God is God—Government is Not

I’ve noticed something, and I’m sure you have too. We’re facing a time of major cultural upheaval across the Western world. Divisions run deep, and the cultural rifts that have long sat silent beneath our feet are emerging in the light of COVID-19 and the U.S. election.

When the world around us starts to shake, we naturally feel around for something to hold on to. And in a secular age, one of the most obvious stabilising forces for us is politics. More than I can ever remember, we seem to be hoping for political solutions to our crises, and are forgetting the healthy limits of government.

With our tax dollars, governments provide important services that the private sector could never manage alone—from healthcare to policing to infrastructure and more. We need government. But we also need to resist the temptation to ask government for everything—and to protect us from everything.

Like the proverbial 40-year-old still living in his parents’ basement, it’s easy to expect our governments to meet every need that charities, businesses or we ourselves might have provided in a past age. We are especially at risk when we ask the government to save us from the consequences of our own unpredictable and unhealthy lifestyles.

We could go on outsourcing our needs to bigger budgets and more powerful bureaucrats, and in doing so, we would find short-term solutions to our problems. But we’d also build for ourselves a suffocating surveillance state and be tempting tyranny. Thomas Jefferson wisely warned that “a government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.”

Last century, many nations responded to their times of cultural upheaval by turning to politics as an all-encompassing solution. But it ended in terrible bloodshed.

The scourges of fascism and communism seem like a mystery to us until we realise that their infamous leaders won the trust of the masses with grand promises. So great were their promises that the only way to fulfil them was for their nations to become totalitarian—to make every aspect of life the concern of government. As C.S. Lewis sagely warned,

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive … those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It’s not as though tyranny is just around the corner for us (though recent events in Victoria rightly have many Australians concerned). Still, for the health of our democracies and for our own headspace, we need to return to some basic truths.

The human race was made to need God. In the modern era, we have put God at a distance, or we have redefined him as a kind of impersonal force that isn’t too concerned with everyday human affairs.

The disappearance of faith from the West is why we are so tempted by political solutions today. In the absence of God, the State feels like the next best thing; the most powerful alternative to God that can fill the empty void above us.

But political solutions are only temporary—and they can be both divisive and dangerous.

We will always have to deal with politics and government. Even Jesus told us to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s—whether our taxes, or in a democratic age, our votes. But we have a higher hope than politics: the God who is there. Most important of all is that we render to God the things that are God’s.

Even as we live out our days in these unstable and earthly kingdoms, God invites us to find our stability in his unseen, eternal kingdom.

As Psalm 20 reminds us, “In times of trouble, may the Lord answer your cry. May the name of the God of Jacob keep you safe from all harm… Some nations boast of their chariots and horses, but we boast in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:1,7).

An eternal perspective has very practical benefits. It reminds us that the utopia we naturally long for is coming and therefore doesn’t need to be attempted down here. (This is a relief, given how many of our past attempts at it have ended in disaster). It is also a warning to would-be tyrants that they won’t escape judgment.

Faith in God also safeguards us from having our opinions assigned to us by “the powers that be”. If we are all made in God’s image, then each person has the freedom to form their own opinions, and the government has an obligation to protect that freedom.

Most important of all, knowing that we are citizens of heaven allows us to lift our eyes above the debates and divisions of the day and find our hope and security in God himself. C.S. Lewis had wisdom on this, too:

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

The Battle is Not Yours But God’s

What’s the battle that you’re facing right now?

Three thousand years ago, God’s people faced their own battle. Victory came, but only after struggle. And it came in the most unlikely of ways. The lesson they first had to learn was this:

“This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf.”

It’s the story of Jehoshaphat, found in 2 Chronicles 20:1-30.

The setting for the story is this: the tiny kingdom of Judah find themselves surrounded by not one, but three invading armies. From a human point of view, they’re about to get decimated.

Judah’s king at the time is Jehoshaphat. He’s in the middle of a 25-year reign. He’s a good king—a man of integrity, and a skilled diplomat. Most importantly, he is deeply committed to the ways of the Lord.

With armies about to wipe Judah off the map—in the face of great discouragement and defeat, Jehoshaphat does five things that change the game for God’s people.

These are five things we can do when nothing else is working, when we need our own But God moment.

1. Own Your Problem | v1-4

The first is own your problem. It’s possible for weeks or even years to pass before we’re honest about our need for help. Human cultures reward performance and encourage us to hide our battles behind an “I’ve-got-it-together” facade.

Jehoshaphat dropped the facade. In verses 1-4, we read that:

“Jehoshaphat was terrified by this news and begged the Lord for guidance. He also ordered everyone in Judah to begin fasting. So people from all the towns of Judah came to Jerusalem to seek the Lord’s help.”

He owned his problem. He didn’t hide his fear and pretend everything was okay. He begged God for guidance, and wore his weakness in public.

If only you and I allowed ourselves to be that vulnerable. When’s the last time you shared your deepest fears with a friend? Or cried in public? Or healed a broken relationship with the word sorry? Or asked someone to pray for you?

You’re not weak if you admit weakness. Admitting weakness is actually what makes you strong. That’s what takes courage. That’s how you live from the heart. So own your problem, and be vulnerable, like Jehoshaphat was.

2. Lean Into God | v5-12

The second is lean into God. Notice that Jehoshaphat doesn’t go to the pantry and binge. He doesn’t medicate himself with Netflix, a night out on the town, or a sinkhole of self pity.

He goes to God. Read his prayer in verses 5-12. He begins by reflecting on how good God has been in the past, helping Israel take the promised land, and fight off their enemies, and build the temple.

What are the good deeds God has done in your life that you can recount? If you’ve grown up in Australia, you’ve probably got thousands you could list.

When we refocus our vision on the character and faithfulness of God, as Jehoshaphat did, it actually changes the way we view our circumstances. Our circumstances themselves may not change, but we can always choose to wipe our tears and lean into God for another day.

3. Trust His Promises | v13-17

The third is trust his promises. The Bible is full of promises. Some have counted 8000 of them. That’s a lot of promises (and a lot of counting).

Here, in verses 13-17, God gives a promise through one of his people. He doesn’t use someone famous like Isaiah or Ezekiel. Instead, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon a man called Jahaziel, who we know almost nothing else about. This is what he says:

“Listen, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Listen, King Jehoshaphat! This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid! Don’t be discouraged by this mighty army, for the battle is not yours, but God’s.

“Tomorrow, march out against them… But you will not even need to fight. Take your positions; then stand still and watch the Lord’s victory. He is with you, O people of Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid or discouraged. Go out against them tomorrow, for the Lord is with you!”

The timeless truths of Scripture, so full of God’s promises, are our sure foundation. But we also must be ready to trust his promises when they come as a word for the present moment. We even need to be ready to be the prophetic voice he uses.

Just think. Those powerful words, the battle is not yours but God’s, weren’t uttered by anyone famous. They came through a little person—Jahaziel—someone like you or me.

4. Choose To Worship | v18-21

The fourth is choose to worship. A prophet has given a rousing speech, but Judah is still on the brink of annihilation. Peasants have taken refuge inside Jerusalem’s walls. Invading armies close in. The people are terrified.

What do they do? In verses 18-21, they worship. Jehoshaphat bows low with his face to the ground. Then the whole nation joins him. Imagine the scene: hundreds of thousands prostrating themselves together before God.

Then three groups of worship leaders, who are probably scattered around, stand up and begin singing with a loud voice, praising God.

And as the story fast-forwards to the next day, King Jehoshaphat gives a Braveheart-like speech.

“Listen to me, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be able to stand firm.”

They don’t sharpen their swords or conduct last-minute training for battle. Instead:

“The king appointed singers to walk ahead of the army, singing to the Lord and praising him for his holy splendour, singing: ‘Give thanks to the Lord; his faithful love endures forever!’”

Remember that still, nothing has changed. They’re putting on their armour. The enemy draws near. Besides a prophecy, they have no reason to believe they’ll be alive by sundown. Yet they choose to worship. “Give thanks to the Lord; his faithful love endures forever.”

If Judah could worship God in the face of all this, will you worship God in the face of your battle?  Will you stubbornly give God glory and declare his goodness over your life?

That’s what Judah did. And if you peek ahead, it says God came to their rescue “the very moment they began to sing and give praise”. Worship, in other words, was the key to their triumph.

5. Wait for Victory | v22-30

That leads to the final point, wait for victory. Judah’s victory was incredible. Verses 22-30 tell us that:

“The Lord caused the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir to start fighting among themselves…

“So when the army of Judah arrived at the lookout point in the wilderness, all they saw were dead bodies lying on the ground as far as they could see. Not a single one of the enemy had escaped.”

Not only did Judah survive an imminent invasion. Not only did they survive it without swinging a sword. But we also read that it took them three days to collect the booty. They went home with more showbags than they could carry.

And the story ends with these words:

“So Jehoshaphat’s kingdom was at peace, for his God had given him rest on every side.”

You might be staring down a big army at the moment. But take heart, because victory is on the way. It might not feel like it right now, but as we see in the story of Jehoshaphat, God sometimes lets the odds get stacked against his people so that he gets even more glory in the end.

When you’ve owned your problem, leaned into God, trusted his promises, and chosen to worship, there’s only one thing left to do. You need to wait for victory.

This is the hardest thing to do, because it doesn’t involve you at all. But that’s the point.

“This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf. Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.”