What Makes a Nation Great?

“Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people.” Proverbs 14:34

To ask the question heading this meditation of several different people would likely evoke as many different answers as people questioned. For there are many varied perspectives from which people measure greatness. Some would consider size an important yardstick, others the military strength, others the gross national product, and still others the political form of government itself. During the celebration of the twohundreth birthday of the United States this month, these and many other things will be extolled and praised as characteristics that combine to make the nation great. Before our eyes there will be paraded all the external evidences of this greatness, and on our ears will fall the patriotic songs that send a tingle down our spine. Much of the celebration will even smack of being quite “religious.”

It is true, of course, that there is a religious heritage which is deeply woven into the fiber of American history, and for which we may never cease to give thanks. Though we can hardly be designated as God’s chosen people, we can surely look back with gratitude to God for the abundant favors He has showered on us.

Our founding fathers came to the shores of this land, at least in part, in pursuit of the freedom of religion. Integrated into the very Declaration of Independence was a recognition of the God of heaven and earth, who created all mcn equal and who endowed them with certain inalienable rights. And the influence of the Christian message has been felt in most alt areas of life.

But what is the real yardstick of greatness? Is it to be found in terms of the economic output and a high standard of living? No, not really.

The wise philosopherking who authored the Book of Proverbs writes under the Spirit‘s guidance: “Righteousness exalteth a nation.” And “righteousness” refers to conduct directed by the will of God, and not merely a confession. Righteousness, even in Old Testament terms, had to do with a person rendering proper due to both God and man, and observing the requirements of justice and truth.

To be righteous is to follow a norm of moral rectitude, to be right with God. It has to do with daily life and living. And the author of Proverbs is referring to all nations, not just to Israel; as a matter of fact, if righteousness exalts and sin degrades all peoples, then it is even true more so of God‘s people to whom He has revealed Himself and whose responsibilities are even greater.

We ought to look in two directions then, in this anniversary celebration. An honest looking back will produce the dual feelings of repentance and gratitude. Repentance, because we acknowledge that sin is a reproach to us, a cause of shame; and there is much sin to confess. And gratitude, because in spite of waywardness and sin, we have been the objects of many unmerited blessings from God.

But the forward look should be one in which we vow with greater fervency to be characterized by righteousness. And if that is going to happen, it will demand continual submission to the will of the Lord. Wanting to be called by His Name, but not wanting to submit to His will and leading, results in hypocrisy. And the effect is that our walk often disproves our talk.

Are there not national sins which characterize us, and which clearly contradict our confession to be a Christian nation? Without intending to be exhaustive, we might paint to class and racial prejudices which have often caused the oppression of one class by another, commonplace dishonesty in so much of the business world, a frivolous pleasure-seeking attitude on the part of so many. When these things are found to a large degree among the citizens, they affect the whole life of the nation. Individuals come and go in a relatively short period of time, but nations continue, giving time for the fruit of such sin to ripen and to be reaped. Such things degrade a nation, and eventually bring her to destruction.

But “righteousness exalteth a nation.”

No, not just constructing great edifices for religious show, or adding numbers on a membership list, or even stamping pious phrases on our coins. That‘s not righteousness. But living lives that are in accord with the will of God as expressed in His Word—obedience—determined not by the whim and will of a given society or class of people, but by the moral standard set by the Cod of heaven and earth. That is the righteousness which exalts!

In pursuing after that righteousness, let the will of God as expressed through the prophet Micah be our guiding light: “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?” May that kind of righteousness characterize us throughout all the years to come.