Hearing Jesus in the Psalms

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Right in the middle of most English Bibles, there is a collection of one hundred and fifty ancient Hebrew songs. Filled with emotion, imagery, and devotion to the Lord, they are a masterpiece of poetic expression as well as a profound source of encouragement, comfort, and guidance for believers in the midst of the trials of daily life.

But despite their beauty and transparent honesty, it is a mistake to think that reading the Psalms is a simple business. Very often when we read the Psalms, our natural impulse is to appropriate the experiences of the psalmists to ourselves. The “I” of the author becomes the “I” of the reader as we embrace their emotions and place ourselves in their shoes.

Unfortunately, it often becomes difficult to sustain this way of reading the Psalms. Sure, it works in Psalm 23. But what about when the psalmist calls for the destruction of his enemies, or asserts his blamelessness, or promises to offer a sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem? How do we apply these psalms to our lives? Do we try to force them into the categories of our own experience? Do we turn them into allegories? Or do we just ignore them and stick to our top ten favorites?

I think these sort of questions should prompt us to re-examine simplistic approaches to reading the Psalms. It’s not that we shouldn’t identify directly with the voice of the psalmist. But that isn’t the only way to read the Psalms, or even the first way we should be reading them.

There are multiple layers to reading the Psalms. The first is the historical context of each individual psalm. Before we rush to claim the words of a psalm as our own, we must first hear them as the voice of a particular person in a particular time and place. It’s vital for us to understand who the psalmist is, what the circumstances are which they are addressing, and what cultural, historical, and theological factors can help us understand the meaning of their words.

A second layer is each psalm’s place within the story of the book as a whole. As many biblical scholars have recognized, the five-book division of the Psalms is a reflection on the progression from the rise of David (Book 1, psalms 1-41), through the Davidic monarchy (Book 2, psalms 42-72), the fall of the Davidic kingdom (Book 3, psalms 73-89), and the life of the believing community in exile (Book 4, psalms 90-106), to the celebration of restoration and return (Book 5, psalms 107-150). Each book, of course, contains psalms written at other times than the period it reflects; but the overall mood of each book is implicit throughout, and each book’s place in the story is explicitly reflected in key psalms at the beginning and end.

Just as reading the psalms in light of the first layer enables us to hear the voice of the individual psalmist, recognizing this second layer enables us to hear the voice of the entire worshiping people of God. We approach the psalms not only as individual expressions of faith, but as the songs of a community spanning multiple generations and centuries united around the story of God’s faithfulness in the past.

Of course, if we leave the Psalms there, reading them will simply be an academic exercise, the study of the religious experiences of an ancient civilization. If we are to claim the Psalms as God’s word to us, we must have some way to bridge the gap between their original context and our own needs and concerns.

This brings us to the third layer to reading the Psalms. The story of God’s faithfulness does not end with the return from the Babylonian exile. So the psalms look forward to the complete fulfillment of his promises to Israel, and especially to the coming of another anointed King, another David – the Christ.

The idea of hearing the Psalms as the voice of Christ has a long history in the church, appearing in the thought of countless theologians from Augustine to Bonhoeffer. But its roots go back all the way to the earliest preaching of the apostles themselves. We see a great example in Acts 2. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter explains the resurrection and ascension of Jesus through an exposition of Psalms 16 and 110. Peter draws our attention to the fact that, though written by David, neither of these psalms was literally true of him. Thus he explains Psalm 16:10 (“You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay”) as follows:

Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact (Acts 2:29-32).

Peter here is making a remarkable assertion: that the voice celebrating God’s deliverance in Psalm 16 is not that of it’s author, but of someone else. This doesn’t mean that this Psalm is not rooted in David’s own experience – far from it. But writing as the Lord’s anointed, the sacred king of God’s people, he wrote words that were only figuratively true of himself, but found true and literal fulfillment in the experience of another king, the ultimate Anointed One, Jesus, the Son of David.

This is not a one-off, anomalous interpretation; it is the apostles’ customary approach to the Psalms. Thus in Acts 4:10-11, Peter applies Psalm 118:22 (“the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”) to Jesus’ rejection by the “rulers and elders of the people.” A little later in the same chapter (Acts 4:23-28) the church takes Psalm 2:1-2 – which describes “the rulers” conspiring “against the Lord and against his Christ [i.e. ‘Anointed’]” – as a prediction of the sufferings of Jesus, God’s anointed servant. Psalm 2 will reappear later in Acts along with Psalm 16 in the first recorded sermon of the apostle Paul (Acts 13:32-37).

The rest of the NT bears out this practice of seeing Jesus as the subject of the Psalms. Psalm 2, which we have already seen cited twice in Acts, appears everywhere from Matthew (3:17; 17:5) to Revelation (2:27; 11:15; 12:5; 19:15). Psalm 110, cited by Peter in Acts 2, is the most widely-quoted Psalm in the New Testament, appearing in nine different books and providing the central text for the sermon we call the book of Hebrews. Psalms 22 and 69 stand out for their use in the gospels, which see them fulfilled in the suffering and death of Christ (Matthew 27:34-48; Mark 15:24, 34; John 2:17; 15:25; 19:24, 28-29). Even psalms which speak of not of the Davidic king but of “the righteous man” (Psalm 34:19-20) or just “man” in general (Psalm 8:4) are explained as references to Jesus (John 19:36; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:5-9).

In all this, the writers of the New Testament are only following Jesus’ own teaching and example. Jesus frequently presented himself as the subject of various psalms (Matthew 7:23; 21:9, 42-44; 23:39; 26:64; 27:46; John 13:18; 15:25). After his resurrection, he explained to his disciples how was the fulfillment of “things written … in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44-47).

It should come as no surprise, then, that when the writers of the New Testament read the Psalms, they neither left them as historical relics nor forced them into the framework of their own individual experiences. The voice they heard in the Psalms was neither a recording of long-dead heroes nor the echo of their own personalities, but the word of the living Christ in whom all the promises, prophecies, and pre-figurings of the Old Testament had finally reached their perfect fulfillment.

Reading the psalms this way makes a radical difference. Instead of laboring to make the psalmists’ words our own by trying to work ourselves up into the same emotional state as them, we can listen in as the Son of God embraces all the turmoil and mess of human experience for our sakes. Indeed, he experienced it all far more deeply than any other human ever has. David felt abandoned by God (Psalm 22:1), but Jesus actually was. David only imagined the joy of resurrection, which Jesus truly experienced (Psalm 16:9-11).

No part of human experience is alien to Jesus. He freely shared our pain, our weakness, our fear, our loneliness. And though he himself committed no sin, he bore our sins and took our guilt as his own, so that even our songs of confession can be taken on his lips (e.g. Psalm 40:12; compare verses 6-8 and Hebrews 10:5-10). And, as Augustine said, because he came to sing our song, we can sing his song.* Because we have been united with Christ by faith, his death becomes our death and his life our life (Romans 6:3-10; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:4-10). Because he joined in our lamentation, we can join in his song of victory.

It is in Christ alone that the words of the Psalms become truly ours. By entering into our fallen human experience, he is able to lead us out of it – out of our sin and lostness and into his glorious victory. Jesus thus becomes the bridge connecting our personal experience to the sometimes alien words of the psalms, so that in him we may claim them as our own. Despite our ongoing struggle with sin, in Christ we can boast of perfect righteousness (Psalm 18:20-24). Even when our own lives are a complete mess, in him we can celebrate a salvation worth proclaiming to every nation and generation (Psalm 22:25-31). Though this world sometimes beats down upon us, in Jesus we can look forward to sharing in his victorious exaltation (Psalm 2:9; Revelation 2:26-27).

Not only that, but even those psalms that seem straightforward and relatable to us take on new depths when we hear them as the words of Jesus. Not only the royal triumph of Psalm 21 and the righteous suffering of Psalm 22, but even the trusting intimacy with God of Psalm 23 can be fully ours only because it was first and most truly his. It is because he passed through the valley of the shadow of death for us that we can dare to walk there without fear. And it is because he eternally sits at the right hand of the Father that we know we have a dwelling place in his house, where we will join together at last with David and all the people of God in singing the new song of the Lamb forever and ever.

 

*Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 30(2).1.3. “He spoke our words so that we might speak his words.” The original Latin of Augustine’s second exposition of Psalm 31 is available here. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an English translation online.

Image Credit: Supper at Emmaus by Hendrik Terbrugghen, circa 1621; http://the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=89555

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Recognizing Almonzo

AlmanzoLrgEvery day, after the lunch dishes are cleared away and the baby and toddler are diapered and put down in their cribs, either my wife or I will sit down on the couch with our two older children for story time.

Our kids love story time. For me and Rebecca, it’s a joy to watch their imaginations expand as we share with them beautiful, powerful, and challenging narratives. We read from classic children’s books, a chapter every day, whether it be The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Alice in Wonderland or The Secret Garden.

Our kids have especially enjoyed the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Beginning with Little House in the Big Woods and stretching through several more volumes, this series tells the (mostly) true story of Laura’s own childhood in a pioneer family in the 1870s and ’80s. It opens up a fascinating window into life on the frontier as the Ingalls family settles successively in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Minnesota, before finally establishing a permanent home in DeSmet, South Dakota.

But one of the books is different. Farmer Boy follows the daily life of nine-year-old Almanzo Wilder as he goes to school, works on his father’s farm, and dreams of being a farmer himself. Though it also presents daily life in rural nineteenth-century America through the eyes of a child, it appears at first glance to have little connection to the story of Laura Ingalls. Neither she nor any other member of the Ingalls family appears in the book, and the action is set in upstate New York, far from the woods and prairies of the frontier.

Nevertheless, Almanzo’s place in Laura’s story is clear from the beginning. Even without reading the later books, in which the two of them do meet, we know exactly who Almanzo is. We have been reading a story about a little girl named Laura Ingalls written by a woman name Laura Ingalls Wilder. It doesn’t take a deductive genius to see that Almanzo Wilder is clearly destined to be Laura’s husband. Farmer Boy really is part of Laura’s story – even though she hadn’t even been born at the time of the events it relates.

Then there’s this other book series that our kids love. We read from it every evening after supper. It’s a much longer and more complex series, but just like the “Little House” books, it also tells a single, true story. Though it can be a challenge at times to make sense of some of the characters or individual chapters and books, it all starts to fit together once you recognize who wrote the story, and who it’s all about.

I’m talking, of course, about the Bible. Especially when reading the Old Testament, it can be easy to come away scratching our heads and wondering what it’s all about. Why should I care about an ancient genealogy? What is the significance of a violent conflict between people who lived centuries ago and whose names I can’t even pronounce?

While taking the time to read the text carefully and study the historical background can certainly help with some of these things, the most important step we can take in making sense of the Bible is recognizing that the Bible, like the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, is an autobiographical account. God is both the author and the main character of the entire Bible. And just as Laura’s story builds toward her marriage to the hero of Farmer Boy, the Bible builds to the coming of God’s eternal Son as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David and Seed of Abraham.

When we recognize that the entire Bible is the story of God’s redeeming work through Jesus the Christ, we begin to see how all the characters, events, and themes of the Old Testament fit into that story. In the sacrifices of Leviticus, we see foreshadows of the true and final atonement of the cross of Christ. In the flawed heroes of Judges we see God’s pattern of raising up Spirit-empowered saviors for his people, and we learn to long for one who will not be in such obvious need of saving himself. In the stories of the escape from Egypt and the return from Babylon we find a promise of restored fellowship with God. In Moses and Aaron and David we meet prototypes of Prophet, Priest, and King which will find their perfect embodiment in Jesus.

Just like recognizing Almanzo as Laura’s future husband helps us make sense of Farmer Boy, so recognizing the Old Testament as the back-story to God’s saving work in Jesus helps us hear it as God’s word for us. As you read that word yourself or share it with your own family, may you hear his voice and find yourself caught up into his great and all-encompassing story.

 

Image credit: Almanzo Wilder, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1000355

Walking with Jesus: Devotional Readings for Lent and Eastertide

On March 1st, many Christians around the world will begin observing the season of Lent, a period of forty days of preparation (not counting Sundays) leading up to the greatest day of the church year – the feast of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast begins yet another forty day season – Eastertide, which commemorates the forty days Jesus spent on earth with his disciples before his ascension into heaven.

stained-glass-1234424As with Advent and Christmastide, our family takes a break from reading through the whole Bible in our daily devotions to follow a special reading plan for Lent and Eastertide. Every Sunday throughout these seasons, we read a psalm that depicts the Messiah’s sufferings (during Lent) and victory (during Eastertide). In addition, on the weekdays of Lent we read through the entire Gospel of Mark.

Of course, unlike Advent and Christmas, many evangelicals are wary of Lent, and with some reason. For much of Christian history, Lent has primarily been a time of mandatory fasting. Because the Bible nowhere commands such a practice, the protestant reformers rightly championed the freedom of Christians to ignore the ecclesiastical laws prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent. Many of the churches that embraced their recovery of biblical teaching have thus downplayed or outright opposed the celebration of Lent.

I am in full agreement with this response to the imposition of extra-biblical requirements. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). This means that, while fasting is a good and helpful spiritual discipline, no one can tell anyone else when and how they should fast. Observing a man-made festival does not make one a better Christian or more acceptable to God than someone who does not observe it.

All that to say, I don’t think observing Lent (or Easter, or Christmas, or any other traditional festival) is required of believers. But I do think that it can be a useful tool. In particular, I and my family have found the preparation time of Lent to be helpful in underlining the importance of Easter. This matters, because Easter really gets the short end of the stick. Whether it’s the fact that the date of Easter moves around in a wacky and arcane way (it depends on the calculation of “ecclesiastical new moons“) or because the birth of a baby is easier to incorporate into superficial religiosity than the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Christmas is a much bigger deal in our culture and our churches than Easter, which is much more central to our faith.

In our family, we treat Lent in somewhat the same way as Advent – a time of preparation. As with Advent, we light candles at dinnertime. Only this time, instead of lighting more candles as we draw near to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, we begin with seven lit candles in the shape of a cross and then extinguish one each Friday, symbolizing Jesus’ willing laying aside of his glory and humbling himself unto death. Then, on Easter Sunday all the candles are lit again and continue to be lit each evening until Ascension. We also spread out the consumption of our Easter Candy throughout Eastertide to savor the joy of the resurrection. And, of course, we read the Gospel of Mark on the forty weekdays of Lent and Psalms on the Sundays.

We’ve been following this reading plan for the last few years, and we’ve really found it a great way to renew our focus on Jesus and to dig deeper as a family into knowing him through his word. Mark is probably the earliest and certainly the shortest and most action-oriented of the four gospels, and our kids really get into hearing the story of Jesus directly from the Bible. The readings from Mark are mostly fairly short (though they get longer during Holy Week), and I’ve endeavored to organize them into groups that reflect the structure and message of Mark. The Psalms are selected especially on the basis of their use in the New Testament as prophesies or foreshadowings of the Messiah. We would love to have you join us in this devotional journey, either as an individual or as a family. If you’d like to give it a try you can download it here.

It is my prayer that God would use his word to draw my family and yours into a deeper sense of gratitude for the person and work of Jesus and a greater joy in the salvation we have through his death and resurrection.

Image credit: matt coley, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stained-glass-1234424

Christ is Born: A New Christmas Carol

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I love Christmas carols. From standards like “Joy to the World” and “What Child Is This” to lesser-known carols such as “The Wexford Carol” or “The Holly and the Ivy,” I love singing and listening to the traditional songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus.

This is a carol that I wrote a couple of years ago. Though the words are new, I tried to give it a traditional feel (the tune is from and old English drinking song), and I drew heavily on Scripture (mostly Luke 2, but also Isaiah and the Psalms). My hope is that it will move you to sing, celebrate, and rejoice in the amazing news of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.2013-christ-is-born

P.S. This carol is free to download. You may reproduce, use, perform, or distribute it as much as you like, provided that you do not charge for such services or make any changes without permission.

Image Credit: Rebecca Adeney, © 2013. Used by permission.

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From Longing to Rejoicing: Devotional Readings for Advent & Christmastide

Updated 2/28/2017: After some beta testing, I’ve slightly revised this devotional plan to make some of the readings shorter and more suitable for reading in a single sitting.

Twelve days from now, Christians around the world will begin taking the the four weeks leading up to Christmas to observe the season of Advent. The name “advent” comes from the Latin word for “coming” (adventus). Advent is thus traditionally a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, both as a re-enactment of the expectation of believers in the Old Testament and as an expression of our continued longing for Christ’s second and final coming.

I really love both the anticipation of Advent and the celebration of Christmastide. This year, I’ve designed a new Bible reading plan to guide our family’s observance of this special time of the year. We’ll walk through the grand gospel story of how God prepared the way for the coming of his Son, from the promises to the patriarchs to the deliverance of Israel to the visions of the prophets, culminating in the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ. Along the way we’ll be infusing the New Testament descriptions of Christ as Lion and Lamb, Prophet and Priest, Son of David and Seed of Abraham, with the richness of their original Old Testament significance.

If you’re familiar with the Jesse Tree, this is basically the same idea. The key difference is that I’ve planned these readings to reflect the historic distinction between Advent and Christmastide. As I’ve already mentioned, Advent is traditionally a advent-1430862time of preparation, while Christmas is a time of celebration. But this doesn’t mean that we need to cram the whole party into December 25. Christmas Day is actually just the beginning of the season of Christmastide, which runs for a full twelve days (yes, that’s where the song comes from) leading up to the feast of Epiphany on January 6, which is usually associated with the visit of the Wise Men. (In some cultures, Epiphany is known as “Three Kings’ Day.”)

Advent is about longing; Christmastide is about fulfillment. During Advent, our family chants, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” every evening when we light our advent wreath. In Christmastide, we give each other gifts and sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”

I find this distinction really helpful for keeping my focus on Christ during the holiday season. While all the world around is caught up in a frenzy of sentimentality leading up to a big crash on December 26,  we get to experience the rising anticipation of Advent culminating in a full twelve days of feasting to savor and celebrate the good news that the Promised One has finally come to save us and reconcile us to God.

In this new Bible reading plan, the weekdays of Advent are spent tracing the high points of the Old Testament story, while the Sundays highlight visions of the final coming of Christ. Then we spend Christmastide soaking in the first few chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John. Because Advent begins on the fourth Sunday preceding Christmas, it varies in length from 22 to 28 days, so I’ve designed this plan to be able to expand and contract by including several optional readings. As it happens, this year we get the longest possible Advent, so we’ll get to do all 28 readings!

In my last post, I noted the importance of gaining an understanding of the main storyline of the Bible. This reading plan can be one way of building and reinforcing that foundational perspective on the overarching message of Scripture. That’s a big part of why I’m looking forward to leading my family through these readings year after year. Because the Bible is God’s word, I take seriously my calling to feed my kids on it directly every day. We read a chapter of the Bible together every evening after dinner; if we keep it up, each of our kids will have been through the whole Bible three or four times before they leave the house. But, while I love getting my kids into direct contact with all of Scripture, I don’t want them to lose the forest for the trees. Taking a break every year to review the big picture should help us all keep our bearings as we dig into God’s word together.

If you’d like to join us on this journey, you are more than welcome. You can use this plan for either family or personal devotions, and you can even use it at other times of the year if you’re so inclined. If you’re interested in checking it out and giving it a try (or using it as a springboard for creating your own plan), you can download it here.

I hope and pray that reading these passages builds your anticipation of Christ’s coming and joy in the good news that the Lord has come. Let every heart prepare him room!

Image credit: Veronica Moore, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/advent-1430862

Making Sense of the Bible (including the weird parts)

You need the Bible. If you’re a parent, your children need the Bible too. I’ve written before about the importance of personal and family devotions.

But let’s be honest: the Bible can sometimes be hard to understand. I mean, if you stick to easier parts (most of the New Testament), it’s not so bad. But try making sense of the dietary laws, genealogies, obscure prophecies, and ancient battle records that make up a significant chunk of the Old Testament.

bible-1417720Many Christians, of course, simply avoid those parts of the Bible. They have their favorite books (or maybe just their favorite verses) that they return to again and again. But in this way, they effectively deny that the hard parts are really God’s word. Others, convinced that they really ought to read every part of the Bible, dutifully grit their teeth and force their way through the Leviticus part of their read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, thankful that they can mostly just pay attention to the New Testament and Psalms as they do so.

This isn’t how it is supposed to be. After all, Paul was talking about the Old Testament when he said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, correcting, reproving, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture – not just the parts modern, western Christians find interesting – is not only inspired, but directly beneficial for our daily living. Even Leviticus.

The key to profiting from the reading of each part of Scripture is learning to see how it all connects to the whole. As we see the big picture – the central point and main themes – we can begin to work out how particular details that seem strange and irrelevant connect to the gospel, and thus to our own lives.

Because, as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus is the unifying center of the Bible. He is the goal of every passage from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, he says so himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).

Too, often, we approach the Bible as if it were centered on us. This not surprisingly makes much of the Old Testament seem irrelevant and out of place. But when we approach Scripture as the story of Jesus, we begin to see how things fit together. We see how the events and people of the Old Testament are part of the process of how God brought us salvation through Christ. We see how particular elements of the biblical story foreshadow and reflect the great story at their center. We see why the authors of the New Testament keep bringing in the imagery and categories of the Old Testament to explain the Christ who has finally come.

This switch doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, reading the whole Bible as one great story centered on Jesus is a skill that cannot be mastered in a lifetime. But there are some good tools to help you get started on your way. For adults, God’s Big Picture by Vaughn Roberts is an excellent and approachable road map that charts the major thoroughfares of the Bible’s message. For children and their parents, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible is the best guide I know.

But, of course, these are supplementary tools. There is no substitute for sitting down day after day with God’s great story about Jesus.

Image Credit: zizzy0104, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/bible-1417720

VOTE FOR JESUS

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Unfortunately, Jesus Christ will not be on the ballot in my state. Or yours. But that shouldn’t stop us from voting for him.

Let me clarify: I’m not advocating writing in “Jesus Christ” on your ballot for President of the United States. For one thing, Jesus definitely wasn’t born as an American citizen, so he doesn’t meet the constitutional requirements. Far more importantly, it would be an insult to offer such a comparatively paltry and insignificant position to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

No, when I say that we should vote for Jesus, I mean it in the same sense as when someone says that we should work for Jesus or use our free time for Jesus or steward our resources for Jesus or do everything we do for Jesus. Because Jesus is Lord, we are called to devote every activity and all our energies to serve and honor him. Our political activities are no exception.

If you are a Christian, your first loyalty is not to an earthly nation, but to Christ and his kingdom. “But our citizenship is in heaven, from where we eagerly await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). This does not mean that we should renounce all loyalty to the nation in which God has placed us; rather, we should promote and pray for the peace of this earthly city (Jeremiah 29:7), even as we recognize that it is not our ultimate home (Hebrews 13:14). After all, the apostle Paul was quite willing to submit to civil authorities and exercise his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29; 25:10-11). But his goal in doing so was to advance the kingdom of Christ. In the same way, we should utilize the rights we have as citizens of a democratic republic to speak and vote for the glory of Christ, not ultimately to advance our own interests or the interests or any other party or group.

I’m not going to tell you which candidate you should vote for this November. While few practicing Christians are thrilled with the options available to us this year, serious arguments have been put forward for a number of different voting strategies. While I have my own ideas about what is the best and wisest course, my concern is that, whoever you vote for, you vote for Jesus.

Here are a few suggestions on how we might do that.

1. Distinguish between proximate and ultimate goals. Though political action can and should be a means of serving Christ, our ultimate purpose and calling is not to politics, but to Christ. We must never mistake the means for the end. All too often Christians have acted as if Jesus had taught that the greatest commandment was to overturn Roe v. Wade, or as if his great commission to his disciples was to go into all the world and end violence against women. These surely are worthy and important goals, but they are not identical with loving God and neighbor and winning disciples for Christ. Whenever we treat such secondary ends as our ultimate purpose, we are guilty of idolatry. And in service to our idol, we may find ourselves sacrificing all other worthy goals, including our first order goals of worshiping God, loving our neighbor, and bearing witness to the gospel. No political power or legislative victory – not even gaining the whole world – is worth losing our souls (Mark 8:36).

2. Be honest about the weaknesses and sins of your own side. Admitting that your chosen candidate has major character flaws is not necessarily the best strategy for winning an election. But no election is worth sacrificing our integrity and undermining our moral credibility. We may honestly believe that a candidate is the least bad choice without condoning or minimizing the heinousness of their behavior. While this applies to every candidate – for all have sinned – the recent revelations of Donald Trump’s boasts of having sexually assaulted women with impunity are a particularly stark test of his supporters’ willingness to maintain moral credibility at the expense of political expedience. A few have managed both to support their candidate and to condemn his behavior. Many have not.

3. Treat those who disagree – especially other Christians – with love and respect. It is all too easy to condemn and despise people who express support for a candidate whom we regard as a danger to our society. But we should recognize that those who choose differently from us may not be ill-intentioned, even if they are sorely mistaken. It may be short-sighted to support a boastful and abusive demagogue because he has promised to appoint pro-life judges. It may be foolish to support a politician with a profoundly secularist agenda because at least she is wrong “within normal parameters.” It may be unrealistic to expend one’s vote on an independent candidate who has almost no chance of winning. It may be irresponsible to abstain from voting altogether. But, fraught as this particular election is, we must remember that voting is always a prudential choice between imperfect options. We should give those who choose differently from ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Even when it seems clear that a Facebook friend or public figure is acting out of idolatry or dishonesty, we should deal gently with their errors and hope and pray for their repentance (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Let us not wait until after the election to begin the work of healing and reconciliation in our fractured society.

4. Remember that we have other tools in our toolbox. While preserving and increasing the good in our society is a worthy and godly goal, choosing a president is not the only means we have for effecting social change. Take the pro-life movement. Overturning Roe v. Wade is an important goal, but there is so much more we can do to protect the unborn beyond the political arena. Indeed, unless we reduce the demand for abortion by fostering a culture of life (and making having a baby less of a social and financial burden), there will still be abortions, regardless of their legality. Whoever occupies the White House, we can support crisis pregnancy ministries, encourage generous benefits for new mothers, and seriously consider letting our own lives be disrupted by adopting or fostering children whose biological parents have been unable or unwilling to care for them. Similarly, there is so much we can do in our own churches and communities to welcome refugees, foster racial reconciliation, and prevent violence against women, no matter what policies our elected officials enact. Our votes are only one means for pursuing these goals for the glory of God.

5. Rejoice in hope. If you’re like me, you’ve experienced your fair share of anxiety surrounding the outcome of this election. The likelihood of a good outcome seems so remote that it is all too easy to slip into discouragement and despair. Our nation and society seem to be spiraling out of control, and there is so little we can do to stop its destructive course.

In times like these, I need to remember that Jesus is not worried. Our nation is not out of his control; he’s got the whole world in his hands. His kingdom is not shaken, and his throne is secure. Unlike the presidential candidates who fawn and flatter, he does not depend on our vote. We may offer it to him, then, as an act of love and trust, rejoicing to know that he is still working all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Image Credit: By VigilancePrime at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9017276