Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sex, Marriage, and The Gospel

I’ve been reading Hosea 1-4 this morning and thinking more about why we all struggle with adultery, at least adultery of the mind and the heart.  As we study through the commandments at church, part of the challenge in the message on the 7th commandment is to convince everyone that they have broken the 7th commandment even if they have never laid a hand on someone who is not their spouse.  Jesus reveals to us in Matthew 5 that our desires and thoughts betray us as we desire to have something and someone else other than our spouse in marriage.

As I meditate on that issue and read through Hosea 4, I am again confronted with the why.  Why does Gomer, who has been pursued by Hosea, go back to her adulterous ways?  Why does Judah, who has been relentlessly pursued by Yahweh, go back consistently to her adulterous ways?

It seems to me that the issue is the desire we have to seek pleasure outside of real relationship because real relationships take work and challenge us to be forgiving.  I think of all the men and women I’ve talked to over the years who have been unfaithful and how often the underlying issue has been the broken relationship with their spouse that leads them to believe that sexual fulfillment outside of their marriage relationship is better.  The challenge (it seems to me) with faithfulness to one person over a long period of time is that once you get to really know somebody, you realize that they are just as broken and sinful as you are.  In order to pursue them relationally, you have to serve them, sacrifice for them, and ultimately learn to regularly forgive them.  This is a LOT of work.  Why not just find that sexual pleasure from a picture on a screen or a person you don’t really know so that you don’t have to get into the mess of relationship?  We always foolishly think that the “grass is greener on the other side.”

This seems to be the warning of Proverbs 5 & 7 – that the ways of the harlot make her seem to offer something that is better and easier to have than the hard work of the marriage relationship.  But in the end, she leads to death, leading us to the slaughter.  God is not foolish – He knows what He is talking about when He commands our faithfulness in marriage.  He is protecting us from the lie we tell ourselves about the easier pleasure we will receive from the harlot.  It is easier but not better, life-taking not life-giving!  We can get the pleasure quickly, but it leads to death – our death and the destruction of the people and relationships we really care about.

To me, this is where the gospel comes in.  The gospel empowers us and frees us to do the hard work of faithfulness inside a long-term relationship.  Because Jesus has been the faithful spouse that we need (He forgives us and loves us and pursues us relentlessly), He changes our hearts toward our spouses.  He empowers us to KNOW our spouses and all their faults and flaws and sin issues and to still LOVE them faithfully – to do the hard work of forgiving them regularly.  I think marriage is the closest human relationship we have for understanding what it is like for God to relate to us (Paul makes this point explicitly in Ephesians 5).  He knows us intimately, loves us faithfully, and forgives us regularly.  If we believe that, then we will offer forgiveness to our spouses and seek pleasure in their arms, not in the arms of another.

This is one issue when it comes to our struggle with sexual sin (there are many more).  But these are just thoughts in my mind this morning about the sin beneath the sin of sexual unfaithfulness – our unwillingness to forgive our spouses and patiently, relentlessly pursue them as God has done for us in Christ.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Age of the Earth

I just finished a fascinating book by Drs. Young and Stearley (two believing professors of geology at Calvin College in Michigan) about the Bible and the age of the earth.  I have always been fascinated by the hermeneutics of Genesis 1 and the intersection of faith and science.  My background is mechanical engineering (my undergrad from Baylor), and from time to time my desire to learn from the best scientific research available takes me to books that most people don't read.  This book is one such read. 

Coming in at 460 well-researched and dense pages, The Bible, Rocks, and Time covers an immense terrain (forgive the pun).  The first 160 pages are the history of the science of geology.  The authors give us a snapshot of major figures in the study of geology and their important discoveries.  Their major point in this section of the book is to say that Christian geologists concluded that the earth was very old from an abundance of evidence before Darwin proposed his evolutionary theory and before radiometric dating was discovered.  Their summary is detailed and helpful.

The second section of the book (the next 50 pages) gives a history of the interpretation of Genesis 1.  In this section, the two geologists are obviously outside their primary area of expertise, but they do a great job of quoting major figures in church history and current biblical scholars that demonstrate the diversity of opinions on Genesis 1.  Their main point is the same conclusion that Dr. Letham comes to in his survey of early Christian teaching in the Westminster Theological Journal - - that the church has never had a monolithic position on the interpretation of Genesis 1.  Most held positions, but held them lightly as secondary positions.

The third section of the book (the next 200 pages) goes into great detail on the geological evidence itself for the antiquity of the earth (an earth that is 4.5 billion years old, not 6,000 years old).  This section is the most meaty, as this is the area of expertise of these two authors.  They cover the study of fossils, the geological column (what the layers of rocks teach us in various places around the globe), how sedimentation works, how mountains and plate tectonics works, the combination of catastrophic events and normal processes (like erosion) that have shaped the rock formations that we see today, and the history and accuracy of radiometric dating.  Their scope is expansive and their arguments are convincing.  All along the way, they interact with young-earth scientific arguments to show how the physical evidence leads to different conclusions.

The final section of the book (the last 50 pages) is all about WHY this even matters.  As a pastor, this section was the most compelling.  The authors believe that the young-earth position (that the earth is only 6000 years old) is not only terrible science, but that it is actually detrimental to the cause of the gospel.  Their argument opposes the position of YEC-proponents who believe that their defense of a 6, 24-hour day creation is necessary to proclaiming the gospel.  Drs. Young and Stearley strongly believe the opposite - that continuing to teach that the Bible only teaches a 6000-year old earth is turning a generation of young people away from Christ and ignoring a whole people group (professional scientists) away from Christ who know the truth about the age of the earth.  Here is one of their most compelling paragraphs in their final chapter:

Frequently, students are taught that the traditional six twenty-four-hour days interpretation of Genesis 1 is the only interpretation of the text that is consistent with belief in an inerrant Bible.  Often they are also misleadingly taught that the tenets of young-Earth creationism stand on equal scientific footing with mainstream geologic views of an ancient Earth.  Many young Christians have been reared to believe that this concept of creation is a virtual article of faith that represents the biblical teaching.  Those young Christians then go off to college, to a museum or to another source of knowledge where they may be exposed to legitimate geology and are stunned by the force of geologic evidence for the Earth's antiquity.  They have been personally confronted with an intellectual and spiritual fixed great gulf that is far wider than the Grand Canyon, between their newfound scientific understanding and the religious views of their youth.  To them, the Bible now becomes a flawed book.  Sensing that they have been misled about creation by the religious authorities of their youth, they lose confidence in the rest of their religious upbringing.  Such students may suffer severe shock to their faith.  They were not properly taught the truth about creation, nor were they equipped to deal with challenges to their faith.  Christians who are professional scientists have all heard far too many accounts of individuals whose spiritual journeys sound much like the scenario just described.  Let's have no shipwrecks of faith of young, vulnerable, unprepared Christian youth that can be laid at the door of the pseudo-science promoted by Christians.

Everyone of us who is raising kids to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength needs to listen carefully to these words.  May God give us the grace to teach His gospel faithfully to our children without putting any unnecessary roadblocks in the way of true and lasting faith.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Teaching Children to Respect Authority

As I'm working through the Ten Commandments this year from the pulpit, I have been struck again by the high place of the directive from God to "honor your father and mother."  The commandments are broken down into two sets - usually referred to as the two tablets (the first four that have to do with our vertical relationship with God and the second six have to do with our horizontal relationships with others).  The pivot command - commandment number five - that transitions between these two topics is the one for us to honor our parents.   At the same time that I've been studying the commandments, I've been reading the proverbs.  The proverbs are obviously concerned with each of us living with wisdom - making the best moral decision in every situation.  And the number one piece of advice that the Proverbs give to us in living wisely?  You got it - listen to your parents.  Solomon goes on and on to his sons about the importance of heeding his advice and listening to the instruction of their mother.  So, all that being said, why does God care so much about how we respond to our parents?  And how do we help our children understand the importance of following our instruction when they are young and still under our daily care?

1. Learning to respect our parents is important to God because it is the first authority relationship we have in our lives and reveals to us how we feel about God's authority in our lives.  The context of the Ten Commandments seems to be saying to us that the first horizontal relationship that demonstrates our allegiance to God is the way we relate to our parents.  In other words, kids need to learn to respect their parents so that they can learn to respect God.  As I have said many times from the pulpit, everyone lives their lives under authority.  Submission tends to be a nasty word in our culture because it implies a lack of independence and individuality, but in reality, we all have to submit every day.  We have employers and police officers and government officials and church leadership and others who make decisions every day that impact our lives.  We are called by Scripture to respectfully submit to their authority.  Why?  Because God teaches us how to follow His authority and direction by teaching us to follow human authority.  Kids need to learn to respect and honor their parents so that they will learn to respect and honor God.  God instituted the family and the leadership of parents in the home to teach children what it is like to live under His authority.  As we help our kids respect and listen to us, we are helping them respect and listen to God.

2. Learning to respect our parents is important to God because all other human relationships flow from this first relationship.  The second half of the Ten Commandments cover many different kinds of human relationships (those with strangers, spouses, friends, and neighbors).  The way the commandments read to me in order show that our relationship with mom and dad at home will impact how all of these other relationships work out.  In other words, if a child struggles at honor Mom and Dad, he will struggle to honor his spouse, love his neighbor, and respect his co-workers.  All of these relationships are intermingled.  Parents, we have a high calling to teach our kids to respect our authority not just because it helps them understand God, but also because it helps them learn how to relate in a healthy way to others.  If a child is disrespectful at home to his parents, he will be disrespectful to his teachers, his coaches, his peers, his boss, etc.  They are all connected.

3. As parents, we need to be especially aware of influences that teach our children that disrespect to their parents is acceptable and normal.  While all parents work hard to keep grossly immoral influences away from their kids, we can struggle to filter those influences that encourage a disrespectful attitude toward parental authority.  A disrespectful tone or attitude usually doesn't show up as blatantly inappropriate because the parents in TV shows have done something that seems to deserve the disdain of the children.  In fact, our cultural dialogue over the last thirty years has been more about absent parents than disrespectful children.  When parents are divorcing or overworking or emotionally distant from their kids, our highest priority as a culture can seem to be to get parents in line.  And while I agree that parents (myself included!) need lots of help and grace and instruction, the Bible makes the case over and over again for how children should respect and honor their parents.  As parents, I believe that you and I have a heavy responsibility to make sure that our kids learn respect for authority from an early age.

Ultimately, the command to honor our parents is the fifth command, not the first.  It follows the command to not have any other gods before the true God.  I repeat this at the end of this post, because I have seen the danger of parents who develop children who live in dependence on their parents and never learn to stand on their own two feet.  We are called to honor our parents, but not worship them.  As parents, we are called to teach our kids to love God first and in response to God's instruction, to respect our authority.  In the end, I don't believe these are two separate goals.  They work together every day.  As parents, we help our kids love God first and most as we model that for them and help them to relate to us in honor and respect.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book Notes: Outlive Your Life (3/5)

As a preacher myself, I have always appreciated Max Lucado's ability to tell a great story and use inspiring illustrations.  In fact, I have used in the past and probably will use again in the future some of his illustrations as they can be immensely helpful in up-front communication.  Outlive Your Life reads like a book full of Lucado's best sermon illustrations from his messages in the book of Acts.  While interesting by themselves, the stories and illustrations don't give the book the unity it so desperately needs.  What is this book really about?  Is it an exposition of the book of Acts?  Is Max showing us how to live like the apostles?  Is he calling us to live for the cause of compassion and justice?  Is he encouraging us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all peoples?  Is the book a devotional guide on how to get outside our personal shells?  Is it a call to prayer?  A call to courage?

In reality, the book is all of that and more.  I think Lucado desires the main narrative to be one of helping those in need, with the book of Acts as his structural support.  However, with his amazing repertoire of illustrations and stories and personal adventures, the book goes too many directions at once.   The chapters are really short moral exhortations built on a biblical theme taken from one verse in Acts.  While each chapters stands on it's own and is individually inspiring, the connections between chapters are not clear.  And here is why that is problematic: the book of Acts is historical narrative.  The author Luke is putting stories together and ordering his writing for a reason.  Context matters and the arc of the book of Acts is important to understanding the individual stories.

I make that observation to ask a question that I wish Lucado had spent more time with in his book because I think it is the foundational question of the book of Acts.  What about the apostles' encounter with Jesus's life, death, and resurrection and their subsequent filling by the Holy Spirit had moved them from "regular Joe's" to courageous evangelists and compassionate missionaries?  And second, what about their message (the gospel of the Risen Christ) made them especially considerate of the hurting and needy?  While Christians today need a reminder of the moral example of the early church, we even more need a reminder of what they believed that led them to live that way.  We can be told inspiring stories and given encouraging reminders to live for others, but if our worldview does not support that lifestyle, the changes will only last as long as the emotions we feel from reading the stories.