18 July 2014

Marital Coasting

I like to think of myself as an uncommonly thoughtful and considerate person.  At the same time, I also know that self-perceptions are more often than not ignorant of their own gaping holes.

This morning, Tara and I had a conversation about where we were a few years ago and how far we've come.  It's a conversation that comes up on occasion, and always seems burdened by the same concerns: we talk, but do we talk?  We love each other, but do we truly cherish?

Sketch by Miss Absinthe (http://laiyla.deviantart.com/)
Part of me resents these questions.  For the same reasons that I like to think I'm thoughtful and considerate, I also want to think that I'm doing everything my wife could possibly want and need.  Maybe that's just masculine arrogance speaking, but the truth is that I want to think I'm a better-than-average husband, because whenever someone posts an obnoxious article with a title like "10 things husbands are incapable of doing," I can check off every item on the list.  That's because I'm a doer.  I see a problem and try to fix it.  I see a need and try to fill it.  I'm not above helping my wife with mundane tasks.  However, doing things for Tara is a self-fulfilling type of love, simply because it feels sacrificial.  That awareness of my own time commitment often makes it more self-fulfilling than selfless.  I feel like I'm loving Tara well when I devote an afternoon to cleaning the house so she doesn't have to.  In itself, it's not a bad thing.  However, the problem with this prideful sense of "sacrifice" is that it often keeps me from doing for her what she really needs because I feel like I've already checked the box of what was required.  It keeps me operating merely at the point of optimum relational efficiency, and not striving to serve her more.

If I truly were the considerate person that I like to think I am, I would not only welcome the "check-up" conversation, but I would also be willing to meet my wife where she is.  Tara is an encourager.  She is deeply thoughtful, a generous giver, a hard worker.  For those reasons and more, she deserves more than my merely "sufficient" effort.  While she appreciates my help, she needs more than just someone tall enough to reach the top shelf.  She needs a leader and an encourager.  She needs me to disciple her and build her up in love.  She desires me to communicate my needs, my thoughts, my fears -- so that she can meet the ones she is able and pray for me in the ones she isn't.  And she needs my help, of course, but I can't just stop at the thing I'm comfortable doing.

That's really the problem.  Comfort.  Husbands (and wives too, for that matter, but husbands especially) deviate toward the most comfortable mode of operation and nest there.  We're like a grumpy cat sleeping in a sunbeam: every time the warmth recedes further into the dining room, we crawl resentfully back toward it, annoyed that it moved away from the carpet and onto the hardwood.  We don't want anything challenging because we just want to punch a relationship time card and exist in the place of contentment.  We hit a plateau where everything seems good and we're getting along with our spouse and decide to pitch our tent there, calling it marital unity when really we're settling for a comfortable façade.

I saw a t-shirt on the internet called the 1st Law of Relationship Inertia.  It read: "After 6 weeks a relationship will continue unless acted upon by an outside force."  That's the picture -- a self-sustaining momentum, a downhill coast that doesn't require any work to keep it going.

We don't want to strive in our marriages.  We want to coast.

Perhaps anticipating this, Paul recorded the following admonition in Ephesians 5:
Husbands, love your wives [in the same way that] Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
In the light of that Spirit-given insight, my idolatrous desire for marital coasting seems awfully stale and empty.  My responsibility as a husband isn't to love my wife in such a way that merely facilitates her existence alongside mine.  It's not about keeping a checklist and completing chores so that we can fall asleep on the couch each night watching TV together.

My responsibility as a husband, throughout the remainder of my lifetime, is to prepare Tara to meet her Savior face-to-face.  My principle value should be her spiritual maturity, because I get to play an instrumental role in her sanctification.  That means I should be doing everything I can to avoid the comfort of coasting.  It means I'm invested in my wife, willing to roll up my sleeves -- willing to do and say the hard things.  Loving and cherishing my wife should not be chore.  It should be a privilege.

The bottom line is that, if I truly value Tara -- if I truly want to be an uncommonly thoughtful and considerate husband -- then I'm going to put my desire for marital comfort at the bottom of my list of priorities, elevating instead my bride's need for Christ-like love, encouragement, and intimacy.  I will willingly transform the question "What do I have to give to this marriage?" into "What more can I give to this marriage?"

11 July 2014

Imprecatory Psalms: What do I do with them?

"Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!  Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life!  Let them be turned back and disappointed who devise evil against me!  Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them away!  Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them!"

-- Psalm 35.1, 4-6

Reading through the psalms, you come across frequent passages like this, often bookended (ironically) by hymns of praise and thanksgiving.  In fact, the requests found in chapter 35 might seem fairly tame in contrast to some of David's other requests for judgment on the wicked.  However, the tone of each of these passages remains the same: desperation for God to act retributively upon injustice.

I've read a number of blogs and commentaries that dismiss the imprecatory psalms as sinful expressions of David's vengeful heart, as well as some that have dismissed these passages as the type of "Old Testament thinking" that bears no relevance to contemporary Christianity.  I'm not going to waste time dissecting those fruitless arguments, because if the Word is living and active, and if it truly is inspired by God, then those interpretations crumble without support.

There are several things we should keep in mind when reading David's imprecatory psalms, from which we can make several points of personal application as well.

More than his enemies' anguish, David is praying for his own deliverance.

Consider the fact that David's request is built upon his own helplessness: "Fight against those who fight against me!  Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life!"  If we simplify his request, he is begging the Almighty to protect him from evil, and to destroy that evil in the process.  Throughout the psalms, each plea for his enemy's paths to be "dark and slippery" is part of a request for protection from the Lord.  Any time he calls for the destruction of the wicked, it is the result of their relentless oppression upon him.  What that means is not that he is bloodthirsty or unnecessarily outraged, but that he senses his own helplessness at the hands of the wicked and is willing to entrust his predicament to God's provision -- instead of taking matters into his own hands.  By asking God for His divine interaction, David is acting according to the principle -- a principle that is, by the way, fundamental to both Old AND New Testament thinking -- that vengeance belongs to the Lord, and is not something man has any right to take for himself (Deut 32.35Rom 12.19).  David is asking the Lord to honor His promise to preserve the righteous -- a promise found in that very same passage about His right to vengeance (32.36) -- and to exact retribution on the wicked for the misdeeds they have done to God's children.  Though they may seem harsh and full of anger, David's imprecatory psalms are ultimately an expression of his complete dependence upon God for deliverance.  They are his expression of desperation for God.  Realistically, being driven to desperation is sometimes the only thing that can force us to cling to Him alone.

He is also praying for God's justice.

Above the preservation of his own life, David values the glory of God.  Ultimately, he recognizes that though the attack of the wicked is directed at him, it is against a Holy God alone that they have sinned.  He even experienced the flipside of that himself when he stole Uriah's wife and then proceeded to have the man murdered (Psa 51.4).  How infinite God's grace and deep David's repentance that he is still called a man after God's own heart!  Despite his imperfections, David pondered and meditated upon the things that the Lord loves, and the psalms are evidence that he chose to delight in the Lord and despise the things that the Lord hates.  Therefore, if God hates wickedness -- if He destroys the liars, the bloodthirsty, and the deceitful (Psa 5.4-6) -- then the imprecatory psalms are David's desperate plea for God to unleash His righteous wrath upon all sinfulness -- once and for all.  And in that regard, though David may be speaking in a present tense and genuinely asking for direct intervention with the oppressors in his own life, he is ultimately asking for the final judgment that will come at the end of creation -- when all the world, all men and women throughout history, will stand before the Throne of God and give an account for their lives.

In many ways, the imprecatory psalms are an expression of what righteous anger should look like.  Don't get me wrong: we shouldn't be asking for fire to come down from heaven on every person who wrongs us.  But we should be passionately disposed against sin.  David's psalms are overflowing with his hatred of sin, his grief over the oppression of the righteous, and his disgust at the wickedness in his own heart.  He is so fueled by a holy anger against sin that he begged God to strike the wicked for their delight in evil.

I am convinced that perhaps the biggest reason we don't overcome sin in our lives is that we don't hate it the way God does.  If you hate roller coasters, you don't get on them.  If you hate country music (as well you should), you don't listen to it.  Frankly, if we hated sin the way David did, and regarded it as the spiritual depravity that it truly is, we wouldn't engage in it.  We too would long for the time that God will finally, finally, punish sin and purge its existence for eternity.

We too should be entrusting our lives into God's hands.

It should be our modus operandi to pray for mercy upon those who would do us harm.  Christ admonished His followers to bless those who persecute and offer the other cheek for another humiliating slap -- as opposed to lashing out in anger (Matt 5).  Love covers a multitude of sins and is a powerful force in forcing the persecutor to see his own wickedness by contrast.  In those places where we choose to respond peacefully in the face of injustice, and it seems to makes no difference, then we have the opportunity to exercise the same type of dependence upon God that David utilized.  We can rest in the knowledge that God is the One who will repay, that He collects the tears of the saints in a vial (Psa 56.8), and that He will one day rectify all wrongs that were done to the righteous (Rev 6.9-11).

More often than not, we take matters into our own hands.  We're not content to let someone win an argument, because we have to prove ourselves right.  We're not content to trust that one day our enemy's wrongdoings will catch up to them.  We want to see them weep with remorse now over what they've done.  I think that's particularly where our thinking concerning the imprecatory psalms gets off-track: we assume that David just wants to see the wicked get what's coming to them, but his anger is less concerned with injustice done to him personally than with the injustice done to all the righteous, against God.  We need to entrust our lives into God's hands, knowing that our confidence in His provision extends beyond this life and into eternity.

We too should be praying for God's justice.

Micah 6.8 is one of my life verses: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"  This passage communicates that three of Lord's biggest priorities in His children are concern for justice, kindness, and the practice of humility.  If we are to be like Him, holy as He is holy (1 Pet 1.16), and if we have access to the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2.16), then we should be molding our desires to be akin to the Father's: to see perfect justice done upon unrighteousness, to see all men the way He does (2 Pet 3.9), and to see them receive the grace that He so freely offers (Eph 1.7-8).

Obviously we should necessarily be modeling our prayers after the exact wording of these imprecatory passages.  In the same way that Paul's account of pummeling his body into submission (1 Cor 9.27) shouldn't be the grounds for harmful, self-flagellating practices of discipline, and Hosea's decision to marry and re-marry Gomer at the Lord's prompting (Hos 1.2-3; 3.3) shouldn't be justification for pursuing emotionally damaging relationships, neither should David's example in the imprecatory psalms be an exact template to follow.  We can't understand the personal experiences of these men, nor what God was directly doing in their lives in order to benefit the saints thousands of years later.  The Spirit prompted David to record these passages, and they are included in the Scriptures so that we might have a window into what a passionate hatred of evil looks like.

Therefore, what we can take from David's example is the desire to see God glorified above all else, and wickedness eradicated.  For that reason, I might not pray that the Lord would "shatter their teeth in their mouths" (Psa 58.6), but I would pray that the Lord would reveal to them the error in their thinking, and silence the lies that they tell.  Though I might not pray that the wicked man's "children be fatherless and his wife a widow," (Psa 109.9), I would pray that the wicked man might come to an understanding of grace so that his family too can know and understand the mercies of God.  Furthermore, sometimes God works through pain to make a point.  As Eliphaz correctly observed (albeit, not the truth Job needed to hear at that time), "He wounds, but he binds up" (Job 5.18).  In that regard, I can also legitimately pray for God to get ahold of a wicked man's attention by any means necessary -- not as an expression of my desire to see that individual suffer, but to see his soul added to the Kingdom.

When considering the imprecatory psalms, the bottom line is that we don't have direct access to the mind of David.  We can't fully understand from his perspective what the Spirit was motivating him to record.  What we do know is that we are to be a people who model the love of Christ even to the point of our own personal detriment.  We know that God loves mercy and justice.  We know that vengeance is His right alone, and that one day He will exact it.

When we read the imprecatory psalms, we can stand upon these principles: that we should pray for God to work justice and not try to take it ourselves, and that we should entrust both our fates as well as the fates of our enemies into the hands of the Almighty.