Of Men and Angels

James Madison lived to the advanced age of 85 and helped birth our nation. He became known as the “Father of the Constitution” which was adopted when he was a young 36.  He led the drafting of the Bill of Rights, and served as our fourth President.

To promote the adoption of the Constitution, Madison wrote a series of articles published as The Federalist Papers.  In No. 51, while explaining the need for checks and balances in government, he makes a key observation.  “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”  This reflects the Biblical view of the fallen human condition which makes government necessary.

It is worth noting that the Founders never believed that a constitution and laws are enough to make government successful.  Madison wrote, “Is there no virtue among us?  If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.  No theoretical checks – no form of government can render us secure.  To suppose that any form of government can secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical (illusory) idea.”  George Washington said, “The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.”  Another Founder, John Witherspoon, was a Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton.  He warned, “A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual, and slavery will ensue.”

What does this mean for today?  Well, men are still not angels, and current events (and politics) reek of rotten materials.  Many reject God as the source of virtue (morality), which reduces it to simply choices.  Or, if it’s legal it’s moral, which is entirely backwards to Madison’s thinking.  What a contrast with what French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1838!  “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.  America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

America was founded on liberty, unalienable rights, and government only by the consent of the governed.  These hopes stand on the twin pillars of constitutional government and personal morality.  Morality must come from our Creator else it becomes entangled preferences, power struggles, and ugly arguments.  Even Jefferson and Franklin, not known to be Christians, recognized the need for transcendent values.

On this Independence Day, join me in praying that America will return to our founding, mutually dependent principles of liberty, virtue, and faith.  After all, men are not angels.


Aging Fruit

The young fancy themselves wise, unable to reason with their feeble minds;
the old fancy themselves feeble, unminding the season that finds them wise.

Growing old isn’t for the faint of heart. Ok, that’s cliché. Tennyson said it better in “Ulysses.” “Death closes all; but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with gods. We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are – One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” To be wise in advanced years means having a vital (noble) interest and a resolute (heroic) courage to engage life.

An inspired life is a joyful one. Robert Louis Stevenson writes in “The Lantern-Bearers” about boys and their bulls-eye lanterns. They took great joy in the tiny lantern buckled to the waist, well hidden beneath the topcoat. His point is that the source of a person’s joy is not in the “salts and acids” of what is seen. “We shall see the trunk from which he draws his nourishment; but he himself is above and abroad in the green dome of foliage, hummed through by winds and nested in by nightingales.” Do you exist solely in the salts and acids, or has inspiration lifted you? Old age is no excuse.

Ronald Reagan exemplified inner joy and resolute courage. In 1984, he was the oldest person (73) to be elected President. When the issue of his age came up in debate, he looked to his opponent Walter Mondale and said, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed!

Where does someone find a work of noble note, and a heroic heart strong in will? The Psalmist has the answer. “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree, he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still yield fruit in old age” (Psa. 92:12-13). That righteousness is not your own but “through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9).

The older you are, the more keenly you realize what you don’t know. But you have the wisdom of life experience, something to offer to the yet age-challenged. As long as you continue in your earthly tent, you have reason for joy and a purpose for life, along with your hope for eternity. By faith, endowed with the righteousness of God, you will yield fruit in old age.

God Hath Wrought

Samuel Morse was a portrait painter in 1825. He was away from home working in New York City when he received a message that his wife was sick. The next day another message said she had died. He immediately rushed home only to learn that she had already been buried. Working through his grief, he determined to improve long distance communications.

In the decades to come, he contributed to the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph, and received a patent for it. He crafted a transmittable alphabet. In 1844, he transmitted a long distance message in Morse code from the Supreme Court chamber in Washington D.C. to Baltimore. The historic first message was, “What hath God wrought?” (Num. 23:23)

That question is part of the story of Balak urging the prophet Balaam to curse God’s people, even though God had blessed them. The immediate retort was that God is not fickle or changeable, like humans. He had already declared that Balaam was not to curse the people. Instead he was to bless them, and the time or place of the question didn’t change the answer.

Israel was not like the other nations which relied on mysterious divinations to communicate with their gods. Israel enjoyed immediate revelation from the one true God. The evidence was in how He guided and empowered them, not least of which was the liberation of His people from Egypt. The people knew the answer to “What hath God wrought?” because they saw it. No words of Balak or Balaam would alter the blessing.

From that time, to the time of Christ, to now, God has not changed. He reveals Himself and His works. Even when you simply take a walk in the woods, His nature is “understood through what has been made” (Rom. 1:20). The greatest deed God hath wrought is recorded in history, never to be forgotten, and forever unchanged. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to die on a tree to set you free. I cannot say that’s what Mr. Morse had in mind, but it seems a distinct possibility.

We need no long distance communication from God; He is immanent and accessible. We need no mysterious means to know about Him; He has revealed Himself. He has declared truth that does not change; religious whims of the day notwithstanding. He is hope for the widowed, comfort for the grieving, and love for the lonely. He is a friend to the traveler, the forgiver of the repentant, and the anchor for your soul. The one who practices truth has come “to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:21). By faith in Jesus you have a purposeful and eternal life. That, God hath wrought.