The Bible has much to say about how we should interact with governing authorities. We are to pray for those in positions of authority (1 Tim. 2:2), be subject to governing authorities and “do what is good” while under their rule (Rom. 13), pay what is owed to governing authorities (Mark 12:13–17), and so on.
Scripture largely casts our involvement with civil rulers in a positive light. One thing we’re clearly told not to do, though, is to put our trust in them.
The psalmist could not be clearer: “Put not your trust in princes” (Ps. 146:3).
My guess is most Christians would wholeheartedly agree with this wise command of God and with the reasoning for it, listed in the rest of Psalm 146. It indeed seems foolish to trust in a temporal prince or president or prime minister. We know, after all, that Christ alone is King and that he alone reigns.
And yet, our demeanor and actions—especially in an election cycle—can sometimes betray otherwise biblical confessions.
Right Hope vs. Wrong Hope
Some of us end up in dangerous waters because we’re optimistic, anticipating what the political process might bring. Perhaps you are hopeful given Americans’ opportunity to effect real change through our democratic elections.
If so, those are good impulses. The representatives elected, and the subsequent decisions made and legislation passed, will indeed have direct effect on us and the neighbors we’re called to love. Governing authorities are ministers of God to do what is right and just. They are tasked with establishing and enforcing laws that are good, fair, and equitable. It’s right to care about these things and hope for good outcomes.
But where is the line between earnestly desiring to see a president work what is good, and putting our trust in him? How do we know if we’re rightly hopeful about a candidate or if we’re sinfully putting our hope in him?
Let me suggest four diagnostic questions that might reveal a slide toward trusting in princes (or presidents).
1. Do you expect the president to satisfy something for you that you believe Jesus fails to satisfy?
If you sense your heart is loading this presidential election with the freight of true meaning, abundant life, felt salvation, existential rest, or ultimate security, it’s evidence of idolatrous hope in a commander-in-chief.
2. Do you get more worked up when someone speaks ill of your candidate than when someone speaks ill of Christ?
If you will suffer through a sitcom that repeatedly glorifies the things that God hates, but you quickly change the channel in frustration when a TV personality or famous athlete makes a disparaging remark about your candidate, it may be a sign that your affections are disordered.
3. Do you feel more fundamentally aligned with a non-Christian who aligns with your political party than with a church member who votes differently from you?
Christians share the most vital, deep-seated, identity-forming reality in common with other Christ followers. We’ve been redeemed by the blood of Christ, brought into one new body, and indwelled by the same Spirit. This brotherhood and sisterhood stands, regardless of our politics. Indeed, it exists even across vastly different forms of government. I have a tighter bond of fellowship with my friend Feng, who is a Christian in Communist China, than I do with a member of my own family who doesn’t know Jesus.
4. Will it be impossible for you to experience the outcome of the election without being overly elated and euphoric if your candidate wins, or utterly devastated and destroyed if they lose?
Again, elections are important, and we’re right to approach them with hope for a desired outcome. But if you’re unable to function spiritually, relationally, or occupationally because of the toll of November 3 (if it doesn’t go your way), there is some heart work to be done. Some sadness or joy is natural and to be expected, but an election result won’t be soul-crushing to someone who’s hoping in the proper Prince.
By all means give your candidate your vote. Just don’t give him your heart.
Don’t mishear me. I’m not saying elections or presidents or policy are unimportant. All the issues on the docket are important and weighty. The stakes are high. Voting in a democracy is a significant privilege.
You ought to vote as a Christian, with conviction about what is right. You ought to vote as a Christian, informed by the Word of God. You ought to vote as your conscience allows, having weighed all the options.
What Psalm 146 would tell you, however, is that while you’re free to give a presidential candidate your vote, you can’t give the candidate your heart. Put not your trust in princes.