Confessing the Sins of a Nation

There are many great examples of humility and repentance in scripture. One of those examples is found in the opening chapter of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah is a man of Jewish heritage who is in exile in Babylon. He has just learned that the city of Jerusalem, the center for worship to the LORD, is in ruins. The scripture tells us that Nehemiah “sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven,” with these words:

“‘I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.’ Now I was the cupbearer to the king.”

It is interesting to see that Nehemiah mentions not only his own sins but also “the sins of the sons of Israel” which “we” have sinned, including “I” and “my father’s house.”

Normally we think of confession as something that we would only do for ourselves. Passages like Ezekiel 18:20 teach us that sons are not responsible for the sins of their parents, nor parents for the sins of their children. If this is so, what is the benefit of confessing sins that other people have done, as if they could gain forgiveness based on our confession instead of their own, or as though we bore the guilt for what they did in ourselves?

One benefit that might come from confessing the sins of our forefathers and of the communities in which we live, is that it can help us to recognize how pervasive and serious the brokenness of the world around us really is.

This might also help us to recognize how we got in such bad shape and what must be done to turn things around.

Furthermore, in attributing these sins both to “I” and “my father’s house,” Nehemiah may also be articulating the fact that he learned a lot of his bad habits from the culture and the environment into which he was born, and thus rather than “inheriting” their sins automatically, he has nonetheless adopted their sins into his own life and replicated them for himself by his own free will.

We tend to think of past generations as being the backward ones, while our generation has learned from the mistakes of the past. But often times, we are making our own mistakes that may be superficially different, but are in many ways analogous to the sins of those before us.

Isaiah said “Woe is me! I am ruined! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” Before we point the finger solely at our forefathers or at the world around us, maybe we should make sure that we ourselves are not doing the same kind of things.

A Nation in Great Need

I have an American friend who lives in an African country where he teaches school. He is not a Bible believer, but he asked for my help recently in constructing a Biblical argument that he could use to persuade his neighbors to stop brutally beating their children. At night he often hears their shrieks as he is trying to get to sleep.

Having traveled to various countries outside of the U.S. and visited areas of various economic status, I can understand my friend’s experience of being uncomfortably close to his neighbor’s problems. In many places around the world, people live in densely populated clusters, homes are not constructed to be even remotely soundproof, windows may not have glass panes, and the vices of your neighbors are on display around the clock. To be sure, many living in apartments in the U.S. have similar experiences.

I think this may help to explain why Americans so often feel that they are “advanced” and “civilized” above and beyond people in other places. Because we have thick walls. Or, in more general terms, because we do a good job of hiding our problems out of sight and pretending that they do not exist.

How many children will shriek tonight in America, but with no neighbors around to hear it? How many men will use their private high speed internet to view pornography from the comfort of their office, without ever having to make a risky trip to a house of prostitution? How many will abuse prescription medication until it controls their lives, while trying as hard as possible to appear normal for the sake of appearances? For that matter, how many will cry themselves to sleep, confused and lonely, and then get back up the next day and act like everything is fine?

I say all of these things as a warning, lest we forget how essential is the life changing power of the Christ. Technology, wealth, affluence, “civilization” will not save us, it will only help us to hide our vices from one another. But only Christ can make us whole.

The U.S. is a nation founded on Christian ideals, many of which remain strong to this day. But her people, like those of all nations, can be described by the words of Jesus in Matthew 7: “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Paul put it this way in 1 Corinthians 5: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.”

Sin and its effects are everywhere, whether we see them on full display or not. Just because your neighbors seem fine as they smile at you while they briefly emerge from their houses to collect their mail, this does not mean that they are not in desperate need of the gospel.

I love my country, but it is not a utopia, nor will it ever be. We may be one of the richest nations on earth, but we are in desperate need of the truth of God’s Word. We are perishing without it, and most of us will continue to do so. Will you enter through the narrow door, and to bring as many with you as you can?

Jesus can Help You Escape the Malaise

On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered an address live from the oval office that would soon become known as “The Malaise Speech.” Here is an excerpt from that address:

“It’s clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper—deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession… In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Carter is certainly not alone in his observation that “The American Dream” of nice big houses and cars has been unable to fill the holes in our hearts. Addiction specialist Johann Hari puts it this way: “We’ve traded floorspace for friends, we’ve traded stuff for connections, and the result is we are one of the loneliest societies that has ever been.”

So what are we supposed to do, when nothing that we try works? What if I buy new gadgets, and I still feel… bored? What if I binge-watch Netflix, but my own life still feels empty? What if I go to work day after day, but I can’t help but wander if what I do really matters to anyone, anyways?

A new year is beginning. Do you find yourself hopeful that this year, things will be different? Maybe that feeling of emptiness that so many of us feel is telling us that we are missing out on something vastly important.

I cannot tell you how many times I have resolved to make changes in my life. “From now on, I am going to do the dishes every day. I am going to eat healthy. I am going to pray for an hour each morning. I am going to live a life with purpose, making the most of every moment.”

But then that “malaise” that Jimmy Carter warned about comes creeping back in. I find myself turning to “stuff” instead of to meaningful human connection, against the advice of Johann Hari.

But as cheesy at it may sound in a society so traditionally steeped in religious tradition, Jesus has answers.

He told us that He came to give us a new kind of water that would not simply leave us thirsty again. He told us that He came to teach us how to live abundantly. He modeled a life of intentionality and passion.

In Ephesians 5:26-27, we are told that Jesus died for the church “so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory.”

To be sanctified is to be set apart as something that is special and different. Do you want to get out of the rat race and start living a different kind of life, one with true meaning? To be washed in holy water is to have a fresh start in life, day after day, as His blood continually cleanses us. Do you think you could use a new start now and then? To be presented to God “in all of your glory” is to unlock that potential that always seems to get snuffed out by “the malaise.” Do you want God’s help to live abundantly?

Jesus says those things happen in the church. Yes, as cheesy as it sounds in a nation as traditionally religious as ours. Yes, even though the church is made up of human beings who, by their very nature as human beings, often seem pretty insensitive and dimwitted. Yes. Jesus says those things happen in the church. Will you join us?