How Can A Blogger Love?

The Triune God simply is love, and it is out of the love that he is that he condescends to save sinners through the obedience of the Son. Unsurprisingly, then, he commands his children who have been adopted and are being transformed into the image of the Son, to love one another (John 15:12).  But what does that love look like?

Paul offers us a punchy little summary at the center of  his extended meditation on love in the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.love one another

I got to thinking about this last weekend at our staff retreat during our hour of meditation, and my mind took a strange turn. As I began to reflect on what this would look like concretely in my own life, I started wondering what it would look like specifically in the area of blogging.

What would it look like to blog with love? To approach writing and the entire range of social media practices that accompany it, as an aspect of my Christian discipleship submitted to the loving lordship of Jesus? To undertake blogging in dependence on the Spirit, so that when people look at me, they see glimpses of the love of Jesus?

As an exercise, I wrote some brief, meandering reflections on each phrase in those verses. Since I think I’m not the only one out there who ought to be struggling with that question, I offer them up here:

Patient and Kind- I imagine blogging with patience might include the practice of waiting to write and post. There are times when quick responses are possible, but slowing down to make sure the words we write are true, both in content and form, takes the patience of love–both of people and the cause of truth itself. Given its pairing in the text with kindness, I suspect it likely includes patience with others on the internet. Patience when their writing is mediocre. Patience when their theology needs some tuning up, but they’re clearly on a trajectory. Patience to remember that you were once such as these (and to someone you still are.)

Arrogant or Rude – I don’t have the space to go into the radical change eliminating arrogance and rudeness in our blogging habits would have. It is a common-place that internet culture, even certain wings of Christian blogging culture, is infected with coarseness and a total lack of respect for dialogue partners. The Christian looking to imitate Jesus, to love the way Jesus would, must put aside all false judgments of superiority that lead to the condescension and contempt polluting our posts, tweets, and comments.

Lack of Envy or Boasting – Blogging with love would exclude both envy and boasting.  Initially, that means some of us might write a lot less, given how much is written or posted as a response to the success of others.  Also, we’d be more likely to rejoice when a friend’s article goes viral instead of mourning our own that lies ignored in its respective corner of digital space; when we truly love the way Christ does, the good of our sister is our own good. There’d probably be a lot less humble-bragging as well, and a lot more encouragement of our brothers and sisters who labor alongside of us. What’s more, we’d trumpet our own successes a bit less, and be little more circumspect about re-tweeting all of our positive mentions, in an attempt to build our reputation and platform.

Doesn’t Insist on its Own Way – This one wasn’t as obvious at first. On a surface-level reading it would probably mean listening to my editors with greater humility. While that’s something I probably should do, it seems this has more to do with cutting out the self-serving way we approach our blogging. Our blogging will be less about our self, our name, our platform, our glory, and our self-interest. We don’t have to entirely neglect our own interests, of course, but our object will be to lift up Christ’s name and to forwards the interests, good, and welfare of others in our community. We will write for the common good of others and the church, not merely our own.

Not Irritable and Doesn’t Keep a Record of Wrongs- When we cease to place ourselves at the center of our hearts in our blogging, irritability and resentment will hopefully fade away as well. When I am at the center of my affections, every post I disagree with seems to have been written specifically to annoy me and cross my will. Because of my pride, I find myself writing or commenting out of irritation with a post, or an author, instead of a heart of love. Beyond that, much of the pointless internet drama happens because So & so is still grieved over the critical review Such & such gave his book, would settle down. Or that one time there was the week-long shenanigans over the tweet you swear everyone misinterpreted? Yeah, we’d finally let go of animosities we built up in that battle too.

Does not Rejoice in Wrongdoing, but Rejoices at the Truth - This one’s big. So often our rejoicing comes from the wrong reasons. We rejoice when we see an opponent put in their place, or a favored position trumpeted loudly. And, honestly, that’s not always bad–sometimes these positions ought to be trumpeted and these persons do need to be set in their places. But all too often, our concern isn’t about the truth being championed, but about our own vindication over against those with whom we disagree. Because of that, we don’t really mind that an argument was straw-manned, or someone was mildly slandered–but we should. Blogging that rejoices at the truth is one that takes delight in the truth being known, even when that means being proved wrong.

Bears all Things, Hopes all Things, Endures all Things – Finally, blogging with love means bearing, hoping, and enduring all things. It means bearing insults and misunderstandings, at times–not passively submitting, but steadfastly refusing to return evil for evil in the Spirit of our Savior. It means hoping the best of people, reading charitably, and receiving honest criticisms in the best possible light. Or, when the best possible light is still darkness, trusting that this same Spirit is at work in their heart and mind. It means enduring through the empty days, the lonely days, the quiet times when no one seems to read or care, except for your heavenly Father above, whose eye is ever watchful on the works of his children.

Of course there’s more to life than blogging, and more to love than the paltry reflections I’ve offered up here. Still, for those of us who desire our words to be more than a noisy cymbals or clanging gongs, they’re probably a decent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Atheist’s Letter From Birmingham Jail (TGC)

MLK-in-jailIn April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for his participation in the organized, non-violent marches and sit-ins against racial segregation in Birmingham. On the same day, eight white Alabama clergymen, some Christian, some not, published an open letter on unity that decried the demonstrations and urged patience, asking people to restrict their efforts to the courts and not the streets.

King received a copy of the letter while in prison and in response wrote what is now recognized as one of the most important moral treatises of the 20th century, his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it, King damningly exposed the weakness, moral turpitude, and short-sightedness of the “white moderates” encouraging the protesters to cease their activist efforts until a “more convenient season.” It is passionate testimony to King’s deep moral logic, striking in its clarity.

But many engaged in school readings and college composition discussions fail to see that if there is no God, this letter is meaningless.

You can go read the rest of the article over at The Gospel Coalition.

Adoption is About Transformation

billingsJ.I. Packer has aptly summarized the Gospel as “Adoption by grace.” In my favorite little intro to the Reformed tradition,  J. Todd Billings explains that God’s adoption of us in Christ, is not only a metaphor about our initial justification, but plays into the way we think of our sanctification:

While the metaphor of adoption begins as a legal act, it does not end there: it ends with membership in the household of God (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19), with a calling to act into the reality of this new identity. God’s legal act of adopting into the family of God results in a new identity, in an eschatologically conditioned way. Thus, when we are given an identity in Christ, we are called to live into it. For example, the doxological opening of Ephesians 1 says that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (v. 5). As the blessings of being in Christ are unfolded in the following verses, Paul returns to the language of adoption and inheritance—that “in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (1:11–12, emphasis added). This new identity of one belonging to a new family in Christ is sealed by the Spirit in the verses that follow: “In him you also . . . were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (1:13–14). The adopted identity in Christ, sealed by the Spirit, leads to living “for the praise of his glory” (1:12), but also provides the ground for numerous ethical exhortations in Ephesians: the call to unity (4:13); to prayer (6:18); to speaking and living the truth in Christ (4:15, 21, 25; 6:14); to living in “love” rather than in anger, malice, and bitterness (4:21–5:1). All of these exhortations are to reflect the behavior of those who have been conferred a new adopted identity in Christ and who seek to live into this inheritance received as children of God in Christ.

In contrast to some theologians who have associated adoption only with justification, Paul’s overall usage of the adoption metaphor describes both the legal dimension of being transferred into God’s family and the transformative dimension of growing in God’s family. By associating adoption only with justification, theologians have sometimes tended to emphasize the legal at the expense of the transformative side of adoption. Trevor Burke has criticized certain Reformed scholastic thinkers, in particular, for making adoption a subset or benefit of justification without recognizing its distinct meaning. While Burke makes a good point, I suspect some of the reason for the confusion comes from the following: Theologians have often spoken about the act of becoming adopted as a forensic act, which is a valid point (as Burke agrees). But the forensic sense of becoming adopted does not exhaust the meaning of Paul’s metaphor, because the result of that act is that one is adopted to be a son or daughter of God, placed in the security of God’s family, and given a new identity to live into in an eschatologically conditioned way. Some theologians have thus been too quick to assume that the meaning of “adoption” is exhausted by the act of becoming adopted. Significantly for this chapter, however, this is not a mistake that John Calvin makes. Calvin uses the image of adoption as a way to describe the double grace of justification and sanctification received in union with Christ. Calvin understood that as an image for salvation, the act of becoming adopted is a legal, forensic action, but it has another dimension as well: as an image for the way Christians are to act as children of the Father who promises “to nourish us throughout the course of our life.” Indeed, the Spirit gives new life, displayed in love of God and neighbor, which “shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us (cf. Romans 8:15).”

–J. Todd Billings (2011-11-01). Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Kindle Locations 457-486). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Unsurprisingly, J.I. Packer has quite a bit to say about the way adoption transforms our identity. Towards the end of his chapter on the subject in his classic Knowing God, Packer summarizes some of the glories of adoption and gives us some questions to ask ourselves in light of this brilliant reality:

Do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Savior is my brother; every Christian is my brother too. Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true. For this is the Christian’s secret of—a happy Life?—yes, certainly, but we have something both higher and profounder to say. This is the Christian’s secret of a Christian life, and of a God-honoring life, and these are the aspects of the situation that really matter. May this secret become fully yours, and fully mine. To help us realize more adequately who and what, as children of God, we are and are called to be, here are some questions by which we do well to examine ourselves again and again.

Do I understand my adoption? Do I value it? Do I daily remind myself of my privilege as a child of God?

Have I sought full assurance of my adoption? Do I daily dwell on the love of God to me?

Do I treat God as my Father in heaven, loving, honoring and obeying him, seeking and welcoming his fellowship, and trying in everything to please him, as a human parent would want his child to do?

Do I think of Jesus Christ, my Savior and my Lord, as my brother too, bearing to me not only a divine authority but also a divine-human sympathy? Do I think daily how close he is to me, how completely he understands me, and how much, as my kinsman-redeemer, he cares for me?

Have I learned to hate the things that displease my Father? Am I sensitive to the evil things to which he is sensitive? Do I make a point of avoiding them, lest I grieve him?

Do I look forward daily to that great family occasion when the children of God will finally gather in heaven before the throne of God, their Father, and of the Lamb, their brother and their Lord? Have I felt the thrill of this hope?

Do I love my Christian brothers and sisters with whom I live day by day, in a way that I shall not be ashamed of when in heaven I think back over it? Am I proud of my Father, and of his family, to which by his grace I belong? Does the family likeness appear in me? If not, why not?

God humble us; God instruct us; God make us his own true children.

Knowing God, pp. 258-260

Soli Deo Gloria

Why You Just Might Want a Penal Account of Just War

just warI finally cracked open Oliver O’Donovan’s little treatise The Just War Revisited over the break. In it he tries to revitalize a judicial account of Just War theory, along the lines of an international application of criminal law in a situation where no comparable authority is able to adjudicate between nations. He does this against the background of the recent trend in Just War thinking oriented primarily towards accounts that privilege “self-defense” as the only acceptable justification for war, making altruistic/interventionist action less intelligible within modern frameworks.

In a particularly remarkable passage, O’Donovan makes the, surprising to many, suggestion that when we screen out any penal objectives, or considerations of desert, from our moral consideration of war, we actually end up with less restraint rather than more. So what happens when we lose our ability to think of war in punitive terms? Or, put more provocatively, what would we gain if we began to reconsider penal elements in our war-making?

In our own time the notion of punishment, though hardly aired, is an important tacit support for wars of humanitarian assistance, for only penal desert can justify intervention into a foreign state’s jurisdiction and responsibility out of its hands. Without it, international justice is pushed back upon the ‘perimeter fence’. But the notion also has a critical role in keeping war objectives limited. The pursuit of safety can run to indefinite lengths, and the pursuit of right without regard to guilt can be a cruel thing. When Palestinian guerrillas cross the border from the Occupied Territories into Israel and perform isolated acts of terrorism, in reprisal for which Israel launches massive military bombardment, we call it ‘over-reaction’. What we mean is simply that there is a penal disproportion between offense and response. Whatever the guilt of the attack, it strikes us that the Palestinians have ‘not deserved’ all that they are forced to take. Israel may appeal to its need for safety; but that need is infinitely elastic. To require a penal objective guards against the resort to war as a response to non-culpable injury, and prevents the subtle expansion of defensive war-aims into further goals, such as colonisation. Common prejudice is inclined to suppose that punitive objectives make for unbridled war; but the truth is more or less the opposite; they impose the tightest of reins, since punishment is measured strictly by desert. –pg. 58

In other words, if disconnected from concerns about justice as desert, or punishment, war loses important limits. We can claim “defense” as a justification for all sorts of expanding precautionary measures, but war pursued with respect to penal desert can only go so far. Some actions may indeed make us safer, but do our opponents actually deserve them?

C.S. Lewis made a roughly analogous point in his classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” His main conceit was that merely deterrent or rehabilitory accounts of imprisonment, capital punishment, and so forth, lose the characteristic trait of justice by dispensing with desert, and ironically become more oppressive:

The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a ‘just deterrent’ or a ‘just cure’. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.

Now some of us might not immediately see the problem with this. After all, it does seem to see things a bit more humanely, less moralistically, and purged of any possible vindictiveness. Yet Lewis goes on to illustrate the problem with an example of where this logic leads in real life:

Let us rather remember that the ‘cure’ of criminals is to be compulsory; and let us then watch how the theory actually works in the mind or the Humanitarian. The immediate starting point of this article was a letter I read in one of our Leftist weeklies. The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And or course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts—and they are not experts in moral theology nor even in the Law of Nature—who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

We see here how relevant and necessary the punitive question of desert becomes in the prevention of tyranny or injustice in the name of supposedly more enlightened accounts. In the hands of the humane social engineers, a crime deserving of a two-year sentence might be treated for five and with electro-shocks “for the sake of the patient”. Or again, if deterrence is the sole motivation for action, that someone be guilty is not strictly necessary for an example to be made. An innocent accused of the crime, or simply held up as an example of what will happen if you do step out of line, will do just as well. (For more on this, I’d commend to you the rest of the Lewis essay linked above.)

To sum up, while it may seem initially less aggressive, more justifiable by contemporary moral sentiments to screen out moralistic concerns about desert and punishment, it turns out we might just want a penal account of Just War.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Absurdity of Christian “Obsession” with Abortion and Single-Issue Voting

Jan. 22 marks the 41st anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. It has been popular in recent years for younger Evangelicals, or post-Evangelicals, to criticize Christians for having been so “obsessed” with the whole abortion issue for the past 40 years or so. While most don’t dispute its importance, or even its ethics, they can’t quite bring themselves to care about it with the same passion, or understand how their parents could have fixated on it to the exclusion of all other relevant political issues. With poverty, the ecological crisis, and rising violence in the world, how is it that for so many Christians abortion still is the issue?

I’ve refrained from commenting on issues of this sort over the last few years, largely for pastoral reasons, but when a buddy of mine asked a question along the same lines the other night, I was forced to re-examine why the issue has been such a sticking point for me in my own political wanderings. Among the various arguments that ran through my head, one thought in particular stuck out to me: if abortion really is the termination of an innocent human life, then I can’t think of another issue for which we have as much to answer for in America.

At the outset, I must say that none of this is meant as a comment on the pastoral issue involved with the decisions of individual women in horrifying situations faced with such terrible situations. Given the usual struggle with guilt, shame, and depression, compassionate care leads me to believe that the grace of God and the restoring word of the Gospel must be the first one on our lips. But in the world of governance and the provisional judgments of political authority, the dark moral reality must be painted in their starkest light.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, since abortion was legalized in the 1970s roughly 50 million + abortions have been performed in the US alone. Let’s see that with zeroes: 50,000,000. Again, assuming abortion really is the ending of an innocent human life, we’re talking about a death-toll over eight times the carnage of the Holocaust. Each year the death-toll dwarfs that of any armed conflict currently taking place around the globe. In New York City, it’s reported that 41%, or 2 in 5 of all pregnancies end in abortion. When we put it in that light, you can begin to see why for so many this isn’t simply one issue among the others.

Let me put it this way: nobody today would say that MLK Jr. was wrong for fixating on race and equality issues. Nor would anybody today complain about abolitionists’ single-minded obsession with slavery. I shudder to think what future generations will think when they look at Christians today and their lack of horror at the tragedy of abortion in America. At this point I’m reminded of one of the best, albeit snarky, rants against self-righteous complaints about ignorant, Christian “single-issue voting” I’ve ever seen. This was back before my blogging days, but I ran across this online, saved it for a rainy day, and unfortunately I don’t remember where or when or who this was. (Also, just to clarify, a. this is sarcastic, b. the grammar is not mine.):

Ok, bear with me as I rant. I’ve just about had it already with you people!

I am not a single issue voter. I never have been and WON’T become one now! There are dozens of other equally-important issues out there for which we can find common ground and then just leave the whole abortion thing alone. Why hit THAT red button every election cycle?

It’s always the same old mantra every four years. A bunch of crazy right-wingers, who I resent being associated with, keep blathering on about the “scourge” of abortion and the “injustice” of killing “innocent” human lives. I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but we have more important things to talk about like health care and taking care of the LIVING (and aging) population, a war in Iraq, an energy crisis looming, financial scandal, and all the rest. What is UP with you single-issue voters anyway?

It was just this way in the sixties. A bunch of do-gooder activists wandered the streets and took up valuable air time in the nightly news holding up signs, blathering on about human rights and demanding equal rights for black people. I mean c’mon, BLACK people of all things! When we SHOULD have been talking about the environment and not wasting our time with such frivolities, there they were, the single issue voters, rearing their ugly heads and ignoring a dozen other more important issues, at least!

Then I remember back in the 40′s, we spent trillions of US dollars funding a ridiculous war to help liberate “The Oppressed” Jews and others held in so called death camps across Europe. What did we gain from that, I’d like to know? Jews. Right here on OUR soil! And what a shame, because we had an energy crisis looming that we could have worked our way out of, not to mention at least a handful of other issues.

Less than twenty years before that, there they were again, those single-issue voters. This time, they were sending our boys off to get arms and legs blown to fight against who? I don’t even know! Probably to “liberate” somebody again. I’m sure that their time could have been better spent dealing with inner city crime and controlling the beginnings of the drug trade, or maybe a Mexico fence or something….

At the turn of the 20th century, we witnessed throngs of people about protesting against injustices directed at WOMEN and demanding basic human rights for them. I mean, come on! WOMEN!! What’s up with that, America?!? It’s almost inconceivable that we didn’t put our time and efforts into something at least as important like the job market and the economy. Maybe we could have avoided those world wars altogether!

So now you can see why I’ve had it with you people! When are you going to get it through your heads that you CAN’T vote just a single issue? Our borders are vulnerable, our education system is a joke, and we’re in the middle of a great big mess of a war. We have work to do in the economy, environment, and energy. We have to shore up our investments and home mortgages and get ready for retirement. We have children to cart around and music lessons and dogs to feed and new music to buy and (Oh My gosh, I almost forgot) I have to tape the latest episode of…something or other.

There’s just waaaay too much important stuff out there to worry about one issue like abortion. Besides that, abortion’s kind of… like… eew, you know, and all that stuff?

Again, none of this is a comment on the particular cases of individual women in desperate situations. Nor is it necessarily to say this makes voting a clear issue. Some continue to make the case that voting for an explicitly pro-life candidate isn’t always the most pro-life thing to do. They argue that a prudential decision can be made to vote for a candidate who will, through other means, reduce the total number of abortions given the low chance of actually over-turning Roe V. Wade, or passing pro-life legislation. I’m not entirely convinced by that logic, but I can see someone making it in good conscience.

My only point here is to illuminate why, given the reality of what Christians believe abortion is, it is perfectly sensible for Christians to be passionate about the issue, to the point of “obsession.” Of course, I hope it motivates them to do more, say, spare a few volunteer hours with local women in difficult situations. Again, this is not only a national political issue, but ultimately one for the local church to be involving itself in, giving women better choices at the personal level, beyond just closing certain horrible doors at the legal level.

In closing, I’m reminded of the comments of the great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin in an address entitled “Gospel and Culture” delivered in 1996 in Brazil at a Conference on Mission and Evangelism:

“I am going to raise on particular issue which I have never raised in public before and which I did not intend to raise when I came to Salvador. It is connected with this ribbon on my wrist. When we stood in the old slave market on Saturday morning on those rough stones which had felt the weight of the bare and bruised and shackled feet of countless of our fellow human beings, when we stood in that place so heavy with human sin and human suffering and we were asked to spend two minutes in silence waiting for what the Spirit might say to us, I thought first how unbelievable that Christians could have connived in that inhuman trade; and then there came to my mind a question: Will it not be the case that perhaps our great-grandchildren will be equally astonished at the way in which we in our generation, in our so-called modern, Western, rich, developed culture, connive at the whole-sale slaughter of unborn children in the name of that central idol of our culture—freedom of choice? I know—and as I say, I have never raised that issue in public before, but do so because I was told to do so—I know that to raise it is exceedingly painful, as painful as was the struggle against the slave trade, as painful as was the World Council’s program to combat racism. But I have discharged that commission. In the context of this conference it is simply one example of the costliness of that attempt to ensure that the gospel is not domesticated within our cultures, but continually challenges our culture.”

–Reprinted in Signs Amid the Rubble, pg. 118

Indeed.

Soli Deo Gloria

“23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23″, And Other Myths

So, I’ve seen this article on “23 Things To Do Instead of Getting Engaged Before You’re 23” get posted a bit lately. I read it. I get the appeal. I did want to offer a few quick thoughts from a dude who got engaged at well, 24, but was apparently so dumb he knew whom he was going to marry at 20.

Before I do that, though, a couple of quick caveats: I just watched two of my best friends get married last year right at about 30. Many of my other friends will. This is not a judgment on them, and there is certainly nothing inherently immoral or wrong about it. I am not saying that if you’re 23 and single, there’s something wrong with you. In fact, as a Christian, I think you can live a whole, healthy life without ever getting married. Singleness (and celibacy) were first elevated to an honorable lifestyle in Western culture through the spread of Christianity.

What I want to do is just push back on a few mistakes I’m seeing here that are easy to make:

1. Not everybody that gets engaged or married at a young age is doing it because they’re vulnerable, desperate, scared, or pathetically lonely. It’s condescending and arrogant of this young woman to suggest that. It’s turning the contingencies of her own situation into the virtue that we should all aspire to. In other words, “I’m young, single, lonely but not ready for a marriage so I’m going to tell myself that you must not be either, and you’re pretty much dumb for getting married young, which makes me super wise and self-knowing.” Honestly, I get that a lot of people our age feel the unfair pressure of people imposing the values of another age and time, the example of our parents, and so forth, on their shoulders. The problem is, this article is essentially making the same mistake in reverse.

2. “The divorce rate among young couples is high.” Yes, that’s true. But if you look at the sociology on it, this is not mostly talking about a couple of kids out of college who’ve decided to start a life together. A lot of that rate is affected by low-income, low-education couples, with unplanned pregnancies, marrying out of pressure. Actually, according to some of the latest sociological research, 22-27 is actually about the perfect age for getting engaged and married in terms of happiness and marital longevity. I would just say, beware of misleading sociology, or quickly assigning explanations to complex phenomena.

3. “I need to find out who I am before I can build a life with someone.” Yes, and no. One of the reasons that young couples divorce is due to the misleading, romantic, idealistic expectations they have about marriage. I would also point out there are similarly misleading myths about singleness and identity held by these very same people. See, there is this romantic myth that at some point in the future we reach this stable self, this pinnacle of self-knowledge and self-awareness that might be expanded on, but will essentially stay the same for the foreseeable future. The reality is that you will change, grow, and develop over the whole of your life. While the person you are at 23 is not the person you will be at 27, what’s also true is that the person you will be at 27 is not the person you will be at 35, and so forth. You will always be changing and growing. As theologian Lewis Smedes has said, “My wife has been married to 4 different men in her life–and they’ve all been me.”

Yes, many 23-year olds are immature and in transition. Yes, a number of them need to develop a bit before covenanting themselves in the bond of marriage. I shudder at the thought of some 23-year olds I know getting married in a rush. At the same time, I just performed a marriage for a couple of 22-year olds this summer that I am absolutely ecstatic for. They are sane, solid, stable, and have embarked on a wonderful adventure: they get to find out who they are together. They can still do the vast majority of the 23 things on that list, and, honestly, the rest of them aren’t worth engaging.

Let me put it this way: I didn’t marry my wife because I knew exactly who I was, or entirely knew who she was. I married my wife because I knew enough about her that I wanted to see the woman she is going to become, and want to be there for it. What’s more, I want her to be there as I grow and develop. I know that I’m a better man because I have been “finding myself” alongside of her for the last few years instead of apart from her. Now, the catch is, in our case one of the reasons I wanted to be with McKenna is because I knew she wouldn’t want me to find myself in her, but would always point me to Jesus. Still, my marriage hasn’t gotten in the way, but it has helped me keep on the way.

Actually, to follow up, one of the big issues that can plague later marriages between two people who have been single during this crucial developmental period is that you get so settled in your ways, so calcified in “being yourself” apart from the person you’re looking to marry that you don’t have the emotional elasticity it takes to make a marriage work. When I married my wife, I didn’t have 30 years of single guy habits build up around the way I did things, or thought of myself that I had to kill in order for a marriage to a sane woman to put up with me (although, McKenna is still a saint for putting up with me.)

Thing is you never marry someone who is a “perfect fit.” You’re always going to have to make compromises, sacrifices, and grow in order to make this thing work. I am not saying that you can’t develop the character traits you need to make this work if you’re single in your twenties. What I am saying is that it’s not at all obvious that you ought to stay single longer in order to be ready for marriage. For some people it might be a good idea. For some of us, getting married is what has to happen.

Soli Deo Gloria

Addendum: I wrote this in a bit of a rush, but here are two resources to check out:

1. The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller – This is my go-to book for understanding the purpose and practice of marriage. It’s simply beautiful.

2. Premarital Sex In America by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker – This study published by Oxford University press is where I’m getting my sociology. It’s exhaustive and well-sourced.

12 Tips for Keeping It Clean In Your Dating Relationship

awkward dateSo, I work with college students. Sometimes they like to date each other. Being human, with normal, God-given (but fallen) physical desires they also want to do stuff together while they’re dating. You know–sexy stuff. Of course, most of them who’ve been around long enough have learned that the Bible says the sexy stuff is God’s good, beautiful, and pleasurable idea for knitting a man and a woman together in marriage. In the meantime then, I’ll have couples approach me wondering if there are ways that they can continue to build their relationships in holy, appropriate ways, and avoid temptation.

Now, I remind them that it’s not just about not breaking rules–it’s an issue of the heart. I remind them of the grace of the Gospel for any past or future failure, and that this is not the one, irrevocable sin.  I encourage them to look to Christ, develop their relationship with him, and all the good spiritual, foundational stuff. But then, well, I get “practical” and offer them a few (slightly humorous) tips that helped my wife and I during the (four!) years we were dating.

I can’t emphasize enough that these are not laws, but general guidelines that help you obey God’s laws for your good. These are not hard and fast unbreakable rules. They are wisdom, though. Some of them may seem childish or nit-picky. You might think read them, roll your eyes, and think “Really? Come on, I’m not an animal!” True, but you’re not an angel either, and following these can help you honor God in your dating relationship:

  1. Clothes are not optional. But seriously, stay fashionable–in your clothes.
  2. If no one’s home, you’re not home. This might narrow your hang-out options initially, but it forces you to be creative. I really can’t stress this one enough.
  3. Cars are fun when you’re driving. When stationary, you can get in an accident.
  4. Give someone you trust absolute authority to speak into your life and talk to you about this area whenever. Also, don’t lie to them.
  5. Consider the consequences on a regular basis.
  6. Pray at the beginning of your dates.
  7. “Napping” together is stupid. Falling asleep during a movie is one thing, but otherwise…nah.
  8. And God said, “Let there be light…”
  9. Private porn usage always makes a public appearance. Eventually, porn shapes the way you act with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Avoid it at all costs.
  10. Spas are fun group activities.
  11. God gave you legs for a reason. Run when you have to.
  12. Have this conversation often. Re-affirm and re-commit to biblical guidelines and standards for your relationship.

Above all of these, of course, is to constantly be chasing Christ. Tips and rules can help for a while, but it’s the deeper holiness comes through the Spirit of Holiness changing our affections from within through the grace of the Gospel.

Soli Deo Gloria

Was Jesus a Pacifist? Posts on Pacifism and Just War

Jedi JesusFor being the dominant position in the Western theological tradition, finding a good, cleanly argued text for Just War Theory can be pretty difficult. While popular defenses of pacifism abound, now that it’s increasingly in vogue amongst the younger theological set, similarly accessible counterpoints are rarer. Actually, I’d be surprised if most people have encountered Just War reasoning outside of pacifistic refutations of the tradition. That’s why I’ve been pleased to read Andrew Fulford’s multi-post series over at the Calvinist International defending Just War theory entitled “Was Jesus a Pacifist?”

I’d summarize  them myself, but Fulford does it himself in his brief overview of  the project in his 7th post which contains links to the first six:

The argument began with a survey of four aspects of Jesus’ background: natural law, the context of literary conventions, social context, and the Old Testament. These four aspects pointed to the conclusion that Jesus’ teaching was not pacifistic. The second post presented the various kinds of pacifisms, and the reasons offered to support these kinds, to facilitate comparison. That is, once the reasons for non-violence were clear, we could check to see whether the source documents for the Christian religion held those reasons. The third post began by concluding the background for Jesus’ teaching did not consist with pacifism. It continued by surveying the NT documents, written after Jesus’ teaching had first been given. This aimed at discovering if Jesus’ teaching, intervening as it does between OT and NT, produced effects that would suggest he had departed from what his background would lead us to expect. The third post found that all four aspects of his background continued into the age of the New Testament. This made the conclusion that Jesus was not a pacifist even more likely.  The fourth and fifth parts of the series attempted to explain the teachings and actions of Jesus that pacifists claim support their position, and found that none of these teachings or actions do so.  Finally, the sixth post provided some possible explanations as to why the early church misunderstood what those teachings were really about, and turned to embrace pacifism.

After the summary, he concludes the post with a lengthy overview of the relationship between the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and the Just War tradition.

This is a careful, thoughtful treatment that eschews quick generalizations and snap-readings of passages, engages with scholarly work, but doesn’t get bogged down in endless detail. The articles are not quick skims, but neither are they unapproachable beasts. I’d strongly encourage anybody interested in the question Christians, war, and the state to read these posts carefully and attentively.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Flesh, A Couple of Gnostic Bogeymen, and Self-Control

temptation and fallThere are always trends in our discourse about sex and sexuality. Some themes are pretty constant while others come and go. The whole ‘purity culture’ discussion is of fairly recent vintage, but seems likely to stick around, growing and developing with time.  It’s already begun to take some interesting turns.

For instance, Dianna Anderson recently criticized a new trend in sexual discourse within Post-Evangelical culture. Pointing to posts by Jamie the Very Worst Missionary (JVM) and Rachel Held Evans, she worries that their efforts to retain a fairly conservative sexual ethic when it comes to pre-marital sex, while recasting the discussion in terms of ‘self-control’ and ‘holiness’, will inevitably re-inscribe some hierarchy of holiness between those who waited and those who didn’t. Hermits are still closer to God than the rest of us.

An ethic of ‘self-control’ still carries the taint of a heretical Gnostic dualism haunting the landscape of Evangelical ethics, so obsessed with a denial of the flesh that it denies our embodied humanity in the process. Like the purity culture ethic that precedes it, we find a narrative where a weak soul loses control and gives in to the evil, physical flesh. The flesh with its natural bodily desires is not recognized for what it is, God’s creation, and integrated with a holistic conception of the embodied self, but is demonized as a ‘bogeyman’ extrinsic to the self, needing to be subdued by the soul. All the attendant evils of shame and self-loathing follow.

Now, I have no particular beef with Anderson, so I don’t enjoy the idea of focusing on a particular article. Still, this one manages to draw together a few issues worth dealing with if we’re interested in developing (or maintaining) a faithful, Christian sexual ethic.

Collapsing Flesh and Body
As a big fan of Irenaeus and, well, the Bible, I can’t help but appreciate the affirmation of creation against the Gnostics. This is God’s good world and when he made us in his Image, he created us male and female, sexually-differentiated beings whose bodies mattered, and it was very good. (Gen. 1:27) We don’t have a good God and a bad world, or a good soul needing to be set free from a bad body. That said, there is an unfortunate failure to distinguish the ‘flesh’ and the ‘body’ in Anderson’s piece that lead us into some harmful confusions.

In the New Testament, the two words are distinct, sarx being ‘flesh’ and soma being ‘body.’ There is some linguistic overlap between the two at times–for instance, ‘flesh’ can refer to simple physicality, as when Jesus is descended from David ‘according to the flesh’ (Rom. 1:4), and the body is, well, the body for the most part. Still, in a large number of cases, perhaps the majority, sarx refers not to our physicality but rather our fallen nature as a whole, spiritual and physical. As Paul says, “the works of the flesh are evident” and goes on to list “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” (Gal. 5:19-21c) Obviously, these are not only physical activities, or normal, created, bodily impulses to be accepted and integrated within a holistic sense of self, but sins to be put off. Most of them can be comfortably accomplished away from prying eyes, within the recesses of the soul.

Dealing with ascetic proto-Gnostics in Colossae, Paul explicitly teaches us to observe the distinction between the body and the flesh:

“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:21-23)

The problem with the false teachers troubling the Colossians was that they were denying the body instead of the flesh. It’s possible to do the one without the other. Instead of curbing gluttony, they denied appetite. Instead of submitting distorted sexuality to Christ, they denied the good of sexuality entirely.

Now, what I would note here is that to deny the flesh isn’t necessarily to deny the body.  The danger with collapsing flesh into body, is that we are left without categories for appropriately distinguishing between a proper, created, physical-appetite, and its sinful distortions. In affirming creation, we are tempted to forget the corrupting influence of the Fall that has wreaked havoc in God’s good world, including our embodied selves. There is a real, good sexual appetite that God has given us, and there has been a real, bad, disordering of that appetite through sin, that is to be denied and fought against.

This is why we cannot simply uncritically affirm every impulse as part of our created nature, but must construct our ethics in light of the Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative. Christian morality is a storied-morality, in that sense. That was the Gnostic’s problem–they skipped Creation and went straight to Fall. It can be equally dangerous to act like the Fall never happened.

Which Gnostics?
At this point, it’s also important to remember that there’s more than one bad conclusion to reach after you’ve confused the story. This is certainly the case with those particularly bad story-tellers, the Gnostics. Attention is frequently called to the Gnosticism whose dualism led to an ascetical impulse–purify the body to set the soul free, etc.. As prominent as that was, Ireneaus, that great patristic foe of Gnostics of all stripes, also famously condemned differing Gnostic groups whose metaphysics led them to sexual libertinism instead of asceticism.

Once again, Paul’s dealings with proto-Gnostics, this time in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, are instructive. For the Corinthian Gnostics, a denial of the importance of the body led them to to the conclusion that they could do what they want with it. An impulse is just an impulse, “food for the body and the body for food”, and God is going to “destroy both the one and the other”, so just go along with it (v 13). Paul retorts that, in fact, the body does matter for the Lord took a body, died, and was raised in one (vv. 13-14). We aren’t to do with it as we please, not being “mastered” by our desires, but only what glorifies God–that’s why he paid out such a great price for it (v. 19).

When Paul teaches us to flee “immorality’, or ‘fornication’, (v. 18) he shows there is a proper and an improper use of the body. Appealing to the garden, Paul tells us that sexual intercourse is for uniting two into “one flesh”, teaching us that it is a covenantally-ordered act between man and wife (v. 16, cf. Gen 2:24). Corinthians are not to visit temple prostitutes, giving in to their distorted desires, for that is a degradation of God’s purpose for the body.

It is not Gnosticism, therefore, to note a proper place for curbing the ‘flesh’ in our sexuality, but precisely an affirmation of the goodness of the body and its redemption. The battle against the flesh is the confession of our need for a future resurrection in which all will be put right.  Until that day, we are called to put to death the works of the flesh, in hope of the day when our bodies will be raised into righteousness and peace with the rest of God’s new creation (Rom. 8:11).

Self-Control and Mutual Consent 
Of course, all of this will require self-control as JVM and Evans have spoken of. Again, this makes Anderson uncomfortable, as self-control discourse implies that those who do not wait, lost control or something, thereby preventing them from owning their sexual decisions. It paints all decisions to engage in pre-marital sex in an immediately negative light, an action of souls losing control of bodies, preventing understanding of our sexuality as autonomous, consenting persons, as well as growth in healthy sexuality.

Once again, Paul sheds some light for us, this time in his instructions to the Thessalonians:

 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8 Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)

There are a couple of key points to make here. First, Paul clearly tells us to exercise control over our bodies and abstain from sexual immorality. Engaging in sexual immorality, porneia, fornication, is not exercising self-control, but giving in to Gentile passion by definition. Self-control in this text is framed primarily vertically, as a regard for God and his commands, and only secondarily with respect to our impulse control.

To exercise sexual ‘choice’ in ways that violate God’s creative order and will, is to give in to our own distorted desires; it is to make our bellies our god (Phil.3:18).  “Lack of self-control” does not always imply my choice of sexual intercourse outside of the bonds of marriage wasn’t conscious, rational, and autonomous, but that it was not submitted to my Lord in obedience, according to His created purpose. Whether it was a long process of deliberation (rationalization), or a thoughtless moment, I didn’t control my self”s desires, physical or spiritual, but gave in to them in violation of God’s will.

The second point the passage suggests is that consent-based ethics are not enough. (I don’t see Anderson necessarily advocating for one in the post, but that sort of thing is being floated in some post-Evangelical circles.) Mutual consent is somewhat of a lowest-common denominator, “do whatever you want as long as nobody gets hurt” kind of morality that appeals to our late-modern, individualistic, therapeutic-utilitarian instinct. I mean,  don’t hear me knocking consent–it’s baseline for me when it comes to these discussions. Still, mere consent falls far short of a Christian ethic of love rooted in Christ’s commands and the Spirit’s work in our lives.

As Paul shows us, it cannot be loving to mutually-consent to sin, to engage our souls or bodies contrary to God’s own loving purposes for them. He tells us that God is “an avenger” in these things because participating in sexual immorality is to transgress and wrong our brothers/sisters in these matters, no matter how consensual it might be. I am not loving you by inviting you into a sexual relationship or encounter, contrary to God’s purposes. I might have enlightened intentions, a great desire to honor you, to express my soul to you, but the form is inherently unloving. Any love involved is misdirected at this point, a love that is not according to knowledge (Rom. 10:2), because it ignores the fabric of moral reality.

No, instead we are called in holiness to exercise self-control by the power of the Holy Spirit, in obedience to Jesus’ good commands for his being-redeemed people.

The Hope of Glory
I wish I could address the issue of shame that seems to be the driving factor underlying all of these discussions. I tried and realized I couldn’t in a post already too long. For now I’ll simply say that freedom from shame comes not through submitting to the false commands and judgments of legalists who distort or add to God’s word, nor through denying the real moral boundaries which God has lovingly woven into creation, but only through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He bore our shame on the Cross, died, was buried, and left it in the grave so that we who are united with him bear it no more, but only the sure hope of resurrection glory (Col. 1:27).

Soli Deo Gloria

Sin: Self or Circumstances?

Society-of-the-spectacleChristianity has a simple message: Jesus saves from sin. When you start asking questions about what that means, you realize that simple message can generate, and indeed, necessitates some very complicated explanations. A simple question like “Who is Jesus?” can call forth debates that span centuries, councils, and countless learned treatises that, even when they establish a solid baseline, never fully come to the end of the issue.

So what of the other part of the equation? What are we talking about when it comes to the ‘sin’ that Jesus saves us from? While we could tackle this from a number of angles, one question that has been a rather thorny one in the modern period is whether sin is more of a personal or a social reality. Painting with a ridiculously broad brush, one could say that contemporary pop-Evangelicalism and mainline liberalism have typically taken opposing approaches to sin and sanctification.

Evangelicalism has typically focused on sin as a problem with individuals. I choose to sin, personally disobeying God, loving things other than the Lord my God with heart, soul, mind, and strength first. If society as a whole is debauched or unjust, it is because of the collective individuals of which it consists. Liberalism has typically given priority to society and structural issues. Sin is less about personal acts of unrighteousness, but rather unjust systems of oppression that trap people in harmful, destructive behavioral cycles. If holiness is to be achieved, we must change the social structures first and the individual issues will be mended from there.

So which is it? The sinful self or the circumstances that lead to sin? Jurgen Moltmann weighs in:

‘Change yourself’ some say, ‘and then your circumstances will also change.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is supposed to have to do only with persons. Unfortunately the circumstances will not oblige. Capitalism, racism, and inhuman technocracy quietly develop in their own way. The causes of misery are no longer to be found in the inner attitudes of men, but have long been institutionalized.

‘Change the circumstances’ others say, ‘and men will change with them.’ The kingdom of God and of freedom is supposed to be a matter only of circumstances and structures. Unfortunately, however, men will not oblige. Breakdowns in marriage, drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism continue undisturbed. Structures which make people unhappy can be broken down, but no guarantee is attached that men will be happy.

Thus both must be done at the same time. Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well.  But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else.

-The Crucified God, pg. 23

Once again, the Gospel is a simple message but it is not simplistic. We need salvation both from our own personal sin and rebellion, as well as the redemption of broken social structures that are generated by and aggravate that rebellion. Evangelical that I am, I think the latter is rooted in the former; in the narrative of Scripture, sin moves progresses from the personal (the garden, Gen. 3) to the social (Babel, Gen. 11). Still, it does not help to ignore either as we think through reality of redemption.

Now, as always, its beyond me to suggest how that all plays out. I work in the local church, primarily at the level of the individual, and am only now framing my theology of how the Church, either as an organism or an institution, should be engaged in social change. I do know that as I continue to pursue these questions, I don’t have to panic as the world is firmly in Jesus’ saving hands.

Soli Deo Gloria