July 4, 1999

NEVER TRUST A POLITICIAN

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. Psalm 146:3

Today’s program can be summarized in four words: Never trust a politician.  That may sound like advice we don’t really need.  Many of us already tend to think the worst of politicians and government workers.  We see them as bunglers or liars or both.  [We may love our country and enjoy celebrating a national holiday, but we’re not so enthusiastic about people in power, and it might seem we don’t need to be told not to trust them.]

Who needs to be told never to trust a politician when bureaucratic blundering is already the target of so much mockery? Even government workers themselves joke about it.  I came across something on the internet which has some fun with the old saying “Don’t beat a dead horse,”  a reminder that when an idea or project has no chance of going anywhere, we shouldn’t try to force mileage out of it but should try something else instead. Or, as the internet jokester put it,

Dakota tribal wisdom says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.  However, we in the government often try other strategies.  These include:

  • Change riders.
  • Buy a stronger whip.
  • Say things like, “This is the way we have always ridden this horse.”
  • Increase the standards to ride a dead horse.
  • Appoint a blue-ribbon panel to study the horse.
  • Create a training program to increase our riding ability.
  • Compare the state of dead horses in today’s environment.
  • Pass legislation declaring, “This horse is not dead.”
  • Blame the horse’s parents.
  • Harness several horses together for increased speed.
  • Provide additional funding to increase the horse’s performance.
  • Declare, “No horse is too dead to beat.”
  • Declare the horse is “better, faster, and cheaper” dead.
  • Say this horse was procured with aliveness as an independent variable.
  • Appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the farm where it was born.
  • Promote the horse to a supervisory position.

The list includes other items as well, but you get the idea. With so much joking about government folly and inefficiency, why would we need a reminder never to trust a politician?

Not only do we tend to see politicians as bunglers, but we also tend to view them as liars.  Experience has taught us not to believe everything leaders tell us.  Consider America’s national leaders from the past few decades.  One said, “I am not a crook” and then was forced to resign for his crooked activities.  Another said, “Read my lips: no new taxes” and then presided over one of the largest tax hikes in history.  Another insisted, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!” only to be proved a liar by DNA evidence.  Still another tried to claim credit for developing the internet.  Leaders in other nations are often not any more truthful.  Sometimes it seems that one of the few policies that politicians of all parties in all nations can agree upon is lying.

So, if you already think of government officials as bunglers or liars or both, and someone tells you, “Never trust a politician,” you might reply, “No argument here–but why waste our time telling us what we already know?”

But when I say, “Never trust a politician,” I’m not saying you should always think the worst of every person who is in power or is running for public office.  In fact, I think most of us are too cynical.  Many politicians and people who work in government are more capable and honest than we give them credit for.  No doubt there are some bunglers and liars, and even some of the best leaders have their bad moments, but in fairness we should acknowledge that many people in politics really are talented and really do want to help their fellow citizens.  They face a huge challenge in sorting through issues and figuring out which policies are best, and we shouldn’t be so busy griping that we’re not grateful for the earnest efforts of many public servants and grateful for a country which, despite its failings, offers us many precious freedoms and opportunities.

Still, it needs to be said, “Never trust a politician”–not even a good one!  This isn’t just my notion; it’s a command from God himself.  The Bible says, “Do not put your trust in princes,” or, in today’s language, “Never trust a politician.”  Why not?  Because they are all incompetent or immoral?  No, that’s not the reason God gives for not trusting a politician.  In Psalm 146:3 God tells us, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”

When the Lord says not to trust in princes, he’s not telling us to be cynical and negative toward all politicians. The main problem with trusting politicians isn’t that all politicians are dumb or dishonest. That’s a problem in some cases, of course, but the biggest problem, says Psalm 146, is simply that politicians–even if they’re brilliant people of high integrity–are still mere mortals who cannot save.

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save,” says the Bible.  “When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing” (Psalm 146:3-4).  How can these people save you or determine your destiny?  They can’t even save themselves or carry out all the things they plan. The most powerful politicians are mortals who turns back to dust, and their grandest plans turn to dust right along with them. That’s not gloom; it’s realism. So never trust a politician. Never count on a political system to save you or make your life worth living or give you eternal life and happiness.

Instead, look to Someone who really does have the power to help and to save those who trust him. “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,” says Psalm 146, “whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them–the Lord, who remains faithful forever” (v. 5-6).  Whom would you rather trust with your ultimate future: a politician who is here today and gone tomorrow, or the God who created everything and “remains faithful forever”?  Would you rather trust mortal man or the King eternal?

Never trust a politician or nation for things which can come only from God and his kingdom.  Some of us may think we don’t need to be told never to trust politicians, but we just might trust in them more than we’re willing to admit. Oh, we don’t trust their character (though many are better people and have higher ideals than we give them credit for). But even when we don’t trust politicians’ character, we still have as our highest concerns the direction of the country and the condition of the economy, and we count on our politicians to take care of such things. Even if we don’t trust politicians as persons, we count on our favorite politicians to look out for our interests and to promote our wellbeing.

In fact, whether we want to admit it or not, we may trust a politician more if we know he doesn’t have a trustworthy character. Many of us want politicians who “get things done”–no matter what it takes.  We want someone to represent us who is shrewd and powerful enough to bring money and jobs to our own district, regardless of whether it’s good for the rest of the country. We want our nation’s leader, our commander-in-chief, to use his cunning and power to make our nation rich and powerful, regardless of what’s good for the rest of the world. Much of our complaining about dishonest politicians is hypocritical, because deep down we want leaders who are willing to resort to dirty politics in order to give us voters what we want.  We might not trust politicians to be honest and upright, but we do trust them to do whatever it takes to advance our interests and win our votes the next time around.  Strange as it may sound, we trust them even more politically if we know they can’t be trusted ethically. We don’t trust their character, but we do trust in them to keep us prosperous–and that’s what we want most.

At any rate, when Psalm 146 says not to trust in princes, it’s not simply encouraging our cynicism about the shady character of politicians. He’s telling us to realize the limitations of politics, period. The main problem with trusting a politician isn’t that politicians aren’t honest enough. That’s a problem in some cases, of course, but the biggest problem, says Psalm 146, is simply that politicians–even if they were honest–are still mere mortals who cannot save.

No politician can pay for your sin; only Jesus’ blood can do that.  No politician can change you on the inside; only the Holy Spirit of Christ can do that.  No politician can make you live forever; only the resurrection power of Christ can do that. Don’t get so focused on policy or prosperity that you ignore what matters most: the Lord God Almighty, your relationship to him, and the destiny of your eternal soul.  Never become so attached to a politician or party or even a nation and flag that you equate them with God’s kingdom.

Many of us get excited about our nation and upset about politics, but for some reason we feel uninterested in God and unconcerned about spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Why is that? Well, if you don’t believe in Jesus at all, I see why that might happen. I can understand why the most sacred thing in the world is a flag, why the dearest thing in the world is your country, and why the most important thing in the world is who wins the next election and gets to run things. It’s not much to believe in or serve as your ultimate loyalty, but if you don’t trust and serve God, I can see why flag and country and politics might seem better than nothing as objects of trust and devotion.

But when people claiming to be Christians fill their churches with flags and say “My country, right or wrong” and act like the destiny of their souls and the fate of the universe hangs in the balance every time another election rolls around–then we really need to ask ourselves some hard questions. When we talk about God and country, what do we mean by God? Do we mean the Creator of the world who remains faithful forever, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or do we mean whatever supernatural power will help us win our battles and enrich our pocketbook and put us in charge?  When we think about saving the world, are we thinking of the gospel of Jesus Christ, or merely about our own political agenda?

Many churches have a flag standing right up front in their sanctuary of worship. I don’t know what a flag has to do with the worship of God, but many churches have one right there in front with the pulpit and the communion table and the cross. The church is the international, spiritual fellowship of all people whom Jesus bought with his blood, but somehow the Stars and Stripes or the Maple Leaf gets a platform and equal standing with the Word of God and the tokens of Christ’s body and blood. The flag also plays a big part in some forms of television religion. Some TV preachers stand beside a flag as they ask viewers to trust in Jesus and send money. The donations will help Christians to “take back” their country and save it from the clutches of people with bad morals and bad politics.

I get uneasy when politicians use too much God talk around election time, and I get even more uneasy when church people use too much nationalistic talk as part of their religion. People sometimes confuse their country with the kingdom of God. They think their nation has a more important place in God’s plan than any other nation on earth. They feel that their favorite politicians and their favorite party are the keys to advancing God’s will in their nation. They sometimes talk as though Christianity would collapse if the wrong party won an election and make it sound as though heaven would come to earth if only the right people could get elected.

When this kind of thinking takes over, something has gone seriously wrong. A few years ago, a former president of the United States was speaking to a crowd of Christian leaders.  He spoke of America being “the light of the world, as Christ called it to be.” The crowd applauded. Didn’t they realize that they were applauding heresy? Jesus never told Americans “You are the light of the world.” He said that to his disciples (Matthew 5:14). When the Bible says, “You are a chosen people … a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), it’s not talking to the United States or Canada or any other country. It’s talking to the church of Jesus, the people Christ bought with his own blood.

It’s a terrible mistake to confuse the spiritual kingdom of God with any particular political system or to confuse the church of Christ with any particular country. Underlying these mistakes is the worst of all errors: idolatry. It’s a question of what we worship and trust. What do we worship? Is our highest loyalty to the living God? Or do we care most about our country and our political system and the freedom and prosperity we have? What do we trust? Do we trust in God to determine our destiny? Or do we trust in political figures or a political system to save us and make our lives better?

One phrase that’s familiar to most Americans describes the United States as “the last, best hope of mankind.” That is a lie, and it is idolatry. Jesus is the only hope of mankind. If the U.S.A. is the last, best hope of mankind, then mankind is doomed for sure. The United States isn’t the kingdom of God and the hope of the world, and neither is Canada or any other country.

We need to be very careful when we talk about God and country. Does this mean we may never wave a flag? No, but it does mean that we shouldn’t do our flag-waving in church, and we shouldn’t treat the flag as though it is holy and sacred. Does this mean we can’t celebrate and enjoy what’s good about our country? No, we may celebrate and even thank God for blessing us so richly, but let’s also recognize the evils in our nation, and let’s recognize that our nation isn’t necessarily more important to God than any other nation. Does this mean Christians have to keep their convictions to themselves and leave politics to non-Christians? No, but it does mean we shouldn’t expect the political process and the government to do more than it’s designed to do, and we shouldn’t act as though it’s the end of the world if our own political views don’t win the day. Does this mean that elections don’t matter? No, elections matter, but having the right politician in charge of the country won’t help you nearly as much as having God in charge of your life.

Sometimes, to get things in perspective, we need to stand back and see where the importance of our country and the power of our politicians fit into the big picture. In the big picture, the reality of God, who is invisible to us, looms very large, while those things which seem so big to us end up looking very small. Psalm 146 shows God as the maker and ruler of everything, while politicians and their plans are merely dust.

The Bible offers much the same contrast in Isaiah 40, where Scripture again shows how unimportant politicians and nations are compared to God. “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales… Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing… ”  A country can call itself “the last, best hope of mankind,” but it’s just one tiny drop in a bucket. A nation may think it’s the greatest thing that ever was, but God says it’s like a bit of dust on his scales, and even then, he’s flattering it. Compared to God, it’s not even dust.  It’s “less than nothing.”

Now, God doesn’t say all this just to depress us but to turn us away from our idolatry and from the empty hopes and foolish fears that go with placing our ultimate trust in any person or political system. In Isaiah 40, after God cuts the nations and rulers down to size, he says, “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (v. 28-31).

Politicians can’t save, but God can. Keep that in mind when you think about God and country. Some of you listening to me aren’t Christians at all, and you don’t claim to be. In fact, perhaps all you know about Christians these days is that they form political coalitions that say all sorts of things about welfare reform and tax codes and budget debates and defense spending and immigration policy and foreign debt but never speak to you of a God whose being dwarfs all the rulers put together, whose kingdom is a spiritual one which will reach its fullness not in the next election but only when Christ himself comes again in glory. Maybe you’ve gotten the impression that God’s main agenda is to get all of his divine laws passed in the next session of the legislature, and you’ve heard very little of the God who saves you by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and who refreshes you in his love by the Holy Spirit.

I’m afraid those of us who are Christians may be failing those who aren’t yet Christians by being just as obsessed with politics as anybody else. Again, let me say that I believe Christians have the right and responsibility as citizens to contribute to their country and to its direction. Don’t let anything I’ve said make you think that there’s no place in the political arena for people with Christian convictions. But when a positive involvement in politics becomes a bitter obsession, then something is seriously wrong. If even church people are so busy making political pronouncements that we’re not announcing the good news that it is God and not government that saves, then we have lost our first love and are terribly confused. We need to trust the Lord who renews our strength, and then lead others to him so that they, too, can soar on wings like eagles–even if they vote for a different party or belong to another nation.

Psalm 146 says, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save… Blessed is he whose hope is the Lord his God.” Then it says, “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord” (v. 7-10).

If you’re longing for justice and food and liberation and healing and dignity and protection and victory over the wicked–not to mention forgiveness of sin and eternal salvation–then the Lord is the one you should trust. It is he, not any politician or nation, who reigns forever, and it is ultimately from him that all these blessings flow.  Mortals cannot save, but God can save.

Now, if what I’ve been saying seems to cast a negative light on politics and patriotism, please take another look. The truth is that only when politics and patriotism are put in their place can our involvement in politics be hearty and our sense of patriotism be healthy. Otherwise, politics and patriotism become idols that disappoint us and destroy us.

In fact, strange as it may sound, my appreciation of my country increases if my expectation of it decreases. Once I stop thinking it’s the last, best hope of mankind, I won’t get grumpy or think it’s the end of the world every time it fails to live up to that, and I can simply appreciate it for what it is: a country with a great many freedoms and blessings and opportunities that also has its share of problems.

Also, I can address the problems and sins of my nation out of genuine concern and love for my fellow citizens, rather than out of a selfish, desperate desire to make my country exactly the way I want it. I will realize that the worldwide church, and not any particular country, is God’s “holy nation” in this world, and I’ll try to win people into a holy life through the gospel of Christ, rather than using political means to force my non-Christian neighbors to behave more like Christians so that I can feel more comfortable surrounded by people who act just like me.

A further benefit of trusting God instead of my country is the joy factor. I’ll be able to survive political discussions and elections, no matter how important they might seem, without getting an ulcer. God isn’t running as a political candidate, and political candidates aren’t running to become God. I don’t worry that God is going to get voted out of his position, and I don’t expect any politician to be the ultimate savior. My joy remains strong as long as I remember where my salvation lies. It lies not in my favorite politicians running the country but in the Lord God running the universe and running my life and giving me life everlasting in his Son Jesus Christ.

How about you? Are you trusting in a politician or program that’s here today and gone tomorrow? Or are you trusting the everlasting God who is faithful forever? Is your ultimate hope in the prosperity and power of your country, or in the riches of God’s grace in Jesus Christ? If you’re not yet a Christian, I pray that God will open your eyes to his truth, love, and joy in Jesus. And if you are a Christian, I pray that you’ll think like it and worship like it and live like it and invite others to follow Christ, rather than simply forcing them to follow your political agenda. “Blessed is he whose hope is in the Lord his God. The Lord reigns forever. Praise the Lord.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.