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Can God Bless America?The Biblical Pathway to Blessing
By John MacArthur
W Publishing GroupCopyright © 2002 John MacArthur
All right reserved.
The Question No One Is Asking
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"Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.
Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you
double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter
be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves
in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up."
One of the more hopeful features of our nation's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was an immediate heightening of interest in spiritual things. Church attendance rose dramatically, at least for a few weeks. People talked openly of God and wondered aloud if the attacks on Washington and New York held any spiritual or prophetic significance. Was God angry with America? Why did He permit such a horrific catastrophe? Was there a spiritual message in all of this? What did it mean?
Such concerns have changed the tone of the national conversation. Life in America has suddenly taken on a more serious and sober mien. People's thoughts have turned naturally to weightier matters. Multitudes are now approaching life less superficially and less frivolously. And it is probably thanks to that mood-change, combinedwith the patriotic fervor that has swept the nation since the attacks, that the familiar slogan "God Bless America" has been brought out of mothballs and has become a national rallying-cry.
That slogan, and the music associated with it, date back to 1918, when composer Irving Berlin (an immigrant from Siberia) penned the song as part of a musical review during the difficult days of American involvement in World War I. The song received little notice at the time, but Irving Berlin revised and re-released it in 1938 when a new war was threatening Europe. He said he conceived the revised edition of the song as a plea for peace in an era when most Americans were hoping to avert American involvement in another foreign war. But the song retained its popularity even after America was drawn into World War II. In the minds of most Americans, "God Bless America" became a plea that God would bless the American war effort with success. And thus the song's opening line quickly became fixed in the American psyche as both a prayer and a patriotic slogan.
Today, in the wake of the new war on terrorism, "God Bless America" has once again become something of a national anthem. It is still a fitting prayer, and for many, I am sure, it is a heartfelt prayer. It would be a mistake to dismiss its popularity as nothing more than shallow sentimentality. These are dark and difficult times, and most Americans deeply sense the need for God's blessing.
To a large degree, I suppose, the American people's yearning for God's blessing is prompted by a desire for His immediate protection. For many, "Bless America" means, simply, "Preserve our nation." For others, it means something as down-to-earth as, "God, don't let me die. Don't let my children die. Don't let my spouse die." For still others, it might mean something more mundane: "Don't let the stock market drop any further"; or, "Stop the rise in unemployment." In many mouths it is a prayer for the preservation of our nation's freedom and prosperity.
"Blessing," then, is associated with protection, safety, freedom, and prosperity. In that sense, the slogan perfectly resonates with the current mood of the nation.
In fact, it expresses popular sentiment so well that even the usually-vocal atheists and militant agnostics have, for the most part, disappeared into the shadows. Early on, there were a couple of failed attempts by the American Civil Liberties Union to have "God Bless America" removed from school bulletin-boards and public marquees. But that effort proved so unpopular that it was quickly dropped in order to avoid an angry backlash. God's name is back in public discourse, if only for the sake of this slogan.
In some of the early ceremonies commemorating those who died in the terrorist attacks, "God Bless America" was incongruously sung alongside John Lennon's song "Imagine." Lennon's lyrics wistfully long for a world without religion, without the hope of heaven and without the threat of hell, where people live only for today. "Imagine" pleads for the day when everyone will embrace such a vacuous worldview. John Lennon apparently imagined that nothing would matter to anyone in a world like that, and therefore people would finally be able to live in perfect harmony. The sentiments expressed in Lennon's song are practically the polar opposite of those expressed in Irving Berlin's.
Thankfully, "God Bless America," rather than "Imagine," is the song and the slogan that has emerged as the rallying-cry of the American people. The average American cannot imagine a world in which there is no God, no religion, and no heaven-where nothing really matters. If that were indeed the case, the terrorist acts would not have stirred our passions in the first place.
The vast majority of Americans know in their souls and their consciences that God does exist and His blessing is essential to the future peace of their lives and nation. Unfortunately, most Americans are without God and therefore without any palpable hope. They affirm the slogan but are ignorant of the God to whom it is addressed (cf. Acts 17:22-31).
Most Americans are, to one degree or another, in a state of fear. They are crying out to heaven for an invisible means of support from an invisible God against an invisible enemy. They hope God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. They hope He is interested in their plight. But even more urgently, they hope He will have mercy on our nation. That is why the cry "God Bless America" is so prevalent and so often laden with deep emotion.
Will God bless America? Can God bless America? Should God bless America? Or is our society on the brink of judgment rather than blessing? Are the recent catastrophes merely harbingers of something worse yet to come?
Given the moral bankruptcy of modern society, it seems fair to ask such questions. Are we fit for blessing, or has our nation forfeited any claim to divine blessing? If God did bless America, what would He be saying about His holiness? What would He be saying about our morality? What would He be saying about our spiritual condition?
Can God bless America without compromising His reputation as a holy God? That is the vital question.
Of course, God can always do whatever He wants, whenever He wants. But when it comes to blessing, He has clearly and repeatedly set down conditions.
Listen carefully to the song, "God Bless America," and you will see that there is no verse that identifies the conditions for divine blessing. Nor do Americans seem to be opening their Bibles to try to find out what the conditions are. I don't hear anyone asking, "God, what do we need to do to be blessed?"
In fact, to raise that question might be seen by many as a serious intrusion. Do the American people really want to know the conditions that precede God's blessing? The sentiment sometimes seems to be, "Don't tell us what to do; just bless us," as if God were not supposed to ask anything of us. Many would prefer blessing without any conditions being imposed. Give us protection. Give us safety. Give us freedom. Give us prosperity. Just don't meddle with our morality.
We rarely hear anyone today calling people to repentance. In many quarters, it is considered bad protocol and bad form to remind people that the Word of God makes demands on us. The reproofs, rebukes, and exhortations of God's Word are simply not what most people today want to hear. They won't tolerate it (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3). Therefore even some preachers avoid mentioning such matters. Sadly, when sin is not confronted, sinners do not perceive their need for grace and forgiveness.
Frankly, our nation is in no position at the moment to be blessed. We're actually more likely to be cursed by God.
So is our prayer for blessing futile? I don't believe it is futile. But we need to understand that a prayer for divine blessing presupposes a willingness to cultivate the conditions under which divine blessing can come.
What are those conditions? Let's turn to Scripture and investigate the question almost no one is asking.
James 4:7-10 gives a list of ten commands that set forth the conditions for divine blessing. James addresses his epistle to Christian people (he frequently refers to them as "my brethren"), so some commentators have assumed that these ten imperatives apply only to believers, rather than to unbelievers who have never been born again.
But that misses the point. This list of directives is addressed to "sinners" and the "double-minded" (v. 8), and those are terms that are normally used in Scripture to describe unredeemed people. James is evidently concerned that some in his audience are not truly redeemed. He calls them "Adulterers and adulteresses!" (v. 4), and he warns them that friendship with the world is enmity with God. Apparently he believed some of these people, though professing to be believers, had never been truly born again. And so he outlines for them what true repentance demands of them: "Submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (vv. 7-10).
Submit to God
The first of the ten commands is "submit." James uses a Greek term that has military overtones. It speaks of compliance with the will of someone at a higher rank. He employs a passive form, indicating that our submission to God must be voluntary.
Luke uses the same word when he speaks of Jesus' boyhood submission to His parents (Luke 2:51). Paul uses it of the believer's duty to submit to governmental authority (Romans 13:1). So it carries the connotation of acquiescence and voluntary compliance to an authority one is obligated to submit to in the first place.
Our duty to God begins with a recognition of His right to rule over us. Therefore, genuine repentance always produces a submissive attitude. The person who truly embraces Christ as Savior will also submit to Him as Lord (Luke 6:46). This is the inevitable mark of true saving faith: It involves surrender and submission to the will of God.
No one can expect God's blessing while harboring rebellion or resentment against God in the heart. God has a right to demand our full obedience, and those who willfully and deliberately defy His authority as a pattern of life cannot legitimately claim to have faith in Him who is the supreme Lawgiver.
That means His Word must be the ultimate authority in our lives. Those who want God's blessing must submit to His commands. We cannot plead for divine blessing, if our minds and hearts remain defiant toward His Word.
Resist the Devil
James's second command goes hand in hand with the first: "Resist the devil" (4:7). Unfortunately, modern American society, by and large, is characterized by resistance to God's standards and tolerance of the devil's.
In fact, most of our society's values in recent years have been shaped by the devil's agenda. The problem is becoming worse every year as our culture becomes more and more brazen in rejecting the God of Scripture and embracing a devilish worldview.
To cite one example from the popular culture, fifty years ago on television, Ozzie Nelson and family portrayed the average American household on television; but today the highest rated cable television program in history features heavy-metal rocker Ozzy Osbourne and his quintessentially dysfunctional family. Few realized it when The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was on the air in the 1950s and '60s, but Ozzie Nelson was a committed atheist. (He later revealed his atheism in an autobiography published in the 1970s.) The '50s sitcom was not overtly anti-Christian, of course, but God was conspicuously absent from the Nelsons' family life. Ozzy Osbourne, on the other hand, makes no secret of his infatuation with Satan, and that is plainly reflected in his family's lifestyle. The road from Ozzie Nelson to Ozzy Osbourne perfectly illustrates how bold society has become in overtly promoting evil and the agenda of the evil one. That is the drift of American culture.
People who truly desire God's blessing must resist the devil and his schemes. That means before we have a right to expect God to bless us, we must turn away from the evil that hinders that blessing. For many Americans-Christians included-that calls for major changes in lifestyle and interests.
The devil and his influence are more prevalent in American culture than most people realize. Scripture says those who practice sin are "of the devil" (1 John 3:8). Jesus told even the religious scribes and Pharisees, "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do" (John 8:44). All who resist God are, in effect, in league with the devil, whether they realize it or not.
But resisting the devil doesn't mean we should declare war on unbelievers. Nor does this call us to engage in the kind of antics some people think constitutes "spiritual warfare"-pretending to command demons, prayer marches, "spiritual mapping," and other superstitious nonsense. It simply means we ourselves must forsake evil, say no to temptation, and refuse everything that would advance the program of the evil one. Above all, we should be alert to the wiles of the devil and fortify ourselves against his deceit and his cunning (Ephesians 6:11) by resisting the father of lies with God's truth.
Draw Near to God
Next, James says, we should "draw near to God" (James 4:8). Notice the contrast: "Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (vv. 7-8). Do you want to be blessed by God? Resist the devil and he will flee; and there's certainly ample blessing in that. But an even greater blessing comes in the intimate fellowship we enjoy when we draw near to God, and He draws near to us. His presence sustains us through every trial, comforts us in all our sorrow, strengthens us for every task, communes with us in every quiet moment, and enriches every moment of our lives.
Excerpted from Can God Bless America? by John MacArthur Copyright © 2002 by John MacArthur
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.