an outlet of encouragement, explanation, and exhortation

Category: Questions (Page 1 of 2)

On Knowing God’s Will

I was asked a question by a young friend in the congregation recently:

In what ways can we know God’s will? For example I feel sometimes I want to know all of God’s will for my life up front so that I don’t have to guess, but it seems in reality that God only shows me bits and pieces of his will over time because he wants me to trust him. Is this correct? I’m asking because [a friend] and I talked on the phone a bit and he mentioned how God’s will is mysterious.

I think my friend was onto a very important truth in the words of his question! I’ll get to that after establishing a bit more context for knowing God’s will.

There may be mysterious things about God’s will; but there is a whole lot of God’s will that is clearly taught from scripture. Check out the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7, for example. Our problem is often that we have our own agendas and want God to tell us what is next to advance our agenda rather than being satisfied with his agenda in the everyday matters of life. Of course God does have a purpose in life for each of us. That’s where we tend to focus – too much, generally speaking. What unique for me? And then we don’t work on aligning our lives with what we can easily know of His will for every follower of Jesus from scripture – and that’s where we fall short.

I found a couple of pieces of advice lately from a couple of good Christian teachers that I included in a very brief comment in another post.

I wrote an article on community discernment to help on big decisions from a Quaker perspective, too. This article also discusses more generally the “prerequisites” for knowing God’s will.

But the big picture…. I’d say that God’s will for knowing God’s will is that we trust Him. Trust is a more of a relationship thing than a plan.

What we often want is a map of the future or a plan of action or a direction. Then we can take control of it ourselves! We tend to stop waiting on God, stop seeking Him, stop spending time with Him, stop listening – and instead start doing. The “doing” tends to take on more and more of what we think is good and less and less of God’s walking us through living so as to carry His image day by day. Sometimes God starts us in a direction that he intends to change after having his planned impact on us. It’s a mechanism for changing us more than a direction he intends to maintain through to the end that we were thinking of. I think of being directed to grad school. I thought it was to prepare me to be a Christian professor at a major university. Well, that didn’t happen. And it wasn’t a failure. It wasn’t misleading. It was the path that brought me to the not-imaginable-to-me place where I am today. So in that sense, “mysterious” fits.

I don’t think having a map of the future or a full and promised plan of action is generally God’s will for us. God’s will is that we enter into a relationship of trusting Him, growing to know Him more and more over time, and being changed in that relationship to be more like Him (that’s a way of describing what it means to carry His image well).

Relationships are not plans. They are alive. They are community. In our relationship with God, He grants us considerable power over our portion of the relationship. We can abuse it, ignore it, have expectations about it, leave it behind…. or value it, let Him have the position of Lord in it, and so on.

All of our actions regarding the relationship have consequences, but they do not change God’s heart for us or drive Him away. In a sense, we make our bed and then lie in it. Our actions do not force his hand. He is faithful and just and loves us no matter what. But our actions bring the necessary consequences to change us or teach us or humble us or…. whatever is needed in God’s wisdom. We think things are good decisions, and they bring a kind of death, or darkness! Oops. Better learn from that and trust God again!

Can we bring ourselves to trust Him? Even into and through death? Though whatever comes from other humans? Will we trust Him and find Him faithful to himself and His love – even His love for the broken people that we are, in need of change?

Then there’s also some stuff I’ve been checking out lately that packages discipleship as a “Rule for Life” thing. “Rule” is not like a legal thing; it is the older meaning of rule that is more like a framework or support structure or a trellis that holds up a plant, but in this case giving us a form for life to grow around.

Rich Villodas has been talking about “Rule for Life” stuff recently. He attracted my attention with a comment that said:

“Here are 4 core questions to help you build a Rule of Life. These questions are created with prayer, self-care, community, and mission in mind.

  1. What are the spiritual disciplines you need to anchor you in a life with God?
  2. What are the practices of self-care you need to care for your body and nurture your soul?
  3. What core relationships do you need in this season of life to support you on your journey?
  4. What are the gifts, passions, and burdens within that God wants you to express for the blessing of others?”

His comment reminded me of my first little article above quoting Ray Bakke and the bishop who commented on what path makes one the most generous. And also, without satisfactory answers to the questions Rich Villodas poses, I think it is difficult to accurately discern a specific, unique direction of God’s will for us. That is, we need to back up to get the basics of life with God right before He moves us in a more unique direction. It’s like the “talents” parable. If we have not been faithful with the part of God’s will that he has already revealed to us, why would we expect Him to tell us more?

Major Resources for Revelation 2021 Messages

These are the three major resources I’m revisiting for the 2021 series of messages on Revelation. I’m using the series to address topics requested by members of the congregation that can fit into this approach. Apparently there is a lot of talk in the vein of The Revelation making the rounds! So this is not a straight through-the-text extended series like we did in 2017.

Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination – Eugene H. Peterson

Revelation: Four Views - Steve Gregg

Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the book of Revelation - Darrell W. Johnson

For more comments and more resource recommendations, see my post regarding resources on The Revelation from 2017.

Isn’t tissue from an aborted fetus involved in making the Covid-19 vaccines?

For a Christian, this is the most serious objection to taking the Covid-19 vaccine that I have heard. Here (in a nutshell) are the facts as I have found in my research.

According to the Nebraska Medical Center and the Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement in Minnesota, and quoting ICSI:

For the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, no fetal cell lines were used to produce or manufacture the vaccine, and they are not inside the injection you receive from your doctor/nurse. Fetal cells may have been used to test efficacy and/or proof of concept.

The Johnson and Johnson vaccine did use fetal cell cultures, specifically PER.C6 (a retinal cell line that was isolated from a terminated fetus in 1985), in order to produce and manufacture the vaccine.

Other sources indicate that fetal cell lines were, indeed, used to test the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. So there you have it. This is far from an ideal circumstance for pro-life Christians, and some are refusing vaccination because of this. Let’s be clear: This is not a health risk issue for anyone taking the vaccine. It is an ethical issue based on the means used to produce and test the vaccines. There are a number of reliable sources of more information.

This is not a unique situation for the Covid-19 vaccine. Many vaccines – say for chicken pox, rubella, and rabies – make similar use of fetal cells. Other medications are tested or produced using fetal cells. Cosmetics and some food additives are developed or tested with fetal cells. All of this makes me uncomfortable. It should make all of us uncomfortable. There is serious research progressing toward finding other ways to develop and test medicines and products that are less fraught with ethical concerns, and one hopes that this will become a thing of the past. But we live here, today. So what to do?

As followers of Jesus we are not against tissue donation per se. For example, it can be an act of loving care to donate a kidney, or designate that one’s organs and tissue be donated after one dies. What if a pregnant woman spontaneously aborts and donates her dead child’s tissue to medical use? What if parents of a dying child donate the retinas of the child after death to be used to help others?

But abortion on demand is a different thing. An unborn child dies by someone’s choice. We generally object to one human killing another to get their organs or tissue! And to be fair, those having abortions would most likely shudder at this description and deny that this is what they did. We can imagine those perspectives; we’ve heard them a thousand times. But what about those who view abortion as simply wrong? Must we then refuse vaccines developed or tested using fetal tissue from an abortion?

You’ll have to make up your own mind about this, as do we all. But don’t allow it to be a political statement about Covid-19 more generally, the way this disease has become a political football in America. And be consistent. If you are going to refuse vaccination for Covid-19 on these grounds, then by all means find out what other products are developed in ways you consider unethical and avoid those too! And then, like Christians have done through the ages, accept the consequences of your decision. Those consequences may mean loss of a job or not being allowed to attend various functions in person because of public health concerns.

What do I decide? I decide to live in the imperfect world I was born into. I live on (and “own”) property that was arguably stolen away from Mexico who arguably stole it away from native Americans who arguably stole it away from some other human group before them. I live in an economy in which people of my race built much wealth by violently oppressing others who didn’t look like them. I live in a nation formed by the violent revolution of one set of “Christians” against another set of “Christians” who killed each other until one group gave up because the war was too expensive (shades of Afghanistan?). Meanwhile, my ancestors who argued at the time that God’s people shouldn’t be shooting one another with muskets, rifles, and cannons were persecuted and had their churches confiscated by the revolutionaries. Pile up the list of unethical things that go into making the world, nation, society, and wealth that we live in and on…. It is pretty awful looking. And of course I don’t want to ignore that there are the good and noble things that reflect the image of God well, too – like medical researchers doing their best to save lives by producing vaccines that protect against awful diseases.

That’s the kind of world into which Jesus came. He entered into and worshiped at a temple built by Herod the Great, who attempted to murder him when Jesus was a baby – and who successfully murdered numerous others. He accepted a traitorous tax collector as one of his disciples. He ate bread made from wheat some of which was undoubtedly produced by slave labor. He ate meals with tax collectors and prostitutes. And so on. And He spoke the truth of a better way, under God.

Paul wrote that we should not participate in the feasts at temples to other gods, but that Christians need not be concerned about eating food purchased in the market that had been sacrificed to the idols of other gods at their temples. Perhaps this is the closest parallel in the early church to these vaccines available in the “medical marketplace” of our day. Of course, Paul also told us not to violate our consciences or put stumbling blocks up for others of “weaker” conscience. There’s much room for us to live out our lives in a fallen world while maintaining a clear witness to Jesus, His ways, and His kingdom.

Choose wisely. I chose to take the Covid-19 (and other) vaccines and medications offered to me, while simultaneously advocating that we find better ways to develop them. Why should my neighbor potentially get sick and die when I can take this step to protect the living around me? Will more death improve this fallen world? Will I increase the frequency of unborn children dying by taking the vaccine? I think not. In fact, Covid-19 infections in pregnant mothers will increase this more. Am I denying Christ by taking this vaccine? Certainly not! The past is past. What steps can you and I take to make a positive difference for the future, showing care and concern for our families and communities?

Note that the article from the Nebraska Medical Center was written by an infectious disease expert who is a practicing Catholic.

“Is accepting a Covid-19 vaccination taking the Mark of the Beast?”

Short answer: No.

How can I be so sure? Because biblically speaking, the “Mark of the Beast” as noted in the Apocalypse of John (aka Revelation) is a way of declaring a higher allegiance to a power other than Jesus/God. It is not as if someone could slip “the mark of the beast” into your drink while you were not looking and then you become damned to hell by drinking that drink unaware. It is not a trick, though it is deceitful. It is taking what seems an easy way (perhaps under duress), or a powerful way (under temptation) that sets another authority above Jesus.

Let’s go with the drink example. Let’s say someone offers a toast to the emperor above all other kings and authorities, and you drink to that. Or what about offering a pledge of allegiance to a flag without “under God”? One could argue that this is much closer to taking the “mark of the beast” and certainly not an action a Christian should take. The mark need not be a tattooed “666” on your forehead, either. It is declaring loyalty to a power above your loyalty to Jesus.

So, if you had to sign an oath declaring your loyalty to a government or leader above all other powers including Jesus in order to take a dose of vaccine, then by all means, refuse the vaccine on those terms. To my knowledge, no one is requiring anything like this. Health officials and leaders in our society just want you and our community to live and be as healthy as possible.

You may wonder why I am even addressing this issue. It seems so obvious to most; am I serious? Well, this is apparently not obvious to everyone. I know this question has been asked earnestly by those who believe it to be so. So, just in case….

Resources on Origins and Christian Faith

Do you know a student who is trying to work out how to reconcile the latest science on human origins with their Christian faith and biblical teaching? Allow me to recommend that you refer them to works by John Walton, Iain Provan, or Tremper Longman. (I’m sure there are others; but these three I have found particularly helpful.)

For example, John Walton’s book The Lost World of Adam and Eve is very helpful in clarifying how the accounts of human origins in Genesis should be received in their historical and literary context and then what that means for us today. It’s available in paper, on Kindle, and as an audiobook. Walton also has many lectures available online via youtube and other sources.

For a wider scope, try Iain Provan book Seriously Dangerous Religion, which is quite a seriously good book for Jesus-followers who want to understand how to think of Christian faith in relation to the wider world.

I highly recommend both.

Asking the Wrong Question: Can a person come to God through general revelation?

Often, theologians divide revelation into general and special, and mean by “general” what can be known of God through nature. By “special” they essentially mean biblical revelation or at least the explicit gospel. So the question comes down to “can a person turn to trust God through general revelation”?

I think that’s exactly the wrong question. Biblically, no one turns to Jesus unless God draws them through either general or special revelation (by these definitions). This is the beginning of the Calvinist idea no one comes to God on their own. In Calvin’s understanding, God chooses some to be saved and draws them irresistibly to Jesus (or himself). No one turns to God on their own. Quakers agree that no one turns to God on their own, but believe that God draws all people to his son (or himself) at some time or times in their lives. This draw is resistible; humans must choose to trust God as he draws them. If they believe and trust Him, they are saved by grace.

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That’s the biblical idea. So, instead of phrasing the question into whether or not general revelation can be sufficient in the absence of special revelation, we would say that general revelation is never enough for anything beyond making people “without excuse” (as Paul says in Romans 1) and that God reveals himself and one’s need for Him to each human being on one or more “days of visitation” in which he makes it clear that we are insufficient in ourselves and that he is calling us to trust Him for purpose and direction in our lives at some level of understanding appropriate for the context. Then, we submit to him or we do not. Salvation begins when we submit to Him and trust Him as He reveals Himself to us. The explicit gospel is powerful and intended by God to be used in drawing many to Himself, of course. It is his will that we know it and spread it. But like Abraham, we must respond with belief to a time when God makes himself known to us. That can take place in the absence of anything but a human in the world and God reaching out to that human. It often takes place in the spiritual realm when the gospel is presented through apparently human means.

Further, no one is saved on the strength of their own reasoning through the words of scripture or logical argument. Rather, God speaks to a person, perhaps while he or she is reading scripture (actually, very often while they are reading scripture – at least where it is available!) It is God speaking that is both necessary and sufficient to produce a context in which a human being can say “yes” in belief and it be credited to that human being as righteousness (or right relationship with God), and that human being be “saved”. It is God that must be present, gracious, and active, and nothing less.

See John 6:44 (No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them) in addition to the many instances of Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. To be justified is to be in right relationship with God. That is the issue. Are we in right relationship to God? God initiates the relationship. We hear him, change our thinking (repent) to trust and to agree with what he says, or we do not. God calls us to trust, enables us to trust, and empowers us to believe and change without overpowering our will. Once we have moved in trust, he calls us to move some more – again and again, toward maturity, for the rest of our natural lives. It is God’s plan that this takes place in and through serving Him and representing Him in Christian community. We are a part of a body – not the body by ourselves.

Miracle or Sign?

Paraphrasing a question from Susan Ramos:

In Luke 23:8, Herod is hoping Jesus will do something impressive so he can see it. Sometimes this is translated that he wanted Jesus to do a “sign” and other times that he wanted Jesus to do a “miracle”. You said that many recent translations are using the word “sign”. Could you explain please?

In the Bible, the Greek word sÄ“meíon is usually translated these days as sign or wonder. Jesus was doing signs that pointed to the his identity as God. Herod wanted to see something spectacular – what we would call a miracle, even though Luke is careful to use the word “sign”. I’m not a Greek scholar and should let others handle explaining translation issues, but the reason I pointed this out was that I heard one translation in our reading use the “miracle” language and others use “sign”.

There are some significant ideas tied up in the choice of translation. In modern times, say, since the scientific revolution, nature has often been conceived as a big machine with regular workings. Atoms and molecules interact, chemical reactions take place, physical bodies move, and these workings take a regular order that can be described and predicted (if one knows enough). So, for example, it was predicted in advance that the today sun would shine directly on the equator of the earth (vernal equinox) and that there would be a solar eclipse visible over parts of northern Europe. There wasn’t anything miraculous about it even though a solar eclipse is very rare.

The concept of miracle came to be that sometimes God reaches into this big natural machine and does things which are not explained by the workings of nature and that cannot be predicted from natural knowledge no matter how much one knows. In this context, a miracle has no natural explanation. God has interrupted the regular working of nature and inserted a cause of events from outside of nature: God Himself. That is a technical definition of “miracle”. Sometimes people mean this when they say “miracle” today and sometimes they mean something less precise.

This division of things into “natural” and “miraculous” can be misleading from a biblical standpoint. In biblical teaching, God is responsible for creating and maintaining (upholding) the regular working of nature. For example, see Colossians 1:17. From a Christian perspective, it is because God is a powerful, intelligent, orderly god that nature has its order and can be studied and its working understood and even predicted. Nature and its regular working is an act of God. Every day; every moment. If God chooses to act in a way that is not his regular pattern then this would be what we might call a “miracle”, but it would not be any more or less that God was responsible for it than he is responsible for the regular working of the world.

OK, so what makes something a sign? It means something in God’s revelation of himself to us. For example, God could do what we would call a “miracle” down deep in the depths of the earth – say moving a rock that he intends to have some effect far in the future. It wouldn’t be a sign for us because we don’t know anything about it. God could cause the events of nature to coincide so that the eclipse today took place just as a Christian saint was passing away and by his Spirit speak to those attending the death of the saint and it be a sign for them. Nothing miraculous took place, in the sense that the working of nature was not interrupted and the eclipse took place exactly and for the physical reasons that humans understand, but the timing of events could make it a sign for those who trust God and hear from his Spirit.

For another example, what if God caused a strong wind to blow and divide the sea so that Israel could escape from Egyptian chariots? What if the wind could be explained by the weather patterns of the day and a low pressure system in the right place at the right time with the force of the resulting wind so strong that it made a dry passage appear in a way that has a natural explanation? Does that make it any less a sign that God has acted to save Israel? I think not. But we don’t know the explanation for the wind except to say that it was from God. And we thank God for it.

Finally, some might use the word “miracle” in a different way to mean that something unexpected happened. They might say that God’s timing of a naturally-explained wind or eclipse was a miracle. I get what they mean. It might not be a miracle in this technical sense, but I get what they mean. God did something that impressed then and that was perhaps even a sign for them.

When God provides for you, you may decide to call it a miracle if you want to. We know where the credit goes, don’t we? Whether there is a natural explanation or something happened that interrupted the natural flow of cause and effect, God gets the credit for blessing us. It comes as a sign of his goodness. Many people use the word “miracle” in this way. However, it is good to understand the more technical usage and why modern Bible translations use the word “sign” when that is more appropriate. God is behind natural events and miracles. There is nothing without the great “I am”.

Follow up… Is it a miracle when God answers prayer? I would say it is not necessarily a miracle in the technical sense. I believe God is outside of time as humans experience it and can see all of time at once in his perspective. If that is true, then God could hear your prayer today and act at the creation of the world to bring about the answer to your prayer through natural events with no need for any miracle; because God is outside of time and Lord over it. At least that’s what I think – that God can see all times at once in His knowledge of everything, also known as omniscience.

Why did Israel seem so separate if God intended to bless all people?

The question, from Sitha, is, “Why did Israel seem so separate if God intended to bless all people?”

Update January 9, 2021…. I’ve recently listened to the Bible Project podcast series called The Family of God. They cover this issue in a more helpful way, I think, than my treatment below. I recommend this podcast series as a better and deeper treatment of this question. Frankly, all of the Bible Project podcast series are excellent. I mean really excellent! I’ve listened to them all, many more than once. [That’s the update; but if you want to read my old thoughts, they remain below.]

There are several ways to approach this question. One is to consider how the separation of the Israelites was as God intended versus their being separate out of their own sense of nationalism or pride. Both factors seem to be a part of the picture. From the law of Moses, we can see that aspects of the law were intended to keep Israel separated from the surrounding people. That is, God was unhappy with the actions and attitudes of humans and intended for the Israelites to be different. The lack of care for the poor and unfortunate, the violation of hospitality, the sexual licentiousness, idolatry, and violence of many cultures were evils. God intended Israel to be separate in these matters.

We can read from the prophet Ezekiel how God viewed the Canaanite people and how the Israelites became just like them in Ezekiel 16:49-51. It would be fair to say, from the perspective of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament, that the Israelites lost much of the separation that God wanted and instead adopted a prideful nationalistic sense of separation from Gentiles that was far from God’s heart.

There are many passages in the five books of Moses that indicate God’s intention to bless all people through the descendants of Abraham. If we are to take these books at face value, they present themselves as coming from the time of the Exodus. Genesis makes a lot of sense when interpreted in light of Israel coming out of Egypt into a new land where God will live in their midst. Much of Genesis can be makes sense in this light. For purposes of this question, though, allow me to consider just a few passages from Genesis.

What is coming to be seen by many as a key passage for understanding the mission of Israel is Genesis 9:18-27. This passage related a “fall” after Noah and his family are saved from the flood. Noah’s son Ham disrespectfully sees Noah naked. Shem and Japheth cover Noah. Then Canaan, the youngest son of Ham, is cursed. (Note the interesting structural and detail parallels with Genesis 2 and 3!)

I always wondered why, if Ham was the disrespectful one, that Canaan, his youngest son, was cursed instead of Ham. I don’t think I really know the answer to that question, but perhaps the text isn’t really trying to answer that question so much as to position the Canaanites as cursed. God is about to dispossess the Canaanites of their land, for cause! Some speculate that since Ham was Noah’s youngest son, that as Ham’s youngest son Canaan received the curse. It certainly doesn’t fit with our sense of justice if the curse on Canaan is seen as cause rather than part of a story describing a people cursed because of their sin. I have to fall back on the genre of ancient mythology, where past events are often symbolically related to explain a reality in the present.

In any case, Canaan, the son of Ham, is cursed. God is said to be the God of Shem, from whom the Israelites of Moses’ time are descended. And then there is this interesting little nugget: “may Japheth live in the tents of Shem”. What’s that about? The explanation that I have landed on is that Canaan is a type for those who have rejected God and are pursuing their own autonomy. Shem is a type of those who have accepted that they are God’s people with a mission to bless the nations. They are to lead others into a right relationship to God. And Japheth is a type of those non-Abrahamic people whom the people of God are restoring.

Consider that may scholars believe that a great many of the multitude leaving Egypt with the Israelites were not Abraham’s descendants, but rather others who took advantage of the opportunity to leave Egypt. Thus, “May Japheth live in the tents of Shem” could be seen as an instruction for how the Semitic descendants of Jacob, Abraham, and Shem should take in those who came out of Egypt with them – blessing the peoples of all nations.

In support of this interpretation we could think of Rahab of Jericho and Ruth of the Moabites – even the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites deceptively made a treaty with Joshua, but became a part of Israel! Perhaps this parallels the story of many who come to God’s people for personal advantage and then find a home through God’s grace as they come into truth.

So, a second perspective is to consider just how separated the Israelites were. Perhaps there was more accommodation made for the “sons of Japheth” than we often imagine. Certainly Israel is considered in the biblical text as being God’s people. But they are never God’s only people. In Jeremiah 2:3, Israel is portrayed as set apart for God’s own use, “the firstfruits of his harvest.” Many places in scripture Israel is called the “firstborn son” of God, beginning in Exodus. (Consider Exodus 4:22, for example.) The very term firstborn implies that other children will follow!

Yet we must regard carefully that God intended to give birth to a people who were different, and separate, in order to embody his ways and his redemptive purpose culminating in Jesus. In some ways, the Israelite separation is a necessary distinction through which God communicates. He has another way to live. He has a purpose and direction in history. The world is going somewhere! These are communicated through the people and culture and religion of Israel until, at just the right time, Jesus comes – God incarnate – as the Christ. He comes not only as Messiah, but as the perfect sacrifice for sin, the scapegoat, the great new high priest, the king in the line of David… all concepts developed through time as God formed Israel and the Israelite culture, story, and religion.

By New Testament times, the Jewish people of Israel have been scattered across much of the world. We read in Acts how the early church was to respect Jewish sensibilities “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21) So it seems that the Jews – Israel – was not as separate in the diaspora as we might suppose. There had been other people incorporated – Japheth sheltering in Shem’s tent. And there were many God-fearing Gentiles just waiting, primed for the good news of Jesus through contact with the Jews. Jews who accepted Jesus, along with many of these God-fearing Gentiles, formed the core of the early Church!

Consider the Jewish context of the Christian scriptures. The narratives of Jesus in the gospels take a structural form that parallels the Jewish Exodus story, and through which the identity of Jesus as Yahweh incarnate is communicated. All of the original apostles who formed the early church and from whom we received the books in the New Testament were Jewish followers of Jesus. Then there is Jesus, our Lord, the consummate Jew. The blessings that have come to those of us who are Gentiles have come to us through Israel.

Finally, I’ve not even mentioned the reconstitution of Israel as the church – the wild olive branches grafted onto the root of Israel! Just how separate are we, in God’s eyes?

Thinking about sex?

I’ve been asked in past days about whether the standard that sex before marriage is wrong – that Christians must wait for marriage to have sex – might not be a cultural standard from biblical times that doesn’t apply in our context today. I don’t believe the argument that this is a cultural thing that is optional for today. I’ll explain.

There is much pressure to have sex these days in contexts other than that for which sex was designed. Allow me to be blunt. God created human beings in his image; male and female he created them. Then he instructed them to be fruitful and multiply, and created marriage as the context within which to fulfill this good command, saying it was not good for us to be alone.

And it is manifestly not good to be alone. Living alone, without a mate, is a special calling and gift that God gives to some that they might be devoted to the special work of this day of salvation. For most, and even for those who have this gift, being alone is a trial. I believe God can carry us through whatever trial we may face; but it is a trial. (There are other reasons that a special calling to be alone for a time, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.)

Sex is an expression of the oneness, the union, that God creates when a woman and a man marry. As Christ said, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” The point here is not to complain about the separations that occur so often in our society, but to note that God is the one who joins a man and a woman in marriage. Then, the man and the woman express this spiritual reality in the physical union of sex, having children, and being a family together. Sex between those whom God joins in marriage is an expression of his creative and fruitful image, the two being one and producing more like themselves as God is three in one and created us in his image.

Now, we all know that sex is about more than making babies. Let’s be honest. It is an amazing expression of love and intimacy (in its best expressions) that bonds the lovers together in a sense of intimacy that is deeply satisfying and encouraging. There is really nothing like being loved, and having that love demonstrated by another giving to you of themselves physically is an amazingly good thing. Similarly, there really is nothing like loving another, and giving of yourself to that one in a special way that demonstrates the uniqueness of your love for that person. These days, most Christians and many others understand that being promiscuous is not a good approach to life. But many waver on whether sex should wait for marriage. We have the technology! We can prevent pregnancy! Everyone else is expecting sex, and it seems like something I should want, so why not have sex with that special one that you are with?

The answer is simple. God didn’t make you that way. He did not make you or me for serial monogamy. He made us for the total commitment of marriage. Sex is an expression of that total commitment that naturally carries the potential of having a child. We see the shortcoming of having a child when there is no commitment to the family within which that child will be nurtured. However, when we can make sure there is no child… what’s the harm? Social mores come and go. They waft through the air like clouds in the sun, evaporating and storming here and there. God’s design is not like that. Do you trust him? That’s the question. Do you believe that life as God intended it to be lived is better than some other life that you can construct for yourself? Do you think you can escape the relational consequences of putting the physical expression of a marriage commitment ahead of the marriage?

The world may not end if you fall to the temptation to have sex before you marry. But your life will be less than the life that God intends you to have. Your choices will have consequences, and God will show you that you chose wrongly. Because he loves you. Cultures come and go, and to some extent we express our Christianity within culture. But in every culture, the temptation to use sex in some way that God did not intend it is strong. There are even ways to use sex within marriage in ways that God did not intend…. again, another day.

Do you trust God? When Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. We make that same mistake, over and over again… not trusting God and doing what seems good to us. And we pay the price. Or rather, Jesus pays the ultimate price and we suffer some consequences. You are making a statement about who you trust by how you handle your sex life.

Do you guys have a written policy for your mercy ministry? Do you have anything that explains your process or exceptions concerning helping people in need?

Someone recently (late 2011) wrote me and asked this question. This is a slightly edited version of what I said. Think of it as a description rather than a prescription.

Actually, we do not have any official written policy. We are not primarily a service agency or mercy ministry; we just have lots of neighbors with many needs. I can explain my perspective on how we informally operate after a few decades of being a church in this neighborhood. We intentionally leave a lot to the judgment of those who are ministering. It’s about personal relationships, not institutional services.

In practice, the help we give fits one of two categories. One is exceptional help for people in a circumstance where they are caught short or need help getting back to stability. This might be in the form of helping with a bill, “loaning” a security deposit, or helping to keep someone from being evicted when it looks like they’ll be able to cover their rent in the future. The idea is that we are not seeking to create a dependency situation wherein someone looks to us to maintain their regular living expenses; but we are willing to help with exceptional circumstances. This usually happens through someone spending some significant time getting to know the person and their circumstances. Occasionally we will help with a one-time expense without knowing the person too well; it is a
judgment call.

The second category is the people who just never seem to get their act together (or are simply unable to get it together). With them, it is a few dollars at a time for food or whatever over a longer period of time. This one is handled on a much more personal level. That is, it is not church money. It is personal money that doesn’t go through any church account, though we do share information so that people are not “double dipping”. We help one another when one of us is tapped out. We also do not encourage people in the church to step into this role unless we think they are ready. Getting ready involves gaining experience by watching more experienced folks handle this sort of thing and talking it over. Fred Newkirk is freer with his dollars than anyone else around here; but he is also
much more gifted at ministering through the interaction that goes along with being in that role. And, he is the exception in that it is not always personal money with him; donors give money for this ministry when they can. There’s a lot to talk about there. The rest of us are more limited in what we do with this role. We need to know the person pretty well and understand their situation and
think it is a good idea to help them.

Or (to people who come to the church and ask for financial help), I might say something like “We are a church, and we are here to help people follow Christ. If we get to know you well, we will naturally be involved in your life in deeper ways to help you follow him. But if the only time I see you again is for you to ask me for more money, the second or third time the answer will be no.” I might well give a small amount of assistance if I have it. Then I have to be able to remember people who test me.

Overall, my goal is God’s glory. That glory is often reflected through his people. When Christians have the reputation of being less generous than the average person on the street, then we have a problem. Jesus said to give to those who ask, so I usually do when I have it within what I explained above. If the amount is an amount that impacts what I know God has given me to do in my life (like pay the bills to keep my family fed and warm), then I don’t have it to give. The truth is that I could say yes to a lot of people who ask me for spare change or a dollar without it impacting my life measurably; it doesn’t happen THAT often. I know the common wisdom is never to give money. I know that people sometimes use money they get from us to feed their sin. However, when they are ready to do serious spiritual business, they go back to the people from whom they experienced generosity rather than the people from whom they experienced judgment. That doesn’t mean I hand over money to the alcoholic breathing vodka into my face when he asks for spare change. There’s judgement and a prayerful attitude involved to make it work. It’s not easy.

For a much more thorough background, I highly recommend When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.

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