Suitably Affected by Politics
Let’s pray together. Father, you command us in 1 Timothy 2 to pray for our political leaders, that we may lead a peaceful life. There are many forces in our nation that are seeking to destabilize it. Many forces that try to divide people and distract us from what you desire to do. And so, God, we pray for peace in our nation, for a social stability that will lead to gospel mobility, that the Word might go forth because you desire all people to be saved, to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man, the Man, Christ Jesus. So, Father, we pray that you would pour out your Spirit, that you would help us conduct ourselves politically in a way that is different from the world. We pray for the peace that we long for our culture to begin within us. We pray for a wave of wisdom to flow upon us so that we would respond with humility. We beg you to teach us now as we open your Word. Help us, we pray, in Jesus’ name, amen.
The first eight verses of Psalm 115 give us a panoramic vision of two different faith systems, two different spiritual systems — an open system and what we could call a closed system.
Let me talk first about the open system (1-3). Our universe is not self-contained. Our lives are not self-sustaining, enclosed, part of a system that can stand on its own. We are actually not here ultimately for ourselves. Look at verse 1.
“Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory.”
We didn’t invent the universe. We didn’t manufacture ourselves. We’re actually contingent beings, which means we’re totally dependent on someone else. As verse 1 goes on to say, we’re totally dependent for our existence on the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. If he stops loving, we stop living. Everything is from him and through him and to him. And contrary to the skepticism of our generation and every generation, verse 2,
“Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’”
We rest, and we rejoice. Verse three,
“Our God is in the heavens.”
And what that means is not, God is unsociable, but it means he is unshakable. He is not shaken by current events. He is not shaped by current events. We do not form him. He transforms us. Verse 3,
“He does all that he pleases.”
This is what it means to live in an open system.
Contrast that with a closed system, verses 4-8. In a closed system, worship is customized. It can actually feel personal because we have mouths and eyes and ears and noses and hands and feet, so our gods should have them, too, we reason. Let’s make worship more accessible, more pragmatic, bring it down to our level. Our gods should do our bidding. But the gods we fabricate can’t deliver because they are shadows and shades of ourselves. Their voices are our voices. They sound like us because they are echoes of us. And these fabricated deities may appear to have relational capabilities, but as these verses explain, they cannot speak and see or hear or smell or feel or walk.
Verse 8 is the key to understanding a closed system.
“Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”
In a closed system, the ones who make become the ones who are made. The creators become the created. As 2 Kings 17:15 says,
“They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them.”
We make gods, and then our gods make us. We liquidize worship and then we become fluid. Our identities reflect our deities. To bring it down to our current discussion, we make our politics, and then our politics make us. We form policy, but then over time, policy forms us. Even well-meaning policies will shape us into the image of our culture, which is a reflection of our cravings, or transform us into the image of Christ. This is why the primary focus of our politics series has not been on particular issues. But the primary focus is on, how do we follow Christ politically? We’re talking about political discipleship. And this is why the line that separates religion from politics is so blurry, even at its core nonexistent.
Now, let me be clear. When most people talk about religion, they’re thinking of hymns and polity and robes and candles. That’s not what I’m talking about. Religion at its core is what is beneath everything else. It is our ultimate commitment. That’s our religion. So, therefore, the secular progressive from Hartford, Connecticut, who defines himself as an agnostic, is just as religiously motivated in his politics as the Christian conservative from Lynchburg, Virginia. Different religions, but the religion (what is beneath everything else) is shaping political views.
So, as Christians, the question is not, should our faith affect our politics? In one sense, that’s a dumb question, because it will. It’s impossible for what you believe not to shape how you think about politics. The question is, does it shape it in a good way or a bad way? That’s what we want to wrestle with. To ensure that what we really believe is flowing out into even an area that is so sensitive, so controversial, and so often misunderstood as politics.
Going along with that question is also a question you have to answer to answer the first properly. And that is, if we’re going to do that, how do we distinguish between what is primary and what is secondary? To help us wrestle with this question, I want us to look at the life of John Newton. John Newton, as most of you know, is most well-known for his hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He also wrote the song, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” which we sang a few weeks ago, a little less known. He looks like he has a wig on, but those are actually earphones. Ben Franklin made those for him. He was a pastor in the 18th century who had a complicated relationship with politics. That’s one of the reasons I love him is, we also can have a complicated relationship with politics. Let me illustrate that. On May 31, 1775, Newton wrote in his diary. What happened in 1775? This is what he wrote in his diary.
“The paper this evening brought an account of the commencement of hostilities in New England, and many killed on both sides. These things I fear are the beginning of sorrows. Oh, that I could be suitably affected with what I see and hear.” (Jonathan Aitken, John Newton, 249.)
When he refers to the commencement of hostilities in New England, what is he talking about? Yeah, the Revolutionary War, the War of Independence, or specifically the battles of Concord and Lexington. And I find it fascinating to read Christians’ accounts of major events, especially when they’re coming from a different perspective. Newton is writing as an Englishman looking toward the colonies. His prayer, though, prayed in a different country, needs to be our prayer. Look at it again.
“Oh, that I could be suitably affected with what I see and hear.”
Suitably — fittingly, appropriately. Affected — that is influenced, moved not just emotionally, but to know what to do. Suitably affected.
Before we talk about what it means to be suitably affected, I think it would be helpful for us to understand what it doesn’t mean, what unsuitability affected means. And I think pretty much all of us — just look at Facebook, and you’ll find how to be unsuitability affected. But Newton helps us here. He — most well-known for the hymns he wrote, but then second for the letters he wrote — wrote a letter to someone. The entire letter outlines what he calls Seven Christian blemishes. And he describes the these blemishes this way:
“The characters of some valuable persons are clouded … by comparatively small faults.” (John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Volume 1, 378.)
That’s a nice way of saying these people are super nice, and they would have a huge influence. But there’s a blemish that’s part of their personality or their character that prevents their influence from actually having a positive impact. And so, if you want to read the entire letter, you can get his six volumes. It’s on page 378, Volume 1. I know most of you are probably not going to do that. So, Tony Reinke’s book, “Newton on the Christian Life,” chapter 8, he summarizes these seven Christian blemishes. I’m dying to go through all seven of them; they’re so helpful. But I’m going to skip the first six and land on number seven, which is his longest. He personifies these blemishes. So, he gives each one of them a name. This one is called Querulus. And Querulus he describes as someone who argues too much about politics. And he is the only character that Newton doesn’t say anything positive about. All the other characters, he describes the positives and then the negatives. With Querulus, it’s just negative. Look what he says.
“Querulus wastes much of his precious time in declaiming against the management of public affairs; though he has neither access to the springs that move the wheels of government, nor influence either to accelerate or retard their motions. While the newspapers are the chief sources of his intelligence, and his situation precludes him from being a competent judge either of matters of fact or matters of right, why should Querulus trouble himself with politics?” (John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Volume 1, 383.)
Now, most of you might not know what a newspaper is. But if we switch … because I think Alan Bunn is the only one I know that actually reads it every morning. But if you switch newspaper for blog or news story, it sounds almost like Newton is writing today. He is saying Querulus is so confident but has no basis to know for sure whether what he is so animated about is actually true or actually right. He goes on.
“This would be a weakness, if we consider him only as a member of society; but if we consider him as a Christian, it is worse than a weakness; it is a sinful conformity to the men of the world, who look no farther than to second causes and forget the Lord reigns.” (John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Volume 1, 384.)
What is Newton saying? Querulus forgets that he’s not living in a closed system. He’s living in an open system where the Lord reigns. Newton goes on.
“If a Christian be placed in public a public sphere of action, he should undoubtedly be faithful to his calling, and endeavor by all lawful methods to transmit our privileges to our posterity.” (John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Volume 1, 384.)
But, “As it is, his zeal is not only unprofitable to others, but hurtful to himself. It embitters his spirit, it diverts his thoughts from things of greater importance, and prevents him from feeling the value of those blessings, civil and religious, which he actually possesses.” (John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Volume 1, 384.)
So, Newton is not arguing that everything Querulus is animated about is insignificant. He’s arguing that he is unsuitably affected, and he’s not responding properly to the political events of his day.
So, let’s see if we can summarize what he just said in five statements. Querulous wastes time complaining about things he cannot change. He speaks confidently about issues he cannot prove. He lives as though God does not reign. He fails to distinguish between what is primary and what is secondary. And he tends to become embittered and fails to benefit others.
Brothers and sisters, God has not called us to this kind of response. That’s what it means to be unsuitability affected.
So, what does it mean to be suitably affected? Well, on May 31, 1775, when Newton read the story in the newspaper of the beginning of the War of Independence, he did three things. One, he prayed consistently. He called for a prayer meeting each morning — each Tuesday morning, 5 a.m., to pray specifically about the war and for peace. Guess how many people from his church and the community gathered for this prayer meeting in what is called the Great House? 200 people gathered each Tuesday morning praying specifically for his country, for the colonies.
Several years later, he wrote a pastor who was becoming more and more involved in what Newton called political speculation, and he pleaded with him to preach the gospel more faithfully. And then he emphasized the need to pray. He wrote this.
“This, I think, is the true patriotism, the best, if not the only way, in which persons in private life may serve their country.” (John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Volume 6, 378.)
So, I want to issue a challenge to you. What if you were to commit to not discuss current cultural or political issues that you are not willing to pray consistently about? Would that not slow our speech and quicken our prayers? Because we want to talk about it. But what would help us to be suitably affected is to pray first, cry out to God, hear what he says, remember he reigns.
“Not to us, O Lord, but to your name be glory.”
To be suitably affected means we pray consistently.
The second thing that Newton did is he responded wisely. When Newton read the news of the Revolutionary War, the hostilities in New England, as he said, he was caught in a very difficult place pastorally. This may be why I feel so much affection for him. Because even though hundreds of years have passed, things are the same in some ways. And it’s very easy to get into a difficult place pastorally and as a church.
So, let me share the tension he was in. On one side, he had a strong theology of submission to authority.
Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God [Remember, this isn’t a closed system. This is an open system. It’s from God.] and those who exist have been instituted by God.”
1 Peter 2:13-15, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to the governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God.”
So, he and his church members loved their country, recognized their calling as Christians to honor their governing authorities and submit themselves, standing together in a time of conflict. That’s on one side.
On the other side, however, there were dynamics in his church that made that really difficult. A little background. About 100 years earlier, a pastor from Olney, which is the town Newton was pastoring in, had emigrated to the colonies. And between that time and the time Newton was pastoring, several other families had moved this way. So, when this news broke out, what further complicated things was their church had relatives in the colonies and in England. So, you can feel that tension. Also, Newton had serious concerns about his country forcing a colony to remain within the British Empire. He actually wrote a hymn to correspond with this teaching one Sunday called, “On the Commencement of Hostilities in America.” I don’t know why we haven’t sung it yet. It has nine verses. Maybe that’s why. Listen to verse 8:
“May we, at least with one consent,
Fall low before the throne
With tears the nation’s sins lament,
The churches and our own.”
Verse 2 he called England “our guilty land.” So, rumors began to circulate that Newton sided with the colonial rebels. Let’s make it even more complicated. The Great House, where the prayer meeting gathered … This is a picture of the back of the Great House. Two hundred people would cram in there to pray at 5:00 a.m. every Tuesday morning. That Great House was owned by Lord Dartmouth. Lord Dartmouth was on the cabinet established by George III, King George III, to oversee the war. So, the prayer meeting is meeting in a home owned by one of the cabinet members who’s responsible for England winning the war.
And so, as these rumors circulated, you could imagine the tension within this church. Why does this tension matter to us? Some of you may be thinking, why do we even care about this history? If we don’t learn from history, we do what? We keep repeating it. And I find it helpful to understand what Christians have gone through in the past, because then you realize the tension we feel today about certain issues, that not a new thing for God’s people.
Newton felt the squeeze between these two biblical principles — one submission to authority and the other, in his view the unjustifiable aggression of his country forcing a colony to remain within the British Empire. So, he feels this tension, and he tries to be submissive to the authorities while he describes his sympathy for America.
Add one more piece. There are people in his church who have relatives in the colonies who stand on one side of the war. And there are people in his church who most likely have family or friends who are fighting in the British army who are going overseas. Can you imagine that tension? These people are gathering on Tuesday mornings to pray together. How do Christians pray together when the one side could pray imprecatory prayers against the other side? How can you even worship together?
This is what, even today in the US, churches are wrestling with. How can we worship with brothers and sisters who are on the opposite side of an issue I feel really passionate about? And the only way I believe we can do that is if we are suitably affected — suitably affected by what we see and hear and experience politically. Querulus will never do it. Querulus will never wake up at 5 a.m. to pray, maybe to argue.
So, we as the people of God, in order to do this, need to know the difference between what Steve talked about last week — the bowling ball and the marble, between what is primary and what is secondary. And the passages that walk through that (1 Corinthians 8, Romans 14:1-15:7), we’ve looked at in detail in the past. It would take several hours for us to walk through all of that. So, I want to try to summarize that with four words that I find helpful when wrestling with this question.
Passages (the first one): what does the Bible say and be careful to read it in its context. [I think we have a slide for that.] Principles (the second one): what convictions flow from these Bible passages? Policies: what laws or programs should be adopted in light of that? And then priorities: which ones of these issues take precedence over others?
And as you as you look at those four, you can see we are moving from clear to clearish to unclear, as you move down. This is really important to understand. They may all be clear in your mind. But for Christians whose consciences are shaped by the Scriptures, the further we move from the clear statement of the Word of God to the less clear political conviction that is in my heart, to the less clear, how do we as a nation form policies that are appropriate and helpful, to even less clear in light of this and this, which one should be done first? Which one left undone? Which is the priority?
To help us, let’s pick an issue — immigration, for example, a controversial issue in our day right now. What are the passages that address that? Well, we could talk very generally about love of neighbor, welcoming stranger. But then we could also … Let me stay there for a second. As Bruce Ashford points out, for a Christian, we have more in common with an undocumented person who doesn’t speak our language, who is a believer than we have in common with our neighbor who is not a believer, who grew up next to us. Do we understand that? As believers, if we look at the whole … Remember, we’re not in a closed system. We’re not just trying to remake ourselves in our own image. We’re looking at ourselves in light of the One who made us for his glory, who revealed himself through his Son. So, a fellow believer who may be an undocumented citizen or may have come in illegally, we still have more in common with that person than a fellow American citizen. I’m not saying that answers the policy question. What we’re trying to do is get the heart of how a Christian thinks about this. Because remember, we shape policies, and over time policies shape us. That’s part of understanding political discipleship. So, love of neighbor, love of stranger.
But secondly, there are passages like Romans 13 where Paul specifically says that a government is raised up by God as “God’s servant for your good.” They have the sword or the machine gun (the military, the police) for the protection of the citizens under their care. So, Christians cannot just stop at love of neighbor; they must also acknowledge that if I love my faraway neighbor, I also love my near neighbor and pray for our government that they would keep the laws that they establish, protect the citizens within their care, or they fail at the most fundamental level of what it means to be a government.
So, those are the passages. We can wrestle with a lot of details, but in general. So, then there are principles that flow from that. Our heart is to welcome immigrants, but then we’re also praying for our government to protect its borders, to enforce its laws, to pursue social stability, not just so that we can protect our way of life, but so that the gospel would advance.
But then we go one more step. Well, then what kind of policy should be adopted? Should we build a wall? Should there be amnesty? What about the dreamers? And we should not (this is very important), we should not let a particular political party that we are affiliated with define exactly where we stand on all these. Because remember, we shape policy, policy shapes us.
And so the final point, priorities. Just because you wrestle with these issues doesn’t answer the question which comes first and which is more significant than another. I believe — and I know, again, my point is not to try to convince you of a particular policy in this discussion. But to illustrate the way (a couple of things) we move from clear to unclear. But also, life groups (5 a.m. prayer meetings) can flourish when Christians understand the difference between the clear Word of God and the less clear political conviction that I have formed and even less clear policies that I commend.
Does that make sense? That is the way in which we can flourish together, sharpen one another, pray for what we know is true, even in the midst of a lot of tension, without immediately turning to the person who differs with us and say, “You hate immigrants. You’re xenophobic!” Or, “You hate your own people. You’re autophobic!” Which is generally where the discussions tend to go today. Christians can have an enormous influence on society because we live in this open system.
What does that mean practically? Well, go back to Psalm 115:1. We’re daily feeding on the steadfast love and faithfulness of God. What do those words mean? Quick word study. Steadfast love there is the Hebrew word “hesed,” which is his loving loyalty, often translated his mercy. The next word faithfulness is the Hebrew word “emeth,” which is translated firmness, often truth, sometimes faithfulness. But one has this idea of rigidity, truthfulness and the other, compassion. Jesus is full of grace and full of truth. Our Father is constantly pouring out compassion and is truthful, is firm and compassionate.
One of the things Christians can bring to the political table is a refusal to choose between a mindless compassion and a heartless enforcement. Parties get to be known as one or the other. Christians have to be known for both. We can’t let a particular political agenda of a particular party shape us, do political discipleship on us. We must be formed by God through his Word in Christ.
And therefore, as you look at these four, you can see how Querulus doesn’t know how to distinguish between policy, convictions, and passages. Therefore, he can’t imagine praying with someone who differs with him, can’t imagine worshiping, can’t imagine raising his hands, exalting the Lord with someone who voted for somebody different from him, because he is merging these four. Now you can do this same exercise with poverty, critical race theory, climate changes, vaccines — you name it. Newton prayed consistently, responded wisely, and then (#3) he engaged selectively, or we could say strategically.
What do I mean by this? Well, contrast Querulus, who speaks dogmatically about everything yet accomplishes virtually nothing. Newton was extremely selective as to what he engaged in politically. For example, when the Revolutionary War broke out, he knew he didn’t have lobbying power. He knew he couldn’t stop the war. So, what did he do? He prayed consistently, called for a prayer meeting. He responded wisely. He wrote a hymn. He ministered through letters. But this is what I find fascinating.
There’s another issue that Newton responded to very differently, and that was the slave trade. A little background. Prior to becoming a Christian, John Newton had served as a sailor in the Royal Navy. He worked then later on a slave ship. He actually became a slave in Africa to the Sherbro people for several years before he was freed and then tragically became a captain of a slave ship. Then he was truly freed and became a Christian. And everything began to change. Eventually, Newton felt called to be a part of ending this horrific trade in the British Empire. He counseled — let me give you a few examples of what he did — he counseled his young friend, William Wilberforce, who had a ton of political influence and came to Christ and was going to abandon politics because it was so vile. And Newton said, “Don’t! Hear Christ’s call to be salt and light and influence within the political machinery to end this horrific slave trade.”
Newton wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade.” He wrote in one of the opening paragraphs,
“I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” (John Newton, The Works of John Newton, Volume 6, 522.)
He printed on the front of the pamphlet, Matthew 7:12,
“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
Newton’s writings and sermons had a huge influence. He even testified before several parliamentary subcommittees. And in 1807, parliament banned the slave trade from the British Empire, just months before Newton died. So, when I say he engaged selectively, what I mean was, Newton felt called to make a difference in an area that he was passionate about and could have an influence on. That’s very different than Querulus who’s just buckshot in everything and upset about everything and complaining about everything. It was something he earnestly prayed about, deeply longed to have a positive influence in, and felt called by God to do so.
So, let’s remember, what have we learned in light of this open system we are living in, in the presence of God? What does it mean to be suitably affected? Number 1, pray consistently. Pray consistently. That should be our first response.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a meeting with a group of faith leaders, and I felt awkward because I really don’t do a lot of that stuff. And we had an opportunity to pray over Senator Tim Scott. And as we were praying for him, I was really captured with this thought that this is the highest calling. This is what we as followers of Jesus are called to do first and foremost — not that we don’t do anything else — I’m just saying this is where we start. This is the influence we can have. In this culture of screaming and canceling, we are known for our praying. That’s where we start. Pray consistently,
So, please pray about that challenge, not to talk about things you’re not willing to pray about consistently. Pray consistently. And also, even as I say that, I’m thinking of multiple prayer groups and multiple people in our church who gather in front of abortion clinics to pray, who pray lives to safety, women to safety. That is where we begin.
Secondly, respond wisely. Refuse to be Querulus. And some of us might even want to ask our life groups next time we meet, “Am I Querulus?” And if they just stare at you and don’t want to answer, you got your answer. They’re afraid of you. And along with that, to respond wisely. Just picture Newton in his church with flaming loyalists, “Crush the colonies!” Praying together with people who have family in the colonies and are longing for them to be free and safe. Just imagine that kind of wisdom. I want to be an agent of that kind of peace. Not that would be the end. Not that we don’t have convictions. But knowing how to distinguish what does the Bible clearly say? What are the passages I’m holding on to? What are the principles that flow from that? What are the policies that I advocate for, but also defer to others who might recommend different policies? Explain why you hold to that. Let’s debate that in a healthy way. And then, what are the priorities? Where do we begin, and how do we move forward?
And then engage selectively. And this is where we hear the call of God to start small. As Steve talked about last week, start local. You’re not thinking big, change the world. How do I change my community? How do I bless my street? My town? And then when God calls you into something like that, to affect the culture, to affect politically even, to be faithful. Start small, go long, don’t quit.
As our worship team comes and we respond in worship, I want us first to respond. Some you may want to keep your Bible open, look over your notes. Let’s just take a time of individual response. What is the Spirit specifically saying to you from Psalm 115, from the life of Newton, from some of the other passages we looked at? Let’s respond to his Word individually, and then we will collectively pray and worship.