“But I thought you said you would [fill-in-the-blank].”
“Something important came up. It was [fill-in-the-blank]. Sorry.”
Throughout life, you’ll fill in these blanks. And when you look at what you’ve filled in, you come to understand what people really value.
Psalm 14 offends me. Well, first it offends atheists. But just in the middle of my eye-rolling smirk at those silly atheists, the psalm turns its sternness toward me and freezes me in a stupid look.
Here’s the part of the psalm about atheists (verse 1): “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” That’s a great verse. That is one of those verses that makes me feel great about myself. I’m one of the least atheistic people you’ll ever meet; after all, I’ve published a book called The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw.
The smugger I feel about myself, the more I imagine my soul taking on the appearance and tone of Princess Bride’s Vizzini: eyebrows raised in comic disbelief, voice scoffing nasally, “You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders!”
But Psalm 14 wasn’t written to make anyone feel smug.
Because as the psalm continues, you realize it’s not talking about the Richard Dawkins’s of the Ancient Near East (were there any atheists back then?). Rather, the psalm is referring to anyone who lapses into behaving as if there is no God. By that, it means . . . all of us.
The psalm continues, “There is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good; not even one” (Psalm 14:1-3).
By this point of the psalm, I’m not laughing anymore.
Fast forward three thousand years to today’s national politics. The time for smirking at the other party’s hypocrisy is over. Why? Because Psalm 14 applies to both parties. By this point in national politics, no one should be laughing anymore.
The Book of Romans tells us a couple of universal truths that apply equally to both Republicans and Democrats. First, both have the moral law “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). Second, all of us—Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, and all in between— “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We all know God’s moral standards deep within us. Yet we all fall short in all sorts of ways.
What this means is that—theoretically (“all other things being equal”)—we say that sin is wrong. But we’re also sinners whose relationship with sin is blurred beyond recognition by its inconsistency. We’re like a bored kid with a camera who makes a movie in his backyard in which he plays the hero one moment and the villain the next.
Nowhere is this inconsistency more obvious than in the area of politics.
Republicans were clear that adultery was really, really wrong. It was so despicable that it made someone completely unfit for public office. That is, it was despicable back in 1998, when adulterer Bill Clinton was being impeached. But when it came out that Donald Trump had actually bragged about adultery on video and in writing (“Beautiful, famous, successful, married—I’ve had them all”)? A lot of Republicans changed their minds—not about Trump, but about adultery. As it turns out, such behavior was not at all the deal breaker they had once seen it as.
Similarly, a couple years ago, most Democrats were treating sexual assault accusations as damning against Trump-appointed Supreme Court nominee Brett Cavanaugh. But now that their Presidential nominee Joe Biden has been accused of sexual assault? It’s already halfway into 2020, and Biden’s their best chance at beating Trump. So, what’s the Democratic party to do? It’s unsurprising that, instead of consistency, we hear an awkward silence.
Because of its depressing view of us, Psalm 14 is hard to read. But it can also be hard to believe. After all, as a whole, we humans are pretty neighborly. The bad ones—those who steal and murder—are noteworthy; that’s why they make the news.
Yet Psalm 14 uses universal language: “none who does good,” “They have all turned aside,” “None who does good, not even one.”
Surely this is hyperbole, right? Was David reading the newspaper and commenting on the felons he read about?
It’s almost as if Psalm 14 bypasses our theoretical, “all other things being equal” stances against sin. And it focuses on those times when our stance against sin is disrupted by life. You know, those times when our convictions are overridden by the things we find more important.
- “Yes, I know I said that integrity matters most. But then a winnable candidate came along who happens to score well in other virtues besides integrity.”
- “Yes, I know I said that accusations of sexual assault call everything into question. But do you realize how soon the election is?”
- “Yes, I know I said that I would stay faithful to my spouse until death. But then I met someone who made me feel so alive.”
- “Yes, I know I said that I would try to work on my anger. But can you believe what happened in traffic today?”
- “Yes, I know I said that I would try to read my Bible more. But things just got busy.”
- “Yes, I know I said that I would play with the kids after dinner. But something important came up.”
- “Yes, I know I said that I would follow wherever Jesus leads. But that life got hard.”
“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). We aren’t up against a corrupt political party or a hypocritical governing class. Rather, we’re participants on a planet of people with principles, but for whom other “urgent” matters keep coming up.