Where Transformation Starts

To most of us, the spiritual future of the United States looks pretty bleak. A Gallup report that was released earlier this year proclaimed that, for the first time in any of our lifetimes, fewer than 50 percent of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship.

In the face of such widespread moral decline, many Christians turn to politics as the answer to these social ills. If asked, I suspect that many of these brethren would say that a more godly nation would be a better environment for raising children, spreading the gospel, etc.

However, the Scriptures suggest that this course is not the one that God would choose for us. If we live in a time of moral decline, it is not the first such that God’s people have experienced. Indeed, the book of Judges chronicles a repeated cycle of spiritual decline, suffering, and spiritual renewal.

Many of learned as children about the pitcher-torch-and-trumpet stratagem Gideon employs against the enemies of the Israelites in Judges 7. As we grew older, we may well also have encountered the story of Gideon’s fleece, in which God assuages the doubts of his chosen deliverer. However, the first command that God gives Gideon has nothing to do with either Midianites or fleeces. Instead, its object is much closer to home.

Gideon lives in a village called Ophrah of the Abiezrites. No less than the rest of the Israelites, the people of Ophrah have abandoned the Lord in favor of the worship of idols. Gideon’s own father, who apparently is a prominent man in the village, has set up an altar to Baal and an Asherah beside it. In Judges 6.25-26, the Lord tells Gideon to tear down Baal’s altar, chop down the Asherah, build an altar to him, and offer sacrifices to him using the wood of the Asherah. Given that God already has told Gideon that he will defeat the Midianites, they instruction may well have perplexed the reluctant hero. What does some religious remodeling in the hinterlands of Manasseh have to do with getting rid of the foreign plunderers?

God’s point, I think, is that internal renewal had everything to do with solving the external problem. Gideon, as revealed by his panicked attempt to rescue the harvest, thought the Israelites had a Midianite problem. They didn’t. They had a God problem, and the Midianites were nothing more than a symptom of the real issue. If the Israelites addressed their God problem, soon they wouldn’t be troubled by the Midianites either.

The lesson for us here is powerful. We serve the One who ordains the rise and fall of nations. If we have good rulers in our country, it is because he has sent them. If we have wicked rulers who are leading the people astray, that, too, is because he has sent them. Our job is not to rearrange the rulers. It is to ask, humbly, where we ourselves are spiritually and why God might be sending us trials.

The Lord’s church today is not so wicked as the world, but neither is it so righteous as the Lord. Far too much of the time, the people who fill the pews on Sundays fill the rest of their weeks with worldliness. We don’t know our Bibles, we aren’t committed to reaching the lots, and our striving against sin looks more like compromise. To the extent that we are declining, does the blame belong to Hollywood, or does it belong to us?

Most of us would benefit from a reawakening of Gideon’s spirit, both within our churches and within our own lives. It’s time to tear down altars, chop down idols, and present to the Lord offerings in righteousness. It’s time to stop watching shows that we wouldn’t watch if Jesus were sitting next to us on the couch. It’s time to stop pretending that our porn habit is acceptable because it’s common. It’s time to confront the lie of a life that doesn’t have time for daily Bible study and prayer, yet seems to have plenty of time for social media.

We cannot expect this program to be popular. Gideon tore down the altar of Baal at night because he was afraid of the reaction from his own community, and events proved him right. When the men of Ophrah figured out what had happened the next morning, they wanted to kill him. Ironically, they regarded the steps that would lead to their deliverance as a deadly threat.

So, too, for us. We do not cling to worldliness because we do not love it. We cling because we do. Seeking the Lord will be painful, certainly within our churches, but especially within ourselves. If we want to have success in chopping down our brother’s Asherah, we first must lay the axe at the foot of our own. We must confront our imperfections with relentless self-honesty and relentless determination to do better.

If we do, who can say what the future holds? Religious feeling in any country waxes and wanes through the centuries, and it certainly is possible that the Covid pandemic is sowing the seeds of a third Great Awakening. However, greater obedience is not fundamentally the duty we owe our country. It is the duty we owe our God and ourselves.