Each year, the United Nations issues its Human Development Report. They examine 182 nations according to various factors. After giving each nation a grade on each factor, they combine the scores to create a list of the Best Places to Live. The various factors considered are to numerous to count, but include questions like:
Is there enough food for everyone and is it easily available? Is there enough clean drinking water and is it easily available? To what degree is the nation involved in armed conflicts on its own land? How much is the nation threatened by armed invasion by its neighbors? Is the nation beset by disease or pestilence? What is the economic opportunity for everyone? To what degree is the population oppressed by the government or by criminal factions? Does the population have the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press? Is the nation rich in natural resources? Is the nation ruled by law and order or by power and corruption? What is the life expectancy? How many women die during childbirth? How are the aging treated? What are the educational opportunities? What is the literacy rate? What is the quality and accessibility of healthcare? What is the average rainfall? What percentage of the population live in poverty?
These are but a few of the factors used to create the “Best Places to Live” list. In the latest list, the top 15 places to live are:
- United States
Setting aside out national pride which causes us to be upset because we were not listed as the Number 1 Place to Live, and putting aside the obvious question of whether you would rather live in Iceland or the United States, let us for a moment look at the big picture. The quality of life in our nation is among the top 7% of the entire world. The life we live is better than 93% of the other nations in the world. Or to put it another way, of all that you and I will worry about this week, those worries are really nothing compare to 93% of the world’s population.
What do we do with that kind of information? On the day that our own government has set aside to celebrate the founding of this nation, it ought to cause us to be very thankful. As we watch the fireworks tonight, for those cities who are still having them, we ought to be sitting in our lawn chairs with our glass of iced tea thinking, “Wow, I sure live in a great nation.”
The psalmist who wrote the 106th psalm had the same kind of “Wow” moment, or at least a related feeling. He writes to remember and to celebrate the goodness of the Lord (106.1). His prayer request is that he would come to enjoy the prosperity of God’s chosen ones, to share in the joy of His nation, and to join His inheritance in giving praise (106.5). The psalmist wrote,
Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD or fully declare his praise? Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right. Remember me, O LORD, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them, that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may share in the joy of your nation and join your inheritance in giving praise. We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly. When our fathers were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, to make his mighty power known. (Psalm 106.1-8)
His prayer is not one that looks back in gratitude but one that looks forward in hope. The rest of the psalm recounts the history of God’s chosen ones, the history of His nation, and that history is not all that bright. The psalmist admits: “we have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly” (106.6). Those sins included failing to remember God’s many kindnesses and miracles (106.7), their rebellion against His chosen leaders like Moses and Aaron (106.16-18), and their worshipping other gods (106.29). As a consequence of their rebellion and unfaithfulness, God handed them over to other nations (106.41) and they were taken captive by other nations, most notably Babylon and Assyria.
So, the psalmist writes as one of those who have been scattered by the judgment of God. His viewpoint is not from the lawn chair living in a blessed and prosperous nation, but he cries out as one who has been oppressed and distressed. From that lawn chair, he writes,
Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from the nations, That we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise. Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Let all the people say, “Amen!” Praise the LORD. (Psalm 106.47-48)
In summary, the psalmist is remembering how very good God has been to Israel, and yet Israel sinned by disobeying His commands and by worshipping other gods. As a result, the Lord removed them from the land of promise and scattered them across the nations. The psalmist longed for the day when the Lord would gather His people from the nations and once again bring them into the prosperity of His chosen ones and the joy of His nation.
Seeing America in Psalm 106
Today is the greatest of all national holidays, where we experience national pride and celebrate the joy of living in peace and prosperity in the land of the free and home of the brave. I do realize that there is some danger in trying to read America into the story of Israel. We are not God’s chosen people like Israel was. America is not the New Israel. The New Testament makes it clear that the New Israel is those who are of faith, and the people of faith are living as aliens scattered all over the globe, among every tribe and every nation. In a very real way, we are no longer citizens of this world, but are looking for a “better country, a heavenly one” (see Hebrews 11.16).
But Psalm 106 is not without its parallels. There is no denying that we are a nation blessed by the Creator and that we live in prosperity and joy. The founders of our nation spoke and wrote about this fact in many ways, but it shows up most prominently in the treasured of all documents that we remember on this special day: The Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
While the argument rages on about whether or not we were formed as a “Christian nation,” there is no denying that the very fabric of our nation was formed on what our forefathers believed to be the eternal rules of order and right ordained by God. Our first President, George Washington said,
“The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained”
And in our Founder’s understanding, those eternal rules of order and right included the right to Life, Liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and that the just power of government comes from the consent of the governed. Abraham Lincoln captured the same sentiment in 1863 when he gave one of the most famous speeches in American History. On the battlefield of Gettysburg, he said,
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure….It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Hear the Song of the Chorus
It might seem odd to you this morning, but I would invite you to consider hearing the united voices of the psalmist, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, and to consider what they might be all saying together. The psalmist said, “Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right.” Washington said, “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” Lincoln said, “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom: government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
How do we hear God speak to us today through all three voices?
Unstable and Perilous Times
We are living in unstable and perilous times. Our national economy has taken a significant hit over the last couple of years, and there are some significant indicators that the worst is still yet to come.
On Wednesday of this week, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a commission formed by President Obama to issue recommendations to deal with the national debt, received a report from the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO’s report to this Commission said that the federal debt will reach 62% of the nation’s economic output this year, the highest level since World War II. Under all but the rosiest economic scenarios, significant changes in tax or spending policy, or both may be needed to control the long-term debt and avert a crisis. Personal income taxes might have to rise by 50 percent if the fix comes entirely from the revenue side. Or, without tax increases, Congress would have to cut federal spending by roughly a fifth by 2020– a level that would entail the near elimination of all government programs other than defense, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Under one relatively likely set of assumptions, the CBO foresees federal debt reaching 87 percent of economic output by 2020.
To put those numbers in perspective, the number of 62%, that is the federal debt will reach 62% of the nation’s economic output, the International Monetary Fund has issued a report of a study that it did on historical sovereign-debt crisis, the kind of crisis that brings a nation to its knees. They found that external debt levels, that is money owed to foreigners, exceeding 50% was a key indicator that debt default may occur. Now here is the chilling fact: the average external debt as a percent of GDP among countries in their study the year before a sovereign debt crisis was 54.7 percent, and 71.4 percent in the crisis year. The U.S. external debt on December, 31, 2009, was $13.77 trillion, or almost 100 percent of GDP. The summary of the IMF report:
The lesson in each of these cases is that economics is unforgiving. There’s no free lunch. Debts come due. You can put them off, but not indefinitely (though politicians tell us we can). The bigger you let them get and the longer you put them off, the deeper they bury you when they come back at you.
But the problem is not that just our federal savings account is going dry or that our national debt is spiraling out of control. The individual state governments are in much worse conditions. Many of the state governments are in near bankrupt conditions. For the first time in 40 years, total state spending has dropped for 2 years in a row. In the past, the state reserve funds would see them through a crisis, but those funds are disappearing. By the end of this year, two thirds of all the rainy day state funds will be held in just two states: Alaska and Texas. Fourteen states will have less than 1% of their annual spending in reserve, meaning thy are basically living hand to mouth and hoping their checks don’t bounce. Eleven states are projecting budget gaps of greater than 10%, meaning they will spend at least 10% more this year than they will receive in revenue.
All of this is leading one financial analysts to say, “There is overwhelming and terrifying evidence that we’re heading for an economic cliff next year. It’s going to happen. Make your plans accordingly.”
A Spiritual Issue?
What, if anything, does any of this have to do with Psalm 106? Is this just a political issue that really shouldn’t be talked about in church? Does God have anything to say about any of this? Let’s go back to the “chorus.” The psalmist said, “Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right.” Washington said, “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” Lincoln said, “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom: government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
We can look forward to enjoying the prosperity of His chosen ones, to sharing in the joy of His nation only when we maintain justice and constantly do what is right. When can look forward to the propitious smiles of heaven if we continue to regard the eternal rules of order and right. Part of the eternal rules of order and right, part of justice and being careful to do what is right is to “let no debt remain outstanding” (Romans 13.8). If you borrow money, it is just and right to repay it. And the just thing is to be in a position to be able to repay what we have borrowed. To borrow more money than we are able to repay, is an injustice.
But beyond that, think about the words of Lincoln: “This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom: government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In our nation, the government reflects the will of the people.
In reading about all of these troubles that the federal government and the state governments are having with balancing their budgets and bringing their spending under control, almost every article stated the obvious answer to the crisis: we either make more or spend less. Governments must either take more money in taxes or they must spend less money on services to the people. The problem is that any real cut in federal or state spending will take a benefit away from a large group of people, a large group of people who vote. Politians know that to really solve the crisis, government spending has to be dramatically cut, but the people who voted them into office don’t want their services cut.
Pew Research, a nonpartisan think tank, did a recent study about this issue. They discovered that most Americans want their government to fix their budget problems by cutting services, but when asked about specific services to cut, no one wants to cut anything significant. 73% are against cutting spending in education. 71% are against cuts to police or fire safety. 65% are against cutting health care services provided by state governments. 50% are against cutting funding to maintain highways. And 58% are opposed to raising taxes.
The bottom line is that the reason that the federal and state governments continue to spend more money than they receive in revenue is because the people who elected them to office do not want to do without the services that they enjoy. Anytime a politician suggests a real cut that would make a real difference, the group most affected by the cut cries out in protest.
Is This A Spiritual Issue?
If you have been reading the newspaper or paying attention to the nightly news, none of this is very surprising. But in a church service, it is right to ask the question, “Is any of this a spiritual issue?” In other words, should we even be talking about this in church?
Going back to Psalm 106, if it is our prayer to continue to enjoy the prosperity and joy of God’s favor, then we know that we can only expect to be blessed if we maintain justice and constantly do what is right. And while we often think of that in terms of morality or religion, the Bible is not silent when it comes to the justice and rightness of money. Solomon, the writer of Proverbs, issued the warning shot that continues to fly across our bow: “The borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22.7). But the Word of God speaks to this issue on a deeper level that I think is vital for the citizens of our nation to understand.
When the Bible speaks of money, it speaks to it as a spiritual issue. Listen to the two most significant and clear cut passages from the Bible about money:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6.6-10)
5Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13.5)
When the Bible speaks about money, it is in the context of being content with what we have, trusting the Lord to provide for our needs, and to be free from the love of money. These are spiritual issues to be sure. The love of money, or greed, is called idolatry in the New Testament (see Colossians 3.5), so that is plainly a spiritual issue. And not being content with what we have leads into the love of money or a desire to get rich which leads many people away from the faith, which is again a spiritual issue. The opposite of contentment is to want more than what we have, which so often leads to deficient spending, which is a fancy word for going into debt.
In other words, we can break down our national financial problem with the fact that we are not content with what we have so we have bought things with money that we do not have either. It is precisely because we are not content with what we have that we have gone into debt, both personally and as a nation. We live better off than 93% of the world’s population, and yet we still want more.
But, as Lincoln said, our government is “by the people, of the people, and for the people.” The decisions that our government make are the decisions that our lifestyles support. While we may not make the decisions to increase government spending, we enjoy the government services so much that if they are ever threatened, we revolt. Just think how we will react when the size of classrooms in Fort Worth ISD balloon to 50 kid because of funding reductions? How will we react when the potholes get bigger and bigger on 377, and there are not trucks to show up to fix them? How will we react when convicted criminals are released from prison due to spending cuts? How happy will we be when the Benbrook Public Library is closed permanently due to budget cuts? What if the government can no longer pay for Nursing Homes or pay Veteran’s Benefits? When the cuts hit close to home, will we still stand by our convictions that the only answer is to reduce spending?
How does the vicious cycle of spending more and more get broken? Our national leaders need to make the tough choices we elected them to make. Our state leaders need to make the tough choices we elected them to make. Our city leaders need to make the tough choices we elected them to make. Our school boards need to make the tough choices that we elected them to make. But even more so, we need to make the tough choices that our Creator elected us to make. As His chosen people, as His nation, we need to embrace the eternal rules of right. We need to maintain justice and constantly do what is right. We need to be content with what we have and to refuse the love of money and the idolatry of greed. Then, our elected officials will know that the people who put them into office truly want them to cut government spending.
The future economic distress, which forecasters say lies just around the corner, will put Philippians 4.12 to the test. The apostle Paul said,
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4.11-13)
As citizens of heaven who temporarily get our mail on earth, time will tell if we are interested in learning this secret. Can we be content to live in the 93rd percentile? Or even better, can we be content in every situation, whether well fed or hungry?
Is this a spiritual issue? Yes. Our national debt problem is the overflow of our national greed problem and our national discontent problem.