Thursday, September 08, 2011

What We [Should] Have Learned Since 9/11

Earlier this week, I sat down with a legal pad and wrote across the top of it, "What have we learned since 9/11?" After a lengthy period of time, I stared down at the page, still blank, and decided to start another list: "What should we have learned since 9/11?" Then, the ideas started rolling. As I look at our nation, the church, and the world, I am not sure that we have learned much since 9/11. But when I think about the lessons that we could have learned, indeed the lessons we should have learned, the list is long. Some of these things are hard for me to think, harder for me to write, and will be harder for you to read. Some of them require more explanation than I have space or time to give them here. And of course, any list such as this is partial at best. But here goes:

1. We should have learned that God is not obligated to bless or protect America.

For too many people, patriotism is considered a fruit of the Spirit. While there is nothing wrong (and a good deal right) with a certain degree of patriotism, unbridled nationalistic fervor causes us to blur the lines between our two citizenships. We make the mistake of Old Testament Israel who took the blessings of God for granted and assumed that because they were Israelites, God was obligated to bless them. They took no consideration of the fact that they had violated their covenant with God. Their security was not found in Him, but in their "patriotism". Israel is unique among the nations, for never before and never since has God made a covenant with an entire nation. Contrary to popular opinion, America never struck this deal with God. We have experienced unusual blessings of God's common grace in this country, but they were never deserved. God is not beholden to America to always provide abundantly or to protect from disaster. If other countries of the world are subject to the ravages of sinful humans and terror plots, Americans must not think that we possess a divine right of immunity.

2. We live in a fallen world where sin produces evil and suffering.

That seems obvious, but sometimes in our words, thoughts, and deeds, the understanding of this truth is lacking. I've written on it at length elsewhere, and my sermon this coming Sunday will deal largely with it (so stay tuned), therefore I will not go into this at great lengths. Only to say this -- because of the presence of sin and its effects in the world, we must expect the unthinkable to always be a possibility. The things we see happening around us are not the problem. They are symptoms of a problem. The problem is sin. And God has not dealt with the symptoms apart from the root issue. Jesus Christ has dealt with the root on the cross. But the effects and symptoms will always be present while we endure in this fallen world. A better day is coming, but we are not there yet.

3. War and politics are not simple solutions.

Once upon a time, war was a relatively simple solution. One country or regime declared war on another. They wore uniforms and flew banners. They marched in straight lines and stood face to face and shot each other. The side with the most men left standing won. Though war evolved greatly over the centuries, even up until World War II, war remained rather simple. It came to an end when one side possessed a weapon more powerful than the other side had. But, the world's leaders have agreed (thankfully) that the use of those weapons is not good for humanity. They kill innocent people and cause excessive destruction. We agree. But, if you are going to fight a war, you have to fight it knowing that you can win. And ever since World War II, that has been difficult to determine. The enemy does not always wear a uniform or fly a flag. They don't always play by the rules of war. And because the present war is not a nation against another nation, there are few limits on who can join up to fight. That makes it difficult to know if victory, or even ceasefire, is ever possible.

When it comes to politics, there is always the expectation that new leaders can bring needed change and quick solutions. History proves this to be impossible. Many people voted for Obama thinking that he would immediately withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and bring an end to what was being called "Bush's War." But it hasn't happened yet. And in some ways, the war has gotten worse. It certainly can't be said to have gotten better. And now a new barrage of rhetoric is in the air as we approach another election year. Someone will promise to end the war, to bring the troops home, and to conquer terror in the world. We must not believe it. Those kinds of promises can only be kept by one Person -- the Lord Jesus.

3. The Gospel is the only hope we have.

Since Christ alone is able to bring in a Kingdom of peace and righteousness and perfect justice, then we must seek to become citizens of that kingdom. But we are all spiritual exiles, barred from the borders because of our sin. The good news is that the King has come on a mission of mercy and reconciliation. He has suffered in Himself for the sins we have committed against Him and conquered through resurrection glory. By faith in King Jesus, we can become citizens in His Kingdom and know the comfort and hope of His promises of eternal life. This means that the worst that this world can do to us is kill us. But we have life that cannot be ended by death. So let the world bring what it may to the one who has been rescued by the Gospel. We have a hope that exceeds all the dangers, toils, and snares of this fallen world.

Related to this, the Gospel is not only our only hope. It is also the only hope of our earthly adversaries. The politicians repeatedly say that this is not a war against Islam. And it would be a tragic mistake for us to think that it is. We cannot triumph over a religion by bombs and bullets. Though not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all terrorists are Muslims, there is a movement of Islamic terror. It is utter folly to deny that. And as long as there are people willing to believe the claims of this movement, they will continue to join up and kill and die for it. What hope do we have? What hope do they have? The only hope is the Gospel. It is "the power of God unto salvation" (Romans 1:16). What that Islamic terrorist needs more than anything is Jesus. So, what we should have learned from 9/11 is that the military cannot accomplish what the missionary can. The Christian witness has the potential to lovingly share the life-changing truth of Jesus with unbelievers of whatever stripe, and the Holy Spirit uses that witness to draw the unbeliever to Jesus. Then there begins a transformation of heart and life from the inside out. War, politics, diplomacy, etc. cannot accomplish this. The Gospel can.

4. There is such a thing as divine judgment.

Immediately following 9/11, there were some preachers saying that it happened because of God's judgment on America. They were pressured by PR firms and image consultants into retracting those statements and issuing apologies. Two things about that: (1) None of us should ever claim to know for certain that a specific act is a judgment of God. Some things happen simply because we live in a fallen world. The conditions of a fallen world are, to be sure, rooted in the judgment of God, but they affect us all every day. To claim that a specific event is a specific judgment of God on a specific sin of a specific country is to speak in ignorance. We simply have no revelation to validate that. (2) On the flip side, based on the revelation we do have, neither must we assume that this is NOT what is happening. God brought judgment on Israel repeatedly in the Old Testament by the use of pagan nations. Though those nations themselves were wicked and idolatrous, God used them as agents of judgment on His own people. Could God use Al Qaeda to bring His judgment upon America? It would not be unprecedented. But when God did this to Israel, He announced it to Israel. He is not making these kinds of announcements today. Revelation is completed in the Scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ. So we cannot claim it with confidence, but neither can we dismiss the possibility.

Now, I am not saying that 9/11 was a divine judgment against America. I am saying we don't know that it was, but we also don't know that it wasn't. Now, let's pretend for a moment that it was (and it may have been). Our first reaction as a nation was to fight a war. If God was behind this, then are we not declaring war on God? And how can we ever win? Impossible! But if a nation is under the hand of God's judgment, what should the response be? It should be a taking of inventory: "Wherein have we sinned against God as a nation?" And once those sins are discovered, there should be a call to repentance and prayer and a seeking of the face of God! Now, again, I am not saying that 9/11 was judgment (I have to keep reminding you of that), but IF (IF, IF, IF) it was, what are the sins that He may be condemning in us as a nation? I won't list them, you know many of them, and all of our lists would be different to some extent. But the point is this: since 9/11, how much has changed regarding these sins?

5. There is a growing need for Christians to distinguish their faith from their nationality.

I have already touched on this in point number 1. I am going further with it now. It is not impossible to be a faithful Christian and a patriotic American. Many exemplify both of these traits. And while our government says that this war we now fight is not America vs. Islam, and the Church says that it is not Christianity vs. Islam, that is not what the other side is saying. The other side is saying that this war IS about Islam vs. "The West," and by "the West" they mean the Christianized nations of the world. So, 9/11 was, in a sense an attack on Christianity. But only Christians understand that it was misguided. Sure, many of those who died in the attacks were Christians, but many more were not. Christians have got to get to the point where we say to Muslims, "We are not the ones shooting at you! We are the ones who are praying for you and who are seeking ways to love you and show you how our God has revolutionized our lives!" And we have to get to the point of saying, "The things you hate about America are not Christianity! In fact, many of the things you hate about America are things that we hate too!" And we have to get to the point of saying, "If you hate Christianity, then stop killing and terrorizing so many Americans who aren't Christians." [Note, if you don't hate me already for saying these things, then this one is really gonna get you] We have to get to the point of saying, "Look, if you want to attack Christianity, leave the Pentagon and the Trade Center, and all these other places out of it. Bomb us while we are in our churches worshiping our God and praying for your souls. We would rather die and go to meet our Savior than for you to kill our fellow Americans who do not have that hope!" [read those words repeatedly and prayerfully before passing judgment on me please]. It may be that in separating our Christian faith from our American identity (rather than combining and intertwining them) that we actually become able to be both the most faithful and the most patriotic.

These are hard words. They are hard for me to think about, hard for me to write, and hard for you to read. They are born from a lifelong journey that isn't over yet. I will be the first to admit that my mind may change on any of these things. I have been on a pilgrimage that included being a zealous patriot who loved America and hated Christ, to being a zealous Christian who loved Jesus and hated America. I'd like to think that maturity has landed me somewhere other than those extremes. I am aware that there have been changes in my life, changes in our country, and changes in the world during the course of my life. I am a citizen of America. I am a citizen of the world. I am a citizen of God's Kingdom. The same is true for any of you who follow the Lord Jesus. Our challenge in these post 9/11 years is to settle firmly the matter of prioritizing these citizenships and our allegiances to them.

So, for what its worth, these are a few of the things I think we should have learned since 9/11. 

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