Many Americans have the sense that the country is on an unstoppable nose-dive into chaos and crash.
In numerous recent speaking engagements and participation in broadcast talk shows across the United States, the same questions have come up again and again: Where are we? What’s happening to us? Where are we going?
“Nowhere,” answers the Nihilist. “Wherever,” replies the Stoic. There are many other variations on the replies in between, depending on the philosophical point of view.
There are, however, many who survey history from the perch of their own periods, and see broad themes cycling around the line of finite time. These range from the second century, BC, Greek philosopher Polybius, to classical historians of the modern age like Will Durant, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Alexander Tytler, Robert Strauss and Neil Howe—to name a few.
Historians immersed in the secular worldview don’t like historical cycles theory because such ideas imply something outside time (transcendent with respect to finite time) ranging from astrological alignments to God Himself.
The Bible, however, reveals a cyclical pattern based on interactions between the Lord and Old Testament Israel—a prototypical nation whose experience can instruct any and all nations in all historical periods.
As I’ve written previously in The Christian Post and elsewhere, here are the stages revealed in Israel’s history (these are my own alliterations, for the sake of easy memorization):
- Ratification All the consensus establishments (in contemporary America, The Entertainment Establishment, Information Establishment, Academic Establishment, Political Establishment, Corporate Establishment) and a critical mass of the general population agree that the God who has revealed Himself in time and space is the true God, the foundation of the nation, and the Being to whom both the leaders and the people are accountable.
- Relapse (of memory) In Israel’s experience this begins with the death of Joshua and his generation. Generally, the consensus establishments turn from their belief in God, and the critical mass of the population centering on the Lord begins to fade.
- Rebellion Turning away from God in behavior, ethics and moral value is the nature of this stage. Lawlessness abounds, along with apostasy. Will Durant described it accurately: “Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos...”
- Refiner’s Fire In this stage, the consequences of forgetting God and the rebellion that follows begin to fall upon the nation. Israel experiences spiritual and societal lethargy, and falls into captivity. For modern times, Durant writes that “life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth.”
- Remembrance Things get so bad in the Refiner’s Fire stage that individuals in the nation begin wondering what has gone wrong... what was left behind. They find one another, and, together, begin a search for lost values. Prophets arise, give guidance, but are persecuted. Nevertheless, they point the way back to God, His Kingdom, and the values it represents.
- Repentance A remnant of the nation’s populace grows into a critical mass, and begins to repent for its own sins as well as the sins of its society. They “stand in the gap” for the land. (Ezekiel 22:20) God hears from heaven, forgives their sins, and begins to heal their nation. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
- Revival As I describe in my book, Call Down Lightning, God listens to the prayers of His remnant, and releases spiritual renewal throughout the nation. The number turning back to God swells. Culture is transformed. Benjamin Franklin described the atmosphere of New England during the Great Awakening when he wrote that “one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
- Rest The culmination is expressed in the words of Judges 3:11 and other passages: “And the land had rest forty years” (a generation). During the “Rest” stage, ratification of the nation’s belief in and focus on God is recovered and sustained until the cycle begins again.
Abraham Lincoln, in the eyes of many, America’s greatest president, said that, “it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God ... and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”
So, to return to the original question: Where is contemporary America as measured by the historical stages revealed in those Holy Scriptures?
I believe we are deep in the Refiner’s Fire period. Already things are so bad there is a stirring here and there among disparate voices and groups, wondering what we have forgotten. This will grow into a remnant that will expand into a critical mass.
We must not fall into shallow triumphalism. There is more suffering ahead. But remembrance, repentance, and revival are also in our future.
All this starts in the church. The health of a nation is in direct proportion to the health of the church in the nation.
Wake up, Church: you hold the “keys of the Kingdom”!
Wallace Henley is senior associate pastor at Houston’s Second Baptist Church. He is a former White House and congressional aide. Henley’s newest book is Call Down Lightning (Thomas Nelson), a study of the Welsh Revival of 1904-5 and its implications for our times.