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Posts from the ‘Christian Living’ Category

Notes on “How Should Christians Have Sex?”

Katelyn Beaty wrote this opinion piece in the New York Times last month. Read it before continuing here.

A majority of adults who came of age in evangelical churches in the 1990s and 2000s were exposed to “purity culture,” a term for teachings that stressed sexual abstinence before marriage. We had our own rituals, such as “purity balls,” and our own merchandise, such as “purity rings.” I had a “Wait for Me Journal” that I kept as a college freshman; created by a prominent Christian pop singer, the journal was designed to hold letters to my future husband. It held out the promise that if I remained pure, then God would reward good behavior with a husband — surely before I turned 30 so that we could have lots of children.

Somehow God and I got our wires crossed, because the husband hasn’t arrived. Twenty years later, I no longer subscribe to purity culture, largely because it never had anything to say to Christians past the age of 23. Yet lately, I also find myself mourning the loss of the coherent sexual ethic that purity culture tried to offer. Is consent culture the best that we have in its place?

Since this topic will be my Senior Thesis next year (sexuality education and discipleship in the local church) I am very invested in the same questions as Beaty. She wants to navigate between two failed paradigms. On the right, we have the 1990’s Purity Culture with its shame-based, gender-imbalanced, legalistic tendencies. On the left, a teaching “that simply baptizes casual sex in the name of self-expression and divorces sex from covenant faithfulness and self-sacrificial love.” However, there is a massive gulf between these paradigms. Where, exactly, we land between them will depend on the types of constructive theology we use to think about sex.

Beaty gives a few constructive ideas.

  • Spiritual Covenant. The proponents of purity culture “were trying to offer us the gift of sex within marriage. As Christianity teaches that marriage is not simply a legal bind but a spiritual covenant, so married sex is a bodily expression that two people will be for each other, through all seasons.”
  • Sacrament. “[T]he Christian teaching on sacramentality is helpful. All creation, including human bodies, by grace reveals deeper spiritual truth. In other words, matter matters. So when a person engages another person sexually, Christians would say, it’s not “just” bodies enacting natural evolutionary urges but also an encounter with another soul.”
  • More than Consent. “two people can consent to something that’s nonetheless damaging or selfish. Consent crucially protects against sexual assault and other forms of coercion. But it doesn’t necessarily protect against people using one another in quieter ways. I long for more robust categories of right and wrong besides consent — a baseline, but only that — and more than a general reminder not to be a jerk.”

I love these ideas. I think they are all good and they belong in every new constructive proposal of Christian sexuality. I also have some notes of my own. Please take these as tentative, debatable, and yet-to-be-systematized, and feel free to reply with your own ideas. This work is done better together.

First, the teaching, “don’t have sex before marriage” has nothing positive to say about singleness. I get what not to do, but what do I do? Does the church have any remaining advice for me as someone intentionally not seeking marriage? Or have I exhausted the church’s teaching on sexuality? Purity Culture implied that singleness does not actually exist on its own, but rather singleness is only the absence of marriage, like cold does not exist but is the absence of heat. This is profoundly mistaken. There really is a positive content to what singleness can be, but by only “enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce,” the Purity Culture church failed to “pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?” The only accepted form of non-marital relationships in our churches are dating relationships which are aimed at eventual marriage. Until we can talk about non-dating (and therefore non-eventually-marrying) relationships in a Christian way, we will not have any real alternatives to the Get Married Quick / Sin Sin Sin dichotomy that surrounds us. If we had any positive vision for what singleness could consist in, we could implicitly — almost accidentally — solve most of these problems.

Second, the proscription against sex before marriage does not help anyone navigate the bounds of sex within marriage. Once you get married, does ‘anything go’? Beaty makes this point by saying that consent does not stop “people using one another in quieter ways.” We need some type of framework for Christian sex within marriage, not just a prohibition on sex outside of marriage. One of my favorite films at the Chicago Critics film festival last month was Pink Wall. The movie follows a couple over six scenes, each in a different year of their six-year relationship. Things are bad, and they only get worse. Interestingly, though there was no sex shown in the film, at the Q&A afterwords director Tom Cullen commented that Pink Wall is about ‘the ways that sex, even consensual sex in a committed relationship, can be used as a weapon against another person.’ I think this is incredibly telling. Can’t the same be said about “don’t have sex before marriage”? Like “don’t rape,” that basic ethic is necessary, but not sufficient. One example in the film (that Paul also comments on) is sexual deprivation. Sexual deprivation is a major topic within the sex life of a married couple, but what guidance does the church have on it? While (1) a spouse is not “owed” sex on any given occasion, and (2) the other spouse certainly does not have a “right” to sex simply because they are married, and (3) yes marital rape does exist and is evil, and (4) this goes both ways, not just deprivation of the man but also of the woman… there still can be ways to weaponize sexual deprivation with the intent to emotionally scar the spouse. This would be wrong and un-loving, and therefore un-Christian, but does Purity Culture have anything to say about it?

Third, Purity Culture placed a major emphasis on virginity. I argue that virginity is not a “grace concept” because it does not have the possibility of forgiveness and it defies restoration. Rather, we should talk about ‘everyday purity,’ or ‘faithful Christian sexuality,’ or some other term that can continue to exist after it has been broken. When the Christian teaching gets over-simplified even further from “don’t have sex until marriage” to “remain a virgin until marriage,” we lose any hope for someone who loses their virginity and therefore is categorically “unclean” for the rest of their singleness. (Not to mention victims of rape). If a Christian loses their virginity before marriage, and their only ethic is “don’t lose your virginity before marriage,” there is a certain “well whatever, might as well keep having sex” attitude that naturally emerges. This licentiousness is the result of our biblically unnecessary emphasis on virginity.

Fourth, the emphasis on virginity has a simple work-around: oral sex, anal sex, mutual or solo masturbation, and use of pornography are all ways to avoid technically losing virginity. Mark Regnerus in his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex & Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers (2007, pp. 163-182) makes the point, with qualifications. He found that non-vaginal “technical virginity” practices exist. They are more common in Mainline Protestant and Jewish youth than in more conservative groups. But he also found in the same chapter that more conservative youth were highly reluctant to talk about these practices, often opting to skip the question (especially on pornography use). I suspect, given this silence and the 12 years passed since Regnerus’s study, that this practice is significantly more common now than before, especially among conservative religious youth. I have a shocking story about some comments a few students of mine made in this vein, but that deserves its own entire blog post. My point here is that teaching on virginity and against pregnancy and STD’s as the main issue with pre-marital sex does not cover all or even half the practices condemned in Christian sexual ethics. Instead we need a way to understand these other practices as sex, which I would say is that they are embodied. My friend Matt uses the language of “doing what is fitting” and “fittingness.” There are many other views as well. Much more thinking to do here.

Fifth, one real proposal I have for one piece of a Christian sexual ethic is kenosis. Kenosis is the original word for “emptying yourself,” as Paul writes about Jesus in Philippians 2:7. Christians are called in all aspects of life to imitate Jesus’s humility. He emptied himself in the incarnation and made himself nothing in order to serve others. This is the call to unconditional love, altruism, and self-sacrifice. How often do you think of self-sacrifice when you think of sex? Literally never. The cultural conception of sex we have inherited is defined only by receiving pleasure, never sacrificing it. But Christian sex which imitates the sacrificial attitude of Jesus would never be centered on our own pleasure, only on that of the spouse. I had a professor at Trinity who said (and it was very TMI as a college freshman) that the goal of married Christian sex is to bring the other person to orgasm, not per se yourself. Figure out what they like, and do that, at the expense of your preferences. (This only works if both spouses do so equally). Kenosis in sex is radically different from American hook-up culture, with all its self-gratification, lazy sensuality, and casual disregard for the other person. Again, kenosis would be only one aspect of a broader Christian sexual ethic that needs to be built in the wake of Purity Culture.

Sixth, we cannot have discussions about Christian sexuality as long as the topic remains brutally taboo in Christian spaces. I lament the discipleship that happens in youth ministry because I know it ignores 90% if not 100% of the real struggles going on in students’ lives. As much as we don’t want to overplay sexual ethics to the detriment of our students’ young faith… we do more harm when we leave them without resources to understand the Christian teaching on sexuality and without contexts where they can process these things with other students. I worked with Jr. High students the past two years at church, and both years we talked about sexual purity for 90 minutes each year. God have mercy on us on judgement day when we stand accountable for our failure to shepherd these confused and helpless students. We know — we absolutely KNOW — that parents are not doing this either. But those same parents will claim “parents are the primary disciplers of their children,” which is the almighty trump card in youth ministry in 2019. The students are then left without Christian access to sexual information, and the internet fills the void. What an embarrassment. The problem extends beyond youth ministry, where parents censor the conversations their kids have. In adult-aged ministry, everyone censors their own conversations, because of unhealthy norms around “keeping it rated G” and “having no unwholesome talk.” As a result, sexuality in the church remains one of the only topic/context combinations in America that resembles an honor/shame culture. For the sake of our santification as individuals and corporately, this cannot be so.

Seventh, Beaty is absolutely correct when she writes that “Young women, who were expected to manage men’s lust as well as their own, fared the worst.” The gender imbalance in Purity Culture was no mystery to me as a middle school student. Girls were told not to wear skimpy clothes or they might lead the boys astray. More challenging, but more helpful for my discipleship (I am gay and never cared what the girls wore), would have been the teaching that everyone is responsible for repentance of their own lust. Or consider the words of Jesus, that “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” (No, this is not out of context, because in verses 22-23 he includes several sexual sins as well). I cannot imagine the additional weight of constantly self-monitoring to make sure that you don’t trigger others. I have never had to do that, thankfully, and in a new model of Christian sexuality discipleship, girls would not face the total brunt of that weight. Anyways, non-Christians will continue to dress immodestly (by Christian standards), no matter what the Church teaches its people. So it is necessary, inside Christian spaces as well as outside, to begin to condition ourselves to hold ourselves accountable for our sin rather than blaming it on others. Maybe the other person does have some culpability for “causing me to stumble,” but my primary concern should always be to eliminate my own sin, not theirs.

Eighth, any teaching on Christian sexual ethics that functions as Law will be subject to the same critique of the law that Paul gives generally. Paul’s general critique is that the law actually is good, but it produces death in us because we are sinful by nature. Maybe in some hypothetical universe where humans don’t have a sinful nature, the law could have worked out well. But instead, in our fallenness, the “gift” of the law is actually a curse that leaves us worse off than before we received it. Now consider the main purity teaching. Being told, “Don’t have sex before marriage” does not actually help a person to not desire having sex, and in fact tells them exactly what to do in order to break the rule, so you can guess what will happen next. Instead of understanding Christian sexual ethics as regulatory law, we need to reframe the entire discussion in other terms, hopefully terms closer to the NT virtue ethics of life in the Spirit.

Ninth, Christian sex should be totally decentered from the meaning of the marriage relationship and the meaning of any person’s life. I’m afraid that Purity Culture was so emphasized in my church upbringing (while simultaneously not being talked about, almost ever!) that I began to understand myself, consciously or not, as a “sexual being” whose main goal in Christian sanctification was to avoid sexual sin. But we will have no such focus on sex in the eschatological kingdom, where we will be like the angels, neither married nor given in marriage, Jesus says. Our eschatological sexlessness should be great encouragement to those pursuing celibacy that sex is not essential to a meaningful life anyways. It should remind married people that their sex serves the greater purpose of uniting them in relational intimacy, rather than being an end in itself. It should warn unmarried but sexually active Christians that they are needlessly conditioning their earthly bodies against the reality of their heavenly body. The sexless eschatological state also serves as a powerful rebuke of our cultural moment and its relentlessly sexual outlook. In each of these cases what needs to be eliminated is not sex but the total and final significance we place on sex.

Tenth, (and I’m tempted to just dump the entire transcript of this talk by Matthew Lee Anderson here), we need to understand sexual desire in more particular categories than those delivered to us by Freudian or evolutionary psychology. In his talk Anderson comments at length about non-sexual attraction and argues that we need an “inadvertant, sidways point of view” on what constitutes sexual attraction, a view that is “deflationary.” He has in mind a view that sees “the formation of our aesthetic vision as the presupposition and context of our sexual desire.” He and Nate Collins have made this point, that sexual attraction is primarily about seeing, noticing, and observing things about the other person. This maneuver breaks down “sexual attraction” into two parts, a non-sexual “attraction” to what is true, good, and beautiful in others, and then in a second part, a sexualization of that attraction. Thinking this way has been fruitful in my own life the past year as I have considered my friendships and what draws me towards certain people. It decouples the parts of those relationships that must be mortified (because they are sinful) from those parts that must be sanctified (because they are not sinful). This means that, in my case, I can be friends with other men! And in the case of straight Christians, men and women can be friends, given certain prudent boundaries, without the friendship being morally suspect. I think the tension in male-female friendships prevents so much good that could be done in the Church. Like our sexuality itself, this tension will not be found on the Mountain of God.

THESE have been my thoughts, with links to other resources that can help continue the conversation. I have very definite opinions about points #1, 2, 3, 6, and 7, but less definite opinions about #4, 5, 8, 9, and 10. In other words, some of my arguments above are loose, speculative, and in need of further reflection. (If you point out flaws in them, I will back down immediately and disown them). Anyways, I still need to elaborate these points into particular applications, naming exactly what I would change and exactly how. That will be my Senior Thesis.

What do you think? How should the evangelical church continue to think about sex, while avoiding the deficiencies of progressive Christian sexuality and the excesses of Purity Culture?

Photo by Mohan Murugesan on Unsplash

Henri Nouwen talks about suffering and joy

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The spiritual life radically changes everything. Being born and growing up, leaving home and finding a career, being praised and being rejected, walking and resting, praying and playing, becoming ill and being healed — yes, living and dying — they all become expressions of that divine question: “Do you love me?” And at every point of the journey there is the choice to say “Yes” and the choice to say “No.”

Once you are able to catch a glimpse of that spiritual vision, you can see how the many distinctions that are so central in our daily living lose their meaning. When joy and pain are both opportunities to say “Yes” to our divine childhood, then they are more alike than they are different. When the experience of being awarded a prize and the experience of being found lacking in excellence both offer us a chance to claim our true identity as the “Beloved” of God, these experiences are more similar than they are different. When feeling lonely and feeling at home both hold a call to discover more fully who the God is whose children we are, these feelings are more united than they are distinct. When, finally, both living and dying bring us closer to the full realization of our spiritual selfhood, they are not the great opposites the world would have us believe; they are, instead, two sides of the same mystery of God’s love. Living the spiritual life means living life as one unified reality…

What I most want to say is that when the totality of our daily lives is lived “from above,” that is, as the Beloved sent into the world, then everyone we meet and everything that happens to us becomes a unique opportunity to choose for the life that cannot be conquered by death. Thus, both joy and suffering become part of the way to our spiritual fulfillment. I found this vision movingly expressed by the novelist Julien Green in a letter to his friend, the French Philosopher Jacques Maritain. He writes: “…when you think of the mystical experiences of many saints, you may ask yourself whether joy and suffering aren’t aspects of the same phenomenon on a very high level. An analogy, crazy for sure, comes to my mind: extreme cold burns. It seems nearly certain, no, it is certain, that we can only go to God through suffering and that this suffering becomes joy because it finally is the same thing.”

Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 106-109.

Photo by DAVIDCOHEN on Unsplash

Therefore I will hope in him.

He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

For the Lord will not
cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
or grieve the children of men.

“I called on your name, O Lord,
from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, ‘Do not close
your ear to my cry for help!’
You came near when I called on you;
you said, ‘Do not fear!’

“You have taken up my cause, O Lord;
you have redeemed my life.”

Lamentations 3:16-24; 31-33; 55-58

Of me, as Ross

Ramrod straight I sat in that chair as my heart pounded away. The time came. There was a door in the corner of my eye, waiting for me to walk out, run away, do anything else with my late afternoon but this. I was tapping my fingers in some weird pattern, I don’t know what or why. A few in that small room might have been getting uncomfortable because I was making intense, sustained eye contact with each. Could they see my nerves? I haven’t said anything, but maybe my tells were obvious. Sometimes the tension gets the best of me. In this moment more than ever.

My therapy support group isn’t judgmental, so I don’t know why I panicked. In my journal that night I jotted down some ideas. Here’s the one I landed on:

But those words, those words, they carry the meaning of 20 pages compressed into three syllables: I am gay. The kind of sentence that should take 10 minutes to speak but comes out in seconds. Something so deeply buried in me doesn’t feel right to be released so fast. With a single clause the perceptions of me held by those in the room become completely out of my control — a bizarre feeling, seeing as I seem to spend all of my social energy on perception management. I lose a certain power when I become so vulnerable. The guys in the group took it well. They either said nothing or were affirming of me. Not in a theologico-sexual way. But of me, as Ross.

These guys are grace and peace to me. Coming out was the most difficult thing in my life and I’m glad to have had their support.

I’m gay. I’m homosexual. I’m a homosexual. I have homosexuality. I experience same-sex attraction. I’m same sex attracted. (That’s six ways to say something I have never said publicly before). I have been this way since hitting puberty, and in my life I have never been sexually attracted to a woman. Even once. I dated some girls along the way and had genuine emotional attraction to them, but that didn’t lead anywhere physically past friendship.

However, I have had consistent strong sexual attraction for other guys. You would think that this fact would have… tipped me off? To think, Gee, huh, maybe I’m gay? But that’s not how denial works. It took honesty and courage to come out to myself and that didn’t happen until the Fall of 2018. For years I had known about my sexual attraction to men but never realized the depth and exclusivity of these attractions. At some earlier points I had used terms like asexual. But I could not deny that I had sexual attraction going on. So maybe bisexual? But I could not deny that I simply did not have any attraction to women. Maybe that means I’m asexual with respect to women… and… um… and… and… that’s where the sidewalk ends. That’s when I couldn’t sustain the denial any longer. I began to recognize and name my same-sex attraction and tell a few trustworthy people.

My friends asked about my faith. After all — they reminded me — I am in seminary to become a pastor. The answer is complex, so I’ll write more in the future, but three things for now.

  • First, I believe that my same-sex attraction is a result of the Fall but is not itself sin. God intends marriage to be a male-female union, so I will not marry or date.
  • Second, my lack of opposite-sex attraction means that I am called to singleness which is celibacy with Christ. Thankfully singleness is better than marriage! 1 Corinthians 7:32-35.
  • Third, and the product of the first two points, I will find relational fulfillment not in one spouse but in a whole community of people, the body of Christ. I will pursue spiritual friendship by loving friends and being loved by them in the life-together of the local church.

As for pastoral ministry I see no necessary problems. Of course there are all the unnecessary problems. Like some who fear that I might infect them with my gayness. Nobody admits to thinking this but they do, you can tell. Or the outcry when I change some minor aesthetic detail (wall decorations, what type of stirring rods we use in our coffee, etc.) and the decision is attributed to my sexuality. Yes, these trivial things come up in church life. Or people who assume I will be political about sexuality all the time. Or others who think (groundlessly) that I will abuse their children. Or still others who run out of arguments and throw up their hands, saying, “We just prefer the other candidate.” I’ll deal with those responses as they come. But there are no necessary reasons why I would be excluded from pastoral ministry. I follow the example of singleness set by Paul and more importantly by Jesus himself.

I don’t care to defend myself. I don’t need to argue, though a close friend once described my love language simply as “debate.” Some people will stereotype me and others will flock to me, choosing me as their token gay friend. Both of these responses are frustrating but I will get over myself and deal with it. Some kindhearted people will thoroughly critique my use of the word “gay.” Okay. Kind of an in-house argument among us same-sex attracted Christians, so probably stop caring so much about that. Less kindhearted people will attack me for using “gay” as a pretext for their broader intent to malign and slander me. In the gentle authority of Jesus’s name please stop.

Instead, here is what I ask of you. Can you do what the gracious people in my support group did? Can you put aside for now your theories about what went wrong in my body (or my childhood development, or in my DNA, or etc. etc. etc.) and instead accept me? Not accept my actions as moral or reject them as immoral. Again, that is still a judgement, an evaluation. Can you be accepting of me, as me? Of me, as Ross?

I’ll lose Christian friends because they disagree with homosexuality. This makes no sense to me, as I do not have gay sex. But still I’ll lose friends. On the other side I’ll lose non-Christian friends because they will see my sexual ethics as self-repressive and hostile to other gay people. Rejected by some conservatives as too liberal, and by some liberals as too conservative, I’m caught in a trap I hate, defending a position I didn’t choose. Can you move past that with me? With me, as me? With me, as Ross?

Let’s talk about Ross. Ross likes to watch movies, especially Westerns and Thrillers. (Bonus points for Western Thrillers). Ross does dumb talent show performances, calls them “art,” and then refuses to explain their true meaning. Ross goes to college where he studies philosophy and ministry. Ross complains about the dining hall at school but appreciates it in secret. Ross gets riled up and wants to make everything a debate, because that’s somehow the way his mind is wired. Ross used to run Cross Country but out of laziness no longer runs or exercises at all. Ross cares about the migration crisis and wants to learn Spanish so he can be helpful to a Chicago-area immigrant ministry. Ross loves Junior High students and in many ways still is one. When he is angry Ross shuts down instead of lashing out. When he is sad Ross isolates himself and waits for it to pass. When he is humored, you will hear it, whether you are in the same room or not. Ross loves Jesus and has found more meaning in that relationship than in all others combined. And so Ross loves the Bible, because Jesus loved the Bible, and Ross wants to be like him. Ross sometimes runs out of socks and has to wear used ones twice. When it gets bad, he just goes to the store and buys more socks. That should solve the problem, he thinks.

Guys, this is me. I’m more than my sexuality. I’m more than my coming out narrative. I’m more than the prejudice and invective that mindless people hurl at gay folk every day. Forget all that. Can you love me? Can you love me, as me? Can you love me, as Ross?

Thank you for your understanding. Thank you for your grace. Above all, thank you for your friendship. To me it means everything.

Love,
Ross

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Thanks Todd for the photos!

Thanks Tim, Stephen, Josh, and Steve for helping me write this post!

With Reverence and Humility

The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906 - Paul Cezanne

Found this today in a commentary on Romans 1. Take these words from Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones to heart.


Let us learn these simple lessons as we move on. We put the creature before the Creator whenever we put any single idea of our own before the revelation of Scripture. I feel like repeating that. To put any idea of our own before Scripture is to be guilty of this very sin of putting the creature before the Creator, our ideas rather than what the Bible says, or what God has revealed. ‘Ah’, we say, ‘but I don’t understand that; I don’t see how God would be fair if He did this and that’. That may be what you say; and it may be what you think. The question is, What is revealed? What does God say about Himself? My friends, we are not meant to understand all we read in the Scriptures. It is beyond us. Our minds are too small, and we are born in sin. We come to this as little children, not to comprehend it all, but to worship and to praise, and to receive it. And if we start putting our ideas or difficulties or thoughts or feelings before the Scripture, we have already partly become guilty of this terrible, serious charge of putting and worshipping the creature before the Creator.

Let us, therefore, always approach the Word of God with reverence and with humility. Let us never come to read it without praying to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Let us come to learn, not to have our prejudices confirmed, or to turn something down. Let us come with open minds. Let us receive the words, lest in our modern fashion we may be guilty of this very thing which the Apostle charges those people of ancient times [Romans 1:21-23]. And above all, let us ever, as we think of Him and talk about Him, remember who He is and what He is. We forget that sometimes, do we not? Perhaps something has been going wrong — we may find ourselves like that man in the seventy-third Psalm, who had been having a hard time while the ungodly were very prosperous and begin to say, ‘Why does God . . .?’ Oh, my dear friends, the next time that thought or feeling arises in your breast, stop for a moment and remember that you are thinking and speaking about the uncorruptible God, this glorious Being, glorious in His holiness, infinity, and majesty! Let us put our hands upon our mouths and be content to wait until He reveals His purpose to us. How dangerous it is to speak, without thinking, about God, the Creator ‘who is blessed forever, Amen.’ Let us stop for a moment! God forbid that we should ever be guilty of speaking about God in a manner that is unworthy!


Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans 1: The Gospel of God, 387, commenting on Romans 1:18-23.

Painting (unrelated): Paul Cézanne, The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906.

More Wisdom from “Help for the New Pastor”

To add to yesterday’s post, here is another passage from Charles Malcolm Wingard’s book, Help for the New Pastor. This is a great read; it would be helpful for anyone… to whom it applies. So, new pastors. Or seminarians.

This time, here is some advice on Social Media use.

My personal rule for social media is simple: it is an extension of my ministry. If information does not advance the work of my church or seminary, I do not post it on my blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

My posts tend to fall into two categories: events of church and school, and celebrating the achievements of the people I serve.

What about matters of political controversy? I assume that the world does not need my opinion about political candidates or public policy. I gladly leave that to others.

My personal opinions are best shared in private, if at all. Why needlessly offend members or potential members of my church? If, for example, I endorse a candidate, why run the risk of alienating persons who will vote for the other candidate? Unlike some ministers and Christian celebrities, I don’t think I can say of any man, “He is God’s candidate.”

Whether I like it or not, my social media will be judged to represent the churches I serve. They don’t endorse candidates or issue public-policy statement, nor will I. If I were voicing my political beliefs on social media, readers might wrongly conclude that I speak for my church on these matters.

I do not deny that these are pressing moral issues that the church must think through. Abortion, the nature of marriage, racial justice, and poverty are just a few that come to mind. As these issues arise in Scripture, the minister must declare the mind of God from the pulpit.

But the crafting of legislation and public-policy solutions is not the work of the minister or the church. Forums can be established by concerned and competent Christians to help believers understand and think through complex issues. Often, even when Christians agree on the problem, they disagree on public-policy solutions. The pastor can do more good by pointing people to forums that host reasonable and informed debate than he can by wading into controversy himself.

Additional thoughts about social media:

  • Too often pastors address complex issues about which they have no competence to speak. They embarrass themselves and their churches.
  • I steer clear of theological controversy. Comments on Facebook do not lend themselves to thoughtful discussion — the kind I wish to promote.
  • Many social media sites drive readership by trafficking in outrage and personal attacks — precisely the opposite of the climate I want in my church.
  • When I comment on someone else’s Facebook page, it is ordinarily a congratulatory note or a word of encouragement or a promise of prayer. I want to build goodwill.
  • Some pastors get into trouble with what they think are humorous posts. What they find humorous might needlessly offend members of their own congregation or people we would like to see visit our congregation. So be careful.
  • I am first and foremost a minister of the gospel. All else must be subordinated to that work, even my deeply held political and policy convictions.

Handle social media with extreme care. (80-82)

This is advice that we all have learned, in some ways, from the last presidential election cycle. But in May, when that cycle begins afresh with all its dehumanizing vitriol, we will be tempted to forget what we have learned. Rage! Fury! Opinions! I myself need to be very careful of this approach. Not because I fear other people, or even for the considerations Wingard gives, but because of the spirit of critique it fosters in my own heart. Such a spirit is unhelpful in all of the Christian life.

Wingard also recommends that we find level-headed sources for politics, and just direct people to those instead of trying to be that source ourselves. I agree. From his position as a pastor, it makes sense. Why do a poor impression of someone else’s work when they could just do it for you? I only have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (Or, 16 waking hours a day, and 6 days a week because of Sabbath?). This is really sound advice.

Alright, that’s enough. I probably can’t post a third excerpt from the book or P&R Publishing might send WordPress a take-down notice for copyright infringement. (Publishers have bots nowadays that find long excerpts from their books). But if I could, it would be his comments on prayer from 167-172.

Hymns and Songs

I have enjoyed reading Charles Malcolm Wingard’s book Help for the New Pastor over the past week. This book was part of the selection for Together for the Gospel earlier this year. I probably wouldn’t have bought it otherwise, but thankfully it has landed in my hands. Some of it won’t apply until I graduate in a few years (e.g. how to conduct funerals), but Wingard is full of the wisdom that comes from years and years of experience. Again, I’m thankful to have been given this book.

Something worth sharing: his thoughts on selecting hymns and songs for corporate worship.

The best hymns take their cues from the psalms. As they are sung, believers adore God’s character, praise him for his works of creation and redemption, express trust in the finished work of Christ, consider the sobering distinction between the righteous and the wicked, and exhort one another to covenant faithfulness in the midst of struggles, fears, and doubts.

Apart from its fidelity to Scripture, the most important requirement for a hymn is that the congregation be able to sing it with confidence. During your first year at a new church, work with your accompanist or music director to determine which hymns your congregation knows and sings well. This is especially important in smaller congregations. When numbers are small and your people can’t sing the chosen hymns, a musical train wreck leaves everyone discouraged.

One new hymn every two months is plenty. When introducing new hymn tunes, have the accompanist or musicians play through an entire stanza once, so that people can hear the tune. If you have a choir or band, let it sing or play the hymn the previous week as an introit or offertory, and then sing or play the first stanza on the Sunday the hymn is introduced. The congregation can listen and then join in singing the first stanza again, followed by the remainder of the hymn. With a little forethought, you can help your congregation sing confidently.

Even if your congregation is comfortable with only a small number of hymns, you are in good shape. You can work to build its repertoire over time. If you think a song would enrich your congregation’s worship, but they don’t know the tune, substitute a well-known tune in the same meter. If you don’t know what a hymn’s meter is, ask your accompanist to explain. (54-55)

What a refreshing perspective. So much of contemporary worship thought is focused on the performance quality, instrumental variety, the display of emotion from the stage… but Wingard seems laser-focused on the congregation’s ability to sing. I would add to his advice that most syncopated rhythms are going to be unsingable for most people. And worse, too, if they have thirds, forths, fifths, or my goodness, sixths intervals throughout. Most singable tunes have most intervals as steps; it just works.

I love his point that the best songs in worship take their cues from the Psalms. This is why I love Jonathan Ogden’s work. And the solo projects that John Foreman did… ten years ago??? They have enriched my walk with Christ by reminding me of the psalms He would have so often read and prayed through.

A final thought: if the point of worship music is congregational singing, then it would not make sense to have a super loud band. (It also does not make sense to have carpeted floors, or hall-arranged sanctuaries, or synth noise).

Reflecting on this summer of camp ministry

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As the campers left grounds on Saturday, and then hours later the entire summer staff did too, our season of ministry at Timber-lee came to an abrupt end. I felt the whiplash of a quick transition from a mentality of full-steam-ahead-don’t-quit-until-the-end to suddenly one of wait-what-it’s-the-end-how-do-I-act-normal-again in just a few hours.

I had two groups of elementary school aged campers, three groups in middle school, and two groups in high school. Eight straight weeks with a maximum time-off of about four days over the 4th of July break. While I recover from this sprint-marathon of a summer, I want to offer up some reflections about what God has been teaching me, and maybe give an example or two to illustrate each point. Interspersed are some photos from this summer that our camp photographer captured (and they are unrelated to the text surrounding them, just general photos). This post is more for my own personal benefit than yours — after all, most of what I learned has been learned from experience, and therefore is not something I can communicate in writing. But whatever. Here I am writing it anyways, and here you are reading it anyways.

 

10 Reflections From This Summer of Camp Ministry

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1. Being vulnerable even to those who look up to you. Something I did not understand before is that I had tried to present myself as perfect rather than the lazy, slobbish, forgetful, doubting, undisciplined, worried person that I actually am. Presenting myself as perfect is hard to avoid because I want to be a good influence, and ultimately my influence should be towards Jesus, who was perfect. Why would I want them to see anything other than Christ in me?

For whatever reason, during high school week I got real with my cabin one night. We were talking about global missions and the need for people to leave North America, leveraging their jobs for the spread of the Gospel. It was a great conversation. And then I shared something that had happened to me back in April. I was at Together for the Gospel, T4G, in Louisville. What I did not realize prior to arriving was that I had signed up for all of my breakout sessions with David Platt. All of them. I love Platt — his sermons have influenced me greatly over the last few years — so this was not a problem.

At one of his sessions Platt asked us to pray, “God, send me wherever you want to send me,” even if you are convinced that God has no plans to send you abroad. Just to have the willingness at heart to pray that prayer, no matter what actually comes of it. I started to pray it, but stopped myself. I couldn’t say it. I felt fear creeping up in me, fear that I didn’t know I had until that moment. And for almost the whole rest of the conference I was consumed with the question, do I really trust God with my eternal life if I can’t trust him with my current life?  There was a whole mix of emotions bouncing around inside me: fear, confusion, hypocrisy, frustration. Like I had somehow failed at being a “good Christian.”

I shared all this with the few campers sitting around at the time. Matt, Thomas, Ty, maybe a few others. Matt commented words like, “Gee, Ross, this is all so different from last year. I just remember you being this perfect counselor, but now you are telling us all these things you are failing at and still working on.” Which was a hillariously on-character comment if you know and love Matt as I do. I’ve been slowly learning to share stories like this one. Because even though the person I’m pointing to is perfect, I am not and never will be perfect. And my campers are not and never will be perfect. What they need is not some far-off vision of what a flawless Christian looks like. They need to see someone who struggles in different ways, as they do, so that they can see how to process through those struggles. That is far, far more helpful.

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2. God’s sovereignty. I guess I’ve always been a big fat Calvinist. Though for the past two years I’ve found different theological systems to help me understand it all. This summer there were some changes here. The first was that I began to process on a new level some of the implications of God’s sovereign election. My spotify playlist for the summer was almost all King’s Kaleidoscope and Beautiful Eulogy, so you can imagine why. If I’m so convinced that salvation is not a gift to be accepted or rejected but rather God’s effectual calling drawing to himself his elect, then maybe I should stop explaining salvation to kids like its a prayer or a commitment you make to God. Maybe I should explain the gravity of sin to them and see if God by his Spirit begins to change their hearts from the inside out. Maybe I should pray for them more and talk a little less. Maybe.

It’s also crazy to see God’s providential hand guiding different situations that have happened. Like, the one kid who accidentally forgot to sign up for the high ropes course is the same kid who had tons of questions about God that he wants to ask me one on one. Well, thanks to his forgetfulness during the sign up paperwork, we had two hours to talk, just me and him. And that conversation was, by his account, potentially life-changing.

Or another camper, who I met while volunteering in 2014 and 2015, and then had in my cabin in 2016, and then bonded with a lot in 2017, and then had again this year. He got to camp and found out he was in some random other cabin, not with me or the friends he came with. We scrambled very last minute to rearrange things, and it all worked out because someone had last-minute dropped who was supposed to be in my cabin. Which meant I had seven campers, and thus an open spot for this kid. God directed that process, somehow, so that it all worked out. I had a borderline-life-changing week with him, too.

Strange to say it this way, but I also saw God’s providence in my sickness. Halfway through the summer I developed bronchitis, and then two separate upper respiratory infections, a bad stomach bug, a normal cold, and then a sinus infection. My health was nearing an all-time low at one point, when several of these were overlapping. But God in his providence directed these circumstances so that… actually, I probably shouldn’t write this story and post it on the internet where it will remain forever. But let’s just say that it was 1. absurd, 2. miraculous, 3. involved some screamo preaching, and 4. was based on Romans 6 and Colossians 3 and may be the subject of a future blog post. God is good, and in his wisdom directs even garbage situations like my run of illnesses to result in good.

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3. That 14 year olds are adults. I began research for my Senior Thesis this summer. The project will focus on the Age of Majority and how it’s a total mirage that was constructed 100 years ago. One of the relevant books I have been reading this summer is Robert Epstein’s The Case Against Adolescence (which I know is not the best book on this subject but it will work as a starting point). The whole idea is that the category of “adolescence” was socially constructed to accommodate a new social strata of industrialized societies, and their middle classes, even though there is no basis in biology for this category. The result is a fundamental mismatch between a teenager’s capacities and their expectations, the capacities being way higher than what we expect of teens. And so we are “infantalizing” them, or babying them along instead of expecting them to act like adults.

The obvious implication is that we should use biology, not social convention, to decide when someone becomes an adult. The biological marker would be puberty. The social convention would be 18. Something I was reflecting on the whole summer was the rapid rate of change in my campers by their age — just how different a 10 year old is from a 12 year old, and just. how. different. a 12 year old is compared to a 14 year old. I’m not sure that I have all the developmental categories straight to explain it yet (which is the goal of my Thesis), but it was clear to me that my campers entering 8th grade and above were in every functional way adults. Which meant that for them, I pushed hard on understanding the Bible and on living a full Christian life. Much harder than I think I had pushed in past years.

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4. Helping boys express their emotions. In May I watched a documentary called “The Mask You Live In” that dealt with the gendered social expectations of American boys and the harmful effects this can have. I didn’t love it, but the documentary said some valuable things and helped me assemble my thoughts on this topic. The main one is this: that our society conditions boys to not feel emotions. But… you can’t not feel emotions. Feeling emotions is just part of being human. So what our society actually does is condition boys to not express their feelings, or only express them in unhelpful ways.

I cannot tell you how many times this issue came up with my campers. Maybe a hundred times. And I only had about 50 campers. Boys are trained to bottle up their feelings, and move on. (Then bottle up the next feelings, and move on, and then the next ones, and move on). This continues until they no longer have the capacity to hold them in, and they have a mega-meltdown and let everything come flying out. Unfortunately, even here this doesn’t work because you cannot ever really, fully conjure back up feelings that you have repressed. You can only bring back half the passion. This is why recognizing and expressing feelings in the moment is so important. Not that boys need to cry all the time, like when they stub their toe playing soccer. Holding back those tears can be an act of courage to continue on in the game. But other tears — like in the death of a close friend, for one of my campers — need to be shed.

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5. The Local Church is where it’s at. One of the inherent flaws of camp ministry is that it only lasts 6 days a year, but the camper is living the Christian life for all 365. There are so many friendships made this summer that I wish I could continue, but it is just not feasible to travel outside my little North Suburban area. I am so limited in what I can do for these kids after they leave. The most is to reply to their emails a couple times a year. This is why I want to do youth ministry in the Local Church, where I meet students on their first day of 6th grade and walk with them in the faith until they graduate high school. Forget six days, that would be seven years of discipleship. God can use camp ministry in really important ways in their lives. He did for me. But it will never be the primary source of their discipleship, and that’s where I really want to head when college ends in a few years.

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6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin. At least, they should. To look another person in the eyes and say, “you are wrong on this, and you need to change what you are doing” in a way free of judgement, being only gracious, and yet firm and insistent… That balance is hard to strike. But I think that there was one moment in the summer when I did strike it, by the power of God’s Spirit. It was brought to my attention that one of my campers was living dat partyboi lyfe in all its hallow glory, and posting it online. When that was shown to me, it almost broke me.

So we needed to talk. We went to a mostly-secluded place on camp grounds and talked it out for a few hours. And it took all the courage in my heart to look him in the eyes and say that I knew exactly what was really going on. Even though he played the part of the good little church boy when around me — which meant that such a confrontational conversation was bound to completely change our relationship. And it did. But I was also clear that nothing I was saying came from a place of bitterness or frustration or anger or disappointment. But that just as God’s love reaches out to us when we don’t deserve it, my love for this camper was reaching out to him even when he didn’t deserve it. And I want nothing but the best for him.

It was the most difficult conversation I have had in a while, which is saying something given the kind of year this has been for me. But at the end of it all, much like the two campers I mentioned before, he was thankful and said that because of that conversation, he would not go home from camp the same person as before. The lesson here is not to shy away from difficult conversations, because God can write a beautiful story of redemption through them.

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7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality. This was something I already knew but which became more and more obvious by the day. By “The Church” I mean effectively every church everywhere. And by “failing” I mean a true F, not one of those 59% F+ grades, but a solid 20% F- grade. Of course I was limited on what I could say. I could say nothing to my grade school campers (which makes sense). But with the older kids it was important for me to be a frank and open source to talk about different topics in this area.

The most common one was porn, of course. I would love to enter prophetic-voice mode and call down droves of locusts and frogs on every youth ministry that has never mentioned this to their students. If I hear the question “is it sinful to watch porn?” from one more eighth grader I swear to God I’m literally going to go burn their church down. Not because the student is at fault. But their youth pastor sure is. And their parents sure are. And that is just ground zero for a whole life of future disobedience to God’s design for their sexuality.

This is what happens, by the way, when your whole “purity” message is just “don’t have sex before marriage,” end of story. Christian students are given basically zero other guidance than this because the youth pastor is afraid they are stepping on the parents’ turf, but meanwhile the parents assume the youth pastor is covering it. hahahahaha. And so random ol’ me had to explain, no less than a half dozen times, the way that God has designed the male body to deal with sexual abstinence, and that God’s plan for Christian sexuality is chastity in singleness, and to submit all sexual desire to the authority of Christ, who himself was single for his entire life and did not sin, and… (I think I wrote about this once…). This is so basic that it could be taught in a half hour lesson at youth group. If it sounds like I’m bitter based on my own poor experiences growing up, that would be because I am and this is a widespread problem in American Evangelicalism.

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8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ. You know what 7th graders like to do? They like to yell, and scream, and throw sticks against trees while ironically quoting memes they don’t like. They are eager to learn more about God but get bored if you used technical vocabulary. But they can totally handle the technical vocabulary — it’s just boring. They love playing kickball and 9 square, but don’t like “aesthetic spaces” designed solely for socializing. High schoolers love those. But 7th graders don’t. They want to have deep conversations but not all the time and those conversations will meander around the bend and form ox bow lakes so big you didn’t think a single conversation could have produced that. They want to worship God by song but they also want to have fun while they do it. They don’t have much of a boring-tolerance yet, which is fine. Whatever, so what if they get tend to get bored. Just do more exciting things. It will work out.

What is crazy is that somehow I can become a 7th grader when I’m around them. Or a 9th grader. Or a 5th grader. Being an age chameleon is exhausting, by the way, but it is in part how ministry is most effectively done for these campers. Becoming all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9). My goal is not to train 7th graders how to live the college life for Jesus. My goal is train them how to live 7th grade for Jesus, and then in a few years we’ll get around to how to live high school for Him. But for the time being, I cannot afford to have unrealistic expectations about their development. I just have to enter into their developmental stage and show how Christ impacts it.

Which means I cannot get mad at my 4th graders for being homesick — but I can use it as an example to talk about how Jesus was away from home for 33 years and missed his father tremendously. Nor can I get mad at my 8th graders for wanting to date every girl at camp — but I can show them how our priorities for who to date are mostly set in scripture in Proverbs 31 and 1 Peter 3. Neither can I get mad at my 11th graders for complaining to me about their college search — but I can help them think of ways to use their interests in Business, in Engineering, in History to further advance the Kingdom.

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9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing. There was a phrase used by this dumb youth group I went to my senior year of high school. They would say, “You can belong before you believe!” all the time. But something that God has taught me this summer is that that doesn’t always work. For example, if 51% of your Christian community doesn’t believe, then you no longer have a Christian community. If even 20% do not believe, I am not sure how you will get anywhere with discipleship. So maybe the number is 10%. Or maybe there is no ideal number because the number goes up and down based on how extraverted or intraverted those people are. I don’t know.

But I do see the importance of making space for people who aren’t all the way there yet. That was me just two years ago! Christian community is always reaching out with the out-reaching love of God, and that means we will always have people who aren’t all the way there. But including those people can be a huge problem, especially for those who believe and are young in faith. Like campers at a Christian summer camp. I have a few examples in mind of times when that went south quickly. I’m not sure how to balance this tension, but I know that Jesus found a way to do it.

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10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants. One week, the speaker talked in chapel about SOAP: Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. It is a basic framework to show students how to not just read a passage of scripture, but also interact with it. I love this already. But then my favorite camper, ever, says to me that night, “Ross, I really liked what the speaker said about SOAP. Can you show me how to use that?” and yep youbetcha I can. So the next night we read through Philippians 2:1-11.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by becoming like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

♪♫♪ Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature
of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ♪♫♪

This is a passage about the unity that Christians can have by looking out for one another. Our primary example of this is Jesus (though Paul also gives Timothy, Epaphroditus, and himself as examples in the book of Philippians). As this camper and I read each verse, observed things about it, thought of places in our life we can apply it, and then prayed over it all, something struck me. He is the most humble kid I’ve ever met. He doesn’t need this passage at all. (That’s part of why I appreciate him so much). I, on the other hand, am the owner of rossneir.com and anyways could use some lessons on humility.

Here’s what I was wrestling with. God by his providence can work miracles in these campers lives through any counselor he wants. It isn’t about us in particular. Our ministry is enabled by the Holy Spirit, not our own authority or persona or years of experience. Romans 1:16. The power of God brings salvation to all who believe. Not me. The power of God. The question I had been wresting with is whether next summer I should return as a counselor or as a village leader, which while one step up on the org chart is honestly a way worse job. My former VL called the position a “glorified janitor” because all you do is clean up vomit all day, seemingly. I don’t want to do that. I want to be with the kids. But maybe that is just a reflex of my pride, my unwillingness to serve others, my confidence in my own effort to make camp ministry work, my deep lack of faith in God to be the God of the impossible.

I don’t know. Maybe all those reasons are hyperbole and I just don’t want to do it because vomit is gross and wet beds are gross and bossing people around is inherently confrontational and I’m comfortable where I’m at. But God was convicting me not to rule it out just because it is service to others. Jesus was all about humble, self-giving service.

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Conclusion

My 10 points of reflection, in bullet fashion, are:

  1. Vulnerability in mentoring
  2. God’s sovereignty
  3. 14 year olds are adults
  4. Helping boys express their emotions
  5. The Local Church is where it’s at
  6. Christians appreciate it when you call them out on sin
  7. The Church is failing to teach Christian Sexuality
  8. Show a 7th grader how to be a 7th grader for Christ, not how to be a college student for Christ
  9. The awkward balance of belonging and believing
  10. Humble service because God can use anybody he wants

This summer was a season of seeing firsthand the goodness, the sweetness of God, through magical, super-human highs and through frustrating, embittering lows. I saw God relight a passion in the hearts of students who you would never think would come around. Only He can warm and soften a cold and stony heart. At least one of my campers openly professed faith in Jesus for the first time. Several others basically did too, but having not grown up in the church, they didn’t have the categories to be able to describe what they were feeling for the first time. My prayer for the summer — that God would create a love for the Bible in the hearts of my campers — was absolutely answered affirmatively. (More than my prayer for good health…). I saw a few junior high and high school students who had struggled with a lot of pain in their walk with Christ find new healing and redemption in Him.

For this summer, I, like David in Psalm 16, have nothing but thankfulness to God, because “apart from him I have no good thing… because he alone is my portion and my cup… I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken; therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices… because you make known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

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Helping a student understand the existence (and presence) of God

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With my group of middle school campers this week, one pulled me aside during the day to talk about his struggles and doubts with faith. Let’s call him Aidan. Aidan had a really hard school year with grades and sports and family life, where it seemed like a lot had fallen apart. He felt like God had abandoned him, but then got around to questioning if maybe what was happening was that there is no God at all.

This is not an uncommon train of thought. I have asked the exact same question at times over the years. If it wasn’t for a really solid background in Christian Apologetics, I would have certainly become an atheist. (Instead I continued to believe in God while writhing in pain over his abandoning me. Doesn’t feel much better.)

So as we talked, it became clear that several different issues were mixed up in Aidan’s thinking. And I wanted to sort them out, one by one, before answering any of them. The first question is why God would abandon me if God is good. The second question is, implicitly, can God be real even if we do not experience him? The third question is, does God exist at all? And a fourth lingering question is, how can I trust God if he has abandoned me before?

In order, these are the answers. First, there are a number of good reasons God could have for leaving us on our own for a season. Sometimes God knows that we are proud and wants to humble us by allowing us to see the fruit of life without him. Other times, God will lovingly withdraw himself from us so that we can grow in faith in different ways than those we have already grown in. Some call this “pruning.” A tree can bear good fruit, yet need to be cut back so that it can bear better fruit. Similarly, in our Christian lives sometimes we are doing well but God has unseen horizons for us to cross. He must allow us to fall so that we can rise in Him. (All of these answers, of course, leave out the most common answer of all: that we have no idea why God does what he does, but in retrospect he works it all out). These “dark nights of the soul” are bitter but common. David experienced it in Psalm 42. Mother Teresa described a period lasting fifty years like this. So too can God use it in our lives to further what is good.

Second, yes, God can be real even if we do not experience him. I drew two pictures for Aidan on my cabin chalkboard. Here they are:

Does God exist?

Y-N

Can God be experienced?

Y—————N

And the point that I was trying to emphasize was the further space between Yes and No in the second question. The existence of God seems to be a binary. Either he exists or not. But there is a whole other dimension to the existence of God, in a pragmatic way, that sees God not as a truth but as a lived experience. Can I experience God? At times the answer to this is yes, and at times the answer is no, regardless of the actual existence of God. When a person believes God exists yet does not experience him, this is the dark night of the soul. When a person does not believe in God yet does experience him, this is what Charles Taylor calls being “haunted” by God. God is dead to you, yet his presence lingers on in your life. These two mismatches between reality and lived experience are very uncomfortable. Nobody likes them. So while the actual question of the existence of God can be argued all day from the merits of scientific evidence and philosophical reasoning… the question of the presence of God is elusive to these types of argument. This is so true that I even said to Aidan that there have been points in my life “where I have experienced that God is not real… even though he is.” The phrasing is intentional.

The answer to the third question, on the existence of God, is that yes, God does exist. We know this because of a demonstration called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In this argument we find that everything that begins to exist has a preceding cause. (A preceding cause is something that comes before and leads to another thing happening. Also, it cannot just be the thing it causes, or else it isn’t really a “preceding” cause at all). Because of new developments in astrophysics the past 100 years, we know that the Universe began to exist. So, it must be true that the Universe has a preceding cause. What could be the Universe’s preceding cause? Well, the Universe is made of matter, time, space, and energy. And the preceding cause to these properties cannot be the properties themselves. So whatever is the preceding cause of the Universe, it must be immaterial, outside of time, not bound by spatial dimensions, and not just energy (must be a being). These fit the classical description of God, and at minimum imply that atheism cannot be true. It doesn’t get you all the way to Jesus, to the Trinity, to the Bible being true. But this argument does offer strong support than there must be something beyond the physical world and the five senses.

Can I trust a God who has abandoned me? This fourth question is much harder than the others. My own past is riddled with situations (some still sting today) where it feels like God has abandoned me. In my youth ministry in junior high. In my school as an eighth grader. Once, as a junior in high school, I lost a really important student council election that I had invested a lot into. In that moment, I prayed that God would give me the emotional courage to handle the loss well. I did not handle the loss well, at all. Why would God not agree to a prayer that is so obviously the right thing? Why would God abandon me when all I asked for was his comforting presence? More recently, through a bizarre turn of events, I have landed on academic probation at school and I’m not sure anymore how the future looks for me. This is unsettling because of how obvious God’s direction was of my college choice and program choice. He wanted me here. So why does it now look like that may not be true anymore? Has God abandoned me halfway through?

And, again, I’m not sure that this question has an answer in words. Or in categories. Maybe the answer to this question is one that must be a lived experience. That our relationship with God cannot play out in theory, it must take place in time, in history. And so the answer to the question, “Can I trust a God who has abandoned me” is not actually an answer but instead an action: to trust him anyways and see what happens.

Of course, in my life, I have seen in retrospect that God works out all things according to the good of the those he has called. That each of those times I had felt abandoned had been for a greater purpose and ultimately for the glory of God. While my feeling of abandonment was real, that I had been abandoned was not real. God was there, intervening even in times of his silence to prepare me for the season of life that was next.

As I tried to communicate this perspective, I would ask Aidan how he was feeling, and what his thoughts were. Over the conversation it became clear that I had left my own voice behind and was speaking from a different voice. One richer than my own, one fuller than my own, one more graceful than my own. And this voice, while materially coming from me, was the Spirit of God intervening to give Aidan exactly what he needed to hear. He would later share with our cabin — nay, with our village — nay, with the entire camp — that in this moment he felt moved in a new way to follow God and live for him. Something clicked in a way that gave Aidan hope for the future in his faith. He wants to find a youth group in his town so that he can be mentored by people who love God and so that he can learn more about the Bible.

What more could I ask God for?

Preach purity without losing the Gospel

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Imagine a pastor comes along who does not understand the Gospel, but still gets invited to speak anyways. What would happen? How would you confront the person? What, exactly, about the Gospel do you think they have wrong, and are you sure that you are right about that?

This was the situation in Galatia when Paul wrote their church a letter. Word had gotten back to Paul that the church was divided between the Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. A new group of pastors had come into town teaching that non-Jews had to be circumcised to enter Christianity. (Circumcision was a ritual practice marking a boy as Jewish; in other words, non-Jews had to become Jewish first before they could become Christians). As this division grew, the Jewish Christian believers stopped eating with and then associating with the non-Jewish Christians.

Grasping his flowing white beard and preparing his long quill pen, Paul looks at the situation and concludes, clearly, you don’t understand the Gospel. 

What about the Gospel did they not understand? I’ll tell you what they didn’t get wrong. They didn’t mistake who was at the center of it. That would be Jesus. They didn’t mistake what happened next. That would be the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. They didn’t mistake who can be included in it. That would be everyone.

The mistake was how deep the Gospel goes. And to explain this, I will have to go into some depth.

How does Life in Christ work?

The wrong way to understand life in Christ is “God made the rules, and now we have to follow them.” Of course, these rules are the bedrock of most religions. Islam has lots of them. Way back to Hammurabi. Judaism definitely did. The idea is that God has set them down, and now we are morally obligated to follow them.

But the weird thing about these commandments is that just being given them doesn’t make you any better at following them. Actually, because there is a dark energy inside us called “The Power of Sin,” we tend to do worse once we are given the commandment. Ironic, but true. When you give The Power of Sin a law, it schemes to break the law (or keep the law only when convenient). Shouldn’t knowing the rules make us more moral? Only if we start out at neutral. But we start out with The Power of Sin inside. The human condition cannot be solved by education; only transformation.

God, by the way, is pissed. Livid. Full of wrath because he is full of justice and must punish anyone who breaks the moral law. He must destroy them — or worse, leave them alive yet suffering forever. This is the natural consequence of upsetting Justice: It comes back to bite you. God will not be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

Nobody could actually meet his moral standards. God knew how far short we fall, and so he sent himself as Jesus to do meet the standards. Jesus lived perfectly, never breaking the Law. In his whole time on earth, facing all the temptation Satan could lob at him, he never sinned. Not once. (This sinlessness is what just happens when The Power of Sin is not alive in you).

Now — and this is what I’m building towards — Jesus’s death has satisfied the wrath of God. A man reaps what he sows, yes, but in this case, Jesus reaped what we sowed. God will not be mocked, yes, but God punished someone else for our mockery. God has to destroy sinners, yes, but Jesus chose to be destroyed on our behalf. He was destroyed in a way that was somehow more excruciating than eternal conscious torment in Hell.

As a result, God’s wrath being satisfied, only God’s love remains. This is true for everyone who participates in Jesus by faith. If you have nothing to do with Jesus, the wrath remains. But if you have faith in Jesus to have satisfied the wrath of God for you, you “participate” in Jesus. This is the great irony, the great switcheroo of Christianity. Jesus was perfect and we were sinful, yet Jesus received God’s wrath and we receive God’s love. Now that God’s wrath has been satisfied for us, we can have a relationship with God.

The result of this newfound participation in Jesus by faith is that The Power of Sin is gradually being put to death. A new power is now gradually growing within us, The Power of the Spirit. If you are living in this new power, your default life will be marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And since there are no anti-love laws in the Bible, no anti-joy laws, no anti-peace laws, by living in The Power of the Spirit you will not break any laws. So you will just, by default, follow the Law.

But the key is the order. You have to become right in God’s sight, and now you follow the law. The order is not: following the law to become right in God’s sight. Such was the error of the new pastors in Galatia, who thought that to become a full Christian, you had to follow the Laws. Not only was the circumcision law not a true moral law — it was just a cultural identifier — it was a commandment, and so it could not be the basis for salvation.

I feel like I have to reexplain all this every time I talk about anything in Christianity because so many people don’t get it. Or they get it, but they don’t live like they get it. The Apostle Paul confronted Peter because Peter “was not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel” (2:14). People so often understand the truth of the Gospel but they then go back to the Law – Obedience method. If you would live according to the truth, you would go to the New Life – Fruit method.

What does the New Life – Fruit method look like? What does it look like to “live in step with the Spirit” (5:25)? Instead of describing this in general terms, let’s look at specific example.

An Example from Purity

Suppose a pastor comes along who does not understand the Gospel, but still gets invited to speak anyways. (This is the scenario I was imagining at the beginning). And that pastor preaches a whole message about Purity, which boiled down to: God has commanded you to be sexually pure, and by extension, God has commanded you to wear modest clothing and not wear makeup. Also, you should feel guilt and shame if you do not do this.

This message gets wrong exactly everything about the Gospel. The Gospel does not work like this. Law (modest clothing) and Obedience (so you can avoid feeling bad about yourself) — full stop — is as antithetical to the Gospel as requiring non-Jews to be circumcised to become Christians. Paul would throw a fit at someone teaching like this. Even if they know the Gospel deep down, clearly their knowledge has nothing to do with their message.

We are looking for a true and better message on sexual purity, one informed at its core by Jesus’s righteousness, given as a free gift instead of an earned reward. What does that purity message sound like? I will hazard something like this.

We are not, on our own, able to keep the commands of sexual purity. Even if you’ve never “done anything,” Jesus raised the ante by saying that even looking at someone with lust is just as sinful as “doing something” about it. Surely, from puberty onward, there is nobody who escapes this law. For this the wrath of God is coming; God has commanded you otherwise, and he will not be mocked.

So God sent Jesus to live a life of perfect sexual purity. He was single the whole time and never sinned in this way. He was tempted, for sure, but since he was never beholden to The Power of Sin, he brushed past the temptation. Then, Jesus took the punishment for our sin (in this case, sexual sin) by dying in our place.

We must now give up the futile game of working to earn our own satisfaction of God’s wrath. To continue playing that game is to reject what God as Jesus has sacrificed for us. God looks at those who have faith and sees not their sexual sin but the sexual righteousness of Jesus.

The Power of Sin to control us to break sexual commandments is now being gradually put to death in us, while The Power of the Spirit to live a life of patience, faithfulness, and self-control is gradually growing.

The clear result is that guilt and shame have no place. Guilt and shame are what happen when we are commanded to do something and fail. (Which is true in this case; God has commanded it, and we’ve failed). But if we participate in Jesus by faith, God only sees Jesus’s success, not our failure. So instead of guilt and shame, we move on. We repent. We seek new ways to solve the problem. Isolate the temptation. See the joy it pretends to give us, and then recognize the true joy available in the life God has designed for us. Continue to abide with God even when we recoil against God at our own sin, because by continuing to participate in Jesus The Power of Sin gets put to death just a little bit more. Get practical and find ways to eliminate that particular sin. Look for guidance given by the Bible, which was written by people who have gone through all this before (including God). See the community of Christians around you as people going through the same things, and see that God has put you all together for that reason. And on. And on.

Don’t just wallow in guilt and shame because you cannot, on your own, follow God’s commandments about sexual purity. Keep participating in your relationship with Jesus and watch the sin die from the inside out. Also, get a filter for your devices. Delete snapchat, and probably twitter too. Unfollow the meme pages you know have become problematic. Learn to bounce your eyes when someone is wearing revealing clothes (without shaming them). Break up with the boyfriend or girlfriend who is leading you away from God’s calling for you to be single in this stage of your life. Better yet, next time around, just don’t date someone who isn’t a Christian. Not because you should be ashamed, but because it is the most practical, realistic thing to do to live out the New Creation you are in Christ. Get open enough to talk to other Christians about your struggles with sexual purity, and join with them as you all seek to submit this domain of your life to Jesus’s authority. And on. And on.

This is the difference between working hard to satisfy the wrath of God, and trusting Jesus that he has already done so. The new pastors in Galatia did not understand this — nor does our hypothetical Purity Slam pastor — but Paul did. This is the message of Galatians as clearly as I can summarize it. No matter what topic you are considering, from sexual purity to greed, from anger to gossip. This message is also the only mindset that should seep into our self-worth, into our encouragement for other Christians, and into our messages from the stage. Or, in addition to pointing everyone away from Jesus, you may have someone like Paul screaming from the audience, Anathema! Anathema!