Saturday, March 30, 2019

Gospel-Centered Sexuality: A Biblical Response to Same-Sex Attraction, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity


As the so-called culture war rages, Christians across western society and the blogosphere have sought to arm themselves for battle. Constructs such as same-sex attraction, sexual orientation, and fluid definitions of gender identity have drawn particular fire. Often the Christian strategy in countering these things can be summarized in the sloganeered, biblical-sounding principle of “love the sinner but hate the sin.” The idea is that sinful acts can be condemned in the public square in a manner that portrays God’s love. Yet the tide continues to roll in with greater and greater acceptance across society—and even within the church—of not only behaviors but sexuality-centered identities that were inconceivable half a century ago. “Love the sinner but hate the sin” has failed as an engagement strategy, both in terms of failing to sway public opinion or behavior, but also—and more tragically—in failing to engage lost souls with the saving news of the gospel.

There are two reasons that this approach seems to fail. First, it is based upon terms defined from a secular, not a biblical worldview. Second, it frames the issue on moral rather than spiritual terms, omitting core elements of gospel truth and instead using the Bible as mere source material for a tit-for-tat counter-argument. The consequences of this are that the message fails to point others to Christ, resulting in lost sinners remaining lost and saved sinners ill-equipped to turn from sin.

Language and Context

How we frame these issues, and the language we use to discuss them, matters. If you are a follower of Christ, you did not become so in a vacuum. You heard and received the message of the gospel in a particular language, at a particular time in history, and within a specific culture (and sub-culture). For you to understand the gospel, and in particular to understand your need for the gospel, it had to be communicated to you within a language, time, and cultural context with which you could connect. For example, if you were raised in the United States and someone preached Paul’s sermon to the Athenians found in Acts 17:22-34, it is unlikely that you would connect with Paul’s call to repent from worshiping idols made of “gold or silver or stone.” On the other hand, this sermon is an outstanding example of contextualizing the message of the gospel to a language, time, culture, and worldview. The fundamental call to turn away from whatever we’ve been worshiping and instead turn to God and his means for our salvation remains the same throughout the entirety of the Bible, but how that message is contextualized in language and culture has varied both within the Bible and since the completion of the canon. In other words, the message stays the same, but the language and cultural context within which it can be encased for consumption has varied almost limitlessly over time.

Because of the need to relate eternal truths in temporal language and cultural contexts, it is helpful to reflect a bit on the language and cultural context we are in here and now, in the United States 21 centuries after the birth of Christ. The idea is to recognize that language, culture, and history are not neutral players in the war for the souls of a lost and dying world. There are two notions in particular which color much of the worldview of people in the United States (and much of Western civilization) and which are vital to be accounted for when contextualizing the gospel in this setting.

First is the elevation of tolerance to a pursuit for its own sake. This is explicitly the case in progressive culture and mainstream media, but it is also evident in its implicit effects on the counter-narrative put forth by many Christians. It is a badge of honor for some that they are not “politically correct.” Implied here is a sort of rejection of the tolerance-for-its-own-sake narrative. What is important about tolerance is that violation of it is perceived as an inherent vice. That is to say, tolerance isn’t considered a problem because it necessarily leads to some other more awful thing. Rather, it is itself the awful thing. Much more could be said about tolerance, but this is not our primary aim. The key takeaway is to remember that tolerance is widely considered our society’s noblest pursuit, and that intolerance ought to be our greatest enemy. Therefore, when contextualizing the gospel message for one who is not a believer, language that is perceived as intolerant can be expected to be met with rejection or dismissal, and perhaps even strong negative emotional responses. The exclusivity of the gospel as the only means for salvation will necessarily evoke the charge of intolerance, but we also want to guard against carelessly exposing the gospel message to unnecessary claims of intolerance.

Second is the value of scientific explanations above all other explanations. This belief is so ingrained in our society that the naturalistic and mechanistic philosophies that underlie modern scientific pursuits have become completely invisible actors in our worldview. The very notion that there is anything “philosophical” about science is absurd to most. Again, much more could be said on this, but the takeaway for our purposes here is that scientific explanations for things are accepted almost unquestioningly in our society, and a message which seems to contradict science is likely to be dismissed or rejected.

These two ideas are important to keep in mind when communicating God’s truth in our context. The point is not to avoid anything unscientific or that could sound intolerant. Rather, it is a call to be intentional with our language. Tolerance and science are not inherently sinful, and therefore are not the natural enemies of God’s truth. The last thing we want to do is to be careless in how we present our Savior to a world who desperately needs him. We must be aware of how our language may sound to our audience. To ensure that it is God’s truth we are proclaiming, wherever possible we must use biblical language to allow the Bible to tell its own story.

Let’s Talk About Sex

The “love the sinner hate the sin” discourse on sex and identity falls short by simultaneously exposing the gospel to unnecessary claims of intolerance while also blurring clear biblical teaching in a haze of fallen-world semantics. Both arise from the same flawed strategy of allowing the world to set and define the terms of the conversation and attempting to apply biblical truth retrospectively.
“Sexual orientation,” “same-sex attraction,” and “non-binary gender identity” are phrases you will not find in the Bible. Certainly there are biblical principles that apply in some way to each, but none is explicitly defined in scripture. When we start combining these terms with the Bible’s teaching, we often end up saying things that the Bible doesn’t explicitly say. While our interpretations may be logically and even hermeneutically sound, I’d suggest they are not always helpful in promoting biblical faith, especially in addressing those who are not believers. On the one hand, we end up prematurely turning people away from the gospel when we condemn nonbiblical ideas with biblical language. On the other hand, when we attempt to hold these terms as neutral and apply biblical principles in an effort to redeem them, we blur the lines of clear biblical teaching and may end up approving of something sinful. I advocate using the Bible’s terms rather than world’s, and build our gospel message around the Bible’s language.

If I use the Bible as a reference book for developing tit-for-tat arguments against worldly concepts, I remove biblical truth from its natural habitat within a biblical worldview. Rather, our response should always point to the deeper biblical worldview that underpins specific biblical teachings. More importantly, our entire approach to engagement on moral issues should begin and end with our sole purpose for engaging the lost on any issue: to make and baptize disciples and teach them to obey Christ’s commands (Matthew 28:19-20). The fundamental flaw in the tit-for-tat discourse is that it begins with “teaching them to obey” before they are even disciples, painting the gospel as a burden rather than a liberation.

This is not to propose that we remain silent in the public square on the issue of sin. Rather, it is a call to keep sin in its proper, biblical perspective.

To illustrate this, if I am asked by someone who is not a Christian if I believe that “being gay is a sin,” my internal (if not voiced) response is, “it depends on what you mean by ‘being,’ what you mean by ‘gay,’ and what you mean by ‘sin.’” The Bible offers, on its own terms, ample means for addressing each of these in ways that do not unnecessarily alienate those earnestly seeking the Lord, and that also do not dilute that which we will teach the disciple to obey. However, if we offer a simple “yes” or “no” answer we may end up failing in both regards.

Why Do You Ask?

Before I would attempt to answer this question, I first want to understand the questioner’s reason for asking. The reason could be nefarious, such as to bait me into a response that can be painted as intolerant—or worse. The reason could be curiosity, such as a person who may have heard that Christians oppose homosexuality but who has never had the opportunity to talk with a Christian about this position. On a more personal level, the person may be looking for acceptance. Often, the implied question behind the question is, “Am I a sinner?” For this reason, I would begin by providing a context for understanding what sin is, what it isn’t, and why it even matters.

Sins vs Sin

When talking about sin with someone who is not yet a believer, I find it helpful to address the distinction between “sins” and “sin.” Paul teaches in Romans that the Old Testament law, which among other things contains detailed examples of various kinds of sins, exists to illustrate for us our fallen nature and need for deliverance (Romans 7:7). In other words, specific sins are best understood as symptoms of our underlying sin condition, that fundamental separation from God (Isaiah 59:2) that only God himself can bridge (Ephesians 2:8-9). To this end, our gospel presentation must emphasize that any specific sin (even sexual immorality) in and of itself does not condemn us; rather a specific sin is best understood as a symptom of our underlying sin problem, and what condemns us is rejecting the salvation offered only through Christ (John 3:18-19). We must not talk about sins without talking about sin, and we must not talk about sin without pointing to the only cure for sin: faith in Christ and his sacrifice on our behalf.

Ideally the conversation will remain in this realm, with a compassionate and bold sharing of the gospel. I find it is often most helpful to highlight the problem of sin by focusing on the broken relationship between the lost sinner and their Creator. Here I find the Life on Mission “Three Circles” approach (and app) helpful, because the gospel presentation begins with God’s good design for his creation and how we departed from that good design through sin. I’ll also often point to a specific sin related to the broken relationship with God to illustrate the idea of sins as symptoms of underlying sin. For example, I might say, “The Bible teaches that I was created to love God with all my heart, all my mind, and all my strength. If I have ever failed to do so, or if I have ever loved something more than I love God, even for a moment, then that is a sin, and is evidence of my broken relationship with God.” I always strive to keep the relationship with God at the center of the conversation, as reconciling this relationship is at the center of the gospel itself (Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).

If, after this, the conversation still demands addressing the original question of the sinfulness (or not) of “being gay,” the ground we’ve now already covered in providing a biblical framework for understanding what sin is and why it matters sets the stage for a more thoughtful and biblically sound discussion. Most importantly, we’ve already begun to allow the Bible to define the terms, and we will do well to continue to do so as we cautiously and prayerfully proceed.

Gay or Straight, We’re All Crooked

Assuming we have already defined sin in biblical terms and provided a basic gospel presentation, if our conversant wishes to continue with the original query about “being gay,” I would continue where we left off with God’s good design for his creation, to include sexuality, and then the nature of sexual immorality in general. This is, after all, how the Bible tells its own story. I believe we have forfeited much ground in the cause for the gospel by singling out specific sins—especially specific sexual sins—from their biblical context. It is never helpful to speak of a particular sexual behavior without, at a minimum, defining sin and salvation; usually it will also be helpful to encase it in a broader context of sexual immorality in general.

The Bible teaches that everything God created is good (Genesis 1:31), but that once sin entered the world through man’s disobedience, corruption entered, not only in our behaviors but into nature itself (Romans 8:19-22). We also know that God created people in his image and that part of bearing that image is that we are male and female (Genesis 1:27); in that same context we learn that the purpose of sexuality is for reproduction (Genesis 1:28), and that the bond that is created through the sexual union of a man with a woman is a fundamental aspect of the marriage relationship, and that sexuality in this context bears no mark of shame or guilt (Genesis 2:24-25). But, this also was a casualty of the fall. Our natural sexual desires, which God created to be good, have been corrupted like so many of our other natural desires and can lead us astray (James 1:14-15). So the naturalness of a desire is not an indicator of its goodness. Rather, sexual activity outside of the context—whether before, in addition to, or instead of—a marriage between one woman and one man constitutes sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 7:2). Furthermore, even thinking about sexual activity with someone other than our covenant marriage partner constitutes sexual immorality (Matthew 5:28). Unless a person is truly asexual, all people have equal likelihood at some point in their life of exhibiting some sort of sexual immorality. And any such episode of sin, no matter how fleeting, is evidence of our underlying sin problem that only can be addressed through Christ’s redemptive work on our behalf.

One grave by-product of condemning specific sexual behaviors in the public square has been the implication that one form of sexual immorality is more sinful than another. While the earthly consequences of one may be less apparent than another (for example, contracting a sexually transmitted infection through promiscuity versus contracting a distorted view of sex from viewing pornography), the eternal consequence of each sin is exactly the same. An implied hierarchy has the effect of pointing people toward supposedly less-sinful behaviors as potential remedies, rather than pointing people toward the one and only remedy for all sin, faith in Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
This error is particularly apparent in the way Christians have often addressed homosexual behavior or transgender identity. The remedy for the former is not heterosexual behavior and the remedy for the latter is not a cisgender identity. Rather, the answer to both is an identity grounded in Christ, which begins with saving faith, not with correcting immoral behavior (Ephesians 2: 8-9). When Christians speak out against specific sins on moral grounds, we risk implying a works-based gospel, which is no gospel at all.

We also distort the gospel when we use the world’s terms rather than biblical terms. The world talks about “being gay” in terms of orientation, in terms of biology, in terms of identity. The idea is that we are born the way we are, and we are that way to our very core. The Bible does not explicitly address sexual orientation, but it has important things to say about biology and even more important things to say about identity.

Sexual orientation was the brainchild of Freud, and is neither biblical nor was it derived from empirical or scientific inquiry. Building a gospel presentation or a discipleship plan around it is problematic because doing so implicitly regards as factual an aspect of human functioning that the Bible does not present. From a biblical perspective, the fundamental flaw of holding an LGBTQ+ orientation is not that it is not heterosexual. In fact, I’d propose that a heterosexual “orientation” is every bit as sinful as an LGBTQ+ orientation. A sexual orientation is an enduring pattern, a fundamental building block of a person’s identity. The Bible teaches that though sexuality is an important characteristic of our God-given design (Genesis 1:27-28), it is not the center of that design (1 Corinthians 6:13). To define oneself by sexuality is to miss the fundamental purpose for which you were created. In 10,000 years it will not matter one lick how you identified along any sexual orientation continuum. Only one of two possible identities will matter: sinner destined for destruction, or sinner saved by grace (Ephesians 2:4-5; Ephesians 5:8). Our cultural engagement with the gospel must focus single-mindedly on developing the latter identity.

So, putting it all together, here’s how I might respond to the question, “Do you believe being gay is a sin?”

It depends on what you mean by “gay,” what you mean by “being,” and what you mean by “sin.” First and foremost, I believe that we are all created in God’s image, and all are equally loved and valued by God. That is the first definition of “being.” But I also believe in the Bible’s teaching that we all have a sin problem that fundamentally separates us from God and keeps us from the relationship with him for which we were created. The Bible teaches that the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength. That means that if for even one moment I have ever loved anything else—even myself—more than God, then I am guilty of breaking at least one commandment. That is sin. There are also a lot of other sins, and everybody commits piles of them. Those individual sins are specific “symptoms” of our underlying sin “disease.” The Bible teaches what the symptoms are so that we’ll understand that we have a disease and need a cure, and that there is only one cure that works. Jesus called it being “born again,” because it is God giving us new life, making us new creations. One of the individual sins described in the Bible is sexual immorality. There are lots of examples of sexual immorality in the Bible; Jesus said that sexual immorality even includes just thinking about sexually immoral things. The Bible also states that engaging in sexual behavior with someone of the same sex is one kind of sexual immorality. But let me emphasize that that one sin is not what condemns a person to God’s punishment for sin. Rather, the Bible teaches that rejecting God’s gift of salvation is what condemns a person. So, do I believe being gay is a sin? I believe that if I define my identity by my sexual attractions, that is a signal that I am missing out on who God created me really to be. Not only this, God’s wrath destroys sin (Romans 1:18); if I build my identity around a sinful desire, I am inviting my own eternal destruction.

Gender Identity

The same basic approach holds equally to addressing gender identity concerns. While we can build a case for exclusive male and female, biologically determined gender from the pages of scripture, the more fundamental issue isn’t that the person has departed from that biblical binary. Rather, it is that the person is defining themselves in a fundamentally different way than God does. We are all created in God’s image; we are also all sinners who have earned destruction for ourselves by our rejection of God, whom God seeks to reconcile through the saving work that Christ did on our behalf. Until we align our sense of our identity with what the Bible teaches is our identity, any efforts at change will lack eternal significance. To that end, the biblical response to a lost person’s questions about gender identity is to point them to their identity in scripture as a created being with whom God wants to reconcile a broken relationship.

Bottom Line Points to Remember
  • Always keep the goal of making and baptizing disciples the first priority, and remember no one can be taught to obey before they have become a disciple
  • Remember that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, that’s not our job; our job is to provide a faithful witness to our need for salvation that only comes from Christ
  • Always address sin in general and its natural consequences in general before discussing specific sins
  • Always address why sin matters before teaching whether something is sinful
  • Never discuss a specific sin without pointing to the gospel, the only true cure for sin
  • Always use the Bible’s own language wherever possible


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Attraction, Influence, Coercion, and Sex: A Call for Intentional Integrity


There have been three stories in the news in recent weeks that illustrate the power of influence to lead to abuse, and specifically, to abuse of a sexual nature.

In the first, a psychologist used his influence over his patients, and their trust in the therapeutic relationship, to coerce them into performing sex acts with him. In the second, a Naval officer countered charges of sexual assault against a subordinate by asserting the sex was consensual. Most recently, the Houston Chronicle amassed a record of more than 700 victims of sexual abuse—most of them minors—at the hands of ministers from the largest Evangelical denomination in the United States. All of these stories offer a strong reminder that where we have influence over another person, we must engage in extreme vigilance to ensure that influence does not become a corridor for exploitation.

As is most often the case, the predators in these tales were men. If we’re really, truly honest with ourselves, men, we can look at many of these stories and see shadows of the horrible acts we, in our baser natures, are capable of. True, some of these perpetrators are hardened predators, who intentionally and with malice seek out, groom, and exploit others for their own twisted pleasure. But most of them are men who simply allowed pride and lust and arrogance to selectively blind them to their obligation to care for and protect someone under their care, exchanging that duty for a self-serving narrative in which the vulnerability of trust placed in them was distorted into a darkened perception of sexual acquiescence. And if you cannot see your innate potential to follow a similar path, then you very likely are only a few short steps from a precipitous fall.

The goal of this essay is to offer, from one man to another, a way of thinking about how the influence we have over others intersects with forces like intimacy and attraction, with a goal toward practical steps for keeping ourselves from wandering into the same blind hubris which befell these men. We owe it to the individuals who are and will be under our care to learn this well, and to teach it to the boys and men with whom we have influence. Failure to make this an intentional aim of your leadership, ministry, or caregiving—especially if you are in a position of mentoring or training other leaders, ministers, or caregivers—is to perpetuate the same vacuous system that has allowed such abuse to flourish.

How did we get here?

A central problem in this issue (and it is also central to nearly all of the distortions of God-given sexuality we see in society) is that we generally lack the ability to discern between emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy. This is so fundamental that in my experience most men, particularly in western culture, don’t have a working definition of intimacy that is not inherently sexual.

In psychology, intimacy is defined as “a process of interaction in which social partners, as a result of sharing personal and private thoughts and feelings, come to feel understood, appreciated, and cared for by each other.” The word itself is derived from a Latin word for “innermost,” and evolved to mean making known or very familiar.

In any relationship in which one or more parties is sharing of their inner selves, intimacy can naturally arise. Psychotherapy training acknowledges this as a natural—if not inevitable—outgrowth of a therapeutic relationship, and psychotherapists are exhorted to handle this phenomenon with the greatest of care. Ministers are just as likely as psychotherapists to experience intimacy as a natural outgrowth of a professional relationship, and leaders in many settings may also find a closeness with those under their charge which can breed feelings of intimacy.

We have been created by God to connect with other human beings. We should not be surprised when this occurs. But we also must be clear-eyed as to what this means and what it does not mean. We must choose—in advance—to consciously interpret any feelings of intimacy that arise as the natural but fragile outgrowth of a trust relationship, and we must consciously set aside any interpretation of such feelings as any sort of sexual invitation.

Emotional connections between people are natural and God-given. But many of us have been so hardened by the pervasive feeding of our sexual lusts, either passively from the ubiquitousness of sexually stimulating media in our culture, or actively through the pursuit of lustful stimulation, that any sense of connection is prone to being interpreted as sexual. And evidence of reciprocation of that connection is prone to misinterpretation as a sexual invitation.

The most important preparation for this battle is to consciously and perpetually put sexual desire in its God-given container: marriage. I’ve written elsewhere of the power of a prayer of gratitude as a pathway for fleeing lust. If you are married, this may be a prayer of thanksgiving for your wife; if you are not married, it can be a prayer of thanksgiving for the institution of marriage, thankfulness that God has given you everything you need for life and godliness, and that when or if you need a wife he will provide one. You must also consciously acknowledge that any sexual thought for any woman you are not married to is adultery in its fullest, most damnable form. This is why Paul urges us not only to flee such thoughts, but to bludgeon them with full spiritual violence (Galatians 5:24). It is also worth highlighting that while the call to “flee youthful lust” (2 Timothy 2:22) is applicable for all followers of Christ for all time, its original context was in a letter from an older pastor mentoring a young pastor (2 Timothy 2:1-2).

Fatal Attraction

A common defense for exploitative sexual relationships—even when the victim of abuse is a minor—is that the sex was consensual. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the abused to profess attraction for their abuser. But the presence of mutual attraction does not in any way lessen or excuse the fact of exploitation.

Our brains are hard-wired to be attracted to other people. Most often we sort that attraction into bins based on what is appropriate for that relationship. Because of our diminished ability to discern between emotional and sexual intimacy, if we perceive the other person to be in any way a viable sexual partner, we will experience the attraction as sexual. For this reason it is vital that we have the mental discipline to constrain the range of what we allow ourselves to entertain as viable sexual partners. Again, the biblical standard calls us to limit that to the person we are married to. In a commonly used marriage vow we promise to “forsake all others.” Forsake means to give up our rights to something. Men, we must consciously—and continuously—give up our perceived “right” to any sexual partner other than the one we are in covenant with before God.

It is also helpful to recognize the common ingredients of attraction. Though attraction comes with a lot of feels, it is ultimately just a chemical reaction in our brains to stimuli to which God designed us to respond. While this obviously plays a role in the attraction that leads to a covenant marriage, I believe the biblical record would more fundamentally identify the purpose of our God-given capacity for attraction to be to facilitate our obedience to the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18).

Social psychologists have identified a number of potent, universal mechanisms of attraction. One of the strongest is beauty, or physical attractiveness. Another is proximity: simply being physically close to someone fosters a sense of attraction; repeated or prolonged proximity can intensify this. Another strong arbiter of attraction is similarity; we feel more connection with those we perceive as being like us in some way, such as belonging to the same group (any kind of grouping will do, from shared ethnic cultural heritage to liking the same sports team, and anything in between) and sharing similar values or beliefs.

Another insidious but potent attraction-enhancer is our affective state. When we are in a positive mood, we tend to like the people we encounter more. Similarly, when we are in a physiologically aroused state, we also rate people whom we otherwise find attractive as even more attractive. Elevated heart rate and/or elevated adrenaline, such as when working out or in a frightening situation, can increase our perceptions of attractiveness.

The bottom line is this: we are designed to connect with other people, and commonplace circumstances can directly and indirectly increase feelings of intimacy and attraction. Do not be surprised when such feelings occur, and absolutely do not be so arrogant as to believe something cosmic or mystical is drawing you into a sexual relationship. Stay grounded in the God-given “bin” for sexuality—your marriage—and consciously put any other feelings of attraction or intimacy at the foot of the cross, to be used solely in keeping with kingdom-building purposes (Matthew 6:33).

A Warning for Leaders

The vulnerability that is endemic to psychotherapeutic and pastoral care relationships is fairly plain to see. To this end, all credible training programs for these professions explicitly teach would-be practitioners to monitor and manage these dynamics. But the vulnerability in the leader-follower relationship is not so obvious, and we seldom teach leaders to guard against abusing it.

The article posted above, in which a military commander was charged with sexual abuse after what he asserts was a consensual sexual relationship, is a classic example. A leader will often develop a close relationship with a follower. Followers will often admire and have feelings of attraction for their leader. In some cases these feelings may be bundled with a sense of fear, which can lead a follower to submit to an unwanted sexual relationship due to even an implicit fear of reprisal; but that fear also can lead to actual attraction due to the role that emotional and physiological arousal can have in intensifying feelings of attraction. No matter how or why the attraction emerges, it is the leader’s responsibility to keep sex out of the relationship.

The potential for abuse is particularly high in leader-follower relationships in very hierarchical organizations. Perhaps no organization—especially not in western society—is more hierarchical than the military. Service members are operantly conditioned to defer to those in authority over them. True consent requires a high degree of equality in a relationship. For a leader in a hierarchical organization to entertain thoughts that a sexual relationship could be built consensually is patently absurd.

The most egregious example of the abuse of a hierarchical relationship comes not from the pages of the newspaper, but of the Bible. David, as king of Israel, raped one of his subjects. We usually talk about the relationship as “adulterous.” But the reality is that the relationship was inherently coercive, and coerced sex is, by definition, rape. Though there is always a power differential between a ruler and their subjects, this differential was extreme in David’s time and culture. The king of Israel was granted absolute authority over his subjects (1 Samuel 8:10-18) and to disobey an order from the king could result in immediate and legally justified execution (2 Samuel 1:14-16, 2 Samuel 4:12). It is in this context that Bathsheba was summoned to appear before the sovereign king of Israel. The Bible makes no record of a conversation of any kind, much less whether any consent were sought or given. Even if David asked her for permission to have sex with her, he held all of the advantage: he was the king, she was the subject; she was alone, he was accompanied by his entire cohort of guards, servants, aides, and attendants; she was in his palace, not in her own home. There is nothing about this scenario which places Bathsheba anywhere close to equal footing with David from which she could reasonably have been expected to negotiate whether or not to engage in a relationship that they both knew was in violation of God’s law (and presumably also of the civil law of the land). David’s authority was inherently coercive, so his sex with Bathsheba was abusive.

I have heard it proposed that perhaps Bathsheba contrived the entire affair, and that her bathing on her roof was an elaborate honeytrap to ensnare the king into a relationship while she was ovulating, with a plan to get pregnant and improve her station by bearing the king’s child. I don’t know enough about ancient Jewish household arrangements to know whether bathing outdoor on rooftops was a common or an absurd occurrence. I find this reading preposterous, but let’s play what if: suppose the whole saga did turn out to have been an elaborate manipulation by Bathsheba. What of David? Is this the kind of leader one would like to follow? A leader who allows a moment of lust to germinate into using his organization’s resources to arrange an illicit affair? Who then goes so far as to alter his organization’s mission and intentionally endanger his personnel to cover it up? For whom even ordering a murder is not a bridge too far?

The military implicitly recognizes that even purportedly consensual sexual relations between junior personnel and leaders in the chain of command can be detrimental to mission effectiveness, and therefore such relationships are punishable. In fact, an inappropriate relationship does not even have to be proven to be explicitly sexual to be considered a violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Leaders are charged with maintaining professional boundaries with those they lead, and it is the more senior member who bears the bulk of the responsibility for violations of this standard.

In light of the statutory prohibitions against sexual and other inappropriate relationships, the intensely hierarchical nature of military organizations, and the fact that service members are explicitly conditioned to respect and defer to superior rank, it is my view that any sexual encounter between a military leader and a subordinate should always be regarded as coerced, even when there is explicit evidence of formal consent. Military leaders wield significant influence in the form of severe formal and informal power over those they lead (especially those leaders with command authority). Service members deserve leaders who are committed to good stewardship of that power, and to be able to trust beyond any doubt that their leaders will not use their significant influence to manipulate or exploit their followers for personal gain, especially with regard to sex.

Practical Application

Psychotherapists, ministers, and leaders (especially in hierarchical organizations such as the military) are in positions of significant trust and influence. There are certainly other roles and relationships which lend themselves to abuse, and these recommendations may be helpful in those settings. But for anyone who is a psychotherapist, minister, or leader, and for anyone who is training or mentoring men for those roles, the following are absolutely critical:
  • Recognize that by virtue of your role alone, before they meet or know anything else about you, those under your care will approach you with a degree of vulnerability and trust
  • Recognize that due to the nature of the relationship, those under your care will likely experience feelings of admiration, closeness, and liking; always assume that these are due to your role and the service you provide and behave accordingly
  • Acknowledge that these relationships also can engender stronger feelings of affection, intimacy, and attraction; recognize that these feelings can be misinterpreted (by you and/or those under your care) as sexual attraction
  • ALWAYS assume that any sexual attraction you feel for those under your care (or that you perceive from them) is out of place and contrary to the real purpose of the relationship
  • Commit yourself now and continuously to the conviction that those under your care will never, under any circumstances, be appropriate outlets for your sexual desires; even when the other party explicitly pursues a sexual or romantic relationship with you, your duty is to protect the sanctity of that relationship, both for that person and for the sake of all the others who depend on you
As a follower of Christ, commit yourself to crucifying every sinful desire, but expunge with extreme violence any sexual desire or other passion that would abuse the trust of vulnerability that those under your care have given you; they deserve nothing less.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A Mindful Faith


Too often, we regard faith as a sort of hazy, misty abstraction rather than a practical discipline. In a previous essay, “A Faith-Full Mind,” we explored scripture to seek a less abstract conceptualization of faith. We worked through how faith saves and what it means to live and walk by faith. In this essay, we’ll dig deeper into these concepts, with an emphasis on practical application.
In “A Faith-Full Mind,” a central theme that emerged was the role of the mind. Not only is faith a belief, but it is also a state of mental focus. When we speak of mental focus, you may be reminded of the concept of “mindfulness.”  In many conservative Christian circles there is a discomfort with practices such as mindfulness because they are often associated with traditions like Buddhism and other explicitly non-Christian religious and spiritual activities. But at its core, mindfulness is simply a psychological practice of mental focus. Most mindfulness practices direct that focus on the present moment, often through directing attention to the physical senses. This often is paired with a more passive awareness of mental phenomena, such as thoughts or emotions; a classic approach invites the subject to imagine their thoughts and emotions passing as clouds in the sky (as opposed to actively engaging them, making judgments about them, or attempting to change them). Mindfulness—along with related practices such as meditation, breathing-based relaxation, and self-hypnosis—is associated with a number of mental and physical health benefits, particularly in the realm of stress reduction. In a neurocognitive sense what is occurring in these techniques is that we are taking advantage of the fact that the brain can only truly focus on one thing at a time (multi-tasking is essentially rapidly shifting attention across competing stimuli), and the technique seeks to give the brain something that is at least neutral—and if possible relaxing and restorative—to focus on.
We were created with a capacity for focus, and when we are focused we function better mentally, emotionally, and physically. This truth is helpful to consider as we continue to explore practical applications of the biblical principle of living and walking by faith. Sometimes when we reflect on concepts such as faith, there is a tendency to overspiritualize. As we learned in the last essay, faith is our access point to spiritual and supernatural realities, but faith as an action occurs in our minds.  
Hebrews 12:2 directs us to keep our eyes on Jesus. But what eyes? What does that mean? Do we need to carry around a picture of Jesus and keep looking at it? (Actually, yes, sort of!) Consider the following scriptures:
  • Colossians 3:1-2: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” [emphasis added]
  • Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.” [emphasis added]
Harkening back to our discussion of mindfulness, the highlighted phrases certainly are calling us to exercise the mindfulness part of our brains in pursuit of spiritual realities. But how do we know what the “things above” and “pure, lovely” and “commendable” things are? Is it a gut feeling? This is where that “picture of Jesus” comes in.  

  • Psalm 119:11: “I have treasured your word in my heart that I might not sin against you."
  • Joshua 1:8: “This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to meditate on it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do.”
We create and can “look at” an internal picture of Jesus by reading, memorizing, and meditating on Scripture.
Another way to use the mind to walk by faith is prayer. 1 Thess 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you.” A few writers on spiritual disciplines have described the core of their practice as being a sort of ongoing prayer, a constant conversation with the Lord, which is dominated by proclamations of gratitude and thanksgiving, but in which every single thought is shared in an ongoing conversation with the Lord. A. W. Tozer has written in The Pursuit of God of turning one’s internal eyes toward Christ who lives within. He notes that God is omnipresent, he exists throughout every aspect of his creation, so failing to be aware of God’s presence isn’t an absence of God’s presence, it’s a choosing to not be aware of it, choosing to focus on something not-God.
So there is a mental discipline of filling our thoughts with God’s thoughts, as revealed in his word, and of engaging in an ongoing conversation with him through prayer. This is a moment-by-moment focusing of the mind, an intentional and recursive directing our attention to the indwelling Holy Spirit, who is our communication link to the Father and Son. It’s vital we remember that Jesus defined eternal life as knowing God and knowing Christ. We only know what they “look like” through his word. This is why other spiritual disciplines such as Bible study and hearing the word preached are so essential. If we’re “knowing” someone or something other than what comes directly from the pages of scripture, there’s a real danger that we’re worshiping a false god.
Most often this false god is some version of our own natural desires. As we saw when we reviewed Romans 7 in “A Faith-Full Mind,” those desires, that capacity for evil, are always right there with us. If we haven’t trained our minds to recognize the true God, we’ll find other gods within. Paul warns Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:8-12 of one such god. The desire to be rich is just one example of a common, human desire, one that is ubiquitous in our culture (and even our churches), but which can keep us from the ongoing, intimate relationship with God that he created and then saved us for. When we are turning our inward eyes to that which is within without training them to recognize God and his Christ, we will make gods of any number of natural desires, and will instead live according to what is right in our own eyes (Proverbs 21:2; Judges 17:6).
When we are grounded in God’s truth as revealed in his word, and we have believed what he says about us and our sin, have received by faith Christ’s replacement sacrifice on our behalf, we can now walk by faith. We do this by continuing to grow in wisdom and knowledge of God through his word and then continually, moment by moment, turning our mental focus toward him. This mental focus is the touchpoint at which the mundane becomes the spiritual. When we are focused inwardly on this portrait of Christ we’ve constructed from his word by meditating on memorized scripture, when we are praying without ceasing in an ongoing prayer characterized by gratitude and rejoicing, we are communing with him through the presence of his Holy Spirit living within us. This is walking by faith.
Our focus so far has been on obtaining a biblical picture of walking by faith and identifying the practical components of living in that way. But there is also the subjective aspect of this way of living. What follows are several images and metaphors for walking by faith. Some of them have been given to us in the pages of the Bible. One is consistent with biblical truth, but the allusion itself is not explicitly described in scripture. But all represent another dimension of how we can use the mental abilities God has given us to keep ourselves grounded in communion with him.
When I practice breathing-based relaxation, I find that as I sit still and quiet and begin to execute the mechanics of regulating my autonomic arousal, my mind often decides it’s time to start wandering around looking for trouble (worrying, making plans, etc.). Needless to say, if my mind is not engaged in the technique, I’m not going to get particularly relaxed. So, my brain needs some sort of hook to pull it back when it wanders. That can be as simple as returning my focus to the mechanics of the technique, for example paying special attention to the air coming in through my nose and filling up my lungs. But I find if I give myself something more involved and more salient, such as a mental scene which taps into all of my senses, my attention is held even more strongly, and I achieve a much deeper relaxation response.
In the same way, the following metaphors have helped me not only conceptualize what it looks and feels like to walk by faith, but they also give my mind rich and salient images upon which to reflect, better holding my attention on the things of God. These metaphors also help to illustrate the subjective, emotional aspects of walking by faith, what walking by faith may feel like (or at least what it has felt like in my experience).
Abiding. In John 15:4-5, Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” When I’m walking in faith, I feel connected to Christ, just like the branch he describes. The only effort is just to keep the end of my branch, the root of my branch, attached—mentally and spiritually—to Christ. As I remain connected to him, things are happening through me that are essentially effortless. For example, resisting temptation is much simpler. Rather than fighting off the temptation directly, I turn my whole inner being toward Christ, because the mind focused on Christ and his Spirit does not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). Similarly, I don’t have to try to synthesize joy; the joy flows from Christ’s trunk to my branch if I’m connected to him, abiding in him, mentally and emotionally focused on and engaged with him. The effort is put into remaining focused on him, everything else flows out of that.
Light. 1 Thessalonians 5:5-8: “For you are all children of light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or the darkness. So then, let us not sleep, like the rest, but let us stay awake and be self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled and put on the armor of faith and love, and a helmet of the hope of salvation.” When I’m walking by faith, there is a heightened awareness of spiritual darkness and spiritual light. For me, it feels kind of like that scene in “The Matrix” when Neo suddenly can see through the system, and instead of the images of people and objects and space, he sees the source code, strings of binary everywhere. Emotionally, it’s very powerful. For one thing, there is no sense of fear (I mean, I’m already dead [Galatians 2:20], so what can anything in the world do to me?). For another, the people and problems we face every day become transparent and their temporariness is apparent. There is a heightened sense of the eternal. The person or problem in front of me is seen in the light of their eternal worth before God, and I become much more attuned to opportunities to bear eternal fruit.
Flow. There’s also a sense of flow in walking by faith. Jesus once stood up in church and yelled, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” John goes on to add, “He said this about the Spirit. Those who believed in Jesus were going to receive the Spirit.” (John 7:37-39) When I’m walking in faith, there is a flow. I often think of the Christian life as a stream. Saving faith gets you into the water. The stream has a current that pulls you supernaturally toward God and his righteousness. The current is slowest near the banks and grows stronger as you move toward the center. The world and the old self are represented by the banks. I can be in the stream (that is, have received salvation by faith), but be stuck in the shallow, slow water by the bank. This is most often because I am clinging to things on or from the bank, like branches hanging over the water, desires which tempt me back toward the things of the world. But when I let go of those things, I move, and the more I let go of—the less I am clinging to the desires of the flesh or the cares of this temporary world—the more I am drawn toward the center, where the current is the strongest.
Only the new self can exist in the center of the stream. As the current begins to pull me more and more toward the center, the more I become aware of the things I am clinging to of my old self. The only way to continue toward the center of the stream is to keep letting go of everything, literally every desire that is not for God and his righteousness. Just as we saw in Romans 7, evil desires are always around, hanging over the stream like branches from the shore, reminding me of what I am leaving behind. In my walk as a follower of Christ, while I’ve experienced the center current of the stream, I don’t spend as much time there as I’d like. Sometimes I get distracted by and grab hold of a branch from the shore; sometimes I get lost wallowing in the muddy shallows of the bank. But when I’m in the center of the stream, God is continually showing me new currents which can pull me even closer to him. These new currents require letting go of more desires, usually smaller and smaller desires, things that when I was on the banks, or even in the shallow water, I wouldn’t have even recognized as sinful.
Moving toward the center of the flow is simple, as the main action required is simply letting go of things from the shore and turning toward God at the center of the stream, replacing desires for worldly things with thoughts and desires for God and his righteousness. But it’s also very painful at times, because those desires are part of me, and leaving them behind hurts. Often when God is actively drawing me more toward the center of the stream, it comes with significant emotional pain. In my experience, putting to death the desires of the flesh feels as vivid as it sounds, a sort of emotional surgery in which I have tumorous growths cut out of my skin and bones without any anesthesia. But at the end of the pain is a very real—and very freeing—sense of having truly died, that literally the only life I have is the one I have by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave himself for me.
2 Corinthians 5:5-9 “So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. Therefore, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to be pleasing to him.”
Conclusion
There is a saving faith in which salvation is received as we agree with God about our sinful state, confess our need for a salvation that only he can provide, and believe in our heart and mind and words (Romans 10:9-10) that Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf cleanses us from all our unrighteousness. But faith is also a living, moment-by-moment experience of turning our inward eyes toward God, by praying continually and reading and memorizing and meditating on God’s word, so that his thoughts replace our thoughts in a continual renewing of the mind. The byproduct of this is the fruit of the Spirit; we know we’re not walking in the Spirit when our focus is on satisfying our human desires.
I hope these thoughts have been helpful. I pray for you, dear reader, this prayer that Paul prayed for the Ephesians (Ephesians 3:16-19): “I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Faith-Full Mind


What is faith? Defining it isn’t all that difficult. Merriam-Webster offers this: “allegiance to duty or a person; fidelity to one’s promises; sincerity of intentions.” Oxford provides a more streamlined take: “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” In the Bible, faith is famously defined in Hebrews 11:1 in this way: “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.”
Why does faith matter? The Bible teaches that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6), “we have been declared righteous by faith” (Romans 5:1), and “for by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). From this sampling of scripture we find that faith is central to our standing before God and it is the pathway to salvation itself.
But how do we faith? The Bible provides a lot of examples, but I can’t point to an explicit “this is how to faith” declaration, so I find that faith remains something of an abstract concept. But if it’s so essential, it’s important to know what it looks (and feels) like. The goal of this essay is to suggest a practical, simple-to-employ understanding of biblical faith.
We find two main kinds of faith in the Bible: saving faith and living (or walking) by faith.

Saving Faith
Moses tells us in Genesis 15:6 that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This is the first explicit reference to faith or belief in the Bible. What stands out, even at this early point in history and under the Old Testament framework, is that it wasn’t Abraham’s obedience or moral superiority that made him righteous, it was that he believed God. In contrast, if we look back at Genesis 3, the way the serpent convinced Adam and Eve to disobey the command regarding the fruit was to encourage them to disbelieve God (“Did God really say…?”). So from the very beginning we begin to see this pattern of believing God or disbelieving God, believing God or believing not-God.
Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about belief in John 3:14-21. Here another facet of saving faith emerges. Biblical faith means not only believing God, but also means believing his Son. This is what sets Christian faith apart from Islam and Judaism. All profess belief in the God of Abraham, but only Christians believe in the Son. Also note in Jesus’ words that while believing in God saves, it is the lack of belief in God that condemns. Jesus also defines that which we are saved into: eternal life. Later in the same gospel he defines eternal life for us as knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Salvation isn’t just to deliver us from perishing under judgment, or even so that we can go to heaven some far off day. Rather, it is that we are delivered into a state of intimately knowing God—immediately, constantly, and eternally.
Paul parses faith and salvation throughout his writings. In his letter to the Romans, (Romans 3:22-26) he teaches that believing God means believing what he says about us, in particular regarding our sin. We all have sinned. It matters less what our particular flavor of sins are but that we all fundamentally have failed to live up to God’s standard of holiness, and there is nothing we can do about that. One aspect of saving faith is that we must agree with God about this. Another aspect of saving faith is that we must agree with God that we can’t do anything about this on our own, but are wholly dependent on him to rectify the situation. Saving faith is believing that God rectified the situation on our behalf by sending Jesus Christ to take away the punishment that we had earned by our sinfulness. Saving faith, as Paul says here, is “receiving through faith Christ’s atoning sacrifice in his blood” (verse 25).
Back in John, Jesus gave us an image for believing “in our hearts.” In John 3:14-15, he references Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness. This is a reference to an event which occurred while the Israelites were in the wilderness, recorded in Numbers 21:4-9. Snakes had been sent by God as a punishment, but he also provided deliverance from the punishment. He instructed Moses to create a bronze snake and lift it up on a post. When a snake-bitten person looked at the bronze snake, they recovered (verse 15). With this allusion, Jesus is giving us a mental image for saving faith. Just as looking to the bronze snake delivered the ancient Israelites, so looking to the sinless Christ lifted up on the cross, taking the punishment that we deserved for our own sins. The way we practically, right now “look to” Christ lifted up on the cross means to remember, reflect, and meditate on it, believing (“in our hearts” as Paul taught) that Christ’s act on our behalf saves. Believing in our hearts includes the cognitive or intellectual act of accepting it as true, but it also moves us deeply, emotionally.
Consider what Paul teaches in Romans 5:1-2. We have been declared righteous by faith, which ends the war we started with God through our sin (makes peace with God). The result? Joy. The joy of salvation is that our sins do not count against us. This sounds very “New Testament,” but take a moment to read Psalm 32:1-5.
There are many more scriptures we could unpack, but the passages we’ve reviewed so far have laid out the fundamentals. Faith as it relates to salvation is believing God’s version of history: that we all have failed to live up to the standard of holiness for which he created us, that by doing so we have brought eternal punishment on ourselves, and that no action on our part can rectify this situation, but God has rectified it on our behalf through the sacrifice Christ made in our place. Our response to this is what Paul teaches us in Romans 10: 6a,8-10: “The righteousness that comes from faith speaks like this…The message is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. This is the message of faith that we proclaim: If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.” Saving faith is the message of salvation in our mouths and in our hearts.

Living by Faith
Saving faith is not just a one-time, set-it-and-forget-it thing. Faith continues to save us not only from the eternal punishment of sin, but also it delivers us from sin itself as we walk by faith. Read Romans 8:1-17. Here Paul again spells out saving faith, but also declares to us that if we are saved, we will live differently. Note that we can still choose to live according to the flesh, living in sinfulness, so being saved doesn’t automagically override our decision-making and turn us into hyper-moral automatons. But saving faith means that we now have God’s Spirit living inside of us, and we can access the power of that Spirit to continually put sin to death in our lives. How do we do this? The same way we came to saving faith—it starts in our minds.
To receive saving faith, we renewed our minds. That is, we removed our old thoughts about God, ourselves, sin, and righteousness, and replaced them with God’s truth about those things, as revealed in Scripture. But continuing in the faith works the same way, as we continually remove those old thoughts and replace them with God’s truth, and the external evidence of this is changed living, changed desires.
Read Ephesians 4:20-24. Notice the imagery here of removing or taking off the old, worldly way of life and having our minds renewed, which allows us to clothe ourselves in the new self. This is how faith not only saves us from the punishment of our sins, but actually recreates us into the likeness of God which we originally lost in our sin. Faith is being taught by Jesus through the Holy Spirit to take off our old sinful way of life and to be clothed in God’s righteousness . And the battle for this happens in our minds.
This imagery points to a pretty useful mental-imagery discipline. The articles of clothing of my old self and those of my new self both are available to me in my wardrobe for as long as I am in this mortal body. As I grow in my saving faith, I recognize more and more of the old-self clothing that needs to be removed, and more and more new-self clothing—which “looks like” Christ and his righteousness—to be put on. But the old-self clothing is still there, and sometimes I’ll find myself wearing it again, and will need to take it back off and replace it again with new-self clothing.
Paul takes the imagery a step further in his letter to the Galatians (2:20): “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Here we’re not only taking off the old self like clothes; the old self is dead and the only life we live now is one of faith in the Son of God. This provides an even more powerful imagery and mental discipline. My old self is a rotting corpse. Why would I keep dragging it out? We read earlier from Romans 8, in which Paul talks about putting to death the deeds and desires of the flesh. Living by faith involves mentally—and emotionally—killing those behaviors and desires and replacing them with desire for fellowship and intimacy with God and with a desire for his righteousness.
But is this our daily experience? Why not? Paul helps us out again in Romans 7:14-25. Pay particular attention to verse 21, “When I want to do what is good, evil is present in me.” So, the capacity for sin and evil are still present while we are in these bodies. But because we are new creations, the capacity for intimacy with and obedience to God also is there. Where our minds are focused at any given moment will determine which master we are serving.
Paul illustrates this for us in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 5:16-25), in particular 24-25: “Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Here we see it is not only where our minds are focused, but also where our desires are focused. If we are seeking to satisfy God’s desires, we’ll bear the fruit of the Spirit. If we’re seeking to satisfy the desires of the flesh, of what the world tells us is worth pursuing, we’ll not be bearing spiritual fruit. Both desires are always available for “feeding,” but we control the food supply with our thoughts and our behavior.
So we find in these passages that there is a moment-by-moment, pushing-and-pulling dynamic to walking by faith. Faith is not a set it and forget it thing. It’s something that in any given moment we are either doing, or we simply are not doing. In the moments we do not live like or feel like new creations, we simply are not living by faith. More accurately, we are living by a kind of faith, but we are replacing faith in God with faith in something else. Ultimately, that’s what every single individual sin boils down to: replacing belief or reliance on God with reliance on something not-God.
Now we understand that faith is not simply believing that once upon a time Christ died for our sins so everything is hunky dory. Faith must be a living, breathing presence that characterizes every moment of our lives. In a follow-on essay, we’ll dig a little deeper into what this looks like and practical steps for how to do it.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Gratefulness and Satisfaction

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!" Philippians 4:4

Fill Your Wandering Heart with Thankfulness (from DesiringGod.org)

I highly commend this article from Desiring God. I'd add that the principle extends virtually to anything with which you may be discontent, from other sins to relationship problems to mental illness to lack of contentment itself. Gratefulness and thanksgiving can cure a great many ills, and those they do not cure they will empower you to live with in a healthier way.

Regarding sin, I believe all sins are ultimately special cases of covetousness. John Piper has defined covetousness in this way: "Coveting is desiring anything other than God in a way that betrays a loss of contentment and satisfaction in him." We are to have no other gods before God (Exodus 20:3). When I delight in the trappings of pursuing other gods (e.g., anger or bitterness in pursuit of self-righteousness, sexual pleasure outside of biblical covenant marriage, professional success for love of money, etc.), I am ultimately serving a false god (Colossians 3:5). Specific sins are sinful because I have substituted the worship of (delight in) created things for worship of (delight in) the Creator (Romans 1:25).

The simple (though admittedly not easy) antidote to covetousness is gratefulness and thanksgiving. This is more than just a theological or philosophical point. It is a plug-and-play, ready-made one-to-one replacement behavior. An important principle in behavior change is that you cannot NOT do something. When you are refraining from a behavior, you are behaving in some other way. So if there is a behavior you want (or need) to replace, the most effective way to do so is to engage in a behavior that is incompatible with the unwanted behavior. Ideally this behavior would also move you into greater alignment with those deep-down values that you ultimately want your life to be about.

A simple example is nail biting. I cannot simply not bite my nails; any time I am not biting my nails, I am doing something else with my hands. If I want to eliminate nail biting, the goal is to replace that behavior by doing something else with my hands, something incompatible with nail biting. For example, when I catch myself biting or having the urge to bite, I can sit on my hands, as sitting on my hands is incompatible with biting my nails. Digging deeper, if I recognize that I bite my nails when I'm stressed, I can replace nail biting with massaging or stretching my hands. This activity is also incompatible with nail biting, but it also moves me more in line with the deeper need for calm.

Applying this spiritually, we must begin with embracing this truth: "[God's] divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness..." (2 Peter 1:3) Note the he has given us everything "required," not necessarily "desired." We must be really clear on the distinction between needs and wants, and we need to let God's Word define those for us.

Applying this practically, 2 Peter 1:3 is an ideal prayer and meditation for replacing any covetous discontentment. When I find myself pulled toward ungodly passions, I'll often begin by praying, "Thank you, Lord, that you have given me everything I need for life and godliness." This quickly and efficiently focuses my attention on God, his power, and his purposes. From there, I may give thanks for provisions specific to the temptation. For example, if the temptation is toward lust, I can thank God that he has provided sexual pleasure to be enjoyed in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). If I am married, I can express thanksgiving for my spouse; if I'm not, I can thank God that he has given me everything required for life and godliness, and that if he hasn't called me to be married then I don't require sexual pleasure for life or godliness.

The same principle applies for other temptations. If my anger tempts me to sin, I can reflect on the truth that vengeance belongs to our sovereign God (Romans 12:19). If I'm tempted toward overeating I can reflect on the command to make no plan to gratify the desires of the flesh (Romans 13:14) and again be thankful that God gives everything I need for life and godliness. Tempted to "keep up with the Joneses" (car, house, stuff)? Same idea.

Ultimately, giving thanks is a command we must obey. But far from a burden, obeying this command clears the path for the Lord to satisfy all of our needs with the ultimate source and object of all our desires: himself.


Thursday, November 15, 2018

Faith-Minded Parenting

"...I will let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days they live on the earth and may instruct their children." Deuteronomy 4:10b


Writing about parenting has got to be the most vulnerable topic one can take on, so I find myself pressed to preamble any thoughts on parenting with caveats and disclaimers. But let me try not to belabor the point; the bottom line is I’m far from a perfect parent. I don’t have this all figured out, but I have found some principles that have helped me grow into and make sense of this extremely important role.

Parenting is a huge responsibility, and due to its heft it can seem large and overwhelming. As with any overwhelming task, the only way through it is to break it into smaller, manageable pieces. The way this manifests in my life is to identify the principles and themes that underlie the thing, and focus my attention there. With an organizing framework in place, I have a small but diverse set of tools I can draw from to approach any task. Here is the organizing framework and principles that have helped me make sense of parenting.

Principle 1: Keep first things first.

As a follower of Christ, I ultimately have only one earthly task that matters: to make disciples. This is also my only significant task as a parent. I can raise the most well-behaved, academically successful, and professionally impressive children, but will have accomplished nothing of eternal value if I’ve not taught them the gospel.

My foremost task as a parent is to point my children to the gospel. If they choose to follow Christ, then my one and only job becomes teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded (Matthew 28: 20). Christian parenting ultimately is nothing more and nothing less than disciple-making. If I miss this, or if I allow it to get buried under other priorities and activities of parenting (academics, sports, sexual development, even morality and care and feeding), then I’ve fundamentally failed. Conversely, when this is at the forefront of everything I do as a parent, it provides the keel that holds together the entire vessel of parenthood.

On a practical level, I seek to keep myself focused on this priority by constantly reflecting on this thought: “What is the eternal value in this?” Any parenting challenge or question that arises, I seek first to ask and answer that question. For a child that hasn’t yet accepted the gospel, asking myself that question reminds me to bring that perspective to bear—or at the very least to ensure that my course of action doesn’t draw them away or distract them from gospel truth. For a child that is a fellow follower of Christ, that question and its answer remind me to keep their spiritual development at the center of everything I seek to input into their lives.

Principle 2: Keep it simple.

One of my favorite statistical tools is the factor analysis. In the behavioral sciences, this method allows us to take large amounts of conceptual data and find the common themes that organize and characterize the information. This philosophy also is how I approach most problem sets. I find that if I can organize things into just a few practical themes, then it is much simpler to generate courses of action. To that end, I’ve found that nearly everything I need to teach my kids in support of Principle 1 reduces to three areas of focus. These are the three things I can teach them as a parent that will prepare them to understand the gospel, and once a believer, to live it.
      
      1.      You are a created, eternal being. There is a lot packed in this idea. Any created thing has a creator, and all creators leave their mark on their creations. The theological implications of this are vast, and the opportunities to explore with my child creator/created relationships between things can be both fun and significant. Eternity is an abstract concept, especially for small children, but is important to help them move toward understanding. Once they have a concept of time, however, the challenge is simply continually expanding their sense of their future. These opportunities, too, are myriad and often a lot of fun (e.g., preparing cookie dough and waiting to enjoy it after it bakes, going to school to prepare for a future occupation, etc.).

      2.      Actions have consequences. This seems self-evident, but drawing this out as a major theme in parenting has implications not only for responsiveness to the gospel, but also in basic behavior management. On the discipleship front it sets up concepts like the need for sin to be punished (as a natural consequence of the sin). It also provides a way of thinking about discipline that puts the onus on the child to control their own behavior. This could be its own principle, but for me it is closely linked with “actions have consequences.” My children need to learn to manage their own behavior, and allowing the consequences for their behavior to be as natural as possible is the most efficient way to do that. If I feel the need to control their behavior, at best I am going to undermine their natural learning progress, and at worst I am going to be frustrated to the point that my efforts are liable to stray into abuse. All abuse ultimately boils down to trying to control the behavior or emotions of another person. Whether we like it or not, we never really control our children’s behavior, even when they’re newborns. But we often do control the consequences of their behavior (or at least control what consequences of their behavior they’ll actually experience). Often there is an opportunity to allow natural consequences to take hold, or to highlight the natural consequences that could have occurred as a result of your child’s behavior. Looking for these opportunities will lay foundations for important theological understandings later on, and also will take a lot of pressure off of you to try to control that which you ultimately cannot control.

      3.      Love can be unconditional. This one, admittedly, is really difficult. The bottom line is that because I am a fallen human being, my capacity for unconditional love is limited, and I won’t always get it right. But because of the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in my life, sometimes God’s perfect love will manifest through me. Because God’s unconditional love underpins the whole gospel, as parents we need to double down on any opportunity that arises to demonstrate unconditional love to our children, and to point it out when we witness it around us. This one can be tricky to execute in light of our role as disciplinarians. However, keeping the focus of discipline on the previous theme, “actions have consequences,” will create much less tension than a punishment-focused approach. Seeking to model unconditional love, and being transparent and seeking forgiveness when I fail, also creates conditions of trust and safety that allow for a much more positive teaching environment.

      This is how I’ve made sense of my role as a parent. Hopefully there is something useful or encouraging for you, as well.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sola Scriptura and Sexual Identity

This video, which was posted at cbmw.org, is an excellent treatment of the relationship between the authority of Scripture and the authority of natural law, with a linkage to gender and sexual identity ethics. It's certainly not for the faint of mind, but I certainly commend it to anyone as a basic but extremely articulate overview of these topics. For the short of attention, feel free to start viewing at 22:00, where you'll find a succinct summary of the first 22 minutes before he begins to build the linkage relevant to gender and sexual identity. I hope you'll find it as encouraging as I did.


As I listened, I found myself frequently reflecting on Romans 1. Here Paul argues from natural law in Romans 1:18-20 that God's wrath against godlessness and unrighteousness is justified. He then illustrates a downward spiral into darkness, at the depths of which was the worship of manmade idols. But in Romans 1:24-25 he declares that the ultimate consummation of idolatry, the fundamental exchange of the truth of God for a lie, is sexual impurity. The Holy Spirit's drawing out of this theme, that the fundamental error in sexual impurity isn't that it is the violation of some arbitrary rule but that it is the most profound expression of idolatry, has been key in my own discipleship journey.

God doesn't want to spoil our fun by asking us to arbitrarily constrain our desires. Rather, He wants us to find expression of our eternal desire for Him in the temporal expression of sexual desire in a relationship that conforms to His creative intent.