When intimacy hurts

Recent studies show an alarming increase in “sexless marriages” – in fact, The Times reported that more than 21’000 people search help on this monthly via Google, outnumbering searches such as “unhappy marriage” and “loveless marriage”. The phrase “sexless marriage” refers to couples having sex less than once a month.

But who cares?  A survey by psychotherapist Abby Rodman says 75% of those couples do! They had healthy sexual relationships, but claim that having children(!), stress and fatigue, health reasons or simply time had dried up all the romantic passion.  In fact, this matter so much that half the respondents stated they would not have married their spouses had they known their married life would be sexless. (Although 75% said that they would not end the marriage because of the lack of sexual intimacy).

(Not making) love hurts

Why do they feel so strong?  Because constant sexual rejection in a marriage hurts. A lot.  Reading through articles, blogs, and recalling phrases I have listened to during counselling sessions, the following statements best capture the pain of spouses in sexless marriages.

  • I feel unloved, unwanted.
  • I feel unattractive, ugly.
  • I feel hurt. I sometimes hide in the bathroom and cry.
  • I feel so ashamed – what about me is so despicable?
  • I feel angry and cheated because I explained my desires, yet he/she ignores my pleas.
  • I feel ignored, my needs and desires are simply not important to my spouse.
  • I feel so worthless because he/she has time and energy for everything else but not me.
  • I feel so alone. I lie next to him/her in bed and yet feel so far away.

Sexual rejection by a spouse hurts much because it denies the means and expression of intimacy reserved exclusively for each other.  Especially in relationships where there was at some point much sexual arousal, the onset of habitual sexual rejection communicates not just “I don’t want sex” but rather “I don’t want you.”  Simply put, long-term sexual denial feels like rejection of the person.

Something’s gotta give

Marriage by definition is companionship, a means to obtain intimacy.  When sexual relations within marriage is rejected over a long period it not only impedes the relationship but also has devastating effects on the identity and emotional health of the rejected partner.  The following statements give good insight into the effects of such long-term sexual rejection.

  • I feel so disconnected from with my spouse. We live like house-mates, nothing more.
  • I find myself to be very irritable; small things make me act out in anger.
  • I have lost confidence – not just at home. I am not the strong man/ woman I used to be.
  • I feel resentful; my heart is really hard towards my spouse.
  • I feel attracted to the attention of others; the rejection has made me vulnerable to emotional and physical affairs.
  • I have grown tired of being rejected so I have stopped making efforts for the relationship.
  • I am very suspicious – I hate admitting this but I think my spouse is interested or in relationship with someone else. 
  • I am so depressed; the one person that I love does not want me.
  • I have suppressed every sexual desire, because not feeling anything is less painful than being rejected.
  • I am addicted to porn and masturbation. I know it is wrong but I can’t stop it (and I honestly don’t care anymore).
  • I don’t have hope for our marriage anymore. Things will always be this cold between us.

These phrases capture much pain. Looking at the two lists of statements above I feel so much sympathy for anyone in a sexless marriage. And I understand why Paul would write so strongly about not denying your spouse sexually intimacy (1 Corinthians 7:3-7).  Yet every marriage goes through ups and downs, and therefore the challenge of married life is to continue “cleaving to your [spouse]” to remain “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Never stop pursuing intimacy with your spouse!

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Helpful, hurting and hopeful

Over the years I have noticed three general responses of people suffering from long-term sexual rejection.  The first group harbors anger, visible in hostility and frustration – typically accusation.  It is as though these people subconsciously want to hurt their spouses to share in their pain of rejection.  This is not helpful.  Yet anger and hostility hinders any form of intimacy, which requires safe space to open up.  So this response pushes the couple further apart.

The second group has become passive, apathetic.  Escaping the torment of perpetual rejection, they have given up on any hope for intimacy and suffocated their own desires for intimacy.  Marriage has become a cold, platonic friendship.  This is indeed a very lonely place – especially within marriage. This is not necessary: there is hope!

The third group has embraced vulnerability to allow for intimacy, enduring the hurtful rejection towards the other’s heart. It simply means to forgive the other in order not to close one’s heart.  They strive for connection beyond fear. These spouses talk about their hurts – but with open hearts – and intentionally create an environment of affection, warmth and encouragement.  They never lose hope that they will regain the romance and intimacy which they once enjoyed.  And they see the fruit.  Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:8)

To the rejecting spouse I don’t think I need to write any further advice, except to ask your partner whether he or she feels the same as the statements recorded above, and strive to understand his/her needs for intimacy.  Then share your feelings to identify the barriers to intimacy, whatever they may be, and seek help as a couple. Do it today!

My counsel to you, the rejected spouse, is take courage, and embrace vulnerability to graciously and patiently explain your feelings to your spouse, but do so in gentleness and love, not angry, and not nagging.  Express your love and attraction for him/her.  Affirm your affections and approval of him/her.  And with of without your spouse, seek help – your journey need not be so lonely.  But never lose hope!

You might not be able to fix this, but nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:37) Ask him to make a garden in your wilderness! (Isaiah 51:3)

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Growing intimately

By Joanne Eksteen.

Intimacy is a gift from God to be enjoyed and to connect two people that have entered into the covenant of marriage. What does it mean then to connect intimately and why do so many of us miss this incredible gift?

To connect means to be completely vulnerable and open in the giving of oneself physically, emotionally and spiritually. For most this is difficult.  Often, when I put this thought to people, they report uncertainty regarding whether they can trust the other person to receive what they give in an accepting and graceful manner.

While this is important, it is really not about the other person. It is about that thing you think you need to trust the other person with. Do you accept that thing you think you need acceptance of? Do you believe that although you are not perfect, that God thinks of you as worthy? Whether you can trust the other person is really irrelevant. If what you give is not received in trust and acceptance – will you still be whole?

When you get to a place where you accept yourself and see yourself as God sees you, you are able to release the fear of being rejected. You no longer need to trust someone else. You can trust yourself. Shame is no longer an issue.

Only once we can give freely and without reservation, that which we consider worthy, are we open to receive. In turn your sense of self-worth will most likely be reinforced as you are able to receive and accept love in return. From this vantage point the view is spectacular!

Perhaps I can simplify this further? We all have a ‘sense of self’- the summation of an image we hold of ourselves. It is what we think of ourselves consciously and unconsciously. I was ‘top’ of my Maths class in High School. After a particularly hard test (or at least that was my perception), I walked out of the class huffing and puffing. My teacher asked me how it went and I replied: “terrible”.

She reflected: “…it is because you always focus on that which you think you got wrong and not on the 99 others that you got right…”. In life I have often struggled with this. Why is it that we are so afraid to let others see that 1 percent that is ‘wrong’, not perfect or bad?

I later realised that I needed to control everything to be ‘perfect’ in order to not let others see my shadowy or negative parts.  The reality is that we all have shady parts. The Bible tells us that we’re born in sin.

We also all have good parts I believe. In a real intimate relationship we need to be honest and vulnerable to the extent that you allow your partner into those shadowy parts. Only when we can give freely can we freely receive (the love and acceptance that should be returned). As partners we should be sensitive to our spouses’ vulnerability and never use it to hurt them. We should carefully choose the words we use to receive their vulnerability and care for them in that moment. And then…it’s your turn!

One of the largest barriers to intimacy is what I have described here i.e. poor self-acceptance, low self-esteem or shame. It feeds many of the other barriers that we often hear about. Take pornography for example. I believe porn to be an addiction and habit once it starts (an entire different story for another day) but how does it start? Porn starts when one tries to sooth the longing for intimacy but one is fearful of engaging in real intimacy as it would mean entering and sharing the shadowy waters of yourself. Instead porn in easily accessed and controlled (at least the first couple of times) and doesn’t ask any questions. It is not hard, takes little emotional effort, can’t reject you and you don’t need to fear it or trust it. You also don’t have to return the favour. Despite this, it doesn’t fulfill one’s real need and forces one to return time and time again.

Consider the barriers you experience to intimacy. Can you relate it to anything I have said above?

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Joanne Eskteen is wife, a mother and a clinical psychologist with a passion for identity and relational therapy.  

Enduring Nero’s fire

How to remain true to God amidst suffering.

Writing to a congregation of predominantly Jewish Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign, the author of Hebrews repeatedly exhorted believers to not renounce Christ in fear of the mounting persecution.  And that is necessary, because suffering moves one to re-evaluate what you believe.  At some point in life we all walk through the fire – but how do you remain faithful to God amidst suffering? How do you endure the fires of life.

Brief background to and outline of Hebrews

The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish believers (1:1 “spoken to our fathers”) probably in Rome (13:24 “those from Italy greet you”).  After hearing the gospel confirmed with signs and miracles (2:4), they were converted (3:16), were baptized and had partaken of the Holy Spirit (6:1-5).  This was a long-established church (5:12) whose members have lived exemplary lives of faith and good works (6:10), and have experienced persecution, imprisonment (13:3) and the loss of property (10:32-33), but have not yet suffered martyrdom (12:4).  The congregation were capable of charity and hospitality (13:2,16), and previously had great teachers and leaders (13:7) who grounded them in foundational Christian teaching in the Jewish Scriptures (6:1-2).

But their faith had been outlawed and these ostracized believers became discontent and discouraged and longed for earthly property and a sense of belonging in their society (13:5, 14).  So they started questioning their beliefs, considering other avenues to God so they could be reintegrated into society; they were on the verge of walking away from their Christian convictions.  In response the author of Hebrews wrote this “word of exhortation” (13:22) to bolster the faith and perseverance of this wavering Christian community, reminding them how to correctly “draw near…” (10:23) to God.

The recipients seems to have been influenced by the first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria who mixed Judaism with Greek philosophy and wrote that there were several ways for sinful man to approach God.  He mentioned the Logos (elsewhere “the word or reason of God”), Sophia (elsewhere “the wisdom of God”), the angels, Moses, Melchizedek the high priest and the Jewish sacramental system were all avenues (or mediators) to bridge the divide between man and God.  Reading Hebrews, it appears that the first recipients of this letter were considering these alternative avenues to avoid persecution, yet still worship God.[1]  In response to their searching the author writes how Jesus Christ is better than Philo’s Logos and Sophia (1:1-3), better than the angels (1:4-2:18) and Moses (3:1-6), and better than the Aaronic priesthood (7:1-24), presenting a better offering (9:14) in better place (8:2).  Jesus has also secured a better, eternal covenant by his sacrifice “once for all” (10:14) that he can guarantee fulfillment on behalf of both man and God (7:22).  Our author shows this superiority to deter readers from turning to these “alternative mediators” to escape the pressures of persecution and to exhort readers to hold fast to their confession if faith in him amidst difficult times.

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Faithful in the fire

How does this 2000 year old letter to Jewish believers suffering under Nero’s persecution help us today to “hold fast to your confession” (Hebrews 4:14; 10:23) in the midst of our own hardship and suffering? How can we be prepared to remain faithful in the fire and joyfully endure the suffering as these early believers who remained true to Christ through Nero’s fires?

The answer lies in the pivotal point of this letter, Hebrews 10:19, where the author moves from orthodoxy (or correct thinking) to orthopraxy (or correct living)Here the epistle shifts from theory to practice, with the transition Therefore” meaning “based on our argument up to here” and then follows with three powerful exhortations that appeal to the required response of the hearers.  These three exhortations contain the keys that will help the readers through the mounting persecution they feared.  The author encourages readers to “draw near… in faith” (v22), “hold fast to … hope” (v23) and “to stir one another in love” (v24-25).  Then he unpacks real faith in chapter 11, hope for endurance in chapter 12 and love in practice in chapter 13.  Like so many times in the letter he again reminds them that they need to remain faithful to Jesus, because of the coming judgment of Christ (v25-31).

These three exhortations to continue in faith, hope and love apply as much to us during times of hardships today.

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Draw near in faith

These wavering believers were graciously encouraged to “draw near in full assurance of faith” (v22).  Even although they considered renouncing Christ they were encouraged to “have confidence to draw near to the throne of grace through the blood” (4:16; cf 10:19).  God has not written them off!  Amidst their suffering and wavering they can be assured that their confidence before God was not based on their track record, but based on Jesus’ shed blood (v19).  This also implies that their suffering was also not due to their failures.  Rather they were encouraged that Jesus, their perfect High Priest has also “suffered when tempted, [and is therefore] able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18). He “is able to sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15-16) – so draw near to get help!

Hold on to hope

Poor and pushed aside, mocked and outlawed, their current circumstances were very uncomfortable.  And their immediate future looked even bleaker as the Roman persecution was escalating.  Therefore the author encouraged these fragile believers to hold onto their Lord who promises their share in his eternal inheritance! He is their “forerunner” (6:20) who went to announce their coming and the High Priest who secured their confidence before God (6:20). There is no room for doubt: Jesus secured their access and inheritance in Jesus’ eternal kingdom. And “this hope is the anchor of the soul” (6:19) – it settles the emotions and keeps the believer on course to, not swept away by the circumstance. So the believer is encouraged to endure suffering the way their Lord did – joyfully anticipating his reward (12:1-2).  This hope is the reason to remain faithful amidst the fire; their endurance will be rewarded!

Assemble to grow in love

Thirdly the author exhorts this congregation, fearful of being hurt or ostracized, to not neglect their assemblies (10:25). In effect he tells this fragile congregation “I know that you are afraid of being identified as a Christian, and I know that you will suffer and might even die when you are seen to gather with other believers – but do it!”  Why the urgency?  Why should they assemble?  Could they not practice their faith in private?

The author motivates that their primary purpose of assembly is to “stir one another to love and good works” – to grow in godly character and excel in good works (10:24).  More specifically, each congregant should make it their goal to think about how to help another excel in character and good works.  As he did earlier in the letter he encourages them to continue love and service for the saints (6:10-12).

Enduring the fire today

How do we endure suffering?  What was true for the Hebrew congregation in Rome suffering under Nero’s reign is true for me and you.  First, hold on to your faith: you are loved by God, approved by God, sanctified by God and preserved by God ford God.  Not the suffering nor your doubts or fears can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39).  So boldly approach of throne of grace to receive help in time of need! (Hebrews 4:16).

Second, let hope stir your joy and calm your fears, motivate you to continue in faith, work for your reward and find purpose in all you do.  God rewards faithfulness!

Thirdly, “never walk alone!” Join in the assembly to grow others “in love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24), and see how you are strengthen and encouraged yourself.  Indeed, “it is more blessed to give than to receive!” (Acts 10:35)

References for understanding the letter to the Hebrews

  1. Nash R.H., The Notion of Mediator in Alexandrian Judaism and the Epistle to the Hebrews, Westminster Theological Journal, Vol 40 (1977), p89-115.
  2. Barclay W., The Daily Study Bible, The Letter to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press, 1998).
  3. Gutrie D., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Hebrews (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).
  4. Schenck K., Understanding The Book Of Hebrews (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2003)

 

What is love?

“I love you”. Three simple words that – as the saying goes – makes the world go around.  And quite literally so!  This year the US Economy received a boost of $18.9 Billion with Valentines Day sales, less than 2014’s Christmas sales but more than 2014’s Mothers Day sales.

And the record industry literally turns year after year with songs singing these three words.  From the time when Huey and the News felt The power of love”, when Whitney promised her Bodyguard “I will always love you”, Elvis pleaded “Love me tender” or the Righteous brother lamented “You’ve lost that loving feeling” – the great songs written by people in love makes the record companies very rich.  But I wish more people spent some time to wonder with Foreigner when he sang “I want to know what love is.”

Love does makes the world go around, and no-where is it on greater display than at a wedding, where two people make vows of love to each other.  The essence of the familiar marriage vow is a promise “to love and to cherish, to have and to hold from this day forward, until death do us part”.  The wedding vow is a promise of companionship in love.   So frequently while conducting wedding ceremonies I have two questions I silently wonder do you know what you are letting yourself into?” and do you know what you are promising – do you know what love is?”  Because marriage, as in every other relationship, only flourishes when love true.

Building blocks of love

The word love occurs in various forms in some 290 times in the New Testament, and is thus a major Biblical theme – for obvious reasons.  We read that “God is love” and that he “so loved the world that he gave his Son” and we should emulate him so that we “walk in love”, meaning “love one another” and “love your enemies” – ultimately Christians should be known by our love.  Yet many times our definition of love is informed by contemporary culture, powerfully influenced through music, movies and novels, and the power of love is missing from our lives.

This was also true in days of the early church, heavily influenced by the booming Roman culture (from where we get our word romantic), so the New Testament writers had to define what they meant with “love”.  We get definitions in most of the New Testament letters (Paul’s definitions of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5:22-23, as well as Peter’s definition in 2 Peter 1:5-7 come to mind).  But one of the most helpful definitions of love if found in Colossians 3:12-14:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

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Love begins with compassion in the heart

Paul teaches that love begins with compassion – a deep feeling of identification with the person and his or her circumstance.  This is the place where real love starts, as you consider the other person, and value him or her enough to stop to think and identify with the his or her circumstance.  Love starts with giving attention and time to someone, and that moves our hearts to act for the benefit of the one whom we love.

Looking at our example of love, we see Jesus being motivated by compassion.  In fact, often before Jesus acted in kindness the Gospel writers would mention Jesus’ compassion as the motive for his benevolence.  For example, Jesus was moved with compassion, therefore he taught those who gathered (Mark 6:34), healed the crowds (Matthew 14:14) and fed the multitudes (Matthew 15:32).  The pleas of the two blind men (Matthew 20:34), the leper (Mark 1:41) and the demon-possessed boy’s father (Mark 9:22-23) filled Jesus’ heart with compassion before he healed them all.  When he saw the mourning mother at Nain (Luke 7:13) and Lazarus’ sisters weeping (John 11:33) his heart was moved with compassion so that he resurrected the dead.  As he looked at the crowds, the gospel writers recorded that Jesus was filled with compassion and was moved to pray for them (Luke 13:34), and at another time to time send out his disciples to heal the sick, cast out demons and preach the good news of God’s reign in the surrounding villages and towns (Matthew 9:36).

Some of Jesus best-known parables are also about compassion: the parable of the Forgiving Master (Matthew 18:22-35) tells us that the Master forgives debt because he has compassion, and we should do likewise.  The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) teaches us that love for our neighbor starts with compassion for someone in need, regardless of political or racial preferences.  The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) teaches us that the Father sees his returning son and has compassion, and forgives and restores him with great joy.

Love starts with compassion.  Compassion is activated as you stop and look or reflect intently at the person and his or her circumstance, as Jesus taught Simon the judgmental Pharisee who was offended when Jesus allowed the immoral woman to touch him, wash his feet with her tears and pour fragrant perfume on his feet.  Looking at the woman, Jesus taught him “Simon, do you SEE this woman…”  (Luke 7:44).  This is Jesus’ ultimate lesson on compassion: it’s easy to judge “sinners” because of their wrong, to stereotype “lazy beggars” because of their circumstance or be indifferent to the needs of strangers.  But Jesus demonstrates here that love starts as we look and see the person, to reflect on this person’s pain and suffering and to see the human being whom God loves enough to send his Son to die for.  And that is when God starts to stir his love in our hearts, when we identify with the image of God in this person.

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“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate demonstration of the compassionate love of God.  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14).  God, the righteous Lawgiver and Judge left the holy heavens to walk with mankind and identify with the temptations and suffering of humanity, even experiencing the death and agony of separation with God his Father. In a sense Jesus answered the prayer of Moses in Psalm 90 “Lord… you are from everlasting… we are like grass that withers… come down Oh Lord, have compassion on your servants!” (vv2, 5, 13).  And because Christ came to share in our humanity, we have a High Priest that can “sympathize with us in our weaknesses” so we can be confident of his forgiveness and help. (Hebrews 4:15-16).  God took time to identify with us and has compassion with us – therefore he is merciful towards us.  His love starts with compassion.

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This example of God’s identification with us in our weakness is the model of our love: love starts as you take time to walk in another’s footsteps, feel their pain and suffer with them.  Like Christ, love overlooks the wrongs done and first considers the one in need.  Like Christ, love values the person before dismissing the sinner.

This is not only a model for working with the poor, the addict and the offender.  This is the model of love for your conflicting spouse and difficult child, your rude coworker and racist service official.    Lover starts with compassion gained through time, attention and reflection until you can identify with this person whom God has made in his image, and who joins suffers with you in this sin-infested, loveless world, and is also in need of God’s desperate need of loving grace – like yourself.  Everyone needs compassion.

This short animation by Dr Brené Brown on empathy helps a lot to give practical guidelines to grow in compassion.

Before love is visible in acts of kindness, it starts in the heart and moves you to not do good deeds from a position of superiority but to do good because you identify with the suffering, the want, the pain of this person you love.

Compassion enables us to embrace even our enemies because we identify with their common humanity. Image credit: Hien Nguyen/Flickr
Compassion enables us to embrace even our enemies because we identify with their common humanity.
Image credit: Hien Nguyen/Flickr

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

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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.

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.

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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.