Politics and Skepticism
There is a strong mistrust in society today, a spirit of suspicion and skepticism that is almost pathological.
Conspiracy Thinking and Radical Skepticism
The COVID-19 experience has bred a lot of it, with debates about vaccination, wearing masks, etc. Conspiracy thinking is very much on the rise. Subject matter experts are dismissed as “so-called experts.” Scientists are called “so-called scientists.”
This article is not about the particulars of these debates. I don’t want to argue for or against mask mandates or vaccinations. I don’t want to take sides on whether climate change is happening or not, and if it is, whether mankind is responsible for it. Instead, I want to focus on godly thinking.
The Lord Jesus said that the first and great commandment is, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” (Mark 12:30).1 This is a call to good thinking. In this article I want to address a couple of concerns about influences on our thinking.
The first of these is the strong pull of politics. There are clear political overtones to many contemporary controversies. Abstinence from politics is fundamental to our identity as Christadelphians and is based on sound Scriptural teaching. We face strong challenges to maintain this aspect of our identity and need to ask whether our thinking is influenced by the politics of the day.
A second influence to be avoided arises from a misapplication of Biblical teaching about human nature, and the evils of the world. Radical skepticism and conspiracy thinking might appeal to us because we know that the world is evil.
In this article, we will consider Psalm 146, John 17 and Jeremiah 17, seeking a Biblical perspective on trust and our attitude toward the world.
Psalm 146: Our Political Inclinations and Why They’re to be Avoided
Let’s be honest with ourselves. As much as we claim to stay out of politics, it is evident that many of us are inclined to sympathize with the views of one political party and to despise the views of another. Such sympathies can arise because of our understanding of God’s will. If one party is more supportive of Israel, we may favor that one. If one party endorses behavior the Bible condemns, we may be inclined to favor another. If one party’s policies are more consistent with Biblical standards of caring for the poor and needy, and immigrants, we may favor that one.
The problem is, we’ll never find a political party with goals completely consistent with the will of God. Religious folks that take part in politics are forced to prioritize their convictions, and to choose the “least worst” of the options. What a blessing it is that we don’t need to do so. In fact, we are called on not to be involved—it is a part of our Christadelphian heritage, one not to be forsaken, that we regard ourselves as “strangers and sojourners.” (Heb 11:13 and 1 Pet 2:11).
We Really Need to Stay Out of Politics
One of our most familiar “proof passages” is in Psalm 146. It’s a passage we use to teach that the sleep of death is unconscious, in contrast to the false teaching that man has an immortal soul.
While I live will I praise the LORD: I will sing praises unto my God while I have any being. Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God. (Psa 146:2-5).
We are correct in using this passage to teach the mortality of man,2 but its primary message is that we should put our trust in God rather than humanity. Consequently, we stay out of politics!
Those who rest their hopes in human leaders are inevitably disappointed. It may be that the leader doesn’t have the wherewithal to accomplish his or her intents. It may be that the political leader is subsequently disgraced by revelations of personal misconduct. It may be that the leader’s good intentions cannot be realized, simply because of the leader’s mortality or other obstacles.
But our God is unlimited in His power, and will bring about all for which we could hope, all that the politicians cannot deliver for a variety of reasons.
Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that is in them; Who keeps truth forever, Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners. The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; The LORD raises those who are bowed down; The LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked He turns upside down. (Psa 146:6-9).
Trust God rather than man.
Our hope and reliance is in the God of Jacob. Like Abraham, we are “strangers and sojourners” and need to be careful not to be encumbered by the thinking of the present age. It would be a shame if our community were divided along political lines, but thanks be to God, we’re united by a common hope, generated by trust in God rather than trust in flesh. It’s a hope that “does not disappoint.” (Rom 5:5 NKJV).
Psalm 146 is one of many passages teaching us to trust God rather than man.
Trust vs Skepticism
Some believers are attracted to conspiracy thinking and distrust of experts precisely because we are told not to put our trust in man, and because the world is evil. I believe such reasoning is unsound.
Of course, a certain amount of trust is essential to society. When you get on an airplane, you trust the pilot knows what he’s doing, that the air traffic controllers have good equipment and good judgment. When I take my car to Lenny the mechanic, I trust he’ll fix the brakes or whatever, and that the car will be safe, and the work done at a fair price. I’ve had good experiences with him, and know others who have as well. I have no reason to mistrust him.
We understand what the Bible says about human nature. We know what the world is like. John, in his first epistle, says “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15). And yet, a bitter, suspicious, skeptical outlook is surely not healthy. This same world that we’re not to love is the world which God so loved, to which He gave His only begotten son.
Consider what Jesus says about us, and our interaction with the world, in John 17:14-21.3
I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:14-21).
We might think from John 17:14 that the world is hopelessly at odds with God, but verses 18 and 21 say that we have been sent into the world “that the world may believe.”
We cannot be effective servants of God if we are pathologically mistrusting. We undermine our effectiveness as teachers of the Truth if we put ourselves up as authorities about things beyond our expertise. Our expertise is (or ought to be) in the Scriptures. We undermine our credibility when we go beyond this, to pontificate or extrapolate about things we don’t understand. Brethren who use the platform to assert that all scientists are stupid or dishonest set up our young people for spiritual failure. Such young people will meet scientists who are good thinkers and honest, and find a conflict—a most unnecessary conflict—between science and faith.
I know a believer whose radical skepticism about the world has influenced him to believe that the earth is flat. Think of the vastness of the conspiracy required to support that idea, in this day and age! The entirety of NASA, the entire scientific world has got to be in on it! Could such a conspiracy work? The moon landing, the Mars explorations—all a vast collaboration of lies, and to what end? What of the satellites that inform our GPS?
To hold such views isn’t to forsake God,4 but it surely undermines our witness, especially if we in any way associate those views with the fundamentals of our faith. We would be seen as crackpots, and do disservice to the faith. What’s more, the distrust which we label as virtuous, is actually a manifestation of a different kind of trust—trust of a minority that is no more trustworthy (and likely less trustworthy) than the experts we would question.
We need to take a closer look at what the Bible means when it contrasts trust of God with trust of man.
Jeremiah 17: Trust and the Heart of Man
Jeremiah 17:9 is a familiar proof passage about another aspect of man’s nature, his moral nature. Verse 9 tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” It is a clear statement of what Paul says in Romans 14, that sin is at work in us like a law of nature; that we’re not “basically good.”
Consider the verses leading up to this:
Thus says the LORD: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man And makes flesh his strength, Whose heart departs from the LORD. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, And shall not see when good comes, But shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, In a salt land which is not inhabited. Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, And whose hope is the LORD. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, Which spreads out its roots by the river, And will not fear when heat comes; But its leaf will be green, And will not be anxious in the year of drought, Nor will cease from yielding fruit.’ (Jer 17:5-8).
What a word picture! The man who trusts in man is like a desert shrub that ekes out a difficult existence in hopeless circumstances. The man who trusts in God is like a tree planted by a stream, always watered, even in difficult times. It never ceases to bear fruit.
Jeremiah clearly spells out what’s wrong with trusting in man. The man who trusts in man “makes flesh his strength” and his heart departs from the LORD. There are two steps involved. The first is confidence in “flesh”—confidence in self, and in others. The second is having a heart which departs from the LORD.
The first of these is the spirit condemned in the epistle of James.
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that. As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.’ (Jas 4:13-16).
Having taken the first step of reliance on the flesh, the second step is that the “heart departs from the LORD.” And that’s the problem. That’s the heart that is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” In the first verse of the chapter, Jeremiah said that the “sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with the point of a diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart.”
The trust in man that is cursed is that which makes flesh its strength, disregarding God. It’s not about trusting Lenny the mechanic. The trust that is condemned is that which forms the central tenet of humanism, rejecting God and exalting man.
We often skip Jeremiah’s rhetorical question about the deceitful heart in verse 9, “Who can know it?” Verse 10 gives the answer, “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give every man according to his ways, According to the fruit of his doings.” It is crucial that our Trust (capital T!) be in the LORD. As the LORD said to Samuel, “The LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7).
We miss the point if we think that Biblical instruction about not putting trust in man means being radically skeptical. It is appropriate and reasonable for us to trust others, so long as that trust does not lead us away from God. Mistrust is not a virtue, especially when it is in reality an expression of trust in political and conspiracy-minded individuals.
The trust in man that we are to avoid is the trust that shoulders or pushes God out of His world, which assumes we and other men have the solution to all of our problems. Jeremiah 17 teaches that such trust turns our hearts from God.
We live in a world that is awash with media voices, many having a strong political agenda. It is natural for us to pay attention to the ones we are most comfortable with—if you’re a FOX News kind of person, you listen to FOX News. If you’re an MSNBC type, you tune in to MSNBC. Media analysts speak of “echo chambers,” where one’s own perspective is constantly reinforced, without fair presentation of alternative views. Despite our first allegiance to Christ, it is possible for us to be influenced by these. Political views are making inroads into the community.
Psalm 146 expresses the vanity of putting trust in man to solve the world’s problems. Our hope is in God. Let’s recommit to being “strangers and sojourners,” having here “no lasting city.” Let’s be on guard to avoid the influence of politics.
(Baltimore Ecclesia, MD)
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptural citations are taken from the New King James Version.
2 Some modern versions (e.g., RSV, ESV) translate vs 4 as “his plans perish.” This translation gives the correct sense of the passage, but masks the literal sense, appropriately rendered by the KJV and RV. Robert Alter’s translation and commentary says: “The Hebrew appears only here, but it is related to a verbal stem in Jonah that means ‘to think’ or ‘to reflect’.” Note also that verse 2 says “While I live… while I have any being,” the clear sense being that a time will come when the Psalmist ceases to be.
3 More than half of the New Testament references to “the world” (Greek, cosmos) are in John’s gospel and epistles, and about a quarter of these are in John 17.
4 Brother Robert Roberts’s masterful article on “True Principles and Uncertain Details” is required reading for any Christadelphian worth his or her salt. The climax and goal of the article is that uncertain details about who will appear at the Judgment Seat of Christ should not divide us. It is interesting to note that along the way, he argues that belief in the Kingdom on earth is a true and essential principle, but that the geometry of the earth is an “uncertain detail”—not a matter of