Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. | James 4:8-10
As part of his country's Jubilee celebrations last week, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni showed himself a superior spiritual leader to the majority of America's pastors by publicly offering this prayer of personal and national repentance. The prayer is a little long for us simple-minded Americans, but worth reading in its entirety nonetheless:
Father God in heaven, today we stand here as Ugandans, to thank you for Uganda. We are proud that we are Ugandans and Africans. We thank you for all your goodness to us.
I stand here today to close the evil past and especially in the last 50 years of our national leadership history and at the threshold of a new dispensation in the life of this nation. I stand here on my own behalf and on behalf of my predecessors to repent. We ask for your forgiveness.
We confess these sins, which have greatly hampered our national cohesion and delayed our political, social and economic transformation.
We confess sins of idolatry and witchcraft which are rampant in our land. We confess sins of shedding innocent blood, sins of political hypocrisy, dishonesty, intrigue and betrayal...
Forgive us of sins of pride, tribalism and sectarianism; sins of laziness, indifference and irresponsibility; sins of corruption and bribery that have eroded our national resources; sins of sexual immorality, drunkenness and debauchery; sins of unforgiveness, bitterness, hatred and revenge; sins of injustice, oppression and exploitation; sins of rebellion, insubordination, strife and conflict.
These sins and many others have characterized our past leadership, especially the last 50 years of our history. Lord forgive us and give us a new beginning. Give us a heart to love you, to fear you, and to seek you. Take away from us all the above sins.
We pray for national unity. Unite us as Ugandans and eliminate all forms of conflict, sectarianism and tribalism. Help us to see that we are all your children, children of the same Father. Help us to love and respect one another and to appreciate unity in diversity.
We pray for prosperity and transformation. Deliver us from ignorance, poverty and disease. As leaders, give us wisdom to help lead our people into political, social and economic transformation.
We want to dedicate this nation to you so that you will be our God and guide. We want Uganda to be known as a nation that fears God and as a nation whose foundations are firmly rooted in righteousness and justice to fulfil what the Bible says in Psalm 33:12: Blessed is the nation, whose God is the Lord. A people you have chosen as your own.
I renounce all the evil foundations and covenants that were laid in idolatry and witchcraft. I renounce all the satanic influence on this nation. And I hereby covenant Uganda to you, to walk in your ways and experience all your blessings forever.
I pray for all these in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Drop dead gorgeous, isn't it? Impossible to imagine an American president offering such a prayer.
President Museveni's repentance comes as no great surprise to those who have followed the witness of Uganda's Anglican pastors in recent years. This is because civil obedience tends to flow from ecclesiastical obedience. God has ordered His creation such that the Church—not the State—is the light of the world, the city set on a hill. When the light of the Church is held aloft by pastors who are unashamedly faithful in proclaiming God's Word, then (guess what!) the nations will come to that light. If Uganda's pastors have led the world in Biblical fidelity—and they have—shouldn't we expect God to bless them with a president who bears the yoke along side them?
On the other hand, when a country is guided by shepherds who, from fear of persecution, choose an ear-scratching ministry to a prophetic one, the results are likewise predictable. The Ugandan Christians have been given the civil leader they deserve, and so, it seems, have we.
Scripture's remedy for our nation's decline is clear. If we want to see change in Washington, Washington is not the place to begin:
[If] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land. | 2 Chronicles 7:14
Not that we should neglect calling our leaders to repentance—for most of us, calling others to repent is itself an act of repentance. But if we desire a repentant nation, then we must work toward a repentant Church. That's because reformation begins in here with us—with our hearts, our homes, our pulpits, our ministries.
Why should we expect the confessions of our rulers to be any better than our own? When was the last time you acknowledged your sin with any of the honesty and specificity of President Museveni?
It's far more common for our repentance (when there is any) to be a vague and shallow thing. We use words like "mistake" in place of sin. We prefer "I'm sorry" to the far more humilitating, "Forgive me." We talk of losing our way, missing the mark, falling short. We don't sin, we make bad choices. Biblical language about who we are (you know, "corrupt," "depraved," "desperately wicked," etc.) is repugnant to our lips, and an afront to our sense of security in Christ. Ezra did not hesitate to confess that Israel's iniquities had gone up over their heads (Ezra 9:6), yet today we stand in the peaceful shallows of a recent slump in Bible reading, or a minor deficiency of servant leadership, or a neglecting to appreciate others the way we should.
Anything less superficial than these we keep strictly a matter between us and God. Less concerned about His holiness than we are about protecting our pride and reputation, we prefer to bounce our confessions off the ceiling instead of acknowledging our sins in the presence of God and His gathered people. By this we rob Christ of the glory due Him as the Savior and Justifier of the world.
"Wait a second, are you suggesting that public confession brings glory to God? That acknowledgment of sin can be an act of worship?"
I am. Haven't you read about Achan?
Then Joshua said to Achan, "My son, I implore you, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and give praise to Him; and tell me now what you have done. Do not hide it from me." So Achan answered Joshua and said, "Truly, I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle from Shinar and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold fifty shekels in weight, then I coveted them and took them; and behold, they are concealed in the earth inside my tent with the silver underneath it." | Joshua 7:19-21
As Protestants, repentance should be our bread and butter, our badge of honor, the thing we lead with in our marketing campaigns. After all, wasn't Martin Luther's first point of argument against the Roman Catholic establishment that, "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite ["Repent"], willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance"?
This means that repentance is not a one-time act, over and done with in the Sinner's Prayer. Rather, it's a way of life. A practice. A habit. One that the Church should be calling us to. And as we practice our repentance, over time, we can expect to see it work its way into the White House. It just may take us a century or two to catch up to the Ugandans.
This is why I'm grateful that every Sunday God affords me the opportunity to confess my sins to Him as an act of public worship. Confession of sin is the first and most natural thing in the world for us to do when coming before the presence of holy God, and this element of the traditional Reformed service has become very dear to my heart. I never knew how important public prayers of confession were until I started worshipping in a church that honors this traditional practice.
Historical words have their place in worship, and we commonly use traditional confessions (like these) in our times of confession. But it's also necessary (as President Museveni well understood) that words of repentance be directed to the particular perversities of our day. This is why I've delighted from afar in the leadership of Christ Church, Moscow which consistently produces prayers of confessions that are forthright and culturally pertinent.
Here's an example of the kind of confession you should be encouraging your pastors and elders to lead you in each Lord's Day:
The Grace of Human Sexuality
by Pastor Douglas Wilson
Father in Heaven, You are the one who created us male and female, and it was one of Your great gifts to us. We confess to You now that our nation has fallen into a great confusion about this. We no longer even know what marriage is, and we have raging political debates over what ought to be the most obvious thing in the world. Father, we know that this problem is moral, and not intellectual. Forgive us our prideful confusion and ignorant arrogance, we pray.
We know, Father, that if we in the Church regard iniquity in our own midst, or in our own hearts, this prayer will be ineffectual.
Father, we confess that we have not modeled Christian marriage and family the way we ought to have done. The world has been watching, and we confess that we have represented the grace of human sexuality poorly. Forgive us for this, we pray.
Father, we confess our own sins and failures to You now—and Selah [A time of silent confession follows]. . . We pray this in the strong name of Jesus, and amen.
You have been reconciled to God, and you have been reconciled through the body of Jesus on the cross. Thank Him for all His goodness to you. Having been reconciled, you have been enabled to confess your sins properly, and as a consequence, the Lord has heard you. As a minister of Jesus Christ and His gospel, I declare to you that your sins are forgiven through Christ.
Congregation: Thanks be to God!
May God answer President Museveni's prayer, removing Uganda's sins from her as far as the east is from the west, and giving her fruit in keeping with repentance.
God bless Africa.