Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Husbands, Pray with Your Wives

In a rare change from the norm at Practical Theology for Women, I'd like to give a small word of practical advice to husbands.

Pray with and for your wife.

In evangelical Christian marriages, the issue of roles and leadership tend to plague both husbands and wives. When hormonal euphoria begins to wane in a relationship, the friction of two distinct but overlapping genders becoming one heats up. Sexual heat may fade as relational heat rises. Women get emotional. Men hide from those emotions. The man doesn't feel welcoming to the woman. The woman doesn't feel safe to the man. Her cry for emotional and spiritual intimacy feels like fingernails on a chalkboard to him.

These are stereotypes and generalizations. Yet, I use them because they also fit the majority of conversations I have with friends and family on this topic. This may not describe YOUR marriage, but it does describe many.

If any of that resonates with you, dear Christian husband who loves his wife but doesn't know how to enter into her emotional needs, I offer you this one miraculous tool that won't cost you much at all. 

Pray with her. 

You don't have to pray with answers. I can't stand prayers that actually sound like lectures. When I say pray with her, I mean real prayers to God.  I mean supplication asking for His help – His help with her, for her, and for yourself. Here are the miraculous things accomplished in this small and easy act.

1. She feels heard. You may not know how to help whatever struggle is causing her concerns, but you haven't ignored the struggle. You have no idea what it means to a woman just to be heard. Men love to fix things, and sometimes, men, when you don't know how to fix something, you don't engage it at all. But this small act gives you the freedom to engage what you do not know how to solve. It allows you to engage it with the only One who does know how to solve it. This ministers much grace to your wife.

2. She doesn't feel alone. When a wife expresses a burden or concern and you turn away, the feeling of loneliness in dealing with it can be overwhelming for her. Yet, what if you don't understand her concern? What if it feels irrational? You don't have to understand or agree with her in order to walk with her through it. Praying with her about something you disagree about is STILL walking with her through it.

3. You take it to the only One able to make two become one. True spiritual intimacy in marriage is only accomplished through the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit can break down the barriers she has to you and you have to her. Only the Spirit can truly minister to the deep places in her heart. You can't be her god, and when you bring her with you to the One True God, you put both of you back on the only path to peace.

Husband, if you feel discouraged in your relationship with your wife and/or know she is discouraged with you, I strongly recommend this one simple act of faith – prayer with your wife. I hope you find this helpful, and may God bless all of our families.
James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Approaching Morality from a Position of Grace

I was raised in fundamentalist Christian churches with long lists of rights, wrongs, dos, and don'ts. Often, the list of wrongs extended well past what the Bible actually said was sin, in an effort to build a big gray area to keep kids from getting into the black. I remember one church youth group activity at our local skating rink. A fundamentalist missionary taught that some schools were good and some schools were bad in our area. He of course did this to a group of kids who had pretty much no say in what schools they went to. In his mind, the local Christian school was the only righteous choice, and he listed on posterboard my private, secular school (which actually was very good in retrospect) as a sinful choice. I was an ernest, sincere Christian youth who wanted to do what was right. The weight that jerk placed on me for something that 1) clearly was not sin and 2) was something I had no control over still makes me sad for my younger self and for the others he impacted negatively in ways I do not know.

I discovered a reformed understanding of grace by way of my freshman roommate in college, who remains one of my closest friends to this day. As God started tying Scripture together in my head through a reformed hermeneutic, the individual moral lessons of Scripture started pointing to Christ rather than to my inadequacies. Learning of God's irresistible grace and sovereignty over salvation were balms to my soul that was battered by legalistic teaching that vexed me again and again. God loved me, and I loved Him. For a while, that was enough. Irresistible grace. Unearned mercy. Unconditional love. I bathed in those truths for a decade or so, like a warm epsom salt bath for my weary spiritual body. My muscles relaxed. I could breath again.

I have turned a corner of late. Oh, I still love my verses on the righteousness Christ has earned for me, the robe of His righteousness I wear ever since He took my sin and guilt upon Himself on the cross. But I've arisen from the warm soaking tub that eased the aches in my spiritual body. I feel equipped again to note the many other verses in Scripture defining the acts making up the fabric of Jesus' robe of righteousness versus the ones that make up the essence of my guilt. God's fidelity versus my faithlessness. His truth versus my lies. His wisdom versus my foolishness. His peace versus my anger. His love for others versus my love for myself. I see too the verses calling me now, in Christ, to be like Him. Apparently, wearing His robe of righteousness, I am now equipped to move toward being in reality what God has declared me to be in heaven, completely righteous. This is sanctification, which is also by God's grace. 

Ephesians 5:1 Therefore, be imitators of God … 

I am thirsting for Scripture that explains the character of God to me in ways I did not before. In particular, I am currently finding parts of the Old Testament law and wisdom from Proverbs intriguing and actually life-giving. I wrote on sexual faithfulness from Deuteronomy 22 two weeks ago. I am still thinking on what that chapter reveals about the character of God that we are called to imitate. We don't imitate Him in the penalty of the law, for that is something He alone is equipped to judge and was paid in full by Christ on the the cross. But we can imitate Him in the aspects of His character He shows us through His deep commitment to fidelity in relationships. His faithfulness to us is the essence of Christianity. That He calls us to such faithfulness with others feels exactly right in light of who He is and what He created us to be.

I wrote on listening to rebuke from Proverbs 12 last week. The wisdom of Proverbs also no longer feels like a weight. It was used like a club by various youth pastors during my years in fundamentalism, and I have shied away from it ever since. But God didn't write it to be a weight. It was written to be a HELP. It's wisdom—not to bind around your neck so you drown in guilt but to guide you along God's path so that you can flourish as an imitator of Him. It's amazing the difference an understanding of irrestistible grace, unearned mercy, and unconditional love can make as I re-approach the law and the proverbs.

If you, like me, have found Old Testament laws and proverbs weights that only discourage and demoralize you, I hope you can take some time in a book like Ephesians to understand the depth of God's grace, mercy, and love for you in Christ. Steep yourself in the depth of His unconditional love for you. Christ bore your sins, and now you wear His robe of righteousness. You are free from guilt. It is only from this stance we can re-engage with the law or proverbs without feeling weights binding us once again. Christ transforms the law from being a weight that crushes us to instruction that helps us. The law helps us by pointing us to our need for Christ as the only one who could perfectly keep the law, and then it shows us the character of our Creator in whose image we were made. In Christ, we can receive the law and the proverbs in that light and find the meaning in them that points us toward flourishing life in Him without being weighed down by our inability to keep it perfectly.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On Stupid People

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. Pr. 12:1
Proverbs 12:1 makes me giggle everytime I read it. The Bible uses the word stupid? Really?! I looked it up to see the Hebrew word, and sure enough, it means stupid. It could also be translated brutish or senseless. Whichever translation you use, the word is sobering in connection with something the vast majority of us hate – reproof.

Reproof is a negative comment, reprimand, or rebuke. Nobody LIKES negativity. Nobody likes being reprimanded. But the wisdom from Proverbs 12:1 is you better not HATE it. Dislike of reprimand is normal. Hate of reprimand will destroy you.

I dislike reprimand because I don't want to be wrong. I dislike reprimand because it challenges my views of myself. I dislike reprimand because it embarassses me.

I don't hate reprimand because I realize others outside of myself can see aspects of myself to which I am blind. I don't hate reprimand because I know I can deceive myself about my own motivations to make me feel better about myself. I don't hate reprimand because I know others can sometimes more clearly see the long term results of my choices than I can.

I don't hate reprimand, because I've watched others who do hate it be destroyed by their stubborness. 

I have had the chance to watch people privately and publicly despise rebuke, and ultimately again and again their ministries were destroyed by their pride. They valued teachability in others, but only if they were the teachers. The teacher couldn't be taught, and everything unraveled in the aftermath. This was certainly the case at Mars Hill, and now there is no Mars Hill. I find that reality sobering. Having been a part of the church at its highest point, I soberly reflect on its downfall, God removing the lampstand if you will, and I note again and again the inability of leadership to hear and accept reprimand and rebuke at key moments in its past. 

Recently, Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments released a report on Bob Jones University's handling of sexual abuse over the last few decades. I was a student there and also taught high school there for a few years. Teachability was valued there, or so I thought. Students were taught to listen to correction. But I noticed as a student and low level worker that teachability was valued by leadership (at the highest levels) for everyone but themselves. Senior leadership was proudly stubborn, though they labeled it as a positive stand against compromise. The GRACE report revealed how that stubborness caused them to ignore or minimize society's growing awareness of educational institutions' need to report child abuse. Mandatory reporting laws were ignored while leadership positioned themselves as authorities on counseling the abused. The Bible says that was stupid, and I am sobered by its assessment.  Even now, after the report, there seems a sluggishness to hear the recommendations to remove leaders that ignored laws on mandatory reporting from their positions of influence.  Again, that is a senseless, ignorant response according to the wisdom of Proverbs 12:1.

In light of the personal and public downfalls of formerly respected people who wouldn't listen to reproof, I feel a new burden to teach it to my children and value it for myself. Part of me doesn't want anyone telling me anything, the natural results of having authorities over me telling me what to do who eventually show themselves stupid. Yet I recognize too that their downfall was centered around their inability to hear rebuke for themselves. I do not protect myself from others like them by becoming like them. I must remain teachable for my own long term health. Others must be able to rebuke and reprimand me. And though I will naturally not like it, I must not hate it.
Proverbs 9:9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.   
1 Peter 5:5 Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  
Proverbs 13:18 Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.  
2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  
Hebrews 12:6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 
http://www.openbible.info/topics/having_a_teachable_spirit

Friday, January 02, 2015

Fidelity

I'm working on a new book addressing the question, “Is the Bible good for women?” I don't know what's going to happen with the book. I never do. But I feel compelled to write it, if just for myself. I believe God is good, and the Bible is His revelation of Himself to us. Therefore, it too must be good. And if the Bible is good in general, it flows then that it is good for God's image bearers, male and female. I've felt compelled (there is no better word for it) to study the passages that seem hardest for women. After studying Dinah, I went on to Deuteronomy 22, which seems to be the later laws addressing Dinah's situation so that the horrible fiasco that happened after her rape would not be repeated. The bottom line of the law is that the man who violates a woman has to restore her honor and dignity in her culture. He has to pay a dowry worthy of what he took indiscriminately. He must marry her, and He can not divorce her. Civilization at this point wasn't very civilized. For a culture apart from the law in which women had zero rights (see Dinah's story in Genesis 34), this was the first step toward giving her rights.

But I was struck by a bigger issue while studying this passage. Deuteronomy 22 has back to back laws on sex outside of marriage (punishable by stoning) and adultery (also punishable by stoning). The punishment is extremely harsh. I don't like the harshness of the penalty. It makes me extremely uncomfortable, especially if I'm asking the question if the Bible is good for women. But the punishment did cause me to sit back and reflect.

When God gives laws to His children on the topic of sexuality, what ethic is He setting up? How should people set apart to reflect a Holy God treat sex? We are His image bearers, and the laws He projected onto His children surely must reflect something about Himself. God sets up the sexual ethic He values, which is total fidelity between partners. It's not partial fidelity. It's not generally valuing monogamy. God values complete faithfulness from beginning to end in marriage. Both adultery between a married man or woman and fornication between two who were unmarried and not betrothed to another were punishable by death.

Unlike our modern culture in which the breaking of marriage vows has less stigma attached than ever before, betrothal between a man and woman in Israel reflected a deep commitment, not just between individuals, but between their families as well. In the harsh world they lived in, allies you could trust as family were crucial to flourishing life. Fidelity in those relationships were the fabric on which that society rose or fell.

God expresses in Deuteronomy 22 that He is serious about His children's fidelity to each other because they are image bearers of Him, and He is serious about His fidelity to His people.
Hosea 2:19-20 And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.
God wanted betrothal to mean something serious to His children. Why? Because commitment is very serious to Him, and they were His image bearers. But the punishment seems incredibly harsh. The law seems harsh … especially to law breakers.

This is where Jesus breaks into the narrative and gives us a better way. From Matthew 5:17, we know in general that Jesus fulfilled (not abolished) the Law. We also know from Jesus' discussion with His disciples on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24 that the Law of Moses points to Him. There is an interesting moment, a practical picture of what Jesus brings to our understanding of the law, in John 8 when the woman caught in adultery is thrown at Jesus' feet just before she is to be stoned to death for her part in disobeying the laws of Deuteronomy 22. I find it interesting in one sense because the man was not also brought to be stoned as the law commanded. But it was a sexist culture, and that really isn't that surprising. While the Law did not give greater penalty to the woman, the depravity in their culture perverted it anyway.

The life giving point of this interaction between Jesus and the woman is that the only One to ever perfectly keep the Law also offered grace to this one who had broken it.  But note that He doesn't do so in a way that undermines the value of the Law on fidelity in marriage! He says to her, “Go, and sin no more.” Jesus affirms that our God is a loyal, covenant keeping God. He is faithful to His people that He created in His likeness, and we are to be faithful in our commitments as well. We will flourish when we are a covenant keeping people, because that is what we were created to be.

As I said before, the law seems harsh ... for lawbreakers. But if we're honest with ourselves, it's not just the penalty of the law that we rebel against. Some think Jesus' ethic, “Go and sin no more,” is as archaic as Deuteronomy 22. Jesus affirms God's sexual ethic which is complete fidelity. I've watched many families broken apart when faithfulness to the one with whom you made life long vows becomes less important than whatever struggle surrounds you. I've sat with many loved ones (children and spouses) devastated when one spouse gives up on their commitment. But the spouse who left rarely ever flourishes after walking away. Whatever thing they valued over faithfulness when they walked away from their commitments was an empty promise.

I believe the Bible is good for women (and men). When Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery that her accusers have left, He offers her the grace that only He can offer. What sweet relief that the penalty is paid, and our accusers are silenced. But when Jesus then says, “Go and sin no more,” He is reminding all of us that this Law on faithfulness reflects the character of our God, and we as His image bearers will not flourish apart from it. God is a God of complete fidelity, and He calls us to the same.

* If you have experienced abadonment, I encourage you that you can be a person of fidelity in the image of God. In fact, some of the most faithful people to covenant relationship I know are those who have been abandoned by others. Those who have experienced covenant breaking recognize the importance of covenant keeping like few others.

** For thoughts on faithfulness to God and commitments in the context of abuse, here is a post and comment thread that may be helpful.  God's vision for fidelity is not undermined by removing yourself from an abusive situation.



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Conservative Christians and Mental Illness

I recently read a handout from a conservative Christian college's psychology class likening sending someone with eating disorders to a eating disorder clinic to sending someone with a pornography problem to a pornography clinic. In so many words, it set up vomiting as a sin to be rebuked from Scripture like pornography. It was stunning to read, and my heart immediately ached for those struggling through very real mental health issues who were shamed away from secular medical intervention at that college. Though much good progress has been made on mental health issues and the believer by way of organizations like CCEF, there is obviously still a long way to go.

Here is the key – the brain, like the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, and the heart, is an organ. It is the most complex organ in the human body, made up of blood vessels and tissues and an incredible number of nerve cells. Just as lungs need blood flow, the brain needs blood flow. Just as clots in the blood around the heart cause heart attacks, clots in the blood around the brain cause stroke. The same physical dynamic that causes my mid and lower body to feel exhaustion after a night of missed sleep or a missed meal cause my brain to feel exhaustion. As a type 1 diabetic, the loss of my pancreas' ability to produce insulin that affects my kidneys also affects my brain. The brain is an organ, and as my heart, lungs, kidney, and pancreas can suffer through specific biological issues, so can my brain.

But the brain, unlike my lungs or kidneys, is also the central processing unit for my faith. My liver doesn't consider tempation to sin. My pancreas doesn't consider the truth of God's Word. My lungs are not proud. My kidneys are not humble. But my brain is engaged in all of those feelings and thoughts.

The mix of biological function of an organ and spiritual function of the seat of faith is confusing to say the least. But it seems a lot more confusing for those who have never experienced biological malfunctions in the brain than those who do. My own experience as a type-1 diabetic has helped me. When my blood sugar gets low, I first get depressed. If it gets really low quickly, I lose touch with reality while still walking around. Before getting my insulin pump, I had several scary episodes which included me saying weird things, pushing family away trying to help me, and being rude and angry with a good friend. I hated afterwards realizing how I had spoken to my friend. I owed her a sincere apology. But more than I needed to apologize, I needed to EAT. There was going to be no help for my anger and no chance to repair my relationship with her until my blood sugar was no longer low. 

The thing about the interplay of biological issues and sin issues is that when the biological issues are addressed, much of the sin issues are immediately diffused. It's like the child having a screaming temper tantrum because they are exhausted after a long day of activities. Get the kid a nap, and then addressing the tantrum becomes a lot more effective. When my blood sugar stabilized after the angry conversation with my friend, no one needed to lecture me on how I had treated her. And my temptation to anger with her was immediately removed. Dealing with the biological greatly aided the spiritual.

Going back to the young woman vomitting to lose weight – self harm is a spiritual issue … deeply affected by a biological issue. God's gift of common grace to the world as a whole and His children in particular is growing knowledge of our brain as an organ. Just as new therapies in cancer treatment are gifts of God's grace to us, new therapies in the treatment of mental illness can be too. Anorexia is a mental health issue. Note also that just as some cancer “treatments” are snake oil (we've had a recent case of this in Seattle), some mental health “therapies” are too. Not every idea is a good one. Not every treatment is a helpful one. But some are, and the reformed doctrine of common grace equips us to be open and accepting of mental health treatments that are research based and approved by licensed professionals.

One thing I have noted in my own journey with biological issues that can affect my brain is that there IS a big sin issue that tempts me again and again. The interesting thing is that it is the same temptation that all of us struggle with whether we have mental health issues or not. It is pride.

I am smart. I am educated.  I am independent. And I do not want my mom encouraging me to eat healthy. I don't want my doctor to give me a new treatment plan. I don't want to face my diabetes at all some days, because it makes me feel frail and inadequate. That weakness scares me. It interrupts my independence and self reliance. But, sometimes, my body falls apart and my mind can't engage to fix it. As much as I hate that when it happens, I note that God gives grace to the humble. He gives His common grace to the humble as He does His particular saving grace. Whether it's my mom or my doctor, my friend who read something online or my sister who hands me a glass of orange juice because I'm talking weirdly, my pride rouses up in resentment of the need while I desperately need to accept my weakness and humbly receive their help.

For anyone struggling with mental illness, your biggest temptation is likely self reliance when your greatest need is to humbly ask for help and receive it when it is given. It grieves me to think of Christian institutions heaping shame on those who are doing the right thing by seeking help, pointing them away from the gifts of God's common grace to help them in that moment. It grieves me to think of unlicensed Christian counselors trying to “root out sin” among those seeking help instead of affirming the wise decision of the one struggling to seek help at all. The very fact they are seeking help, listening to doctors and family and pastors, IS the indicator they are rooting out the greatest sin issue that exacerbates mental health issues – being too scared to believe you have a problem and too proud to receive help from those God has given to speak into your life.  May our churches and ministries get this right for the good of those deeply struggling.

For further reading: http://www.ccef.org/resources