Jesus asked in Luke 18, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Many today would measure faith by the outcomes of prayer, when in Jesus’ life we see that faith is wholehearted trust in God despite its results.

Three books from 2012

person-reading-a-book-226x300It is no secret: there are times when I love books more than people. Because I spend so much time reading I thought that I should offer some book suggestions, not summaries, from last year. The three books that I have chosen were those that I found most significant for my Christian life, the content of them was both practical and pressing. I pray that these brief caveats will encourage thoughtful reading and application to your own lives.

ministriesmercyMinistries of Mercy by Timothy Keller. Admittedly, if not obviously, my appreciative venture into this book is long overdue. But even though the 2nd edition was published 15 years ago it seems, because it hit bookstore shelves before Keller was in vogue, that it has been largely overlooked. And that is a great pity. Without getting entrenched in the war over word ministry and social work, Keller takes us beyond theological nuts and bolts to make it apparent one cannot function without the other. Sure, they can exist without each other, but only in an impoverished form of Christian life. I was immensely challenged by Keller’s clear application of the gospel to motivate generous love that partners the gospel truth. Furthermore, the book is heavily weighted with plain, practical advice for Christians, both individually and corporately, to put structures into place for ministries of mercy. You may not agree with everything Keller writes, but I think that much of our resistance to what he is saying is our own hardness towards gospel motivated works, the kind that Jesus said would make the church stand out from its surrounding society. They are an inconvenience, difficult and time consuming. Yet, as Keller clearly articulates, God’s people who have grasped grace should be at the forefront of this work.

bookreview-next-challiesThe Next Story by Tim Challies. This book, which I also got to reading later than many, is Challies’ exploration of the relationship between technology, especially social networking and online communication, and the Christian faith. Perhaps one of the reasons I found this book such a helpfully insightful read is because I have long felt  that we are becoming increasingly enslaved to our technology, idolising communication and convenience, as well as outsourcing knowledge – or memory – to data stores. This has, in my opinion, damaged Christian fellowship and hindered the deep, intimate, and personal relationships that God created us for. While it is a bugbear for me, Challies has worked hard at locating the place of technology in our lives – for it’s too late to revert to how things were before, Graham said nostalgically – and he challenges Christians to think with theological discernment regarding the internet, time spent in the digital world, lives that are interrupted and disjointed by technology, and our dependence on (tending towards idolatry of) immediate or instant communication. As with Keller, this book will disturb and challenge you. We always assume that progress is good, but the reminder of this book is that it always depends on how we make use of it, whether we become its slave or wield it in our service of God.

Lit!Lit by Tony ReinkeThe people who need to read this book more than everyone else are those who don’t read. I often find myself bemoaning Christians’ fixation with terrible literature or functional illiteracy. If Christians would just read Reinke’s book I believe that our sluggish apathy towards reading, with theological thoughtfulness, would be upended. I don’t remember if Reinke makes the point, but when one looks over church history you will notice that wherever the gospel went, literacy and education dovetailed. But today our engagement with other worldviews and contemporary culture is limited to tabloids, tweets, television sitcoms, and news-bytes. If you are a reader, which is quite likely since you’ve made it this far through my post, then Reinke’s book will aid you in establishing sound theology for reading. As an avid reader, he helps plan a reading schedule that will assure giving the right amount of time to different types of literature. The book is broken up into theory and practice of reading. If you don’t read, then I would challenge you to read the first half: a theology of reading. In closing, reading is a discipline and being unfit for it, finding the stimulation unnecessary or time unavailable, might shed light on your Bible reading, or lack thereof. Revealed biblical truth is our touchstone, but very few Christians in the past have stopped there, and I would go as far to say it pleases God when we become thoughtfully engaged with literature, seeing it through gospel eyes.