They say that politics and religion shouldn’t be discussed in polite company…in which case…we better hope that this isn’t polite company. But it is all getting a bit messy isn’t it? On their 1988 album, ‘Sunshine on Leith’, The Proclaimers asked the question, ‘What do you do when democracy fails you?’ At the moment, what ever party you might support and whatever position you hold regarding membership of the EU, I think it’s probably fair to say that democracy isn’t really succeeding for anyone.
Back in November 1947, Winston Churchill said:
‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.
To be frustrated with the limitations of democracy then is nothing new – we shouldn’t be surprised when democracy fails. But what should we do when it does. First, perhaps, it would be wise to consider why it comes up short.
Firstly democracy will ultimately fail because of the nature of the people who run for government – and the nature of those given the responsibility and privilege to vote.
Those who run for election aren’t omniscient. Politics is a complicated business and no politician can genuinely know what is best in all situations for all individuals. Furthermore, though I don’t doubt that most are in it for the right reason, politicians aren’t devoid of selfish ambition and are therefore prone at times to promote themselves and their own ends in preference to what may be best for the country.
We who vote are no different. We are not infinitely wise either and can not appreciate what is always for the best. Like turkeys who, in the excited anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus, vote for Christmas, we too can be swayed by promises of short term gains without fully appreciating the long term consequences. Like politicians, neither are we selfless. Concerned for our own welfare, anxious about our future, and understandably longing to be sure that we’ll be looked after when we need to be, we are prone to vote in ways that serve us best rather than the country as a whole.
This is not to suggest that we or our politicians are incapable of doing good – created in the image of God there is much that is good in the human condition. But despite this we are all, at our heart, flawed. The one time Dean of King’s College London put it like this:
‘It is precisely when you consider the best in man that you see there is in each of us a hard core of pride or self centredness which corrupts our best achievements and blights our best experiences. It comes in all sorts of ways: in the jealousy which spoils our friendships, in the vanity we feel when we have done something pretty good, in the easy conversion of love into lust, in the meanness which makes us depreciate the efforts of other people, in the distortion of our own judgement by our own self-interest, in our fondness for flattery and our resentment of blame, in our self-asserted profession of fine ideals that we never begin to practice.’
A second reason that democracy fails is the failure by those in power to be sufficiently gracious to the less than perfect and thus not fully deserving people like me they govern.
At one end of the political spectrum there is the view that everyone is worthy and all have a right to the support of government. To one holding such a view, a question asked regarding the worst thing they had ever done might be laughed off with a nod and a wink as if there was no such thing as wrongdoing, nothing at least for which one ought to be ashamed. But denying the existence of wrong in oneself or others is both naive and ultimately precludes justice.
Considering everyone as deserving isn’t what grace is all about.
At the other end of the political spectrum there is the view that only those who have been responsible enough should have the support of government. To one holding such a view a question asked regarding the worst thing they had ever done might be answered in such a way that makes it clear that at heart they consider themselves as pretty good – they wouldn’t have done anything really bad, nothing worse perhaps than running through a field of wheat. But imagining that one is fundamentally good is naive and leads to arrogance.
Only helping the sufficiently deserving isn’t what grace is about either.
Grace though is being generous to the undeserving. It fully acknowledges the sinfulness of those one acts generously towards – but acts generously towards them just the same. One can understand why a government might be anxious about embracing such a notion. Apart from anything else, to be genuinely gracious is impossible for those with finite resources. Who could possibly fully meet everybody’s needs – there has to be limits doesn’t there? After all, there isn’t a magic money tree.
So democracy fails because of human nature, a misunderstanding of the nature of grace and the lack of sufficient resources to act genuinely graciously even if a government genuinely wanted to. This is not to suggest that democracy should be abandoned or that we should not be fully engaged in the democratic process. It is the best form of human government but ultimately it remains inadequate.
So what do you do then when democracy fails you? Well perhaps we should look for an alternative form of government. A government led by a genuinely good ruler, one with a truly good heart who is wise enough to be trusted to rule over us well. A government led by one who not only understands grace but who is benevolent enough to want to act graciously and who has the requisite infinite resources to do so. But where might we find such a ruler?
To continue the gospel according to the music of my youth, as Feargal Sharkey sang:
A good heart these days is hard to find,
True love, the lasting kind.
A good heart these days is hard to find
So please be gentle with this heart of mine
We can relate to these words, can’t we? We all want to be loved with a perfect and everlasting love all the while conscious of the frailties of our own. The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms though that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick’ [Jeremiah 17:9]. A good heart, a heart able to love us the way we would like, therefore is ‘these days’, and indeed always has been, hard to find. I certainly don’t find one in myself.
And the problem that we face is all the greater for God. We may be fooled by our looking on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart [1 Samuel 16:7] – he sees us as we really are. This is not good news. He has searched us and known us, discerned our thoughts from afar and is aquatinted with all our ways [Psalm 139:1-3]. And his verdict is that ‘none is righteous, no not one’ [Romans 3:10].
The problem becomes all the more pressing when we start looking for a good leader. Consider Psalm 24. ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall stand in his holy place?’ asks King David, the writer of the Psalm. Who is the one worthy to rule, to be the ‘King of Glory’, to be God’s chosen King – to be the Christ. The psalmist answers his own question: ‘He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.’ And with these words King David rules himself out of the running for the job – he is not fit to be the King. His hands are not clean, his heart is not pure. Like everybody else, David’s heart was deceitful above all things and desperately sick. His was a heart capable of adultery and murder. Since God was all too well aware of this as he looked on David’s heart when he selected him to be King of Israel in 1 Samuel 16, it follows that David was never intended to be God’s ultimate King.
A better King than David is needed. Who might that be? Who might God chose? The prophecy of Isaiah gives us a clue when in Chapter 42 we find the first of the so called Servant Songs in which Isaiah speaks of one who was yet to appear on the scene.
‘Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.’
Here then is somebody who is qualified for the title King of Kings and Lord of Lords. One in whom God delights. But to whom does this prophecy refer? The answer, of course, is Jesus, of whom God spoke, as he put his Spirit upon him at his baptism, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’. Jesus is God’s chosen King – Jesus is the Christ.
Jesus’ is the only perfectly good heart we will ever find. He alone is worthy to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place. But, we must ask, will he be gentle with these hearts of ours? Will he be gracious? Isaiah’s prophecy assures us he will ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench’. Our frail hearts are safe with Jesus.
Such grace sounds too good to be true – but true it is. It can be hard to receive such unmerited favour – generally we don’t like to be indebted to others, we’re too proud to be helped. And so, if someone does something for us, we are inclined to want to repay the compliment – to return the favour. But God’s grace to us doesn’t create a debt – rather it pays one. We have only to be humble enough to accept the kindness he shows us. Any good work we may subsequently do having been the recipient of grace is not by way of pay back for that kindness. It is, or should be, done out of a joy to serve the one in whom we delight.
Now, not only can it be hard to receive grace, it can be hard to see others treated graciously. Indeed some people hate the idea of grace. As an example, remember the hoo-hah a few years back in 2009 over the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi – the Libyan man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. Released on compassionate grounds as doctors believed he’d less than three months to live, the Scottish justice system was being gracious.
But many criticised the move – reacting angrily – crying out ‘where is the justice’. I wonder whether those who shouted so loud will be so eager for justice when they stand before God and their lives are on trial. Will they want justice then – or will they want grace. I know what I will want – what I’ll need. I will need grace. And if on judgement day, as I am declared “Not Guilty” on account of Christ work on my behalf, any then shout ‘Where is the justice?’ the answer I’ll give will be ‘On the cross at Calvary – where Jesus paid the price for my crime, where as my substitute he bore the punishment for my sin, where God’s justice and mercy so perfectly met.’
Finally on this point I word about the triumphant homecoming of Megrahi to Libya. You may remember it. All I can say is that, however inappropriate that response was, it in no way alters the value of the gracious act. But when a repentant sinner receives grace, their response is a humble not arrogant joy. They don’t mock the one who has shown grace to them but respond in love and praise for the one that has shown them such favour.
So too should be our response to the grace we have received.
Which brings us to the question of how our hearts should be now. Certainly they should be growing in goodness. Though counted righteous now, declared to be so on the basis of Christ’s work outside of ourselves. our justification should be followed by a growing sanctification, the gradual and ongoing gracious transformation of our character by God such that we are changed into the likeness of Christ, a process that, in me at least, is sadly far too slow and which will only fully be realised on the day of Jesus’ return.
But there is another characteristic that our hearts should display. Contrition. In Psalm 51, all too conscious of his adultery with Bathsheba and his having her husband Uriah killed, David asks of God
‘Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.’ [Psalm 51:2-3].
David acknowledges his sin and expresses repentance and then, in verse 17, he asserts
‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’
Perhaps that is what God saw in David when he identified him as the one Samuel should anoint. One who, acknowledging his weakness, was prepared to plead,
‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ [Psalm 51:10].
King David is one who knows he is undeserving, one who recognises his need for grace, and one who, in his humility, is prepared to cry out to a God who is gracious. This would be a wise course for us all to take for:
‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ [James 4:6].
Here then is comfort for the contrite heart. Contrition is the quality that God is looking for our hearts to possess. It is the contrite heart to which salvation comes.
‘For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’ [Isaiah 57:15]
This is a truth echoed by Jesus in the sermon on the mount
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ [Matthew 5:3-4].
A good heart these days is hard to find. But though we do not see one in ourselves, we do find one in Jesus. His is a true love of the lasting kind. A good heart these days is hard to find, but Jesus is one who will be gentle with these contrite hearts of ours.
So if you’re hopeful about what politicians will achieve – don’t be too hopeful
And if you despair at what they get up to – don’t despair too much.
Psalm 121 begins:
‘I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.’
The psalm is one of the so called psalms of ascent sung as travellers headed to Jerusalem. On the way they would have seen on the hills the evidence of pagan worship but the psalmist affirms that, rather than looking to such sources for assistance, his help comes from the Lord. Similarly today there are those who put there hope in science and technology, medicine and sociology and especially at election time, politics and economics. But these sources of help will all fail. The truth is, regardless of who you voted for in the last general election – Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, or Tim Farron, Lord Buckethead, Elmo or Mr Fishfinger, nobody will be able to govern the nation in the way that is ultimately required. We need a leader whose qualifications to govern are infinitely greater – one who is truly good and has the resources to be infinitely gracious, one indeed who has shown us ‘the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus’ [Ephesians 2:7]
But will such a government really last. Well yes – in Isaiah’s prophecy we hear these words made 700 years before the birth of Jesus, words well known even to non-Bible types through another big hit – Handel’s ‘Messiah’
‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.’ [Isaiah 9:6-7]
God’s kingdom will endure, his government will last – and the reason we can be so sure is given in that final sentence. It will last because it won’t depend on us – rather it will all depend on God – his zeal will ensure that what He has promised will be delivered.
Nearly 3000 years ago King Uzziah died, and the future seemed so uncertain for the people of Isaiah’s day. Isaiah, however, saw beyond the immediate political uncertainty.
‘In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.’ [Isaiah 6:1-4]
There is an image of one who is utterly in command. Uzziah may have died but God was still on the throne. He still is today. Many today are yearning for a leader who is wise enough, good enough and powerful enough to bring about real positive change. The good news is that that is exactly the kind of ruler God is. He is not fretting anxiously over the rights or wrongs of Brexit which, in universal terms, is no more than a falling out in the playground. On the contrary – God is unphased by all the uncertainty that causes us such concern. He will fulfil all that he has promised.
So what do we do when democracy fails us? We stop being surprised and look outside of ourselves to one who, undeserving though we are, is gracious toward us and can deliver what He promises. We remain confident that no matter the political instability that may be going on all around us, God is sovereign. And we hold fast to what we know with absolute confidence – that our loving God’s authority is absolute, his power is infinite, and his wisdom is supreme, He really is in total control of every second of our lives.
What do we do when democracy fails us? We rejoice that the Lord is King,