Natural, Supernatural: Why a Couple of Our Major Religions Appear So Finicky About Marriage and Sex

As you’re no doubt aware, I categorize my posts on this blog according to the topics of the conversations in D360. I wrestled with where to categorize this one—because like the conversation topics themselves, it belongs to more than one topic. Should it be assigned to the topic “In the Image”? Or “Community”? Or another? (I have one in mind; you’ll recognize it when you get there.) Well, on a functional level, WordPress makes it easy, of course: I can assign the article to multiple categories. But I thought I would open the window on this little bit of my angst to illustrate how the characteristics of discipleship discussed in D360 are interrelated. Biblical quotations are from the New International Version.

Marriage. It’s no secret that in recent years, much intellectual and emotional capital has been invested in discussions about what it is and what it ought to be. The traditional Christian perspective seems over the past few years to have fallen out of favor. But it is still the standard for Christians: God created marriage between men and women. God created sexuality with multiple dimensions—including emotional and spiritual dimensions; it’s not just for making babies (although babies are one of the blessings of sexuality!). God wired men and women to complement each other—to be partners—and to commit themselves to each other for life.

In a world that demands more and more to understand things in observable, material ways, the intangible dimensions of marriage are often misunderstood. So what I want to do here is explore the spiritual dimension of marriage as deeply as it deserves from the Christian perspective.

Of the major religions of the world, only Buddhism does not recognize a spiritual aspect to marriage. Hinduism does. Islam does. Judaism and Christianity do—each acknowledges that marriage unites two human beings spiritually, not just physically and emotionally (well, and socially and economically). Their marriage relationship belongs to their supernatural relationship with a supernatural God.

The reason I lump Judaism and Christianity together is that each faith’s teaching about marriage has the same root: the biblical book of Genesis.

In the first chapter of Genesis, human beings appear, at least at first glance, to be God’s final and greatest creation. Genesis makes a big deal about it:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Genesis 1 describes humans as the only things God made in his own image. In other words, nothing else in all creation was like God; being made in the image of God is a human distinction. The purpose? God intended humans to rule the rest of his creation alongside him.

Then Genesis 2 seems to introduce a disconnect. In Genesis 1 God had created a man as the pinnacle of creation to that point; he had pronounced creation good—and creation that included humanity he declared very good. But in Genesis 2 he says it’s not good for the man to be alone—and when he brings the man, Adam, all the kinds of animals for him to name—even though there were already females, presumably, among the animals God brings—no suitable mate can be found for Adam. Oops! Did God goof? Or … did God plan the creation of woman to be something unique in order to impress upon both the man and the woman how important it was for them to be together?

After God has fashioned a woman out of one of Adam’s own ribs and brought her to him, Adam certainly is impressed:

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:23)

So as we see from the narrative, the climax of creation is not just the creation of humans but the marriage of these creatures, whom God has made in his own image! God’s creation of Eve from part of Adam’s body shows how ancient the idea is that in marriage the man and the woman unite, or overlap. And of course, God’s creation of the one-flesh sexual relationship (Genesis 2:24) extends that concept for all time and all generations.

From this perspective, humanity is not God’s last and greatest creation; human marriage is.

Judaism gives particular emphasis to a further supernatural aspect to every marriage. “If G-d created man, woman, and their marriage relationship,” writes Rabbi Maurice Lamm, “and if the creation of man and woman is good and marriage a blessing; then G-d is a conscious, albeit silent, partner in the marriage. Thus the ideal Jewish marriage is a triangle composed of two human beings and their Creator.”[i] Christians embrace this concept too.

There are many implications—huge implications—to this. For example, imagine the metaphysical impact of adultery. “If one partner is unfaithful it is not just a marital problem, it shatters the fundamental unit of creation,” says Lamm. To illustrate: a human wife may be able to forgive her husband’s violation of her personal integrity, but, as Lamm points out, “they have no right to forgive their assault upon G-d’s integrity and His participation in the marriage.”

When Jesus came along and offered groundbreaking new insights about the character of God, it had ramifications for marriage also. Jesus presented a sharply-focused understanding of God as triune—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons together in one divine essence. In this context, God exists eternally in perfect community. The one-flesh community of marriage serves as a reflection of that community in the creatures made in his image.

This is not to say that the supernatural unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is in any way sexual. Just as humans are not God, neither is being united in one flesh the same as God’s community; but in the natural, physical human design we see a shadow of the greater community of God.

Don’t read on yet. Read the preceding paragraph again and let it sink in.

Now you can read on.

The apostle Paul offers one more expression of this spiritual vision of marriage. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul paints a picture of the relationship of Christ, the Lord of Creation, with the church. “Husbands, love your wives,” he says, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” He goes on,

In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)

In other words, Jesus, the Son of God, the Anointed One of God, envisions a level of community with his church—the aggregate body of all who believe in him—that humans can only begin to comprehend by comparing it to the one-flesh community of man and woman in marriage as God created it in the beginning.

John, the writer of Revelation, offers a vision of this community in its final glory:

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:2-3)

What does this mean?

Well, if you ever imagined that the Bible was full of finger-wagging no-no’s regarding sex, think again. Rather, it presents sexuality as a gift given by God to help bring us just a little closer to glimpsing what it’s like to be created in his image and to be in community with him. It would be hard to find a higher view of human sexuality than we see in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

And don’t miss the thing to be inferred from this: in this context, between a man and a woman united in Godly marriage, becoming one flesh … yes, sex … is … (wait for it) … worship—of the God who has made them in his image and invited them to glimpse what community in His image is like.[ii]

Paul reminds the church at Corinth, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor. 6:16) Well, what do you do at a temple—do you worship? (Answer: yes)

If you’ve never heard this and are initially perhaps even outraged by it, take a moment to consider why; the story behind it is also in Genesis. God’s Enemy, identified in Genesis as a serpent, was bent on corrupting God’s creation, and he accomplished his nefarious objective with brilliant efficiency: ignoring everything that was not created in God’s image, he went straight for God’s two last, greatest creations—human beings and human marriage—and he managed to corrupt both by weakening (and essentially breaking) the bonds of trust between the man and the woman and between humans and God.

How far we have managed to stray from the vision God had for human sexuality.

The Bible supports this understanding about the one-flesh marital union of man and woman in negative terms as well as positive. In the writings of the apostle Paul especially, we find images of what is not consistent with the sacred-community ideal of marriage as created by God. Sexual activity outside of marriage does not live up to the ideal. One-flesh sexual activity between people of the same gender does not live up to the ideal. Misuse of the sexual relationship of man and woman, even within marriage, does not live up to the ideal.

But how many of us have heard the warnings about these things without fully understanding the reason behind the warnings?

From Jewish and Christian perspectives, marriage has a powerful and complex spiritual dimension rooted in the Bible’s most ancient story. Marriage is unique; the unity of husband and wife has been designed to resonate with the creation of humanity in the very image of God. And God protects marriage and the one-flesh husband-wife relationship, as author Gene Veith says, by hedging it around with taboos.[iii]

True, that’s a lot to live up to; in fact, no one will achieve the ideal in this life. On the other hand, what impact—what blessings, if you will—could striving for this ideal have for our most cherished relationships?

[i] Maurice Lamm, “Jewish Insights into Marriage,” from The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/465160/jewish/Jewish-Insights-into-Marriage.htm

[ii] So, yes, you found it: “Worship” is the third category to which I am assigning this article.

[iii] Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Mary J. Moerbe, Family Vocation: God’s Calling in Marriage, Parenting, and Childhood, Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012, 83.

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Fleeing Sinners, Flying Tigers

You may have come across that little bit of greeting card-style wisdom that runs something like this: “If you’re feeling like God is far from you, you’re probably the one that moved.” Well, as cogent and poignant as this sounds, to my mind it’s a little misleading. Here’s a story; stick with me.

When my daughter Lexi was in grade school, she made a papier-mâché animal figure for an art project. It was roughly cat-shaped and painted with orange and black stripes, and it had wings painted in rainbow colors. Lexi called it her flying tiger. When the art project was over, she brought her flying tiger home and suspended it by a string from the ceiling in her room. She was very attached to her flying tiger, and it became emblematic for her in a way I’ve never quite understood; she became a tiger-person, a tiger-girl.

When Lexi went off to college at a school five hours away, she left the flying tiger in our care. Time passed. Lexi and her older sister Stephanie both got engaged. Lexi graduated and came home to live until her wedding. This, I think, is when she discovered that her flying tiger was missing. Well, there was a hubbub. At length Stephanie broke down. While she was in school at a college across town from us, Stephanie was home much more often than Lexi, and one weekend there had been a mishap, she said; the tiger had been irreparably damaged, and she had thrown it away. She was very sorry, she said.

Lexi was quick to forgive Stephanie but was clearly upset for awhile at the loss of something that, for reasons perhaps known only to her, was special to her.

More time passed. Stephanie, now the maid of honor at Lexi’s wedding, stood holding a microphone at Lexi’s reception, preparing to make her maid of honor speech. She talked about their relationship, everything they shared, the good times, the rough times, the time that she confessed to destroying Lexi’s flying tiger and the fact that even this traumatic experience had not damaged their friendship and the love they had for each other. Then she handed Lexi a gift bag. Lexi pulled out her flying tiger, in pristine condition. Pranked by her older sister!

Lexi was of course delighted. Married to a great guy. Surrounded by her family and friends. Her flying tiger restored. Best day ever.

Image-bearers: more precious than … anything

Now, if the creator of a bit of elementary school artwork can become as attached as my daughter Lexi was to her oddball papier-mâché flying tiger, and if losing it was so painful to its creator, and if its restoration brought its creator so much joy … how much more is our Creator, who made us in His image, attached to us humans, and how painful is the thought of losing us, and how satisfying is our restoration to Him?

In this light, the idea that we could possibly succeed in moving away from God is really inadequate. When I attempt to take a step away from God (and I often do), I don’t think He stays where He always is or has always been. I believe He just takes a step in my direction. If I run away (and I sometimes do), He runs too—in my direction. He made me; He wants to delight in me and in restoring me to Himself again. The idea that God could be farther from us at any one time is an illusion—a lie we tell ourselves in our self-pity.

King David’s got it right in Psalm 139:

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is [w] too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where [y] shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall [b] lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 If I would count them, they are more than [m] the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you.

Even if you and I want to move away from God, no matter how far or how fast we go, He will pursue, He will be right there, holding out His hand—or better still, opening His arms to welcome us back and restore us.

It’s because of this indescribable love that God wants to restore us … why He sent Jesus, the only bearer of the true, pure image of God … why He sends His Holy Spirit to teach us about that love—to call us to respond, follow as disciples, and join Him in His project to restore all of His creation.

Do you need a better reason to consider whole-life discipleship?

 

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unleash the Stealth Benefit of Prayer

When you spend a lot of time talking to someone, are you likely to get to know that person better? Are you likely to building a stronger, deeper relationship with that person?

I’m sure you won’t be surprised at my answers to these rhetorical questions: Yes. And Yes. Unless you’re carrying on a one-way communication with someone, you will probably discover yourself getting to know the person better and building an ever-stronger, ever-deeper relationship.

So what?

So this. Could we say the same thing about prayer? If prayer is talking with God (and it is), is it possible to get to know Him better and discover your relationship with Him growing stronger and deeper? Well … why wouldn’t you? So … my opinion: yes, the same thing is true about prayer.

There are a couple of directions I can go with this, but I’m feeling a little rant-ish today, so that’s the direction I’m headed. It might be a good idea to plan in advance to forgive me.

I want to extend the idea I’ve just set up; here’s how. If one thing that happens whenever I pray is that I grow closer to God, and you ask me to pray for you, then one of the things that happens when I pray for your specific need is that I … wait for it … grow closer to God. By inviting me to pray for you, you have ministered to me.

Perhaps this is something you have learned and just take for granted—but even though I’m a preacher’s kid and grew up in the church, I thought about it for the first time only a few years ago when somebody didn’t invite me to pray for him.

Tom was the husband of one of my wife Deb’s best friends. When he lost his job, he kept this concern, and his devastation over it, to himself, and he forbade his wife to talk about it. But she confided in Deb; when Tom found out, he was piqued at both his wife and Deb.

I don’t mean to be hard on Tom. It was a tough, gut-wrenching, brutal situation. I get it. I really do. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of guys are deeply and emotionally invested in the vocation of breadwinner and are terrified at the thought of not being able to fulfill it. In fact, several years later, I found out how invested I was when I lost a job. A little more on this below.

But…

First, Tom did nothing except hurt himself and his family by avoiding the encouragement and compassion available from their closest circle of friends. A little more below on this idea too.

And second, by concealing his family’s situation, Tom’s efforts, whether he meant them to or not, kept his friends from praying for them. Which, like it or not, also deprived all of us of an opportunity to grow closer to God.

Well, um, the effort wasn’t a hundred percent effective. Since I did know their situation, I prayed. A lot. (I think this was true of others in the circle too.) And I’m convinced that my experience praying for Tom and his family was indeed instrumental in helping move me into a closer walk with God.

As I mentioned, I went through my own job-loss situation a few years ago. Also, my family recently endured excruciating emotional and spiritual stress during Deb’s 15-month battle with cancer. And now we are all involved in the struggle of my daughter’s family against the type 1 diabetes my grandson was recently diagnosed with.

In every instance, I have unashamedly invited family, church, co-workers, friends, and friends of friends to pray for us.

If you have never experienced the feeling of being lifted up in prayer … if you have never felt the body of Christ link arms around you, link arms with you, to support you in a crisis, well—circumstances notwithstanding—you have missed something prodigious. There are few things that compare with it. There are few things, you will discover, that you need more than this when the cares of life have brought you low.

And I confess I’m biased—but I have sensed how God is moving not just in my life but also in the life of each person who’s praying for me. Once I asked my Facebook family and friends if praying for my family had blessed them. I suspect the question took a lot of them by surprise—probably because many of us tend not to think about prayer in these terms—but responses included blessings such as peace, comfort, sharpened spiritual focus, and feeling the Holy Spirit at work.

Well, yeah.

Have you ever been in the midst of a struggle and not wanted to burden friends or family members with your problem—not wanted to seem selfish; not wanted to impose on them by asking them to pray for you? Think again. Invite them; you are ministering to their need to know God better, their need to enjoy a stronger relationship with Him. It’s one way that we grow, one way we get to sense God moving in close and working His power in our lives.

Invite them to pray. Not only will you be blessed; you will also bless them.

Discipleship: Is It a Thing?

I’m a preacher’s kid, but I didn’t grow up hearing the word “discipleship” around the house. “Disciple,” yes (though always as a noun); and “make disciples,” of course. I began hearing the word off and on as a young adult, but not in every congregation I was a part of. It had the feel of a pop term that hip churches had decided to adopt for one of their programs.

I don’t hear it that often now, either, in our church settings. In fact, not long ago I heard a couple of church work professionals talking about how it seems that more and more people are deciding not to use “discipleship” because it’s so hard to figure out what it is.  So is the term “discipleship” a thing, really? Or something that comes and goes like a fad? (This would have been good to know before I published a book with “discipleship” in its title.)

Well, as it turns out, the word has a robust history. The earliest recorded English usage of “discipeship” to describe living as a disciple—follower, imitator—of Jesus (that’s what it is; really) is from 1612—when the Reformation movement was still in full swing across Europe. The Oxford English Dictionary cites uses in every century afterward.

It was actually a Lutheran who presented the term to what is arguably one of its widest historical audiences. In 1937, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer published a work he titled Nachfolge. After Bonhoeffer was persecuted and martyred by the Nazis, an English translation was published in 1948 under the title The Cost of Discipleship. It was in The Cost of Discipleship that Bonhoeffer identified the now widely-known concept of “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Would it be safe to assert that to Bonhoeffer, discipleship was a heavy-duty component in the life of a believer?

Jesus’ command in Matthew 28 is to disciple people, baptizing them and teaching them. If we feel as if we don’t understand what the 400-year-old term discipleship means … well … that doesn’t change anything, does it? Discipling is something we’re called to. Period. Like the terms stewardship, leadership, even churchmanship, discipleship does a pretty good job of pointing to a focus of Christian living. Do we get hung up on the word itself? Well, consider some alternatives: disciple-ness; disciple-hood; disciple-ocity, disciple-icity; disciple-ism; disciple-ment; which one is better than discipleship?

Discipleship is a thing. We just need to define it and bring it into focus. This is what fueled my project to develop D360. At the Lutheran Campus Mission Association, our mission statement—Equipping leaders to make disciples who make disciples on campus—is our commitment to helping train new generations in … wait for it … discipleship. Yeah, it’s a thing.

There’s more of this conversation to come; stay tuned.

Spoiler Alert

What’s D360: Nine Conversations About Whole-life Discipleship about? I’ll help you out and let you skip to the end if you want. Here’s the Summary from the final conversation, “What It All Could Look Like”:

Whole-life disciples will live what they believe, and the church will practice what it preaches. Much good will result. People outside the church will want to know what the deal is. Evangelism will result. The Spirit will do His work. God will be glorified.

There! Now you don’t have to read the book.

…or do you?

Just click to find D360 on Amazon.

Or click to download a free sample chapter of D360.