On Marriage, Intimacy, and Evangelism

November 18th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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2dQ7Qo8The elements in the title are meant to be a tad incongruous. While marriage and intimacy certainly belong together, what could they possibly have to do with evangelism?

 

One of scripture’s most common metaphors for our life in Christ, our relationship with God, is that of marriage. For example, the prophets routinely refer to Israel’s running after foreign gods as spiritual adultery. And at the close of the grand redemption narrative, we witness the wedding feast of the Lamb and his bride, the church. I want to explore some of the possible implications of that metaphor for our lives, especially pertaining to our intimacy with Christ and our lifestyle of evangelism.

 

One occasionally hears of a married couple who maintain separate bank accounts or something similar, but these are the exception to a well-established norm. By and large, those who are married understand thoroughly what it means to live an integrated life, because they have had to integrate another person—their spouse—into the whole of their lives.

 

I have been married for a little over eleven years now. I can assure you that little happens of any substance that I do not share with my wife, whether that means recounting stories from the day, discussing an upcoming decision, or soliciting much-needed advice. I bring my wife into every aspect of my life because of the union we share, because I want to cultivate—not hinder—the intimacy I know with her. I cannot imagine spending some time with her in the morning and evening, and then living the rest of my time in isolation from, and without regard to, her. If nothing else, she wouldn’t stand for it! I don’t have the “marriage” part of my life, and then the “other” part of my life, and the twain shall never meet. To critique one of my favorite characters in all of television, there should be no such division between Relationship George and Independent George: there should only be Integrated George.

 

Now, the intimacy I should know with Jesus is even greater than the intimacy I know with my wife, for one simple reason: my wife dwells alongside me, whereas he dwells within me through his Spirit. I could, if I wanted, hide from my wife; but I have no such luxury when it comes to my Lord (cf. Psalm 139:7-10).

 

Here’s the crucial point: if the intimacy is greater, so should the integration be! I fear that too often I can compartmentalize my life, spending the requisite time with Jesus in the morning and evening, but then pushing him out of mind during the rest of the day. (And I’m in vocational ministry: God help me if I were in a different vocation!) Instead, I should bring him into every aspect of my life, not simply rehearsing the day’s events in conversation before dinner (as I do with my wife), but in ongoing, lively, transformative conversation throughout the day. He is my all in all, and should be in all that I do. What a difference in my day it would make were I to turn to him unceasingly, crying out inwardly, “Yours alone! Your will be done!” Would to God it were so.

 

But what about evangelism? Where does this fit in to the discussion before us?

 

Let me ask you this, if you are married: how long into a conversation can you go without referencing your spouse? Some conversations might never get there, if, for instance, you are having a technical discussion about a work-related project. But other conversations along more informal lines move steadily in that direction, I find. It is unlikely that anyone could ask me how my weekend was without my mentioning my wife, to take just one clear example.

 

Nor do I have to strain to fit her into my conversation. I am not looking for potential segues into awkward inquiries about my interlocutor’s marital status. She just comes up because she is so much a part of my life. She features in so many answers to so many questions because I have tried to integrate my life and she is a key component.

 

In fact, only one component is more central: my relationship with Jesus. He is the integrating substance even. What did I do this weekend? I gathered with a group of men and women committed to following him so that we might encourage one another and exalt him. How do I get through tough, exhausting days? By trusting that his strength is made perfect in my weakness. What did I think of the movie? I thought it diagnosed humanity’s wretched selfishness and desperate longing for joy perfectly, but missed the cure. Why am I not angrier about getting passed over for the promotion? Because I find meaning in him, not in my work. How’s it going? Not so well, because I’ve shot my mouth off again; but thank God it doesn’t depend on my good deeds, or else I’d be in a world of trouble.

 

If I am living my life in Christ, by his Spirit, my conversation will turn naturally to my relationship with him because my life is centered on him. I will be able to answer few questions without reference to him because my whole life refers to him. By the grace of God, these unforced, honest answers will lead to further discussion wherein I can share the whole of the gospel with a person ready to hear it, a person who knows this really is the focal point and wellspring of my life.



True and Godly Love

August 22nd, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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How does the Bible define true and godly love, the blessed intimacy and bond that unites a man and woman in the state of marriage? Here are some reflections on just this question, given as the charge to my younger brother and his new bride at their wedding last week.

 

Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm;

for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave.

It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.

Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.

If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.

(Song of Songs 8:6-7)

 

This text as much as any other in Scripture gives us a biblical definition of true love. People the world over have tried to define love. Every weekend at the theater a new movie opens promising to give us a fresh look at a weathered topic. For the most part, though, it seems all we can agree on is that love matters—more than money, fame, power—even though the search for many has proven futile. Love has fallen on hard times. Some have even gone so far as to declare the death of marriage, an archaic and oppressive institution. You stand here this afternoon against this unholy tide, for which I am grateful. For I believe the problem is not that marriage has failed love, but that our self-seeking, romanticized, and spurious love has failed marriage. Having slipped from the majestic vision of this God-inspired Hebrew poet, many have fallen for a cheap imitation. We need a return to truth, a way out of this romantic quagmire. The Song of Songs will give us just that.

 

Some will find it interesting that God has devoted an entire book of the Bible to defining true and godly love, but considering the contemporary condition, his wisdom is clear. God places a high value on marriage, as Scripture attests to uniformly. Jesus, in performing his first miracle, blessed the wedding celebration of a young couple in a tangible way, turning the water into wine and saving the new family social blushes. God himself performed the first wedding ceremony and gave the bride away. And in his infinite wisdom, God saw fit to establish as the first earthly institution not the state, not even the church, but the family. God created and blesses the marriage state. It is a sacred institution undergirded by the reflected love of God himself. In fact, the ultimate purpose of marriage is not a celebration of human love, but divine. Every marriage, whether wittingly—or even willingly—or not, proclaims the gospel of Christ Jesus. In the husband’s love for his wife, we have an imperfect reflection of Christ’s love for the church; in the wife’s devotion to her husband, we have an imperfect reflection of the church’s devotion to Christ. This is the profound mystery of which the apostle Paul writes eloquently, and this is why God devotes so much sacred scripture to the topic of love. So what does he say? What makes love true and godly? Our text today suggests at least three ideas.

 

First, true and godly love is invaluable. Our poet writes, “If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.” True and godly love has no price. No material consideration enters the heart. In fact, within the Song we have this truth performed. The happy couple, reflecting on their courtship, remember a time when Solomon, the wise and wealthy king, sought to steal away the Shulammite bride for his harem. He promised her untold riches, but she refused because she loved her humble shepherd truly. True and godly love does not turn to marriage as a financial decision, not to provide security or tax breaks or comfort. True and godly love does not turn to marriage for any consideration other than love, really. If you are seeking affirmation or self-worth or satisfaction or thrills or whatever, you have come to marriage as a business transaction. And if you feel the other does not hold up their end of the bargain, things will fall apart. In this regard, let your way be the way of Christ. He loves his church through no merit of our own, nor to gain any end for himself, but simply because he chooses to love. When you love the other for their sake and not your own, you reflect his love. (And, I might add, when you see nothing lovable in yourself, and yet you see the other’s love, you will be forever reminded of God’s unmerited favor and relentless love.) True and godly love seeks only the other, because it delights in the other. The self and love, in contrast to much contemporary nonsense, are absolutely incompatible. Let your delight be in each other—you are delightful people, after all—and let that be enough.

 

Second, true and godly love is zealous. Our poet writes, “For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” True and godly love produces an unquenchable zeal for the marriage and for its beloved. It is passionate, like a mighty flame. As many wildfires prove every year, flames spread insatiably; in the same way should your passion for each other grow. We have largely capitulated to the idea that romance, passion, sexual desire all fade with time. Some foolish people even proclaim that marriage is the end of all the fun you used to have. This is a damnable deception. If a couple never experienced more excitement than the courtship, they never loved at all. True and godly love grows more passionate with each passing day. Kindle the flames of your passion unflaggingly. Have you ever seen an older couple out for a walk, still warmly affectionate with each other, holding hands, even flirting? May it be so with you. May your children and your grandchildren see you as tenderly and as passionately in love as we see you today. But this will not happen on its own; it will take work. You will have to sweep away bitterness at times; you will have to forgive real offenses; you will have to inject romance into the routine intentionally and often. But do so, because you love the other, you regard each other as better than riches, and because true and godly love is jealous. It is jealous for the health of the marriage, for the strength of the bond between you. Fight for it. Embrace passion. Remember the great lengths to which the Lord went in his pursuit of us, sending his son, his only son, whom he loved, to be a sacrifice for our sins. That is zeal for the other, loving passionate pursuit. Let this serve as a model of your own love. Kneel down and wash each other’s feet. Speak words of life and encouragement to each other, forsaking harsh, cutting, selfish words. Support and serve one another. Love one another zealously.

 

Finally, true and godly love is unending. Our poet writes, “Love is as strong as death. . . . Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.” We do not normally associate love and death, but they have this point in common: they both will persist until the end of time. With one startling exception, the dead do not rise to life; they remain in the grave. Well, one does not fall out of love any more than one falls out of death. No matter what comes—rising floodwaters, rivers of life’s vicissitudes and challenges—the flame of love continues burning. This is not today’s perspective, of course, but this is truth nevertheless. Let Christ Jesus serve as your model once more. Christ’s love never changes—it is unending and unconditional. And so must yours be. In Romans, Paul climaxes his argument concerning God’s grace with, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If none of these can separate us from the love of Christ, and you are to love each other as Christ and the church love each other, the question arises, what can separate you from your love? Nothing, the answer must be. In good times and bad, in imperfection and glory, today, tomorrow, and forever, you must love each other wholly and completely. The great prophet and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Let the unbreakable covenant into which you are about to enter sustain you even when the choice to love—to sacrifice self, to forgive, to endure—becomes difficult, even impossible. What God has joined together, you cannot separate.

 

Invaluable, zealous, unending love: that is my prayer for you. At many points on your journey together you will fall short of this sacred ideal. We all do. But in those times remember the words we read together today, and renew your commitment to live it fully. Lift your eyes off yourselves—your imperfections, your trials, your sorrow, your pain—and fix them on Jesus Christ. We do not love as we ought because we do not remember the God who is love as we ought. Consider the cross, the strength of his love—its price, its passion, its endurance—and love each other as he loved us. To your happiness and his glory.

 



On Rights and Duties

November 9th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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One of the great problems with modern society is its insistence on our rights. Hardly a single major issue—moral, social, economic, political—does not center on the question of rights. The right to state-sponsored university education. The right to marry whom one pleases. The right to life—or its nemesis, the right to choose. The right to a minimum wage. The right to self-fulfillment.

 

I have wondered recently if the world wouldn’t be a better place if we abandoned this notion of rights—and instead focused on doing our duties.

 

Rights, no matter how steeped they are in reality, are necessarily self-centered: I deserve this. This is owed to me. Duties, contrarily, are others-centered: They deserve this. I should do this for them. A subtle shift in pronouns, a radical shift in lifestyle.

 

Consider marriage. A husband who demands his right to sexual intimacy with his wife swiftly becomes domineering, egotistical—and the sex becomes joyless, passionless, loveless. A wife who demands her right to conversation turns to nagging and manipulation. The marriage succumbs to bitterness, resentment, distance. But if each would think of his or her duty instead—how would the marriage be different? The wife offers herself willingly to her husband, because she delights in him and longs to be a delight to him; the husband sets aside time to connect with her emotionally and spiritually, because he loves her and wants to express it tangibly. They both experience love, giving and receiving it; they both remember the joy that brought them together at first.

 

Seeking our rights seems right to us, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).

 

For Christians especially, all this talk of rights should be anathema. Think of our Master for a moment. Which of his rights did he cling to? To worship? He made himself nothing and clothed himself in frail obedience. To honor? He was despised and rejected. To devotion? He was abandoned and denied by those who knew him best. To life? He laid it down for the sake of his children.

 

How can his children, ostensibly walking in his footsteps, do any differently?

 

In Christ, we have earned the right to persecution, martyrdom, denial of self, our own cross to carry. Let us do our duty cheerfully and bear our cross joyfully.