Recently I came across a very interesting blog called “A Skeptic's Journey Through the Bible”. The author's mission statement is this: “Growing up a believer, I left my faith in my teens. Now that I’m at the age of starting a family of my own, I need to know in which direction to guide them. I’ve decided to document my journey through the entire Bible with my own questions and commentary in order to decide once and for all if this is for me.”
It's an interesting concept, and I'm curious to see where he ends up when he's done. One post on the blog particularly intrigued me. It's a response to a question from a reader which asks:
“Did you just realize the flaws in religion when you read the bible or did you just ignore them as a Christian?”
The author's answer:
My doubts mostly floated to the surface when I began reading the Bible. While I was a genuine believer, I thought it was so hypocritical that so many millions of people claim Christianity as their religion (and allow what they think it is to affect their decision making in a lot of serious ways) when a lot of them have never read more than a few verses in the book which they believe their God wrote for them. I decided I wanted to have a closer relationship with God by reading the Bible, and when I did, I immediately began seeing a lot of things that I didn’t agree with. I realized that God is not the sugarcoated god they teach you about in Church. I think that would be when the real veil came off my eyes as far as the flaws in religion go.
This struck me as profoundly true, although he's coming from a sceptical, and I from a believing, standpoint. It fits perfectly with my experience of many churches and many Christians.
Churches rarely preach through the entire Bible. Instead, pastors tend to focus on verses that they like. Instead of getting “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) believers get a limited selection of the passages that appeal to the particular personality, interests, and hobby horses of their pastor or leadership. Certain denominations and movements have particular focuses that they home in on to the exclusion of others. Pastors often don't preach on topics they fear will alienate people.
In many churches I've attended the subject preached on, week in and week out, is the grace and the love of God. Difficult passages of Scripture, and subjects such as sin, judgement, hell, and repentance, are avoided almost completely. The message ends up being: no matter what you do, God accepts you anyway. That's dangerous because it's only partially true. In my observation, it produces a weak group of “Christians” who look almost exactly like the world. For example, it's more common for the young Christians I know to have sex outside of marriage than follow the biblical standard of celibacy. Christians' viewpoints on many topics seem to be shaped more by the culture around them than by God's word.
What struck me most strongly is this sentence: “I realized that God is not the sugarcoated god they teach you about in Church.” I could not agree more. When you actually read the Bible, God is awe-inspiring. He promises he will judge sin, including that of those inside the church. He issues strong warnings to repent. He disciplines us. He allows people to get sick and even die in response to their sin. He says certain behaviours mean that someone is outside of the kingdom of God. None of these things negate the grace and love of God, thankfully. But they're part of the whole picture. He's the kind of God who, if he were to show up in church, would probably make many of us uncomfortable.
Timothy Keller says it brilliantly: “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”
I believe the danger is that many, many people who sit in church week in and week out and never hear anything which challenges or offends them, who say they are Christians but live almost exactly like the world, are likely deceived. When confronted with some of the more challenging teachings of Scripture, particularly those that speak against sins in their own life, they are offended.
Going to church is easy. Following Jesus is hard. A shallow, anti-intellectual Christianity that ignores difficult swathes of the Bible may appeal to people initially. But in the end, it doesn't produce real disciples. The mark of a true Christian is one who believes and obeys even when it's costly; who is eager to understand and do the will of God, even when it challenges his preconceived ideas; who searches the Bible and believes and lives accordingly. These people are not perfect. But they are fundamentally submitted to the Lordship of Jesus and committed to change in belief or behaviour where they realize Scripture calls for it.
How can we, as individual Christians, avoid self-deceit and believing in our own version of God?
- Read the Bible regularly, all the way through. There are online plans that allow you to read the whole Bible in one year. I like the ESV Study Bible, which includes a portion from the Wisdom Literature, Old Testament history, prophets, and New Testament.
- Engage with what you read in Scripture. When you come across something challenging, seek answers. Ask mature Christians. Read Bible commentaries. Ask God for understanding. There's nothing wrong with questioning—that's the mark of robust faith. If you don't own it and haven't wrestled with it, it's not yours.
- Recognize that none of us have perfect understanding, and that we're more bound by our culture, experiences, and presuppositions than we think.
- Be humble and open. Where the Scriptures challenge your thinking or behaviour, be shaped by what they say. Don't twist Scripture to fit your personal inclinations. Be ruthlessly honest. Submit yourself to the Spirit of God for change, and grace to obey.
- Be in community. We all have blind spots. We are all prone to being deceived (Hebrews 10:24-25). We all need to be challenged in love by our brothers and sisters, and to hear other points of view.
These are just a few ideas; I welcome you to share yours in the comments!Comments: 0
Something I've come to realize recently is that a major characteristic of dysfunctional relationships is what I think of as “shame-throwing”. Shame-throwing is an effort, whether by anger, insults, accusations, shunning, or punishment, to try to make the other person feel bad about themselves. This might be to make them feel bad about who they are as a person, to feel shame or guilt for something you perceive they have done wrong, or to make yourself feel better by “dumping” your own internal shame on someone else and making them feel as bad as you do.
Shame-throwing takes place largely, I believe, when there's little to no trust between the members of the relationship. The person doing the shame-throwing doesn't trust the other to treat them kindly, fairly, or with respect, so he or she feels compelled to attack with whatever weapon they have on hand to fight for their rights and their territory.
The problem with shame-throwing, of course, is that it further erodes trust and destroys relationships. If both people engage in it, it results in a war with no end and/or a totally broken relationship.
The person on the receiving end of the shame-throwing may not actually be an untrustworthy person. He or she may actually be treating the shame-throwing person with kindness and respect. Because of past hurts in the shame-throwing person's life, they project those negative qualities onto the person they are doing battle with and feel they have to fight to get what they need and want. The irony is, of course, that those tactics don't actually work to achieve what the shame-throwing person wants and needs.
I grew up in a major shame-throwing environment. Shame and guilt were thrown around and the constant fight was to make everyone else around you feel as bad as you did. Battles were fought which had no end and no purpose. Everyone was miserable. Nobody extended grace, kindness, or forgiveness to anyone else. It was a constant war that nobody won and everybody lost.
The result of that kind of upbringing is a constant, profound, debilitating sense of shame, guilt, and worthlessness as a person. Severe enough, it drives people to mental illness and suicide. It's a long story that wouldn't fit here to recount how I've moved from incredible darkness to a place of healing and hope.
Suffice to say, these days, I don't live in shame and guilt. The gospel of Jesus Christ has set me free from that. I recognize that in Jesus and through his death and resurrection, I have been completely forgiven. I am no longer under condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). It's a beautiful feeling! Even when I make a mistake and sin, I do not wallow in shame or guilt. I recognize that God's acceptance of me doesn't change and his love for me doesn't go away. This in turn frees me to recognize when I've done wrong, repent of it, seek to make it right, and seek change. But I understand I am not fundamentally rejected as a person. My acceptance in Christ frees me to seek to live like him, outside of the weight of condemnation and guilt.
Forgiveness is a huge factor in this. When someone tries to throw shame and guilt at me or “punish” me for something they perceive I've done wrong, recognition of God's forgiveness of me frees me to in turn forgive them and release me from the pain and anger of the shame-bomb.
Recently I've gone through a difficult situation with a person. I misguidedly attempted to speak into their life without the relational foundation to do so. It wasn't received well, unsurprisingly. Attempts to rectify the situation went south and negotiation proved impossible. The other person ended up cutting off relationship with me out of anger over a completely unrelated incident.
Suffice to say, I was feeling an incredible amount of hurt and anger over this. I'm much quicker these days to remember that the solution is forgiveness. I prayed and “tried” to forgive, and did feel some release, but heading to church the morning after the final discussion, I was still feeling hurt and angry. I was having the imaginary arguments with the person in my head that we have when we feel wronged and want to justify ourselves.
In church, we took the Lord's Supper. During the prior song, which was about Jesus' death on the cross, I was struck with a divine, grace-filled revelation. Jesus has completely forgiven me. His work on the cross left nothing lacking. He has paid for all my sins. I am completely accepted. There is no longer any condemnation for me in him. No matter who is angry with me about what, Jesus doesn't condemn me. The other person may never extend me grace. But I stand free in him.
In that instant, the realization of my own complete forgiveness freed me. I was able to instantly and completely forgive the other person. The weight of anger and pain lifted totally. I can't say that I'm not still grieved over the situation, but the toxic mixture of pain and shame has gone away.
I hope and pray for reconciliation with the other person. But in the meantime, I walk in freedom. I forgive them, and I don't carry the shame that was being thrown at me. This is what Jesus' work on the cross accomplished: forgiveness and freedom, and the grace and the power to be able to extend that same forgiveness and freedom to those who have hurt us. It's the most beautiful way to live!Comments: 0
Recently I watched the film Ida with a movie buddy. It's artistically an extremely beautiful film, perfectly shot in black and white.
The film tells the story of a young Polish novitiate nun who, on the verge of taking her vows, is told by her Mother Superior that she must first go and visit her only living relative, her Aunt Wanda. When she arrives, she receives the shocking revelation that she is actually a Jew and that her family was killed during the war. She and her aunt go on a journey to try to uncover the truth of how they died and where they are buried, and in the process, young Ida also discovers herself.
The aunt and the would-be nun are a study in contrasts. Jaded, cynical, and bitter, Wanda has a series of one-night stands, drinks too much, smokes incessantly, and mocks her niece's religious commitment. Ida wears the nun's habit, prays faithfully, and tries to keep her distance from her aunt, by whom she is clearly shocked. In one climactic scene, a drunken Wanda protests that her niece's Jesus “loved people like me” and that she feels judged by Ida.
But the niece's severe modesty soon proves to be a thin cover for more worldly desires. Liberated from the convent atmosphere, she eventually sheds her piety and religious rituals to embrace the vices she has seen in her aunt: drinking, smoking, and illicit sex. Will she continue on that way, or will she return to the convent and take her vows? The film leaves us in ambiguity.
This dynamic of the film was what struck me most strongly. It reflects the popular view that there are basically two ways to live: repressive, rigid, unthinking, judgemental religious morality; or a life of unbridled “freedom” that embraces following one's desires, whatever they might be. The film (and society at large) clearly favours the latter. Ida, who was brought up in the convent and knows nothing else, is “liberated” from the shackles of her religion to do whatever she pleases.
Those of us who have been in both camps often discover that neither is ultimately satisfying and that there is a third and better way to live.
This way of life involves discovering an allegiance to a Person who liberates us both from mechanical, formal religion offered from an empty heart; and from blind enslavement to our bodily desires which only bring emptiness and destruction in the end.
That Person's name is Jesus, and that liberation to follow him is exactly what he offered when here on earth, and still offers.
Jesus offered this way both to notorious sinners, and to the highly religious. However, he showed the most compassion to the “sinners”, because they were the ones most likely to recognize and admit their need. Blinded by their “goodness”, the religious people could not see their moral emptiness, their judgementalism, their lack of love, and their distance from God. The “sinners”, people like Wanda who did not hide their emptiness and pain and who knew they didn't have it together, were the ones who joyfully accepted Jesus' forgiveness and healing. As he himself said, those who have been forgiven much, love much.
Jesus offered a notorious social outcast, the woman of Samaria, the “living water” that would satisfy all her needs. She no longer needed to look to serial romantic relationships to try to fill the void. She, and so many others who met Jesus, went away changed. They discovered there was something far better than the things they had been using to try to numb their pain and give their lives meaning. They discovered Someone who loved them and who was worth living for and leaving those things behind.
Sadly, most of the religious leaders never recognized their need. They had too much to lose and nothing to gain, or so they thought. They were the ones who, as a whole, rejected Jesus and eventually crucified him.
Ida is caught between her dutiful commitment to her religion, and her natural desires to experience the pleasures of life. For her aunt, those pleasures become a trap which destroy her. Both of them are desperately in need of a third way: living, loving relationship with a Saviour whose grace and goodness are so compelling and unparalleled that they cause us to leave everything behind to follow him, whether our “thing” is duty-bound religion or unbridled hedonism. In this third way, obedience becomes a joyful offering of gratitude to the one who's liberated us from things we could not liberate ourselves and given us a life we couldn't have imagined.Comments: 0
One of the worst feelings in the world is that of being scammed or robbed. It's a sickening feeling of violation, betrayal, and helplessness, especially when the robbery is beyond the capability to recover. You fight to make things right, but your efforts are futile. The thief is never found. There's no proof. The item is gone. The person refuses to make things right.
I've recently had a few experiences of this nature, the frustration and futility of it reminding me that there is evil in the world, that people can't always be trusted, that despite your best efforts others don't always play by the rules and that there are some losses that can't be recovered. The best you can do is pick yourself up and move on, learning a lesson for another day, and being thankful the loss wasn't worse.
In Mexico last summer, I had my wallet stolen the first day I was there on a mission trip. The gullible, trusting Canadian, I left my bag unattended as I would here in Canada. Except it wasn't Canada. One of the poor, desperate, addicted men I had gone there to serve took the opportunity and filched it.
I was deeply thrown, extremely upset. For a few days I struggled to regain equilibrium. It felt like I'd been robbed of life itself. I'd gone trustingly into a situation many people had warned me was dangerous, and their predictions had been right. I was extremely angry at myself for being so careless, and even questioned whether I had made a mistake in going. I had come to serve and to be a blessing, and instead I had become a liability, the naive Canadian tripping thoughtlessly into a situation she knew nothing about.
Thank God he enabled me to recover; I remembered Jesus' words about our life not consisting of our possessions and his commands to forgive those who rob us. I came to a point where I was able to pray for the man who had robbed me. I was able to carry out the rest of my time in Mexico joyfully, and to continue to serve the men, including the one I suspected of being the thief. Faith in the Gospel buoyed me up in a dark situation.
More recently, I was scammed on Ebay. A kind friend gifted me his old DSLR camera, a newer and better model than the one I had. I rejoiced at this gift and immediately put the old camera on Ebay. I was especially thankful as it came during a time of unemployment; the sale of the old camera would provide a nice little boost to my personal finances. And then, I was expertly scammed by some of the typical tricks people use, which I was naive to. The buyer claimed not to have received the item, there was no proof either way, and I was forced to refund the price of the camera and the shipping. I lost my camera, and the money for it, effectively paying to gift some anonymous Vietnamese scammer with my beloved camera.
As I was thinking about it, I realized that this feeling is much the same as falling into a bad romantic relationship. You trustingly gift the person with your time, energy, affection, and love, believing that they are a good, trustworthy individual who will treat you honourably. Then the relationship ends and they do their best to wound you to the maximum extent possible. Then they decide to give up and run off with another person, with no more thought or care for you or the pain they've inflicted on you, completely reneging the promises they made to you. The pain is the same, except deeper, involving a loss far more precious than material possessions: your heart. You trusted them with your deepest feelings, your commitment, your body, your love, your time. When they leave, you're left with nothing, and worse than nothing: a nuclear-explosion-sized hole that can take months or years to heal and always leaves a scar.
This world is an evil place. There are people out there whose highest goal and motivation is their own gain, and who don't have scruples about lying, stealing, cheating, and violence to get what they want. We may assume that because we are committed to playing by the rules and being honest that others are the same; however, that's not a safe assumption to make. We sometimes learn that lesson at great cost. Often being honest, generous, and kind-hearted simply marks us out as an easy target.
What's the answer? I suppose one response would be to become hard-hearted and cynical. Certainly we need to be aware of the dangers and take appropriate measures to protect ourselves. But faced with a loss we didn't foresee and can't recover, what can we do?
If I didn't believe in a God of justice who sees, marks, and will punish injustice, I would despair, grow angry and bitter, and perhaps even stoop to the same sort of underhanded techniques to get what I want. There's no answer to the tears that fall in response to the evil of this world, except a God who cares. A God who will repay in kind, and from whom no evil ever finally escapes.
That's my hope, and why I can let these things go, forgive, and move on. That may take time and come at great cost, but it's the only way to freedom. It's also my hope for the greater injustices of the world, like a friend's sister who was murdered this week in Central America after wandering off her resort. The world weeps and groans under evil and violence. But there is a God who sees and does not forget, and according to my gospel there is a day coming when everyone will give account to him. That doesn't negate our efforts to fight injustice: instead, it ought to animate them. But it reminds us of where our ultimate hope lies.Comments: 0
(Full disclosure: I was sent a free copy of this book by the author to review)
Despite the title, this book isn't so much a “guide” as a very personal and devotional exploration of the author's own struggle with unwanted singleness in her mid-thirties. The author does not attempt to offer formulas or pat answers; her exploration of faith demolishes such attempts at false comfort.
The strengths of this book are twofold, in my opinion: first, allowing those who may be struggling with singleness the permission to grieve and to be honest about the difficulty of their situation and their negative feelings. Secondly, despite giving permission to grieve and to wrestle with God, Kate constantly directs the reader back to the place where she herself returns: trust and confidence in a God who loves her and whom she chooses to believe is working all things out for her good, despite not understanding why he doesn't grant her the deepest desire of her heart.
This book is extremely personal. Kate is very honest and open about her struggles and frustration. Much of the book consists of stories from her own life and her fight to trust God with disappointed expectation. This part of the book may be harder to relate to for those whose experience of singleness is different; however, what it does do is brilliantly highlight the author's beautiful heart of faith in God despite her circumstances. It's a lovely portrait of someone who has come to know God as good and to trust him deeply despite going through perhaps the deepest disappointment she could suffer. For that alone, the book is worth it, even for those who are not single.
Despite the author's honest exploration of her own pain, the tone is quite funny at times. A treat for me were the beautiful lyrics of Kate's songs scattered throughout. She enjoys a very intimate and loving relationship with God which admittedly I found myself envying. The candid tone makes her feel a bit like a big sister or a friend, someone you'd like to hang out with and talk about life.
Kate does offer a few chapters of advice in the middle of the book, most of which is sensible if not revolutionary. Many will find the chapter with advice from married people on how to prepare for marriage while you are single useful. I particularly appreciated the fact that she cautions readers against having overly-high expectations of marriage: i.e., believing that marriage will somehow be the answer to all of your problems and that you'll never struggle again.
The most useful pieces of advice for me were her chapters on giving yourself to others and living in intentional community. Kate rightly cautions that the independence of singleness can cause one to become self-focused and isolated, and calls us to the beauty of a life given up for others and lived with others.
The book ends (spoiler alert!) with a beautiful retelling of the love story throughout the ages between God and his people, and a look ahead to the day when the Bride of Christ is finally united with him forever. On that day, it won't matter whether we were married or single, parents or childless; all that will matter is that we are his. It's this perspective that allows us to walk through this life joyfully and bear the difficulty of living in a fallen world, whether for us that's singleness or something else.
There are a lot of Christian singles in our churches today. Increasingly, these are older, never-married Christian women in their 30s, 40s, or beyond. Statistics bear this out. The gender imbalance between men and women is great: in the US, church attendance is on average 61% female, 39% male; in the UK, acccording to a 2007 survey, 65% female, 35% male.
It's way beyond the scope of this blog to try to address why this gender gap exists, or how churches can fix it. It's simply enough to recognize that in our churches, there are large numbers of singles, mainly women. Often a glance around the congregation on a Sunday morning is enough to see this.
Given this gender gap, it's a statistical reality that many Christian women who desire marriage and children will not be able to achieve this, at least with a man who shares their faith. Many will wait years, only to remain disappointed. For the many for whom dating or marrying someone outside their faith is not an option, singleness may well be part of the cost of following Jesus.
God is, of course, capable of providing. I know several Christian women who found spouses in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s. Given the overall societal trend of later marriage, it's not surprising that this trend finds its way into the church as well.
However, how does the church love and minister well to those who are still waiting, those who may never marry, and those for whom singleness may be a calling (a nearly lost concept in the modern church?)
I've seen a few blog posts lately asking these questions, and as a 33-year-old single Christian women, here are some of my thoughts.
1. Stop telling people that they will find a spouse one day
People (usually married) who interact with singles and observe their frustration at not being married often react by assuring them that they are sure they will find someone one day. This is very well-meant and intended to comfort and encourage. However, I believe it is misguided.
No one has the ability to predict or promise that anyone will find a spouse. It's a very human reaction to want to respond to someone's suffering by offering hope. But it has the effect of denying the person's struggle in the here and now, and it's something God hasn't guaranteed. It also overlooks the fact that some percentage of singles are so by desire or calling. Instead of whitewashing someone's struggle by making unfounded promises, how about walking with them through it? How about learning what it might be like for them to live in the wait, and how you can support and love them?
As Christians, we have faith in God. We believe he does miracles, and that he provides for his children. But we also know that we live in a fallen world where suffering and sin are all-too-present realities. Let's mourn with those who mourn and realistically acknowledge the brokenness of this world and how it affects us (not just singleness). Let's grant one another the gift to be real about hard things without offering magical, brush-it-away answers. Let's be honest about the fact that following Jesus involves real cost, and may well involve the cost of singleness.
2. Don't assume you know why someone is single, or how they feel about it
There are a myriad of reasons why someone might be single and a myriad of reactions, from chosen singleness to people who are desperate for a spouse and children. As with any other life circumstance, singles and their reasons for being so and their feelings about it are many-faceted.
Some “hidden” reasons people may be single are mental illness, the fallout of past abuse, or same-sex attraction. Some may be single after an unwanted divorce. Some suffer the pain of unfulfilled longings for parenthood, whereas for others this is not a factor at all. Some singles are parents. To love and minister well to singles, get to know them. Look past superficiality and seek to understand the underlying realities.
3. Don't offer “helpful” advice about how not to be single
I've heard as much bad advice about how to find someone in the church as I have outside of it, and unfortunately, these answers are often exactly the same in the church as outside (with some added God-dust). I once had someone tell me that when you stop looking, you find someone. This was a person who decided to stop dating when he was about 20 years old, and the same day literally had his future wife turn up on his doorstep. At the time he told me this, they'd been married for about 10 years. I was 30 and single and had never looked for someone.
The wrong thinking behind this is that there is a fixed order to the universe such that if you put the right results in, you get the right results out. If you are getting the wrong results, there must be something you can do to fix it. As Christians, we should know better. See the book of Job.
Your situation, how God worked in your life, someone else's situation, received wisdom you've heard: none of this is a magic formula for finding a spouse. And it's extremely discouraging for someone who has tried the things you suggest and remains single. As with not assuming you know why someone is single or how they feel about it, don't assume you can offer them advice about dating, even if it worked for you.
If you have a foundation of real relationship with this person and they ask for advice, then tactfully offer suggestions. Please do not present it as the God-ordained way they will find a spouse. You can say “this worked for me” or “this worked for friends of mine”, but do not present it as a guaranteed formula. I'm looking at you, internet dating.
Present your story as just that, a story. Everyone's prone to thinking that their experience is somehow normative. Your story is what happened to you. It is not a life guide for every single person who wants to be married.
4. Churches: stop treating singles only as not-yet-married people
A huge amount of advice I hear or read on singleness, especially from married people, assumes that all singles want to be married and will be married one day. Thus, it speaks to them as potential married people and treats heavily on topics like dating, abstaining from sex, preparing yourself emotionally for marriage, healing from past wounds so you can be a better spouse. All of it is focused on the goal of someday-marriage, assuming that for all singles that is a reality.
As singles, we are so much more than potential married people, who are “on hold” before we get to real life. Also, some of us don't want to get married, have chosen to remain single, or simply won't get married despite our desire. Stop assuming that you know what all singles want, and that it is marriage. Stop aiming all advice to singles at finding or preparing for a spouse, as if that was all that was on our minds.
Married pastors, if you are going to preach or write to singles, how about talking to a wide variety of them, from all ages and stages of life, to find out what their needs and perspectives are? It is very different to be single at 30-something than 20-something. It is yet different again in the 40s and 50s and beyond.
And please: acknowledge that it is a valid calling for many Christians to remain single. There is not necessarily something “wrong” with someone who doesn't want or seek marriage.
5. Do relationships and life together better
I believe the answer to singleness is relationship within the body of Christ. I believe the church is meant to function as a family, which knows each other, loves each other, spends time together, does life together, prays together, holds each other accountable, ministers together, has fun together.
This is about so much more than Sunday morning meetings and Wednesday night bible studies. This is about a culture of relationship which values depth and honesty. This is NOT about groups or social events for singles, although that could be part of it. I've been in churches where there was lots of social activity but little real relationship.
Relationship involves a willingness for things to be messy and vulnerable and broken. It means knowing what's really going on in one another's lives. Allowing others to be their real selves, and being our real selves in return. An understanding of the gospel that acknowledges the presence of sin, the power of grace, and the cleansing of confession. A church culture that is not about keeping up appearances, but which is committed to knowing and loving one another exactly where we are. Confessing sin to one another, praying for one another, counselling one another, holding one another accountable, speaking about what we've learned from God's word, doing life together. Our church friends should be people who matter to us during the week. When these things are in place, real community happens, and most of the loneliness of singleness is mitigated.
I believe that this culture of community is why singleness was such a valid possibility in the early church. Nowadays we expect one relationship, marriage, to meet all or most of our relational needs. This is a relatively modern construct. Earlier societies, including that of the New Testament church, and many non-Western societies today, recognize the value of an inter-connected web of relationships that are just as valuable as marriage. The church can and should be that family to those who don't have a biological one.
Hospitality is a huge part of this. There are many encouragements to hospitality in the New Testament and opening your home can be a great blessing to those who don't have families. Everyone is looking for a place to belong, a place to be comfortable, a place to connect with people who care about them. If you are married or single, and you have a home you can offer, please extend this gift to others. You will be blessed more than you will be inconvenienced by the broken vase or the dirty dishes.
6. Restore singleness to the honoured place it has in the New Testament and the early church; develop a theology of singleness that honours this life position as much as marriage
I'm not sure where the switch happened, but although the NT exalts the value of singleness, we've gone completely the opposite way and exalted marriage to the highest place in the church. It is viewed as the norm and the apex of the Christian life. Singles are viewed as not-yet-arrived, second-class citizens, married-people-in-waiting, not fully capable of maturity, wisdom, leadership, or authority. It's assumed you'll get married, unless there's something wrong with you. This, despite the Founder of our faith (Jesus) and the most influential apostle (Paul) being single.
1 Corinthians 7 actually indicates that Paul views singleness as desirable and to be maintained if you can handle it, as it offers unique benefits for wholeheartedly serving the Lord. Marriage is a concession to our humanity and the reality of sexual desire. I believe the reason Paul, and the early church, had this attitude is that they were far more keenly aware of eternity and spiritual reality than we are.
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor 7:29-31)
In light of the kingdom of God, the shortness of life, and eternity, marriage and other earthly realities do not hold the importance that we place on them. As a single person, my singleness is only for this life, as is a married person's marriage. The supreme reality of my life, as a follower of Jesus, is my relationship with him and an eternity where marriage won't exist. The supreme question of my life will not be whether or not I was married. It will be whether I made the best use of what he entrusted to me and if I faithfully and lovingly followed him.
It's time we restored this focus to the church. The biological family, as important and precious as it is, should not be our main focus. Instead, the new family that Jesus created when he died and rose again and put his Spirit within believers will become our focus. In that family, there is no such thing as superiority or inferiority based on marital status or any other factor. There are only equally valuable people following Jesus in different life situations.
Single people are whole in Christ; we are not half-people waiting for a spouse. Many of us have much wisdom, maturity, insight, and godliness to offer. Many of us are gifted in areas of leadership, teaching, and evangelism. Instead of relegating us to singles' groups (something I see as completely unbiblical), why not seek out what we have to offer and put us in positions of ministry in the church? And I don't just mean “singles-appropriate” ministry.
No church would state that they value singles less than they value married people. However, the real value you place on people can be estimated by the extent to which you include them and entrust them with responsibility. If you are excluding singles (or any other group) from leadership, decision-making, social events, and the “inner circle” of the church, you are stating loud and clear that you do not value them as you do married people.
Relationship and purpose: these are what everyone craves, and finding these in the church is what enables Christian singles to live full and satisfying lives, and avoid the temptation to compromise by meeting these needs in other ways. If we did these things well, much of the burden of singleness that many carry would be completely lifted.Comments: 3
One of the major issues with shame is that it blocks the essential process of recognizing and repenting of sin. This may seem counter-intuitive. Shame-filled people feel bad about themselves and feel they do wrong all the time. Shouldn't they be overly sensitive about their sin?
The answer is no. At least, not in the right way.
One of the strange effects of shame is that it blocks the normal process of recognizing and making it right when you've done something wrong. The reason for that is that the shame-filled person is already so overwhelmed with feeling bad about him or herself, that he or she blocks out the feeling of “badness”. They can't admit they've done wrong because it would simply be too much. They have no confidence of being forgiven, no safe base to come back to from the devastating feeling of having messed up.
Shame leads to a broken and wildly inaccurate “guilt meter”. Shame-filled people feel disproportionately bad for things that are not wrong or not their fault. They feel guilty for making anyone feel bad about anything, and are incapable of setting appropriate boundaries because of their fear of making anyone displeased with them.
On the other hand, they are often incapable of recognizing the very real faults or flaws that they should seek to change. Or if they do, they beat themselves up for them and feel even more shame. The knowledge of their guilt drives them further into the darkness, instead of toward the God of love who will forgive and help them change. If you're certain you'll only be condemned, why would you admit fault?
Shame-filled people are stuck. They are unable to make any real progress toward self-improvement or in Christian terms, sanctification. They are bogged down at the side of the road with four flat tires.
Being able to recognize a wrong you have done, feel healthily sorry for it (as opposed to feeling bad and worthless as a person), and take steps to change it (in biblical terms, repentance) requires a certainty that you are loved and accepted. Shame-filled people can't do this because for them, it would be like falling off the map. If you're already banished to the edges of the world by your inherent badness and can't earn your way back, acknowledging that you've done something wrong would be to fall off into the abyss of darkness. It's too costly.
By contrast, when you understand that you are loved and accepted and that there is nothing you can do to change that, this frees you to be able to recognize behaviours, patterns or attitudes in yourself that aren't good, admit those to God and to appropriate caring people, ask for forgiveness and grace to change, and take the appropriate steps. It's like putting air in those four flat tires so you can continue driving down the road. Without it, you can't even start.
This is why a proper understanding of who God is, is so essential. He can be trusted. He is not capricious, fault-finding, unjust, angry. He is who he said he is and does what he says he will do. He is exactly the same today as he has always been, and as he was when he wrote Scripture. When he says he forgives, he means he forgives. When he says he casts all our sins into the depths of the sea, he means it. When he says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) it's because he does just exactly that. He's not secretly angry and disapproving. He doesn't cast us away when we sin. That's a legacy from a distorted past that gives us a false understanding of a God who has no imperfection.
If you're dealing with someone who suffers from shame, it's essential to be extremely careful about how you address behavioural change. It's very difficult for a shame-drowned person to receive even loving correction. When a shame-filled person is told “You did something wrong” he or she hears “You're a bad person who is not accepted.” Rather than simply addressing the symptom (the behaviour) seek to address the underlying problem (the person's sense of worthlessness and need to understand they are loved). It's essential for all of us to be able to access the normal sin/guilt/repentance/change process. But for a shame-filled person, an integral foundation of love and acceptance, by both God and those in her faith community, must be laid before she can do this. Always, always, always, call for change out of this foundation of unconditional acceptance, because that is how God changes us. We don't grow to earn his acceptance; we grow because we have already received it.Comments: 0
Shame. I'm no psychologist or expert, but I do have a lot of experience with that toxic emotion called shame.
Shame is more than an emotion. It's a total perception of yourself. It's the fundamental belief that you are worthless, bad, unlovable, unqualified. It silences your voice, causes you to retreat inside yourself, avoid relationship, and live in a toxic stew of depression, anxiety, and feeling bad about yourself all of the time.
Shame leads you to hate yourself for even normal human behaviour and mistakes. It causes you to beat yourself up over every conversation and action, convinced that you made a fool of yourself and that no one can possibly like you. Shame leads you to hide. It drives you away from relationship with those who regard you positively. It makes you feel you've done something wrong even when you haven't, but more insidiously and deeply, that you ARE wrong, in the very core of your being, and there's nothing you can do to escape it.
Shame is often the legacy of a toxic and abusive upbringing. Parents are meant to provide children with unconditional love and acceptance. Although they discipline their children for bad behaviour, they do not withdraw their affection. They instill in the child that he is fundamentally worthwhile and that nothing he does renders him unworthy of their care.
By contrast, an abusive or toxic environment instills a deep sense of shame in a child. He is told through words and actions that he is unlovable, bad, worthless, and nothing he says or does can alter this fundamental judgement. A child has no independent filter or point of view. He believes what his parents say about him and incorporates it into his self-perception. This destructive legacy lasts far beyond leaving home. Children from toxic homes become adults with no sense of self-worth. They carry with them the terrible burden of chronic shame, impacting jobs, relationships, emotional health, physical health—everything.
Shame's worst damage comes in the area of relationships. We avoid relationship, or choose it with people who regard us in the same kind of devaluing way that our parents did, thus repeating the cycle. We feel that no one could love us if they knew who we really are, so we isolate or join up with people who don't truly care about us, in accord with our self-judgement. Anyone who treats us with respect is rejected, because they are so foolish they can't see the truth. Our shame becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, re-wounding us and keeping us from relationships with people who might show us we are indeed worthy of love.
Shame has the same kind of damaging effect in our greatest relationship, with God. It twists our perception of him just as it does that of other people and ourselves. Unkind and unloving parents deeply imprint in us a false image of a God who is like them. In reality, God is loving, kind, forgiving, accepting, totally just, and trustworthy. But a child of shame cannot see this because his or her emotional reality is trained otherwise. It can take a long time and much struggle before this deeply-imprinted false image of God is replaced by an accurate one.
For many years, my legacy of shame from a hate-filled and abusive upbringing hampered my relationship with God. I had difficulty becoming a Christian not because I had intellectual objections to the gospel, but because I viewed myself as so completely sinful that I was beyond God's grace. I saw God as angry, punitive, capricious, rage-filled, unjust, unmerciful, unreasonable, unbending, incapable of pleasing—in other words, very much like my father.
Even after I became a Christian, I struggled. I never felt close to God or accepted by him. When I tried to pray, it felt like my prayers hit the ceiling. I'd give up in desperate loneliness, wishing that I could feel loved by God like other people I knew.
I felt that I knew the truth about God. That all this talk of God's love and gentleness and kindness was a false construction by people who'd had it better than I did. No matter what they said, I knew deep down that he hated me.
Don't get me wrong. I do believe in God's judgement and holiness. He will discipline us as believers when necessary (in love), and he will eternally punish those who remain finally unrepentant.
But I have come to know that God is a God of justice, and of love. His justice means that he must punish sin. But his love means that he'd rather have mercy. His love means that he sent Jesus Christ his beloved Son to die on our behalf to bring us back into relationship with him, and his justice means that when we truly repent of our sins and trust him, he will never punish us for those sins. We can enjoy the favour and smile of God. We cannot and must not deceive ourselves into thinking that makes it ok to go on sinning, but we can and must believe in the goodness of God to completely forgive us. We must believe the testimony of Jesus and of Scripture that God is a kind, generous, trustworthy Father. We can live free of shame and self-hatred and enjoy a close walk with a God who loves us.
So how do we move from our shame-filled distance from God, into a right understanding of him that allows us to life in the light of his love? The problem is not that we do not hear teaching about who God truly is. The problem is that for us, shame, anger, and condemnation are emotionally true, on a level that goes far beyond logic. We can't escape it. This fundamental emotional reality must be radically altered, but how?
I don't have any magic answers. But here are some of the things that helped me on my journey:
Don't give up. The road to healing can be a long one, littered with difficulty. But I truly believe that those who seek God will never be disappointed. The legacy of abuse and shame can be a tough one to overcome. But I stand as living proof that it's possible, and I know it's possible for anyone who trusts the same God I do.
Admit to God, as difficult as it might be, your shame and negative feelings. Admit your powerlessness and inability to change. Admit that you don't feel close to him and don't trust him. Ask him to do whatever it takes to bring you to healing and wholeness.
As difficult as it may be, seek out relationship with people who will reflect God's loving-kindness to you. People who will counsel you, pray with you, and seek freedom with you. Shame leads us to hide. But godly people are essential in this process. They can see what we can't and have faith when ours is dead.
These must be people with whom you feel safe. You must be able to open up to them and say whatever's in your soul, no matter how dark, and know they won't condemn, criticize, or correct you, but respond with love.
As hard as it might be, I believe that ultimately we have the choice to either believe what God says, or to believe our feelings. True freedom only comes when we make the choice to trust what God says no matter what our feelings or experience shout at us.
For those who were raised in a religiously toxic environment, it may be hard to read or to hear God's word in a way that is not condemning. I'd suggest a few things: one, take a break from reading scripture if need be. If you are reading it out of obligation and guilt, stop. It's not going to bless you.
Two, seek to understand Scripture through the eyes of those who know God as loving and kind. Hear their perspective.
Three, pick a totally different translation of the Bible, one that might slip past your “filters” and allow you to hear the intended meaning, rather than your shame-translation. The Message is a good example of a fresh, contemporary take on the Bible that reads completely differently from traditional translations. It might not be the best for in-depth bible study, but for grace-starved souls, it might be just what they need to hear the voice of the Shepherd more clearly.Comments: 0
As Christians, it is unfortunately not the case that we arrive at a point where we never have to deal with any remnant of the sinful nature. While transformation, growth, and maturity are definite realities, and genuine change is not only possible but an essential sign of someone who has been truly born again, we will continue to be ambushed by our sinful nature while we're still living on this earth.
I had one of the “ambush” moments recently. It involved a person whom I find annoying. This is not someone whom I would choose to spend time with, but am occasionally thrown together with. They are not by any means a bad person, quite the contrary. But for some reason their personality really gets on my nerves. Instead of dealing with it graciously, I was quite curt and even rude to this person.
I was, and am, appalled by my behaviour. I realize that my reaction was unacceptable, and that change is required in the future. However, I also recognize my complete inability to change, and even my unwillingness to do so. This person's behaviour rubs me the wrong way, and I don't want to have to respond to them graciously. I don't want to have to spend time with them again.
But given that I likely will have to, and that change avoidance is not part of maturity or character growth or God's will for me, I know I have to go through the self-death of repentance, humbling myself, and seeking change. Even though I don't want to, this is Jesus' call.
So how do you change something you can't and don't even want to, but know that you must? The good news of Christianity is grace: the favour and help of God that comes freely to us solely in response to our faith and asking, given on the merit of Jesus Christ and what he won for us on the cross, not on anything we have done or will do. As Romans 8:32 says, “He [God] who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” The good news of the gospel is that not only do we receive salvation as a gift, we also freely receive the grace that we need for transformation and to obey the commands of God.
So, these are the steps I go through when I'm faced with something I know is wrong but which I can't change.
1. Humble yourself before God and fully and honestly confess your sin
This is the crucial first step. We can't receive freedom from something we haven't recognized as sin and been completely honest about, to ourselves, to God, and to others. We have to identify the full, truthful reality of exactly how dark and deep our sin is before we can be free of it.
This means no skimping and no holding back. No denying, no pretending, no leaving out the worst parts. We must be brutally honest about exactly what it was we did, thought, said, and felt, and we must own full responsibility for it, not blaming anyone or anything else. Anything less will leave us still stuck in the mire.
David eloquently expressed the pain of a guilty conscience and the liberation of confession thousands of years ago:
“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.' And you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:3-5)
It's important, most of the time, to make this confession not only to God but also to one or more trusted spiritual confidants who can express God's grace to you and hold you accountable for change. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are God's instruments to help us to grow and our openness with God is reflected in our willingness to be open with those around us. They can assure us of God's forgiveness, pray with us for change, be honest about how we are doing, and hold us accountable to our plan for growth. Our seriousness about change is manifested in our willingness to confess to those with eyes and ears around us.
2. Humbly admit our inability to change and ask God for the grace we need
The paradox of the Christian life is that we are called to do things we can't do. This is achieved by the power of God's Spirit at work within us, breaking the power of sin and death and liberating us to follow God's commands. Humanly speaking, we cannot do this. That's why God sent Jesus (see Romans chapters 6-8). He has all the power and grace that we need to transform us, and our part is to admit our need and surrender to him to receive it.
I still don't know how this process works. How God works within my heart to change me is a totally mysterious process to me. I only know he does. I only know that when I've submitted to him in this fashion by openly admitting my sin and my total powerlessness to change, and crying out to him for desperately needed grace, that things change. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it's a process. But he never fails those who depend on him.
3. Follow whatever steps he has called us to obediently, depending on him for grace
We usually know what it is we need to do, or stop doing. Our problem is we can't. But depending on God for his grace, we can take the steps we need to in obedience to him.
God's word is unchanging and relevant to all of us, but how it's applied to us and how we need to obey it is a living and personal thing mediated by God's Spirit. For example, as I was praying about my failure to love this particular person I strongly felt that the first step was to begin praying for them. So, even though I didn't want to, I added them to my prayer list.
It's important to be obedient to whatever God calls us to do in order to change. Yes, he gives us the grace, but change involves obedience. Usually there are certain steps that become clear to us as we submit to this growth process. They may be things we have long known we needed to do, but resisted. Whatever it is, do it. If God calls you to it, you can be sure he will give you the grace to see it through as you follow him.Comments: 0
“I don't think it matters if there is a god or not. I've met people who believe in God that are good and that are bad. And I've met people who don't believe in God that are good and that are bad. So, just be good. I'm good. Not cos I think I'll go to heaven but because when I do something bad, I feel bad. And when I do something good, I feel good.”
I read this quote, attributed to Ricky Gervais, in a meme-style photo posted to a friend's Facebook page, and couldn't stop thinking about it. So, I decided to write about it.
On the face of it, his first two sentences are perfectly correct. We've all met or heard about people who publicly proclaim belief in God but their lifestyle says anything but. Or who are very religious, maybe even with positions of authority in the church, who are found to have been carrying on a secret double life. And we all know people who claim no belief in God but are kind and decent. There is absolutely no doubt about that.
However, my response to that is this: the behaviour of people who believe in God, or say that they do, is not a valid or strong argument against the existence of God. The fact that someone says they believe in God but does things that are wrong, simply means that the person has done things that are wrong. It does not prove or disprove God's existence.
This would be a bit like saying that if I decide to follow a famous diet, and tell all my friends that I am following it, but then cheat on that diet day by day, and fail to lose weight, there is something wrong with the diet. No. The problem is in my failure to adhere to the diet, not in the diet itself.
As Christians, we understand that “belief in God” is not enough. The apostle James said, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19) This sarcastic retort comes in the middle of James' famous teaching that “faith without works is dead”. The whole book of James is dedicated to showing what “true religion” looks like, and how people who claim faith in God but act otherwise are proving that their faith is bogus.
This same theme is repeated over and over again throughout the Scriptures, from Old to New Testament. 1 John 3:6 says, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” In other words, if someone claims faith in Jesus but lives an opposite lifestyle, you can safely write off their claim. True faith produces transformation.
Someone who claims faith in God but lives otherwise is not disproving the existence of God. They are disproving the reality of their faith claim.
The second part of his statement, that there are good and bad people who don't believe in God: absolutely, on a certain level, true. We could probably all name examples of people from both sides.
However, this brings up another question. What is “good”? How do we understand what “good” or “bad” is, and how do we judge other people or their actions as good or bad? How do we decide that we ourselves are “good”? Where does our very understanding of good come from?
The act of judging people or acts as good or bad presupposes an overarching, authoritative standard for good or bad. And where does that standard come from? (By the way, I have never met or heard of anyone who believes like this saying that they themselves are bad. Almost everyone, even criminals, thinks of him or herself as good, by their own standard).
What does “being good” mean? Does it simply mean not harming others? Doing nice things for others? Recycling? Taking public transit instead of driving?
When I meet people who claim not to believe in God but to be good, this is the level of goodness they mean. A standard of non-harm. These people are very nice (mostly) to the people they like: their friends and family, coworkers and random strangers who are nice to them. They don't rob houses. They don't kill people. They don't kick animals. Etc.
What I don't see is a standard of positive goodness, even to people who hate them or are unkind to them, or have nothing to offer them and in fact only take from them. Kindness, loving, and goodness even when it hurts, when you yourself may lose from it, when no one sees, when it is hard, difficult, dirty, and painful. Persistent loving, even when it bears little fruit, even when the person doesn't change. Genuine forgiveness and seeking the good of even those who have hurt you. A lifestyle of self-sacrifice and self-denial on behalf of others.
This kind of loving, to be quite honest, I have only ever seen among dedicated Christians.
And why? Because Jesus tells us that the standard for “good”, the standard for love, is not simply not doing harm, and being nice to most of the people around us. It's a lot higher, and a lot more difficult, than that.
“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Jesus is saying that it's not enough to love those who are close to you, those who are nice to you, those whom you like and who are like you. Jesus' call is to radical love and self-sacrifice for even those who hate you.
It's a standard that blows most of our ideas of “good” out of the water. As does the rest of Jesus' teaching.
And it's a standard that, I believe, is impossible to meet, humanly speaking. Jesus calls us to this, but I do not believe we can do it. I know I can't. I am weak and I fail at this regularly. I am grumpy and judgemental and self-serving and love my own comfort. I dislike and sometimes even hate people who are mean to me. I certainly don't love them. So how do I follow this call of Jesus?
One word: grace. As Christians, we understand we're not called to do this on our own. Jesus died to break the power of sin and selfishness that we're all chained to as human beings, and rose again to give us new life and the ability to follow him and love in this radical and self-denying way, the way that he himself loved us. When we receive him, he begins to change us from the inside out, as we cooperate with his grace.
That's why I do not believe it is possible to be actually and truly “good” without God. Our standards of goodness fall into the dust when compared with the standards of Jesus. We are so prone to self-deceit, spiritual blindness, and pride, that we can't even see ourselves properly when we are using our own standard of “goodness” to judge.
Finally, to address the last two comments in the quote: as a Christian, I do not “do good” because I think I might go to heaven. I do good because that is the character of God and I want to be like him. I love him because he first loved me and because he has passionately, persistently loved me, even when I was at my worst and hated him. I didn't deserve a mote of the goodness he's given me, particularly the gift of Jesus. I could never repay him, but I want to offer him my life.
“Heaven” is not some disconnected paradise where we float around on clouds strumming harps, or walking through beautiful parks. Heaven, in the biblical sense, is defined as the presence of God. Heaven will be heaven because he will be there with his people, and there will be nothing more that separates us from him. There will be nothing more that is not good (of God): no more sin, no more death, no more hatred, wars, division. I want to be in heaven because God is there. Heaven is simply a continuation and perfection of the life with God that we experience on earth.
And finally, the bit about feeling good when you do good and feeling bad when you do bad: Ricky is simply describing in current English what the Apostle Paul described this way a couple of millennia ago:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:14-18)
In other words, God gave the Jews a written form of his standard of goodness, the law. Paul is saying that even though the Jews were given the law, every person, even Gentiles who never received it, has an innate understanding of the requirements of God and what is good or bad. When people do what is “good”, they are showing that they have this understanding. Their conscience is aware of this standard, even if they don't know where it came from, and condemns them when they do bad or approves of them when they do good. When people make judgements about good or bad, about others or about themselves, they are showing this code of God written into every human being and every society: imperfectly to be sure, but there. Mr. Gervais is no exception.Comments: 0