This past week in my early-morning men’s Bible study we began looking at the book of Nehemiah, and the following verse just jumped off the page at me (1:5-7):
5 And 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, 6 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 the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.
The underlined verses are the ones I want to reflect on.. Let’s put this passage in context. Israel was taken captivity by the Babylonians back in 586 BC; after 70 years a group of Jews returns to the promised land, and at some point a man named Ezra goes back to rebuild the temple. A few years after that a young man named Nehemiah becomes the cup bearer for the king – you know, the one who gets to drink the king’s drinks before the king to make sure they aren’t poisoned! Anyway, some of Nehemiah’s friends go off to Israel and then return and Nehemiah asks how things are going. But what he hears isn’t what he expects: things are not as good as he had hoped. Now Nehemiah wants to return to help rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. The prayer recorded here in Nehemiah 1 is his plea that sets the stage for him to lead a group back to Jerusalem. But notice how he starts: after acknowledging God’s power and love Nehemiah goes on to confession. And not just any ol’ simple confession, mind you – no, he confesses things like corruption and failure to “keep the commandments” God himself gave.
But here’s the really interesting part: he includes himself in the confession. Notice the underlined words: “Even I and my father’s house have sinned.” This prayer actually reminded me of Daniel’s prayer, as recorded in Daniel 9. Daniel prays the same thing, saying, “we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled….we have not listened to your servants the prophets…To us, O LORD, belongs open shame…because we have sinned against you…” I think you get the idea here: both Nehemiah and Daniel include themselves in the sin committed by Israel.
I think this is something we miss today, this idea of individually accountability for corporate sin. We do a great job in the church of looking at individual sin and calling people to repent for what they have done individually. We talk all the time about how Jesus came to forgive individuals of their sin. And these are all true, but there’s another equally important truth that we don’t every discuss: rarely do we talk, at least in evangelical circles, of corporate sin and our individual involvement in it.
I think that’s a reflection of how our culture has infected our theology. As Americans we are very much focused on the individual and not as much on the corporate. The evangelical church does a great job of pointing out the corporate sins in our culture, but we don’t like to include ourselves in that mix. In an effort to not distract from my argument by picking a hot-button moral issue of the day to illustrate my point, let’s look at slavery, which I believe all my readers (regardless of whether they are on the left or the right) can agree on. Slavery was evil and the fact this country allowed it at all was a monstrous sin.
Let’s assume, for a minute, that slavery was still allowed on the basis of one’s race. Let’s also assume that the church by-and-large did not approve of or condone slavery but in fact stood against it. Let’s assume that church leaders constantly brought it to the attention of the public, calling those who kept slaves sinners and calling on politicians to outlaw slavery. (I say assume because we know that even the church didn’t always see slavery this way) Now, here’s the question: do you think you’d hear the Church including itself in prayers of confession of slavery, or would we confess that “America has sinned and walked away from you, Lord God” while at the same time removing ourselves from that “America that sins”?
Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see that happening. The church suffers from a Pontius Pilot complex – we warn sinners of their sin and then we wash our hands of them, saying “It’s their choice.” We confess that “America” has sinned, but we wash our hands of any involvement by saying, “America may do this, but I do not.” Yet that’s not how God sees it. As evidenced by both Nehemiah and Daniel, we need to confess our involvement in the sin around us. “Wait,” you say, “I don’t own slaves!” That’s right, you don’t. But are you trying to tell me that Daniel himself “acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from [God’s] commandments and rules”? Are you suggesting that the one who was willing to face a den of lions rather than not pray is one who did “not listen to the prophets”? Absolutely not! Daniel and Nehemiah were moral pillars of their day, yet when they confessed their sins to Almighty God they included themselves in the sins of the nation. And they included themselves in the consequences of that sin.
Corporate and generational sin are very real in the Bible – and their influence was not magically removed with the arrival of the new covenant. How much of what we are suffering today as a country/state/city/church/family is a direct result of our corporate sins? It is pride that says, “They may have done that sin by I didn’t.” No, “I” (you) did, because we are a part of the body. That’s not to say that God will not hold slave holders and traders to a different standard than he will those who are more passively involved because I do believe a just God will punish evil doers accordingly and differentiate consequences based on our involvement (or lack-there-of). But here’s the real question: Do you really want to be standing in front of God trying to explain how so-and-so is worse than you are – how their participation in the sin was much more than yours? Do you really want to just be “a little less sinful” than the next guy? There’s an old joke about how to out-run a bear: just be faster than the slowest person in the group. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just be less sinful than the worse person on Earth. Yet when we wash our hands of the corporate sin of the family/state/country to which we belong that’s exactly what we’re saying.
“But how can anyone ever be good enough for God?” someone’s objecting. That’s the point: no one can. All have sinned, the Bible tells us; through Adam all are dead (you didn’t eat the forbidden fruit in the garden, yet you are and will pay the price for Adam’s sin). But Jesus tells us that what is impossible for man is possible for God. We can’t ever be good enough for God’s standards – because all of us are so infected and intertwined that even if one of us could live a perfect life we’d still be responsible for the corporate sins of the group to which we belong.
Enter grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved,” writes Paul; and I think that both Nehemiah and Daniel understood that, too.