Do you know what you are letting yourself into…?

Often, as I stand at the end of a long flower-draped carpet, looking at the anxious bridegroom and nervous, beaming bride being ushered down the isle by her dad, I silently smile and wonder “do you have any idea what you are letting yourself into…?” 

Because – honestly – I had no idea what I was saying “yes!” to when I enthusiastically promised forever love to my wife ten years ago.  Yes I was repeatedly warned by older married people that married life is tough, that it requires work, that the romance is not all it is promised to be in the movies, that I should enjoy my time of freedom before I say “I do” to a life of “ball and chain” etc.  At that time I was also aware that the divorce rate in my country was about 50%, being Christian or not.  In short, from all over I got the message that married life is quite grim.

But I was never told what I discovered over the last decade, and what research is progressively revealing about married life.  Today I know that “he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord!” (Proverbs 18:21) and this “favor” or “blessing” is evident in at least the following verified benefits over non-married individuals: married people will statistically live longer, happier, healthier (physically and psychologically), wealthier and safer than non-married adults.

Married adults enjoy longer and healthier lives

It has been suggested that the longevity and health is closely related to wealth, education or even nationality.  But contemporary research has discovered for you to live longer and healthier you don’t necessary have to earn more, study more or even emigrate – you simply need to get married!  Married adults generally outlive their unmarried counterparts[i] – regardless of cultural background or nationality[ii].  Linda Waite, University of Chicago sociologist concluded after years of researching sociology “The evidence from four decades of research is surprisingly clear: a good marriage is both men’s and women’s best bet for living a long and healthy life.”[iii]  In fact, saying “I do” has a similar impact on one’s health as that of a smoker quitting.[iv]

Married couples are more likely to enjoy better overall physical health: married persons have the lowest incidences of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than adults from any other relational status.[v]  “The protective influence of marriage applies not only to more minor illnesses like colds, flu, and migraine headaches but also to serious health issues like cancer, heart disease, and heart attacks – as well as the need for any kind of surgery.” [vi]  In addition, married couples recover better from both minor and major illnesses[vii] and even boast stronger immune systems.[viii]

Married adults enjoy better emotional and mental health

Referring to a 2004 report from the (US) National Center for Health Statistics[ix] Bridget Maher from the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at the Family Research Council concludes that married people are happier and healthier than widowed, divorced, separated, cohabiting or never-married people, regardless of race, age, sex, education, nationality, or income.” This same study revealed that the improved emotional health show that married adults have the lowest amount of serious psychological distress and exhibit less addictive behavior, while another reveal that married people live longer and are less likely to commit suicide that those who are unmarried.[x]

Marriage leads to higher incomes and greater wealth

Married people accumulate more wealth over time than unmarried people[xi]  and tend to earn higher salaries as well – one study found the increase to be 22%![xii]

Marriage brings safety

Marriage is undeniably the safest relationship to be in – physically and emotionally.  One study revealed that the occurrence of physical aggression in unmarried relationships to be three times higher than that in married relationships.[xiii]

Marriage brings the benefits, not simply living together

Interestingly, these benefits are not shared by adults who simply live together – only those who get married enjoy these health, wealth and safety benefits.  Studies indicate that co-habitation (and singles with intimate relationships) experience less financial satisfaction and poorer psychological health than their married counterparts.[xiv]

Now you know what I wish every bride and groom knew before they got married, and what every fearful lover and struggling married couple knew: that married adults have a much higher likelihood of living longer, being healthier, happier, wealthier and safer than being single or divorced.  Truly, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord!” (Proverbs 18:21)

So it seems that you will be better off marrying the lonely girl in the office across from the passageway, or the person having coffee with you, or your neighbor (what’s his name again?) – even if you don’t like them.

References

Note: the two most influential papers I used in compiling this blogpost are the Focus on the Family Memo on The Health Benefits of Marriage (September 2012) by Andrew Hess and Glenn T. Stanton as well as the Family Research Council Issue Analysis Paper on The Benefits of Marriage (March 2010) by Bridget Maher.  See also Marriage and the Family in the United States: Resources for Society (2012) by Theresa Notare, PhD for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[i] Robert M. Kaplan and Richard G. Kronick, “Marital status and longevity in the United States population,” Journal of Epidemiology and Com-munity Health 60 (2006): 763.

[ii] Yuaureng Hu and Noreen Goldman, “Mortality differentials by marital status: an international comparison.” Demography 27 (1990): 233-50.

[iii] Linda J. White and Maggie Gallagher. The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 64.

[iv] Chris M. Wilson and Andrew J. Oswald, “How Does Marriage Affect Physical and Psychological Health? A Survey of the Longitudinal Evi-dence,” Institute for Study of Labor Study Paper 1619 (Bon, Germany: Institute for the Story of Labor, May 2005), 16.

[v] Amy Mehraban Pienta, “Health Consequences of Marriage for the Retirement Years,” Journal of Family

Issues 21 (July 2000): 559–586.

[vi] Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser and Tamara L. Newton, “Marriage and Health: His and Hers,” Psychological Bulletin 127 (2001): 472-503.

[vii] Catherine E. Ross, John Mirowsky, and Karen Goldsteen, “The Impact of Family on Health: Decade in Review,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52 (1990): 1064.

[viii] Sheldon Cohen, William J. Doyle, David P. Skoner, Bruce S. Rabin, Jack M. Gwaltney Jr., “Social Ties and Susceptivility to the Common Cold,” Journal of the American Medical Association 277 (1997): 1940-44.

[ix] Charlotte A. Schoenborn, “Marital Status and Health: United States, 1999-2002,” Advance Data from

Vital and Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Number 351, December 15,

2004).

[x] Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier,

Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000) 50–52.

[xi] Waite and Gallagher, 97–123.

[xii] Leslie S. Stratton, “Examining the Wage Differential for Married and Cohabiting Men,” Economic

Inquiry 40 (April 2002): 199–212.

[xiii] Sonia Miner Salari and Bret M. Baldwin, “Verbal, Physical and Injurious Aggression among Intimate

Couples Over Time,” Journal of Family Issues 23 (May 2002): 523–550.

[xiv] Steven Stack and J. Ross Eshleman, “Marital Status and Happiness: A 17-Nation Study,” Journal of Marriage and Family 60 (1998): 527-36.

Advertisements

Making Memories

Picture this: you have just spent six grueling weeks ascending the slopes of Mount Everest to reach the top.  You have a head-ache and feel nauseous because of the thin air at an altitude of 8.5km. You and your two friends eventually reach the summit and fall down on in the snow – satisfied and thankful, yet feeling miserable.  You only have a few minutes to drink in this moment in the light of the rising sun with the spectacular view of the Himalayan peaks, and you think: “this is the view God must have of the our world”.  You know you will probably never have this experience again, but thankfully you brought your camera.   Handing your camera to the Nepalese Sherpa (trekking guide) you and your friends strike a pose to capture this memory.  After an awkward silence your smiles change into unbelief and frustration when the Sherpa announces in his flat, broken English “batteries dead!”  You take the camera from the guide, fiddle with it for a few minutes but after a while you realize that the exercise is pointless – the batteries expired in the extreme weather conditions and now you will have nothing to capture the moment, no proof that you have climbed the highest peak in the world.  You will have no transferable memory that you can show to your friends and family, nothing you can post on Facebook and no story you can leave for your children in your family album.

Throughout our lives time keeps on ticking away; nothing distinguishes once second from another. But in the course of our lives there are moments which are precious, others that are crucial, others moments are hilarious or awful.  These events become the stories we cherish and retell; so that these moments become the memories that are transferred to coming generations – they become “the story of my life” and eventually “my life lesson”.  These unique moments are the matter that folk tales or legends are made of.  And there these the stories that make up the pages of the Bible – memories that were written for our learning, that through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)

Memorial stones

Memorial stones on mountain top stating "I made it!" - a common sighting all over the world.
Memorial stones on mountain top stating “I made it!” – a common sighting all over the world.

One way in which memories are made and transferred in the Bible is by setting up memorial stones or monuments.  In one such instance (around 1150BC) the prophet Samuel called the whole nation together at Mizpah to sacrifice to God and worship because the Ark of God was brought back to Israel.  The Philistines heard about it and wanted to take opportunity of the vulnerable worshipers, but the nation cried out to God.  God intervened with thunder so loud that it confused the enemies and the Israelites had a great victory that day.  Samuel set up a memorial stone there and then calling it Ebenezer saying “Thus far the Lord has brought us” (I Samuel 7:12).  This monument was meant as a reminder to the nation and coming generations that the Lord had heard their cries and delivered them from annihilation that day.  The life lesson transferred to those who see the stone and hear the story is “God hears and saves from impossible situations!” The story stirs hope and faith in God to whoever hears it.

Other such stone memorial is at Bethel where the Lord visited Jacob and made covenant with him (Genesis 28:18-19), as well as the heap of stones next to the Jordan river, where all of Israel had crossed over on dry foot (Joshua 4:1-7).  As in Joshua’s account, the purpose of such memorial stones are both to provoke inquiry and to remind that “This is what the Lord has done – right here in this place!”

Merry-making

In life we make memories by stopping to celebrate success.
In life we make memories by stopping to celebrate success.

Another way in which memories are cherished in Israel’s history is by feasts.  Most of Israel’s annual feasts were to serve as a reminder of an event where God intervened.  For instance, every week the Sabbath is honored by not working, a day to celebrate and remember that the Israelites were slaves but the Lord delivered them from slavery (Deuteronomy 5:15).  Likewise the Passover is celebrated annually to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 13: 3), and more specifically that the Lord spared their first-born children from the tenth plague – the night in which the angel of death “passed over”.  Much later Queen Esther instituted the feast of Purim as a reminder that the Lord had saved the Jews from annihilation by Haman’s schemes (Esther 9:19-22).

Communion is celebrated in the same way – “in remembrance” (Luke 22:19).  All of these feasts are meant to be merry-making – celebrated in memory of something the Lord has done.  A time to retell the event and celebrate the goodness and might of God in joy-filled thanks.

Making Melody

Memories are made and transferred through songs and poems,  painting or sculptures.
Memories are made and transferred through songs and poems, painting or sculptures.

One several occasions the Bible records songs being written to celebrate (and propagate) some intervention or deliverance of the Lord.  Moses and the Israelites composed and sang a song in celebration of their escape from the Egyptian army and their dry-footed passage through the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), followed by another song by Miriam  (Exodus 15:19-26).

The judge Deborah composed and sang a similar song after God granted them victory over Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army (Judges 5:1-31).  The beloved King David composed several songs retelling the faithful deliverance of God from his enemies, of which Psalm 18 is a good example.

The Psalmists of Israel understood that songs were a good instruction and reminder of the faithfulness of God to successive generations, and composed psalms such as Psalm 78 and 136 as reminders of God’s faithfulness in the history of Israel, as they sang then at their feasts and in their local synagogues.

Paintings of memorable events work the same way to remind coming generations of God’s faithfulness. The church through the ages have decorated the insides of cathedrals, monasteries and churches with images of Biblical accounts and heroes of the faith as visual sermons to stir faith and inspire believers to emulate their examples.

Memoirs

We make memories by recording our precious and defining moments for others to follow in and build upon.
We make memories by recording our precious and defining moments for others to follow in and build upon.

The Bible as book is delivered to us as a record of God’s relations and dealing with his covenant people.  It is the compiled memories of what the Lord has done and said in the past, and it is skillfully recorded and graciously preserved so that we may learn of what God has done for others, so that we may trust in his faithfulness and love .  The aim of such memoirs is that we may build on their lives and walk in their legacy, as Asaph recorded “Tell the coming generations the glorious deeds of the LORD, his might, the wonders that he has done… to set their hope in God… not forget his works; but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation…” (Psalm 78:3-8)

Likewise, the memories we transfer to others shape their understanding and affection of God.  Moreover, these memoirs will bring comfort and hope in hardship as the readers recall that the Lord has brought others through similar challenges (Romans 15:4).

Make memories

Pause your journey and reflect through thanksgiving and celebration.  make some memories - you (and others) might need them later!
Pause your journey and reflect through thanksgiving and celebration. make some memories – you (and others) might need them later!

In this season for merry-making, gather friends and family around the fire or table and relive the great memories that brought you here. Celebrate it properly!  Record it in pictures or in writing, in poetry or a song .  Set these up somewhere as a “memorial stone” that it may provoke coming generations to ask “What is this?”.  Then you can tell them “This is what the Lord has done – He can do the same for you!”

True Christian fellowship

We’ve all attended a Christian fellowship meeting where boredom drives us to count the cracks in the tiles and we end up feeling feel guilty for wondering whether this was a waste of precious time.  At other times we walk away from lively discussion with laughter or tears, yet feeling empty, wondering if Jesus was at this meeting.  But we go back because we know it’s right, and because we remember and yearn for those powerful life-changing encounters with God in a loving community.  How do we prepare for those meetings?  What did the Christian fellowships look like to result in such life-giving communities?

The word “fellowship” is used very loosely in Christian circles these days for anything from formal Sunday worship services to conversation over coffee to prayer meetings at work.  Interestingly enough, none of these references are improper when compared to the New Testament use.  Hampton Keathley did a very helpful study of fellowship in the New Testament, showing how it the concepts of “having together” or “sharing” is used in reference to our relationship with God and one another, the various ways in which companionship takes place, or for the sharing of resources to meet one another’s needs, as well as partnership in ministry.  Christian fellowship is a wide study, and perhaps that is one reason why at times “fellowship groups” fail in being productive and life-giving.

levels-of-communication3
Conversation in Christian fellowship should should grow towards being loving, genuine and truthful.

Before we get handles on what to focus on in Christian fellowship groups, let’s first consider our communication within the fellowship.  It is widely considered (and helpful) to look at five levels in communication:  Hallway Talk is that shallow conversations we do in showing courtesy – the “hello!” and “lovely day, isn’t it?”  exchanges as we pass by.  Then we have Reporter Talk where we relay facts or experiences; in a Christian group this is typically a teaching or an update.  Next we move to Intellectual Talk as we add personal depth by sharing our thoughts, understanding or opinions on the subject at hand.  Many Christian groups only progress to here, limiting the fellowship to intellectual debate or lecture – the reason for the lifeless feeling in fellowship.  From here the talk should move to making it even more personal – Emotional Talk – where one’s feelings towards the subject is discussed: “How do you feel when you read ‘God so loved the world…’?” or “How does the statement ‘God will judge every work…’ move you?” But Christian fellowship should not climax with emotive response alone – the aim to evaluate yourself soberly in light of the Word and then present your shortcomings vulnerable for the Lord in the ministry of the fellowship (1 John 1: 7-9; James 5:16).  Communication in Christian fellowship should be Loving, Genuine Truthful Talk.  This level of communication is very honest and transparent and requires an environment of patient love and safe trust.  But this is the environment where the Spirit of God works with great power and delicate precision.  Here there is LIFE that shows in healthy growth and miraculous transformation.

The elements of true Christian fellowship

Now that we know the conversational environment wherein Christian fellowship should take place, what are the necessary elements for healthy Christian fellowship?   With fellowship meaning “sharing” – what do we “share” when we come together?

Christian fellowship should first of all be communion with God.
Christian fellowship should first of all be communion with God.

Firstly, as Christians we come together to fellowship with God in Christ (1 John 1:3, Colossians 1:27). We share in God as we share in Christ – this is firstly an objective reality, since God lives in and we live in God through Christ.  In a literal sense we “share” or “hold onto” God himself – this is true regardless of share activities.  God has us together and we have God together.

But fellowship with God is also subjective experience and deliberate activity as we commune with him about anything and everything in prayer.  We come together to meet with God and converse with God.  This includes the giving of thanks for his goodness in our lives, praising him for who he is and surrendering ourselves to him in worship. Fellowship with God must always be the central focus of Christian fellowship, otherwise it becomes a human social interest club.  We meet with God as God’s family around Our Father’s table.

Christian fellowship involves encouraging, supporting, caring and also correcting one another.
Christian fellowship involves encouraging, supporting, caring and also correcting one another.

Secondly, we fellowship is with one another (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 1:3,7-9).  It sounds silly to say it, but the second focus of coming together is to be with one another and “stir one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  The focus of gathering is the well-being and growth of the others, placing the needs of others above their own (Philippians 2:3-4).  An enlightening study is to search through the New Testament and take note of the many instructions to “one another” and “each other” as it gives a healthy perspective of the practice of early Christian fellowship that characterized by love for one another.  The complete list of “one another” –instructions is long, but the essentials in my view for every meeting is to “encourage each other” one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18, 5:11) and “build each other up” (Hebrews 3:13) in our walk with Christ, to support and care for each other (Galatians 6:2; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Corinthians 12:25-26) through struggles and hardships, to correct and warn one another of harmful attitudes and sinful behaviour (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16) as we hold one another accountable before Christ.

Christian fellowship should be centered in the Word.
Christian fellowship should be centered in the Word.

Thirdly, we fellowship in Word the Scriptures are the basis of our conversation and reflection whether in instruction (Romans 15:14; 2 Timothy 2:2) or edification and correction (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) the Biblical Text is the basis of our communion.  Too often our conversation centers on our opinions, resulting in worldly advice or cheap Hall-Mark card encouragement.  In Christian fellowship the Bible is central.  We gather around the word of God as we seek God and his will for our lives, remembering the words of Peter to our Lord: “Lord, you alone have the words of life” (John 6:68).

Christian fellowship should be Spirit-directed. "The wind blows where it pleases... so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)
Christian fellowship should be Spirit-directed. “The wind blows where it pleases… so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Fourthly, we fellowship in Spirit (Philippians 2:1).  As mentioned above our fellowship is not mere intellectual engagement or emotional interchange, but spirit-to-spirit ministry.  We already “share in the Spirit” since we all immersed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12), and therefore our interaction should be spiritual.  This includes prayerful waiting on the direction of the Spirit for empowered ministry as we “serve one another with the gifts each one has received” (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Corinthians 12:6-11). We must remind ourselves to stop and listen to the promptings of the Spirit, and in faith obey.  Our fellowship is in the Holy Spirit.

"Fellows in a ship" working together for a common goal - a good image of Fellowship in the Gospel'
“Fellows in a ship” working together for a common goal – a good image of Fellowship in the Gospel’

Lastly, we fellowship in Gospel (Philippians 1:5, 7 27).  Objectively this means we have become “partakers of the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6) – those who have received and hold on to the promise of redemption in Christ’s substation and grace.  When we come together this is evident as we testify of our experience of Christ’s continual saving work in us.  But to “fellowship in the gospel” (Philippians 1:5) also means to partner with one another in the work of the gospel – the spreading of the good news of God’s reign and Christ’s saving work.  We fellowship as we take hands, or “yoke together”, to work diligently and strategically in sharing the gospel and showing God’s love with those close and those far away.

Thus Christian fellowship is centered in our worship of God and overflows to our communion with one another.  This fellowship is centered in the Word and directed by the Spirit and results in partnership in spreading the gospel of Christ.  Christian fellowship fails when its aim is mere intellectual enlightenment or emotional support; the goal of Christian fellowship is the discovery of God and his truth followed by a conviction and transparent confession of who I am, so that God through his grace may do his transforming work in me, within and through this loving community.

“It’s just sex” – Relational MythBusters 2

When I was a young teenager I wondered whether “fruit of the tree” was a euphemism for sexual intercourse – the original sin that caused the fall.  It’s a ludicrous thought, but I recently found that I was not alone in my thinking:  the Church fathers, heavily influenced by Stoic and Gnostic education deduced that all sex was wrong and only necessary for procreation.  For instance Tertullian (150 – 230 AC) accused woman of being “the unsealer of the forbidden tree” that caused the fall, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) said “Christians marry only to produce children” with Jerome (c. 320-420) adding “he who is too ardent a lover of his own wife is an adulterer.”  This statement makes no sense, but he firmly believed Adam and Eve were virgins before the fall, and only married (euphemistic speech for “had sex”) once they were cast out of paradise.  The severity of sexual sin is evident in their responses to temptations:  Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) once looked at the face of a beautiful woman, and to avoid sexual temptation jumped into an icy pond.  Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE) once threw himself naked into thorn bushes, rolling around to ensure the pain would remove all sexual desires.  Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) frequently rolled around naked in the snow when tempted with sexual desires, but when there was no snow he followed the painful example of Benedict.  (Be thankful for ready access to cold showers!)

thorn_bush

Yet we know sex is not sin – we were created as sexual beings “male and female” from the very beginning, and commanded to “multiply” (Genesis 1:26-28).  Our sexual desires were not the result of the fall but part of the desire for intimacy – the reason God made Adam a helper to deliver him from his loneliness (reference).  Sex between husband and wife is good and meant to be pleasant – it is created by God, honoured by God (Hebrews 13:4), encouraged by God (Proverbs 5:18-19) and married couples are even commanded to please one another sexually (1 Corinthians 7:2-4) to avoid sexual temptation.

Only sinful sex is sin.  The Mosaic Law lists various sexual misconducts including adultery (Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 18:20, Deuteronomy 5:18), bestiality (Leviticus 18:23, Deuteronomy 27:21), homosexual acts (Leviticus 18:22), incest (Leviticus 18:6−18; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20, 22−23), prostitution (Leviticus 19:29, Deuteronomy 23:18), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25−29), sex before marriage (Exodus 22:16−17), shrine-prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17), transvestism (Deuteronomy 22:5), unclean acts (Leviticus 18:19), and violation of betrothal (Deuteronomy 22:23−27).  These laws, although negative and carrying severe punishment in case of transgression, were given by God “for [our] good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24). [i]

These Mosaic laws were asserted by Jesus (Matthew 5:19), stating that these sins emanate from the heart (Matthew 5:27-28; compare Proverbs 6:27-29) and defile a person (Mark 7:23) so that one who practices these things will not inherit the Kingdom of God and therefore have to be avoided at all cost (Matthew 5:29-30).  Therefore the apostles also taught that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:5), and warned against the sins of adultery and fornication (Hebrews 13:4), homosexual acts (Romans 1:26−27, 1 Corinthians 6:9−11, 1 Timothy 1:8−11, Jude 1:7), incest (1 Corinthians 5:1−5), and prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:15−16).  As in the Old Testament, the apostles warned the early church that God still judges sexually immoral acts in the new dispensation (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 10:8; Jude 1:7; Revelations 21:8, 22:15).

However, in the new dispensation there is grace for forgiveness and restoration of those who have fallen prey to sexual temptation and a lifestyle of immorality (1 Corinthians 6: 11).  Jesus demonstrated welcoming hospitality and kindness toward those who sought him (Luke 7:36-50) and taught humble identification and mercy with those battling the lure of lust (John 8:2-11).  Yet he never stopped warning about God’s judgment on sexual immorality (Matthew 5:29-30; Mark 7:23), but reached out to sinners (Luke 5:32).  Thus the disposition of the church towards believing sexual sinners should not be indifference or judgment, but rather humble support towards restoration (Galatians 6:1), yet unrepentive believing sinners should be publically disassociated after ample warning to prevent others emulating the immoral  behavior and perhaps granting the sinner repentance in the light of the seriousness consequences (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), all the while trusting and praying for repentance and hoping for restoration (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

light_in_darkness

Light in a dark world

Both the Old Testament Law as well as the New Testament letters were written so followers of God living in utterly perverse societies: the older in Baal worshiping country and the newer in Grecko-Roman society.  Both these societies were obsessed with sexual practices, even incorporating shrine prostitutes in their religious ceremony.  Thus it is not strange to find within these writings many instruction pertaining to morality and sexuality.  The commands intended to set a people aside for God which is holy or distinguished from contemporary society so that their everyday lives display the holiness and loving nature of God, a people where God can dwell in holiness.  In one such instruction pertaining to sexuality Paul uses Mosaic text to motivate holiness “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18)

Sadly, today there is no discernable distinction between the sexual conduct of believers and unbelievers.[ii]  Tyler O’Niel reported earlier this year that “A new study on Christian attitudes toward dating and marriage reveals a broad acceptance for cohabitation, premarital sex and a rejection of traditional gender roles. Experts believe that many Christians are following cultural trends over scripture when it comes to sex and marriage.”  The majority of believers have adopted the sinful practices of the world around us, so that we are unable to represent the nature of God and ineffective in our witness to the world.

Justification for sex before marriage

I have heard three noteworthy arguments from believers to justify pre-marital sex, each of which I will shortly address Biblically.  Also refer to a previous post “On Spiritual Maturity: the error of Balaam” to see the various Biblical references to spirituality without morality.

Some think that remaining sexually pure before marriage is out of date.
Some think that remaining sexually pure before marriage is out of date.

1. Abstinence is “outdated” or “old-fashioned”. God does not change (Malachi 3:6), nor does his prescribed law. That is why Jesus himself did not change but obeyed the Law (Matthew 5:17), even intensified the interpretation to go beyond literal fulfillment but taught that it also judges thoughts, motives and emotions (Matthew 5:19-20, 29-30; refer Hebrews 4:12, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).  Consequently, the apostles also continued to reinforce the sexual morality laws of Old Testament Judaism.  The intent of Scripture is clear: God designed man to find sexual intimacy and fulfillment in faithfulness to one spouse – “for our good always.”

2. Abstinence is “the invention of the Church fathers” – the Bible does not prohibit sex before marriage. Sexual purity was not the invention of the early church fathers but God’s desire for humanity as expressed in the Mosaic Law and contained in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself and the apostolic writings (as briefly outlined above). Yet some argue that use of “fornication” (Gk: pornea) does not prohibit sexual relations between unmarried, consenting adults – rather it is expressly used for perversities such as pornography, orgies, bestiality etc.  Although pornea is generally used to mean “inappropriate sexual conduct” and is normally translated “sexual immorality” very few linguistic or Biblical scholars would argue that the word excludes fornication (sex outside the bounds of marriage).

However, without using this word a few sections in the Bible make it clear that sexual relations are reserved for marital partners, of which this pointing case suffices to defeat the argument:  1 “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband… But if [the unmarried] cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:2-4)  In this short text Paul makes it clear that no unmarried believer has rights to sexual relations; only with a married partner should that desire be fulfilled. All sex outside the covenant of marriage is sinful and will be subject to God’s judgment (Hebrews 13:4).

holding_hands

3. “Sex is just sex”. Some believe that “sex is just sex”, meaning it is a biological act like holding hands without spiritual effect and therefore can be enjoyed without harmful spiritual consequences. However, anyone who has been victim of molestation or rape knows that what they experienced was more than a mere physical touch.  Sex is inherently spiritual – this is why God warned the religious leaders in Malachi’s day that unfaithful sexual conduct is detrimental to their spirits, and therefore he cautions them to guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:14-16).

The congregation in Corinth had a similar argument as “sex is just sex”, stating that just as the body needs food, so the body needs sex – and therefore one should feed its sexual appetite; there is nothing more to it.  Paul answered with a powerful rhetoric (1 Corinthians 6:13-20), stating that sexual intercourse binds two people together in a mystical manner, and that should one should not do that improperly (outside of marriage) since the believer is “joined one in spirit with the Lord”.  He concludes that therefore believers ought to “flee sexual immorality… [because] your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you… therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”  Much could be written about this section, but the essential truth here is this: sexual intercourse is immensely spiritual, and has an impact on the spiritual welfare of the believer.

How do we respond to this?

My personal goal for sexual holiness is articulated in the phrase that Paul used to encourage the church in Ephesus: “among you there should be not be a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3 NASB).  How do we grow towards that in this immoral society?

every_mans_battle

  • Protect your eyes. One of the most useful lessons I have learned is to seriously sensor what I watch and look at – a lesson I learned while reading the famed Every Man’s Battle by Arterburn and Stoeker. They teach tat like Job we “make a covenant with [our] eyes to not look upon a young woman [or men] with lust in [our] heart” (Job 31:1).  Then you seriously sensor your environment not get sensual stimulation – go cold turkey for a while.  And your learn the habit to “bounce the eyes” – as soon as you see something that usually give sensual stimulation to your mind, you bounce your eyes off to somewhere else and not look there.
  • Renew your mind. During my student years God seriously challenged me to no longer think and live like the world around me does but to “renew my mind” (Romans 12:1-2) and adopt his perspective on life and relationships. Sexual happens when our perverse desires lead us astray (Mark 7:23; James 1:13).  This necessitates a retraining of the heart and mind through deliberate study of God’s precepts, prayer and reflective conversations with believers about God’s will.  Over time I have found that my actions change, my dreams and daydreams became innocent and my relationships became healthy.  God restores innocence!
  • Accountability.  As motivated in a previous blog on accountability relationships we need friends that watch out for us and that help us stay on the path of holiness and relationship with God.  This especially needs confession when we fall in some sexual sin, since nothing brings a sense of shame, guilt and condemnation like sexual sin. A lifestyle of transparency and honest confession (1 John 1:9, James 5:16) keeps us on the path of holiness.
  • Self-control. Learn to control your sexual urges (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Romans 13:11-14).  I do not advocate throwing yourself into thorn bushes like Benedict and Francis, but one has to do something to redirect energy and teach your body that it cannot always have what it desires.  Simple ways are endurance exercises or fasting which teaches you to ignore the demands of the body, learning the blessing and wisdom of delayed gratification (in a healthy way).  What many young people do not know is that this sexual self-control is also absolutely essential to a happily married life.
  • Avoid tempting circumstances. Not Samson the strongest, nor Solomon the wisest, nor David “the man after God’s own heart” overcame sexual temptation. But Joseph got it right by running away from his seductress (Genesis 39:13).  That is why Paul taught Timothy to flee youthful lust (2 Timothy 2:2; see also 1 Corinthians 6:18).  Avoid sensually luring situations – it is the sure way to have victory over this sin.  You have learned when you are vulnerable to this sin – simply avoid it.  If you can’t, so as the marines do and call a friend to provide cover (prayer) fire!  When tempted we should resist it (1 Peter 5:8).  Just know that you will never be tempted above your ability – with the temptation God will provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In closing, God is holy and desires us to be holy as He is.  He has made us to be sexual beings, and created us to enjoy sex – in its rightful place of marriage.  In that proper place God blesses it and calls it good.  Therefore we ought to take heed to the dangers and judgment of sexual immorality, resist and avoid temptation.  We ought to encourage one another to obey God’s moral laws, so that in this perverse society we may represent God’s holiness and loving nature well.

For further reading on similar topics refer to Marriage and our culture, Our Lonely world and The Perfect Match – Relational Mythbusters.

[i] The references in this paragraph comes from a good article by P.G. Nelson © 2009 found at www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/smorality_nelson.pdf

[ii] The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009 found at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/188-faith-has-a-limited-effect-on-most-peoples-behavior#.VEDa5fmSySo .         Results discussed in Kinnaman D., & Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).  See also Scazzero P., Emotionally healthy Christianity (Zondervan, 2009) for more statistic and results on culture and Christian distinction through discipleship.

Accountability in friendship

During a relationship seminar some time ago, my wife was asked why she felt safe to marry me.  She answered that my close friends gave her assurance for two reasons: I had the ability to maintain long-term relationships, and secondly she felt safe because if I lose my mind one day, she knows my friends will bring me back on track – she is not alone in our marriage.  I smiled that day realizing that my friendship with these men will not only preserve my marriage, but also my faith, character and reputation since they will call me to account to my promises, beliefs and values.

Accountability friendships acts as an anchor for a ship, preventing one from drifting slowly with the current of sensuality or heresy by keeping you on course, or like that voice in your car’s GPS that tells you have missed a turn and helps you to recalculate a route to your original destination.  Like that voice, accountability friends will not keep quite until you return to the original path.  But accountability relationships can do much more than that voice.

An accountability friendship acts as a GPS, keeping you on route.
An accountability friendship acts as a GPS, keeping you on route.

I cherish accountability.  Being in ministry for more than 12 years I learned of so many godly, anointed people who fall into sin or go astray in some strange path or get derailed because of some immorality or harness of heart, having no-one to call them to account. On the contrary, I have also seen marriages on the brink of divorce turned around because friends intervened – holding the couple not only accountable their vows but also to their hope, faith and values.  And this intervention is necessary every so often since both seduction and pain make one act hastily and irresponsible, steering one of course.   Adam and Eve, our perfect parents, show us that no-one is immune to seduction or deception  – we all need someone to speak into our lives.

Sadly, accountability is not popular or easy in our intensely individualistic society.  We value autonomy and cherish privacy and the freedom of choice above everything else. “It is none of your business!” and “I have the right to be happy!”  are the creeds of our time.  To make matters worse our society also values tolerance and therefore have a distaste for confrontation.  Thus we tend to keep quiet about matters that might ruin our friends’ lives.

What does it mean to be accountable?  It literally means “to give account” like an income and expense statement, or to be answerable for what was entrusted to you.  Phrases such as “bring into the light” or simply “to make known” are synonymous to accountability.

Accountability is not a strange concept in our society.
Accountability is not a strange concept in our society.

The concept of accountability is not foreign to our society.  For example, someone will willingly submit himself to an alcohol rehabilitation center makes himself answerable to the staff of the facility for the professed desire to be free from the substance and it’s destructive effects on his life.  How?  He gives permission for the staff of the facility to do random and scheduled urine tests and inspections, and invites accountability questions in the hope to be delivered from the addiction.  Or one who signs up for WeighLess receives a prescribed diet and is answerable for compliance to the diet, while progress is measured with scheduled weighing.  An athlete must give account to her coach for her adherence to a summer exercise program and performance is periodically measured in accordance to her goals for the season.  Students who enroll for a course get tested academically in exams.  The store manager, human resource manager and finance manager give account of what is entrusted to them both formally in audits, and informally in meetings.  In these spheres our society know the value of accountability; it is not a strange concept for us.

For the Christian, at conversion (and more specifically at baptism and public confession of our faith) we sign up for a life of allegiance to Christ our Lord.  This is called a life of discipleship: a commitment to be trained in and live a life based on the teachings of Jesus, as well as participation in his mission in this world.  On of this we must give account – today, as Paul demonstrated when he confronted Peter for “not acting in line with truth of the Gospel” (Galatians 2:12-14) and when Christ returns to judge the world.  And to that end accountability relationships must keep us on track.

Accountability in practice

Ultimately, each of us will give an account of himself before God (Romans 14:12).  This includes both our public actions and personal thoughts and desires (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).  The result will be rewards for the good and punishment for the wicked (Revelation 22:12).  We cannot escape this Day of Accountability (or Judgment) – our actions and inner thoughts and motives will be clear to all.  It is with this Day in mind that the apostles urge us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

God appoints leaders to whom we must give account (Romans 13:1-2; Hebrews 4:13) – this includes parents of children (Psalm 127:3-5).  These leaders must also give account of your soul to God (Hebrews 13:17) as Jesus did at the night of his arrest saying: while I was with them, I kept them in your name… I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except [Judas]” (John 17:11-12).

But this concerned accountability of one another is not only the responsibility of leaders.  Each of us should willingly give an account to one another – to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7).   We do so because we we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2, 5:16-20).  Therefore accountability requires honesty confession (1 John 1:6-9; James 5:15-20; see also Colossians 3:9; Ephesians 4:25) – an honest revealing of our thoughts, desires, habits and behavior, including confession of sins and failure (James 5:15).  The response of the hearer must be loving correction and support in restoration of the ones who are caught in sin (Galatians 6:1-2).

Similarly, each of us are tasked to be your “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) – meaning to hold one another accountable for our behavior seeing as we ought to “be doers of the word” (James 1:22) and “walk worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10; compare Ephesians 4:1), meaning to representing Him well.  We do this to help one another walk in integrity – to ensure our confession and actions line up.

Accountability requires encouragement and exhortation (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13) to stay faithful to Christ in allegiance to him and not drift away (Hebrews 2:1-4), to continue to grow spiritually (Hebrews 6:1-2) and to faithfully continue doing what the Lord had commanded (2 Timothy 4:2,5).  We are instructed to “consider how to spur one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).  From this text it is clear that we focus not on sins, but on growth in Christ-like love and goodness.  And this takes creative thoughts.

Accountability also requires admonishing and correcting one another (Colossians 3:16) where there is a sin or character weakness to “shape the face [read character] of a friend” (Proverbs 27:17).  This must be done in wisdom (Jude 1:23), “in gentleness” (Galatians 6:1-2) and “in love so we all can grow up in every way into …Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).  But is must be done!  Do not avoid speaking of the sins.

Elements of accountability friendship

An accountability road map (or framework).
An accountability road map (or framework).

A lifestyle of accountability requires a loving, trusting relationship. This does not need to be a “fuzzy warm friendship” – simply a relationship where two (or more) friends agree to pursue Christ-likeness and agree to walk together (Amos 3:3). This leads to a discipline of confession and a culture where we ask each other what the Lord is doing in one another’s life or what is the state of our finances, calendar, heart, mind, and relationships.   A commitment to transparent and truthful conversations.  These conversations will result in applauding, admonishing and affirmation, or said in another way complimenting, comforting and correcting.  The most difficult of these three is the humility for correction.  Being open to receive correction means we must maintain a humble, teachable mind (1 Peter 3:8), not despising corrective counsel (Proverbs 25:12).  But this must always be coupled with encouragement.  The aim is always to help one another grow in the likeness, knowledge and obedience of Christ our Lord.

Suggested accountability questions

In closing I suggest some questions to use in your accountability friendships.  Use them, tweak them, add or replace according to the needs in the relationship.

  • Devotions: “Did you pray daily and read your Bible daily this week? What is God saying?”
  • Thoughts: “What habitual thoughts are worrisome to you? Tell me about your day-dreams.”
  • Conduct: “In the last week, was your behavior in any way not worthy of the Lord?”
  • Obedience: “What has the Lord commanded you to do? When will you obey Him in this command?”
  • Temptations: “In which areas are you being tempted most these days? Let’s pray for you.”
  • Witness: “To whom have you shared your testimony this week? Tell me about it! Who did you invite to church or small group?”
  • Relationships: “Tell me about your key relationships – in which ways are your growing?”
  • Fellowship: “What did you experience during your Church and cell attendance this week?”

Find a friend (of the same gender preferably) and invite him or her to ask you these questions, and see how the relationship grows in purpose and godly intimacy.

One last thought: who would the Lord ask you about like when he asked Cain “Where is you brother/ sister…?” (Genesis 4:9).  Who will call you “brothers-keeper?”

A Perfect Match! – Relational Mythbusters

The Perfect Man: Dark, sweet, rich.  And if he angers you - you can bit his head off!
The Perfect Man: Dark, sweet, rich. And if he angers you – you can bit his head off!

We have all seen greeting cards like this one: The perfect man: sweet, rich, dark and handsome; and if he says anything wrong you can simply bite of his head and unwrap another!  Wish relationships were really that simple!

The search for the perfect mate is a very personal and emotionally draining one, so I aim to write this blog carefully, lightly and humorous. Even  as I am writing about “finding your life partner” I think of my friends whom I love dearly, that are suffering in what is described as the epidemic of with loneliness.  I have previously written on marriage and our culture and do not wish to repeat everything I have written about, so I recommend you to read on the intent and definition of marriage I unpacked there.

I now invite you to laugh with me at popular crazy ideas and sentiments we hold onto in our pursuit of “finding the perfect life partner”.

“Soul mates”

"You complete me!"
In search for your soul late… “You complete me!”

In Plato’s The Symposium he writes that humans originally had four legs and four arms, and that they angered the gods. The gods did not want to destroy them fully, fearing the loss of their tributes and Zeus therefore split them in two as punishment (while doubling the amount of tribute given).  Humans would forever wander miserably in search for their other half – their soul mate – and once they had found that soul mate there would be perfect understanding between and happiness between the two.  Thus “love is the desire of the whole.”

In a study by Rugters University 94% of unmarried people agreed that the primary search for a marriage partner is one’s “soul mate”.  This ancient myth has been popularized in contemporary movies, novels and even preaching, that there is a person “destined” for you to find and marry.  While non-believers bank on “fate” to find their soul mate, authors and preachers have “christianed” this fable to sound Biblical, stating that God has created you for one mate.  Although this statement sounds good, the core of the assumption is you’re your happiness rests in finding that one which God created you for, thus putting the thrust of your energy into “finding the right one.”

This popular theory has two major contemporary relational consequences.  Firstly, loneliness and late marriages singles persistently search for their “soul mate”, or the one to complete them.  This search for a mystical satisfying union provided in a specific individual person “out there somewhere” is in my opinion one of the greatest contributors to the loneliness epidemic of young adults.  Secondly, the belief that there is “one perfect soul mate for me” out there somewhere causes even people in steady relationships to doubt the legitimacy of the that relationship, wondering whether everyday conflict and the normality of the relationship are indications that they are not with the “wrong one.”  Counseling professionals warn that this myth is very destructive relationally, some going as far as saying nothing has produced more unhappiness than the concept of the soul mate.”

What does the Bible say about this?  The whole counsel of the Bible teaches very little about who to marry, except that that person should be a Christian (2 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 7:39).  The one clear instance in the Bible where God instructs someone to marry a specific person is the prophet Hosea – and it is because God commanded him to marry a prostitute, something immoral and foolish!  (This marriage was meant to display prophetic significance of the character of unfaithful Israel, to their own shame).

I personally know of one or two individuals to whom God spoke directly about their marriage partners, but this is by no means normative, as we can see from Scripture.  The Biblical text says a lot about marriage, but very little about who to marry.  The focus of the Scripture is on who you become and how you ought to conduct yourself in marriage – because love and fulfillment in found in how your marry, not who you marry.

“The Consumerist Gambling” – there must be a better one out there

Gambling_2
Leaving Mr Good in the hope to find Mr Better or Mr Perfect is a gamble, because at some point the table stops turning…

The second popular trend is what I like to call “consumer-based relational roulette”, where potential life-mates are compared with each other as we do with clothes or cattle or cars, weighing up their apparent strengths and weaknesses, dismissing those who fail to meet our standards.  This comparison happens either virtually by viewing an online dating catalogue, Facebook pages or in real life interactions.  Consumer-based relational roulette results is either serial dating as the “consumer” tries out the “products” or in passivity where “buyers” wait for the perfect specimen to “procure”.

Where does the gamble come in?  The gamble comes in when one disengage from a promising relationship  or dismiss a potentially good life-mate in the hope for a better one, just like gambler would bet all his winnings in hope of gaining more.   The relational result is the same as in the previous section: late marriages with agonizing loneliness, and break-up of good relationships (even marriages) in the hope of better ones.

What does the Bible say to this myth?  The answer is simple: marry a Christian, and be faithful and be content with whom you have.

“The Cupid deception” – all you need is love!

Cupid shoots his arrows and the victim is love-struck!
Cupid shoots his arrows and the victim is love-struck!

We are well aware of the Roman Cupid myth as he is the popular icon of Valentines Day.  The myth of this demi-god tells that he has the power in his bow and arrow to strike his unsuspecting victim with uncontrollable passion for the one he/she lays eyes on: instant infatuation as the victim helplessly “falls in love” and blindly does whatever it takes to be with the object of obsession.  This myth is also popularized in contemporary films and drama, novels and poetry, and music.  It is this love which quite literally makes people’s worlds go around.

Emotions of love are not bad at all – emotions are created by God and God himself expresses very passionate love and anger through the prophets in the Bible.  The danger in this myth is when life-long relational decisions are based upon feelings alone.  Infatuation causes people to say and do stupid things, like “I have to follow my heart” and marry an abusive man who was divorced three times, because “I cannot deny this feeling”.  Love-struck people who follow this loving feeling alone can cause themselves tremendous harm; after all, “love is blind.”

We live in a society primarily lead by emotions; the anthem of our younger generation is “if it feels right, it is right!”  But we know that emotions are fickle, evidenced by the many heart-aches and bitterness from people who woke up one morning released from the “spell of cupid” having “fallen out of love.”  The Biblical teaching on this emotional desire is clear: be aware of luring emotions, since “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”(Jeremiah 17:9) and can tempt us to do foolish and sinful things (James 1:14).  Secondly, love is not enough for a fulfilled relationship, as Paul teaches us that we need faith (shared conviction and trustworthy character), hope (a common or complementary vision or direction) and love (the bond of perfection manifesting in grace for each other) (1Corintians 13:7, 13).[i]

I must just point out that the our cultural understanding of love is far removed from the love we read about in the Bible.  Contemporary definitions of love reads something like “tender feelings, passionate affection,  deep affection or sexual desire for another person.”  Biblical love on the other hand (as defined by Voddie Baucham) is action-oriented: “The biblical definition of love is that love is an act of the will (it’s a choice) accompanied (not led) by emotion that leads to action (it’s proved by our efforts) on behalf of its object. ”  Or simply put by Dr Dallas Willard “Love is a decision to do good.”

Loving emotions are not wrong, but left unchecked it has the potential to lead us into great trouble, as many of us have experienced in the past. Biblical love leads to loving actions for others, and that always leads to goodness and life.  So if Cupid hits you with his arrow and the “poison tip” fills you with this second type of (Biblical) love, there is no harm in that!

“God will send her my way”

Passively waiting for Mr Right might be the wrong approach to marital satisfaction...
Passively waiting for Mr Right might be the wrong approach to marital satisfaction…

The last myth to be busted in this post is that of passive waiting: “if we are destined to be together, God / fate will make it happen!”  But we know this passivity does not work in any area of life.  We don’t say “if God wants me to be a doctor, He will make it happen” and then do nothing.  We agree with the plan and then pursue it with hard work an excitement, recognising His grace along the way.

The writer of proverbs recorded a proverbs that instruct the young men to “find” a virtuous wife (Proverbs 18:22; 31:10), implying intentional, intelligent effort.  I know many young men who spend hours behind computer screens or some odd hobby who desire a life mate, but make no visible effort.  The same holds true for young ladies – make yourself known.  If you seek you will find, Jesus said.

What to do

We have busted some destructive relational myths, but how do we respond?  I counsel single people with these four things:

  • Evaluate your expectations.  Are what you want from a life partner, or the meeting of this life partner, fair and Biblical?  How much of what you expect or desire is culturally informed and how much is what God intents? Re-evaluate your image of marriage and lovein prayer, study and discussions.
  • Become marriable. Marriage is great when both you and your spouse are loving people, meaning you are patient, kind, gentle, humble, faithful, honest, etc.  So grow to “have love”  ( 1 Corinthians 13:1) – spend time with friends and family where you deliberately grow in the loving character of Jesus our example.
  • Marry a Christian. Rather than building catalogues of potential mates to build through, marry a good Christian.  Any good Christian whom you respect and can have pleasant conversation with.  Re-evaluate your “check lists” – cut it down to “godly man” / “virtuous woman” who has friends and family that prove he/she can maintain healthy relationships.  Don’t look for the perfect partner – find a suitable partner who share your convictions, because once you marry you find out that imperfections are part of relational life, which mainly get dealt with inside the marriage. [I don’t propose marry without discretion and counsel, I simply mean to
  • Grow in contentment. In the pursuit of your life mate, learn contentment as Paul did with being single now.  Use your flexibility and time well now to noble causes that you cannot do once you have family responsibility.  Don’t allow the desire for marital intimacy consume you; learn contentment and find joy in your situation now.  But never loose hope – God hears and God cares!

[i] From a teaching of Ps Fred May “Love is Not Enough” 2002 in Shofar Christian Church, Stellenbosch.

Our Lonely World

Earlier this week the legendary actor Robin Williams was found dead in his own home.  He apparently committed suicide, an act aptly described by reporter Andrew Solomon as “A crime of loneliness” [1].  In the Reuters news article about his death, Alex Saphir writes what many of us think: “His tragic end stood in stark contrast to the many on-screen characters he portrayed who encouraged those around them to tap into their own inner vitality, a wellspring of creativity to which he himself gave full vent in films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.” [2]  Not many people knew of Robin’s deep struggle, since loneliness by its nature is rarely observable to others.

Being lonely and loneliness are two separate things; solitude and isolation are not the same.  One can be alone in a room without feeling lonely, yet many of us have experienced the feeling of loneliness especially in a crowded place.  It is a well-known fact that around 10% of older people feel chronically lonely [3], understandably so due to immobility, mental decline and friends passing away, etc.  But a 2010 Mental Health Foundation report found that today loneliness is more prevalent among young people. [4]

This is extremely worrisome since loneliness is detrimental to one’s mental and physical health.  In one study 42% of people linked depression to their loneliness. [5]  Low self-esteem, hopelessness, paranoia and anxiety are commonly associated with loneliness. Lonely people often indulge in behaviors that are harmful to themselves, such as over-eating, binge drinking, risky sexual relations and drug use; these sensual behaviors numb the pain of social isolation.  Furthermore, feeling lonely can literally break your heart [6] – thus it is not strange that loneliness in itself increases the probability of an early death by as much as 45% [7].

Our society is lonely and consequently hurting.  Our society desperately longs for connectedness, intimacy and belonging – that is the way we were created by God.  Loneliness is not a sign of weakness or spiritual immaturity – it simply speaks of a legitimate desire created by God that is not appropriately met.

facebook-front_179_2232542b

In your face(book)

Although at least one Canadian newspaper article referred to loneliness as “the disease of our time… an epidemic… with millions effected”  [8] in 1982, the problem is much more prevalent today.  Social media gets the brunt of the blame for making relationships superficial, as studies show that the more time one spends on Facebook the more lonely, less sociable and less happy one becomes. [9]  In her acclaimed TED Talk Connected, but alone?, MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that electronic relationships has the potential to leave one empty and alone, since we present idealized versions of selves through filtered images and edited conversations, so we have online relationships with constructs of others, not the real self.  This leaves us with the feeling that everyone is projecting but no one is hearing us.

However, the 2010 Mental Health Foundation report also states that social media is an obvious benefit to rekindle and maintain relationships where face-time is not possible due to immobility (due to long-term sickness or a new-born baby), or in a situation where family and friends relocate.  This is an important factor in perceived social isolation (a.k.a. loneliness): people who live and grow up in an environment that constantly changes do not put down deep relational roots, nor do they learn how to build deep and meaningful relationships.  Factors that aggravate this relational disconnect include increased working hours, work-related travel, and especially family break-ups.  The family break-ups again points to another important factor of societal loneliness: people are afraid to be hurt in close relationships when they have been betrayed, abused, rejected or shamed in the past by one with whom they have been vulnerable.  In such cases skillful, patient love must facilitate healing for trust to be regained.

So our lonely world is made of Facebook “friends” who pretend to talk while no-one is listening and others who cannot meet one another due to immobility or distance, the ones who perpetually uproot and relocate and the ones who set up fences because of past hurts.  Ours is a detached, broken, vulnerable society raising insecure, unloved and angry children who are disconnected and unsure of their identities.

How do we respond to this as Christians?  Isaiah 61:4 speaks prophetically of a people saved and healed by God, who in turn will build up a broken down society, bringing complete restoration to “devastations of many generations.”  Thus we ought to be restored relationally, and then rebuild society relationally by the loving power of God.

What does the Bible teach about God’s answer to loneliness?

  1. Marriage as God’s solution to loneliness

Genesis 2:18-20 “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.”

Surprisingly, God is the first to mention loneliness in man.  He states “it is not good that man should be alone…”  This is profound, since this loneliness predates the rebellion of man and the devastating effect of sin entering the world and human nature.  Adam had a perfect communion with God, and yet God says “man is alone… this is not good.”  Adam’s desire for a mate is part of Adam’s sinless perfection before the fall; the longing for Eve is good and appropriate. I never tell a single person that their relationship with God should be sufficient, because God said the opposite.

But then God leaves Adam until he himself recognizes his own loneliness by observing the bliss of companionship among the animals he governs.  Then God made Eve and brought her to Adam.  In fear of some old lady reading this with a poodle on her lap, or a farmer with his German Sheppard in the front seat of his truck next to him, I must mention that Adam’s loneliness was not satisfied by all the animals in the world – his loneliness was only cured in another human being.  Nor could Adam’s job solve his need for human companionship.  Eve was the answer God had in mind.

God’s first cure for loneliness is a spouse. (Read a previous blog On marriage and our culture for more the design of marriage and the challenge within our culture).

  1. Family as God’s solution to loneliness

 

Psalm 68:5-6 “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God sets the lonely in families…”

God’s plan for mankind has always been families.  As the Perfect Father (Ephesians 3:14-15) He embraces those rejected from society, those who are vulnerable and marginalized. He adopts them into His loving family, giving them a safe place where they find identity and belonging in a loving environment.

Not only does God adopt us as children into His heavenly family, but He also places the outcast, the vulnerable and the lonely in families on earth.  This is a simple way of rebuilding society and stilling the pains of loneliness – whether by formal, legal adoption or merely by a radical inclusion of people into your home and heart.  Follow God’s example and seek out the lonely widow in your street, the single mothers in your community, the neglected neighborhood children, the fitness-freak bachelorette or the burger-eating computer-game-bachelor, and draw them into the family of God by bringing them into your heart and home. Let God place the lonely into your family and friendship circles, and let’s love them as Jesus loves us.

(For more on how to practically show love as Jesus did, read a previous blog on Known by your love. )

 

  1. Friendship as God’s solution to loneliness

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12  “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!   Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

A third way in which God solves loneliness is by means of friendship. This friendship is not merely an emotional connectedness or recreational filler.  As seen in the Ecclesiastes text above, Biblical friendship implies partnership and sharing, co-dependence, mutual support and protection, and communion.  This is the shared life of friendship David had with his mighty men while living as mercenaries during King Saul’s reign. This is the shared life of friendship Jesus enjoyed with his disciples while on earth.

This is friendship that satisfies the hungry heart and answers the relational call of loneliness.  This is the friendship that is ”closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)

  1. God with ’s indwelling Sprit as solution to loneliness

 Isaiah 7:14 “He shall be called Immanuel” – God with us”; Hebrews 13:5 “He will never leave us or abandon us.”

In most Western cultures Christmas is one of most joyful times because it brings families, friends and communities together is a time of celebration.  Yet Christmas time is the worst time for countless many people since their loneliness is accentuated by the family festivities of everyone else, resulting in the highest suicides occurrences in any calendar year in the West.  This is especially sad since the birth of Christ is about eradicating loneliness and hopelessness in the world[10]: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel [meaning ‘God with us’]” (Isaiah 7:14; compare John 1:14-15).  In Jesus God again walked with man as God walked Adam at first.

And not only was Jesus Immanuel, God with the disciples and people in Israel during his short life on earth as a first-century Jewish man, but he promised his abiding presence with his disciples as they left continued his work of discipleship everywhere they go, until the end of time (Matthew 28:20).  So that promise remains for us – God dwells in us as believers through his Spirit living in us (Romans 8:9-11; Colossians 1:27).  We are never alone – he promised to never leave us or abandon us (Hebrews 13:5).

This changes the way Christians experience loneliness, because even though we feel lonely at times, like Adam we feel lonely in the loving fellowship of God our Father.  Being lonely with God means I can share my loneliness with God.  Or in the words of Peter, I can cast my burden of loneliness on him, because I know he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

And this loneliness is at times a good thing since it seems that God deals best with us when we’re alone, as we see in the life of Jacob, alienated from his family by his deceit, but God met him at the river bank.  Jacob became Israel – he was never the same again, because he wrestled God alone (Genesis 32:24).  The same can be said of Jesus, when he felt lonely and scared the night before the crucifixion and his disciples fell asleep:  He needed to carry that burden alone, and again the next day being forsaken by everyone, he carried the burden the Father entrusted to him alone, and it changed all of history (Matthew 26:39; 27:46).

In your loneliness know that you are never alone – God is with you. So “draw near to God, and we will draw near to you” (James 4:8).  Share all your loneliness and desires with him.  Allow him to heal you, so that you can rebuild your society with the loving power that overflows from your times with him.

[1] Solomon A, A Crime of Loneliness, The New Yorker, 14 August 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/suicide-crime-loneliness

[2] Saphir A., Dobuzinskis A., Sinha-Roy P., Comedy great Robin Williams hangs himself at home, Reuters, 12 August 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/12/us-people-robinwilliams-idUSKBN0GB28520140812,

[3] Jopling K., Barnett A., Alone in Crowd – compilation of articles, June 2014, p2, available at http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/wp-content/plugins/download-monitor/download.php?id=195

[4] Griffin J., The lonely society report, Mental Health Foundation UK, 2010, available at http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/content/assets/PDF/publications/the_lonely_society_report.pdf

[5] Hall J.N., Loneliness and Mental Health – The Most Terrible Poverty, Campaign to end loneliness, 26 June 2014,

http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/blog/the-most-terrible-poverty-loneliness-and-mental-health/

[6] Hainer R., Loneliness hurts the heart, Health Magazine, 10 August 2009, found online at http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/conditions/07/27/moh.healthmag.lonely.heart/

[7] Merz T., Loneliness Young people are lonely – but social media isn’t to blame, The Telegraph 25 Jul 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html

[8] Whittaker S., Loneliness – A disease of modern times, The Montreal Gazette, 25 September 1982, available at http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1946&dat=19820925&id=QX8xAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C6UFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1477,1513416  

[9] Greig A., All the lonely Facebook friends, Daily Mail, 12 September 2013, available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2419419/All-lonely-Facebook-friends-Study-shows-social-media-makes-MORE-lonely-unhappy-LESS-sociable.html

[10] Rogers A., God’s answer to loneliness, http://www.lwf.org/site/News2?abbr=for_&id=10071, viewed 12 August 2014

On marriage and our culture

Marriage is still very popular[1], but it is increasingly reported that single Christians struggle to find suitable life partners[2], which is ironic in this information-age where a Google search for “dating web sites” return 122 million responses in under 1 second.  This seems to indicate that a multitude of possible life partners does not solve the problem of loneliness.  But why not?  Is it because there are too many options, or that a more perfect partner is perhaps one more click away…?

Another possible explanation why single people today struggle to find suitable life partners are due to unclear or unrealistic expectations from marriage and marriage partners.  The myriads of writings and  media resources[3] bring varied opinions and ideologies about marriage which leave a world in confusion about the essence and design of marriage as God intended it.  In particular three most destructive trends keep people from finding and enjoying fulfilled marital lives: firstly the culturally accepted norm of “falling in love”[4] where marital partners are selected (and de-selected) based primarily on emotions. Secondly, the belief that there is a “other half” or “soul-mate”[5] you need to find in order enjoy a fulfilled marriage relationship. Thirdly, the consumerist mindset that markets, searches and compares potential partners to seek an ideal fit, as we do with accessories, cars or clothes. These secular ideas are perpetually propagated and fueled by contemporary music, films and novels, and has become normative in our Christian thinking.

I believe that finding a marriage partner is not primarily about falling in love, not about finding my soul mate, and not at all about comparative shopping.  These ideas are foreign to Scripture and does not lead to fulfilled marriage.  This leaves us with the questions “what is marriage?” and “what makes marriage work?”

In the light of this confusion I find God’s message through the prophet Malachi refreshingly clear and concise.  Although the tone of the conversation we pick up is quite negative: God says that He has no interest in listening to the religious elite’s prayers because of their lack of respect for the institution of marriage and their marriage partners (Malachi 2:13).  Then the the Lord clarifies the intent and meaning of marriage, cautioning them regarding the destructiveness of promiscuity and divorce for both the couple and the children.  Malachi 2:14-16 reads as follows:

But you say, “Why does [God not hear our prayers]?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.  Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

The terms God uses to define marriage in and it’s intent in this passage are companionship, covenant, union, for children, and faithfulness.  Let’s look at each one of them to re-evaluate our understanding of marriage.

old-married-couple

  1. Marriage is companionship: she is your companion”

In definition and defense of marriage in Malachi 2:14-18, God first mentions companionship.  Here in Malachi 2:14-15 companion refers to the wife, but in Proverbs 2:17 it refers to the husband. Marriage is companionship.

The common interpretation of the role of the wife as “the helper” quoted from Genesis 2:18 is understood to mean that she should help in the purpose of the husband and running of the household.

However, that interpretation misses the intended meaning of Eve as helper, and the primary intent and definition of marriage.  Genesis 2:18 reads “LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’”  To understand the meaning of the term “helper”, one should ask “in what area did Adam need help when the Lord graciously sought to solve his problem?”  The answer is clear from the context: Adam was lonely – in the midst of a perfect world!  Adam needed someone to share life with, to take away the sting of loneliness.  Adam needed companionship, and the Lord gave him a helper, a companion.

This first picture of marriage is important since it reveals God’s design intent of marriage: to remove the sting of loneliness, so that man and woman may share the fullness of life together in intimate relationship.

Another important point to notice here is that while Adam was in a perfect environment, in a perfect relationship with God – with no sin and consequently no separation because of it ­­– Adam had a need for companionship which God recognized, God articulated, and God acted upon to solve.  (The solution was marriage).  I mention this because I have read and heard too many times that single people should “find their happiness and contentment in God.”  The sentiment is great, but it seems as though God did not meet that need for companionship in Adam, and that He was the one who recognized (and even created) that need in Adam, and provided that for that need in companionship.

Marriage is companionship.  Marriage is given to eradicate loneliness.  This is the primary task and responsibility of the marriage partner.  Every other motive for entering into marriage will set one up for disappointment and eventually marital failure.

Rings - the sign of the covenant
Rings – the sign of the covenant
  1. Marriage is covenant: she is …your wife by covenant”

In Christian circles we frequently hear that marriage is a covenant (legal promise).  But less frequently the covenant is defined.  We frequently read or hear about the ceremony regarding ancient vow-taking, but the essence of the vow is mentioned less frequently.

However, every person who contemplates divorce remembers his/ her vows to be something like “I will never leave you nor forsake you… in good times and bad… in sickness and health…” And that is the essence of the promise: marriage is a covenant of companionship[6]a promise to never allow the other person to feel lonely again.   Marriage is a promise which bind two people together in this life in mutual partnership.  Where two is better than one.[7]  It is not a contract of mutual performance (“you do this – i do that”) but rather a promise of companionship (“being with you always, regardless of your performance or state”) as Ruth did to Naomi. [8]

Marriage is covenant – a partnership by promise to remain together and share all “until death do us part”.  Marriage is a covenant of companionship.

  1. Marriage is unity: make them one”

One of the most frequently quoted Old Testament text by New Testament authors is Genesis 2:24, where we are reminded that the essence of marriage is to “leave” what is familiar and “cleave” your spouse, and “the two shall become one flesh.”  Thus the unity requires in part our participation (perpetual actions that move us towards our spouse (“cleave”) and move away from our old familiar life of singleness (“leave”).  But God’s strong hatred for the Israelite’s prevailing indifference and unfaithfulness towards marriage in Malachi 2:15 also reveals His part in marital union: “did not I make them one with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” 

This phrase shows the essence of marriage is a mystical, spiritual union of two people, brought about by God.  “Mystical” means something difficult to explain, but can be understood through participation.  This truth is also taught by Jesus when He is asked to comment on the practice of divorce made cheap in His day: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:8-9).    It is a mystical unity that speaks of a shared life, a shared identity.

Although the unity is difficult to observe, the effects of separation – what Malachi calls “violence to one’s flesh” (Malachi 2:16) – is observable.  The well-researched, traumatic effects of divorce affect the loss of identity, decreased emotional and physical health as well as shortened life expectancy, lowered social status, increased financial pressure and lowered relational attachment[9]. The devastation in children affected by divorce include behavioral problems such as aggression and rebellion, psychological effects such as depression,  anxiety and lowered concentration, followed lower academic achievement and poor self-esteem.[10]   These adverse effects in physical, emotional and spiritual well-being makes sense when one considers that divorce is a tearing apart of two people that have in reality become one, causing tremendous injury and death in all involved.

 holding baby

  1. Marriage is for Godly offspring: what was… God seeking? Godly offspring.”

Contemporary Western civilization is self-seeking, bent on entertainment and consumerism.  It is a culture that opposes long-term commitments, any difficulty and a sacrificial lifestyle.  This lifestyle hates children and views such dependent relationships as burdensome and thus undesirable.  Even within good marriages children will be delayed as long as possible to ensure a time of care-free enjoyment.  And a family who has more than 2-3 children will be followed by stares and comments such as “don’t you have a TV?” from passer-by’s wherever they go.

At the heart of this culture, marriage is for self-enrichment and pleasure for self children is an after-though or necessity to prolong society.  However, God says He made marriage as a union to solve the problem of man’s loneliness through the covenant of companionship.  Yet, what He wants from this union is “godly offspring”.  Marriage is the only setting where godly offspring can be raised, in the secure setting of mutual faithfulness.  This is the place where godliness is modeled and grafted into the young children, and where children are protected in their identity and perception of others from the “violence” of divorce and unfaithfulness. Thus the immediate context of the phrase in Malachi 2:15-16 teaches us that “godly offspring” require “faithfulness” in the union between husband and wife, to not bring about “violence” to the home.

When God thinks of marriage, he thinks of children.  What God wants from the union of marriage is godly offspring.

couple-bed-feet

  1. Marriage requires faithfulness: do not be faithless”

However, “Why does he not [hear our prayer]?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant… So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” (Malachi 2v16)

Marriage is a divine union through a covenant of companionship, a place where Godly offspring is raised.  And marriage requires faithfulness.  Two reasons for faithfulness emerge from the text:

Malachi 2:14 starts with a question from the Israelites who faithfully offer to God sacrifices to maintain good relationship with Him, and entreat His favor.  But God says clearly that He does not hear their petitions, because of their marital unfaithfulness.  About 450 years later the Apostle Peter again wrote to the people of God “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel… so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7).  This is a profound statement – that God cares so much about our marital relations that He either hears our prayers or not!  Thus the first reason for faithfulness in marriage is because God sees, God cares, and God requires faithfulness (and honor) at home before He accepts public worship or answers prayers.

Yet a second reason in the text seems to be the core reason of the appeal to marital faithfulness from God: to not cause “violence” to self, your spouse or your children.  This text enriches our understanding of our sexuality, teaching us that sexual practices are not merely physical or biological activities, but also spiritual and relational.  Malachi warns that sexual promiscuity has a negative impact on your own spirit and therefore cautions us to “guard yourself in your spirit”.  Your spirit is the seat of your identity and relationships, is your capacity to create and dream (hope), to rejoice, to endure, to trust (or have faith), to communicate, to understand or perceive etc. God says “preserve this! – do not be sexually unfaithful!” 

But God also says to remain faithful to your wife for the sake of your wife and children – since the breaking of the covenant brings violence to the spirits of the entire family (as mentioned in the previous section).  It seems as though the covenant family enjoys protection from God as God enters into the marriage with “a portion of [His] Spirit in their union” (v15), and faithlessness regarding the covenant allows violence to spirits of the family members, especially if the faithlessness leads to the breaking of the covenant (divorce).

married-couple-talk

Conclusion and practical response

Thus a clear definition and intent of marriage from Malachi 2 could read:

Marriage is a covenant of companionship by which God makes the husband and wife one for the sake of godly offspring, which is preserved in mutual faithfulness.

How do we respond to this revelation of marriage from Scripture?   We need to re-evaluate our expectations of marriage and our (potential) marriage partners in light of God’s design.  For a fulfilled life, we need to approach marriage from a Biblical perspective otherwise we will not find the life of satisfaction and joy God contained therein.

Our first mental adjustment from this definition is that marriage is not primarily a romantic notion.  It is a relationship built on companionship, trust, faithfulness and a shared life.  Thus the marriage partner is not firstly a lover, but a companion.  The aim is an intimate life, not an erotic life.  What one seeks for in a marriage partner, and seeks to maintain in marriage is good companionship: someone trustworthy, someone supportive, someone with whom you can live well and work well.  Someone to take away loneliness by living a shared existence.

Secondly, marriage is permanent.  Malachi’s understanding of marriage re-enforces the truth that marriage is indeed “until death do us part”, and the consequences of faithlessness and divorce is “violence” – death and destruction to all involved.  This requires loyal devotion as well as patience and forgiveness from both marriage partners. Thus marriage cannot be approached with the self-centered consumer mindset, where marriage partners are compared and traded in.

Thirdly, the end of marriage is not merely “my happiness” but a Godly legacy, including God-fearing children.  The pursuit of self-indulgence (“my happiness”) increases selfishness – the worst enemy of marital joy and bliss.

How do we renew our minds about Godly marriage?  I suggest three ways, the first of which are obvious: study the Scriptures to prayerfully evaluate and re-adjust your own opinions of marriage.  I do not believe that a mere reading of the Bible is sufficient for transformation here – one has to systematically study it, preferably in discussion with your spouse.  Secondly, once a good Biblical understanding of marriage is established, one needs to actively evaluate the underlying presumptions and messages in contemporary music, novels and movies, etc relating to love and marriage.  For the trout to swim upstream he needs to know the force with which the river is flowing downstream, and compensate appropriately.  Lastly, and sadly this is a difficult one: find a godly example of marriage and make deliberate effort to spend time with them and learn from them. A good, living example is still the best way to grow in godliness.

So, in light of this Scripture – how does your view of marriage compare with God’s design and intent?

[1] Amidst increasing divorce rates, 80% of Americans are still expected to marry according to NY Times article by Cherlin A. J., In the season of marriage, a question – why bother?, NY Times Sunday Review dated 27 April 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/opinion/sunday/why-do-people-still-bother-to-marry.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2] From Christian Today published 18 April 2013 http://www.christiantoday.com/article/single.christians.experience.anxiety/32169.htm

[3] A search into the Amazon online shopping database on “marriage” results in more than 230’000 books and related resources. Accessed 14 July 2014.

[4] From the Roman Cupid myth where the belief is that the angel Cupid shoots arrows and the victim falls helplessly in love with another upon sight. Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupid

[5] From the Greek creation myth where the humans were created both male and female in one body, one soul, but for their rebellion Zeus split them in half so that they male and female would forwever wander miserably in search for their other half or “soul mate” Refer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soul_mate

[6] Adams J.E., Marriage, Remarriage and Divorce, Baker House Books (Grand Rapids, MI, 1980), p8

[7] See Ecclesiates 4:9-11.

[8] See Ruth 1:16 -17 as a good example of such a vow, although this vow is not between husband and wife, the context is a vow of companionship.

[9] Hawkins J.H., Fackrell T.A., Should I keep trying to work it out? (Utah Commission on Marriage: 2009), p96.  Online version and program available here: http://divorce.usu.edu/

[10] Cherlin A.J. et al, Longitudinal studies of effects of divorce on children in Great Britain and the United States, Science, Vol. 252 no. 5011, 7 June 1991, pp. 1386-1389

Known by your love

A while ago this question came to me: “If people were to judge my faith based on my actions – what would they say I believe?”  It is certainly a question worth considering, because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  And this question is even more relevant today since the number one accusation against the contemporary church is that of hypocrisy[1] – that Christians profess one thing but live differently. According to outsiders, our intentions and actions do not correlate.

mask_off3
‘Hypocrite’ means actor, pretender or ‘masked one’.

In stark contrast, Jesus said his followers would be known for their love, and he even gave the world the right to judge their authenticity based on this!

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Before considering the life example of Jesus a few aspects in this incredible text are worth noting.  Firstly, Francis Schaeffer called this love “the mark of the Christians”[2] since this love which distinguishes Christians as followers of Jesus is not primarily a feeling, but a relational dynamic which is visible from the outside. Jesus-followers are known by their love because this love is seen in actions which are not normative in the world.  Secondly, by saying ‘as I have loved’ Jesus said the disciples should copy his loving behavior – his relationship to them modeled these loving actions. Thirdly, note that Jesus did not say our love to unbelievers characterize us as Christians, but rather love for insiders, for “one another”.  This is important, because doing one loving act for a passer-by is easy, by living in constant love with people around you is quite another thing. Lastly, note that Jesus gave it as a command to love, implying a decision to comply, and thus not a love primarily lead by feelings.  Thus it is our choice to do loving actions towards fellow Christians which mark us as Jesus-followers, or not.

Considering this command of Jesus, how can we follow his example so that his love is made visible in our actions?  Or more simply put, what does his love look like?

  1. Radical acceptance

unconditional_acceptance_racial

Jesus instructed his disciples to love as he loved them, thus to emulate his loving actions towards them (and this was before his crucifixion).  They have walked with him for about three years so they would have had ample reference for what he meant.  Looking at the twelve to whom he gave this command, we immediately see the first aspect of this love: it is radically inclusive.

Jesus disciples were diverse in every aspect.  Firstly they were culturally and racially diverse: Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew were Galileans while Simon was a Canaanite – people who did not normally associate by choice.   Secondly, we know that they were politically on opposite sides: Thaddeus and Simon were Zealots, a Jewish extremists party aiming to liberate Israel from Roman oppression by means of military force[3]. On the opposite political spectrum Matthew was a chief tax collector, a liberalist Jew who lived as the Romans and made a living oppressing his fellow Jews financially in service of the Roman oppressors.  There certainly would have been political conflict between these two groups! Thirdly, the Gospels make it clear that there were personality clashes within this group: the brothers James and John were called “sons of thunder” because of their impulsive and aggressive tendencies, while Thomas was the doubtful and more reserved.  Peter was an initiator and natural leader while on the other hand Phillip was recorded as pessimistic, perhaps even cynical.  John’s gospel reveals that he and Peter did not get along, even indicating some competition between the two.  Yet Jesus chose each one of these individuals alike and was patient with them.  And by doing so he demonstrated his love by accepting their racial and cultural, political and personality differences, giving the disciples an example to follow.

These first apostles, who themselves experienced this radical acceptance from Jesus, put this principle in writing to the first congregations. James wrote to the church in Jerusalem about this love in practice, to treat rich and poor alike and not to tolerate “distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts”, labelling it the sin of partiality (James 2:2-9).   Paul likewise wrote to the churches in Galatia that they make no distinction among themselves based on ethnicity, social class or gender since all have died to the flesh and have “put on Christ” in baptism (Galatians 3:27-28; cf 1 Corinthians 12:13 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17).  Regarding this new identity, Peter wrote Christians should regard themselves as “a new generation… a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:8-9) thus one new ethnicity in which they find identification rather than distinction.

In practice, Jesus’ love shown among his followers means a radical acceptance and equal treatment of each other based on their acceptance by Christ.

  1. Sharing life

harvest table1

Secondly, the disciples who first heard this New Commandment of love knew how Jesus shared his life with them – every day, everything.  They lived together from one purse, with one purpose.  They knew that before they had a “mission” of preaching and healing, Jesus called them “to be with him” (Mark 3:14) – to share life together.

This communal living was modeled and imitated in the early church who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).  Simply put, they came together for learning together, sharing together, serving together, eating together and praying together.  They met for fellowship and teaching “every day, in the temple and from house to house” (Acts 5:42).  They were aptly named “church” (Greek ekklesia) which means “called out ones” – thus people were heard the call of God and gathered together.  Church means being together, living together, coming together to meet with God.  And that’s where the love is shared and felt.

Our contemporary society values privacy and individualism. We strive for self-sufficiency, autonomy and independence.  With that mindset we come into the church.  However, being part of the Church means being “immersed into one body of Christ” by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), implying a shared life of interdependence. We must then exchange our self-centeredness for communal life. The words the New Testament writers use to explain this concept is “fellowship” (variations of the Greek words metocos and koinonia roughly meaning “to have in common”), with four primary implications, ala Keathley[4].  Firstly this fellowship is an objective relationship, since together we share in the Gospel (Ephesians 3:6) and thus share in Christ himself (Ephesians 3:9) and are “coheirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Secondly this fellowship is companionship, the acts of sharing in Christ together (1 John 1:7) through the Spirit, as we meet together for teaching, communion, worship, prayer or to encourage each other.[5] Thirdly, fellowship refers to partnership of those “who share in a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1) and are called “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9) – essentially working together.  Lastly, fellowship implies stewardship as sharing earthly resources and meeting material needs – a logical overflow from sharing in the life of Christ and his calling (see Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 6:18; Philippians 4:15).

Thus the early church followed Jesus’ example of love through being together and sharing all literally, and instructed new converts to do likewise.

  1. Patience and forgiveness

forgiveness

Jesus’ example of love with his disciples was one of patience and forgiveness.  In the Gospels he nick-names his disciples “You of little faith” (Matthew 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8) since they struggled to believe the power of God who was with them. Yet Jesus was patient with them and modeled this life of faith until they believed.  The disciples were also slow to understand (Mark 4:13; 6:52; 8:17, 21; 9:32) the teaching of Jesus, so that we read the well known phrase “again I say to you…” (Matthew 18:19).  Yet Jesus was patient and did not give up on them.

Jesus also demonstrated tremendous patience with the disciples’ amidst their constant striving for prominence and “greatness” (eg Luke 22:24).  Jesus was patient and tolerant with the weaknesses of doubtful Thomas as well as Judas the thief.  He gave stern yet loving correction. But Jesus’ patient example and teachings paid off, so that in the end they believed as he believed, and lived as he lived.

When his disciples betrayed him during his arrest and crucifixion he forgave them and continued with their discipleship afterwards.  Jesus modeled patient and merciful love.

The early church also modelled their communities on this aspect of Jesus’ love.  Paul frequently wrote to the socially and ethnically diverse congregations to be patient with one another, and forgive one another “tender-heartedly” in the way Christ did (Ephesians 4:2,32; cf Colossians 3:12-14).  This also implies gentle restoration of someone who falls into sinful practice, and to “bear [the] burdens” of someone who is weak in any sense (Galatians 6:1-2; cf 2 Corinthians 2:6-7).

Jesus’ example of love was one of patiently bearing with the weaknesses and failures of his disciples, as well as relentless forgiveness of their betrayal and offences.

  1. Affection

 

Affection-hugs4

Another practical way in which Jesus’ love was to be perpetuated in his disciples was the intimate, affectionate way he shared himself with them.  This sincere, simple love for his disciples which included intimate friendship, such as John using Jesus as a pillow for his head while the group was relaxing (see John 13:25) and the affectionate way in which he spoke to them and prayed for them (see especially John 14-17).  He also allowed others to come close and touch him as expressions of love and admiration (eg Luke 7:37-38; John 12:2-6).

Consequently the apostles gave instructions that this example of Jesus’ affection be ingrained in the culture of the early congregations.  For example Peter instructed “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14) and Paul wrote “Let love be genuine… Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:9-10).  Paul also appealed that the church’ verbal culture should always be gracious and uplifting (Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:16).

Thus Jesus’ love should also be seen through demonstration of appropriate affection and a culture of verbal affirmation and endearment among his followers.

  1. Selfless service

humility_feet_washing_small

Lastly, the way in which Jesus modeled love for his disciples on the evening when he gave them the New Command was humble, selfless servitude.  After washing their feet, taking the place of the lowest servant, he said “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13: 15)[6].  Jesus taught that love meant esteeming the worth and needs of others higher, meeting those needs in service; love manifests in selfless sacrifice (John 15:13). This is the message of the cross is ultimately this selfless love of Christ.

Years later Paul appealed to the church in Philippi that love should manifest in this humble, selfless attitude in serving one another, regarding the needs of the other higher than self as Jesus “who made himself nothing, taking the form of a bondservant …and humbled himself to the point of death” (Philippians 2:7-8; cf 2:3-4).  Love in practice results in selfless service, fulfilling the needs of others – even at cost to self.

___________________________________________

These five ways in which love was modeled in the life of Jesus formed the basis of the relational dynamic of the early church; they were indeed known by their love.  And this should be the key aspects which distinguish Christ-followers today: a love that is visible and practical.

How do we respond to this command to “love one-another” as Christ loved his disciples?  Firstly, we respond in radical acceptance and inclusion of everyone who wishes to follow Christ – treating everyone with the same dignity and affection, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, political ideology or personality.  Secondly we respond by sharing our life with the congregation: meeting together in fellowship, worship and prayer as well as sharing readily from what we have with one another.  And this is fundamental to our identity as Christians.  Thirdly, love demands we support and identify with Christ-followers who differ from us, disagree with us, or disappoint us.  Even when they hurt us.  This requires patience (also known as longsuffering or forbearance) and forgiveness (or mercy) as Jesus modeled.  Fourthly, love in practice is affectionate in appropriate physical demonstration and verbal affirmation – our conversations and interaction should be loving and encouraging.  Lastly, and most importantly, the love Jesus modeled for us is selfless, humble servitude.  Our culture should be one of regarding the other higher, and deeming the needs of the other more important.

This practice of sharing life together in loving acceptance, affection, patience and forgiveness and selfless service is a visible witness of Christ among us.  This is the love that Jesus says shows your faith.  This is the love that turns the world towards Christ.

[1] Kinnaman D., Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2007), p. 21-23.

[2] Schaeffer F., The Mark of the Christian (IVP Books: Downers Grove, Illinois, 1970)

[3] The evening of Jesus’ arrest He gave instruction to the disciples to arm themselves, knowing things could become violent later.  The disciples answered “Look, Lord, here are two” (Luke 22:38) – probably Thaddeus and Simon’s swords.  It appears as though these two Zealots never let go of their political ideals of restoring the Kingdom of Israel with force, and Jesus was patient with them.

[4] Keathley J.H. III, Christian Fellowship, article found at http://bible.org/christian-fellowship

[5] Some examples of how and why the early church came together (“had fellowship”): They came together as whole congregations (Acts 2:42; Heb 10:25), smaller groups (2Tim. 2:2), or one-on-one (1Thes 5:11), for sharing truth together (Rom 1:11-12; 2Tim 2:2), communion (1Cor 10:16), singing (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), prayer (1Cor 14:16-17), teaching (Acts 20:20; 2Tim 2:2), and ministering to one another (Rom 12:15; Heb 10:33).

 

[6] At times this text is misinterpreted to make a sacrament or ministry of foot-washing.  Yet Jesus did not say “do what I have done” meaning to imitate the act of foot-washing, but rather “do as I have done”, implying to copy the way in which he served them.  The disciples were instructed to imitate Jesus’ humble, selfless service – not repeat the act itself.