If only. If only we had different political leaders. If only we had a conservative. If only we had godly leaders. If only our side was in power. If only we had leaders who followed the Constitution. If only. Are you tempted to think and/or mutter thoughts like these? I am, but I hope that I’m learning better—and not from earning more degrees or anything like that. I’m learning that leadership begins at home. We are quick to expect more of our leaders than we do of ourselves. In 62-63 A.D. the apostle Peter wrote to Christians enduring persecution in the 1st century, encouraging them with this truth: a godly life is the best example to an ungodly world, but that is only possible if God changes our hearts/wills from the inside. External political systems cannot reform the idolatrous heart. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:15-17, ESV)
If only was not the argument Peter wrote Christians should embrace about the culture that was persecuting, and sometimes murdering, them. Peter was to be martyred under Nero’s reign for his Christian witness. His letters were not platitudes. He knew what he and other believers were up against.
In sum, 1st century Christians were up against what many Christians are up against today: anger, bellicosity, and vitriol. We’re living in a day of spiritual road rage. One writer has even written an entire book (A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Today) on the subject of how acrimony and bitterness characterize much of public discourse.
Classrooms now are characterized by sound bites instead of reasoned argument. Depth has been evicted. In most colleges and universities, neither students nor teachers read the classics. Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer are now branded misogynists and bigots. When I went by my alma mater a few years ago to see some of my former graduate school professors of literature, I discovered that English majors could now earn degrees in literature and writing without taking courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or even Greek and Roman literature. English majors are now schooled in multiculturalism, women’s studies, gender studies, and black studies. My temptation? To mutter to myself, if only.
Earlier this week, I was able to sit down with one of our children. We were reading one of his books together entitled Farmer Boy. It’s a wonderful narrative of 19th century America on a farm in rural New York. The protagonist is named Almanzo, and he’s a typical 9-year-old boy. He likes candies more than vegetables. He likes to play in the barn loft more than to shock wheat. He enjoys irritating his older sister more than he does listening to her counsel.
As we read together, my son asked me, “Dad, why did Almanzo’s sister get him out of trouble like that? I mean, Almanzo threw a paint brush and made a mess in their mom’s favorite room.” I said, “I know. It’s because she loved him. She knew he’d done wrong, but their family was more important than for her to seek justice by telling on him.” My son looked at me and I could see the genesis of understanding in his eyes. He began to see how “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). I almost thought for a minute that he was going to say, “If only we were more like that.”
It’s fashionable and “progressive” nowadays to scoff at old ways. Even modern parlance reflects how patronizing today’s culture is when talking about previous ideas. Phrases like “old school” and “Back in the day” abound. However, Scripture admonishes us to remember those who came before us and to reflect on why boundaries were erected in the first place: “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28). If only we had a more humble and accurate assessment of our places in the world.
In politics, blood boils. Ratings go to the person with the brashest insults. If you shock the audience by virtue of your acerbic tongue, you win the poll. However, might we not be better served if cool heads prevailed? If only.
An acquaintance of mine wrote me some time back something to this effect: he does not have hope for leadership on the macro level. If there is to be any moral and spiritual resuscitation, it will be from the micro level. I think he is mostly correct. However, I would add this caveat: a godly life is the best example to an ungodly world, but that is only possible if God changes our hearts/wills from the inside. External political systems cannot reform the idolatrous heart. The if only that we’re all tempted to think, if not say, must begin in our homes, made possible through divine regeneration and sanctification.