God Bless America

An article I saw recently asked the question “What if God doesn’t want America to be great again?”

It’s a thought-provoking question. The point is not that God might want America’s destruction (I don’t for one second believe that He does), but that our ideas of what “greatness” looks like might be different to His.

Are secure borders, a strong military and a powerful economy what make a nation great in His sight? As the article pointed out, Jesus was born into a nation so weak it was actively under military occupation by a pagan foreign nation, to a poor family who could only afford the very smallest celebratory sacrifice prescribed in the Law for a firstborn. The early Church were a persecuted minority even in that nation. Why should we believe that God necessarily wants an America that is militarily and economically powerful even at the expense of righteousness?

Is this greatness?

The world would say so, but I do not believe that this is God’s view of the matter. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”. “When I am weak, then I am strong”. “Do not consider his height or his outward appearance, for I have rejected him. Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart”.

God is omniscient. This is fast becoming my favourite attribute of the Divine nature to talk about, but I think it’s timely. He sees everything as it truly is. No masks, no hiding. His Eye penetrates every smokescreen and half-truth. When we do not conform to His view of a matter, we are disputing the only One who really knows what is true Reality. We’re building on the shifting sand of illusion rather than the solid ground of the Real. We have to conform our ideas of greatness to God’s, otherwise we are being caught up in an illusory snare.

What might an America that is truly great in God’s sight look like?

A place where there truly is “liberty and justice for all”. A place of real equality of opportunity, no-one denied their opportunities for advancement or basic dignity as a human being made in the image of God on the basis of the shape of their reproductive organs, the colour of their skin or any other external factors. Honest pay for honest work. Employers being required to give just wages to their employees. No-one being required to shoulder the burden of selfish parasites who game the system, whether they bear the label of employee or employer.

Truth in our media, why not? No more misleading claims or outright falsehoods from our politicians, our advertisers or anyone else. A news industry that is more interested in publishing the truth than prolonging a problem or selling a story. A nation of forthright integrity, where a man’s word is their bond and where no-one takes credit for the good done by another or blames their own fault on someone else.

A nation whose abundance of resources are a source of blessing not just to a rich and powerful few, but to every citizen and overflowing into the world. Where we steward the good land that He has entrusted to us, tempering the real need for economic development and employment with our responsibility to preserve our vast natural wonders for the next seven generations and more.

A nation that recognises its role as a world leader as a role of service in the world; a nation that is a leader in compassion and justice, that engages in this fallen world in a way that promotes Godly freedom and opposes Satanic tyranny where it finds it. A promoter of true and lasting peace, not the “peace at any price” compromise with darkness or the harsh “peace” of the gun, but a peace built on justice and equity.

A nation whose entertainment industry is no longer a byword in the world for brazen lasciviousness and immorality, but for honest, clean fun and real thought-provoking stories.

An America we can all be proud of.

I offer this as a shining image we can all aspire to. Even this Brit. I’d be honoured to be a part of that America; who wouldn’t? Who cares if it comes about under someone calling themselves a Republican or someone calling themselves a Democrat; they aren’t going to be the ones responsible for it anyway. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes”.

Feel free to disagree with some of my details, too. I’m not claiming prophetic insight here; I’m using my imagination. God gave you one also; if you don’t like my interpretation of an America that’s great in God’s sight, use it to prayerfully build your own.

This isn’t intended to be a case of the prophet pointing to the actual while holding up the ideal and saying “I have this against you, says the Lord, that you are not that“, either. It’s intended as a goal. Something we can pray towards.

Note my deliberate choice of verbs. This is not something we can achieve at the ballot box; it’s something we can only see if the Lord is gracious enough to send us a true revival. It begins not with the enforced changing of behaviours or the persuasive changing of minds, but with the Holy Spirit-instigated changing of hearts.

Maybe it’s time we took all of that energy and time we spend posting and arguing with political posts on social media, and instead spent them on our knees (metaphorically or literally) in prayer for our God to intervene and, by whatever means He should choose, to bring people to Himself heart and soul and mind and behaviour.

I put it out there as a challenge, and I’m challenging myself as well, because I’m at least as guilty as you are.

And I have a few suggestions for how to sustain it without it becoming rote repetition of a meaningless phrase:

  • Pick an attribute of God’s character – for example, mercy. Think about what it might look like for God’s mercy to be truly reflected in our national institutions. Ask God to make that a reality; that His will truly will be done on Earth, here in America, as it is in heaven. Tomorrow, pick a different one.

  • Pick a national institution or industry, for example the media, or the justice system, or the world of business. Ask God to show you what it might look like if His will was truly being done as it is in heaven. Listen, then ask Him to do it.

  • Live as a citizen of heaven. Praying “Thy will be done” in the nation is all very well, but what if one of the impediments is that His will is not being fully done in your own life? We’re all there to a greater or lesser extent; ask God to help you live out of your new identity in Christ. He’s given you His Holy Spirit; you have the power of the omnipotent God who dwells in His people. You can live a holy life, and do so without being an unpleasant person, too!

  • Get together with others. Following Jesus was never meant to be an individualistic thing divorced from any real fellowship or relationship with other people. We are a people belonging to God; a communion of saints. A real fellowship that begins with being real with one another is a vital part of this following-Jesus thing. And nowhere more so than in prayer! We are coming before our God, the ultimate Reality. We cannot afford to let offences and divisions build until they obscure His image in our fellows.

  • Keep at it! Persistence pays off. Even in Jesus’ parable of the widow faced with an unjust judge who was determined to rob her of her right to justice, the judge relented in the face of her persistence. God is not like that unjust judge, determined to keep us in misery and rob us of His justice. We are asking Him to do something He wants to do! We know that when we do that, we are praying according to His will; let us not give up before we see the fruit. When Elijah prayed for the drought to end, he had to send his servant back to look three times, and at the end the only sign was a cloud as small as a man’s hand. Look for it. Expect it. Live as though the Divine breakthrough is on its way. Be a living avatar of what it will be like then.

I finish with a song. One of only a very few patriotic American songs that I can stand tall as a Brit and sing with a whole heart, in fact:

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam:
God bless America, my home sweet home.
God bless America, my home sweet home.


Debts and Trespasses

When saying the Lord’s Prayer together, as we do every week, the church we currently worship at uses the wording “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.

I don’t know whether this is something that happens across the denomination or whether it’s just our church, but I’ve been saying it almost every week now for a couple of years, and part of me still wants to come out with the traditional wording of “trespasses”. “Debts” and “debtors” still feels weird to me. Not wrong, just weird. Something I’m still not entirely used to.

It’s an interesting choice of wording, and communicates something a little different to the traditional “trespasses” and “those that trespass against us”, and I thought it might be interesting to examine the difference.

“Trespasses” is a term from the conceptual area of land ownership. If you’re on my land without permission, we call that trespassing. In contemporary usage, that’s its only meaning: get off my land.

However, the older translations of the Lord’s Prayer seem to apply it much more widely. The idea is of being in a place where you should not; this may be a physical location, or more metaphorically, setting yourself on the throne and trying to make the decisions for yourself that rightly belong to God. Or invading another’s metaphysical territory; running your own rights over and through someone else’s domain without their permission, or as we would normally describe it, being arrogant and self-centred. Taking liberties with someone. Expecting them to bend to whatever it is you want to do.

Thus, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” carries the sense of asking God to forgive us for the times we try to act in His place or run our own rights over someone else’s domain, as we forgive other people for running roughshod over us and arrogating rights to themselves vis-à-vis us without our necessarily granting them.

Not that we necessarily need to let them continue running roughshod over us, but we do need to forgive them, because we also run our own rights over God’s domain and need forgiveness.

“Debts” and “debtors” carries a rather different connotation.

The idea here is not so much one of rights and ownership but of indebtedness. The idea that we owe God a righteous life, and when we sin it creates a debt. A debt that we cannot pay, because any amount of righteous living is only fulfilment of our obligation; it doesn’t count as a credit.

In the same way, other people can owe us other stuff than money. As human beings made in the image of God, we have a certain intrinsic dignity and worth. And because of this intrinsic worth, we have a right to expect a basic level of kindness and good treatment from others. “As we forgive our debtors” is about our forgiving those who owe us in this regard at least as much as it’s about those who owe us financially. “God, forgive us for what we owe You and other people; we also forgive those who owe us decent treatment.”

Now, the Divine attribute of justice may mean that sometimes we need to stand up for what is right and say to someone “pay what you owe”. The Bible is clear that we are to let no debt remain outstanding; if we owe taxes, we are to pay what we owe. If we owe honour, we are to honour the one we owe the honour to. And similarly, the Bible is very strong on the subject of paying a worker a fair wage for their labour. Forgiving our debtors doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to let underpayment or non-payment of wages continue, for example, any more that forgiving one who has trespassed against us means we need to let the trespass continue. Sometimes it may. We owe God the righteousness we cannot in and of ourselves produce, and because of Jesus He is willing not to count that against us. But equally, Jesus paid our debt. If we reject that payment, preferring to do it ourselves, guess what? God isn’t going to force us to accept what He’s done for us. The debt remains.

So which is right?

This isn’t a case of one wording being right and the other wrong. They are both coming from slightly different places and communicating slightly different ideas, but they’re both right.

I prefer the traditional wording, but that’s mostly because when I’m doing something traditional, like reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I tend to want to go really traditional. “Debts” and “Debtors” says something useful, and so does the traditional “trespasses” vocabulary. Both are a little abstruse at times, but realistically, how many of us that have been praying it all our lives really think about the third possible wording, “forgive us our sins”?

Saying the Lord’s Prayer shouldn’t be merely a comforting ritual. It is, after all, a prayer; we’re talking to God, or supposed to be. It is a ritual, but if it’s only that we’re missing the point.

But if by looking at the wording we pay a little more attention to what we’re praying, that’s a good thing.

Praying for the Nation

Our church is taking part in a “Pray31” time of concerted prayer for America during the 31 days of the month of October. October, obviously, begins today, and so they were handing out the programme’s official prayer guides in the service on Sunday.

Frankly, I’m a little disappointed in the guide, but maybe my expectations were unrealistically high.

Excluding the front and back covers, which are almost purely pictorial and add nothing, content-wise, to the publication, the Pray31 prayer guide is 28 pages long, with an introduction of 6 pages, a map in the middle and a 4-page “taking prayer further” guide to cultivating a lifestyle of prayer at the back. This leaves 18 pages in which to cover 31 days, during which time we must cover 50 states, 7 territories and the District of Columbia.

The guide achieves this by the expedient of covering 4 days of praying in a single double-page spread. Each day’s entry contains a title along the lines of “Day X: Pray for States X and Y”, along with little roundels depicting the flags of the states or territories of the day (as a personal side note, for a country that puts flags everywhere, you surely have a lot of ill-conceived, poorly-designed, ugly ones. Montana, Kansas, Nebraska and 2/3 of the rest, what were you thinking?), two suggested prayer points, one of which is almost always “pray for the leaders and churches of these two states or territories”, and a quotation from this or that Christian teacher or passage of Scripture about prayer.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased we’re praying for America. She needs our prayers as much as any other nation. But some aspects of this initiative are leaving me with raised eyebrows at the least.

On a positive note, they’ve done an excellent job of keeping the guide apolitical and interdenominational, and in a country which tends to politicise its religion and has as strong a sense of its various denominational identities as America does, that’s no small accomplishment. My hat’s off to the organisers in that regard.

It’s a glossy, good-looking guide with high production values, evidently produced with an eye to having a pleasing and professional final product. Again, considering some of the amateurish drivel served up by Christian media, this is an achievement of some value. Someone appears to recognise the power of a polished and professional appearance in terms of being taken seriously.

However, in terms of content I’m rather less impressed.

Probably the thing that most bothers me is the lack of real information to fuel informed and specific prayer. The writers of the prayer guide did not even see fit to include the names of the state governors and senators – 3 names from each state – so that we could pray for them by name. You don’t necessarily have to give details of their political affiliation, else I’m virtually certain that some sections of the American church would spend the whole 31 days praying for the electoral success of those of their own party and the overthrow of the others. But some minimal details, like their names, would be appropriate. It would also be appropriate to provide details such as if a particular state’s political leaders are due to retire or step down, if such is known, so that we can pray both for the outgoing incumbent and the process of electing a replacement.

There are no statistics on things like the percentages of people who call themselves Christians, other major religious communities in the state, average church attendance estimates and that sort of useful data. People collect this information, and if we know that a state has 97% of its population claiming the name of Christ but only 0.3% church attendance, it gives us a direction in which to focus our prayers that is different from the direction which would be indicated by a state with a 37% Christian population, 10.8% church attendance and multiple other religious communities.

Information fuels prayer. It’s not easy to pray in the dark, without anything to go by, but if you know that a particular state is a political swing state with a small Christian population that is actively engaged in the cause of Christ, facing opposition from secularists and other religions, it’s easier. You pray for the church’s witness to be effective, for boldness and gracious, winning words and lifestyles on the part of the believers. If you know that a particular state has massive numbers of people who claim to be Christians but who darken the doors of a church about once every 3 years, you pray for an awakening among those who claim to know Christ but who live as though they were atheists.

Sadly, you’ll hunt a long time in this guide if you’re seeking this sort of information. It just isn’t there, and I find that disappointing.

Of course, part of that is the expectation of the guide that participants will “make the effort” to spend 5 minutes in prayer for America.

Excuse me? When did we become such spiritual lightweights that a mere 5 minutes’ concerted prayer became “effort”? Some of the great reformers prayed fervently for hours on end; our Lord and Saviour prayed until He sweated blood. And we think 5 minutes is a stretch.

Worse, we think that a mere 5 minutes will completely turn the nation around and bring about a great spiritual awakening.

Now, I’m not dissing the effectiveness of prayer. If the rather disunited Church in the USA can come together in united prayer for even 5 minutes, there’s no telling what the Lord will do in gracious response. After all, the Will and initiative does rest with Him.

But to set the bar so low almost offends me. How did we let things get to such an ebb?

Is it the perennial modern problem of expecting instantaneous results? We all seem to bow at the altar of Mercury, god of speed, with our hectic lives and our bigger, faster data plans and our instant diet pills. For some, I suppose, if the guide were to ask for even 15 minutes, it would cause many to cast it aside as an impossible goal.

It seems a ridiculously low bar to set – the equivalent of an ankle-level trip hazard to a hurdler – but as a reading of the “Continuing the Journey of Prayer section in the back begins to make clear, this is evidently intended for those who are ingorant. The section’s seven occasions on which to pray includes much that ought to be blindingly obvious – pray when you are facing needs, pray when you have important decisions to make, pray when you face difficulty – and makes me truly shocked that it was thought needful to devote 4 of the book’s 28 pages to this entry-level material.

How did we get to the point where the Church have to be instructed on the basics of communicating with our Father?

But on the other hand, I suppose you have to start somewhere. At least people are going to be praying. And no-one says you have to pray only for 5 minutes. Even if they did, how would they check up?