05 November 2014

Why the Term "Biblical Marriage" Is NOT Misleading

It's no secret that I believe in the sacredness of marriage.

As a husband, I understand that I bear the responsibility of humble, considerate leadership.  I also know the immense value of having a godly, supporting, and compassionate wife.  As a follower of Jesus Christ, I have a foretaste of divine intimacy through my marriage -- a relationship that all who love God will share with our Savior in heaven, for all of eternity.

For all of those reasons and more, I'm particularly keen to identify and address the problematic perspectives on marriage that exist more and more in our culture today.

This article, written by self-proclaimed "biblical scholar" Jennifer Bird, was published at the end of October and recently came to my attention.  Here, in order, are the sweeping claims she makes about "biblical" marriage:

  1. Relationships that qualify for legitimate marriage in the Bible include polygamy, open marriage for the man, forcing a woman to marry her rapist, and levirate marriage.
  2. Jesus advocates men leaving their wives and children in order to follow him and suggests that all men should be celibate (eunuchs).
  3. As defined by the Bible, the woman is the property of the man in heterosexual marriage and is treated as being less than fully human.
  4. The Bible does not condemn homosexuality as a legitimate form of marriage, but rather condemns cruelty and failure to procreate.
  5. God never defines marriage.
  6. Love is not considered "foundational" [I'm inferring that she means important or integral] to marriage; therefore, because the Bible does not endorse a marital relationship of loving mutuality, proponents of this view cannot biblically condemn same-sex marriage.

If you're like me, you read that list, let your forehead hit the desk, then blink a few times and wonder where to begin.

Logical fallacies aside, there are a number of reasons why Bird's arguments are inaccurate conjecture.  I've already extensively discussed marital roles and sexuality and won't fully rehash that discussion here.  However, I do want to address a few of her bigger claims -- not because I disagree with her personal opinions, but because I disagree with her simplistic dissection of the Word of God.  The not-so-veiled message she conveys, addressing a culture hungry for opportunity to reject absolute truth, is that the Bible actually reveals God to be a little more tolerant of sexual preference than we've traditionally made Him out to be.


It is Mrs. Bird's notion that God's condemnation of homosexuality in the Old Testament was less about the act itself than in its conjunction with other sins.  The two examples she uses are failure to procreate and sexual cruelty.

Of course, the fact that homosexuality is, by virtue of incompatible components, a failure to procreate, would mean it is still condemned by her logic.  In fact, were her reasoning sound, any sexual encounter -- even between a husband and wife -- that did not result in pregnancy would also be a punishable offense under Mosaic law.  While the bearing of offspring was of enormous significance to Israelite culture and an extension of marital joy -- not to mention a God-ordained responsibility -- it is not the lack of procreation that is being condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20.  Otherwise, all infertile marriages would be invalid by the same standard.

That's why, as Peter Hubbard so succinctly words it in Love Into Light, biblical sexuality is principally about "design and direction, not necessarily [the] achievement [of pregnancy]...  Within the covenant of a heterosexual marriage, sexual intimacy plays a variety of roles.  Pleasure and purity are just as sacred as procreation" (Prov 5.15-19; Song 2.8ff; 1 Cor 7.1-7).  God's command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply is still a directive to the human race, and its importance was undeniably the basis for a number of Jewish laws pertaining to sexuality.  However, husbands and wives were expected to complete and fulfill one another in wedded purity -- whether or not their copulation produced offspring -- and marriage ultimately was intended to glorify God through the husband and wife's unified sanctity.

If sex can exist solely for the purpose of pleasure within the context of marriage, and if infertility in Israelite culture was not a sin before God (even if it was a cause of cultural shame), then the issue with homosexuality is not with the failure to procreate, but with the nature of the act itself.

Mrs. Bird also uses the example of the men of Sodom and Gomorrah, arguing that it was their practice of sexual cruelty and hostility toward outsiders that prompted God's judgment -- not their homosexuality.  However, this is evaluation doesn't consider historical or other biblical evidence to the contrary.  Jude 1.7 reveals that it was their "indulgence in sexual immorality and pursuit of unnatural desire" that was the cause of their condemnation, and two of the most significant Jewish historians of the first century, Philo and Josephus, both interpret Genesis 19:4-11 to refer explicitly to homosexual acts, not merely sexual violence:
About this time, the Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God... they hated strangers, and abused themselves with Sodomitical practices.  God was therefore much displeased at them, and determined to punish them for their pride. (Josephus -- The Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter 11)
While Mrs. Bird may be correct that none of the biblical examples of God judging homosexuality involved "two same-sex people in loving relationships," the nature of the relationship becomes a moot point in the face of God's blanket statements, across Old and New Testaments (Lev 18.22Rom 1.26-271 Cor 6.9), that the act of homosexuality in any context is a sin that should not be practiced by anyone who claims to love Him.

Monogamy, Divorce, and Adultery

"Did he say 'Blessed are the cheese-makers?'"
It's no secret that the words of Jesus are some of the most misconstrued teachings in all of history.  In her article, Mrs. Bird alludes to Luke 14, claiming that Jesus' statement in that passage -- that an individual's unwillingness to "hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters" made him unfit for discipleship -- is allowance for spousal abandonment if it is done in the name of Jesus.

Even a cursory knowledge of Jesus' teachings is enough to put a damper on this perspective.

The sentiment Christ expressed through the notion of "hating" family on His behalf was a challenge a). to value the Kingdom of Heaven above any human relationship, and b). to disallow dissuading opinions of family members that might otherwise keep the individual from following in His footsteps.  Jesus taught that the two most important biblical commands are inseparably linked: to love God above all else, and to love others more than ourselves (Mark 12.30-31).  Therefore, it is equally unacceptable to violate marital vows and fail to love a spouse "in the name of Christ," or to forego worship or ministry on behalf of a spouse.

Both Jesus and Paul further expanded on this idea.  The simple truth is that a married man will constantly face the challenge of maintaining two responsibilities -- one, to please his wife; two, to please God -- and he must balance those things so that neither relationship is neglected (Matt 19.10-121 Cor 7.32-35).  On the other hand, a single, chaste man is capable of pursuing one priority: to please God alone.  Furthermore, a man who is a eunuch by choice has taken his commitment one step further and removed from himself the possibility of sinning physically (whether through masturbation or sexual intercourse) and has declared that all of him belongs to the Lord and not to any human being (including himself).  Jesus specifically said that the lifestyles of celibacy or choosing to be a eunuch were not for everyone, and only those who are called should attempt!  Therefore, while neither Jesus nor Paul directly encouraged men to be celibate or eunuchs -- nor, for that matter, did either imply that married individuals are somehow second-rate Christians -- they were pointing out the freedom that the single individual has to devote him- or herself to the wholehearted worship of God.  After all, God Himself decreed that it was not good for man to be alone (Gen 2.18); a man who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains the Lord's favor (Prov 18.22)!  The point of these passages is to make clear the fact that the marital lifestyle contains its own set of complications, just as the single lifestyle does.  No matter which walk of life we choose, the primary relationship is the individual relationship with Christ.

I think it's important to track further through the healthy tension that exists between these ideas.  According to the Bible, monogamous, heterosexual marriage is God's design for humanity.  Yet marriage also brings the potential to hinder the individual's relationship with Christ.  Furthermore, while the relationship with Christ should remain the primary relationship even in a marriage, spouses can sin by making church, ministry, or personal covenants detrimental to their marriages -- just as worldly things can also steal our focus from our wives and husbands.  As believers, we need to recognize that our relationship with Christ exists to the inclusion of our spouse, and that it is never acceptable to pursue Christ instead of our spouse.   In fact, I would argue that you can't pursue Christ without also pursuing your spouse.  As Paul argued, there are no legitimate circumstances other than infidelity that are grounds for divorce (1 Cor 7.10-11), and that husbands and wives should live in ways that are mutually edifying (Eph 4.15-1629-32).  That doesn't mean we merely live to encourage each other in our jobs and hobbies, but that we inspire one another in our hand-in-hand pursuit of Christ together.

All that being said, Mrs. Bird does pose a challenging question when it comes to the issue of polygamy.  I myself have to wonder why God chose to pronounce legal punishment for sexual immorality when it occurs in same-sex acts, bestiality, or as a violation of another covenant marriage, but not when it involved multiple marital partners.  Since God desired His people to be monogamous and follow the design He established at Creation (for the record, Mrs. Bird's assessment of Genesis 2 in her article is completely incorrect), why did He not outline punishment to be exacted on those who took multiple wives?  Would that not have been more of a deterrent than simply allowing them to discover on their own what a mistake it was?

While I don't have one definitive answer, there are several reasons why I believe God chose to act in this way.

True, the Bible might not explicitly condemn the practice of having multiple wives in the Old Testament (though the practice of polygamy is nowhere protected, endorsed, or regulated in the New Testament church).  However, the Bible does extensively portray having multiple sexual partners as a flawed variation on God's design and sharply contrasts that lifestyle with the image of the exclusive, monogamous relationship God desired to have with His people (Gen 29.30Deut 17.171 Sam 1.4-7Mal 2.11).  In much the same way that the Law of Moses did not encourage divorce but merely regulated an existing practice, God also permitted the practice of polygamy -- partly for the benefit of procreation (especially in the instance of levirate marriage -- a childless widow could marry a brother of her deceased husband in order to provide her with an heir and financial stability), and partly because the practice had crept into Israelite culture long before they were even a defined people group, and to forbid the practice would have necessitated divorce.  Therefore, just as God permitted Israel the right to practice legal divorce -- because they were going to do it anyway -- likewise, He permitted polygamy.  In other words, when God found it necessary to establish ground rules for divorce (Deut 24) as well as for how to treat a second wife (Ex 21.10), it was because He was providing legal protection for the parties involved. Regulations like these were directly intended for the protection of Israelite women from unsavory alternatives: false accusations of infidelity, wanton sexual and physical abuse, favoritism and neglect, excommunication from the assembly, shunning by family and friends, and execution.

Jesus cut to the heart of the matter in Matthew 19 when He reminded the Pharisees who challenged him on this topic that it was their own rebellion that had made divorce necessary -- as well as all other rules surrounding Jewish sexuality.  That's why I think the best answer to the question of why God chose to allow these practices instead of mandating punishment is that He has "given over" the world at large to the practice of sinful desires (Psa 81.12Acts 7.42Rom 1.24).  This is not because He has given up on them or because He doesn't care about our behavior, but -- again -- because they are going to pursue those things anyway.  Therefore, God specifically conceded to Israel practices such as polygamy, slavery (a topic I've also discussed previously), and divorce in order to show them the emotional and spiritual costliness of living in ways He did not intend.

The other side of this issue is found in Paul's assessment of the law in Romans 5 -- that where sin abounds, revealed by the law, grace abounds sufficiently to cover the trespass.  One of the ways God has always communicated His grace is by withholding immediate retribution upon sin.  He will one day judge man's wickedness, of course, but He stays His hand for the time being, extending grace, mercy, and opportunity to a world that would rather play around with sex and pleasure than acknowledge His providence.  God didn't command every sin in Jewish culture to be punished by law because one day all sin will know just punishment by the law of His eternal character.  All sin must be punished: even the sins that Christ removed from His followers were punished at Calvary.

He was punished on our behalf, and the righteous wrath of God against our iniquities was satisfied.

One day, the world too will know judgment, which is why -- historically and presently -- God has allowed wickedness to continue, not because it is acceptable, but because He still extends the opportunity to repent.

Patriarchy, Abuse, and Women's Rights

"English Breakfast tasted like powdered wig anyway!"
American culture at large misunderstands God's directive of patriarchy as badly as it grasps the concept of submission.  After all, we live in a nation that looks back to its origins and subscribes to the belief that, if we don't like the authority over us, we have the right to defy and overthrow it.  For that same reason, feminist ideology looks at the the world's unfortunate history of misogyny, connects it to biblical patriarchy, and cries "unfair."

This is another example of man misappropriating a biblical directive and warping it to meet his own interests.  God established man as the head and leader of the household and woman as the supportive home-maker.  He did not intend for man to be domineering or cruel, nor for woman to be peevish or weak, but these are characteristics that have defined marriages through the ages.

However, that doesn't mean the system is flawed -- only that our adherence to it is.

Biblically, a woman wasn't to be considered any less human or the "property" of her husband -- not even under Old Testament law.  While the buying and selling of human beings does exist in the Bible, a man who purchased a slave and made her his wife was no longer permitted to treat her as a slave but as a wife.  Furthermore, any man who obtained a wife through war, through the death of a brother, or by going behind his father-in-law's back was held to the same standard of providing for his wife (or wives) the care she (they) deserved.

When the Bible speaks of wives submitting to their husbands, it is not commanding mindless obedience or the surrender of the woman's right to her own opinion.  To the contrary, biblical submission is the wife willingly placing herself under the authority of her husband, recognizing that God has given to man the role of loving leadership and to woman the role of loving support.  That no more gives the husband the right to be withholding, condescending, or abusive than it gives the wife the right to be nagging, insubordinate, or bitter.

Furthermore, nowhere in the Bible does God endorse violence or aggression -- sexual or otherwise.  In fact, Proverbs 6 states that two of the seven things God hates are hands that shed innocent blood and hearts that devise wicked plans, which clearly encompasses the realm of sexuality in marriage.  Therefore, when Mrs. Bird makes the claim that acceptable biblical marriage includes "forcing a woman to marry her rapist," she is taking a difficult passage of Scripture and forcing the wildly inaccurate assertion that God -- God who is love; God who shows mercy; God who extends grace; God who abhors violence, arrogance, theft, and wicked schemes -- would look favorably upon rape as an acceptable means of acquiring a wife.

For the sake of argument, let's look at the three scenarios in the Deuteronomy passage Mrs. Bird references.  The first involves a man who sleeps with a betrothed virgin while in the city; the second, a man who rapes a betrothed woman while in an isolated place; and the third, a man who coerces a virgin who is not betrothed into sexual relations while in the city.  The location of each scenario is as important as the sentences God pronounces.

In the first instance, a woman who was legally engaged to one man has sex with another man.  In this instance, no one is given the benefit of the doubt.  The woman did not cry out for help -- neither during the act (though it occurred in the city where individuals who could hear her screams were close enough to rescue her) nor afterward when she had the opportunity to come forward to her husband-to-be and accuse her rapist.  Therefore, the evidence points to consensual sex, probably not restricted to an isolated incident.  The text would imply that they were most likely discovered in the act.  Therefore, both the man and the engaged woman were put to death, because being betrothed in Jewish culture is on par with being legally married.  In other words, the crime in this scenario is adultery.

In the second instance, a man rapes a legally engaged woman far away from the city, where she could have screamed for help but no one was around to rescue her.  In this instance, the benefit of the doubt goes to the woman: her protection is more important than the man's reputation (which, by the way, is unheard of in patriarchal societies where a man's word would normally override a woman's without a second consideration).  The engaged woman's accusation of rape would have be enough for the man to be executed.

In the final instance, a man sleeps with a legally single virgin in a place where their sexual involvement is discovered.  The word "seize" in the text certainly suggests that the sexual act involved violence or coercion (it's the same word used for rape in the previous scenario at any rate).  However, while the Hebrew word ("taphas") means to attack or to capture, it is elsewhere written as "yaresh," which means to take possession or to dispossess -- as in the seizure of an enemy's city.  It's a word which means "to lay claim."  Therefore, while the word in context certainly implies rape, the fact that the scenario is set in the city or a community where they are discovered in the act (whether because the girl was screaming for help or because they were interrupted by an intruder), would allow for the possibility that the sex was perhaps consensual (if unlikely).  Additionally, the fact that the pronounced sentence is a fine instead of death further highlights the important caveat that the man in this scenario wasn't violating a legal marriage, and was therefore "laying claim" to a woman who is not legally obligated to another man.  Another possibility is that the act of "seizure" was happening behind the back of a father who did not approve of the relationship, in which case "seize" would imply an act of deception as opposed to an act of violence.

In the event that the text does describe a rape, however, the punishment is for the man -- not the victim.  What Mrs. Bird would interpret as "forcing the woman to marry her rapist" is really the other way around: the rapist is forced to make restitution for his crime.  As Matthew Henry stated it, "The law was to deter men from such vicious practices, which it is a shame that we are necessitated to read and write of."

First, the hefty fine levied upon him was the bride price, but the requirement to live with the woman he'd violated would be a heavier burden to carry: he'd be entering into a family who would have nothing but disgust for him for what he'd done to their daughter and sister, and he'd be financially dependent upon an angered father-in-law until he could provide for his own family.  Second, though this might seem outlandish to Americans, the command to marry the woman was for her physical and emotional protection.  The law again gives her the benefit of the doubt, that she was indeed coerced (as opposed to doing the seducing herself!), and would not be subject to the punishment for sexual immorality she otherwise might have faced.  Furthermore, the opportunity for her to marry after being raped, according to Jewish rituals of purification and atonement, would have been slim to none.  Fair or not, any other suitor would shun her on the basis of her sexual impurity; therefore, she would live the rest of her life alone and uncared for.  Third, in the absence of capital punishment, the opportunity is therefore provided for repentance and restoration.  Because sex belongs in marriage, any Jewish man who engaged in sex with an unbetrothed virgin would be obligated to marry her in order to protect her shame as well as to correct the wrong that has been done.  If this was done in the form of rape, what was taken from the woman certainly cannot be returned; however, by becoming her legal husband, the man will then serve her for the rest of his life to atone for his sin.  This is not an opportunity for him to continue to abuse her: no husband is allowed to "diminish [the] food, clothing, or marital rights" from his wife (Ex 21.10).  This is the consequence he has brought upon himself.

Again, as hard as any of them might be to swallow, such cultural laws as the one in Deuteronomy 22 were always intended for the protection of the innocent woman -- even in the instance of rape.  God no more commanded violence toward women than he commanded infidelity -- in fact, He absolutely hates both of these things.  Though His people might fail in this regard, God is always concerned with care for the lowly, the poor, and the downtrodden, and He promises them justice and hope.  The countless instances of men in the Bible and in history abusing, objectifying, and betraying their wives are misapplications of God's design for patriarchy.  Never is the practice of emotional, sexual, or spousal abuse endorsed or commanded by a loving God, who -- contrary to Mrs. Bird's simplistic assessment  -- repeatedly decreed that husbands should love their wives as their own bodies, be faithful to them, rejoice in them, and prefer their needs above every last shred of self-interest (Lev 20.10Deut 24.5; Prov 5.18; Mal 2.14Ecc 9.9; 1 Cor 7.3Eph 5.25; Col 3.19; 1 Pet 3.7).

The roles of husband and wife only function properly when they are understood as a partnership.  The husband might have authority over the wife, and the Bible teaches that a woman will wrestle with her desire to be the leader in the relationship (Gen 3.16), but there is no inequality built into the biblical model of marriage.  The husband is not closer to God or superior to his wife.  She merely chooses to place herself in a role that supplements her husband's, offering encouragement, insight, and wisdom that he might not himself possess, and practices a willingness to follow his lead.  The husband, therefore, has the great responsibility of considering his wife, of providing for her and valuing her opinion on decisions, but also being careful not to place upon her the burden of being the leader -- not because she can't handle leadership or authority, but because it is his God-given responsibility to be the spiritual compass.  It is a man's inherent tendency to shirk responsibility while it is the woman's inherent tendency to crave control, which is why it's easy to point out relationships in which the wife "wears the pants."  However, it is God's intent that a man should model Christ to his wife, being her strong, compassionate leader, embodying the role of Christ to His people through their marriage.

If this model is understood and followed, things like infidelity and abuse cease to be factors.

The term "Biblical" isn't misleading -- it's misunderstood

There are three underlying problems with Mrs. Bird's article, all of which undermine her conclusions about marriage.

The first is that she presumes fallibility in traditional understanding of the biblical text on the basis that they are limiting and archaic.  In other words, her position is the same adopted by many modern skeptics: "traditional" interpretations of the Bible, while groundbreaking and worthy of recognition, are flawed and can't be fully accepted.

I certainly won't argue that the biblical scholars of bygone eras were perfect or complete in their understanding of the Word of God -- after all, in this life we only perceive the truth through a dimly lit mirror (1 Cor 13.12).  For that matter, Martin Luther tore the book of James out of his Bible and Augustine couldn't make up his mind about baptism.  However, I do know that God has given to His followers direct access to the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2.16), that we are made capable of understanding divine principles by the Holy Spirit, and that -- just as He raised up leaders with spiritual insight in biblical times -- God has raised up theologians in more recent history who have collectively steered the church universal in the pursuit of righteousness.

Are there areas of disagreement in Christendom?  Certainly.  The nature of human opinion makes them virtually unavoidable.  However, the core precepts of God's Word surpass human opinion, and they have been plainly understood since Christ Himself taught them -- since God ordained them.  It would be foolish of us to disregard the wisdom of our spiritual forefathers simply because we live in the midst of a culture that has chosen the creature over the Creator.

The second problem with Mrs. Bird's argument is that she fails to differentiate a biblical precept from the biblical record.  In other words, just because something is in the Bible doesn't make it "biblical" in the sense that it is a prescribed Christian behavior.

The Bible is the means of understanding God.  It contains historical records, allegories and parables, poetic introspection, litanies of His gracious acts, sweeping descriptions of His character, letters of spiritual direction, and -- above all else -- the account of the Lamb of God's perfect sacrifice on our behalf.  The Bible is the spiritual history of humanity's constant rejection of God's divine ordinances, in defiance of God's continual extension of mercy.  Therefore, the Word of God records the sinful acts of mankind as well as the righteous ones.

In fact, it records more failure than it does success.

Both the failures of wicked men (which are not to be emulated) as well as the successes of righteous men (that are to be replicated) are recorded in the pages of Scripture.  There are also instances of righteous men falling into sin (i.e. King David) just as there are instances of wicked men being objectively, morally "good."  Therefore, just because things like murder, incest, genocide, marital instability, and other countless acts of wickedness are recorded in the Bible doesn't mean God endorses them: it simply means that mankind has always had a penchant for wickedness and even as followers of Christ we can never let down our guard when it comes to sin.  That's why the Bible teaches that man cannot justify or save himself (Rom 3.10Eph 2.8), and that Jesus is the only means of salvation (Acts 4.12).

The final problem with Mrs. Bird's article is the issue of improper context.

The books of Old Testament Law have an entirely different audience with an entirely different focus than do the gospels and epistles.  Though Genesis through Malachi still have historical and spiritual relevance today, they are not directly applicable to the New Testament Christian in the same way they were to the Old Testament Jew.  The old covenant under the law has now been fulfilled and made obsolete in Christ, and we have been given a new covenant of grace (Heb 8:13).  Now, that doesn't mean that the Old Testament is less important than or inferior to the New Testament.  Despite the differences in audience, culture, and covenant, the same message of love for God (expressed through devotion and obedience) and for others (expressed through the death of self-interest) has always been the joint theme God sought to impress upon His people (Deut 6.51 John 2.7).  The extensive situational laws recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were all predicated on the summarizing basis of the Ten Commandments -- which in turn were predicated on the primary commandment to love and worship the Lord God above all else.

Therefore, it is inaccurate to base a "biblical" definition of marriage on Old Testament law alone.  Proper biblical theology is recognizing the conjunction of all biblical teachings with the unified purpose of understanding the ways in which God expressed His grace to mankind through all eras of human history.  What we ultimately glean from studying Mosaic law is the underlying truth that Israel failed to recognize: that holiness through works is impossible, that God always intended for them to rely upon Him alone, and that all the sacrifices and rituals in the world could never accomplish the redemptive work Christ took upon Himself.

What we don't glean solely from the Pentateuch is a unified definition of biblical marriage, because a biblical marriage doesn't simply follow Jewish traditions or mimic stories found in the Bible.  A biblical marriage conforms to the overarching standard of God's holiness in terms of obedience -- obeying the rules of design (one man, one woman, forever) as well as the rules of interaction (fidelity, kindness, mutual respect, etc).  A biblical marriage ultimately considers how God intends human relationships to mirror His love for us, and is structured to bring the married individuals closer to one another as they grow closer to God.

In Sum

C. S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity that "good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either."  That of course begs the question of who is "good" and who is "bad."  What Lewis was getting at is that there is a level of spiritual understanding that only comes through mature faith -- a life radically changed by Christ, and radically dedicated to Him.  That's why, to those who would reject the truth of the Bible, the "word of the cross is folly" while those on the other side cling to it with hope and security (1 Cor 1.18).

At the risk of sounding elitist, it only makes sense that people who are "outside the fold" would not completely understand the complexities of the Bible -- not to the same degree as someone who believes it wholeheartedly.  After all, the authority on Michelangelo's work is not the Survey of Art student who may have a blossoming appreciation for High Renaissance but isn't quite sure how to fully differentiate one artist's work from another's.  The authority is the museum's curator, the man who has devoted his entire career to studying Michelangelo's life, work, and legacy, and who fought the Board of Directors for the opportunity to bring Michelangelo's work to his museum -- solely for the benefit of those who also would desire to study the master artist.

There is perhaps nothing more dangerous to faith than amateur theology.  That's why Paul urged believers to bring every thought captive (2 Cor 10.5), James cautioned against double-mindedness (Jas 1.8), and Peter spoke repeatedly of sober-mindedness (1 Pet 1.13; 5.8).  It is so easy to be swayed in what you believe if you don't know what you believe.  It is only through habitual, earnest, and humble study of God's Word that the disciple will have opportunity to grow in spiritual maturity -- to know and understand God and His principles and to nurture a discerning spirit.  Not everyone has to be a scholar, of course, but every follower of Christ should know and understand the pillars of biblical truth and be prepared at all times for sneak attacks by false doctrine.

Objections to biblical truth like the ones Mrs. Bird raises are understandable.  Many who come to faith in Christ find one or more biblical directives difficult to swallow.  However, the problem is not that God's law is somehow cruel or unfair.  The problem is that we are unwilling to allow God to be bigger than our sexuality and bigger than our problems.  We don't like the idea of a God who gives specific parameters, and we don't like a God who doesn't give us the cushy lives we feel we deserve.  It is only by recognizing that we are unworthy of the grace He supplies -- by acknowledging that our opinions, our sense of morality, and our desire for comfort aren't worth nearly as much as the Word of Truth -- that we can truly begin to understand Him and truly know that He is good.

31 October 2014

Who makes the woeful heart to sing

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.

I didn't have a miserable childhood.  I didn't suffer any overwhelming loss.  I wasn't disliked or unpopular.  I simply chose to devote a gratuitous amount of time and energy to my own bloated insecurities -- to comparing myself to other people and envying them of their confidence.

I remember slipping out of church immediately after services instead of talking with my friends in the foyer, so that they would notice my absence and come looking for me.  I'd sit morosely in corners and scribble melodramatic song lyrics in a duct-taped binder.  I refused and even scoffed at encouragement.

I did a lot of that kind of thing.

In sum, I spent a whole lot of time thinking about myself, which is the very definition of pride.  Even though I didn't feel good about myself, I didn't have a problem thinking only about myself.  Perhaps John Ortberg said it best, that at its deepest level, "pride is the [loveless] choice to exclude both God and other people from their rightful place in our hearts."  Pride is forgetting (or ignoring) the Christian's responsibility to love God and others above self (Mark 12.30-31).  Looking back now, it's painful to recall.  I'm not proud of any of the time I wasted.  I'm not proud of the fact that all of that self-centeredness would ultimately come to a head in miserable dating relationships -- one failure after another, all because I could only think about me.

In Knowing God, J I Packer asserts that when people come to know God truly -- as opposed to simply knowing about Him -- their "losses and 'crosses' cease to matter to them; what they have gained [in Christ] simply banishes these things from their minds."

What I went through certainly wasn't a loss or a cross.  It was my own juvenile selfishness.  However, selfishness is simply the idolatry of self -- the worship of me -- though it will look different for everyone.  For me, it manifested as a "woe is me" type of mentality.  For others, it might be the "I can do no wrong" or "I have all the answers" thought process, or maybe a sense of entitlement.

All of these are symptoms of the same disease -- a disease for which only Christ has the cure.  And although my selfishness wasn't necessarily a loss or a cross, it was still a burden that I carried: the lingering remnant of sin in me that I refused to allow Christ to "banish" from my mind.

One of the things you hear when you're feeling sorry for yourself is the expression of tough love: "Just get over it."  I don't necessarily disagree with the thought, but I'm cautious to express it in that way to people who are struggling through some of the same things I did.  Even if the sentiment is well-intentioned, it can sound immensely callous, and Paul's admonition to believers is that we should always communicate with compassion -- even when it's a hard truth that needs to be told (Eph 4.15).  Packer's purposeful use of the word "banish" is not necessarily that we should just "get over" our weaknesses, but that the surpassing worth of truly knowing Christ should outweigh and eliminate them.  In other words, truly knowing Christ eclipses the value of all the world's trinkets and makes letting go of any degree of hurt possible.

If, instead of hyper-analyzing my faults, I base my understanding of who I am upon who I know Him to be, suddenly I am capable of relinquishing my flaws as weaknesses He can enable me to overcome.  If, instead of being resentful toward God for the struggles in my life, I am overwhelmed with thanksgiving for the fact that He has lifted the debt of sin from my shoulders, it becomes fully possible to drop everything I am holding onto and follow Him immediately.

However, there is a mis-implication in the "just get over it" sentiment.  While the power we access through the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of wiping the slate clean, we still walk in our flesh and live in a world of loss and heartache.  The "letting go" process will vary for each person in terms of length and intensity.  However, the more closely an individual knows Christ, the easier and more direct that process can be.  Perhaps those pains will never fully subside, but my love for Christ and His love for me will make them manageable and secondary -- mere inconveniences instead of the throbbing, unmitigated injuries they were without Him.

There's a well-known hymn that we frequently sing at Fellowship Bible Church.  It's a composition that particularly highlights Jesus' sovereign authority over nature, His surpassing glory, and His matchless worth to the individual.  It beautifully paints the idea of a big-picture, limitless, omnipotent God who is also intensely personal.

Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature
O Thou of God and man the Son
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor
Thou, my soul’s glory, joy, and crown

Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands
Robed in the blooming garb of spring
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer
Who makes the woeful heart to sing

Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight
And all the twinkling starry host
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer
Than all the angels heaven can boast

All fairest beauty, heavenly and earthly
Wondrously, Jesus, is found in Thee
None can be nearer, fairer, or dearer
Than Thou, my Savior, art to me

Beautiful Savior! Lord of all the nations!
Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration
Now and forever more be Thine

I typically draw the congregation's attention to the second verse.  Often when we find ourselves in painful, sorrowful places, it's easy to allow other things to become our solace.  Solitude.  Natural beauty.  Earthly relationships.  Time.  Even the distraction of entertainment.  And yet Jesus, the One who is fairer and purer than all of these things, is the one who is truly capable of causing woeful hearts to sing.  His eternal, faithful character should be our comfort and our consolation above all else this world can offer.

As a teenager, Jesus was never my consolation -- though I might have claimed He was, though I might even have called out in the midst of my frustrations and anxieties for Him to remove them from me.  I found cheap consolation in my friends' sympathy or simply in distraction -- videogames, books, TV, phone conversations.  And yet the person of Jesus -- the man who lived and died sinlessly on my behalf, the God who ordained my finite number of breaths and even allowed my emotional insecurities in order to make me realize my need for Him -- is the consolation I should have taken.

Knowing Him causes all my losses and crosses to decrease.  Letting go of hurt, especially hurt gained through the malice or carelessness of others, is only truly possible through the restorative power of overwhelming grace.  Letting go of false notions about self-worth and relinquishing selfishness are only possible through intimately knowing Christ.  He outweighs whatever I may have gained in this life.  He banishes any lingering sense of earthly loss from my heart, promising and proving that those things no longer have any claim upon me.  Temporary sorrow no longer has the opportunity to preoccupy my thoughts now that I am filled with Christ Himself.

None can be nearer, fairer, or dearer.  He makes the woeful heart to sing.

24 October 2014

Godly Leadership

I was recently revisiting a study I'd done on godly leadership, back when Tara and I were engaged and in the process of premarital counseling, and thought it might be beneficial to share here.

This will be a little different than my typical rambling post that goes on for paragraphs.  I've opted instead to leave my thoughts in bullet-pointed lists, with links to all applicable passages for anyone who is interested in further study.  Hopefully this will be both as humbling and encouraging to you as it was to me.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Godly Leadership

A leader is first a follower
  • a follower is humble and submissive to imperfect human authorities; this means choosing to submit even when one knows the authority is wrong (Luke 2.51John 19.11)
  • a follower practices submission, not stubbornness; meekness, not weakness (Phil 2.5-8; Isaiah 66.2)
  • a follower is continually dependent upon the Spirit – daily surrendering self for the purpose of glorifying God, allowing the Spirit to do the living (Gal 5.16, 25)
  • a follower allows himself to be led by the Spirit -- recognizing that He will lead to places of suffering and trials, and still going willingly (Matt 4.1-11)
  • a follower cannot move toward the death of self without daily learning to deny self (Luke 9.23-26).
A mature disciple lives like Jesus lives, denying personal "rights" and following with a submissive spirit; in so doing, he becomes a leader among men.

Characteristics of a leader
Offices of a leader (the roles of Christ):
  • Prophet: effectively communicates truth in encouragement, rebuke, and instruction
  • Priest: prayerfully intercedes on the behalf of others, and inspires/encourages daily worship
  • King: leading versus lording: provides direction and exhibits authority with kindness, grace, and humility
A leader's ultimate goal is to be like Christ, delighting in becoming holy as He is holy.  His ultimate desire is to not just see the grace of God revealed to him personally, but also to share the power of that grace with others.

A leader recognizes that sin begins in the heart
  • a leader recognizes that protection against sin begins with mental preparedness (1 Pet 1.13; 2 Cor 10.5)
  • a leader flees from places/areas of temptation, recognizing that half the battle is removing areas of weakness (1 Cor 10.13; 1 Peter 2.11; Jas 4.7; Matt 6.13)
  • a leader understands that we have a tendency to fool ourselves into thinking we are living well (Jer 17.9); therefore, a leader checks his confidence with genuine self-evaluation, seeing himself through God's eyes as opposed to the lens his own thinking (1 Cor 10.13; Heb 4.12)
  • a leader is not shackled by past failures; a leader remembers God's faithfulness (Isa 43.18)
  • a leader specifically addresses issues of temptation and removes them at the root to prevent falling into sin (Matt 18.9)
  • a leader practices regular confession and repentance, keeping a short account of sin (Jas 5.161 Cor 13.7)
  • a leader recognizes his responsibility to protect himself and those under his leadership from things that could potentially lead to temptation (1 John 2.16)
A leader understands that it is not enough to treat just the presenting symptoms by changing behavior, but that the source of the problem must also be addressed.

A leader recognizes the priorities of God
  • a leader takes joy in loving others (causing joy in them through his expression of joy) (John 15.11)
  • a leader practices a lifestyle which reflects the requirements of the Lord and exhibits the fruits of holiness (Gal 5.22-23)
  • through love and truth, a leader edifies both peers and followers (Eph 4.15-16)
  • a leader glorifies God, not himself (John 7.18)
  • a leader passionately follows the commandments of the Lord (John 14.21)
  • a leader is motivated both by future reward (Rom 8.23Phil 3.21), but also by the immediate benefit of glorifying God through loving others (John 13.34)
  • a leader recognizes the temporal nature of things of this world, valuing instead the steadfast love of the Lord (Psa 63.31 John 2.17Heb 10.34)
A leader is more concerned with the pursuit of righteousness and wisdom than pleasing self or others.

A leader recognizes his responsibilities to others
  • a leader is a cheerful giver and practices the love of God which gladly meets the needs of others (2 Cor 9.7Phil 2.4Micah 6.8)
  • a leader takes joy in others' joys, and sorrows in others' sorrows (Rom 12.15)
  • a leader recognizes that true blessing comes not from self-motivated morality, but as a result of worshiping the Father through love for others and joy in Christ (Acts 20.35)
  • a leader practices whole-hearted ministry and service (1 Pet 5.2)
  • a leader is committed to growth through interaction and accountability (Prov 27.17), and practices the type of conduct which inspires others to godly action (Heb 10.24)
  • in the marriage relationship, a leader fulfills his role as provider: as Adam was created from the dust, and Eve taken from his side, man is inexorably linked to his role as provider and the woman to her relational role as nurturer (1 Cor 7.41 Tim 5.8)
  • a leader is prepared for proactive and defensive Christian living through careful study of the Word (2 Tim 3.16-17; Eph 6.10-20)
  • a leader recognizes that the underlying joy in sacrificial lifestyle lies in doing what is truly pleasing to God (Micah 6.8Psa 51.172 Cor 9.7Deut. 10.12)
A leader is willing to give up what he wants for the benefit of others: love always requires some kind of self-denial, and often demands suffering.


leader is a type of Christ, a man or woman who values the things of God more than the things of this world, and loves other believers in the following ways: by encouraging growth, by actively serving, by placing others' needs ahead of his or her own, and by valuing other believers the way the Father values them.  In mirroring Christ, a leader should “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Rom 12.15), an empathy that can only be developed through careful and considerate attention to the other's needs. Therefore, a leader should practice the discipline of "gracious listening" -- in the same way that God hears our prayers and bears our concerns on His heart. A leader will seek to portray the Father in every way, being ultimately devoted to the command to be holy as God Himself is holy.

13 October 2014

Sexuality, Pt. 5: Overcoming Temptation

Part I // Part II // Part III // Part IV

With this post, I'm going to wrap up the series on biblical sexuality that I started at the beginning of September.  If the conversation to this point has been more philosophical than practical, I hope this last chapter will provide some simple yet powerful steps to overcoming temptation, specifically in the area of sexuality.  I went through a number of drafts and settled ultimately on what I hope will be a useful and encouraging conclusion.  If you're reading this and struggling for purity as I have, it is my prayer that you will know victory through the power that Christ alone supplies.

By way of encouragement, keep in mind that experiencing temptation is, in itself, not sin.  Christ Himself, fully God and fully human, was tempted in all the same ways we are, but endured the allure without sinning (Heb 4.15).  Therefore, the fact that I feel tempted to sin in a particular way -- though I might be disgusted by my own propensity -- is not the sin itself.

Alasdair Groves, one of the instructors at the CCEF foundation, stated this principle so profoundly: “God is glorified in the struggle.”  Here's what that means.  That means I am aware of my weaknesses.  That means I confess when I fall -- to God, to anyone against whom I've sinned by my choices, and to anyone who will commit to praying for me and keeping me accountable.  That means that I am actively fighting against that sin and taking precautions not to succumb to it -- in other words, not just rolling over when the temptation comes upon me.  By employing all of the defenses at my disposal, I express to Christ His surpassing worth -- that I am not content with the unsatisfactory lusts of the flesh and desire to glorify Him above all else.

If you've read any or all of the posts in this five-part series, hopefully they've provided some motivation to you to continue struggling.  Sexual failures in particular can feel like quicksand, and Satan wants us to think that we're too entrapped to get out of the mire -- so that we won't even try.  Yet the Scriptures teach us that God's grace covers our sinfulness when we repent (so we don’t need to feel guilty anymore), and that His Spirit empowers us to overcome in the future (so we don’t need to feel hopeless anymore).  He is a merciful God who forgives shortcomings, and a powerful God who provides the necessary strength to overcome temptation.

For the believer, giving up is not an option.  It doesn't matter how long and sordid your history of sexual failure is.  God's grace is not conditional.  It doesn't have a deductible.

He completely saves, and He purposefully empowers.

Identify where you are weak

Everybody struggles in a different way.  For some, their weakness might be pornography.  For others, it might be same-sex attraction.  For others still, it might be infidelity.  Often those temptations crisscross and become complexly interwoven.  Regardless of specifics, the Apostle James cuts to the heart of the matter when he defines temptation as the misguided leading of our own carnal desires -- whatever they may be (Jas 1.14).  Therefore, acknowledging our specific weaknesses is an all-important first step to overcoming our areas of temptation.  We can't begin to combat our sin problem if we don't know where it begins or what triggers it -- or if we continue to pretend that it isn't a problem and we can "handle" it.  Maybe we deceive ourselves into thinking that our struggle is no big deal, that we can keep it quiet and limit the damage.  We can try to bury our failures, but they're always there beneath the surface, ready to pop up again whenever we trip over the shallow grave.  Ultimately, no matter how good a job of hiding them we manage to do, there is One to whom we will inevitably give an account of all our deeds -- One from whom nothing is hidden (Heb 4.13).  In order to overcome, we need to choose instead to bring our weaknesses out into the light.

A wise counselor, under whom I had the privilege of learning, used to make a right angle with his arms and say, "You never fall into sin from here."  Changing the L into a severely acute angle, he'd conclude, a fortiori, "You fall from here."

This is not Pastor Joe Schenke, but he seemed like a willing volunteer.

The idea is this: when we fail to identify our weaknesses, we give a little ground.  The angle becomes a few degrees steeper.  We're like a frog in a pot of water, comfortable even as the temperature continues to climb -- so long as it's only one degree at a time.  Each moment we don't take action, we get a little closer to the boiling point.  By the time we actually commit the sin, it's because we've ignored all the warning signs.  Ultimately, the danger comes upon us before we even realize how close we are.

If instead we choose to be honest with ourselves, to search our hearts for our weak points and bolster our spiritual defenses -- acknowledging the warning signs as the temptation nears -- then we effectively sensitize ourselves to our own weaknesses.  Instead of giving our sin the luxury of a stealthy approach under the cover of darkness, we install motion sensing floodlights.

Practice "radical amputation"

Frankly, the concept of amputation seems radical enough to me.  Adding that specific adjective makes it even more extreme.

The concept behind medical amputation is simple.  Damage has been done to an extremity, damage that will spread to the rest of the body and cause further harm if it isn't stopped.  Though the practice of amputation originated in more primitive eras of medicine, there are still injuries and illnesses today that cannot be stopped with medication or alternative treatments, and so the only option is to remove the limb.  Crush syndrome and gangrene are two examples.  For that matter, cancer fits the description also: we have to remove tumors before we can treat the damage.

Applied to our spiritual battle, radical amputation means leaving no room for tolerance.  The disease of sin is so serious and so damaging that it must be violently cut out of our lives in order that we can live.  "Radical" amputation means that I don't wait until gangrene sets in to lop off the limb: I cut it off as soon as I have a papercut.  Sin is truly that damaging if left to fester.  It's worth losing a few fingers or a hand if it means I get to keep my heart.

This is what is meant by Jesus' metaphoric encouragement to His disciples that they should amputate limbs or eyes that offend them (Matt 5.30).  Of course that's not a literal command: what Christ was teaching was that it is far better to deprive ourselves of something that seems innocent or useful than to create a gateway that could potentially lead to sin.  It is better to enter heaven "maimed" than to tolerate sin that could utterly destroy our spiritual health.

Here's what that looks like.  If I'm dating a girl and I'm more likely to be tempted when we go to a certain place -- probably somewhere with few people, somewhere dark and romantic -- then I need to choose another location for the date.  If I'm more likely to be "handsy" after I've had a beer, then I need to not have a drink while on a date, or possibly consider giving up alcohol altogether if it has a tendency to alter my behavior.  If certain conversational topics bring me to the point where I begin to lust after my date, then I need to avoid those points of discussion.  If I struggle with pornography, then I need to install reliable filters, give someone I trust the password to Google Chrome, only use the internet in public locations, or maybe even forgo owning a computer altogether.  It is better to inconvenience myself by sacrificing my right to own a computer than to buy one and constantly battle the temptation to look at pornography.

If I don't take steps to protect myself from sin's allure, I could eventually find myself so enslaved to my desires that the redeeming Word of Christ is choked out of my heart by the weeds and thorns of lust growing up around it.  Through the gateway of tolerance, the disease which began in our limbs will spread all the way to our core.

Find accountability

Typically, we're ashamed of our sexual sins.  Though Hollywood might glorify the libido and promote cultural notions of sexual freedom, the reality is that sex is emotionally scarring when it is misused.  There's enough guilt packaged into sexual sins that makes it incredibly difficult to open up about the ways in which we've violated our own chastity.  We tend instead to bury the truth and keep our heads down -- lest somebody become wise to our failures.

By the same token, however, once we get past that initial hill and open our hearts to another believer, there is incredible encouragement to be found in the sharpening quality of iron on iron (Prov 27.17).  Contrary to popular belief, Christian fellowship isn't centered on potluck dinners after Sunday services.  Christian fellowship is more in line with James' encouragement that believers should pray for one another and confess their sins openly (Jas 5.16).  The writer of Hebrews took that assertion even further, stating that we should engage in this type of mutual exhortation on a daily basis in order to escape sin's tendency to harden our hearts (Heb 3.13).  This is a visceral and uncomfortable practice, but it engages us in a real, practical, and genuinely encouraging way.  We are all wounded soldiers helping each other limp to safety -- requesting aid where we are weak, lending strength where we are strong.  Though Christ has made us whole, there is still a long ways to go before we are completely rid the curse of sin and death.  Accountability is one of the most powerful tools we can utilize to overcome sexual temptation, simply because there is strength in numbers, and we are capable of pointing out flaws in our brother or sister that we might miss in ourselves.

Accountability is a powerful catalyst for change.

I love this song that a friend of mine wrote.  It captures the sentiment that I think many who struggle with sexual sin carry: I'm not worth saving.  I'm too far gone.  Don't waste your time on me.

If that's where you are, remember that God's grace is not conditional.  It doesn't matter how much wrong you've done.  Christ's death was once and for all, and the redemption He offers is enough to cover each and every failure.

So stop lying to yourself.

You aren't too far gone.

This isn't just who you are.

Your sin is a big deal and you do need to stop.

It isn't too late to repent.

God does love you.  He also hates your sin.  That's why He gave His Son -- so you could have something better.

People won't reject you or look at you differently if you open up to them.  In fact, they've most likely struggled in some of the same ways.

You need other believers to help carry you through.

Prayer and honest confession are instrumental in turning a losing battle with sexual temptation into a victory.

Practice godly disciplines

Paul frequently wrote in his epistles about "putting on" and "putting off" different behaviors.  The overarching idea is simply that it isn't enough to stop sinning: we must replace a bad behavior with a good behavior in order to truly implement change.  To overcome a tendency to lie, it's not enough to resolve to stop telling lies -- I must also begin to tell the truth.  To overcome the tendency to sin sexually with a woman, it's not enough to simply stop the act of sex -- I must also begin to seek help, to change my thinking about sex and my own desires, and to seek purity instead.

It's not enough to simply stop.  We must replace the bad behavior with a good one.

Don't misunderstand: we cannot atone for our sinfulness.  Heaping up all of our good deeds still won't stack up to the level of perfection, and that's what God requires.  However, once we have come to a saving, life-changing knowledge of Christ, suddenly we have the ability to stop sinning.  Through God's power, we have a newfound capacity to walk in obedience, whereas before our best attempt to get clean was to take a bath in the mire.  We no longer need to be perfect, because Christ was perfect on our behalf.  Yet we still strive for holiness, because wholehearted spiritual obedience is the natural result of genuine salvation.  That's why Paul talks about replacing poor behavior with good behavior -- not because we can somehow be good enough to earn heaven, but because we can now begin to train ourselves to practice obedience.

Interestingly, when we apply the practice of spiritual disciplines to areas where we aren't weak, it makes it easier to practice obedience in the areas where we are.  When Paul told the Thessalonian believers to "abstain from every kind of evil," he preceded that command with a list of other spiritual "to-dos" -- prayer, service, and the practice of such things as thankfulness, humility, and accepting instruction (1 Thess 5.14-22).  So, if I'm struggling with lust and choose to devote myself to prayer (honest confession, humble thanksgiving, and earnest supplication) and ministering to others (the moral opposite of lusting after them -- giving instead of taking), that sin will have fewer handholds in my heart to grasp.

Here's why this approach works: sin is pervasive.  It isn't neatly confined to one "area" of our hearts.  Sin has the quality of a liquid: conforming to the shape of its container, filling each part of our spirituality.  To do battle in one area is to do battle in them all, which is why we need to use all of the biblical resources available to us -- not just prayer, not just the Word of God, not just the wisdom of our spiritual elders.  To do battle through prayer is to hack at one tendril of sin -- the one that says God isn't enough and that sex should be my right to use how I see fit.  To do battle through service is to uproot the creeping vine that insists relationships exist for my benefit.  All of these areas converge on the same sin.

Furthermore, this approach takes the focus off the sin itself and places it on God instead.  Like Peter, we need to take our eyes off of the waves and put our focus back onto Jesus.  The battle is really His anyway -- we can't fight it alone.  That means that, instead of beating our heads against the struggle with a particular sin, we throw ourselves into desperate, prayerful dependence upon God's strength.   Instead of depending upon spiritual self-help books (and blogs), we can begin to replace the tendency to sin with steps of obedience, taken in God's uplifting grace.

That doesn't mean, of course, that I can tolerate my sinful behavior while trying to be spiritual.  That's often what we try, and it doesn't work.  Going to church, giving an extra-large tithe, and helping a fellow congregant move don't collectively substantiate for the glaring sin problems we are keeping hidden behind the doors of our hearts -- justified because we're "praying about them" and waiting for God to miraculously remove the temptation.  That "approach" isn't an approach.  It's spiritual laziness.  That reveals nothing but a desire to avoid hard tasks, and a heart that values sin over righteousness.

We have to address and tackle our specific struggles -- not just ignore them, and certainly not revel in them.  No amount of good behavior can compensate for any amount of bad, and no amount of blissful ignorance can remove the mountain of temptations that we face.  However, if I am truly developing other ares of my life, practicing spiritual disciplines, and actively attempting to replace my sinful acts with God-honoring behaviors, then the habits I'm forming and the choices I'm making will invariably impact my area of weakness.

Faith can move mountains, after all (Matt 17.20).

Learn to hate the sin

This may be the hardest step to implement.

Let's be honest.  Sin is fun -- especially sexual sin.  It's a forbidden delight.  It's thrilling.  It's addictive.

That's why we not only need to change our behavior, but also our perspective.

I'm convinced that until we learn to despise our wickedness, until we are truly brokenhearted over the state of our hearts, we will continue to wrestle with our sinfulness.  God extends mercy and comfort to those who mourn for their own sinful condition (Matt 5.4).  That doesn't just mean that I feel bad and wish I hadn't failed.  Truly mourning over my sin means being overcome with the type of grief that compels me to confess my wrongdoings -- both to God and to the ones whom I've offended -- as wicked, selfish, idolatrous violations of His perfect order, and inspires heart-changing repentance.

The most difficult command in the Bible to keep is to be holy the way God is.  That's because holiness isn't measured in degrees.  I'm not a mere 85% holy if I have sexual sin in my life.  Holiness is all-encompassing: either I'm made holy through Christ's redeeming blood, or I'm utterly wicked, stained scarlet by the sin I refuse to relinquish.  That type of black-and-white dichotomy doesn't jive with moral relativism, but it is absolutely biblical.  Either I'm for Christ or I'm against Him (Luke 11.23).  Therefore, if I'm truly a child of God, then I will desire to be like Him -- holy as He is holy -- and should no more crave the type of defiling wickedness that categorizes life without Him.

Am I going to be tempted?  Certainly.

Will there ever be a point at which I'll be immune to temptation's allure?  Probably not.

Remember, Christ Himself was tempted in all ways, even through His final moments on the cross.  If the Son endured temptation throughout His human life, then it only follows that we will also.

Am I going to fall?  Probably.  But a mistake is different than a characteristic behavior.

To have a lustful thought and confess it immediately is to hate sin and to pursue righteousness before God.  To allow lust to marinate, however -- to allow it room to grow from thought into action, and to avoid confessing that sin or to do anything about it -- is to make that sin characteristic.  At this point, it is no longer a mistake; it is a lifestyle.  Paul warned professing believers against thinking that they were truly saved if this was how they conducted themselves.  Those who make a practice of sexual immorality -- in other words, those whose lives are characterized by sin instead of righteousness -- cannot expect to enter into heaven (1 Cor 6.10).

If instead we recognize all of our desires can be fulfilled in Christ alone and train our hearts to earnestly desire heaven -- instead of becoming distracted by the deceitful allures of a broken world -- we can begin to hate sin with the same fervency God does.  To tolerate sin is to allow lust to linger; to eradicate sin and pursue Christ instead is to practice the righteous type of hatred for wickedness that characterizes God Himself.  "I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless," David wrote in the Psalms, "I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me" (Psa 101.3).  Hating the sin means allowing it no room for dominion in my heart.


Joseph flees Potiphar's wife, leaving his coat in her grasp.
The bottom line when it comes to overcoming temptation, is that -- above all else -- it is to be fled, not tolerated.  We do well to quote 1 Corinthians 10.3 when it comes to a personal struggle: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability."  But we always leave out the quintessential second half!  Paul continues, "But with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."

Don't miss this.  According to this favorite passage of struggling Christians, endurance is predicated upon the way of escape.  Overcoming temptation isn't about me defeating it by sheer willpower.  That means that I should do everything in my power to be conscious of my temptation, taking all of the aforementioned measures to avoid it before I ever choose to face it.

99 times out of 100, when I try to endure without fleeing, I will fail.  99 times out of 100, I'll find myself immediately thereafter moping, feeling sorry for myself, and wondering why I even bothered trying.  Instead, like Joseph, we need to flee the scene of the crime -- before the crime is ever committed.  It is absolutely futile to screw up my face and insist, "No!  I'm better than this!" but do nothing to get away from the temptation.  At that point, I'm a heroin addict going through withdrawal, left alone with a loaded needle.

Temptation is always to be fled -- often literally.  When we fail, it's not because God tested us beyond our ability or failed to give us the strength He promised: it's that we ignored the prime opportunity to escape that He provided.  We need to use the lifelines He extends in order to overcome the battle with our own weaknesses.

Fleeing sin is not retreating.  It is not conceding the battlefield.  Certainly we take a stand against sin in the world -- against the errors of heretical teachings and against sin creeping into the body of Christ.  When it comes to our personal struggle with sin, however, doing battle means taking precautionary measures to stem the influence of our old way of living, because Christ already overcame sin.  The war is already won, the enemy already defeated.  Our job, therefore, is much less maintaining a self-defeating offensive than avoiding the lingering fallout -- keeping ourselves unstained by the world until the Savior returns in glory, to bring us home for all of eternity.


All that being said, you can practice all of these steps and still fall into sin.  These are not foolproof methods, and our hearts often deceive us.

Furthermore, we can pray with all our might for God to remove temptation from us, but He doesn't always take us out of harm's way.  Why?  Not because He enjoys watching us stumble, but because He will test our loyalty to Him.  How we respond to temptation is an indicator of how much we love Him.

We will never become perfect.  We've already irreparably tarnished our record.  However, we are made holy by the blood of the lamb, and the charges against us have been placed upon the Messiah -- the Redeemer.  Recompense for the debt of sin had to be made, and so Jesus placed His own perfection on the altar and paid the bill in full.  Through the freedom provided us via His sacrificial act, we have the potential to never choose sin again.  Most likely we'll still fail.  But if we take precautionary steps to approach temptation biblically and repent as soon as we stumble, we can wrap ourselves in the Holy Spirit and never again fall into a pattern of debilitating sinful behavior.

God's grace covers our sinfulness when we repent, so we don’t need to feel guilty anymore.

His Spirit empowers us to overcome in the future, so we don’t need to feel hopeless anymore.

He is a merciful God who forgives shortcomings.  He is a powerful God who provides the necessary strength to overcome temptation.

To Him be the glory, forever and ever.  Amen.