Not So Happy Holidays

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Christmas cheer is here; at least that’s what the billboards say. For weeks now we have been bombarded with advertisements featuring smiling families gathering around filling meals, jewelry boxes being opened, and new cars adorned with big red bows. The Christmas season is, after all, primarily about candy canes, cuddling, and getting gifts, right? But what are we supposed to do when we just don’t feel all the peace and love?

For many of us, the holidays bring something other than happiness. Sometimes it’s hard to have joy when…

…all you can think about during Christmas dinner is the one who is no longer there.

…your positive emotional health is largely due to the fact that you HAVE NOT been around your family in months.

…you want to feel happy for your cousin (and her new ring) but can only manage to fake a smile.

…your grades slide as seasonal depression sets in.

…you just don’t know what to say anymore to your brother who turned away from God.

…you don’t have someone special to go ice skating with.

…you can’t afford to pay your bills let alone buy presents for those you care about.

…the gift you really want is one that God seems unwilling to give.

The seasonal images of happiness and comfort are especially disturbing when you can’t share in their pictured perfection. Even if you are generally a fan of the Christmas season, sometimes it’s just tough to watch. Perhaps you have found yourself wishing it was already over. If only we could just fast forward to February. Sure, you want to remember Jesus’ birth, but you could do without the rest of it.

Often, during this time of year we resist expressing our hurt in effort to avoid putting a damper on the seasonal mood. After all, who wants to hang out with a downer at Christmas? But is this suppression of emotion, and the isolation that results, really the best way to deal with our pain? Perhaps our decision to remain silent actually serves to prop up the holiday perfection narrative.

Wouldn’t our friends and churches be better served if we humbly chose to shatter the illusion? The truth is, most of the people in those pictures are not as happy as they look anyway. Even an average image looks amazing with an Instagram filter thrown on top. Somehow we need to find the freedom to say: No, I am not alright, and all this “holiday spirit” isn’t helping matters.

Christianity has a rich tradition of honestly expressing deep pain. This practice, called lament, flows through Scripture from the Prophets and Psalms in the Old Testament to the cries of Jesus in the New. When we refuse to acknowledge our pain we turn against our own history and stunt our spiritual growth. Painting an artificial portrait of unlimited happiness is unchristian no matter what season it happens to be. Though we desperately long to return to Eden, we cannot do so, even for a few days.

The church needs to rediscover the practice of lament, and I can’t think of a better time to do this than Christmas. Joy and sorrow have always been hauntingly intertwined in this celebration. Just days after the birth of Jesus, Mary his mother was told: “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Luke 2:35) It was a harsh prophecy for a new mother to receive, but, in time, the truth of these words was clearly shown. Jesus is the biggest gift this world will ever receive, yet his birth and life meant great pain for the person closest to him.

So let’s resolve to be honest about our pain this Christmas, first with God, and then also with others. And let’s not think our intense emotions are too much for God to handle. He created us with the ability to experience each of them. He can take it, really he can, and he won’t be mad at you for spoiling his birthday celebration either.

This doesn’t mean Christmas has to be depressing. I believe that when we truly weep over our enduring sorrows it becomes easier to genuinely rejoice with others. When we stop denying it hurts and start being honest we can experience a deeper joy. The birth of Jesus is good news not because our lives are perfect; it is good news because they are clearly not. The more we remember this truth the more beautiful Christmas will be to us.

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How To NOT Be Single

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Should We All Just Get Married?

Over the past few years I have read several articles that urge young adults to marry. The reasons given for this encouragement are many. Marriage is said to promote personal maturity, encourage spiritual growth, provide a healthy outlet for sexual desire, and challenge us to sacrifice for others. (Also see: Young and In Love Challenging the Unnecessary Delay of Marriage) While Christian authors seem more likely to engage in this discussion, some secular voices have also spoken out, encouraging marriage at a younger age.

To be quite honest, I find many of these arguments to be persuasive. I spend a lot of time meeting with young, unmarried men, and I often encourage them to get serious about pursuing marriage and family. I firmly believe that many young adults should seriously consider getting married earlier in life. I am also convinced that marriage, when undertaken with God’s design in mind, has the ability to powerfully and positively shape those who enter into such a union.

But why is singleness described so negatively? Well, this is largely because extended singleness has become associated with irresponsible living. Some of those choosing to remain unmarried are also choosing to act childishly. Avoiding commitment in marriage is often associated with avoiding commitment in other areas. For whatever reason, young men seem more likely to fall into extended immaturity. This new wave of self-obsessed, overgrown frat boys has frustrated their female peers and led Kay Hymowitz, among others, to ask Where Have the Good Men Gone? While single women do tend express a bit more motivation than do single men, the fairer sex is not immune to irresponsibility. HBO’s successful series Girls depicts a group of young women who also seem content to extend their adolescence indefinitely. There is a right way to be single, but this certianly isn’t the way…

Of course there are also other reasons for marriage to be delayed. Educational and professional goals often take priority over relational ones, and many of today’s young adults are transient, making developing relationships more difficult. While these factors are certainly understandable, many cases of singleness that happen under these circumstances are also influenced by unchecked selfishness and disordered priorities.

There are plenty of bad reasons to be single, and there are also plenty of singles living badly today. I make no excuses for the poor examples of singleness in my generation, and I certainly don’t claim to have mastered the life stage myself.

That said, I am beginning to wonder if all this criticism of the single state is a bit misdirected. Is it possible that our experience of singleness and not singleness itself is the primary problem? Perhaps rather than trying to reduce the number of years people remain single we should instead begin teaching people how to correctly use their years of singleness. Maybe instead of just telling young adults to get married we should seek to help them navigate singleness in a God honoring manner.

If the core problem is irresponsibility and poor character among single adults, marriage won’t necessarily remedy this.  It may actually serve to compound the problem. Getting married does not automatically fix a person’s character flaws. In fact, if there is not sufficient maturity between the two parties, a marriage is likely to implode.

What God Has to Say

Scripture does seem to acknowledge that responsible marriage can counteract the dangers of unfocused singleness (1 Tim 5:15), but it also assumes that singleness, both chosen and un-chosen, will frequently occur (1 Cor 7, Matt 19:12).

But those looking to Scripture to support their irresponsible single lives will certainly be disappointed. The picture of singleness painted for us in Scripture is active, focused, and God centric. The expectation, even in the case of widowhood (1 Tim 5:9-10), was that those who are single would use their singleness to serve God and serve others in a special way. Both Jesus in Matthew 19 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 depict singleness as a state that allows for wholehearted devotion to God.

Paul notably argues for singleness saying:

“But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” – 1 Cor 7:32-35

Yes, marriage usually occured far earlier in Biblical times than it does today, and it is also true that many people today who remain single will ultimately get married. But the Christian paradigm for singleness remains the same. There is no option in Scripture for lazy or self-centered singleness. If you are single you are called live out your singleness in a way that honors God. And no, faithful service to God as a single adult should not be an attempt to manipulate God into giving us a spouse. He must remain in the center, not the periphery, of our desire.

What If?

Marriage is one way to embrace personal responsibility, but it is by no means the only way of doing so. In fact, the very realities of single adulthood that often lead to its abuse also provide incredible opportunities.  College debt notwithstanding, many single adults have large amounts of expendable income. Since most do not have a family to care for, singles also have more time and relational energy to invest in others. Furthermore, they are often quite mobile, able to travel to places where there are great needs.

One of the deepest sorrows I have about this generation of single adults is that in spite our incredible potential many of us have failed to take full advantage of our singleness for God (though there many hopeful exceptions). Financial resources are not invested in ministry and missions but are instead spent on expensive drinks and wardrobes. Time and relational energy are not used to minister to those around us, but are instead expended in weekend bar hopping extravaganzas. Mobility has also become an excuse for remaining uncommitted to community and church. These critiques are not absolute, but any factual look at the statistics involved here will prove that many single adults have priority problems.

I believe that many Christians are intentionally remaining single for poor reasons, but perhaps a bigger problem is that many Christian adults are using their singleness so poorly. Within the church we have an army of single Christian adults, and yet we fail to see the impact such an army should have. But what if this were to change? What if millions Christian singles were to start consistently using their singleness in daring ways for God? There is no doubt that our church and our world would radically change. Then maybe instead of reading articles encouraging marriage we would read articles encouraging this passionate demographic to continue serving in their singleness.

I get excited when I think about the ways some of my peers are living out this ideal, and I pray that more single adults will commit themselves to using their singleness as God intends. When this happens, watch out!

But It’s Hard

Living as a single adult is certainly not easy, and as the years go by it can get increasingly harder. As someone who remains single at 27, I understand some of the challenges singleness can bring. There are intense seasons of loneliness, and at times the desire for companionship and sexual fulfillment can be overwhelming. While there are no easy answers to these challenges, I am convinced that living the single life as God calls us to do will actually make single life more bearable and more fulfilling than it would be otherwise. On this point John Meyendorff says:

“…the human instinct of love and procreation is not isolated from the rest of human existence, but is its very center. It cannot be suppressed, but only transformed, transfigured and channeled, as love for God and for one’s neighbor, through prayer, fasting and obedience in the name of Christ.”*

Singleness, especially unwanted singleness, can be incredibly challenging. Again, there are no easy answers here, but celibacy and singleness (temporary or permanent) work best when accompanied by intentional devotion to God and to others. Lazy and self-centered singleness will only increase sexual tension and relational discontent.

Looking Ahead

The cultural forces causing extended singleness are powerful, and in the years ahead we can only expect the delay of marriage to increase. There are good reasons to resist this development, and Christians should not blindly go along with the culture in this regard. Part of our response should be encouraging marriage earlier for God honoring reasons. But we must not blindly push people to the altar either. Instead let’s push each other toward Christian obedience in whatever life stage we are in.

We should, in some cases, encourage others to embrace marriage and not intentionally remain single, but perhaps it is even more important to understand how God does NOT intend for us to live the single life. May all of us who are single live each day actively embracing God’s powerful plan for singleness.

*Taken from Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective Page 71

Justice and the Just One: Refections on Social Activism

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A new wave of social activism has swept over us. Across this nation we hear many voices echoing the call for freedom and justice. A new crop of activists has arisen to combat oppression and fight against abusive social structures. These advocates share an increasing discomfort with the way things are. Many in this generation are simply not content to allow suffering to continue unaddressed.

This concern exhibits itself in many different ways. Some speak up on behalf of the homeless population. Other individuals seek to bring hidden abuse to the light. Many fight against the evils of sex slavery and forced prostitution. Yet others seek to address issues of economic disparity and financial discrimination.

While some may see these efforts as inadequate or misguided, there are many positives to acknowledge. I rejoice that many of my peers realize that something is deeply wrong with society, and I love the fact that so many in my generation are willing to sacrifice their time and expend significant effort to see these wrongs made right. Surely, not all of these campaigns are well thought out or responsibly carried out, but there is much to praise here.

Inside the church we have also seen a rise in interest in social activism.  Numerous mission trips are carried out with the goal of alleviating suffering around the world. Christian college groups launch creative fundraisers such as “Seesaws Against Slavery” to help bring an end to the global sex trade. Since 2009 The Justice Conference has sought to inspire and connect a generation of men and women around a shared concern for the vulnerable and oppressed.” Indeed, many Christians have stepped up to defend the hurting and broken around us.

Yet, as I reflect on the passion so many of my peers have for social justice I have some concerns. It is in this light that I offer the following two exhortations.

Allow Good Theology Inform Our Activism

For the Christian everything we do should be a reflection of what we believe about God. While our society encourages us to separate our religious convictions from our public behavior, a Christian does not have this option. We are called to evaluate all of our actions and even our thoughts by what we know to be true about God (Romans 12:2). This means that for a Christian, every action we take must be theologically informed. Thinking secularly about social activism will simply not do. We must not starve passion of truth.

But Christians should not think theologically about social activism merely because we are commanded to do so in the Bible. Thinking theologically adds an incredible richness to our actions. If we ignore our theology we are setting aside the most compelling motivation for God honoring social activism in existence.

Those who plumb the depths of Scriptures will find that God’s heart beats for the hurting. The Bible is replete with exhortations to care for the hurting and defend the defenseless. When we dishonor our fellow human beings we dishonor the God who created them (Proverbs 14:31). The truths of Scripture concerning social justice are more powerful than any humanist motivation for activism. Simply put, being for Jesus gives us the best reasons to be for social justice.

If the Bible is true and if Jesus is God, Christians have more compelling reasons to care for the hurting than anyone else does. This is not to question the heart of those who do not share faith in Christ. Many non-Christians care deeply about the hurting. But if Christianity is true, Christians should care more than anyone else. Caring for the broken is deeply imbedded in our spiritual identity. It goes beyond a passion – it flows from godly conviction.

Furthermore, our desire for social justice should flow out of our belief in a just God (2 Thessalonians 1:6). He is our measuring stick for right and wrong. He not only acts justly, he is just.  While human moral opinion shifts over time, God’s character remains the same. Without Jesus, justice is merely a matter of personal opinion.

When popular sentiment and the passing passions of humanity fail to preserve what is good, we can put our confidence in a God who is truly just. No wrong escapes his sight, and no evil deed will be left unaddressed (Ecclesiastes 12:14). One day every person will stand before God and give an account of everything they have done (2 Corinthians 5:10). Every rapist, every abuser, every exploiter will stand before their Maker. Every wrong deed and every wrong thought will be judged by the only one who is able to judge perfectly. Because of him we pursue what is right, and in him alone will true justice be achieved.

Understanding this fact gives us hope that when we fail to achieve our ultimate goals for social justice here on this earth, no social evil will be allowed to stand eternally. Without Jesus there will never be justice – either in this life or the next, but with him all will be made right.

Theology must inform our activism. Social activism without a theological foundation is like a car without an engine, it might look good and feel right but it is ultimately incapable of taking us where we need to be. We must not divorce what is morally right from what is ultimately true. When we remove our theology we deprive our service of its greatest power.

Care for the Whole Person

Something else that proper theology allows us to do is care for the whole person. Christians recognize that people are both physical and spiritual in nature, and we have the unique ability to care for mankind in both of these ways.

God clearly cares about the physical wellbeing of people. In fact, much of Jesus’ earthly ministry focused on healing to physical bodies that were broken. Some of his other great miracles involved providing food for the hungry crowds. God has little patience with those who fail to meet the basic physical needs of those around them (James 2:14-17). Their faith is called “dead”. Pure and faultless religion, according to Scripture, is evidenced by caring for the needs of the widow and orphan communities (James 1:27). Many of these needs are clearly physical in nature.

But God’s concern for the individual does not stop with his care about the body. God’s ultimate concern is for the human soul. Physical suffering and death are horrible for sure, but they both pale in comparison to spiritual death (Matthew 10:28).

We must not ignore the spiritual needs around us as we try to eliminate physical suffering. We are faced with more than just malnourished bodies; we are dealing with eternal souls. Certainly, giving aid to someone should be more than a manipulative ploy to strong-arm them into the Christian faith. But if we withhold the life giving Gospel from those we serve, we willingly consent to their spiritual starvation. Anyone can give a bed or a meal, but not just anyone can give the Gospel. May we not hesitate to offer what we alone can provide. Let’s not be content with delaying the death of a body for a few years when we could see God save a soul for eternity.

Sadly, physical wealth and security can often mask spiritual poverty. Nowhere has this ever been clearer to me than during my time here in DC. When I walk down M Street or drive through Tyson’s Corner I see droves of people who are safer, healthier, and more comfortable than 99 percent of the world’s population, and yet they are spiritually impoverished. As we seek to alleviate suffering let’s not create a new group of individuals who sign on to a spiritually anorexic form of the American dream. It is quite possible for a homeless person or a Haitian orphan to be spiritually healthier than a prosperous American.  As Jesus warns us in Luke 12:16-20, the security found in abundant food and material wealth can promote a dangerous feeling of disregard and an inappropriate sense of invincibility. While the man in this parable had prepared for his future physical needs he had failed to prepare adequately for his spiritual reckoning.

For a Christian, loving the whole person means intentionally caring for both body and soul. The believer in Christ is uniquely capable of addressing needs both physical and spiritual. As we passionately serve our fellow man lets commit ourselves to doing both of these things well.

The Trouble with Biblical Marriage

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Many Christians set out to defend what they call “biblical marriage”, and this term has become a lightning rod for discussion. Authors such as this one have pushed back, saying that various types of marriage are actually condoned in the Bible –many of them being abusive to the women involved. Advocates of gay marriage are quick to ask why Christians insist on preserving a particular marriage ideal when the Bible describes many different kinds of marriage.

So, does the Bible really support a wide range of marriage types? Are Christians arbitrarily choosing a concept of marriage from the many displayed in the Bible? How should Christians really go about understanding the Bible and determining what God desires for marriage to look like? Certainly, many different types of marriage are described in the Bible, but is it also true that Christians have no basis for advocating a particular type of marriage? These questions are all important.

There is a difference between a description of something and a prescription for behavior. Christians do not believe that every Bible passage carries the same weight in terms of practical application today. Every passage must be understood in its context – both cultural and literary. Taking Scripture out of context is dangerous, and will ultimately lead us to the wrong conclusion. Not all biblical examples deserve our imitation, nor were all intended to evoke it. Here I will discuss three principles I believe will help us understand God’s heart and purpose in marriage. Then I will wrap up by reflecting on the words we use about marriage.

1.      Narrative descriptions of marriage practices should not be taken as prescriptive.

The storyline of Scripture of contains many examples of dysfunctional marriage practices, and often these “marriage” stories give evidence of their own destructive results. We may think of Judges 19:22-29. In this scenario when a man is personally threatened with sexual assault by a mob he offers his concubine to the men attacking him in an attempt to save his own skin. After the concubine is raped and abused she evidently dies. Her owner then cuts her up in pieces and sends these pieces to the corners of Israel. Is this a God honoring example of marriage? No, in fact this story gives evidence of a lawless period in time of Israel’s history where “…Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25).  This story illustrates the depth of depravity God’s people had sunk to, and in no way validates the behavior it describes.

We may also think of King Solomon’s many marriages. He possessed 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). In this situation Solomon’s practice of marriage went directly against the commands of God. In Deuteronomy kings of Israel are specifically told to not take many wives because doing so would result in their hearts being led away from God  (Deuteronomy 17:17). This is exactly what happened to Solomon in his old age (1 Kings 11:4). This too is an example of marriage we are not called to emulate.

We could look at the lives of the patriarchs for other examples of marriage practices that didn’t work out so well. Abraham’s decision to take his wife’s servant in an attempt to have a son was a symptom of his shallow faith and produced very negative consequences in his family. Jacob was tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loved, and his resulting plural marriage was thereafter fraught with favoritism and conflict. These men loved God to be sure, but we must not assume their marriage practices were condoned by God.

2.      Old Testament marriage guidelines are not necessarily prescriptive for Christians.

The fact that something is commanded in the Old Testament doesn’t imply that it is binding for Christians today. This is very clear in the New Testament in reference to dietary laws (Mark 7:19, Acts 10). Christians are not called to disregard the Old Testament, but we should allow the New Testament to help explain the Old Testament to us.[i] The Old Testament Law was good, and was given for a specific purpose during a specific time.

This New Testament priority is not arbitrary, and we don’t listen to the New Testament simply because we are more comfortable with what it says. This New Testament priority is reflected in Scripture and has been historically practiced by the Christian church. All Scripture is important and useful, but not all Scripture is applied in the same way. New Testament teaching on marriage is the final word and helps clarify what God intends for marriage to look like for believers today.

Still, many of the biblical marriage practices are troubling to us. The Old Testament includes instructions about marrying a captive woman (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), marrying the wife of a dead brother – called levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), and even the marriage of a man to a woman he raped (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Each of these situations deserves a great deal of discussion, but a few comments should be made now. Firstly we must understand these situations in their cultural context.  The Old Testament was written during a period of time where women were afforded few rights. Did the Old Testament Law seek to completely overturn society and instantly create equality? No, but even in the midst of a culture with poor attitudes toward famales we see a biblical pattern of concern for women who found themselves in these horrible situations.  It is right to respond with disgust to the cultural norms of this time, but it is not fair to say that Scripture was seeking to establish abusive practices when the actual intent of these commands was to provide some protection to women suffering under an abusive cultural norm. Hebrew women were given greater protection than in other societies of the time, and Scripture, when taken as a whole, unequivocally speaks to the worth and value of women.

Many Old Testament marriage practices are not worth repeating. We must see these practices in their cultural context and look elsewhere in Scripture for further clarity on God’s plan for marriage. If we merely studied Deuteronomy to establish our marriage paradigm we might be left scratching our heads, but God never intended to leave us there. The regulations of the Old Testament were merely a shadow preceding a better and fuller reality. The Old Testament Law was an imperfect guide for a deeply flawed people. The imperfect covenant (Hebrews 7:18), put forth in the Law, would soon be replaced with a better, though more demanding covenant. This brings us to our third principal.

3.      The New Testament reaffirms and builds on God’s original intent for marriage.

While many Christians are aware of the wide ranging discussion of marriage and singleness found in First Corinthians seven, fewer are aware of another important marriage passage. Perhaps the most significant New Testament discussion of marriage occurs after Jesus is asked a troubling question about divorce. “Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3)

The question was a landmine; the Pharisees wanted to see if Jesus would concur with marriage tradition or reject it. Jesus’ reply caught everyone off guard:

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

Many would have expected Jesus to reference the Law of Moses to substantiate his perspective on marriage, but Jesus chose to go even farther back, citing Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to describe his marriage paradigm. He argues that Genesis, not Deuteronomy was intended by God to serve as the primary prescriptive passage for marriage relationships. In the Garden of Eden, before sin had entered the world, God established a pattern of marriage that involved a man and a woman uniting together. This unity was sexual and spiritual. These individuals were now considered to be one. Unlike under the Mosaic Law, this union was intended to last until death. A man could not abandon his wife.[ii] This declaration of Jesus elicited immediate protests from those listening. They asked: Why  did Moses allow divorce if it was wrong?

Jesus then spoke about a truth that helps us understand why God allowed non-ideal marriage practices in the Old Testament. Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”” – Matthew 19:8. This shows us that at least in this instance, God allowed a marriage pattern that did not reflect his original intent. He did this because of the hard hearts of his people, not because it was best.

Old Testament marriage practice undoubtedly fell short of God’s best, but God’s original plan was still in place. This plan involved a man and a woman in lifelong commitment to each other. Jesus said that any past exceptions to this policy were now invalid. No longer would diversions from the original plan be ok for followers of God. While some like to claim that Jesus was relatively liberal on sexual issues, this passage points to the opposite conclusion. Jesus was raising the sexual and relational standard. He was calling people back to God’s original plan for marriage.

This was the pattern for Jesus. At numerous junctures when addressing questions of the Law Jesus goes deeper and asks more of people. Merely following the letter of the law would no longer suffice.  Jesus seeks to illuminate heart conditions, not just control behavior. He declares that the sin of adultery is one that starts in the heart as lust, and that the sin of murder is first experienced through hatred (Matthew 5). The new law given by Christ offered greater freedom, and greater responsibility.

In fact the entire tone of the New Testament is one of increased commitment to God. No longer must followers of God restrict their diet arbitrarily, but they must now consider the impact their eating choices have on those around them (1 Corinthians 8). No longer must God’s people offer an endless stream of animal sacrifices.  They are instead called to offer their entire selves as living sacrifices out of love for their Savior (Romans 12:1). No longer were husbands merely commanded to physically provide for their wives, they were now required to love them sacrificially – even to the point of being willing to die for them (Ephesians 5:25-28). The standard was raised and the commitment was deepened as God called his people back to his original plan.

We could continue by looking at other passages in the New Testament that further outline God’s incredible plan for marriage, but we will leave that for another time. The important point here is that while culture and hard human hearts distorted God’s plan for marriage through the years, God’s intent for marriage has always been the same. I am not sure I could sum up this point any better than Trillia Newbell does:

“For Jesus and Paul and for the Church, sexual and marriage ethics (and biblical womanhood) are not based on the historical sins against women that are recorded in the Old Testament, but from the pre-fall monogamous union of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.”

At this point we have seen that God’s plan for marriage has been consistent through time. From the beginning marriage was intended to be an enduring physical and spiritual union between a man and woman. While some would have us believe that the Bible’s perspective on marriage is confusing or contradictory, we have clearly seen that God’s Word points toward one prescription for marriage.  I do not expect non-Christians to share my convictions about the authority of the Bible, and I certainly don’t expect them to willingly submit to its moral teachings. But I do hope the intellectually honest will acknowledge that Christians have internally consistent, biblically grounded reasons for advocating and practicing a particular form of marriage.

The Words we Use about Marriage Matter

So what then are we to say then about “Biblical Marriage”? I believe when most Christians say biblical marriage they are referring to God’s intended practice of marriage. The term is unfortunately somewhat inexact. It can be misunderstood by those hear it and misrepresented by those who desire to do so. Certainly, many different types of marriage are described in the Bible – even if they are not intended to serve as examples for us. Perhaps our language needs to be more precise.  Not all biblical marriages were honoring to God. Christian marriage, however, is the unique practice of God’s people.[iii]

Christian marriage should not be confused with Old Testament aberrations or modern day distortions. It is the unique, divinely ordained practice of God’s people – laid out compellingly in Scripture. It is radical when compared to Ancient Near East practices, and it is radical when compared to the modern American understanding of marriage. It is more demanding, more serious, and more profitable than any other expression of marriage. Christian marriage is a gift from God to his people, and those who seek to practice it will be blessed.

The words we use are so important.  This fact has been incredibly clear in the recently public debate over gay marriage. It sounds much more compelling to say that you are for marriage equality than it does to say that you support legally changing the definition of marriage. Let’s publically talk about marriage, but let’s also commit ourselves to using words that accurately communicate our meaning. This is why when I talk about God’s intent for marriage I seek to use the term Christian marriage – because I believe it better reflects the truth I advocate.


[i] For more helpful information on the question of the Old Testament authority in the life of a Christian please read Tim Keller’s helpful thoughts. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/07/09/making-sense-of-scriptures-inconsistency/

[ii] A couple situations are given where divorce is allowed for a Christian. These two cases are marital infidelity (Matt 19:9), and abandonment by a non-believing spouse (1 Cor 7:14). In all cases, divorce should be evaluated soberly. There are doubtlessly other situations, such as abuse, where one spouse would need to separate for their safety or the safety of their children.

[iii] I am indebted to Bryan Kammerzelt for suggesting this shift in terminology. http://www.critiquebycreating.com/2011/04/the-most-eligible-christian-bachelor/

Why Gay Marriage Makes Sense to My Generation

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In November 2012 three states narrowly voted to affirm same-sex marriage, breaking with a long trend of ballot box losses for the gay community. While recent polls suggest that America is still divided on this issue, the same cannot be said for the young adult population. Nearly every survey shows that those under thirty overwhelmingly support the legalization of gay marriage (around 80% in some surveys). This fact alone indicates that our country will continue to move in the direction of approving same-sex marriage.

While our reaction to this reality will certainly differ based on our worldview and convictions about sexuality, it is helpful for all of us to understand the underlying dynamics that push young adults in this direction. As a 27 year old Christian man I want to know why my generation is leading the way toward legalizing gay marriage. Consequently, I have spent a good deal of time reading and thinking about this question. This is my attempt to address some of the reasons why gay marriage makes sense to my generation.

Reasons Why:

1.       The State of “Traditional Marriage” is Not Healthy

Perhaps more than any other, my generation acutely feels the consequences of marital brokenness. Half of my peers grew up in shattered homes, and even the ones who didn’t saw enough relational dysfunction to make them gun-shy of marital commitment. It doesn’t even help us to look back farther for a healthy marriage model. The idyllic 1950s, often painted as a time when marriages were strong, lose their luster when stories of alcoholism, hidden abuse, and loveless relationships are uncovered. The traditional ideal has faded into a failed promise.

My generation has responded to this by putting off marriage, and in some cases, deciding against marriage entirely. Even the economic and legal benefits of marriage are not enough to induce many of my peers to walk down the aisle.

In 2004 Stanley Kurtz published an article arguing that the legalization of gay marriage in some European countries has led to an increase in cohabitation and out of wedlock births.  Others have disputed his claims, arguing that these relational trends predated or are disconnected from the legalization of gay marriage, but what cannot be disputed is that the legalization of gay marriage is taking place during an era where hetrosexual relationships are suffering.

Perhaps there would be a case for defending traditional marriage if we were surrounded by numerous examples of healthy marriages. But for most of us, thriving heterosexual marriages are the exception not the rule. My generation can’t truthfully say “if it aint broke don’t fix it”, so many have begun saying “It’s not working, so why does it matter?”

2.       Marriage and Sexuality Have Increasingly Become Disconnected from Procreation

Early feminists saw birth control as their ticket to freedom and equality. They could now pursue their careers fully and advance in their workplace, even while being sexually active. Now women could enjoy the same level of sexual expression men could without having to worry about pregnancy. Opportunities have certainly expanded for women because of birth control, and doors once closed to women are opening. But along with these benefits, birth control brought with it something else.

Children are now an option, not an assumption. The natural and obvious connection between pregnancy and sexuality is no longer at the front of our minds. Even within marriage childbearing can be postponed indefinitely. People may now get married and choose not to have children at all – and many do. When birth control was introduced gay marriage would have seemed absurd, but as others have noted, the pill ultimately helped pave the way for gay marriage.

Add to this the modern realities of artificial insemination, surrogate parenthood, egg donation, test tube babies, and cloning. Not only is marriage unnecessary for the creation of a baby, intercourse itself is now an optional path toward parenthood. While some previous generations have downplayed or ignored the pleasure dimension of sexuality by emphasizing the reproductive, some in this generation have adopted an opposite, although similarly one-dimensional view that sees sex as exclusively about physical pleasure.

Natural law arguments about marriage that appeal to the nature of human reproduction have much less sway in a generation that sees no essential connection between sexual function and parenthood. People once believed that since children can only come through heterosexual union, they are best raised by parents in a heterosexual union. That belief is now passé in an age where sexuality has been divorced from reproduction.

3.       Unique Gender Contributions Have been Minimized or Denied

Over the past fifty years there has been a push to deny or deemphasize the differences between men and women. The primary belief driving this movement seems to be that acknowledging differences inevitably leads to discrimination. As with birth control, this has been a double edged sword in our culture. Opportunities are now open to both men and women that would have once been reserved for the opposite sex. People are now freer to pursue their passions even if these passions don’t fit into their culturally defined gender category.

On the negative side, denying differences has at times made it very hard to celebrate and honor the strengths concentrated in one sex. Many are now convinced that there is no real difference between men and women aside from their reproductive plumbing. If men and women are really the same, they really don’t need each other that much. This way of thinking has direct implications for how we think about the marital relationship.

The fact that a boy raised by a lesbian couple is denied the chance to have a father at home doesn’t bother us if we doubt a father actually has something distinctive to offer a son. If a woman can give a child everything a man can give, why insist on having both present in a marriage?

4.       We Ignore God’s Sexual Standards in Our Own Lives

It goes without saying that premarital sex is the norm in this generation. A recent study showed that 88% of unmarried young adults are having sex before marriage. Self identified Evangelicals reported only a marginal difference with 80% admitting to sexual activity. While we may question the accuracy of such results, it is undeniable that most young adults today choose to reject historic Christian teachings about sexuality.

If my generation (and the previous one) now views the Christian position on premarital sex to be outmoded and prudish, it naturally follows that other Biblically grounded sexual ethics are also up for questioning. If premarital sex isn’t really wrong, is homosexual sex also ok? If I am unwilling to make the difficult choice to put my sexual behavior under the Lordship of Christ as a heterosexual adult, how can I insist that my gay friend do what I am unwilling to do?

This rationalization doesn’t always occur as a logical thought pattern, but when we consistently make choices to put our sexual desires above God’s truth we train ourselves to see sexual and relational satisfaction as primary instead of seeing God’s will as primary. This value judgment necessarily affects how we view other expressions of sexuality.

I recently came across another interesting study showing a connection between pornography consumption and approval of gay marriage. Specifically this study found that heterosexual men who watch pornography are more likely to begin supporting same sex marriage. While much could be said here, this is just another piece of evidence that disregarding God’s plan for sexuality in one area of our lives directly influences how we view sexuality in other areas.

5.       Marriage Has Become About Personal Fulfillment

While marriage was once viewed as a formative institution whereby the participants would grow through their experiences together, many now see marriage as a crowning achievement on the path to self actualization. Instead of a path to growth marriage has become an exercise in personal fulfillment. We are taught by society to pursue marriage primarily for our happiness and social enhancement. It is also easier than ever to get out of an unhappy marriage –however significant or trivial the reason for this unhappiness. One can rightly dispute this concept of marriage, but it can’t be denied that this is the dominant marriage paradigm in our country today.

So how does this understanding of marriage inform our perspective on gay marriage? If marriage is only about people being happy, then why should we withhold from anyone the opportunity for happiness? If the only or even the primary purpose of marriage is personal fulfillment, should not everyone have that opportunity regardless of their sexual orientation? Long ago we adopted a cultural model of marriage that emphasizes personal fulfillment above all else, and gay marriage is the logical outworking of that model.

6.       What We Were Told about Gay People Wasn’t True

It is easy to maintain negative beliefs about a group who you don’t associate with, but many young adults have close friendships with people who identify as gay or lesbian. Through these friendships we have discovered that LGBT identifying individuals are profoundly human. While previous generations may have opposed homosexuality because of irrational prejudice or false assumptions, this is not an option for us. We have not found our gay friends to be any dirtier or more dangerous than we are. In fact, they can be nicer and more compassionate than many other people we know. The scary caricatures we have been fed are now thoroughly unconvincing. There is a real sense among my peers that many of the things we were told about gays and lesbians are just plain wrong. While there may be compelling reasons to favor heterosexual marriage, many of the reasons shared with my generation have become increasingly unpersuasive as we get to know the gay and lesbian individuals around us.

7.       We Highly Value Relationships

Relationships are indeed a prized commodity in this generation, and many people are reluctant to embrace a belief that could negatively influence their friendships. My generation is also disinterested in moral absolutes, so this relational priority often determines ethical convictions. David Kinnaman notes that for many, fairness has become more important than rightness. “There’s a real sense in which their institutional loyalty and their loyalty to theoretical morals and ethical choices are trumped by their peer relationships.”

8.       We Care about Those Who are Suffering

It would be unfair to paint the approval of same sex marriage as merely a position taken by a generation without a moral compass. For many, advocating gay rights is a result of the desire for social justice. The same compassion that pushes us to serve the homeless and fight sex trafficking also pushes us to defend others who are suffering and being oppressed. My generation recognizes that the gay community has suffered under more than moral disapproval. LGBT individuals have been treated in ways that are disrespectful and dehumanizing by society, the state, and often by the church. This mistreatment, often occurring under the banner of moral preservation, has been anything but moral.

What We Can Learn

So how should the Christian church respond to my generation in the midst of the current social upheaval surrounding gay marriage? While this point deserves much greater development, I will offer a few suggestions here. Firstly, the church must passionately articulate and model a distinctly Christian concept of marriage to Her people. We must not continue to adopt our culture’s idea of marriage while slapping a Christian label on it. The church is in desperate need of a theologically grounded, comprehensive rearticulation of God’s design for marriage. This picture of marriage will differ in many ways from our cultural marriage paradigm. The defining characteristic of Christian marriage is not self-actualization but self-sacrifice. We must offer a compelling description of God’s design for sexuality, recognizing it as a multifaceted gift intended to provide physical pleasure, promote emotional bonding, and produce children. We must also paint a picture of a God big enough, worthy enough, and loving enough to deserve our complete submission in sexual matters. We must preach a Jesus who is worth following no matter what we are called to give up.

Even if we disagree with this generation’s conclusion about gay marriage, we must not ignore the mistreatment of other human beings or dismiss the many voices decrying these abuses. The church needs to be better informed about the difficulties facing individuals with same sex attraction. Every believer in Christ should firmly stand against the abuse and mistreatment of fellow human beings who are created in the Image of God.

My prayer is that the societal acceptance of gay marriage will cause Christians to reevaluate their understanding of this divinely ordained institution. Too long have we adopted cultural values about marriage that contradict God’s intent. In the past it was easy to think of cultural marriage as an expression of God’s design, but this new, obvious departure from our Creator’s relational blueprint should help highlight many areas where our understanding of marriage has already been distorted. While our nation continues to move toward approval of gay marriage, I believe the Church can also head in a new direction – toward a truer and better understanding of Christian Marriage. I pray that God allows me to help in this process.

God in the Garden – A Holy Week Reflection

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Last night at church I shared some comments to set up a time of corporate prayer. Below is an adapted version of these comments. I hope this challenges you to reflect on Christ’s life in a new way this Easter season.

Matthew 26:36-46 (NASB)

 36 Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. 38 Then He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.” 39 And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” 40 And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour? 41 Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done.” 43Again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more. 45 Then He came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Get up, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand.

Just days earlier the crowds had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem singing hosanna in the highest. It was a greeting fit for a king, and Jesus was a King. But these praises were merely the momentary expressions of an ever fickle public. Soon these same crowds would be crying for his crucifixion. Jesus knew what was coming, and this knowledge was a crushing weight. You see for Jesus, Gethsemane was the ground between exaltation and execution. Here in this garden He calls out to his Father and asks for a way out. In his words we hear the deepest human pain and the fullest Divine submission.

As Jesus wrestled with his destiny, he also experienced abandonment. Even his closest friends couldn’t stay awake to walk through this time with him. He would soon be betrayed by someone who he had shared his life with for three years. It was Christ’s darkest hour, and he had to face it alone.

This portrayal of Christ may not be the image we are most familiar with or most comfortable with, but it is real. Our hero and healer is also our suffering servant, and to forget this fact is to forget something about our Savior. We must not rush to the resurrection. We must pause in Gethsemane to remember the pain of Christ and to remember the weakness of our own flesh.

During this time Jesus asked his followers stay, to watch, to pray. This week, make it your goal to do just that. Please set aside a time of prayer this week to acknowledge the sufferings of Christ and to confess to God your weakness. Written below is Isaiah 53. This is an Old Testament prophecy of the sufferings that Christ would endure. Please allow this passage to shape your time in prayer.

Isaiah 53 (NASB)

1 Who has believed our message?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
3 He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
6 All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.

7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
9 His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

10 But the LORD was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
11 As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.

My Haiti Update

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First of all, let me say thank you to those of you who prayed for and supported our team in Haiti. God was incredibly gracious to us. Travel to and from the country was smooth, and at no point did we experience significant delays. Our team also experienced incredible health during the trip (with the only exception being a few sea urchin spines in a student’s foot)

After arriving in Port-au-Prince we took a two hour truck ride to the village of Perçin, located in the city of Petit-Goâve. We stayed on a compound bordering the ocean, and the incredible view was tainted only by the trash floating in the bay. Perçin is a poor village by Haitian standards, and many of people make a living through fishing. In the morning one can see the men of Perçin scurrying around the bay, spreading their nets with the aid of their dugout canoes. We had the opportunity to eat some of these fish during our visit. They look and taste similar to bluegill, but their scales are a purple color which is most vibrant on the fins.

Long before our visit, the Mission of Hope representatives met with the pastor and community leaders in the village to plan out our trip objectives. This planning aided our effectiveness in incredible ways. This was the most well orchestrated mission trip I have ever been a part of. One of the desires of the community was that we would understand what their life was like. This meant that on our first day we spent several hours preparing food and doing laundry by hand. Some of the team left with blisters – and a new appreciation for washing machines. Even though I worked at a restaurant for four years, my culinary skills did not come close to those if the Haitian women. At one point after I had cut up a pepper, a woman took back the knife because of my slow pace. I guess we all need a jolt of humility every once in a while. Later in the week we had the opportunity to experience part of a fisherman’s life as we went out to sea in a boat.

Our two main ministry tasks during the trip were painting the church building and running a Vacation Bible School program for the children. Concrete really sucks up the paint, and we applied ten gallons while putting two coats on the exterior of the small building. VBS certainly has a different feel in Haiti than it does in the states. Gone are the flashy promotional materials and finely tuned presentations. This didn’t seem to bother the Haitian children, however. They were happy to enjoy simple crafts and were reasonably attentive to the translated messages. Realizing our limited ability to communicate, we kept it simple, talking about creation, sin, Christ’s sacrifice, and our need for redemption.

Before we left for Haiti, our team read a book called What Is The Gospel?, and once on the ground it was so exciting to see the students take the Good News about Christ to the Haitian people. One of our students, who has been a Christian less than a year, created a card trick to illustrate the Gospel. It was awesome to see the Haitian people crowd around him to see the trick, and even more encouraging to hear them pray aloud at the end of his message.

The people of Haiti speak Creole, which is derived from French, but fifteen percent of the population speaks Spanish.  This was very helpful to our team because two of our students are fluent in Spanish. In this way, Cody and Julian were able to forge friendships with two different local men. One of these men was a voodoo practitioner, and Julian was able to talk to him about the differences between the message of Jesus, and the practices of voodoo.

I went to Haiti hoping to care for the needs of the students well, and God blessed in this area tremendously. On many separate occasions God opened up doors to connect with the students through meaningful conversations and prayer. I also believe we were able to provide the students with the tools to process what they were seeing in healthy ways. My co-leader Whitney and I are continuing to check in with these students, and will be having at least one more meeting with the whole team together. Your prayers for our team would be appreciated as they continue to process what God showed them. God intends for his truth to change us, and no experience should be wasted.

God blessed us richly during our time in Haiti, and during the whole week I felt a remarkable peace. I also left with much to think about. I am fully confident that God wanted us there that week, and I believe that he used us to bless the community of Perçin. We were certainly blessed by them. For hundreds of pictures and more of my thoughts on Haiti please visit my Facebook page. My e-mail address is enoch.haven@mcleanbible.org

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