The U.S. presidential candidates had their first debate last night, and it was a doozy. One TV commentator compared it to a “street brawl.” Others said it was like a World Wrestling Entertainment match—and that was an insult to the wrestlers.
The debate was emblematic of U.S. politics in general. Each side spends relatively little time telling what they stand for, but they’re very good at telling us how terrible things will get if the other side gains power.
This is called “negative partisanship”—and it’s the one factor that explains U.S. politics more than any other, according to several commentators, including David French, a Presbyterian who is also one of the wisest and most insightful commentators on politics today. French wrote a brilliant piece back in February, titled “Will Somebody Please Hate My Enemies For Me?”, which challenged a common reason he hears from his fellow Christians for supporting President Donald Trump—that he fights back.
“Imagine a kind, sweet Christian woman—a person so nice in person that you’d hardly think it’s real. But she loves Trump, and she loves Trump because she’s sick and tired. She’s sick and tired of the elite media deriding her faith as bigoted. She’s sick and tired of a political party that rejects the humanity of unborn children. She’s appalled at the way she believes the media have gone out of their way to destroy good men. … Donald Trump says “Enough!” Sure, he’s rude, and she wishes he wouldn’t tweet quite like he does. But the bottom line is that he fights. He punches back. And that’s what we need.”
But, French responded, “a person doesn't necessarily wash his hands of sin by delegating that sin to another person. Or, to put things more plainly, one doesn't comply with the command to ‘love your enemies’ by hiring someone to hate them for you.”
At the same time, many people support former Vice President Joe Biden merely to stop Trump. They are mostly unaware that Biden has put forward plans they may not like—such as collecting $4 trillion more in taxes over the next decade, according to two left-leaning think tanks, or opposing private school vouchers or working to “codify Roe v. Wade” and overturn state and federal restrictions on abortion so “every woman should be able to access high-quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion.”
Into the doom loop of apocalyptic accusations that this year’s election has become, I want to insert a startling suggestion for Christians to consider: If the person we don’t vote for wins, let us respond with joy. That’s right, if our guy loses, we should rejoice.
Of course, each of us should do our best to choose the best leader. Or, if we feel conscience-bound to choose none of the candidates, to do that. Informing ourselves and making a choice is an important duty for all of us in a democratic form of government. But when a winner is declared—whenever that occurs—let us embrace with joy the opportunities that even a bad leader will create.
Let me give you a couple reasons why:
1. The Bible tells us to embrace trials. James, the brother of Jesus, opened his letter to Christians who had been so persecuted that they had to flee their homes by saying this: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produced steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). In other words, God brings us trials in order to grow us into the mature people he wants us to be—sort of like lifting weights fatigues and even tears your muscles, in order that more muscle tissue will be added, increasing your strength. Trials are our spiritual workouts. Hard as they are, we should cue up our music playlist and rejoice when they come.
2. Suffering is inseparable from ruling. If we as Christians want to see righteousness rule our land—protecting the unborn, ending injustice, bringing harmony instead of racial division, seeing prosperity spread to rich and poor—then we must realize that such rule only comes by suffering. It cannot come merely by establishing the right majority in Congress or on the Supreme Court. How can I say this? Because Jesus Himself, who is our leader and the ruler of the entire world, is both a king who rules AND a priest who sacrifices Himself. “However much therefore the Messiah may appear in might and glory, He will also appear in lowliness,” theologian Herman Bavinck wrote about Jesus. “He will be King but also Priest.”
So if you see the other guy win the U.S. presidency—the guy you desperately fear—go ahead and imagine the worst outcomes you think will result. And then start thinking all the ways those bad outcomes will produce trials and suffering. Because all that suffering will create opportunities to serve—which is what being a follower of Jesus is all about. Jesus Himself told his disciples, “whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:44-45).
If President Trump whips up divisions in our country for another four years, we as Christians will have the opportunity to spend four years reaching out to people unlike us to show that identity in Christ can, as it has since Paul preached the gospel to the Gentiles, be a source of unity for people from every race, ethnicity and class.
Or if a Biden presidency leads to a renewed wave of challenges to religious liberty and favorable tax treatment for religious institutions, Christians will have the opportunity to give more of our time and money to Christian individuals and institutions, trusting God to provide even if the tax laws don’t.
In short, we as Christians can serve in the gaps created by our human leaders’ shortcomings. As we do, we can be joyful because we know that Jesus is using our suffering and service to make us more like Him—and to make the world a little better than our petty political leaders could do on their own.