I just saw a cute meme on Facebook. Sounds almost like the beginning of a joke, right? But I really liked it. It was tasteful, unlike so many of the religious-themed ones. It had a message I liked. And it was simple. But … It was also simplistic.
As far as memes go, this one was probably as true as any of them. General encouragement, general principle, general instruction. Generally helpful.
But the problem is that it was just that: general and simplistic. It could not address my specific situation. It reduced a complex and free-flowing relationship with God and our circumstances into a formula. And God is bigger than that. And so are we. And so is life.
I do believe that God intervenes in our lives in powerful ways. But I also know there are times when it feels like he’s left us hanging out to dry. Like he doesn’t see our problems. Like he is ignoring us, and we’re in it all alone.
I don’t think he’s doing that at all, but sometimes it sure feels that way.
And the thing is, sometimes it is absolutely the right thing for us to be going through: the trouble, the hard times, the rough circumstances. Diamonds aren’t polished by speaking nicely to them or setting them in red velvet. They’re polished by grinding, by cutting. And if you don’t think God wants to add a little polish to your life, well, then what is he involved in your life for?
What little I know about God, I’ve learned from the bible and interpreted through the lens of life experience. Theology isn’t theology until it’s lived out. And ya know? When you begin opening yourself up to God, when you lift your eyes off the immediate circumstances, and you focus your thoughts and your praise on the One who sits above it all, holding it all in his hands … sometimes that power enters your life in dramatic ways. And sometimes it just lifts your spirits so you can plow through those circumstances.
In those moments, by all means, hold on to the general truths – of God never leaving you, of his great and loving plans for your life, of the certainty that he will ultimately work things out for your good.
But trying to force a specific outcome by quoting a promise given to someone else in Scripture and may not be applicable to you or your situation at all, just confirms that you’re trying to operate outside your own personal relationship with God.
From Abraham waiting years for the promised son, to Joseph sitting in Pharaoh’s prison, to Moses tending goats on a mountain, to David waiting 15 years for his rightful throne, to Elijah running away to a holy mountain because he heard bad rumors, to Paul spending years in the wilderness and then more years as a disciple before really being ready for his apostolic call – it all depends on who you are and where you are in your journey. It takes time. It takes a little suffering. It takes experience. It takes a little maturity – born only from that experience.
Dropping 10% into the offering plate and claiming your multi-fold return may or may not trigger a spiritual tidal wave that washes away your debts. Quoting healing scriptures and trying to lay hold of your atonement-rights doesn’t always bring the healing you’re looking for. Claiming your authority as joint-heirs with Jesus, and the fact that you sit “in him” at the right hand of the Father, may or may not bring the change to your job, your relationship, your health, … your situation … that you’re trying to “manifest.”
God doesn’t listen to formulas. God cannot be manipulated. “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?” Do you think you can make God perform by quoting his own words back at him, or by stroking his ego? He is not a genie, he is not a coke-machine. You don’t plug in your quarters and get your selection.
He is a person. He responds and reacts in relationship. And sometimes, because he is in relationship with you, he will lead your through tough times. He will allow you to sit in a dungeon cell for a while. He may leave your “thorn in the flesh” in place. Why? Because it’s good for you. Because a spoiled child is of no use to anyone.
That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. Or that he is indifferent to your suffering. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to be blessed. Perhaps he wants to expand your understand of what “blessing” is – and what it means to be a blessing to others. (Ever gotten unwanted advice from someone who’s had an easy life? Yeah. You gotta earn your cred.)
I believe in God’s power. I believe God wants us to be happy. I believe he put us on the planet to enjoy our lives – hey, he put Adam and Eve in a garden – AND to be a benefit to others. I believe God does work out all things for our ultimate good. And I believe God wants a one-on-one, intimate friendship with each and every human being – and that includes you, even while you’re going through the muck.
By all means, do your part. Give up part of your pay check for the good of others. Lend a helpful hand to your neighbor. Plant seeds of peace and acceptance; be nice to each other. Lift your voices to the heavens and thank the One who holds the Universe together. Memorize scripture. Recite it to yourself to strengthen yourself, to remind you of who He is and who you are. Especially when you’re going through periods when none of it seems to matter.
You matter. And He is interested in walking through life with you, helping you become the person you were designed to be. And that doesn’t happen by working spiritual formulas or reciting isolated verses as though they were magic incantations. The Word of God is what the Spirit is speaking to you at the moment, specific to where you are right now. And you can’t manipulate that.
Our spirituality, our maturity, has to grow beyond the formulas. Beyond the clichés. Beyond the biblical sound-bites. Learn who He is, who you are, and how you two work together. That kind of spirituality will rock this world.
Growing up as a Protestant, I had an inherent distaste for ritual. Liturgy, routines and orders of worship (even though every church has one) … were all equated with “religion,” the imitation of true relationship with God. “Religion = Death” was a mental slogan, even if the words never quite formed that way in our minds. Even habits. You hardly ever heard about “good habits.” Mostly, habits were referenced in the context of sinful things we did, that our “flesh” compelled us to do. Habits that needed to be broken. The genuinely spiritual person was free — free from form, free from ritual, free from habits.
And surely, those poor Catholics who “mindlessly” recited the rosary were missing out on a real connection with God. And all that incense waving and candle lighting … all imitations of spirit. Cheap substitutes that were empty of meaning and devoid of power.
Of course that’s not true. It was just the fuzzy logic floating through my head as a Protestant kid who probably thought too much about incidental things. I had no appreciation for the sacramental, no understanding of the connectedness between things of the world and things of the spirit, how one can help enrich the other.
Now, witnessing the “multi-tasking,” “spontaneous” activity of so many of my friends — myself included — as we flip between phone apps, texting, snap-chatting, tweeting, clicking photos to share on Instagram … all that freedom. And is it really freeing us, or just making us prisoners of the immediate? With our 1500 friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, do we even know who we are anymore? Are we even in touch with ourselves?
Years ago, when we thought about our elders growing senile, we used to say that they’re reliving fond memories, that it’s okay that they don’t remember our names or faces: they’re in happier times. Recently the thought occurred to me: am I even making memories to relive? I’m so busy jumping between projects, between shows on Netflix, between apps and games and programs. What would I be “reliving” when I’m 85 and have lost my mind? “Oh yes, those golden days. I remember this one tweet …”
This struck me more powerfully the other day when I was frying up some bacon. I’d finally learned how to do it right, without smoking up the whole house or covering the stove top (or the inside of the oven) with bacon grease. It’s a bit of a slow process, frying up 2 pounds of bacon (I cook up a batch and store it in the freezer for quick snacking), and I caught myself going from stovetop to laptop: flip the bacon, check Facebook. Add another slice to the skillet, post another comment online. And I stopped myself.
I was missing out on something. The simple joy of the experience. The sensuous sizzle of the bacon in the pan. The smell of the smoked meat as it crisped up, filling my nose with that hardwood saltiness that makes the mouth water. The heat from the rapidly accumulating grease as I added more slices to the pan. The changing color of the meat as it cooked. The popping of randomly splattering grease. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Sensations. And I forced myself to stand there and just take it all in. Facebook can wait. This is living in the now.
This! This is wonderful. Bacon is wonderful. It’s a gift from God (apologies to my Jewish and Muslim friends). Let me just enjoy the full experience, this moment of grace that is doing something unexplainable to my soul. I’m smiling. I feel good. I’m looking forward to munching on ALL these delectable slices of heaven piling up on the plate next to the stove. This is a memory I might enjoy reliving in my twilight years. Even if not, it’s doing something to me now.
It was an exercise in “mindfulness,” of being present. Of dismissing the distractions, and the A.D.D.-driven activities. It was a sacrament, an instrument of receiving divine grace.
Over-stimulation is killing our souls.
There is a place for ritual in our lives. There’s a need for it. Familiar routines fire “comfort” sensations in our brain. Our thinking slows. Our nerves unravel. We become calm, peaceful. And in those moments, more receptive to the world around us. More in tune. Whether it’s a morning run outdoors, a late-night workout, or quiet times of prayer and meditation, routine grounds us, makes us stable. It makes us happy.
We need to slow down a bit. Maybe buy a French press, and make your morning coffee a drawn-out ritual. Even if just on the weekends. Make tea, in a pot. Let it steep a few minutes before your drink it. Sip it with both hands. Taste it. Really taste it. Experience it. Cook more; eat out less. Allow yourself the luxury of chopping vegetables, of making a salad with multiple ingredients, of grilling a steak. Bumping into your partner as you both maneuver the kitchen. I even started making a cake on Friday evening, just to help slow down, as I mix the ingredients and wait for the oven to preheat. Doing something with my hands since I work all week with my brain. And a Sabbath! We should all get back to the habit of taking one day a week where we just relax, where we hang out at home or do simple errands… to unwind. Refresh. Or just sit on the patio for an hour with a book.
We need to build moments back into our lives where we can receive grace. That life-restoring energy, reconnecting us here and now.
We need to cultivate rituals — things to make us pause for a moment and just appreciate what is right in front of us. Even if it’s the simple delight of pouring real cream into your French-roast coffee and watching the color change. Or holding your favorite mug in your hands. Buy yourself some wind chimes, and occasionally turn off the TV just to listen to them for a few moments.
Like God on the first day of creation, impose some order and peace on the chaos that our lives have become.
We Protestants have missed out on this aspect of worship, of reverent living. We don’t do rosaries. We don’t recite prayers. We haven’t built mechanisms into our lives that allow us to slow down, to relax the brain and the rampant rapids of our thoughts. To find stillness. Even our Sabbaths are hectic. Maybe the simple act of lighting a candle can help reconnect our faith that our prayers are ever-ascending before the Throne of God. We are human, and we need tangible objects, simple acts, to help focus our thoughts, our prayers, and our lives.
I’m not about to sell my 50″ flatscreen. I’m not going to cancel my subscription to Netflix. But I’m enjoying the tactile sensations of cooking again, the simple pleasure of my favorite red coffee cups, the random music of the chimes outside my living room doors. I jealously guard my Saturdays, when I (mostly) ignore my phone, and take my dogs to the park. Or my Sunday afternoons, after the hub-bub of church, when I can grab some quiet time on my patio with a book. I need those slow-down moments. You do too. Being quiet. Being present. Being in the moment, in the now. And receiving a touch of grace. Even when it’s just cooking up some bacon.
“God has a plan. God is working his plan. God’s plan includes you.” Those were words printed in bold letters on a sign hung above the pulpit in a church I used to go to in Tulsa. The pastor wanted her people to know that their lives were not just stuck in the mud, that God was doing something in them and through them. God was working.
We all need that hope. We all need that reassurance that we’re part of something bigger, that our lives have significance and purpose. Or at least, many of us do. I do. And every once in a while we need someone to remind us that we’re on track. That’s where encouragers come into play – I mean legitimate encouragers, those sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings who can offer words directly from God to those of us going through moments of self-doubt. I do not mean those false “prophets” who post memes on social media about “Now is the time of your breakthrough …” or “This is your year. This year God will bring all your dreams and plans to success.”
God does have a plan, and God does want your dreams to come true. He planted them in you, in your DNA, even before you were born. They are woven into the fabric of who you are. They’re not selfish, they’re part of the bigger picture, a piece in the cosmic puzzle, and without you fulfilling those dreams, that larger picture will never be complete.
But that does not at all mean that “now” is the time.
And while we all need general words of encouragement to “press on” from time to time, other well-meaning but misguided words claiming divine authority can do more damage than if they were never spoken at all. False prophets are dangerous. They can lead you down the wrong path or prompt you to do something way before the right time. And a good thing or even a well-meaning act at the wrong time can become a very, very wrong thing.
A couple examples …
Let me throw a couple of bible examples at you.
Anybody hanging out in a Word-based church in past few decades has probably heard sermons on Abraham “Ishmael-ing it”. God tells old Abe that he will have a son, and makes some stunning promises about how his descendants would affect the course of history. Abe is thrilled, of course, but he is also 75 years old. He waits for it to happen, but after a number of years of waiting for his wife to become pregnant, he thinks “now is the time” and gets the bright idea to have a child with his wife’s slave instead. Ishmael is born. There are some family complications, and Abe finally has to send Ishmael and his mother away. He missed it. And the son he was promised finally came when he was 99 years old – almost 25 years after the promise.
Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph has a divine dream, two of them in fact, that he would be a great leader of his people. He’s a hot-headed, spoiled little punk, and rubs his brothers’ noses in it. They end up selling him into slavery, and he ends up in an Egyptian prison for several years. Ultimately, all that works out to make him a well-equipped leader when he finally is appointed Prime Minister of Egypt … about 15 years after the inspired dreams.
And we all know the story of “The Ten Commandments.” Who hasn’t seen the movie? Moses is the chosen deliverer of the Israelites suffering in slavery in Egypt. At the age of 40 he decides “now is the time,” and ends up murdering an Egyptian man who was abusing a fellow Israelite. And then has to flee Egypt to escape justice. He ends up tending goats and sheep for the next 40 years before God finally calls him through a burning bush.
The New Testament opens with stories about this exotic character, John the Baptist. He has a miraculous birth, born to elderly, barren parents, complete with angelic visitations and prophesy. He was called and destined to be the forerunner of the great Deliverer of Israel, yet he ends up living in the wilderness, wearing shabby clothes eating bugs. Then one day, “the word of God came to him while he was in the wilderness.” “Now is the time,” and he began his famous preaching. But he had to wait, to live his life, until that time came. He had to wait until the authentic “word from God” said “go.”
Even Jesus – now there was some miraculous birth scenes. Immaculate conception, Holy Spirit impregnation, angelic proclamations – that whole scene from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” where Linus quotes from the gospel of Luke: “… and there in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid …” Yet even Jesus did not begin his ministry until he was baptized by John and the Spirit descended upon him, empowering and affirming him: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased…” Only then does Jesus’ miraculous ministry begin.
The bottom line
The button line is that just because God has a plan, just because he’s given you dreams, does not mean that those dreams start now. You may not be ready yet. In each of the biblical examples just mentioned, there was a time of preparation. The gospel writers say of both John and Jesus that they “grew in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and with men.” That is, they had some growing up to do. They weren’t ready to launch out into God’s promised plan or into their dream vocation right way. It took years before they were ready. And they had to wait for the divine green light: “now is the time.” But that green light was legitimately divine, not just some positive word spoken by a feel-good, encouraging “prophet.”
God made some astounding promises to Abraham about his descendants, the nations of Israel and Ishmael. But they didn’t happen overnight. In fact, at one point, the nation was conquered by the Babylonians, and many of the people were yanked out of their homeland and taken into captivity to Babylon. They had their prophets claiming that God was about to rescue them and restore everything to its proper place. But they lied. They were well-meaning, but they were wrong. And Jeremiah, a legit prophet of God, had this to say to them: “Settle in. Increase, grow. It’s gonna be a while, but I have plans for you …”
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.
This is what the LORD says: “When 70 years are completed in Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise … For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…” (Jeremiah 29:4-12)
We all love to quote that last verse: “I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD…” But we almost always quote it out of context. The verse right before it says “When 70 years in Babylon are completed …” There is a necessary period of development, of preparation and growth. There is a timetable for your dream, for God’s plan. But “Now” may not be that time.
So when you hear the so-called prophets and diviners making these warm and happy claims that “this is the year of God’s favor for you, now is the time for you to step into your call and to fulfill your dream…,” take note. Listen inside yourself for the genuine voice of God. Is now really the time, or are you still in the prep stages – like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus?
Don’t get frustrated. Don’t become impatient. Don’t lose hope.
There will be a time when you get the green light from God, when the “word from God” will come to you in your wilderness. That will be the time to launch. God does have a plan. God is working his plan. And God’s plan does include you. Your job in the meantime is to prepare, to learn, to grow in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and men – to get ready for the right time. To wait for the appointed time.
“Now” may – or may not – be the time. Discern for yourself. Wait for your own specific word. Don’t jump the gun – or you might just end up wandering around a mountain tending goats for 40 years.
If I have to see one more article on “why millennials are leaving the church,” I think I might scream. Well, not really. Those dramatic days are (mostly) behind me. But really. The younger generation has always been leaving the church … I remember hearing the same lament back in the 70s when I was just a kid.
The thing is, as much as I grow weary of seeing post after post, blog after blog, on the topic, there’s always a bit of truth to them. The church NEEDS to grow, needs to change with each generation. It’s not a matter of staying “relevant,” like some kind of marketing gimmick to attract the newest set of consumers. It’s real life. Society changes. Culture changes. The needs and demands and focus of each generation will be different from the last, and if the church doesn’t address those changes, if God isn’t presented as having answers to those changes — or even being at work IN those changes — then why should anyone bother to listen to what is coming out of the pulpit?
For me, it’s not just the sermon topics — as if pastors and preachers needed to act like John Stewart engaging hot topics in the news. And it’s not the liturgy or worship style — whether we’re singing 200 year old hymns or the latest repetitive ditty from the latest pop Worship CD. For me, it’s about substance. Real, spiritual substance. And all the questionnaires and “10 Reasons Why” articles seem to indicate that too. People want the real thing. We’re tired of talk. We’re tired of show. We’re tired of what passes for “faith” these days.
Give us the real thing, or please, Please!, shut up and go home.
What that “real thing” is could be parsed out in several components: from genuine worship, genuine prophetic messages from the pulpit, to genuine love expressed in the pew and outside the walls of the church. But the foundation of them all is genuine spiritual reality — power — behind our religious experience. And it begins with our church leaders. So let me start there.
The church is anemic because of anemic church leaders.
Leaders more focused on numbers and popularity than on maturing in their “call” and fulfilling that call. Leaders addicted to power and titles rather than actual ministry. We have become imitations, fakes, charlatans, stepping into the shoes of the original apostles who moved with genuine authority because they were in touch with the reality of their call. As a result, the church is sick. Sick because we feed it junk food, full of artificial ingredients that can never replace what it was designed to operate on: authentic spiritual ability.
So, as a fellow member of the Church, sick from the “form of godliness without power,” let me challenge you. If you’re genuinely called by God to serve his people, then …
If you wear this label, you don’t need to hear that your role did not cease to exist after the first century. God has placed you in the church (Eph 4) to be a pillar. But here’s the thing: an apostle is an emissary, a messenger. An ambassador. Empowered with full authority of the Crown to deliver messages and revelations from the Royal Throne. And it is accompanied with full spiritual power. Look at your forbearers, Peter, John, James, Paul. They spoke the living words of God, they plowed hard ground and produced a crop, they not only planted churches and birthed new congregations, but they fathered and mothered those congregations. They had an encounter with the risen Christ, and their inspired words changed the direction of the church forever. You, when you speak, do your words carry divine power? When was the last time you brought forth new revelation from God for the people he entrusted to you? Are you delivering canned sermon after sermon, spouting recycled messages you heard growing up in church? Have you seen the risen Christ — has Christ appeared to you and delivered this charge to you personally? Has he given you a commission and a message to shape his people for this generation, for this time and place? If not, then please go back to him who sent you and get a fresh assignment from the King, … or just quit and go home.
I see so many of you on Facebook and social media. You wear the title like a prize and seek special pulpit time at conferences. Yet what do you deliver except sound bites and feel-good pabulum that do nothing for the people. If all you are saying over and over again is “This is the year of your break-through” or “your time of waiting is over” or some other quotable nugget that might be found in a Stephen Covey book, then … please go back to the Throne and get a real message. People are hurting. People are seeking guidance in this hectic world. People need to hear from God, and that is your job. Generic positive, encouraging words are nice. There’s even a place for them in the church. But they are not prophesy. Get a specific word from God for the specific situation, be able to assert “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” … or sit down and shut up.
Your job no longer exists in tent crusades or hopping from church to church, collecting your love offerings. Your job is in the streets — and not shouting into a bullhorn on the corner. Your job is in the housing projects or in corporate board rooms. To the individuals hungry, seeking something beyond this physical existence. Your job is to help them answer the longing of their hearts for connection to the Living God. You don’t need a business card for that. You just need a heart.
You have the hardest work of all. Tending the sheep is the highest calling. But are you more concerned with what suit you will wear next Sunday, or if your bling will reflect in the light, than you are with going after that stray parishioner who’s having a hard time right now? Do you answer your phone at 3:00 in the morning when one of your flock just lost a loved one in a car accident, or is in the hospital for emergency surgery? Do you make time in your busy schedule to have coffee with the lonely guy who just needs to talk with someone? Are you too busy to actually love on — to physically touch — the people God has put in your care? If so, then maybe you are not really called to be a pastor. Maybe you are a teacher, or just a preacher, or (God forbid) just an entertainer putting on a show. Please, if you believe God has called you to pastor his people, then go back to the Throne and ask for a heart that loves the people. Be there for them. Like Jesus said to Peter, “if you love me, tend my lambs.” Or, please … stop talking and go home.
You are entrusted with the words of God. You are entrusted with life-changing truth. You cannot afford to just wing it Sunday morning or Wednesday evening with a lesson out of the denominational quarterly. Your life will probably be filled with drama and all kinds of real-life experience. You will undergo tragedy, and you will have questions, many of which you won’t find ready answers for. You will spend much time seeking God, reaching out, exploring the heavens, asking for light. Why? Because how can you teach what you do not know? How can you lead people into deeper understanding of who God is and how they connect with him, if all you know are the clichés and bible stories from Sunday School? Like the prophet, you need fresh revelation from the Throne, to “bring out new treasure as well as old” (Mt 13:52). Don’t be complacent. Don’t get lazy. A vast treasury is yours to plunder — for the benefit of those who sit at your feet.
You are a pastor to pastors. You have been entrusted with over-seeing, super-vising, the flocks and those who lead them. Red robes and collars are yours if you want them. Honor will not be denied you. But your work is not done. It is not time to simply sit at the head of the table or on the platform. You too must answer the 3:00 am phone call. You too must be in the dirt with the shepherds under your care. Who can they talk to but you? And you too must invade the Throne Room for daily wisdom, fresh guidance and instruction from the Chief Shepherd so that you can administer God’s people according to God’s current plan and wishes. Do not get soft. Do not get comfortable. A life on the road may be your inheritance. But “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk 18:30). Your inheritance includes the riches of relationships with an unimagined number of children who will love and honor you. If you stay faithful.
You were not called simply to sit on committees and to vote. You were called to serve. You are the arms and legs of the pastor, the extended strength of your congregation. You are the table-servers, the ones who clean up the mess. You tend the physical needs of the community. You feed them, you clothe them, you are God’s answer when they cry out to him to meet their needs. Make sure your heart is in the job or do not accept the title. It is dirty work. It takes tough hands and small egos. And you too must be “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” honorable, and able to fulfill your responsibility (Acts 6). People are counting on you … and so is their God. But what reward awaits you when you see the King! “I was hungry, and you fed me! I was naked, and you clothed me!” And that’s better than any title in this life.
There is no such thing as a pew-sitter in God’s Kingdom. Everyone has a role, everyone has gifts to use for the benefit of others. But those called to specific functions in God’s family have a divine obligation and duty which cannot be fulfilled without authentic spiritual empowerment. And if the church has become stale, artificial, having only the appearance of ritual and religion without moving in the Divine Flow, if people are leaving because all they see is empty words without action, without heart, and without power, then the fault lies first and foremost in church leadership. We either need to get real, or shut up and go home.
Okay, maybe NOW I’ve actually got to write this thing. I’ve been putting it off for months, writing about Christian sexuality. It’s such an important topic, but honestly, it’s so loaded with inherited moralistic and church tradition baggage — plus, the theology is incredibly subtle — that I didn’t want to open that particular can of worms. People are already questioning my salvation, LOL.
But today I saw one more post on Facebook. A friend shared an article about some guy who didn’t want to start PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis: taking an HIV anti-viral med to prevent becoming infected) because he didn’t want people to think he was a whore. See, there’s this whole “#TruvadaWhore” meme thing going around. I think it was originally a joke; kinda like, “yeah, I can sleep around now because I’m on the meds.” Some even wear the term as a badge of honor, feeling the empowerment of embracing their sexuality. I’ve seen the t-shirts.
And that’s what my friend was saying: “What’s wrong with being a whore? Why do we blindly accept someone else’s value judgements without thinking about them for ourselves?”
Many gay men have suppressed their sexuality for so long they finally reach a point where they realize it is their body to enjoy as they want and it’s none of anyone else’s business. They’re reclaiming sex as a valid way of interacting with another person they’re interested in — even when not married or in a committed relationship.
And that’s where the Christian morality comes into play. Because we all know that sex outside of marriage is fornication, and the bible clearly says that’s a sin. Right? Or is it? So let’s crack open this can of worms and see where we end up.
First, it’s important to note that the bible is a book loaded with sex. And that’s how it should be. God made sexuality a hugely important part of our humanity. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It would be relegated to topics like gluttony and laziness: yeah, it’s an issue, but who really cares? So, since the bible is full of stories about humans, it’s bound to talk about sex. A lot. Like Abraham with his wife and his concubine/second-wife. Like Jacob and his four women. Like David and Bathsheba and his little harem, or Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines. There was Judah, one of Israel’s patriarchs, and his adventures with a prostitute; and Samson, the hero of faith, with his multiple dalliances with ladies of the night. They didn’t seem too uptight about sexuality back then. So what happened?
When it comes to limitations on sex,
the bible is primarily focused on adultery and idolatry.
Well, let’s start with the 10 Commandments. Nothing at all in there about sex outside of marriage. In fact, the only sexual reference is to a married person having sex with someone else’s spouse. And this may be an important key. Sexual morality was originally about loyalty to a spouse — specifically, about a wife being sexually exclusive with her husband alone. Men were given a lot of slack here; even married men could fool around with other women as long as they were not married. Well, at least that’s how it was practiced. The text doesn’t say that. It simply says “don’t commit adultery.” So, let’s ignore for the moment what men in the bible actually did, and focus on the original intent: when you are in a committed relationship, your sexual activity stays within that relationship. Married couples give themselves to each other, that whole “the two become one flesh” thing, so joining your body with someone else was a betrayal. It was a form of theft. Men still had the upper hand, though. They could take on a second or third or fourth wife.
It gets more interesting in the New Testament. Jesus said if you lust after a woman in your heart, it’s like committing adultery with her. Note the choice of words: adultery. In the social context of Judaism at that time, the working assumption was that men would be married. It was a rite of passage, a part of being a man and fulfilling the duty to populate the nation and take one’s place in society. Bachelors did exist, but they were a rarity, frowned upon by society. (In fact, there is no biblical Hebrew word for “bachelor” — but there are a few words for unmarried woman.) So, Jesus is presumably speaking to married men, and is saying that thinking sexual thoughts about someone else is being unfaithful to your wife, and tantamount to actually having sex outside your marriage: ie, adultery. What’s cool here, is that Jesus is now equalizing the field. Men got away with infidelity all the time — “adultery” was generally only applied to the unfaithful wife. But here, Jesus lays the burden equally on the (married) guys with their sexual fantasies.
But what if you’re not married?
For sex and the single person, we have to move on to the Apostle Paul. He’s the one who really adds the bricks to the morality wall. He’s the one who spells out that whole, “the man’s body belongs to his wife, and the woman’s body belongs to her husband” thing. Again: when you’re committed, honor that commitment.
But then he throws in lines about not having sex with prostitutes because you are the temple of the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s context, most prostitutes were temple prostitutes; they were professionals who offered sex as a form of pagan worship, and they were often in the employ of a temple. In a way, Paul is making a pun here. You are temple property, and you’re joining yourself with another temple’s property — but one outside the true faith. So sex with a pagan temple prostitute is in fact an act of idolatry — of participating in worshipping other gods. Much like eating meat sacrificed to idols. No big deal in itself. But if other people know about the meat, don’t eat it so they won’t think you’re participating in idolatrous worship. It seems to me that Paul is primarily concerned with idolatry here, with participating with foreign gods, more than about the sex itself. (What if the person you’re getting naked with is also a Christian, another temple of the same Holy Spirit? Does his argument still hold up?)
Oh, and please notice that Paul never says that sex is a “joining of two spirits,” as is often misunderstood. The phrase is “the two become one flesh”; it is a physical joining, not some mixing of your spiritual natures, so you are not defiling Christ’s Spirit who lives within you.
But, you may ask, what about Paul’s statement, “it is better to marry than to burn” with lust? Isn’t he advocating marriage as the only valid outlet for sexual urges? “Decent” unmarried women in those days were kept under the protective watchful eye of their male relatives, so the only readily available sexual outlet were temple prostitutes. Given those alternatives, marriage is the best bet. Paul knows the young men in his congregations are hot and full of hormones. And temple prostitutes are not a good idea. So, get yourself a woman of your own.
Notice also in this discussion on marriage, that Paul adds, almost in passing, “But I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all men were as I am, [celibate, unmarried]. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” Celibacy, even Paul admits, is a gift from God, a spiritual empowerment, not something that is required of everyone.
I can’t say that idolatry/temple-prostitution is the only thing Paul was concerned about here. But it also fits with the common scholarly take on Paul’s views on homosexuality. That famous Romans 1 passage used to beat up LGBT people so often — clearly in a pagan temple context: “they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Idolatry again. And the ambiguous word he uses in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 referring to same-sex sexuality, arsenokoitai, seems to involve exploitive situations: either pederasty, prostitution, or human trafficking (kidnapped “sex slaves”). Sex shouldn’t be exploitive or abusive, and it shouldn’t be linked with worshipping other gods.
Fornication, Purity & Virginity
So, what about “fornication”? Isn’t it condemned in the bible? Sure. Unfortunately, that word, usually translated generically as “sexual immorality” in modern versions of the bible, has taken on a specific meaning in the Christian Church that it did not originally have. Ask most Christians and they’ll tell you that “fornication” is premarital sex.
But in the bible, that word is much broader and refers to wide range of unlawful (forbidden) sexual activities, such as incest, sex within certain family relations (step-mothers, half-sisters, aunts, in-laws, etc), sex while the woman is menstruating, and other unclean practices. Hence, Paul could condemn a man in one of his churches who was having an affair with his father’s wife (presumably his ex-step-mother, not his actual mother). That was a shocking thing to do in that culture; it was indecent, and Paul didn’t want that associated with the young faith community. But fornication did not specifically refer to sex outside of marriage as is commonly understood today.
What about keeping ourselves pure — for God and for our spouse? Yes, there’s something to be said for that. “How can a young man keep himself pure?,” Psalm 119:9 asks. The answer given in the same verse is “by living according to God’s Word.” But why do we automatically think that “purity” refers to sexuality? To a Jew, purity would be understood primarily as a life keeping the commandments — everything from avoiding pork and shell fish, to the way he cuts his hair, to keeping the Sabbath, and having no other gods besides God. It meant staying loyal to God. Go ahead. Look it up. You won’t find sex mentioned there.
Virginity was highly prized in women in biblical days — it made them more valuable to prospective husbands — but it was never a virtue or requirement for men. Still, if you choose to save your virginity and offer it as a gift to your future spouse, then that’s an excellent and honorable choice. Like taking a vow to never drink alcohol or never smoke a cigarette, it’s a personal lifestyle decision. But don’t let someone else make that decision for you. Don’t be forced into a life of frustration because you are not married and your jeans seem to be on fire.
The book of Proverbs has lots to say about sex for the young man. Beware the wayward woman, the one leaning seductively out her door, whispering “my husband is away, come in and let me entertain you.” It encourages faithfulness: “drink water from your own cistern, and don’t let your fountains overflow into the streets. May your fountain be blessed,” and “may your wife’s breasts always satisfy you.” Juicy imagery. But again, a married situation: adultery. There’s also talk about prostitutes. A dangerous liaison, she will consume all your wealth and lead you to destruction — yeah, there goes your paycheck, and you better go get your status checked. Proverbs is a book of wisdom. It’s not saying not to have sex. It’s saying use some wisdom in your hookups — adultery and prostitutes aren’t the wisest way to satisfy your urges.
And then there’s the Song of Songs in the bible. The entire book is dedicated to the joys of physical intimacy and being in love. Even before their wedding day, the young woman yearns achingly for her lover, and takes him to the bedroom. The descriptions are so steamy and explicit, in fact, that the only way the book could be included in the Hebrew Bible was that the sages declared it to be an allegory about the love of God and his bride Israel. And later Christian leaders understood it as a description of the relationship between Christ and his bride the Church. Spiritual interpretations aside, the book celebrates the pangs of desire, and the joys of physical love and companionship. But above all, it celebrates love. And this is a good qualifier. Let love be your goal, not just getting your rocks off.
Let me point it out again. In ancient Israel, adultery (for women) was punishable by death. But marital faithfulness was less expected of men, and both prostitution and “harlotry” (unmarried women engaging in promiscuous sex) were completely legal and tolerated. That, of course, does not mean they were socially respectable — just like today, unmarried women who enjoy their sexuality tend to have a bad reputation (“whore”, “slut”), while guys generally get a free pass.
Having said all that, though, I am not saying that the bible is only concerned about adultery and idolatry when it comes to sex. But what I am saying is that the strict code of sexual purity we think the bible endorses is actually more a modern interpretation. With all the commandments given in the bible, nowhere will you find the explicit statement “thou shalt not have sex outside of marriage.”
So what then …?
Should you hop from bed to bed just because you can? Probably not. Paul’s injunction holds true across the board — whether over-eating at the buffet, drinking too much and getting wasted Saturday night, cutting yourself or doing harm to yourself … or sexual promiscuity: “glorify God with your bodies.” Over-indulgence is never applauded. And that kind of libertine sexuality was deemed “licentiousness” in the bible: a sin of excess. “Don’t use your liberty as an excuse to indulge the flesh, but serve one another in love,” Paul tells us — but the point is that you do have that liberty. Someone else’s stricter “moral code” is not binding on you. Your conscience and your personal relationship with God is. How you express your sexuality in real life is entirely up to you. What is sin for one may not be sin for another. We are individuals, with our own individual relationships with God. If you meet someone you’re really connecting with, if things get hot and steamy, is God going to count one more sin against you? No. God is not a prude, and he’s not a sin-counter. But like the book of Proverbs advises over and over, use some wisdom, use your intuition, don’t be stupid, and never put yourself in dangerous situations. Use your head and use your conscience. Like Paul says, “All things are permissible for me, but not all things are beneficial.”
Look, I’m not saying that the bible would condone you hooking up with a new guy weekend after weekend. What I am saying is that there doesn’t seem to me to be much to support the idea that you need to wait until you’re married. There’s a wide space of territory between those two extremes, and you need to navigate it according to your own Spirit-prodded conscience.
The bible is a big book, with a collection of 66 separate smaller books, written by 40 different authors on 3 continents over a 2000 year period. It’s got a lot to say about the human condition, and each author emphasizes different aspects of the God-human interaction. Whatever position you happen to take on a topic, you’ll likely be able to pull support from somewhere in that big collection. And obviously there is plenty of room for disagreement here. So we’re back to that basic premise: you gotta use a bit of wisdom, a bit of maturity, and apply with a spiritual sensitivity. And that includes your sex life.
Sex is an inseparable part of being human. It is a gift from God, and a legitimate way of connecting personally with another human being. And when you commit to someone, you should keep your sexual fires within that relationship. But if you’re still single, there doesn’t seem to be any clear restriction against enjoying another person’s body — as long as it’s not exploitive, abusive, dangerous, involve worshipping another god, or a betrayal of someone’s bond.
So, use some common sense. Sex is deeply personal. It’s not just like eating a Big Mac. It will impact you emotionally, psychologically, physically, and even spiritually in some way. And randomly sharing your body with every stranger you encounter is bound to have consequences: over-indulgence is never healthy. So, when you’re in that situation, and you wanna go home with that guy you just met, ask yourself what this hookup will do to you? To the person you’re sleeping with? Don’t be too casual about it. But if you’re both single and you feel that spark, God gave you sex as an intimate and pleasurable way of connecting with someone. Enjoy it, and thank God for it.
Oh, and by all means, use protection. Use a condom. Get on PrEP. That’s part of the wisdom. And if your friends jokingly call you a whore, well, so what? They’ve got their own issues to deal with — and they’ll probably want to hear all about the details later anyway.
“I love it that you have all these random jars of interesting things in your refrigerator.”
That was Jake. We were making dinner together one night last week, and I pulled out a jar of Giardiniera. It’s basically just pickled cauliflower, carrots, celery and peppers; you know, stuff to munch on while you’re watching TV, when you want something but don’t know exactly what. I suppose it goes well on the side with a sandwich too, but … you know, if you’re a foodie, you just gotta have all kinds of stuff handy.
That explains the jar of marinated artichoke hearts I had sitting in the bottom shelf, way in the back.
So I’m staring into the fridge again, wondering what to make for dinner. It’s a weeknight, and it’s been a long day at work. My brain is fried, so I’m not really in the mood to cook anything elaborate. I’d eaten out a lot recently too, and my wallet was feeling the pressure, so a quick run out for fast food didn’t seem like a good idea. And besides, aside from the predictably bloated feeling I always get after pounding down a burger and fries, I always feel like I just paid someone to poison me. (You’ve seen those YouTube videos on the meat slurry that goes into beef patties, right? Yeah, not fit for human consumption.)
And salad? I’m a huge fan, but please, not every night. Then I caught sight of the package of naan bread I’d bought from Wallyworld. Naan is an oven-baked flatbread, famous in Indian food, and it makes a great ready-made dough for personal-sized pizza. Just pile whatever you like on top, throw it in the oven, and voila! Instant dinner.
You can find all kinds of recipes for naan pizza on the web. Me? I’m not too selective. I just start pulling some of those “random jars of interesting things” out of the fridge, along with some fresh salad-fixin’s from the crisper, and start chopping. You know what you like (it’s the stuff you probably already have on hand), so use what you’ve got.
A few quick taps on my stove to get the oven preheating to 350°, and I grab a cookie sheet from the bottom cupboard. You can bake the naan right on the rack if you like, but my pizzas tend to be piled high and overflowing, and that can leave a big mess on the bottom of your oven — and fill your house with smoke next time you try to use it — so the cookie sheet is my safety net.
Brush a little olive oil on the flatbread, and start building.
• Some sliced onions,
• chopped red and yellow mini-peppers (gotta get your vitamins, right?),
• a handful of cherry tomatos, cut in half,
• sliced mushrooms (I am a mushroom fiend. It’s not pizza without mushrooms.) Canned mushrooms will work fine, if you’ve got ’em. I like to keep a ziplock baggie of fresh ones in the freezer cuz I think they have a better taste and texture.
• that jar of marinated artichoke hearts,
• a small can of sliced black olives,
• oh, and don’t forget the pepperoni. (That’s the protein — at least that’s what I tell myself.)
• Finally, sprinkle on the shredded mozzerella cheese. As it melts, it’ll hold all the stuff together on top.
I love me some oregano, too. Love the way it smells when it’s roasting. So I sprinkle some dried Italian herbs on top, a little garlic powder (you know that smells great when it’s cooking in the oven!), and we’re set to go.
10-15 minutes in the oven. Let the cheese melt and get all gooey. You can leave it in a bit longer if you like a crispier crust, but don’t let it brown too much.
And that’s it. Cut it in four pieces, and you’ve got manageable slices that won’t drop toppings all over your carpet while you’re clicking through movie selections with the remote.
Tonight, for me: rewatching episodes from “House of Cards.” (When does Season 4 come out?) Enjoy your night in!
When was the last time you told yourself “I love you”?
Weird idea? Maybe it sounds like it at first, but we as a community are desperately in need of hearing those words — especially from ourselves. And by “we,” I mean LGBTQ people and Christian people, and especially those of us who fit in both categories.
Many of us LGBTQ people have wrestled with our identities, trying to come to terms accepting ourselves, defining ourselves, discovering ourselves, exploring our own psyches, often even seeking professional therapy. We’ve had to struggle with issues with an intensity and prolonged duration that many of our straight friends never had to deal with. And that often has left scars of self-doubt, of fear, of insecurities and a need for acceptance, sometimes even of self-hatred. Thank God, now with greater social acceptance of non-hetero identities, the younger generation doesn’t have to go through this as much. But for many of us born before 1990, the mental and emotional bruises linger for years. Looking in the mirror can be an awkward moment. So getting to a point where we can honesty, truthfully say to ourselves “I love you” can be a milestone in personal growth.
The same goes for many Christians, straight or otherwise. If you were raised in a conservative environment, you probably had years of “humility” drummed into your head. Concerns over pride and ego, or selfishness or even self-indulgence took on eternal significance. It was unChrist-like. God despises the proud but exalts the humble. So again, uttering those three simple words could be a shocking, even rebellious act.
Now throw in some sex …
Throw in the sexual dynamic, and we’ve got a whole ‘nother ball game. How many of us, especially in religious circles, were taught (or at least led to believe) that any kind of sexual expression outside the holy bonds of matrimony were sinful, shameful, and deserving of God’s wrath? So if you were attracted to someone and began dating them, if things went beyond second base, the guilt could become paralyzing. Heck, even getting to second base could trigger hours of penitent prayer, trying to persuade God to forget it ever happened and to restore your state of divine favor.
Maybe you could soften the assault of guilt by rationalizing: we love each other, we may not be “married” but we care about each other… But what about those experiences outside even that degree of relationship? What about the occasional hook-ups, when you meet someone, and the chemistry between the two of you resembles a nuclear reaction. Your heart races, your eyes dilate, your palms begin to sweat. You smile nervously, and your brain nearly explodes when the look is returned. And later that night, you find yourself in someone else’s bedroom, or even in the backseat of your car, when the hormonal tide has cleared from your mind and you face that moment of reality. This wasn’t love. This was … just physical.
Do you love yourself enough to say, “That’s okay. God doesn’t hate me, and neither do I”? Or even more boldly, “That was good. I needed that. I connected with someone, even just for that short time, and I still feel the after-glow of that connection”? No guilt. Just acceptance of your own humanity, of your human need for touch, for connection with another. And confidence that God isn’t brooding with anger over it.
This “extra-marital” guilt thing even applied to physical self-gratification: masturbation. They used to call it “self-abuse”. Abuse! Really? How is that not supposed to make you fill sinful and dirty? They’d tie religious language to it: “if you lust after a woman in your heart, you’ve already committed adultery with her…” The mere thought of sex was equivalent to breaking one of the top 10 commandments! If you were raised in a religious family, your early teen years were most likely fraught with guilt and shame.
We can debate the morality of sex outside of marriage — whether in a relationship, just a hook-up, or just jacking off — another time. But the fact that sexuality is such a powerful part of our humanity, such a big part of defining “self”, of who we are as human beings, it can’t NOT take a toll on our self-esteem.
Let me throw in a Jesus-moment. The second great commandment he gave us was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s pretty much impossible to do if we don’t, in fact, love ourselves. That is, treasure ourselves, treat ourselves well, bring happiness (including sexual pleasure) to ourselves. Are we not worth it? And the Apostle Paul, when talking about married life, says that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies…. No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, …” Huh. Not so sure about that “no one ever hated himself” part. But even Paul says that loving our own bodies is obviously important to a strong relationship.
Here’s the thing. The sex part is integral, but it’s secondary. The main point here is that too many of us, whether from struggling with our LGBTQ identity or just our Christian ego, do not even like ourselves, much less love ourselves. And this is crucial. How can you love someone else, how can you love your neighbor, and how can you love your lover, your spouse, your significant other, if you don’t have a healthy love for yourself? What are you bringing to the table? And can you even know how to love properly if it doesn’t begin with you?
Here’s the truth: without healthy self-esteem and self-love, the thing you’ll feel for someone else is dependence, not love.
You FEEL like you love that person, you may feel the passion, the desire, the motivation to do good for them, to give them things, to express your heart — your feelings — to them, to show them how important they are. But what are you really feeling? You can become LOST in them, in those feelings. You are preoccupied, even obsessed, with the very thought of that person. And your world would come crashing down around your head if they ever left you. Is that a healthy view of self? Is that even really love?
Because you’re worth it!
You are significant. You have gifts and talents of your own. You’ve got a style, a way of thinking that no one else does. Without your unique expression of life on this planet, we are all a little bit poorer. All those “feel good” memes on social media have that kernel of truth to them. You have value — all by yourself. And the trick is to tap into that, to actually believe it.
it is NOT a healthy thing to try to spiritualize it: “yes, in Christ I have value.” That’s just more religious brainwashing. God did not send Jesus into this world so that you would have value. He sent Jesus into this world BECAUSE you have value.
And no, it is NOT a healthy thing to try to spiritualize it: “yes, in Christ I have value.” That’s just more religious brainwashing. God did not send Jesus into this world so that you would have value. He sent Jesus into this world BECAUSE you have value. You are loved and you have value in God’s eyes just as you are. (Being “in Christ” definitely changes your life, but it is not the sole grounds for your worth.)
Get out a pad of paper and a pen, if you must. Write down only the good things about yourself. The things you want a potential lover to see in you, to appreciate about you. Now, YOU be that lover. Appreciate yourself, love yourself for those reasons. Oh, and incidentally, all those negative things you’re probably mentally lining up in the opposite column on that page … yeah, there may be some truth in them, but most likely they are exaggerated way beyond reality by your own insecurities. You can love yourself, faults and all (cuz who doesn’t have faults?). So say it. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I love you. You are awesome.”
You’ll need to have this perspective if you’re to ever hold on to a healthy relationship with someone else. And it’s especially important if you’re single, when you spend those long hours at night longing for your One True Love. When you tell all your friends, “pray for me; pray that God sends me a husband or wife.” When day after day, you’re home alone, making dinner for yourself, spending the evening in watching Netflix. No, it’s NOT depressing. When you begin to love yourself, those moments can be remarkably peaceful and comforting. You can settle in on your couch or go out to your favorite restaurant alone — and enjoy it. Because you enjoy your own company. Because your love makes you complete by yourself.
Okay, I know it’s not as simple as that. If you’re like me, you’ve probably got years of history telling you the opposite. But once you tap into that realization that you are love-worthy, and begin to feel that way about yourself, your life begins to change. Things around you look differently. Even your sex life (yeah, I keep harping on that — cuz it’s a big part of who we are) … even your sex life, whether alone or with someone else, can be fulfilling — as an act of love for yourself. Of simply making yourself feel good, just as you would your future lover. Guilt-free.
It’s important. We need it. We need to love ourselves. How else can we fully love another person? And how else can we turn that love around to touch the world?
Minutes after the US Supreme Court handed down their ruling overturning bans on same-sex marriage, posts were already going up on Facebook and across the blogosphere about “Spitting in the face of God” and “God’s impending wrath on America.
*Sigh* Really? Of course, this kind of reaction is not surprising. There are a surprising number of people who are invested in preserving tradition and a strict moral code that does not allow for love between two people of the same gender. It’s a religious thing, not a rational one. Not a civil one. Not a constitutional one. And frankly, not a godly one either.
But there it is. Wrath. Christians who on most days of the week boast about living in God’s grace, now suddenly focused on the doom about to be unleashed on this now pagan America.
But let’s forget about the bantering back and forth about “WWJD?” or what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality. We’ll never agree on that anyway. We will always read and interpret the Bible in ways that agree with what we already want to believe. Let’s just look at our own history in Europe and America, and judge whether God is still in the wrath-inflicting business.
When Europe was filled with terror over religious wars in the previous centuries, with people being brutally tortured (Spanish Inquisitions, Holy Wars, Crusades, etc), did God hurl lightning bolts at Rome or London or Castile? Did comets plummet to the earth, wiping out vile Europeans? Or during the Holocaust in the 1930s and -40s, with millions of Jews (“God’s chosen people”), Gypsies, gay people, and others were exterminated, and their ashes literally rose to heaven as their bodies were incinerated — did God inflict his wrath?
In our own illustrious American history, with the genocide of Native Americans, with centuries of slavery, with witch hunts and burning people at the stake, oppression of women and racial minorities, of anti-Semitism, of Islamophobia and homophobia, of lynchings, of gay-bashing and public violence… What about our neglected poor, and those who fought so hard to make sure the poor among us would NOT have food or shelter or medical treatment? Yeah, Social Security is part of our national existence now, but it was strongly resisted when FDR tried to bring it about. Same with Medicare and Medicaid. Just look at the fight over Obamacare, or the hostility directed at “illegal aliens”.
The Bible is full of examples (and commands!) concerning treatment of the weak, the helpless, the widows, orphans, the poor, the aliens in the land. The prophet Ezekiel even declared that that was the reason for God’s punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah — for the citizens of those cities’ lack of concern for the vulnerable among them, while they fattened their own purses and stomachs. Greed, gluttony, selfishness, and turning a blind eye to the needs of others is what irks God. (Ezek 16:49)
Jesus came along and turned a spotlight on these concerns close to God’s heart. Love for our neighbor became a motto. “What you do unto the least of these …” was a standard against which we would ultimately be judged in the next life.
And about “imminent judgment” for sins committed, Jesus pointed at examples in his own day, and said “NO! Those people hurt by disasters were no more sinners than you” (Lk 13:4). And when his own disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven upon those who rejected God’s Good News (listen up, Mike Huckabee!), Jesus smacked them in the face: “You don’t know what Spirit you belong to” (Lk 9:54).
If America were to invoke the wrath of God — whether by drought or famine or hurricane, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster — it would not be over passing laws that allow people to love and celebrate each other. If anything, we’d fall under his curse for our neglect of the needy among us, the minorities, those illegal aliens who come here looking for a better life. He’d judge us for being the wealthiest nation in this history of this planet, yet 1 out of every 5 children in this country go to bed hungry. We drive our Lexuses, we buy bigger houses, we pad our 401K plans, and our neighbors can’t feed their children. Our grandparents can’t afford their medicines. Our youth are living on the streets, kicked out of their homes by angry parents. Surely we deserve God’s wrath — but not for marriage equality.
Thankfully, God doesn’t seem to be in the wrath-hurling business. Grace is his trademark characteristic. Love extended to the unworthy, the undeserving. And judgment — by HIS standards, not ours — reserved for the Great White Throne in the next life. And anyone who is predicting the coming wrath because their traditional moral values no longer hold force in this country, only proves that their traditions were built on sand. They don’t know the heart of God. The same words of Jesus apply today as well as then: “You know not what Spirit you are of.”
[box type=”bio”] STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook. [/box]
We are a “Faith” generation. Many of us who surfed the wave of “Word-Faith” teaching that swept explosively through the Church in the 1980s and ’90s have since found our balance point in life. As with any fresh movement of the Spirit, there were excesses, misunderstandings, and actions out of spiritual immaturity unchecked by the wisdom and experience of older saints. But millions of believers around the world found a new vitality with God that had been absent so long in their traditional church upbringing. I was one of them.
Life teaches you — if you let it. If you have “eyes to see and ears to hear”. We grow; we learn. Part of my journey was learning a comfortable “fit” for faith in my life. I discovered over time that I couldn’t simply express a desire to God, flip the switch of faith on in my heart, speak the word, claim the promise, and watch the results roll in. It didn’t always work for me. And for someone who takes the Bible very seriously, that was a problem.
What do you do when you stand on a verse that reads “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it”, or “whatever you desire when you pray, believe that you have received it and you will have it” — and then it doesn’t occur? Any wise saint will tell you that you can’t pull verses out of context at will and make them work for you. Every verse has its place in the entirety of Scripture, and unless you’re reading it in that whole spectrum of light, you’re bound to go astray. Jesus said “if you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask what you will …” (John 15:7). And that about sums it up. Your prayers, your wishes, have to come from a position of being one with Jesus. They have to line up with his will. Isn’t that what “in Jesus’ name” really means? You can’t ask for something in his name if it’s not something he wants or approves of. Like when Peter healed the paralytic who had been bedridden for 8 years: “Jesus Christ heals you. Now, get up and make your bed” (Act 9:34). As a believer, you are entitled to use his name, but it’s Jesus’ power, his authority, so you gotta have his permission first.
With that nugget of truth in hand, it is difficult for me to ask for a specific thing in faith unless I know specifically that it is God’s will for me at that moment. Even with things that I know in general are his will. I know, for example, that it is God’s will that we be well, healed, strong and healthy. I can cite you a handful of Scripture passages to back up that assertion. But how many times on his way into the temple had Jesus passed by and not healed the same crippled man later healed by Peter and John in his name (Acts 3)? How many times have I prayed for healing (for myself and for others) and the healing did not manifest? There is a right time and place, a right state of heart and position in life — even for those things that line up with God’s general will. So, in my experience, I learned that simply “claiming a promise” was not always sufficient. I needed a direct word from God on the matter before that “claim” carried any weight.
Otherwise, expectation can get you in trouble sometimes.
That was the problem with my faith. I could define what I wanted — you know, go to God with a specific request for a specific outcome. Like going through that period of my life when I switched career paths and had to reinvent myself. I’d apply for jobs I wanted, and because I was confident of God’s blessing, I expected to get them. But many of them fell through, and I was left to deal with the bitter disappointment and the shaking of my faith.
Too specific an expectation without a direct leading can really mess you up.
But when I stopped trying to force specific outcomes, when I did the leg work but left the results in God’s hands, that allowed God to move me in directions he wanted me to go, and I would be excited and surprised by the unexpected places he took me. That slight difference in perspective made all the difference. When I did not have a definite word from Heaven, I switched from expectation to anticipation.
We used to sing this little ditty in church years ago, and I love it to this day. “I anticipate the inevitable, supernatural intervention of God, I expect a miracle. I expect a miracle. I expect a mir-a-cle.” (Yeah, it comes across better with music. ) It always summons up images for me of the Israelites as they’re leaving Egypt, chased by the Egyptian army, and blocked by the Red Sea. They didn’t know what God was going to do; they didn’t know how he was going to save them. In fact, most of them were sure they were going to die. But a handful of brave souls had faith in the promises of God. They did not have faith for a specific result, but they waited eagerly (sweating profusely, I’m sure), anticipating SOMETHING supernatural.
And that’s the key. Without a definite leading from God, we shouldn’t “expect” definite things — but we should “anticipate” his inevitable intervention. We may not know what it is, but we know he’ll do something. “Holy Anticipation” is putting your faith in GOD, trusting in his love and faithfulness — not trying to dictate a desired outcome.
A “Facebook friend” of mine who pastors a large church in Washington, DC wrote today that the theaters they’ve been holding services in for 13 years are now being closed down. He wrote of his mixed emotions as one chapter of the church’s life closes and another is about to begin, not knowing yet what God is up to. He says, “Despite the sadness and craziness, I have a holy anticipation about what’s next. I’m [only] sure of two things. I’ll grow as a leader through this — and I embrace that challenge. And we’ll grow as a congregation. It’s not the way I would have written the script, but it’s good for us. We’re gonna follow the cloud and the cloud is moving!” As much as my limited spiritual experience tells me, he’s on the right track. He isn’t projecting the next step. He isn’t claiming a specific new site for his church — at least not yet. All he knows right now is that God is doing something — the cloud is moving — and he is anticipating a miracle.
Our faith can be expressed in both these ways. Expectation is appropriate when God has instructed us what his intentions are for us in a situation. But when we don’t know, when we are in a bind and just looking to God for a solution — like the Israelites, trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea — that’s the time for faithful anticipation.
For most of us, those are the moments we most often live in: uncertainty about the specifics yet. But those are perhaps the moments of our greatest faith, and we need to just hang in there, waiting with excitement and open eyes, so we can see the amazing thing God is about to do!
… And now, just because I’m feeling a bit musical this morning, here’s a bit that kinda sums it up …
This piece originally appeared in Cafe Inspirado.
[box type=”bio”] STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.
Living with uncertainty just may be the mark of a genuinely in-touch spiritual life. When your thoughts, your perspective of the God and the universe, go beyond the limits of what you’ve been taught, when you begin to think outside the lines, it can be a very scary thing. But it can also be a sign of profound growth. And you might be in touch with God in a way that you weren’t before. Something could be happening to you – and it could be a really, really good thing.
I’ve noticed this a lot in the past decade or so. And mostly, it’s made me uncomfortable. REALLY uncomfortable. There were these preachers that I’d respected years ago, who suddenly got a “bigger” view of God — well, in my mind, it was just a different, even heretical, view of God. They talked about how hell didn’t really exist, how the love of God extended to ALL humans, not just the chosen 3% of all humanity whoever lived who happen to call themselves Christians. And that God would never condemn those people to eternal torment because of their ignorance of the incarnation. Some of these preachers even began to adopt lingo from other religions to describe this God who created all humanity, words and images from people who experienced God differently.
But that was weird. That’s not what my bible teaches.
At least not how I was taught to read it.
Over the past few years, my own views of God and faith have shifted a bit, became “looser.” Grace was bigger. Love was bigger. The Cross was bigger than we could ever imagine. If God himself could come down and take on human flesh, then allow himself to be killed — the death of the Creator of the Universe! — that had to be bigger than our traditional religion was describing it. It had to have universal ramifications.
But I couldn’t talk about it much. At least not outside a circle of a few close friends whom I could trust not to start gathering stones for my execution. Thanks to social media, I’ve become aware of more and more pastors and teachers whose views are evolving. And now, instead of being scary, I find it exhilarating. Something is happening. Something is up in the spirit-realm, and we might very well be in the middle of another kind of revival, a move of God’s Spirit, a new expansion in God’s revelation.
Okay, I know I just spooked a bunch of you reading this. You probably always half-suspected that I had one foot out the door of evangelical orthodoxy and already on that slippery slope that leads to eternal damnation (that hot place more and more people are coming to doubt exists). But hold on for a few minutes. I’m not asking you to agree, but maybe you’ll consider the possibilities.
Progressive Revelation. That’s kinda the technical term for it. That our understanding of God expands over time, as the Spirit reveals a little bit more of the character of God as time passes, as culture progresses, as we as faithful people open our hearts a bit more. This is not something new. It happened all through the Bible. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples.
A quick history lesson
Adam and Eve had a very intimate friendship with God. They knew him (her?) in a way the rest of humanity never would. They experienced him one on one, in the flesh so to speak. But that changed suddenly. And it was like the unrestricted access, the unfiltered view of God, got shut down. Suddenly, God was distant, not readily accessible. Cain and Abel offered up sacrifices (well, “offerings” as we understand the term. There is no indication they were blood sacrifices for sin). We don’t know that Adam or Eve ever did this when inside the Garden. This was something new.
Abraham, the father of our faith, came along millennia later. God speaks to him, and he is constantly making altars to God and worshipping. And there is even this gruesome scene where he cuts up animals in a covenant-making ceremony, and God symbolically passes through the body parts in the form of a smoking pot. No sin offerings are even mentioned. Sacrifices — financial as well as bloody — are part of Abraham’s faith walk, but they seem to flow from custom, from tradition he was familiar with, not from any specific instruction from God. But when Moses 400 years later leads Abraham’s descendants out of Egyptian slavery, God gives him a set of specific instructions about sacrifice. “This is how you will approach me. This is how you will atone for your sins. This is how you can appear before me without being struck down by my awesome holiness.” And we end up with a clear statement that defined our faith and theology from that time to this day. “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.”
Pretty clear. Written on stone, written on leather scrolls. Read for centuries after. Yet when King David comes along and commits some horrendous crimes (adultery, murder), he could pour out his soul to God with a new understanding that defied the written Scripture that he knew so well. “Sacrifices do not please you or I would offer them. My sacrifice is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51). He knew something intuitively that contradicted Scripture. He could approach God and receive God’s forgiveness without blood sacrifice. His broken, repentant heart was sufficient.
Stop for a second, and let that sink in. That is HUGE. David had an intimate relationship with God, one that marked him in history as “a man after God’s own heart,” and he KNEW inside his gut that killing some sheep would not set things right between him and God. Only his honest communication, his genuinely sorrowful heart could move the heart of God.
So much for the authority of written Scripture. He had a revelation that was bigger than Scripture — and it eventually became part of Scripture.
Then a few hundred years later, the Israelites do stupid stuff, they abandon their relationship with God and hook up with other gods. They end up being conquered and exiled from their home country. Guess what? No more temple to offer sacrifices. How were they going to maintain their faith, their connection with God? Thankfully, their prophets got a new revelation — or maybe it wasn’t new. Maybe it was just a new awareness of the “other” side that David and the mystics knew all along. There were other ways of having relationship. “Obedience to God’s instruction was better than sacrifice,” and a life of compassion and fidelity to God was better still: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Besides, God had already revealed periodically along the way that their mechanical, insincere sacrifices had become repugnant to him. He hated them. He hated their long, babbling prayers, their fasts, their religious holidays. He hated it all. All the outward religious behavior. He wanted their hearts.
Okay, centuries later, the Jews have returned from their exile in Babylon and have resettled in their promised land. The temple is rebuilt, sacrifices re-commence. Jesus comes on the scene, and he is constantly debating with the religious leaders: “You’ve got it all wrong. This stuff is not important. Your tithes, your sacrifices, your rules, your ‘holy’ lifestyles mean nothing.” And he tries to change their way of thinking, their way of viewing God — from a somewhat distant, Almighty God, the King of the Universe, the Father of all Israel, to a more personal relationship with God the Father of us as individuals, to Abba, Daddy. And this was revolutionary. It shocked and disgusted the conservatives. It was a shift in their religious view, and most couldn’t handle it.
And it wasn’t just about relating to God on an intimate level. Jesus tried to renew their perspective about how they lived, what they did. You know those rules in Scripture that said not to work on the Sabbath — possibly the most significant law in the Hebrew faith next to devotion to God alone. And Jesus overturned it all the time. He healed people on the Sabbath. He allowed his disciples to grind wheat to satisfy their hunger on the Sabbath. “If your ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, won’t you break the rules out of compassion for the animal and pull him out?” And, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath — it was intended for your benefit, not to burden you.” And he did this in other areas as well, from the way they washed their hands, to whom they could hang out with. Jesus taught them something beyond what was written. He broke Scripture, contradicted what was written. He reinterpreted it BIGGER than they had imagined. He gave them a new revelation.
Oh, sure. That was Jesus. He was the Son of God, so he had the right to do that. He could add stuff to the bible.
But then his disciples did the same thing. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, non-Jews started flocking into the new Jewish church. They liked what they heard about Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ view of God, and they wanted in. But the bible clearly stated that to join the faith, you had to be circumcised. And these uncircumcised non-Jews were considered “unclean”. You couldn’t eat with them, or even enter their houses. The early apostles wrestle with this. And then one day Peter has a vision. God shows him all the animals that the bible clearly stated he was not supposed to eat, and then God tells him to eat them anyway. God tells him to break Scripture. The vision really wasn’t about food — although it is used as one of the justifications why Christians can now eat bacon and shrimp in direct contradiction to the bible. It was about those gentiles, those non-Jews who wanted to join the church. They didn’t need circumcision, they were not unclean. “Call nothing unclean that I have made clean,” God told him. And, of course, the apostle Paul follows suit a bit later, declaring that the whole Law of Moses — the bible as they knew it — was no longer binding on Jesus’ followers.
BAM! They got a bigger revelation of truth. A new look at the character of God that was in direct contradiction to what was written in the bible. So much for “The bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Nope. The vast depth and richness of the character of the God who created the universe could not be limited to a handful of scrolls. He is bigger than that. He’s got bigger plans than just that. And his love for all humanity is his #1 personality trait. Everything else is subject to revision, change, in order to fulfill his great love.
Okay, that was kinda a long history lesson. The key point to walk away with is that even in the bible, the great heroes of faith were continually getting a bigger view of God that surpassed what was previously written. Their perspectives, their revelations, were consistent with the character of God, but definitely contradicted the plain, black and white reading of the bible. So why should that suddenly stop?
Why are we — who hold so tightly onto the sanctity and authority of Scripture, who pride ourselves in our knowledge and adherence to the bible — why are we shocked, scared, when we suddenly get a new, bigger view of God that goes beyond what is written in that book?
If that “newer, bigger” view of God seems inconsistent with the character of God — specifically, his #1 characteristic: Love — then yes, we should be skeptical. But that “new perspective” in reality may be just a fresh take on a view of God already described in the Holy Book. And if it lines up with the description of God that Jesus showed us, then perhaps we should give it some attention. Maybe, little by little, we’re recovering some glimpses that Adam and Eve had before the great cut off.
That doesn’t mean we have to swallow every new doctrine or teaching or insight someone has. But Jesus promised that God’s Spirit would lead us into all truth. Doesn’t that mean that there still must be truth to be lead into beyond what is written on the pages of the book?
Fresh insights means a new move of the Spirit
I’m getting this subtle feeling more and more recently that we are experiencing a new wave of fresh insight into the character of God. One that challenges traditional views of the afterlife, of heaven versus hell, of eternal judgment and punishment, of who is “in” and who is “out”. Of whom God loves and wants to show himself to, and whom (if any) he wants to leave behind. I’m still walking delicately with this stuff. I’m not likely in the near future to burn a bible from the pulpit. But I think, like all those heroes of faith described in the bible, and like Jesus’ own followers, we are still getting fresh glimpses into the vastness of who God is and what he is like — and what great extent he will go to include people in his redemptive plan, his love. God’s plan is bigger than us. It’s bigger than what can be defined and limited on a few hundred pages in a leather-bound book. And he’s still showing it to us. To those whose hearts are listening, receptive, willing.
So if your view of God is expanding in new and scary ways, it doesn’t mean that you’ve lost your faith or that you suddenly have to leave the church. It doesn’t mean you’re now some other religion. It may just mean you’re in touch with the next move of the Spirit. Something is happening, and you are a part of it.
[box type=”bio”] STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.