Should Christians “Get Even”?

Thanks to Facebook’s “On This Day” feature I was reminded that I wrote and published this post four years ago (on a different blog). At the time Donald Trump was not a politician and so there were no political implications involved. Even in this re-post I am not really posting it for political reasons. Instead, I am re-posting it now because (1) the topic is still relevant in today’s world and so needs theological clarification, which I’m hoping I can provide, and (2) to say that regardless of how you view Trump as a person or as a politician and regardless of how you plan to vote in November, I caution you against falling into his theology and frequent misuse of Scripture.

Donald Trump gave the convocation speech at Liberty University’s earlier this week and it should surprise no one that he said some controversial things. I haven’t listened to the speech, so I don’t have the whole context, but I was taken aback by one line:

“I always say don’t let people take advantage – this goes for a country, too, by the way – don’t let people take advantage. Get even.”

A few people took him to task, calling his comments un-Christian. Trump’s office defended his remark. Cohen, a spokesman for Trump said, “I conferred with Johnny Moore at Liberty University and questioned whether Jesus would ‘get even.’ The answer is ‘he would & he did.’ Johnny explained that the bible is filled with stories of God getting even with his enemies, Jesus got even with the Pharisees and Christians believe that Jesus even got even with Satan by rising from the dead. God is portrayed as giving grace, but he is also portrayed as one tough character – just as Trump stated.”

There’s a lot in this comment and I would like to address each of this points separately:

Did Jesus “Get Even”?

The statement refers to a two examples of Jesus “getting even.” First, it says, He got even with the Pharisees. I’m not sure this is correct to say, at least not in the way we generally speak of getting even. Getting even usually refers to personal vengeance. “You hit me so I will hit you.” I can think of no examples in the Gospels where Jesus responds with personal vengeance, towards the Pharisees or towards anyone else. Jesus definitely spoke hard words to the Pharisees. He called them “white-washed tombs” and called out their sin of hypocrisy. He even implicated them in the death of the prophets. On one occasion he cleared the temple (violently) of the money changers. But, I believe, a better word to describe these actions is “zeal”, which is the word John uses to describe this event (John 2:17). Zeal is a Christian virtue (Romans 12:11) but it is not the same thing as personal vengeance. Notice that zeal is not directed toward personal vindication or retribution. It is directed toward a passionate and jealous love for God. Even Jesus’ zeal was zeal for the Temple. And Romans 12:11 connects zeal with serving the Lord.

Second, he says Jesus “got even” with Satan by rising from the dead. In some sense, this may be so, but (1) it’s not explicitly stated as such in the Bible and (2) the explicit ethical implication for us when it comes to Christ’s victory over sin, death, and Satan, is that we are now free from Satan’s power, from the fear of death, and from slavery to sin. There is no implication that Jesus’ resurrection gives us the model for personal retribution.

In fact, we see a very different picture of Jesus when it comes to the way he treated his enemies. Even on the cross he prayed for their (the Pharisees!) forgiveness. In fact, Jesus’ death was an act of love and mercy for the very people that put him to death, for his enemies, for us.

Is God portrayed as a “tough character?”

The statement also says that God is “also portrayed as a tough character.” “Tough character” can have a lot of meanings, but I think the way it is being used here is actually at-least partially correct. God is, in fact, tough, in the sense that He is not weak. He is not a pushover. He will not be taken advantage of. He is all powerful, and He exercises that power in awesome and terrifying ways. In fact, God is “tougher” than you or I or Trump could possibly imagine.

God’s “toughness” comes from His character. He is omnipotent. He is just. He is holy. The result is that God, in fact, does and will “get even” (in some sense) with all of His enemies who refuse His free gift of salvation in Jesus. This is personal vindication and righteous retribution but, for God, because of His unique identity, it is right and good and just. We look forward to the day when God reigns with complete justice.

Should Christians “Get Even”?

The problem with Trump’s argument, though, is that he completely misapplies this truth. He says that because God is a tough character, we are supposed to be tough characters and get even with our enemies. The New Testament argues the exact opposite of this. It argues that because God will ultimately bring perfect justice, weshouldn’t act with personal vengeance.

Paul makes the argument in Romans 12:17-21

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Notice the clear commands – do not repay evil for evil, do not take revenge, overcome evil with good. These are clear commands (and not the only ones) against getting even. But also notice the reason – leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge.” So, we don’t need to, and in fact we are prohibited from getting even, because it’s not our job. When we take up the cause of personal vengeance, we put ourselves in the position of God. We are simply not given that authority. Instead, when we are cursed, when others take advantage of us, when we are persecuted, we are to respond in kindness, charity, prayer, and blessing, desiring the genuine good for our enemies, but also leaving the task of “getting even” to God and God alone.

On Discipleship, Worship, and What we really need as a church

Here is the audio from Sunday’s sermon:

Outline:

What is “discipleship”? 

A disciple is a follower of Jesus. Following Jesus includes both faith in the gospel and doing the works God has prepared for us to do. The task of the church is to make disciples.

How does our church “make disciples”?

We try to create the process by which believers do the things disciples are called to do, and which contribute to their spiritual growth: Worship (loving God), Fellowship (loving each other), Bible study (loving God’s word), and Outreach/Evangelism (loving God’s world).

What is “worship”?

Worship is the proper response to the experience of God. By experience I mean coming to an understanding about who God is. Worship is core to our purpose and identity. Worship involves following God with our whole lives, and doing the specific acts of worship God has given us to do.

Why is worship important (to discipleship)?

In worship we turn our eyes towards Jesus and this allows us to properly interpret and respond to our present situation.

Call

Regularly and actively participate in the worship of your local church. Local churches need worshippers. Above any particular set of skills we need people who understand the incredible and gracious acts of God, and who respond with love and service.

 

Communion service, November 8

It’s on the schedule.

On Tuesday, November 8, at 8:00 pm, our church will be holding a special communion service. The purpose of this election day communion service is not to compete with the task of selecting our government leaders, but to put it in perspective. I know already that I, personally, am really going to need this service.

Communion is an essential Christian practice which should be practiced regularly. It is typically celebrated as part of a Sunday worship service. For our church, the meaning is the same in whatever context it is performed. It is a God-ordained way of memorializing and proclaiming the death of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. It is an occasion for confession and reconciliation. It is an opportunity to thank God for the body of Jesus which was broken and the blood that was spilled for us. But we have placed this communion service on this particular day and this particular time for a purpose – so that we can re-orient our hearts toward the eternal and re-prioritize our lives around the gospel, the good news of Jesus.

In a sense, there is a “confession of the election” and a “confession of the gospel.” By “confession” here I mean a statement of beliefs. In other words, when we think about an election we tend to hold to certain beliefs. Those beliefs are not always in line with the gospel. Sometimes they stand in opposition to it. Sometimes they simply need to be relativized in relation to it. Sometimes it is possible to hold both beliefs in tension. Sometimes the gospel undermines our false beliefs. One of the goals of the communion service is to proclaim the “confession of the gospel.” In the context of this particular day and time, this will necessarily be contrasted with the “confession of the election.” Allow me to elaborate:

The confession of the gospel is that we all must approach the cross with humility, confessing our sins, and our sins alone.  The confession of the election allows us to believe that ours is the side of righteousness and to look down on our political adversaries. Communion breaks down our pride and self-righteousness.

The confession of the gospel is that we as believers are fundamentally united in Jesus, through his reconciling work. The confession of the election allows us to believe that we fundamentally divided by political parties. Communion reminds us of our essential unity around the table.

The confession of the gospel is that Jesus conquered our greatest enemies of sin and death through his sacrifice on the cross. The confession of the election leads us to believe that victory can only be one through earthly power. Communion reminds us that the greatest victory ever performed was won through love and self-sacrifice.

The confession of the gospel is that God is sovereign and that it was even through the sovereignty of God that Jesus would die for our sins. The worst that man could ever do – killing the author of life – turned out to be the exact way in which God would atone for the sins of his enemies. The confession of the election is that our futures depend on the will of man and that man stands in that decisive place, either for good or for evil. Communion reminds us that God is sovereign and that he will bring about ultimate good, no matter what path it takes to get there.

The confession of the gospel is that after Jesus’ death and humiliation he was raised and glorified. God raised Jesus up and place him the position of ultimate authority. There is one who reigns over the entire earth and to whom all other authorities are subject. The confession of the election is that authority rests in the government. Communion reminds us that Jesus is still the one with ultimate authority.

The confession of the gospel is that Jesus’ death instituted a new era in salvation history, allowing for a new relationship between God and his people. If we can speak of a time on which history turns that time was two-thousand years ago. It was the days of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The confession of the election is that election day is the most important day in history. The narratives of the political activists frame November 8th as the day on which history turns. Communion reminds us that history has already turned and it turns along the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Finally, the confession of the gospel is that Jesus is coming again. We celebrate communion in anticipation of that future wedding banquet of the resurrection. We proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes. The confession of the election is that – unless the people act in a particular way – all is lost. Communion reminds us that because God has already acted, all is already won. 

We invite you to join us.

Globalism/Nationalism, Church/Nation

Flags_of_the_World

One of the more interesting aspects of this election is the political and theological debate around questions of “nationalism” and “globalism.” Both of these words are used almost entirely in their derogatory sense and are put up as bogey men, as concepts of which we should be afraid – and when used in that sense we should. Most of the arguments I have seen are also simplistic and underdeveloped. Here’s my attempt to bring a little nuance (read: boredom) to the discussion.

First we need to “come to terms”. I’m going to use “nationalism” in a broad and non-derogatory sense, as “the desire for national achievement.” It goes without saying (though I’m saying it anyway) that I am against a “nationalism” which causes us to place nation above love of God or love of neighbor. I’m also going to use “globalism” in the same sort of broad sense, as “a concern for the entire world”, and not in the sense that global interests should always outweigh national or local interests. I’m going to parse each of these out more below but I wanted to state up front how I’m using the terms so that you don’t just write me off as an idolater.

Second, we need to clarify that we are going to be speaking about the interests and the roles of the nation as distinct from the interests and the roles of the Church (=universal Church, not institutional church). The two group’s interests and roles cannot be completely divorced from each other but they aren’t the same either. Speaking of “nationalism” in terms of the nation means something very different from “nationalism” in terms of the church. Confusing the two, and the roles of the two, will get us into lots of trouble. I will address each separately:

In regards to the nation

A government’s primary responsibility is to its own people and so, in that sense, I want my government to put “America first.” But that “America first” message is not without limits. While it is not required to treat non-citizens as citizens, it must still act justly towards them and treat them as people (and in the Christian sense, those who bear the image of the living God). This means that it still bears some – though more limited – responsibility to individuals of other nations. It seems to me that these obligations would include advocating for basic human rights such as the freedoms of life and religious expression and taking appropriate action when those basic freedoms are threatened, as in the case of genocide.

“Nation first” can be good call as long as it doesn’t mean “nation only” and as long as it is constrained by virtue. What was so frightening about Nazi Germany was that it was a nationalism that was unconstrained by virtue. It made the advancement of the nation the greatest good, at the expense of justice for all.

There are dangers on the side of “globalism” as well. Many fear the consolidation of power in global institutions and this fear is not entirely unfounded. While there is some good which global organizations can bring the tendency will always be for more and more centralization of power. Since power can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used for good (maybe more easily?) I want the power of these global institutions to be limited, specifically limited by the sovereignty of the individual nation. I don’t want my nation to give up its national sovereignty for the same reason that I don’t want national power to be centralized in Washington but distributed to States, counties, and cities, and that’s because I want a government which will not overstep its bounds.

Another issue that has come up is the economy. Here I find myself in a minority. I agree with the many economists who argue that access to markets is one of the most important ingredients to a strong economy. Therefore, I want my country to embrace a global economy and the trade deals that go along with that economy. I see open markets as a way of fostering peace and building global wealth, things which would be good both for the country (America first) and for the world, particularly the global poor. I am of the perspective that open markets (when constrained by virtue and justice) are one of the greatest tools for loving our neighbors.

Family Metaphor

Perhaps one of the best ways to understand this is to think about family dynamics. The responsibility of the father and mother is to take care of their family first. In most cases the bulk of their time, energy, and income will go to providing for the basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the family. A father or mother who spent an inordinate amount of time away from their family, or gave away income essential for the care of the family would be guilty of dereliction of duty. Also, parents shouldn’t abdicate their responsibility to some higher level organization – like a church, or a school, or the government.

But that doesn’t mean that parents should only concern themselves with their own family or their own children. Instead, they should lead their family in service towards others, give out of an abundance of resources and love out of an abundance of love. A family does not exist only for itself, but as an essential part of the broader society. A family with this outward focus actually helps itself, since in serving and caring for others outside of our circle we fulfill one of our reasons for existence.

I think this principle can be applied to governments as well. Governments have a primary responsibility to their own citizens, but they also exist within a global framework and need to engage that broader world responsibly and justly.

In Regards to the Church

The Church, as in those who have put their faith in Jesus for salvation, is transnational. It is cross-cultural. It is multi-lingual. It is made up of people from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people. This characteristic is central to its very identity. Because of this fact there will always be a tension between the “globalist” inclinations of the church and the “nationalistic” inclinations of the nation. This tension is healthy, and it shouldn’t be resolved either by the church separating itself entirely from – or wedding itself to – the life of the nation.

I am currently reading the Eric Metaxis Bonhoeffer biography and noticed that (one of the) most significant heresies of the German Christians (and opposed by Bonhoeffer and others) was that it embraced the idea of a “national church.” It willingly submitted itself to the authority of the State and to the nationalist interests of the State at a time when it should have been resisting. The problem in Germany wasn’t only that it contained an unconstrained nationalism, but that the German Christians embraced such a close relationship with that government.

That said, the church does not exist independently of other institutions, but is historically and nationally located. Christians have a dual citizenship. We are both heavenly and earthly citizens. As heavenly citizens we have responsibilities towards all within the church, wherever they are located which, on some occasions, would supersede our responsibilities to the State. For instance, Bonhoeffer recognized that he had responsibilities to Jewish Christians who the Reich barred from leadership in the German church. As heavenly citizens we also have the mission of evangelizing the nations, of showing love through both word and deed to those outside the faith wherever they may be found.

As earthly citizens we recognize the context in which God has placed us and that, too, confers responsibilities and duties. We are responsible towards our families. We are responsible towards our local church, our city, our state, our nation, and the rulers and authorities of that nation. In participating in politics we merely ask that the government do its God given task of being the government. In so doing we serve both the nation in which we live and the God who has placed us in that nation. It is appropriate for Christians to have a sense of patriotism so long as that patriotism is understood in terms of gratitude to God and responsibility and so long as patriotism does not lead to idolatry characterized by either misplaced trust or misplaced fear.

So where does this leave us in term of nationalism/globalism? Here are a few concluding thoughts.

First, there will always be some tension between the nationalistic goals of the nation and the more global mission of the church. We need to live within that tension, understanding our dual citizenship.

Second, our task is to love our neighbors, local and global. One way we love our neighbors is by asking the government to perform its role as government, which can rightly pursue the success of the nation so long as it does not inflict injustice on those in other nations.

Third, we can remember that we are part of the global kingdom of Christ and yet participate in very local and concrete settings. We can begin by serving those directly within our sphere of responsibility, while never forgetting that God has called the global church to a global mission.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view on Government and Church

Programming note for regular readers: I have made an update to my post “A pro-life perspective on the 2016 Election“. Also, after this post I will be taking a break from my blog for a few weeks. I’ll be on a family vacation and/or focusing on other projects.

Disclaimer 1: In summarizing Bonhoeffer’s view I am not saying that I am in complete agreement with it.

Disclaimer 2: This is a summary of Bonhoeffer’s view based on his chapter “State and Church” in Ethics and not on the whole of his work. I’m not a Bonhoeffer scholar so my summary is limited.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The basis and task of the government

Bonhoeffer begins his chapter by exploring the basis of the government. He summarizes three basic answers.

The first answer is to find the basis of government in the nature of man. This is the ancient Greek/Aristotelian answer. It sees the state as “the supreme consummation of the rational character of man.” The state naturally arises from human nature and is the “ultimate purpose of human life.” Using biblical language we could say that state is part of “creation.” This view has difficulty, however, in moving from the voluntary and natural “community” of “man for man” to the necessity of “government”, which represents the “coercive power” which exists over the state as “man against man.”

The second answer, then, is that the basis of government is in sin. In this view, the need for government – and the necessary element of coercive power – arises only because of the fact of sin. In other words, it is necessary because of the Fall. In this view, the task of the government is to use its power in order to be “the protector of outward justice.” The power from the government is “from above,” that is, it is given by God himself. It is “order in the world, an order which bears the authority of God.”

This second answer is where much of Christian theology stops, but Bonhoeffer presses further. He suggests we must add a third answer, that the basis of government is in Christ. Bonhoeffer bases government in Christ principally because he bases everything in Christ, and this is no less true of all powers and authorities. Christ is the ruler over all other authorities and therefore all authorities and powers, including the civil government, exist for the purpose of serving him. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that each government ought to serve Christ willingly but that, even when a government doesn’t do that, the nevertheless end up serving him unwillingly. For instance, it was the will of God that Jesus should be crucified. When the Roman government killed Jesus, it was failing in its task to protect outward justice (since the death of Jesus was patently unjust), but it was also unwittingly serving the greater purposes of God. Indeed, it was only able to crucify Jesus because Jesus gave it authority to do so.

This leads Boenhoeffer to summarize the task of the government as follows:

“The mission of the government consists in serving the dominion of Christ on earth by the exercise of worldly power of the sword and of justice. Government serves Christ by establishing and maintaining an outward justice by means of the sword which is given to it, and to it alone, in deputyship for God.”

How does the government serve Christ?

The task of the government is “to service Christ by establishing and maintaining outward justice.” Does this imply either the possibility or necessity of theocracy? Does Bonhoeffer’s perspective lead to the idea of a state church? While the idea that a government “serves Christ” might seem to indicate this might be the case, the answer is a resounding “No.” Bonhoeffer does not have a theocracy, or a Church run State in mind.

The reason for this is that Bonhoeffer views the roles of the state and of the church as quite different. The role of the government is limited. Its task is simply to establish and maintain outward justice. That is to say, it has the power of judicial authority. But what constitutes “justice”? This is not a question Bonhoeffer answers completely but he does insist on basing it in Christ. So, he says, the “goodness” promoted by the government “cannot in any case be in conflict with Jesus Christ” and “One might therefore, say that in this case natural law has as its foundation Jesus Christ.” The government knows about this goodness/justice then, “primarily from the preaching of the Church.” In other words, Bonhoeffer does not base the “outward justice” which the government is tasked with maintaining in what might be called “natural law” but in a sort of “natural law” which is informed by and proclaimed in the church.

But this is not to say that the government can be Christian or theocratic. Indeed, Bonhoeffer argues that in order for a government to serve Christ within its sphere and within its task it must be religiously neutral. Its role is to leave space for the preaching of Christ. Its task in not the creation of a Christian order, but of maintaining an order which leaves room for service to God.

The Government and its relationship to marriage and labor

Government’s role is primarily that of preserver. It is not, itself, life-giving or productive, but guards life by sustaining outward justice. It is only one of several God-given institutions and, Bonhoeffer notes, “finds already in the world which it governs two institutions through which God the Creator exercises his creative power, and upon which it must therefore, in the nature of things, rely; these are marriage and labour” (italics added). These two institutions are unique in that they are life-giving and productive. They are also unique in the sense that they are what we might call “pre-political.” They “possess their own origin in God, an origin which is not established by government.” They exist prior to the state, prior to government.

The role of government in relation to these two institutions then, is limited. Governments task is, first and foremost, to acknowledge these institutions. They are not entirely “hands off” but only interact with these institutions to the degree which is necessary to their task, to maintain outward justice. The government’s task is “regulative and not constitutive.” Bonhoeffer continues,

“Marriage is performed not by the government but in the presence of government. Industry and commerce, art and science, are not cultivated by government itself, but they are subject to its supervision, and within certain limits… to its discretion.”

Furthermore, Bonhoeffer is careful to say that the government’s limits are critical. To extend beyond these limits in regards to marriage and labor is to “forfeit its genuine authority over these fields.”

The Government and its relationship to the church

As stated above, to say that the government acts in service to Christ does not imply either a church run government or a Christian state. Bonhoeffer states, “the dominion of Christ over government does not by any means imply the dominion of the Church over the government.” Instead, the government acts in service to Christ by “securing an outward justice by means of the power of the sword.” If the government does what it is intended to do “the congregation [community of believers] can live in peace” and perform its duty of proclaiming the good news of salvation.

With this basic principle in place Bonhoeffer notes that the government may still make claims upon the church and, likewise, the church makes certain claims upon the government.

The Government’s Claim on the Church: The government’s claim upon the church is obedience to its laws (assuming, of course, that they would not force the person to sin against Christ, the ultimate authority). The Christian is expected to practice this obedience, understanding that in acting in this way they are acknowledging the authority which God has given to the civil authority. “As a citizen a Christian does not cease to be a Christian, but serves Christ in a different way.”

The Church’s Claim on the Government: The church’s claim on the government is only that it should fulfill its role as government. “Her aim is not that government should pursue a Christian policy, enact Christian laws, etc. but that it should be true government in accordance with its own special task.” In particular, this means that the church seeks what we might call “religious freedom” and Bonhoeffer refers to as “protection for the public Christian proclamation against violence… against arbitrary interference, and she claims protection for Christian life in obedience to Christ.” That is not to say that Christianity receives a special privilege. The government “affords protection to every form of service to God which does not undermine the office of government.”

Conclusion:

Bonhoeffer touches on a few more topics: What is the best form of government? Under what conditions is the being of the government (i.e., legitimacy) completely undermined? What happens if the government is completely undermined and fails to complete its task? Etc. But I do not have time to address each of these here, and none of these are fully developed arguments anyway. His argument continuously points back to his primary thesis, namely, that the governments task is that of maintaining outward justice by the power of the sword, thus serving (willingly or unwillingly) Christ, from whom all authority comes.

Implications for today?

I will have to only tentatively put these implications forward. Bonhoeffer lived in a different age and the government under which he spent much of his time – Nazi Germany – was far different from my experience in Democratic America. However, Bonhoeffer spent much time in America and it does seem as if his description of government was at least partially impacted by his time here. And so, I want to conclusion with a few observations.

  • Bonhoeffer believed that the government had a necessary and noble task. He believed that it had a role to play in the service of Christ – the preservation of the goodness of God’s created world and the institutions therein. He probably would have disagreed with those who only expression negative views of the government.
  • Bonhoeffer believed that government performed its task best when it knew what its task was and he believed that its task was limited. It played the role of protector and preserver, not the role of creator. To that extent he believed in “limited government” though that shouldn’t necessarily be understood in terms of liberal and conservative.
  • In regards to marriage: I think Bonhoeffer would have agreed with those who argued against the court’s redefinition of marriage. He likely would have seen this as an overstep of the government’s role and as a failure of the government to properly “acknowledge” marriage in its created order.
  • In regards to “religious freedom” Bonhoeffer would likely be a big supporter. One of the main ways in which the government serves Christ, and one of the primary claims of the church on the State, is that the government protects service to God and the proclamation of the gospel. The limit of “religious freedom” for Bonhoeffer would be “outward justice.” The government does have a regulative role, even in matters of church, if basic justice is under threat.
  • In regards to the role of the church and the individual Christian, especially in relation to a less-than-ideal government: First, the individual Christian’s task is to obey the government whenever possible as though serving Christ. Second, the task of the Christian is to serve within his own sphere of influence and thereby indirectly serve the government in a productive way. Third, it is the task of the church, to proclaim the gospel. In doing so, the government comes into a clearer understanding of the outward justice which it is called to protect or, is it may be, is called to task for failing to carry out its God-given role.

Futility and Toil (on Psalm 127 and Ecclesiastes)

Both Ecclesiastes and Psalm 127 are historically attributed to Solomon and it’s easy to see the connection. Both deal with issues of futility and toil. The central theme of Ecclesiastes is the meaninglessness and utter futility of life “under the sun.” Likewise, Psalm 127 warns that if “the LORD does not build the building, the builder labors in vain.” But neither portion of Scripture leaves us without hope. Life need not be futile. Here are two things we can do to deal with the often apparent (and real) futility of our labor and our lives.

Receive

We begin with a basic principle: God gives. The world exists because God gives. Any meaning which we may find in life comes out of this first and most basic of principles. God’s actions are prior to ours, and so his purposes are prior and foundational to our purposes.

God gives wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:26), he gives life (5:18, 8:15), he gives possessions, and sometimes the ability to enjoy those possessions (5:19), but not always (6:2). In Psalm 127 we see that God gives sleep (Psalm 127:2) and children (127:3). (Apparently he just doesn’t give them at the same time.)

Our first response as part of God’s creation, then, is to simply receive those gifts with gratitude – to enjoy them. While receiving a gift seems simple enough, it’s harder than it looks. Those who do not receive the gift of God’s rest, but instead buck against it in self-reliance, rise early and stay up late, toiling away “in vain” (Psalm 127:2). Those who receive great wealth, but not the ability to enjoy that wealth, suffer a grievous evil (Ecclesiastes 6:2).

The writer of Ecclesiastes himself was a man of great wealth, great wisdom, and great accomplishments, and yet he spent much of his time in misery. One of the great lessons he learned was that it was in a man’s best interest to enjoy the life which God had given him (Ecclesiastes 9:9).[1]

Our first response to the futility of life is to receive what God has given us, and enjoy it as a gift from him.

Align

Our second basic principle is this: God’s actions have the ability to establish our actions.

Psalm 127:1 establishes this principle.

“Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.”

There are two ways to express this. Positively we can say that if God’s actions coincide with our actions (God builds and the builder builds, God watches and the guard watches) our actions are not in vain. They are “established” (Psalm 90:17). Negatively, we must say that if God is not present with us in our actions, or if he opposes our actions, then our actions will be in vain.

Our task, then, is to align our deeds with God’s deeds. But how do we do this? How can we know what God is doing? Do we need to discern God’s will? The answer is “yes” and “no.” There is a distinction between God’s sovereign will and his moral will. His sovereign will – much of it anyway – is a mystery to us and will remain so this side of Heaven. But his moral will is something he has made known. It is available to us in his Word.

When I say we need to “align” our actions with God’s I mean, simply, that we must obey what we know of his moral will. To do so will lead to our actions being established. This can most easily be seen by looking at its opposite.  Consider the following syllogism:

  1. If God is does not participate in an action, it will be futile.
  2. And, God never participates in sin.
  3. Then, our sinful actions are always futile.

Conversely, then, it would make sense that our actions which are “in step with the Holy Spirit” are of the sort that God would establish, make “stick.”

But this is certainly not always our experience. Often sin appears to be profitable. The wicked prosper while the righteous suffer loss. Does not this reality contradict my claim above? Only if we view things from a purely human perspective. In the end, God the Judge will bring to judgment – for good or for ill – all of our deeds done in the body. Even if our good deeds have no apparent “earthly” reward, we can be assured of God’s heavenly reward, his commendation of us as “good and faithful” servants.

This is another way of restating the preacher’s conclusion of Ecclesiastes 12:13-14:

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

To keep God’s commandments is to align ourselves with his moral will. To align ourselves with God’s will is to trust in his final judgment.

How does this relate to the futility of life?

First, work done apart from God is futile.[2] If we want the possibility of our works being “established” we need to seek God’s participation, and that means seeking his moral will and obeying his commands.

Second, since God’s works are foundational and decisive, we can trust that He will establish those things he wants to establish. He will give meaning to our lives. Sometimes he works with us. Sometimes he works in spite of us. And, sometimes he opposes us. Even if we do not see meaning or purpose in our lives, we can trust that God is still moving history towards a grander purpose.

Third, and finally, we need to broaden our understanding of “success.” If we determine success only by outward criteria, many of our sacrifices will appear to be wasted effort. But, if we view “success” through God’s eyes we will be able to see that our efforts are not wasted. Our deeds, when done to the glory of God, no matter how small, find their meaning and value in God Himself, the Person of infinite value, the meaning Maker.

Notes

[1] There is a strong note of irony in Ecclesiastes 9:9

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun.

It feels like a mixed message. We should enjoy our lives (true), but are those lives truly meaningless? Your life is a gift from God (true), but is that gift no more than days filled with toilsome labor, with spinning your wheels? This is one of the central tensions in the book of Ecclesiastes. The tension arises from the fact that we live in the world post-Fall. God’s gifts are good and we are to receive them with joy, but even all those good gifts are tainted with sin and brokenness.

[2] One of the incredible things about God is that he is able to make meaning and value out of acts that are in direct rebellion to his moral will. Think: Joseph’s brothers selling him to Egypt. This is a wonderful reality, but it doesn’t invalidate the ultimate futility of the act itself. God uses futile deeds to bring about meaningful results.

What I mean when I say that I will “vote my conscience”

It is true that “conscience” can be invoked in all sorts of inappropriate ways. It can be nothing more than a cop-out, or code for “how could you vote for a candidate that supports X!” It can be used to bully someone into a vote (or a non-vote) just as much as party loyalty can. And so, I want to explain what I mean when I invoke the word “conscience” in regards to voting and political engagement.

Simply put, I do not want my vote to be, in any way, a participation in evil. Or, to frame it in the context of “love of neighbor”, I do not want my vote to be a participation in harm done to my neighbor.

To that end, there are two main criteria which any candidate must pass. These criteria are, in the language of politics, “litmus tests.” Candidates may fall anywhere along the spectrum from “good” to “bad” but at some point they cross a line wherein a vote for them would constitute my participation in injustice. This is my attempt to draw those lines.

Disqualification #1: The candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy.

If a candidate espouses and advocates for an unjust policy, then my vote for them is, at best, tacit approval of that policy. At worst, it is participation in the furtherance of that policy. By voting for them I become a willing participant in unjust laws.

I use the word “unjust” in a fairly precise way. I am not simply referring here to policies which I think are unwise, or which I personally disagree with, or even which I find somewhat morally objectionable. I am referring to policies which deny people of basic justice. The role of the government is not necessarily to promote my particular Christian view of morality and I don’t expect it to. But it is to provide basic justice. Any candidate who espouses and promotes a set of laws which break that basic level of justice will lose my vote.

Disqualification #2: The candidate is, themselves, wicked or personally unjust.

If a candidate is, in their personal character, wicked or unjust, then regardless of their personal policies, their leadership endangers my neighbor. We are right to expect an unjust person to act unjustly. And, if we learn from the history of Israel, so goes the leader of the nation, there goes the nation.

Again, I use the words “wicked” and “unjust” in precise ways. I do not mean that the candidate is not “flawed”. I do not mean that the candidate must be a Christian. I do not mean that a candidate cannot have made mistakes in life. I mean that the character of the man/woman is bent towards wickedness.

Application to this election

There is a strong case to be made that our two top candidates in 2016 fail one or both of these criteria. I have already expressed my opinion in relation to the topic of abortion in this post and I won’t belabor it again here.

If you don’t believe that the candidate you support breaks one of those qualifications (for instance, Wayne Grudem argues that Trump is merely “flawed” and not “wicked” and he finds his policies appealing – see response) then you will be able to vote for that candidate with a clean conscience. If, however, you believe that a candidate is disqualified based on one or the other of the criteria above, and you agree that a vote can represent a participation in the evil which will be the result of their presidency, then it is better to retain a clean conscience and put your trust in God, who has all authority, and who grants it for his own purposes, and either abstain from voting or vote for a different candidate.

A few final note on the conscience

Our consciences are not the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong, but merely a witness to right and wrong. A conscience can be overly sensitive. It can be seared. It can be twisted. A conscience must be formed by the Word of God. I must not assume that my conscience is perfectly formed, nor that the information which I use to feed into my conscience is always correct or complete.

We must, then, be careful of how we judge another person’s conscience. Paul’s words in Romans 14 are important to remember. We ought to act in accordance with our conscience, as one who stands before God, to do otherwise is a sin (Rom 14:23). But for the same reason we ought to be cautious about how we judge someone else’s conscience, since they too will stand before the same judge that we do (Rom 14:10).

This doesn’t mean that we can’t speak out with moral authority. Indeed, love for our neighbors sometimes necessitates public advocacy on their behalf. But we need to be cautious that we’re making the proper distinction between “thus saith the Lord” and “this is my personal opinion.” Be bold and terrified when speaking with moral authority. Be humble and gracious when speaking about a personal opinion. Knowing the difference requires a lot of wisdom.

This is the main body of the post. I have addressed to related questions in the comments below: What if the election of the other candidate would have catastrophic results? Are pro-lifers justified in voting for Hillary Clinton? This second question is a specific response to a recent article by Rachel Held Evans.