When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, ‘O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply.
When was the last time we heard the word “sin” in public discourse? When was the last time we heard a leader say, “We have sinned”? At the risk of sounding to some like a Luddite, or Flat Earther, when was the last time we heard anyone say, like Nehemiah: “We have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply.”
We are embroiled in fierce arguments about what has gone wrong in America. Most proposed remedies call for more money and more education. That’s what I heard last Saturday watching news reports of the shooting at the Poway, California synagogue. I watched as expert after expert called for more money and more education to defeat what they called “ignorance” as the cause of mass shootings and slaughter. I felt like I was watching a panel of oncologists not wanting to use the word “cancer”, and prescribing more band-aids. I wanted to shout at the television: “Whatever happened to sin?”
That was the question raised by famed psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger over a generation ago in his book Whatever Happened to Sin? The founder of the famed Menninger Clinic noted that the word “sin” had fallen out of use in the nation. In fact, he pointed out that “sin” had not been used by an American President since 1953, when Dwight Eisenhower spoke it in proclaiming a National Day of Prayer. In that proclamation Eisenhower quoted Abraham Lincoln, who called the nation to prayer in the dark days of the Civil War:
It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.
I doubt any preacher could have said it any better than Lincoln!
It’s not that we have stopped sinning, but we have stopped talking about it. It’s not sin anymore! We live in times similar to those of the prophet Isaiah before the fall of Jerusalem: “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20). We are, as the prophet Hosea lamented, reaping the whirlwind: “For they sow the wind, and they reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7).
So much for the bad news! Now the good news! In today’s scripture, we see one man, Nehemiah, serving at the court of a pagan king, Artaxerses, in faraway Persia. He has just received news from the Jewish homeland that efforts to rebuild Jerusalem and the nation are failing. Nehemiah immediately knows the problem and knows what to do! He weeps, mourns, fasts, and prays for his sins and the sins of the nation: “…confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply.”
From that one man’s repentance and prayer came the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the nation. Perhaps if Dr. Menninger were to write his book today, he would title it: Whatever Happened to Repentance?
The root problem our nation faces today is not political, or even cultural! If I read my Bible right, our root problem is spiritual! But there is good news in this! The Bible tells us what we can do! We can repent and pray. It began with one man, Nehemiah! May it begin with me! May it begin with you!
A fellow traveler,
P. S. Watch around mid May on our website for Water from Rock’s new publication “This I Know: The Bible Tells Me So.” Here are 40 scripture reflections on some things we can know and consider for sure in the midst of life’s uncertainty.