Sunday, July 22, 2012

Drought, National Sin and National Repentance: Both Sin and Repentance Start with the Church

Two days ago, my friend David Epps of Topeka wrote in an e-mail he sent to me (and to his mailing list):

If you haven't already, start praying about this in your church, your home group, your prayer circle, and your personal prayer times. Call regional prayer meetings. In the Bible, drought is always associated with judgment when God's people have drifted away from Him. He is calling us back to Him. It's not just our nation that has strayed, it's the American Church.

What will it take for the Lord to get our attention? More earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, economic hardship, terrorism, and political upheaval? More drought?

In his e-mail, Pastor Epps provides links to some very convincing online resources about the extent of the drought in the U.S. For instance, there is a map prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and posted on the Drought Monitor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that shows quite graphically that two-thirds of the country, including all of the major corn and soybean producing areas, are suffering drought conditions presently. In many of these areas, the drought is moderate to extreme or even “exceptional.” (Topeka itself, where Pastor Epps and I live, is in an “extreme” drought area that has a lot of crops burning up). On the other hand, the 12-Week Animation on the same site shows how drought has spread over the center of the country in the last 3 months—an image that is really quite convincing that a hand larger than our own is at work. Finally, the “Objective short term drought indicator” gives some approximation of how little the drought is likely to respond to a few short-term showers in various locations. A longer-term increase in precipitation is needed—and seems unlikely to come quickly enough to prevent massive crop failure this year, as Jason Samenow notes in a Washington Post blog entry. This will be felt as higher prices for the affluent, and famine for the poor in America this fall and beyond, though how effectively we will be able to keep the plight of the poor in this famine hidden, quiet and non-violent remains to be seen. (Times were already hard, and much of the world seems to be rioting right now.) This fact pattern certainly has the same appearance as many of the Biblical examples of God’s judgment of His people.

In support of his statement, Pastor Epps also quotes the following well-known verse, which is commonly glibly quoted to ask for attendance at prayer meetings and Christian political “events,” then ignored in its other details:

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place. (2 Chronicles 7:13-15)

I note that this verse is often used to promote political “events” among Christians in the U.S. to highlight Pastor Epps’ insight into the real problem. He is not calling for anything political. He recognizes that the problem isn’t political, and won’t be fixed by political action to wipe out what Christians perceive as social evils. Instead, the problem originates with sin in the Church. In reaching the conclusion that the nation’s economic problems actually originate in the Church, Pastor Epps is in agreement with my article “A warning concerning idolatry,” which I posted in October 2000 and which has, unfortunately, never in the intervening years been shown wrong.

However, my pastor friend has suggested only a part part of the solution. He wants churches to call prayer meetings. But if all we do is have prayer meetings, all we will have done is to hold some more religious “events.” Instead, we need to pay attention to all of the instructions of 2 Chronicles 7:14-15. God didn’t just tell Israel to respond to drought, famine and plague with prayer. He also told them to humble themselves, to seek God’s face, and to repent--to “turn from their wicked ways.”

Humility is necessary because it is the contrary of the underlying attitude of sin: pride and self-sufficiency. This comes in several forms. There is the pride that boasts of what I have and what I have accomplished, not recognizing—or outright rejecting—that it is God who gave it to me. Rom. 1:20-24, 28; I John 2:16. There is the pride, like that the tempter induced in Adam and Eve, which says I know better than God how to run my own life. This pride leads to individual self-sufficiency: if I make my own decisions, ignoring God, that makes me like God, a god unto myself. See, Gen. 3:4-6. The closing stanza of William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus” perfectly epitomizes this attitude: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” Finally, when people living in individual self-sufficient pride recognize that they are, individually, not sufficient, instead of returning to God as their source, the tendency is to partially substitute collective self-sufficiency for individual self-sufficiency. This is the “Doctrine of Babel” of which I have previously written. As a larger culture, we still believe ourselves collectively capable of building towers to heaven—whether through science, through our governmental and corporate institutions, or simply through our collective cultural expressions of defiance—to bring God down. On the other hand, while the American Church is not in outward and active defiance of God, as a group we still tend to trust in our collective institutions—government, corporations, private charities and religious organizations—to meet our needs. We tend to look to these institutions first, rather than to God. This is pride. It needs to be counteracted with humility.

Humility, thus, leads directly to turning to God. The Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “turned from idols to serve the living and true God.” I Thess. 1:9. To be effective, these two must occur simultaneously. We must turn from our idols—ultimately, worship and service of ourselves and our institutions—and simultaneously turn to service of the true God. This is the only course that avoids judgment. As I have explained elsewhere, God is light, and if we are walking away from Him in service of ourselves, we are walking in darkness. Stumbling into judgment is the expected result of walking in darkness; indeed it can be said that our blindness while walking in the darkness is the beginning of our judgment. If we turn around, and start walking in God’s light, we will then begin to see clearly our way out of judgment. But if we turn around, and start walking in God’s way, in the light, our behavior will change. This is repentance.

Repentance addresses the sins that keep us from God. But what are the sins of the Church? Surprisingly, the primary sins of the Church which are both causes and symptoms of God’s judgment, are not, as some may think, a lack of religious works, the abortion rate in our (no longer Christian) culture, tolerance of homosexuality, declining church attendance, inadequate church offerings, or the failure of our organized political action to maintain control of our government. Rather, the primary sins of which the Church must repent involve greed and its glorification in Christian circles, arrogance and its glorification in Christian circles, the abandonment of truth in favor of comfortable lies (yes, even in the Church), our robbery and mistreatment of each other, our approval in practice of lying, slander and gossip (what are we saying about our political leaders?), and our indifference toward the poor. I posted some years ago a fairly exhaustive set of quotations from Old Testament prophecies that show that God judged his people Israel for exactly these things—they abandoned Him, exalted themselves (through various idols), and started to mistreat and oppress each other. (See, “Prophecies for America”). We have no reason to expect that God will treat America better than His own chosen nation, when God’s people in America (the church) are involved in or approve and glorify the same things that brought judgment to Israel.