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Christian Living

September 17, 2012

As Christians we are adept at looking at the culture around us and seeing how it is violating God’s good standards when it comes to sexuality. Not too long ago, though, I was asked to reflect on the ways in which Christians may compromise God’s standards for sexuality—some of those hidden or sanctified sins in which we allow compromise in our lives, our marriages, our churches. I came up with five ways that Christians may compromise God’s standards for sexuality.

We compromise God’s standard for sexuality when we leave the gospel out of the marriage bed

Christians consistently have trouble extending the reach of the gospel from salvation all the way to sex. Yet the gospel isn’t just about that one-time commitment; it’s about how we live today and every day. It extends through every part of life.

The gospel says, Whatever my marriage is to be and whatever our sexual relationship is to be, it is to be a part of that portrait of Christ and the church. When I am considering sex in this way, I’m first asking, Would this look like an accurate portrait of Christ and the church? What reflects Christ giving up his life for his bride? What reflects the church joyfully submitting to Christ? This completely reorients us away from self, from self-love and self-service, and orients me toward my spouse. This portrait of marriage does not come to an end when we close the bedroom door.

When we compromise this standard we become bound by law instead of freed by the gospel; we have become self-focused instead of other-focused. Law is always focused toward self, gospel is always focused toward the other and, ultimately, toward God. If we allow ourselves to fall back into that age-old temptation of law, we will inevitably harm our relationship with the one we love most.

We compromise when we disobey the clear biblical command that in marriage we are to have sex, and that we are to have it frequently, willingly and joyfully

There is a difference between understanding the Bible and obeying the Bible. There is a difference between believing the gospel and living out the implications of the gospel. This is why so many of Paul’s letters fall into two parts; in the first part he talks theology and in the second part he talks application. There is a reason for this: he knows that good theology needs to be worked out in life and he knows that we can’t do this without the right gospel foundation.

There are many couples that fully believe what the Bible teaches about marriage, and they may even believe what the Bible teaches about sex within marriage, but they do not have sex together. One has refused for so long that the other has stopped even asking or trying. One has given up and let himself go and the other has lost interest. Together they have become disobedient and their compromise grieves the Lord. They claim to believe what’s true, but they refuse to practice it.

God places stipulations on the sexual relationship. You are allowed to stop having sex, but only for a limited time and only if that limited time will be devoted to prayer. That’s it! And yet every marriage goes through seasons of sexlessness and too many marriages just abandon the sexual relationship altogether. There is something in 1 Corinthians 7:3 that has always jumped out at me. Paul talks about “conjugal rights.” The Bible says very, very little about our rights. In most cases talk of rights is opposed to gospel. But in the marriage relationship we are told that a husband and wife have the right to one another, the right to one another’s bodies. Sex is not a suggestion, it is not just a good idea or a nice gift to give. Sex is a right because in God’s economy of marriage, it is a necessity.

What happens when we compromise God’s standards here? Well right from 1 Corinthians 7 we see that we allow the possibility of sexual sin in our spouse. A husband who denies his wife is not protecting her from sexual sin. A wife who denies her husband is not protecting him from sexual sin. Abstaining from sex is selfish and unloving and compromising. Yes, it will be your spouses’ fault if he or she falls into sexual sin because you have stopped having sex; but you will bear part of the responsibility. Have you ever considered that Satan’s great plan for you is that you would have as much sex outside of marriage as possible and as little sex within marriage as possible? God’s plan, of course, is just opposite to that—to have no sex outside of marriage and a whole lot of it within marriage.

There is another consequence: we are blatantly disobeying a clear command of the Lord and a command that flows from what is true of the gospel. The sexual relationship is not a little isolated pocket of Christian obedience, but something that flows right out of the gospel. Too many of us isolate sexuality from everything else in life.

And finally, when you compromise in this area you are denying your marriage a great means of grace. It can be helpful to look at sex as something like a marriage sacrament, something deeply symbolic that is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s far deeper than the physical, far more than just the act. We trust that in this act God extends grace to our marriage. We obey him and are right to expect his blessing. The marriage that forgets sex is like the church that forgets Lord’s Supper—it is weakening itself and denying itself one of the strange and unexpected ways that the Lord blesses it.

September 05, 2012

So many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and they live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates. It raises this question: What is the place of guilt, what is the place of shame, in the life of the Christian? I want to take a shot at answering that question today.

We need to begin by distinguishing between guilt and shame. Here is how I differentiate between them: Guilt is the objective reality that I have committed an offense or a crime; shame is the subjective experience of feeling humiliation or distress because of what I have done. God has made us in such a way that sin incurs guilt and guilt generates shame. But there is a catch and a caution: Guilt and shame come in helpful forms and in paralyzingly unhelpful forms. Guilt and shame can be a good gift of God or a curse of Satan.

When I sin against God I may find that my conscience accuses me, that it convicts me that I have done wrong. My guilt, the realization that I have sinned, brings a feeling of shame. This guilt and shame is a good gift of God when it motivates me to repent of my sin, to look again to the cross of Christ.

When I repent of sin, I am assured by God that Christ himself has already dealt with the guilt of it. At the cross the guilt of that offense was transferred to Christ. He took that sin—the full, objective, legal guilt of it—upon himself to such an extent that my sin became his sin. Jesus Christ took every hateful thought and adulterous glance and spiteful word and every other sin upon himself. He took that sin to the cross and suffered God’s wrath against it to the point that justice was satisfied. This means that the offense has been truly and fully paid for. It is gone. I am no longer guilty before God!

But Christ did more than that. Not only did he take away my guilt, but he also gave me his righteousness. This is the great exchange of the gospel, that my sin was transferred to him and his righteousness was transferred to me. I am not only not sinful, but I am actually righteous. Because the guilt of the offense is gone, the shame is gone as well. Because that sin is no longer my own, the shame is no longer my own.

September 03, 2012

It is Labor Day today, and we anticipate spending the day with friends. We will be spending the day with these particular friends because a few weeks ago they emailed and said, “We want to do something on Labor Day. With you. At your house.” They just went ahead and invited themselves over and invited some mutual friends to come with them. I love it.

Many years ago I wrote about this subject of inviting yourself over and was rather surprised to hear how many Christians find this an objectionable practice. I found myself thinking about inviting yourself into another person’s home while reading Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. She writes about the open door policy in their home and it reminded me of my younger days in my parents’ home: “Anything worth doing will take time and cost you something. We notice, as our attention focused more on families and children, that many people in our community protect themselves from inconvenience as though inconvenience is deadly. We decided that we are not inconvenienced by inconvenience. We are sure that the Good Samaritan had other plans that fateful day.”

Let me offer a few reasons that you ought to be willing, eager even, for people to invite themselves into your home.

Your house is not your own. We all know this in theory, but we have difficulty putting it into practice. Everything you have, everything you own, is a gift of God that is meant to be used for his purposes. This applies not only to money (that’s too easy!) but also to possessions. Your car is God’s car, your house is God’s house. Just as you are expected to be a faithful, generous steward of your finances, you are to be a faithful, generous steward of your house. I would suggest that people cannot feel welcome in your house until they are convinced that they can invite themselves into it. And I would suggest that you have not fully reconciled yourself to the fact that it is not your house until you are willing to have others invite themselves in. Do people feel welcome in your house? Do they feel that they can invite themselves to your house for counsel, fellowship or to “borrow” a couple of eggs they need to finish a birthday cake?

One of the highest purposes of Christians is to extend hospitality and friendship to others. In a culture where individuals are becoming ever more individualistic and families are ever-more retreating into their own lives, Christians can be known as people who graciously and cheerfully extend hospitality to others, who refuse to be inconvenienced by inconvenience. Christian houses will be known as the ones with open doors, where invitations are extended and expected. This is the type of house I grew up in. It is the type of house I have grown to love.

Your time is not your own. In the same way God gives us money and expects us to use it faithfully and wisely, he gives us time and expects us to use it in a way that honors him. Yet we all constantly battle against becoming selfish with our time, we battle grumbling against others when they use our precious time. As Butterfield says, we protect ourselves against inconvenience, and one way we do that is by keeping our doors closed. Do people feel that they can presume upon your time? Do they feel that you are available to them if they have questions or concerns or if they need to learn how to use those eggs to bake that birthday cake? Or do they feel that to use your time is to cause you inconvenience and that you are hesitant to make time in your schedule for them?

August 24, 2012

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That may be true as it pertains to friends and family, but it was not my experience this summer when I abandoned the Internet and digital technologies for a week. In early August we headed south and spent a week holed up in a cabin in a Virginia state park (Lake Anna, if you need to know). As we did two summers ago, we decided to declare this a digital-free vacation, leaving all computers and iPads and iPods and other gear out of the equation. The only electronic gear we allowed was Kindles, since that is the primary means through which Aileen and the kids read books, and a GPS, since I’ve forgotten how to read a map. I can’t say that I missed much of what we left behind.

Now let’s be clear—there are certain ways in which I’ve learned to put boundaries on my use of electronic and Internet-connected devices. If I learned anything from writing The Next Story it’s that our technologies are always threatening to form us in their image; if we do not take them captive, they will take us captive. With varying degrees of success, I’ve found ways of taking my devices and technologies under my control. Still, I often grow lazy and complacent and in such times I find myself checking email a hundred times a day or haphazardly googling any little question that may come to mind. In such times I use my devices without reflection or restriction and I use them at the expense of other things that ought to maintain a higher priority.

What surprised me in my time away this summer was how easy it was to give up all online access for eight or nine days. Not only was it easy, it was also pleasurable. I enjoyed being offline and enjoyed not feeling the need to keep tabs on the ebb and flow of online ranting and raving. I realized anew that for a vacation to be an experience in which I vacate not only a geographic location but also whatever makes life fast-paced and stressful, I will need to vacate the Internet.

Getting off the Internet slowed the pace of life which, in turn, slowed down my mind. As soon as we left the house, which is to say, as soon as we left the Internet behind, the pace of life slowed in a noticeable way. We were no longer living from email-to-email or Facebook update-to-Facebook update. Really, there was nothing to keep up with at all, except the car ahead of us on the highway. My mind immediately slowed down, engaging with one thing instead of half thinking about it before moving on to whatever came next. In quiet moments I had no choice but to be quiet and to think where I usually dive into my pocket and pull out my phone to do something, anything.

August 20, 2012

People often ask me how I find so many topics to write about. The answer is simple: Wherever I go, I am looking for something—anything—to think about. Whether I am in sitting in church or listening to music or reading a book or attending a conference, I am keeping an ear open for things I want to think more about. I jot those things down on my phone or on a scrap of paper. Later on I choose one to think about it, and as I think, I write.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference and heard Mike Bullmore speak. There were a couple of things he mentioned in passing that I jotted down so I could think about them later. One of them was this: “The true measure of spiritual growth is not how much knowledge you’ve gained in the past year, but how much you’ve grown in holiness.” Every Christian knows that it is difficult to measure sanctification—to measure progress in the Christian life. It is easy to confuse knowledge with growth, to think that a grasp of facts necessarily translates to growth in sanctification. But, as Bullmore says, this is not the case; the Christian life is not measured in knowledge but in conformity. The purpose of the Christian life is not to accumulate the greatest number of facts, but to be increasingly transformed to the image of Christ.

There’s another thing Bullmore said that I’ve been thinking about. It’s a simple phrase, a tweetable phrase: “Sin doesn’t do well in the light.” The way to put sin to death is to draw it out of the hidden darkness of the human heart and to expose it to the light—the light of visibility and the light of God’s Word.

To summarize, the measure of the Christian life is growth in holiness. We grow in holiness, at least in part, by putting sin to death. We put sin to death by exposing it to the light.

August 03, 2012

A friend of mine has been leading a class based on my book The Next Story. He emailed me a couple of days ago to say that he was preparing to teach on “Privacy and Visibility,” two areas where the digital world has brought a great transformation to our lives. Right before he went to teach the class, he came across a sad story of yet another pastor who has destroyed his ministry for the sake of following his lust. It was a pointed illustration of new realities in this new world. It was also an illustration of something that transcends the digital world.

Until Tuesday, Jack Schaap was pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, outside Chicago. First Baptist is the largest church in the state with something like 15,000 people attending each Sunday. Schapp’s pastorate came to an abrupt and shameful end on Tuesday.

Jack Schaap had left his cell phone on the pulpit and a deacon had seen it on the pulpit and had picked it up to bring it back to him,” Trisha Kee, who maintains a Facebook group for ex-congregants, told the station. “From what we understand, the deacon then saw a text come through from a teenage girl in the church, and it was a picture of Jack Schaap and this girl making out.

Church officials announced that he had been fired for “a sin that has caused him to forfeit his right to be our pastor.” Schapp has since confessed that he was involved in an affair with a girl of sixteen who had come to him for counseling. 

What stood out to me in this story was not so much that Schapp took advantage of a young girl, that he abused his position of authority, or that he has risked his marriage by committing adultery. All of these things are horrendous but, sadly, sickeningly, all too common. There is a long and growing history of men who use the pastorate as a means to fulfill their sinful, selfish desires. What stood out to me in this case was the manner in which the pastor’s sin found him out.

August 02, 2012

What makes you angry? We all have triggers, don’t we? We all have certain contexts and situations, certain affronts to our dignity or pride that stoke the anger within. I know a lot about anger, as Aileen can no doubt attest. When she and I talk about God’s grace in our lives, and evidence of it, she will often point this out—that God has mellowed me, taken away that anger that often bubbled within and occasionally boiled over. When I moved out of my parents’ home on the day I got married, I left behind a hole in the wall that I had punched in a fit of anger a few months before. At one of the first homes Aileen and I lived in I cracked a door frame when I tried to smash it shut, once more in a fit of stupid anger. My immature anger just sometimes boiled over and got me into trouble. I always felt like an idiot after acting out, but in the moment my anger got the better of me; I often surrendered to it. I am profoundly grateful that God, in his mercy, has blessed me and blessed my family by taking away much of the immaturity, the irrationality, the lack of self-control that caused me to lash out like an angry toddler. I still known what it is to be angry, but no longer tend toward violent reaction.

According to one dictionary, anger is a strong feeling of displeasure, a kind of belligerence aroused by a wrong. And from experience I can say it is equally likely that it is anger aroused by a perceived wrong. If someone truly wrongs me, I may well express anger and do so with some justification. If someone slights me or otherwise damages my pride, it may also cause me to act angry but with no justification at all. Anger is inherently reactive, awaiting a trigger and then waiting to react in accordance with my nature.

We have all met angry people, haven’t we? People who react to tough situations with anger and people who often act out in this anger. Such people may react in surprising, unexpected and terrifying ways. They act as they do out of emotion. Anger is not one of those enjoyable emotions. It may channel a strange, sick kind of pleasure for a moment or two, but like all sin, it very quickly loses its luster. There is something scary about seeing a person act out in anger. And the bigger that person, the more powerful his position, the greater the fear. If my three year-old gets angry and lashes out, I am bothered but not afraid. But if I were to become angry and act out in anger, she would rightly be terrified because of what I could, I might, do to her in my rage.

July 12, 2012

A few weeks ago I linked to an article from Nathan Bingham titled Fathers, Stop Stealing From Your Children. Nathan was writing to fathers who are raising families in this busy and distracting world and telling them to give their children the time they need and deserve. He said that many fathers are guilty of stealing from their children: “You’re guilty when you skip breakfast with the family to prepare for that early morning meeting, when you’re distant at the dinner table because you’re resolving an issue at work in a long email conversation on your smartphone, and when you forfeit a healthy family night-time ritual because you’ve got something important to do—like write a blog post.”

This article generated some interesting and thoughtful responses and, because I had linked to it, some of them were sent my way. Some expressed frustration that Christian pastors or leaders were constantly telling them they were negligent fathers if they were not home every day on time to enjoy dinner with the family or, even better, breakfast and dinner. Another commented on the long hours many employers demand and asked, “Is that just a love of success and money? And is that feasible for a Christian to be working long hours, let’s say 50 hours week, without compromising on their faith?”

These are good questions and helpful comments. Let me sketch out just a few of my thoughts on the matter.

This Is Not a New Issue

When we look at the issue of long working hours, we can take too narrow a view of it, assuming that it is uniquely twenty-first century and first-world. However, if you look back through history you will find that it has always been the case that fathers have had to work long hours outside of the home. A man who farmed would have to give just about every waking hour, every daylight hour, to his crops and his animals. The shepherds and farmers and fishermen of Jesus’ day were not working 9-to-5 jobs. Most of them would have been working extremely long hours just to scratch out an existence. Few of these people would have had to concern themselves with an hour-long or two hour-long commute from the suburbs into the downtown core, bookending their actual work day with two or three hours of travel time.

This means that the biblical writers could have addressed this issue head-on. Paul could have written to one of the churches and said, “Fathers, you need to prioritize being home for dinner every night.” He did not. He could have mandated a forty hour work week. Again, he did not. There are commands that pertain to fathers, but none that get anywhere near this explicit. This tells us that the instructions we find in Scripture are sufficient to guide us even here and it also tells us that we have freedom in these matters—freedom to determine what is right and best in our context.

Work, Work, Work, Die

One consequence of Adam’s sin was a curse on his vocation to earn a living by tending and keeping the ground.

 And to Adam he said,
 “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
  and have eaten of the tree
 of which I commanded you,
  ‘You shall not eat of it,’
 cursed is the ground because of you;
  in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
  and you shall eat the plants of the field.
 By the sweat of your face
  you shall eat bread,
 till you return to the ground,
  for out of it you were taken;
 for you are dust,
  and to dust you shall return.”
(Genesis 3:17-19)

In other words, because of your sin, the land will now be opposed to you, it will fight against you. You will spend your whole life toiling to beat back thorns and thistles from off the soil and then at the end of it all, you’ll return to the soil. There is a kind of inevitability to it, and a kind of hopelessness. A man’s lot is to work in this world, knowing that he can never beat the system. He will eventually work himself to death.

That curse has extended far beyond farming and reaches to every vocation. The farmer faces the weeds, the pastor faces tired eyes and dead hearts, the lawyer faces long commutes and traffic jams (and that before he even gets to the office). None of us will have a life free from backbreaking (or mindbreaking or heartbreaking) labor. Work is long and hard because work is meant to be long and hard on this side of the curse. There are very few who escape it.

July 10, 2012

Once again I would like to take an opportunity to answer a question from a reader, and in this case, a question that deals with the frequency with which a husband and wife ought to engage in sexual relations with one another. Here’s the question, followed by my response.

In a recent book review you said that it’s not wise for a husband and wife to tell anyone else how often they have sex together. Can you explain this a bit more and maybe explain how a husband and wife can figure out how often they should have sex?

I believe it is generally unwise and unhelpful for a husband and wife to share details of their sexual intimacy or to read the details of another couple’s sexual intimacy. Of course there may be times and contexts in which a certain level of detail is genuinely helpful, such as when an older couple provides counsel to a younger couple who is struggling in an area. But to share details publicly and to share very intimate details, is usually unwise and unhelpful.  I am not saying that it is necessarily sinful, just that there is a better way to achieve the end result.

One of the details that is best kept between a husband and wife is the frequency with which they have sex. There are many places you can go to find statistics on this, and there are even many Christian authors who include such numbers in their books about sexuality. I have several concerns with the appeal to statistics.

In the first place, statistics necessarily provoke comparison. In this case, comparison may well generate either pride or discontentment, either a sense of superiority that you and your spouse have sex more often than the average couple, or discontentment that everyone else is enjoying sex more often than you.

Second, statistics of this kind do very little to take into account context and life stage and even the natural variances in desire between individuals and couples. What is clear about the sexual relationship is that it is always in flux, it is always changing, and every couple needs to give it regular attention if it is to keep from slipping into dysfunction or disregard.

Third, and most significantly, appealing to statistics short circuits the difficult but important process through which a couple can work out just the right frequency in their own relationship. An appeal to statistics may allow a couple to bypass the important matters of heart and character.

With that being said, let me share my thinking on one way a couple may go about finding the frequency that is best for them.

The general rule according to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 seems to be that the person with the lesser desire should express love to the one with the greater desire by participating in the sexual relationship more often. The reasoning is simple: more sexual desire with less sexual fulfillment can lead to temptation. However, there is more to the equation than simply determining which spouse has the greater desire and encouraging the other to have sex that often.

Let’s consider a couple named Rob and Kelly (randomly-chosen names, I assure you). As with most couples, there is a significant variance in sexual desire between the two. As is typical, but certainly not universal, Rob, the husband, is the one who tends to initiate sexual intimacy and who does so significantly more often than Kelly. However you want to measure relative sexual desires, Rob’s is the greater of the two. Kelly is generally willing to respond to Rob when he initiates, though she needs more time to prepare, more time to warm up to the idea. She finds it easier to participate and to enjoy herself when a longer period of time has elapsed between their lovemaking. The two could easily find themselves at an impasse—an impasse most married couples have encountered at one time or another.

July 03, 2012

A reader of this site recently asked me to explain how I determine whether a book is good and worthy of recommendation or whether it is not. That is a fair question and I was surprised to find that I had not addressed it in the past. I will take on that challenge today. It will be helpful to assume that the book in question is meant to address the Christian life, falling under the broad categories of Christian Living or Spiritual Growth or something similar (I would have very different questions to ask of a general market book or of a Christian biography).

Here are five questions, plus a bonus, that I ask myself as I read.

Does It Draw Its Truth from Scripture?

First and foremost, a good book will have a heavy dependency upon Scripture. Whatever truth it seeks to teach will be ultimately drawn from God through the Bible rather than from any kind of human wisdom or experience. In the Bible God gives us the great privilege of seeing the world through his eyes and seeing life from his perspective. Therefore, whatever we teach about living the Christian life ought to depend heavily upon his wisdom.

This is the key difference between Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven—the first is utterly dependent upon Scripture while the second ignores Scripture in favor of experience. It is the great difference between Kent Hughes’ Disciplines of a Godly Man and John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart—the first teaches manhood from Scripture while the other teaches it from human wisdom and experience. This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing right or good in 90 Minutes in Heaven and Wild at Heart; however, they are innately inferior because they do not consistent lead the reader back to God as he reveals himself in the Bible.

Is It Faithful to the Bible?

Of course not all books that attempt to draw truth from Scripture do it well, so the second criteria is that the books are consistently faithful to Scripture. There are many books that attempt to show what the Bible teaches but do a poor job of it. The authors do not handle the Bible faithfully or they look too narrowly, depending upon isolated verses rather than the grand sweep of Scripture. Consider The Purpose Driven Life, a book that contains a good deal of wisdom but which draws from Scripture haphazardly, and compare it to Sinclair Ferguson’s Taking the Christian Life Seriously. Both are guidebooks to life, but one is far more consistently faithful to Scripture than the other.

Does It Have a Gospel Focus?

Many books written by and for Christians teach how to live the Christian life under law instead of under grace. Instead of teaching true Christian living, they teach law and moralisms. A good book will be dependent upon the joy and freedom of living as those who have been set free from law and will ultimately point people to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from which we gain the desire and ability and power to live this Christian life. Stephen Artberburn’s Every Man’s Battle is grounded in morality, not gospel; it may be that following rules may help a man overcome an addiction to lust and pornography, but it is far better to point to the gospel, which is exactly what I attempted to do in Sexual Detox.

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