Christ From the Youth Through the Twilight of Our Lives

I had the good fortune to preach this message to the fine people of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (EPC), Erie, Pennsylvania, the morning of Sunday, March 26, 2017.

Our text for today is Ecclesiastes Chapter 12, the entire chapter. I will be reading from the English Standard Version. Feel free to follow along with whatever version you prefer.

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— 5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Let’s pray. Oh Lord, You have shown us so clearly that a life well-lived is one that is lived unto You. Every moment spent serving our own desires or living in delusion is one robbed from both You and from our own truest good. When we turn to You in repentance and faith we see that clearly, and regret it profoundly. And yet “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to [Your] purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Our sins and our wanderings are not greater than Your limitless love, power or wisdom. And no matter how many years we wait to come to You, You stand ready to redeem us and use our lives for Your glory. We thank You for that. We pray for the grace to grasp the wonders of Your grace and to respond gratefully by living out obedient service to You. In Christ Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a good friend. I said something like this to him: “I really regret all those years before I was a Christian, particularly those years I threw away on that whole ‘freak lifestyle.’ I am glad I fully committed to Christ when I was still a fairly young man.”  His reply, which I will again roughly paraphrase, was along these lines: “I disagree. Even with all the bad stuff that happened, I learned a lot and my experiences help me to be more understanding and compassionate about what others go through.”

The fact is, we were both right. I have often dwelled on this seeming paradox in looking back over my life, and I am sure many of you have as well.

On the one hand, God clearly calls us to turn our lives over to Him, the earlier the better. He is our Creator. He owns us and we are accountable to Him to use the life He has given us for His purposes. He loves us, and wants us to delight in the life He has given us at the deepest and most honest levels. We cannot do that if we are living as if what is “under the sun” is all that there is. This is what the Preacher is telling us here in verse 1.

When we truly repent, we will experience, and express, profound regret for our years apart from God; walking through life as if He is not our Creator. We will recognize that we have offended God, but also that we have harmed ourselves, and others, by living as if we are not accountable to God. For many of us, the damage that we did, or might have done, by doing this could be terrible, and in some cases permanent. The regrets we might have to live with could be awful.

For example, we can repent for leaving someone permanently disabled because we were driving drunk during our prodigal years, but how many would argue that it would not have been better for us, and him, if we had never done it. What person experiencing guilt before the Lord over something like this would not change history if they could do it all over again?  While Jesus Christ is our Savior, and He fully satisfies the penalty for our sins, He is not our heavenly bus boy, responsible for cleaning up every mess we leave behind, fixing every consequence.

For all of us, evil days are coming, days of decline, weakness, deterioration and inevitably, death. We should turn to God before those times are upon us. Then our years serving God will have fully prepared us for those declining years. We will be able to look back on a life in which we used the strength and optimism of our youth, the experience and realism of our middle age, and the wisdom of our grey and balding heads, for His service and His glory, enjoying and delighting in Him through all of it.

On the other hand, what do we do with that passage from Romans, Chapter 8 verse 28 that I excerpted during our prayer? Does the term “all things” there not really mean “all”?  Or what about this passage from Joel, Chapter 2 verse 25: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…” If you look at that statement, in context, it is God’s wonderful promise to those who have brought terrible things upon themselves and others in rebelling against God. They are reassured that, once they turn wholeheartedly to God, the good things to follow will more than make up for what they lost during their wayward years. Moreover, I can attest with others that, many times, my past failures have sometimes uniquely enabled me to identify, empathize, encourage, and advise others, not to mention helping me to be humble and more appreciative of God. As Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee, in Luke Chapter 4, verse 42, and I am paraphrasing a bit here: “Those who are forgiven much, love much.”

Although it does appear that people who have determined for decades not to follow God do not typically turn to Him in old age, wonderful exceptions abound, both in our own experience and in Christian history. Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena turned from Roman paganism to Christ at the age of 60 in the year 309, lived another twenty years, and saw her son converted later. She encouraged him as he made decisions that extended and secured Christianity in the West, and radically changed the course of history. Or there is Olga, princess of Kiev, a brutal, awful woman who was converted to Christianity in the year 954 at the age of 75. In her remaining years, through extraordinary efforts, she brought Christianity to the Ukraine. In these cases, as in so many others, we see how the experiences of living outside the faith gave folk like these certain advantages of bringing others into it.

If I were a lot brighter, perhaps I would figure out how both sides of this apparent paradox—that we regret the years apart from God and yet God uses them and restores much that we have lost when we turn to Him—can be fully logically reconciled. I must confess that I cannot. I am content to affirm both things because the Bible and my own experience makes both clear: it is best to turn to God in our youth, and follow Him for as many days after as He chooses to give us. When and if we come to Him, we will miss, and regret, every minute that we delayed embracing Christ as Lord and Savior. However, we can offer the Gospel freely and with a full heart to all human beings of every age, right up to the moment of their death, promising them that in Him all things will be made whole, and right, and good, and that He will use them in productive service for Him, in their remaining time.

We can consider this apparent paradox as we approach Good Friday. In Luke Chapter 23 verses 42 and 43, one of the criminals crucified with Jesus asked simply “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That poor man was clearly, in that context of facing certain and imminent death, placing his hope in Christ and in eternal life through Him. What was Jesus’ reply? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” On that very day, God washed away every bit of that dying man’s failure, degradation, filth and regret. Every promise of God became his. But as he embraced the offer of Christ, I am certain his dissolute life flashed in front of him and he was intensely sorry for the life he had led, wishing he had known this wonderful Savior all his days, and was not just encountering him at the moment of death.

Following this opening verse, the Preacher lays out, in beautiful poetry, what the young person is going to face even if God should bless him or her with the longest and best life they could hope for; namely old age, and death. This is unfolded in verses 2 through 7, employing the metaphor of a house to describe old age. This Scriptural metaphor—the broken old house we have to leave behind at death—was the inspiration for a famous folk gospel song that I hear elderly people in nursing homes often love to sing—“This Ole House.” The lyrics of this song, written by Stuart Hamblen, fit the details here in Ecclesiastes amazingly well, from the characteristics of old age, but also the implications of sure hope that, though “the dust returns to the earth as it was,” we have assurance that “the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Please indulge me as I recite the words of this song. I will lay out the stanzas, then at the end I will give you the refrain that is sung after each one.

This ole house once knew his children, This ole house once knew his wife

This ole house was home and comfort,  As they fought the storms of life

This ole house once rang with laughter,  This ole house heard many shouts

Now he trembles in the darkness,  When the lightning walks about.

This ole house is getting shaky,  This ole house is getting old

This ole house lets in the rain,  This ole house lets in the cold

Oh his knees are a’ getting’ chilly,  But he feels no fear nor pain

Cause he seeks a new tomorrow,  Through a golden window pain

 

This ole house is afraid of thunder,  This ole house is afraid of storms

This ole house just groans and trembles,  When the night wind flings it arms

This ole house is gettin’ feeble,  This ole house is a’ needin’ paint

Just like him it’s tuckered out,  He’s a’ gettin’ ready to meet his fate

 

(Ain’t a’ gonna need this house no longer,  Ain’t a’ gonna need this house no more)

Ain’t got time to fix the shingles,  Ain’t got time to fix the floor

Ain’t got time to oil the hinges,  Nor to mend no window panes

Ain’t gonna need this house no longer,  He’s gettin’ ready to meet his fate

It is fun and enlightening to break Ecclesiastes’ poem on old age into parts, especially verses 2 through 5, to consider what each of the figures within the larger house refers to. The missing teeth, the dimming sight, the trembling limbs, bent back, weak legs, creeping deafness, crippling fears, bones that break easily, elusive sleep. That’s wonderful, but we then can miss the larger picture.

And what is that larger picture?  That the most fortunate among us will eventually decline, and then we will die—the silver cord will snap, the golden bowl will break, the pitcher will be shattered; no longer will it carry water. The wheel will be broken, and our bodies will return to the ground from which they came, mourners carrying them to the grave, while our spirits will return to our Creator.

We must turn to God before that. If we do not, the life we have lived, verse 8 tells us, will have been vanity. It will have been vapor, meaningless, futile, mere breath. It will have been hebel. It will have been a long life, but lived entirely under the sun, apart from God, and then never redeemed at the end.

Hearkening back to Ecclesiastes Chapter 6, verses 2 through 5, such a person will have come in vanity and left in darkness, then have been covered by total darkness. Verse 6 of that chapter points this out to everyone who believes our existence can be justified by prosperity, great deeds, and excellent health: “Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?”

Following this, verses 9 and 10 describe the character of the wise Preacher who wrote this extraordinary book. He cared for the people. He took great care in how he wrote and ordered his wisdom, so as to provide the best guidance possible. It is clear his goal was godly instruction for the good of his people, not extolling himself or showing off his brilliance. The Preacher spoke truth, and sought delightful words with which to express it. Whom among us reading the poem on seasons we considered last week, or this poem on old age and death we have considered today, would deny that he achieved that?

Verse 10 then reminds us that the words of the wise are like both goads and nails. “Goad,” you may recall, is both a noun and a verb; you goad cattle with a goad, that is, you drive them with a sharp stick. Wisdom should push us away from the wrong, and toward the correct, places. Words of wisdom are also like nails in that they are firm, fixed, we can hang things on them. In our case, we can hang every element of our lives on these words, and each will be secure there. In this verse, the Preacher also tells us that all words of true wisdom, everywhere, come from one Shepherd, for the benefit of His flock. Proverbs Chapter 2, verse 6 reminds us that “…the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding…” The Apostle James, in Chapter 1 verse 5, instructs believers who are looking for true wisdom to seek it from God and God alone. Then, in Chapter 3, verse 17, like the Preacher, he notes that this wisdom will be obviously lovely, pure, delivering true peace and good fruit.

This “goad and nail” applies to our lesson today. What the Preacher has told us about turning to God before the evil days come, of the certainty of what lies before us if we do not, is a nail. It is unshakable truth. We might say that we can “hang our hat on it.”  It is also a goad. It is a sharp stick driving us away from disaster and toward life. It is the loving admonition of our Good Shepherd, in fitting and lovely words, given through a man who has experienced all that life brings, and knows of what he speaks.

Finally, in verses 13 and 14, the subject returns once again to what all people must do in order to have a meaningful life, and to enjoy the good things of this earth, in all their simple glory, as we were meant to do so if we are to be fully and deeply satisfied. Fear God. Hold Him in reverence and awe; do not play games with Him. Keep His commands; seek to live a holy and good life as He has defined it. Study His word diligently and love it intensely, as the writer of Psalm 119 repeatedly admonishes. That is the whole duty of every man and woman. He expects nothing more, nor less. Prioritize those things that are of eternal significance, so that your life will withstand the judgment of God. Love your spouse. Love your children. Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Visit the prisoners and the shut-ins. Cast your bread upon the waters. Be generous. No matter how young we are, how healthy or safe, we must never forget the brevity of life, the unpredictable and often very inconvenient coming of death, and after that, the final account we must all give to God. Live as if it is true, because it is true.

In sum, show reverence to God and follow Him earnestly, at every point in life remembering that at the Judgement Day you will give account of everything you did in this life.

Consider the life of Christ Himself. He followed the Lord from his earliest days, and we find Him engaging the teachers in the Temple at the age of 12 in Luke Chapter 2, verses 41 through 52. In Matthew Chapter 4, verses 1 through 11, we find Him in the wilderness spurning the temptation of Satan, rebuking that old trickster by citing and honoring God’s scriptural commands. In his agonizing prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane recorded in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, we find Him clearly taking responsibility for every commandment that God the Father had issued to Him, for example, He had cared for, taught and protected every single soul that the Father had given Him. He behaved as the good servants did in His Parable of the Talents recorded in Matthew Chapter 25, verses 15 through 30; not as the one who hid his talents in the ground. We often find Him enjoying the simple, good things of this world. Sleep, friendship, embrace, perfume, bread, fish, wine. He lived His life with an eye toward His death, even though He did not live to old age. As in all things, He is a model for living that life which the Preacher of Ecclesiastes commends to us.

In closing today, here is the Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians Chapter 5, verses 1 through 10, telling us the same things:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Let’s pray. Oh Lord the life that we have is a gift from You and belongs to You. You have called us here, at whatever stage of life we are in, to give it all to You. You have promised that what we entrust to You will be secure and realize its greatest fruit in You. We see that in Christ, in His perfect life and His death in which He took upon Himself all our sins and sorrows, we have the perfect realization of what we are shown here in this venerable Book of Ecclesiastes—to live a good life before You, be prepared for difficulties to come, and step off this earth and into Your arms when death comes for us. In Jesus name. Amen.

To Everything There Is A Season

Sermon I had the honor of giving to Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Erie, PA (EPC) on Sunday March 19 2017. I really love the saints in this church, what a delight to spend time these past few Sundays!

We will be reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, verses 1 through 15. Feel free to follow along in your Bibles. I will be using the English Standard Version.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

2 a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

8 a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.

9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

Let’s pray. Our God, because of Your great love, You make everything beautiful in its time. Our life here under the sun is brief, almost a blink.  And yet it has incalculable eternal significance and weight. You want us to accept and embrace, through all the seasons of our lives, each time appreciated for what it is, in its joys and its sorrows, knowing it will not last. We know that there is a first and a last to everything, and while we may remember what many of our first things were, we often don’t know when they are happening last, even while we are experiencing them. But You know. You have sent us Your Son to live in this world of seasons and uncertainty, to take upon Himself our sins and sorrows, and to delight with us in our joy. Whatever life brings, You will be there for us in every moment and accompany us, at its end, across the river. You will never leave us or forsake us. Thank you for that and help us to ponder and appreciate those things today. In Jesus’s name, amen.

In late 1999, my mother had finally come home from a rehabilitation center after a long recovery from a botched medical assault on cancer she had in her liver. Thankfully, my wife Kathy and I were able to visit her, though she was very weak. Our son Joshua had just been born a few months earlier, on her birthday, actually.  My mother loved babies, and she was the mother of seven. We put Joshua into her arms. She pulled him very close, put the side of her face on his head, and just breathed in very deeply, taking in the scent of his hair. My mother didn’t know, nor did we, that this was the last time she would have that experience. There had been a first time. This was the last.

That is how the seasons and rhythms in our life are. Even with sadness and pain—not just the times of merriment and rejoicing—by God’s grace each is beautiful in its own time, even though it may be awhile before we see that. I know that I never want to lose the image of that moment with my mother that I carry inside me.

Our text today contains a gorgeous poem made famous to millions of Baby Boomers (like me) through the famous 1965 Byrd cover of an older folk song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  Unfortunately, a flourish they added at the end—“a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”—turned it into an anti-war song. However, the message here is nothing like such a hippy cliché. It is far more complex, lovely, profound, spiritually useful, and mature than that. We will get to this poem, but a little later.

If we look at the first verse and then after this poem in verses 9 through 15, we see that the overall thrust here is that God has a plan, that this plan is wise and morally good, and that nothing happens outside of it; God controls it all.  We see this in the first verse, a kind of “thesis statement” opening this section: “to everything there is a season, and a time for every matter (or, “purpose”) under heaven.”

As Philip Ryken has pointed out, liberal scholars often portray the God of Ecclesiastes as random, as arbitrary. They view passages like ours’ today as encouraging passive, wounded fatalism. Ryken quotes one such commentary as headlining today’s text like this: “Hopelessness of Struggle Against An Arbitrary God”!  This gross misunderstanding is rooted in refusing the Biblical doctrine of the total sovereignty of God, which, in turn, is based upon the old chestnut that no loving God would allow, or cause, so-called “bad things” to happen.

Yet God is totally sovereign over every detail of life while remaining infinitely wise, and being perfectly loving. Not only do events occur in their appropriate time and purpose but, as we are reminded in verse 11, He has made everything, both good things and adversity, “beautiful in its time.”

We are told in verse 15 that, like everything else there is nothing new here. Every good and difficult thing is common in human experience. This echoes the passage we covered two weeks ago in Chapter 1, verses 9 and 10, that there is “nothing new under the sun.” What is past is settled, we can’t change it, and we will experience what our ancestors did, birth and laughter and merriment, and also war and hate and death. But in a rather obscure phrase at the end of verse 15, “God seeks what is driven away,” we find something else. That means, Philip Ryken says, that God redeems our past, He does not just pass judgment on it. Says Ryken, this funny little add-on tells us that “By His grace He will recover and restore what seems, from our vantage point, to be lost forever.” Once again, our God is sovereign, and He is good. Stick by Him, and we will see that—if not sooner, than later.

God wants us to find joy in the simple toils, purposes, rhythms of life, and to strive to be morally upright and concerned with doing good for others. To do this, we must be secure in His overall care for us, and in His wise supervision of all of the affairs of this world, even our past. The writer of Ecclesiastes records this discovery, in verses 12 and 13: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” We should never give into temptation to hate life or to try to escape the world, but rather we must embrace our everyday existence in the ordinary details of life—trusting Him and serving Him in the heights but also the dark valleys of our lives.

It is in our hearts to want to make sense of God’s plans. As we experience life, at different points, that desire to understand why things happen can be overwhelming. How often have we cried out “God, why?”  That longing for understanding is not sin. There would be something wrong with us if we did not react, to many things, with that plea, “Oh God, why?” For example, what kind of people would we be if, upon walking into the cancer ward of a children’s hospital for the first time, we did not ask such things? A little girl with a teddy bear in her arms, bald from chemotherapy, IV dripping, odds against her, and we don’t ever think “Dear God, why?”

The fact is that God Himself put that hunger for understanding in our hearts. We see in verse 11: “he has put eternity into man’s heart…” As the liner notes for the New Geneva Bible tell us, the word “eternity” in this context includes not only an innate understanding that our true home is with God, but also a longing to know “what God has done from the beginning to the end.” We want to experience eternity and to understand life’s events in light of an eternal plan. As those liner notes also say, “the heart knows that history is not meaningless.”

Yet the reality is that, this side of eternity, we will never understand completely, and we often will not understand very much. God has simply not revealed these things to us. Looking again at that second sentence in verse 11, we find that while we want to comprehend God’s eternal plan, we “…cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” As Moses instructed the Jewish people in Deuteronomy, Chapter 29 verse 29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

God does not leave us blind, but He does not disclose everything; not even close. However, what He does show us is enough. He has revealed that there is a purpose, that nothing in this life is random or meaningless so long as He is in it. He makes clear to us, in Deuteronomy Chapter 31 verse 6, that He never forgets or forsakes us.  Knowing this, He tells us, we must “do good” as He has defined what is good. He has given us all the knowledge we need for “life and godliness,” as Peter encourages us in his second epistle, Chapter 1 verse 3.

Moreover, while we are certainly called to combat sin, heal diseases, end injustice, and otherwise toil to improve our lives and those of others, what God has determined cannot be altered. Verse 14 declares: “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it.” There is no room in this worldview for perfecting either ourselves, or our world, through human planning and effort alone, outside of God’s purposes and submitting ultimately to Him. That is a fool’s game.

All of this almost perfectly parallels venerable old Job’s ultimate affirmation. Recall that he had embarked on a lengthy intellectual quest to understand the reasons for truly terrible things that had happened to him, at times crossing the line by asking God to justify Himself, but without denying the existence, justice, or goodness of God.  Then, in Chapter 42 verse 2, in a dramatic moment of revelation, self-humiliation and repentance, he makes this remarkable statement: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

So why would God place this longing in our hearts, to understand His eternal ways and plan, to comprehend the reasons that things happen, if He did not intend to satisfy this yearning?  I cannot answer this completely, but I think I can confidently assert two things.

First, in eternity with God our longings for true understanding of God’s purposes will be satisfied. He does intend to quench, completely, our thirst to know, but just not in this life. This does not mean that, in eternity, we will know everything; I am certain we will not. However, we will certainly know a lot more than we ever will in this life, as the Puritan preacher Edward Griffin famously proclaimed in one of his sermons: “The feeblest infant that has gone to heaven probably knows more of God than all the divines on earth.”

Second, if I can indulge in a little sanctified speculation, I think we can answer part of this puzzle—why would God give us a longing to understand what He knows we can never fully understand?—with a question. How often have those longings drawn you to God?  How often have they driven you to talk to Him, plead with Him, to search the Scriptures, to bring your sorrows and questions to Him, to wrestle with God and His puzzling ways?

Do you remember old Asaph in Psalm 73?  He sought God, with agonized pleas, to understand how the terrible injustices he saw and experienced could be reconciled with the God of the Scriptures. God answered Asaph just enough to give him confidence in His sovereignty, goodness and justice, light that, for example, enabled Asaph to feel sorry for those whom he had been envying.  He ended up understanding God’s plan, and His ways, better, though not completely.

In the process, Asaph knew more about God but, far more importantly, he knew God better. As J. I. Packer has said many times, isn’t that better than learning a ton of theological facts? So long as we ultimately return to trusting and obeying, and to embracing the goodness and wisdom of God without knowing all the answers, those quests for understanding, rooted in the inner longings of our hearts, bring us closer to God. I think that is a major reason that God put that hunger there.

This brings us, then, to trusting Him through the events of life, and to that beautiful poem memorialized by The Byrds and many other musicians. We find, in verses 2 through 8, 14 couplets in 7 verses. Philip Ryken says this: “Each pair forms a merism, a figure of speech in which two polarities make up a whole.”  Says Ryken again, “There is something comprehensive about each pair.”

Ryken points out, with numerous other commentators, that the 14 pairs, taken as a single poem, are also comprehensive, because they capture the entirety of life. H. C. Leupold says they “cover the widest possible range and thus practically every aspect of human existence.”

In the poem as a whole, as well as in each of the 14 individual pairs, we find balance, wholeness, completeness. We see the banal reductionism of many modern people, who only wish to embrace one side of some of these pairs, to be completely undone. Yes, there is a time to kill.  (By the way, the word here is not “murder,” but rather forms of righteous or necessary killing of other human beings.) Yes, there is a time to hate, a time to destroy, it is not all about just loving, or building. Not all wars are righteous, and not every way of conducting oneself in war is acceptable to God. However, this side of eternity, in this fallen world, sometimes there will be peace, but sometimes there has to be war.

Each couplet comprehends both human and divine activity, and of course God’s actions are always ultimate and primary. God, in His perfect governance over all of reality, places everything into its right time in the right place. His timing is always good, suitable, and right.  Ryken quotes Ralph Wardlaw, from 1821, in pointing out what this poem demonstrates that “God does everything at just the right time”:

“the wise, and regular, and orderly administration of One, who sees the end from the beginning, and to whom there is no unanticipated contingency; and whose omniscient eye, in the midst of what appears to us inextricable confusion, has a thorough and intuitive perception of the endlessly diversified relations and tendencies of all events, and all their circumstances, discerning through the whole the perfection of harmony.”

There is not one particular on either side of any of these 14 pairs that we do not see God specifically authorizing, celebrating, commanding, or doing throughout Scripture. Laughter but also weeping. Keeping but also casting away. Gathering and dispersing. Birth and death, healing and killing, destroying and building. We must accept them as they come, and we must honor God in each. As Job admonished his foolish wife in Chapter 2, verse 10: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble” (New International Version).

I don’t know how many of you have seen Hacksaw Ridge. The hero of this true story, Desmond Doss, could not kill due to his particular Christian convictions and his life experience. Yet there in 1942, he saw the need for killing, for war, if the whole world was not to fall under the dominion of extraordinary evil. So he served as a combat medic, smack in the middle of some of the most ferocious combat of the war, without so much as a knife or club to defend himself. Yet even as he went out to save lives, his own life had to be protected by others who killed, and he not only saved soldiers but, through his contribution, helped them and our country to achieve victory. He saw that too. So he did not see his fellow soldiers as evil for killing in that context, even though he could not do so. Taken together, one sees the balance of Ecclesiastes in this powerful film. Righteous killing and skilled, merciful healing.

Imagine cities with ambulances, but no police and no self-defense. We may not like it, but we need both. This is completeness, and both ultimately serve the same ends, to protect and save human life. There is a time and a place both for one and the other.

We also find this harmony and experience in the life, death and teaching of Jesus Christ. He entered this fallen world with us, and more than any man or woman who ever lived, He experienced, taught and exemplified both sides of each of these 14 couplets. God orchestrated every detail of His birth and death to fulfill a divine plan for the benefit of the human race in accordance with the Scriptures. Jesus made reasonable attempts to preserve His life and that of others, as when He quieted the wind and waves as recorded in Matthew Chapter 8 verses 24 through 27, but when the time came to lay His life down, He accepted it as He promised He would in John Chapter 10, verse 18.

We find Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus in John 11 verse 35, and teaching us about the goodness of mourning for the right reasons at the right time in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, verse 4. Yet earlier we find Him refilling wine jars at a wedding in Cana, as recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of John, and we find history concluding amidst rejoicing of the saints and the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelations Chapter 19. He talked about God both planting and rooting out, in Matthew 15, verse 13.

The Jesus of history is the Prince of Peace at war with the forces of Satan, shedding the blood of His enemies. He is the epitome of love, yet there are clearly things that He hates, and in John 2 verses 13 through 16 we find Him driving out profane merchants from His temple with a scourge, turning over their tables and dumping their money onto the ground. He healed many times, but this included healing the servant of, and praising the faith of, a Roman centurion, a soldier—a man who killed— in Matthew Chapter 8 verses 5 through 18. He told us in parables about those He brings in, and those He casts away, for example in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 19, verses 19 through 31, or what He said about sheep and goats at judgment day in Matthew 25, verses 31 through 46.

Day after day he raised His voice to teach the crowds, but before His accusers He was silent, as we see in Mark 14, verse 61. What about both embracing and refraining from embracing? In one remarkable passage in Matthew 15, verses 21 through 28, we find Him initially refusing to have anything to do with a Canaanite women whose daughter was possessed by a demon, but then He lets her approach, she kneels, He grants the healing and praises Her faith. He ordered His disciples to shake the dust off their feet if anyone denied them hospitality or refused to hear them, in Matthew Chapter 10 verse 14.  Yet He also let a prostitute wash His feet with her tears and dry them with her hair, even kissing them and anointing them with perfume, as we see in Luke Chapter 7 verses 37 and 38.

Jesus, the Son of God, had a perfect grasp of the times and seasons. He did all things well, and embraced everything from the hand of God in its time. This is evident from His birth to a virgin peasant woman, through His perfect life, His teaching, the death He died in our place, the intricate details and facts of His bodily resurrection, and His ongoing righteous rule. In living those 14 pairs out and teaching them, always trusting the Father, He showed us how to live well, in tune with God, across the various times of our lives. Jesus demonstrated the beauty of each, in its time. A fitting example in every way of God’s perfect planning and wisdom in even the hardest adversities, He can help us to “trust and obey,” even as He did.

Let’s pray. Lord, You have shown us that in our brief but momentous lives, we will experience good things but also adversity. Yet there is no truly good thing in which You do not delight, and there is no adversity that does not have meaning, and through which You will not only carry us, but tell us as much as we need to know to bear it and glorify You through it. We ask you to apply these things to all we will face in the coming week, both good and bad. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” (Outside of Knowing God

The sermon text for today is Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 verse 15 through Chapter 2 verse 26. I will be reading from the English Standard Version. Here we go:

Chapter One  15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Chapter Two  I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. 12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. 24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Before we pray and then dig into this week’s text, let me remind you of something that I laid out last week.  We have to realize the meaning and importance of two critical phrases in order to understand any of the Book of Ecclesiastes properly.

First, there is the word translated here as vanity–hebel–which means mere wind, meaningless, vapor, here one second and gone the next. This word, or the variant “striving after wind,” appears 12 times in today’s reading.

Second, there is the phrase translated “under the sun” or “under heaven.” This signifies that the writer of Ecclesiastes is saying something like “in this world only” or “if you take God away, this is what reality looks like.” This phrase, in one variant or the other, appears 6 times in today’s reading.

If we put this together, it goes something like this: “In a world without God every single thing and very single endeavor, no matter how lawful and inherently good it is in any other respect, and no matter how skillfully and wisely it is handled, is ultimately futile, vapor, vanity, mere wind. They will never satisfy.” And yet, as we see at the conclusion: “In God and under God (rather than just “under the sun”) all these things and all these labors find true meaning and purpose. We will be able to find satisfaction and meaning in them, because our foundation is ultimately going to rest in God and His gifts to, and labors for, us.”

Let’s pray. Oh God, our hearts are so prone to wander from You, to forget You, to dig into life living like practical atheists even when we do truly believe in You. We take the good things of this world and make idols of them, letting them be to us a source of ultimate satisfaction and meaning, apart from You, and this also leaves us so very empty. We chase vanity and attempt to live as if everything that matters is here, under the sun. Help us instead to find our true meaning and happiness in You and in You alone, our faith and hope in Christ alone. Then we can enjoy the good gifts You have given of us rightly, and hold them loosely when, as will be true for all of us here and as we step into eternity, we are asked to set them down.  In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

When I was a boy I struggled with the unrelenting, unforgiving nature of “time.” It puzzled me that everything that I experienced was over as quickly as it registered in my brain. Time took everything away from me as quickly as I comprehended it. Everything I looked forward to, like Christmas morning, would be over in less than a blink of an eye even as I enjoyed it. One day I decided to “figure it out,” using the spokes of my moving bicycle tire as I rode it. I was about 12. I looked at the spokes turning and tried to figure out how and why as soon as I saw any spoke ‘here’ it was already ‘there’, and so on into infinity. I never did figure out time.  That’s ok, no one has.

In our reading last week, we encountered a famous saying, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9). That is, outside heaven what we experience and do now has been before, and it will be again. That is certainly true with what the writer of Ecclesiastes says in this week’s text. He lays out all of the things he did or experienced in order to try to find purpose, meaning, contentment, lasting value and contribution “under the sun.” What does he talk about, and what did he try, that would not have been familiar to someone a thousand years before he wrote this book or that people today cannot relate to?

First, he tried to acquire as much wisdom and knowledge as he could, by extensive observation, reading, and brutally honest reflection.  He wanted to use this wisdom and knowledge to guide his own actions and to deal with the world around him. He hoped to improve both through sound wisdom lived out with prudence and discretion. The search for and value of wisdom, as opposed to the folly of the foolish, is something he brings up repeatedly in the Book of Ecclesiastes. We see it at the beginning of our reading today, and then again in the second chapter, verses 12 through 16, where he tells us he “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly.”

Second, he wanted to fix some of what is wrong with the world. Today we might say he wanted to leave the planet better than he found it. I think he meant doing this at every level, from his own character and family through deficiencies in his workplaces, communities, houses of worship, government, nation, and world. A lot of this deals with social and political reform. This becomes evident later in the book, as we find him repeatedly mourning injustice, oppression, inequity, greed, political corruption, and so on (cf. 3:16-17, 4:2, or Chapter 5:8, 7:7).

He tried to find true meaning and satisfaction in personal pleasure. “Under the sun”—without God—this was hedonism. He prominently reported indulging in “wine, women and song,” and that is what we often focus on in these passages.  However, he also talked about enjoying beauty and fun—for example, his gardens, wealth, music, and various enterprises.

He connected his hedonism with his labor. As with most of us, he had to work to get those things he indulged in.  Much of his labor was the kind we all hope for, where he could take pleasure not only in the things he built and accomplished, but also in the acts and processes of doing so. This is what many people look for in things like gardening, fishing, hunting, arts and crafts, restoring homes or antique cars—doing it is fun, and then you also get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. It reminds me of the old Bachman Turner Overdrive song, “Taking Care of Business,” where rock stars brag about getting tons of money and goodies in exchange for doing what they love doing anyway!

He is careful to let us know that he kept this pleasure seeking under reflection and control. Notice the caveats in verse 3, “my heart still guiding me with wisdom,” and in verse 9, “Also my wisdom remained with me.”  We like to think about people embracing God only when, and because, they hit “rock bottom.” That is often how things go.  This man never hits rock bottom. He could have said something like this: “I tried it all, every earthly delight, and I did it without destroying myself.  I did not wreck my health, land in jail, or bottom out. If I had died in the middle of all of this, I would have gone out on top.” I can picture Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire and due to turn 91 next month, saying this very thing to his beautiful, young, glamour model third wife. “I did it my way.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes then dug into the subject of “toil” more directly, namely all the things we have to do to make it in this life, whether we enjoy them at the time or not. Some people live for their daily toil; we call them “workaholics.” He was not. He was balanced, and rich enough to have a life that consisted of a lot more than self-maintaining toil. Whether laborious or not, was it worth it, he asked?

What does he say about each and every one of these things—wisdom, work, pleasure, reform efforts—knowing he had done everything as well, and with as much wisdom, as is humanly possible?

On the one hand he tells us that, when done lawfully and skillfully, each of these things was in essence not only legitimate, but good. In a normal lifetime, God means us to have and pursue things such as these, in their proper time, place and circumstance. People who gain wisdom and live by it are better off.  They are safer, see more, are more successful, and they do more real good. There is legitimate satisfaction is seeing a garden well dug and planted, a building that is both functional and solid, and architecturally beautiful. To be able to labor creating things you can enjoy both making and using is a truly wonderful thing. The taste of wine is from God, as is the embrace of our loved ones and the scent of flowers. Dignified toil is good, and noble, and we should honor it. We ought to strive to make the world a better place. We should hate injustice and oppression, and we ought to care about and for the poor. None of these things was inherently evil.

There is not one shred of Platonism, of other-wordliness, in this book. The writer of Ecclesiastes has his feet on the ground and he likes the dirt. His voice has what C. S. Lewis described in one of his novels as something like “having blood in it.” The writer of Ecclesiastes was an organic creature in a natural world and he believed that we should rejoice in it, despite life’s inevitable struggles and disappointments.  The eminent German sociologist Max Weber called this “inner-worldly asceticism,” to contrast this kind of spirituality with the kind that thrives on self-castrated men, living in caves, trying to escape reality.

Yet in spite of this, because he pursued these things “under the sun,” they were hebel, meaningless, pointless, vapor. He could be the wisest of the wise and yet death would overtake him as much as it would the fool, and his memory would still be lost in obscurity. Wisdom was a mixed blessing anyway.  He was wise enough to know how little he knew, and what he would have been happier not knowing.  He could labor to build great things, but the wind, water and sand would wear them away, if invaders did not sack and burn them first. Even what lasted would eventually come under the power of those who did not work for them, who might not appreciate them, and who would perhaps even foolishly destroy them. He could help the poor, or root out corruption but like weeds, injustice, greed, and oppression would return.

I lived for a few years in St. Louis and did creative writing services under contract for the Anheuser-Busch Corporation. Consider August Busch the fourth. I wonder how his great-great-grandfather Adolphus Busch, or how his great-great-great grandfather Eberhard Anheuser, would feel about him if they were alive.  He lost the company to a hostile takeover two years after becoming CEO, after 156 years of family control of what had become one of the largest and most secure corporations in the world, despite vowing he would not let that happen. His girlfriend then died of a drug-overdose in his mansion. He was involved just last month pulling a gun on someone during a bar fight. He has had years of run-ins with police. The Belgian conglomerate who bought his company has been dismantling a lot of the philanthropic work in St. Louis that the Busch family had taken pride in for years. But all of this was inevitable. It was only a matter of time.

An advertisement has been running in National Review magazine recently for a service for rich people that promises to make sure that their children will not be able, after they die, to use their inheritance to promote causes that they would have hated and opposed. It is a kind of “ideology insurance.” I read those ads and say to myself, “nice try.” It is vanity and a striving after wind.  If your children really want to, they are going to get around your financial firewall, and do terrible things with your money, or their children will, or someone else will. Just wait.

What is all this but what the writer of Ecclesiastes had pointed out repeatedly over two and a half millennia ago? Vexation. Frustration. Folly. Hearts full of sorrow, and nights devoid of sleep.  We strive mightily and worry often to gain, build and preserve those things that are important to us. And for what? Hebel.

Praise God He does not leave us there. Yes, life is hebel, it is vanity, but only if this life is all there is. Only if we count out God.

But as Francis Schaeffer said, there is a God, He is there, and He is not silent. He is not absent, nor is He dead. As Jesus told us in Matthew 10, verses 26 through 31, He cares for us, He values us, our very hairs are numbered, not one deed escapes His attention. He keeps our treasure in a place where moth and rust do not destroy and where the thief cannot break in and steal, as Jesus told us in Matthew 6, verses 19 and 20.

This life is not all that there is. We may leave the physical fruits of our labor to fools, but God is sovereign over both our labor and over the fools. He sees and rewards everything we did for His glory and His purposes, no matter how big or how small, no matter how spectacular or how mundane. Thus, as Paul said in his first letter to Timothy, Chapter One, verse 6, “godliness with contentment is great gain.” Why? Because God “insures” our deposit!

In like manner, evil people never really “get away with it.” Vengeance is His, and He will repay. This is why we pray for the wicked rather than hating or envying them, because we know what awaits them. Like Asaph of Psalm 73, even if we despair at times as we see the wicked prosper as the righteous are suffering, in God we see that, while so often everything seems to be well with them, they are in a slippery place, they will fall to ruin, they will be swept away (v. 18-19).

“To the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business and gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God,” we read today. (Eccl. 2:26) The meek will eventually inherit the earth, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 verse 5. It will be, and is now, an eternal kingdom that, the writer of Hebrews later reminds us in Chapter 12, verse 28, “cannot be shaken.” All that the sinner has stored up will come to us.

As Jesus also taught us in Matthew 7, verses 24 through 27, their foundation is on sand, but ours is on a rock, and the winds and the waves will not destroy it.  What is the rock?  He, Jesus Christ, is that rock. The Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, verses 10 through 15 that, as we labor and build and then pass the fruits on to others at our passing, what we have built in this earth, to the extent it was done for Him, will survive the final judgment, and will be purified and made eternal.  He goes on, in Chapter 15 of the same book, verse 58, urging us to be steadfast and immovable, pouring excellence into our work, because our “labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  Our labors in the Lord are not hebel.

Knowing this, we can find contentment in our lives. We can enjoy, “from the hand of God,” eating, drinking and toiling. We can rest in the night, knowing that our labors in the daytime are meaningful and secure. Someday we can rest in the grave, knowing He will not abandon us, nor will He forget our earthly labors and loves.

On Easter we celebrate the empty tomb. If Jesus had remained in that grave, and suffered decay like every man or woman who has ever lived, His life would have been, ultimately, hebel. Actually, worse for Him than for us, because given all He did and taught, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, He would then “…not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” He would have been an object of derision, and His disciples would have been laughing stocks. And if He had not been raised, our life would also truly be hebel— vanity—because this world, under the sun, would be all there is.

Praise God that, as Jesus’ ancestor King David prophesied in Psalm 16, verse 10, God did not leave His Holy One in Sheol, nor let Him see corruption.  So we can learn, and work, and love, and enjoy, secure and content in Jesus Christ, our hope and our life.

Let’s pray.

Jesus, in Your life we have life, in Your death our death has been conquered. Help us to enjoy the good things You give us in life, including the wonderful Easter celebrations ahead of us, secure in You, grateful that You have redeemed us, and thankful that in You our life has purpose, and meaning, and joy. In Jesus precious name we pray. Amen.

The Book of Ecclesiastes: God’s Gospel Bassoon

A sermon I preached this morning at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Erie, PA (EPC) to a wonderful, warm, friendly mission church in the EPC.

Let’s read together from the Book of Ecclesiastes.  We will start with Chapter 1 verses 1 through 14, then jump to the other side of the book – the “end of the story” if you will – Chapter 12 verses 9 through 14.  I will be using the English Standard Version.

Chapter One:

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. 12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

Chapter 12:

9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. 11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Let me pause for an important interpretative note here.  The word “vanity” here is literally hebel in the Hebrew. It appears 5 times here and in 29 other verses in Ecclesiastes as well. Thus, it is obviously important to understanding the book.  It can be rendered as “mist” or “vapor” or “mere breath.” In the New International Version it is translated “meaningless.” The International Standard Version uses the word “pointless.”  When used as a metaphor, hebel means something that is fleeting, elusive, ephemeral; here one second, gone the next.

I find it helps us to swap out different words for hebel sometimes, and to say them out loud, to let these verses impact you as they are meant to: “Only vapor of vapor…nothing more than a vapor of vapor! All is just vapor.” Or “Mere breath of breath…it is only a breath of mere breath! It is all nothing more than breath.” Or like the New International Version: “Meaningless! Meaningless!…“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Or finally, to voice the International Standard Version: “Utterly pointless…Absolutely pointless; everything is pointless.”

A good way to picture hebel is to think about watching the breath from your mouth on a cold day. You reach out to touch it, and it is gone.

Feeling encouraged yet? (Sorry, a bit of dark humor.) Let’s pray.

“Oh Lord God, who loves us so much that You give us what we truly need, rather than what we think we want, so that we can not only delight in You but also discover and know our heart’s true desire. Who takes us into the lowest valleys so we can comprehend the glory of Your highest heights, and Who drops us to the bottom of the deepest wells so we can truly see the brilliant stars with which You have adorned Your heavens. Please guide us as we consider this ancient, and often difficult wisdom in Your Word, that points us to your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.”

In late August 1976, a very concerned college counselor asked to meet with me before he authorized my request to withdraw from school. It was highly unusual, he admitted, and he couldn’t really stop me, but I had written something on my withdrawal form that puzzled and worried him. Under the section of the form entitled “Reason for Withdrawing,” I had written, simply, “It is all a vanity and a chasing after wind.” As he pressed me, I just muttered something like “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say. It’s ok.” Unconvinced but still worried, and knowing he wouldn’t get any more out of me, he let me leave and I went back to my life. I was 20 years old.

How could I explain it to him? About 14 months earlier I had experienced a profound, beautiful conversion to Christianity, embracing Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior after having thrown away my entire youth, from age 14, on everything I could get out of the “freak” lifestyle: delinquency, dishonesty, hedonism, self-destruction and hurting others. I left college after my first year, sold most of my possessions, and moved hundreds of miles from home at age 19, from suburban Washington D.C. to Edinboro, Pennsylvania. I wanted to be with the people and church within which I had encountered Christ, and get away from the negative influences at home.  At first, I was profoundly happy, at peace, able to enjoy life as I had never experienced. I had a rich prayer life and devoured the Scriptures. I saw God do many wonderful things for me. But the old ways had begun creeping in, gradually taking over my life.  I backslid completely, walked away from Christianity, and returned to my home in Washington D.C., and to my old life.

The problem is, I had now known something real that I could not deny. I had returned to what I now knew were only shadows, realizing more than ever, that if that is all there was, life was pretty futile. I tried pursuing my old dreams (most of them pretty unreachable anyway considering how I wanted to live), but was now haunted by the unshakeable fact that, even if I achieved everything I hoped for – fame, money, physical pleasure, freedom to do as I wanted whenever I felt like it – that it was all meaningless, a vapor, wind. Whether I was a success or a failure I would eventually be dead and forgotten, and eternity would loom in front of me so endless as to make my life here nothing more than a speck of dust by comparison. It was…pointless.

What came after was a terrible year for me, one in which I sunk to new depths and flirted often with self-destruction. But it stripped away everything, every pretense, until I fully understood that it was Christ or nothing, and with that I had to choose hope or despair, meaning or futility. A little over a year later, I chose hope, I chose meaning, because I finally turned completely and irrevocably to Jesus Christ.

That is the pattern of the Book of Ecclesiastes – to cut off all avenues of escape, to show us the futility of the “broad ways that lead to destruction” not to destroy us, but so we can see and appreciate the “narrow way that leads to life,” as Jesus tells us in Matthew 7, verse 13. It is the confusion and degradation and folly of Jew and Gentile alike to seek any way to live apart from God while preserving the benefits of living in God’s world, right up to and including killing His own Son.  But then, for those who finally see the futility of it, landing at the foot of the Cross.  It is what we look forward to in this Lenten season, and walk through as we move from the ruin of sin to the glory of the Resurrection.

This is why this passage in Ecclesiastes, of all the Bible that I had read in the first rush to Christianity before my backsliding, had stood out to me as I struggled with how to explain why I was leaving college. Having turned my back on God, I could see no point in any of it if I was going to be living, again, in a world that had no Savior.

The writer of Ecclesiastes lays out, in painful detail, the utter folly and hopelessness of any other path to true meaning, to true life.  And didn’t Jesus do the same? “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”, He declares in Matthew 16, verse 26.  Remember Jesus’ admonition to the person endlessly piling up wealth in the well-known “Parable of the Rich Fool”, in Luke 12, verse 20: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Notice how closely His words parallel a similar reflection in the Book of Ecclesiastes (2:18-19): “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” We see here the writer of Ecclesiastes comprehending what Jesus wanted the rich fool to also see – that without God, the wealth—and all the skill he used, and all the work he did to acquire it—was pointless. He would die and go naked into eternity, while someone else—perhaps a fool—got everything that he worked for, and the cycle would start over.

Some of you may recall the 1977 song “Dust in the Wind,” by the rock group Kansas. It not only reflects this somber reality, but shows that this perspective is something that is accessible to the natural person, something by which we can reach them.  Here is how one website summarizes how the song came about: “Kansas guitarist Kerry Livgren wrote this after reading a book of Native American poetry. The line that caught his attention was ‘For All We Are Is Dust In The Wind.’ This got him thinking about the true value of material things and the meaning of success. The band was doing well and making money, but Kerry realized that in the end, he would eventually die just like everyone else. No matter our possessions or accomplishments, we all end up back in the ground.” And here are the lyrics: “I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone. All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity. Dust in the wind; all they are is dust in the wind. Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea. All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see. Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.” Hebel. Vanity. Vapor. Mere breath.

One great and absolutely critical phrase unlocks the meaning of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  It is the phrase “under the sun.” In one form or another (for example, “under heaven”) this phrase appears 29 times in this book. And yet we find it in only one other place in Scripture, Second Samuel Chapter 12, verse 12, and in that other place it has a completely different meaning than it does in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It appears three times in our passage today—twice as “under the sun,” and once as “under heaven.”

The commentator H. C. Leupold has pointed out, correctly, that if we do not properly understand “under the sun,” and see how it is the context for much of the content in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we will gravely misunderstand the book and its teaching. In fact, without the phrase “under the sun,” much if not most of Ecclesiastes would be heresy! Yet once we grasp what the author means by “under the sun,” the real meaning of Ecclesiastes explodes.  Francis Schaefer, and many other evangelical teachers and commentators, have made the same point.

Here is what Leupold says: “Each time the phrase occurs it is as though the author had said, ‘Let us momentarily rule out the higher things.’” Thus, what appears to be heretical or hopeless is interpreted this way, says Leupold: “What I claim is true if one deals with purely earthly values.”  For example, we can say that without God, work is ultimately futile, though it may have temporal value. Another commentator says that “under the sun” is like a “horizontal line” that the author of Ecclesiastes draws across the horizon.  It’s as if he is saying “Let’s just look at everything below this line without reference to anything above this line.”  To put it more simply, we could say that “under the sun” means “this is how things really are if you take God out.”  Ravi Zacharias agrees, saying that it means simply “life without God.” For the philosophically inclined, Ecclesiastes divorced from it ultimate point and conclusion—which we see today in that passage from Chapter 12, is the reality of the godless, whether they acknowledge it or not.  It is exactly what the atheist German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw–nihilism.

That is what I was dealing with in August 1976. I was attempting to reconcile myself to living my life, again, “under the sun”—to live life without God—after having tasted true reality in His Son.

As we walk through elements of the Book of Ecclesiastes together in the next few weeks, we will see that, when we remove God, the obvious realities of life can be very stark, even though life can be in many ways good, and many human virtues can be quite useful. Wisdom, pleasure, fame, social reform, political revolution, planning, craft, saving, prudence – at their best they still ultimately add up to nothing in an endless cycle that has gone on forever before we were born and will continue forever after we die, erasing all our endeavors eventually, and for most of us, sooner rather than later. Under the sun. And yet in God, and for God, all of these things are redeemed, preserved, remembered, meaningful, satisfying, not pointless but pointing toward an ultimate, and good, goal.

From this, we can also deduce that to gain wisdom, and to truly comprehend the beauty and wonder of Christ and all He has done for us, we must sometimes look at what life would be if God did not exist.

Doing so will also help us to understand the plight of our thoughtful but unbelieving friends–to be able to enter into their world and suffering for a moment.  How does getting terminal cancer at age 45 look to them?  Or the death of a young child?  What “psychological solutions” might they try to arrive at to resolve their existential pain; to make the senseless, sensible?

Doing so will also help us to understand the plight of our believing, but sometimes deeply despairing, friends, who are struggling with doubts and fears as they face sometimes truly awful circumstances.

More clearly, doing so will enable us to better see the real brokenness of this world but, by contrast, also see the real awesome beauty and grace of God.  God in all He is and what He does against the real, total futility of what life would be if we were only broken people living among other broken people in a broken world, without God.  To see how hopeless things really are without God.  Then, to look at God again, and see how He really shines in the darkness.

We are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s response to the question “what if heaven, what if the resurrection of the dead, is just a myth”? 1 Corinthians Chapter 15, verses16 through 19 and then 32: “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied…. If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”  But of course, as Ecclesiastes 12 reminds us, there actually is a God, there really is a final judgment, and our toil need not be “vanity.” We do not just live “under the sun.”

J. I. Packer, explaining why he loved the Book of Ecclesiastes so much, accurately described it as “God’s Gospel Bassoon.” Let me close by quoting what he said about this, because he said it so well (note: from a short piece in Christianity Today from 1996):

“I tell people to read the most important books of the Bible most often, and I read Scripture that way myself. But most often of all I go back to the 10-page wisdom tract called Ecclesiastes….

“Sheer bracing delight is the reason: Ecclesiastes does me good. What he says, sadly and beautifully, about the pain of brainwork (the more you know, the more it hurts), about the boredom of the supposedly interesting and the hollowness of achievement (all pointless! like trying to grasp the wind!), about the crazy-quilt character of life, about our ignorance of what God is up to, and about death as life’s solitary certainty, grabs me deep down: for I felt all this as an adolescent, and still do.

“What he says about life’s best being enjoyment of the basics—one’s work, meals, and marriage-makes me want to laugh and cheer, for this, too, is what I have felt all my adult life. My built-in makeup as an antihype, anti-Pollyanna reality man anchors me in Ecclesiastes’ corner, where realism is the name of the game….

“The text that runs most constantly round my heart is Ecclesiastes’ admonitory exit line: ‘Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man [everybody]. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil’ (Eccles. 12:13-14, NIV). In face of life’s randomness and bitterness, says the writer, I must keep worshiping and doing what I have been told to do; then I can’t go wrong.

“…the statement that God will take account of everything done is not a legalistic threat, but an evangelical encouragement. It tells me that ongoing worship and obedience when I feel frustrated, frantic, hurt, cynical, rebellious, and sick of trying actually counts. God is very concerned that I would keep on keeping on in the godly life, no matter what.

“The statement is really a bassoon version, in Old Testament terms, of Paul’s trumpets-and-drums declaration in 1 Corinthians 15:58: ‘Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord’ (NASB). The notes may be an octave lower, but the tune is the same, and bassoon gravity can strike just as deep as trumpet brilliance. So Ecclesiastes helps me hear Paul; and Paul helps me understand Ecclesiastes; and with these twin texts echoing in my ears, I go on my way rejoicing.”

Letter From a Pro-LGBT Christian

I am presenting this letter from “Christian” Mark Yaconelli as it was requested by “Christian” author Anne Lamott for her church’s Sunday School class!  As presented on Sister Anne’s Facebook page.    This speaks for itself.  This is what many people in the Church are thinking, and how they reason regarding the Bible.  We need to teach them better.  This is the very definition of “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

A Letter to Annie’s Sunday School Class on The Bible and Homosexuality

Hey Annie’s Sunday School Class. Good morning. I’m Annie’s friend Mark Yaconelli. Glad you are here. Hope you make Annie bring you donuts and hot cocoa. Did you know many years ago I taught the Sunday School class at St. Andrew’s and brought donuts and hot cocoa as a bribe for Annie’s son Sam and some other kids? They were always much nicer when I gave them sugar and chocolate.

So Annie asked if I’d write you about the Bible. I worked at a seminary for 10 years. I have two graduate degrees in Christian Spirituality. I’ve worked in churches for many years. I’ve been a youth worker most of my life and I’m going to tell you the honest truth about the Bible.

Okay, here’s what all my study has taught me:

The Bible is a weird collection of songs, stories, poems, letters, prayers, rules, dreams, mystical experiences, dietary rules and detailed instructions for building a giant boat.

The Bible is not a book of science, the Bible is not a book of facts.

None of the authors of the Bible ever intended that their writing would help readers grow in their understanding of human biology or science. The people who wrote the Bible are trying to express this overwhelming, freeing, terrifying, exhilarating experience that we have nicknamed “God.” That’s what the Bible is for–to help us encounter God.

The writers of the Bible are pointing out of a window and they want us to look for ourselves and feel for ourselves that there is a welcoming Presence of Love that names us and claims us and frees us to live the lives we’ve always wanted to live.

Jesus said the teachings of the Bible are only useful if they help us love God (the Creator, The Maker, The Compassionate Presence), love other people, and love ourselves. Jesus says this is the Rule of Love—loving others as we love ourselves. This is the most important message of the Bible.

So Jesus teaches that God is only known through Love and every experience of Love is an experience of God. That means when two people love each other, God is there. It doesn’t matter if they are two men, a woman and a man, or two women, if it is real love (mutual care and respect and delight), God is there and it is blessed. Every act of love brings God into the world. When a parent loves her child, when friends love each other, when a stranger offers kindness to a hurting person, when people commit to loving one another (Gay or Straight)—God is there and it is blessed. And here’s the reverse of that:

Anything that leaves you more fearful, more isolated, more disconnected from other people, more full of judgement or self-hatred is not of God, it does not follow the Rule of Love–and you should stop doing it.

Now you may ask, “Hang on. If the Bible says loving others is the highest rule, what about homosexuality? Doesn’t the Bible say homosexuality is wrong?”

Remember, God did not write the Bible. Jesus did not write the Bible (by the way Jesus was silent about homosexuality). People wrote the Bible and people get things wrong all the time. And although the people who wrote the Bible loved God, they also were not scientists nor biologists and they also weren’t God. So they sometimes wrote things that were ignorant or limited or plain wrong. For example they wrote stuff like…

Don’t wear clothes made of more than one fabric (Leviticus 19:19)

Don’t cut your hair nor shave. (Leviticus 19:27)

Any person who curses his mother or father, must be killed. (Leviticus 20:9)

People who have flat noses, or are blind or lame, cannot go to an altar of God (Leviticus 21:17-18)

Anyone who curses or blasphemes God, should be stoned to death by the community. (Leviticus 24:14-16)

Don’t let cattle graze with other kinds of cattle (Leviticus 19:19)

Don’t eat shellfish. (Leviticus 11:10)

Christians don’t believe nor follows these writings. We know shrimp tacos can be delicious and healthy. We know it’s alright to cut your hair. Different cows can graze in a field, no problem. Christians do not follow these rules from the Bible because we know better now. God gave us a brain and intelligence and the capacity to learn and we have learned and now know that many of those ancient rules are just plain ignorant or wrong.

I say all of this because some of the most hurtful writings in the Bible are about homosexuality. There are a few places in the Bible that refer to sexual relationships between two men or between two woman as prohibited or sinful. Sometimes these rules or condemnations were actually about prostitution or abuse, but there are cases where some writings in the Bible condemn homosexuality as sinful. This is sad and unfortunate and has caused a lot of people pain and suffering. What we now know is that just as the Bible was incorrect about wearing mixed fabrics, the writings in the Bible about homosexuality are simply ignorant (people didn’t know what they were saying) and entirely wrong.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are people, created in the image of God, it is their birthright to be honored, respected, and celebrated just like everyone else. The Bible was never meant to be a book about gender or sexual ethics. The people who wrote those things did not know what we now know.

How can we say these teachings are wrong?

One big reason is because of Jesus. Jesus is our primary spiritual teacher and the one who shows us what God is like. Jesus is the one who says: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus is the one the Bible holds up as a window into God. Jesus is the one who teaches us and shows us and helps us feel and know that it is not loving to dominate nor discriminate against other people. To exclude or reject or restrict people because of who they love and how they love goes directly against the Bible and the teachings of Jesus.

Paul (one of the writer’s in the New Testament) says, whenever the Spirit of God is near, you will feel more patient, more generous, more kind, more self-disciplined, more joyful, hopeful, and loving (Galatians 5). So tell me, if you condemn a woman because she loves another woman does that make you feel more generous, kind, and joyful?

In the Gospel of Luke (12:57) Jesus says, “Why don’t you judge for yourself what is right?” Does it feel right, given what we now know about sexuality and human relationships, that LGBT people should be condemned or treated differently than we treat other people? Does that feel loving?

The Bible itself must be judged according to Jesus’ Rule of Love. When we do that, we find that the teachings of the Bible that discriminate against homosexuals are plain wrong. The Bible was never meant to be a book about sexuality and it shouldn’t be treated that way. The Bible is trying to help you go out into the world and meet God for yourself so that you might be more alive, more yourself, more open and connected to other people.

“God is love,” Christians remind one another. This means that Christians experience love as something alive and living and personal and true. This Love that is God and God that is Love is the creating and healing power within life. This Love that is God is kind and patient and humble and free–never trying to control nor manipulate. Every human being has experienced and knows this capital “L” Love that Christians call God.

Christians believe that to receive and share this reality of Love, this God within who live and move and have our being, is the meaning and purpose of life. Why would we stop anyone from experiencing and expressing love? Or to put it another way, why would we stop gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, transgendered–anyone from experiencing, celebrating, and expressing God?

Decline of the Holy Triumvirate

Fundamental to the social order designed by God at creation is the joining of three glorious things: marriage, sex, and children. One man joined to one woman in a permanent sexual relationship marked by love, mutual service and sacrifice, within which children are created and nurtured. I like to think of marriage, sex, and children as a kind of Holy Triumvirate, not of three persons sharing power as in ancient Rome, but of three pillars joyfully and harmonious united to produce human welfare and social stability.

This Holy Triumvirate was disrupted and damaged by the Fall in many ways. None of us have ever been part of a human society in which these three things are perfectly and uniformly united and lived out. Divorce, abuse, illegitimacy, fornication, infidelity, and polygamy are just some of the more obvious problems we see and have seen almost from the moment Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden. Yet one of the great accomplishments of Christian civilization was to elevate and prioritize the unity of marriage, sex and children, establishing it as ideal aspiration in culture and law.

Marriage Sex ChildrenIn recent decades and especially since the 1960’s we have witnessed the disconnection of marriage, sex and children to a breath-taking extent. This appears to be accelerating and developing new and often weird facets and wrinkles almost monthly. Increasingly, folk like me calling for a cultural and legal restoration of the old moral ideals are seen as dangerous and bigoted. At points we are even accused of being responsible for the very pathology that are caused by disuniting marriage, sex and children, because we refuse to accept and reconfigure our society around the new , and constantly changing, moral order. For example, if children suffer from being born out-of-wedlock, or from their parent’s divorce, it is because people like me don’t support tax codes that transfer more money from married couples to single parents, want to use government means to erase the marriage advantages, or because our morals inevitably stigmatize the affected children and their households. If two of every five sexually active teenage girls are afflicted with sexually-transmitted diseases it is because narrow-minded people don’t want them to get free condoms and plenty of sexual education starting at increasingly early ages. If more than half of all births to women under the age of 30 occur outside marriage, we can be sure that the “real” solutions to problems faced by these women include cheaper (taxpayer-funded) and easier abortions, more condoms, loads of social acceptance and (again) a lot of state-induced wealth transfer. The notion that we should seek to return to a culture that uses all normal social and legal channels to encourage people to have sex and procreate only within marriage is seen as not only impossible, but intolerant. Most Americans today appear to believe that we can have real compassion and care for those who fail to achieve the old ideals only by discarding those values. They really believe we should completely stop judging sex within marriage to be morally and practically superior to its alternatives, evidence or not.

Let me briefly consider some of the main ways in which we have pulled marriage, sex, and children apart. I think you will see how new possibilities for doing so continue to emerge, and perhaps you can also think of others that I have inadvertently missed.

Separating marriage from children.

First, we have the obvious high rates of out-of-wedlock births. A little over 40% of all births in the United States are to unmarried women, a figure that ranges from a low of about 16% for Asian-Americans to a high of over 70% for African-American women. The proportion of these that occur within cohabiting unions and are even intended has been increasing rapidly, from 41% in 2002 to 58% in 2006-2010. Given the awful instability of cohabiting unions, along with higher levels of pathology in such households (which I will tackle in an upcoming blog, and which are well-documented by research) this is not a good thing. Moreover, most Americans now find out-of-wedlock child-bearing to be morally acceptable. So, we have lots of babies being born to unmarried women, it is increasingly intentional, and generally Americans are fine with it.

Second, we have our incredibly high divorce rate. Often, this means separating children from an existing marriage. Roughly 40 to 50% of marriages in recent decades have or will end in divorce, and the presence of children does not appear to lower the risk.

Putting these two realities together, a grim picture emerges. According to the U.S. Census, as of 2013, only 58.5% of children under the age of 18 lived with two married biological parents, with about another 1% having two adopted parents. For African-American children, the situation was especially grim: in 2015 only 34% lived with two married parents, and this latter percentage includes kids living not only in adoptive homes but with a step-parent. And many of these children who are living with two married biological parents today will see their parent’s marriage break up before they turn 18. In recent decades, about half of all children in America see their parents divorce before they turn 18, and of those who do, another half will witness the divorce of a parent’s subsequent marriage as well prior to age 18. About one million children a year experience parental divorce.

Separating sex from children

The most obvious thing here is of course contraception. I personally don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing, and believe there are good reasons why married couples might choose to limit child-bearing. My more conservative Roman Catholic friends (unlike most Catholic people generally) would disagree with using any device or pill to prevent conception, and I respectfully dissent. Used however to enable out-of-wedlock sex, this is a wrongful use of this technology. As we saw above, cheap and easily available contraception has not helped us that much with STD’s or out-of-wedlock births.

Abortion, in all but cases of absolute medical necessity, is an unqualified evil, and another way we separate sex from children. Despite recent declines, in the United States roughly one of five babies in the womb are killed by abortion. Imagine the population of a small city being wiped out every year, much of it by organizations whose freedom to kill is arguably better protected by recent Constitutional decisions than the right to bear arms or free exercise of religion. My hope is that someday in the future, we will look back at this era of abortion on demand with profound horror and shame, as Germans used to feel about Dachau, Buchenwald, and Treblinka.

Beyond that, we have the rise of fertilization techniques that bypass sexual intercourse such as In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) or some (not all) Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), with perhaps even more technologies on the way.  (Note: there are plenty of fertility therapies that do not bypass sexual intercourse, and thus do not separate sex from children. These are obviously not what I am talking about.)

Infertility can be heartbreaking for a married couple. When other fertility treatments fail, they may consider therapies that fertilize an egg outside of sexual intercourse. However, there are numerous serious ethical issues involved. These types of solutions should be considered only with counsel from someone well informed on the technologies and solidly grounded in Biblical teaching, in addition to expert medical advice. My opinion is similar to Roman Catholic moral teaching on this particular subject. Inseminating or being inseminated by someone other than one’s spouse, techniques that require the husband to masturbate into a container (usually while viewing pornography), and especially those that involve creating numerous fertilized eggs and then freezing them (with the “excess” typically banked or destroyed) are all seriously problematic. Using a surrogate to carry an egg fertilized by a husband and wife, typically called “gestational surrogacy,” is also dicey for a number of reasons, though less obviously a moral difficult than the latter issues.

Another common practice that rose as a result of various types of fertility drugs and some approaches to doing IVF is accepting the clear risk of multiple-child pregnancies. When this is done with the assumption that “excess” fetuses can later be “removed” (aborted), this is unacceptable. This awful form of abortion, now even requested by women carrying twins and triplets that were not caused by fertility treatment, is often called “pregnancy reduction.” We now even face the specter of a Canadian religious hospital fighting for the right not to selectively reduce one woman’s healthy twin pregnancy to a single fetus!)

Increasingly, the use of non-intercourse means of impregnation like IVF are a matter of choice, not just something that heterosexual marriage couples use to deal with infertility. There are growing numbers of women who, either because they wish to delay childbearing to pursue professional careers or simply want to have a child without a man or marriage, opt for IUI or IVF to some degree or another. We now even have scientists working toward fertilizing eggs with artificial sperm, eliminating the man entirely! Of course, increasingly, homosexual couples are using fertility techniques to have babies without sexual intercourse; for males this means using a surrogate mother as well. Pop singer Elton John and his “husband” are a famous example here. And some (heterosexual) women are coming to fertility clinics to be impregnated without sex so they can have “virgin births.”

Separating marriage from sex

Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind here is the normalization of sex outside marriage. This is not so much adultery, which though more common that we’d like (about 15% of wives and 25% of husbands admit to having had sex with someone other than their spouse while they were married), is still morally rejected by the vast majority of Americans. On the other hand, premarital sex between consenting adults is widely accepted—in 2014, 58% of General Social Survey respondents said it was not wrong at all, and another 15% thought it was only wrong sometimes. And we can say now that almost all Americans have sex prior to getting married, in recent years over much longer periods of time and with many more partners than decades ago.

Beyond that however, less obvious is the creation of homosexual “marriages” in which sex, in the true and fullest sense of the word—sexual intercourse—never takes place at all. This takes us back to two concepts:  annulment and consummation. In a marriage, an annulment is a declaration that a true marriage never took place. That is, there was a marriage ceremony, license, vows, and more, but the conditions or requirements of marriage were not met. It was not a “true” marriage. Annulments may be granted by a church (most well-known in this regard would be Roman Catholic annulments) or by a court. Consummation refers to sealing a marriage through sexual intercourse. This is the sex act that is of the type that leads to procreation, and that in the Christian understanding is the physical expression of a one flesh union between husband and wife. Literally, man-man and woman-woman cannot have sexual intercourse, just as they cannot procreate through the various types of sex acts they engage in.

This is hardly an esoteric point. Although in America these laws are set by state and conditions vary, failure to consummate, understood to mean failure to have sexual intercourse, is a typical grounds for annulment. Great Britain, in drafting final legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in England and Wales in 2014, had to confront this head on. In their common law tradition going back centuries, a grounds for annulment was failure to consummate, with a clear definition of the specific sex act that the latter involved. No one could think of a single thing that man-man and woman-woman do sexually that was equivalent. The final decision was to specifically exclude homosexual marriages from this ground for annulment (since by definition they could then all be annulled!) but leave that protection in force for heterosexual couples. In that sense, they were authorizing marriages without “sex” in them, in the oldest and strictest sense of the word, and distinguishing them from the vast majorities of marriages which would still be expected to be united through sexual intercourse.

It gets stranger. To be consistent, Parliament also excluded adultery as a grounds for divorce for homosexual married couples. Why?  Because adultery is clearly defined as having sexual intercourse with someone other than your spouse when you were married, and man-man or woman-woman cannot do that, no matter what other kinds of mutual sexual activity they engage in with people other than their “spouse.” So in Britain, gay married couples literally cannot commit adultery. Only heterosexuals can.

All of this is tragic and we should have great compassion toward those caught up in and suffering from the fallout from these ever-expanding fractures in our Holy Triumvirate of marriage, sex and children. We are called to speak the truth, but always in love, to a Western culture in which the very seedbed of society is coming apart at the seams. Meanwhile, lets redouble our passion and fidelity to our own marriages and families. Let’s celebrate them and demonstrate the daily fruit of the lives of married people united in loving, one-flesh union welcoming children and committed to nurturing them in the Lord. Let’s speak to our neighbors and fellow citizens about these things, not mocking or denigrating them but not shying away from the truth either. May God give us grace to do this.

Your Marriage Needs the Church

I have not only tracked divorce rates for about thirty years, but have tried to succinctly overview and explain them to college students over the same time.  This is one of the most consistently misunderstood and misrepresented areas in the social sciences.

Getting the rates, and their meaning and interpretation, wrong, means also making serious errors in assessing things that help to sustain, or undermine marriages:  strengths and risk factors.  This is critical not only to understanding population trends, and reasons for them, but in helping communities, churches, and couples constructively address potential dangers and embrace things that are likely to strengthen their marriages.

Nowhere do people, and unfortunately leaders and pastors, get this wrong more than in talking about the divorce rates of professing Bible believers versus others.  Almost every year I share with audiences, including students, that the divorce rates of professing, Bible-believing, “saved,” “born-again” Christians are the same as everyone else’s.  And several times a year, either in the classroom or later through Facebook or email or some other inquiry, I am told that I have misled them.  The reason that I am supposedly wrong, I am told is  this:  regular church attenders clearly do have dramatically lower divorce rates than those who never, rarely, or infrequently attend church.  Since professing, Bible-believing, born-again Christians obviously attend church more regularly than others do, than (they think) I must be wrong when I claim that these believers get divorced just as much as everyone else.

I have received more of these kinds of inquiries or rebuttals since the publication of a book by Shaunti Feldhahn entitled The Good News About Marriage, which includes, among other things (roughly) that argument I laid out in the last two sentences.  Feldhahn’s claims in this regard have received wide, positive circulation in conservative Christian circles (including, sadly, many people and ministries whom I respect).  Without addressing everything in her book, and without denying the value and accuracy of much that she has to say, I do need to object strongly on that point.

You see, these rebuttals to my claims about the sad state of marriage and divorce among professing Bible-believers are always especially frustrating to me.  Why?  Because, in those same talks or classes, I virtually always point out that (a) while professing Bible-believing Christians get divorced as much as anyone else, (b) regular church attenders get divorced a lot less than others.  Then, I virtually always go on to point out that this seeming contradiction is pretty easy to explain, because (c) a very high percentage of professing Bible-believers do not attend church regularly.  (And, there are plenty of theological liberals who, none-the-less, do attend church regularly and as a result, reap the benefits – even though they do not believe that the Bible is true, or fully authoritative, by any means.)  For some reason, a year later my former audiences only remember that I said “(a)” and forget what I said about “(b)” and “(c)” (above).  So they think that the evidence that regular church-goers get divorced less refutes my claim that the divorce among professing believers is the same as everyone else’s.

 I have had two conversations with old and dear friends about this that are illuminating.

One came after I dealt with everything I just said above, in a Sunday School class on marriage. (I am loading edited audios of this class, as I get them done, here).  I talked about the fact that many professing, born-again, Bible-believing Christians don’t go to church regularly, and that this is one of the reasons for high divorce rates in the professing church.  At first, he was skeptical that conservative churches like his really could suffer from such low attendance rates.  He told me that later, he thought about it and realized how many confirmed, “made-a-public-profession-of-faith” voting members of his church did not attend services once per week or even close.  I could go further.  Many of them attended the regular services of that church once a month or less, and some only a few times per year.  These folk who rarely darkened the door of the church they were members of were not disciplined in any way, or even spoken to about it.  If they attended on a Sunday in which the Lord’s Supper was given, they partook without qualms or questions from anyone.  Their status as true Bible-believing Christians was not questioned by the elders.  It hit him directly that what I had said was true – these are people in “good standing” in a conservative church that insists upon adherence to orthodox theology, who could only join after being examined to show that they had truly come to Christ and placed faith in Him, but whose church attendance habits are terrible.  And as a group, so are their divorce rates.  This situation exists in thousands of churches across this country.

The other conversation was with a man who had been introduced to Shaunti Feldhahn’s arguments (through a popular Christian column) and asked me about the “40-50% divorce rate in the professing Church” claim.  I assured him that there were good grounds for this claim, and shared some hard data with him.  But I asked him something that I often ask older Christians to consider, especially Baby Boomers like me, who have been serious committed believers since their younger, single years, got married for the first time as believers to a believer, and have many friends and acquaintances who are identical in this regard.  “Of all your Christian friends and acquaintances who got married over the years and at least, say, ten years ago, how many are now divorced (or more-or-less permanently separated, which is quite common)?  When he thought about it carefully he realized that was…well, about half!  Same for me.  If I look back at all the professing, theologically conservative Christian friends I know who got married over the past thirty to thirty five years, about half are now divorced or irreconcilably separated.  About half.

One argument I hear goes something like this:  “Well, they aren’t real Christians – if they were, they’d be in church regularly.”  Uh, ok.  Isn’t that a bit circular?  Yes, there is some truth in that.  A church member who refuses to connect and remain committed to his or her local church is someone who, at a certain point, should be challenged.  We might even have grounds to reasonably question the state of their heart.  (And hopefully do so not to condemn them but in order to encourage and help them.  In fact, we should do that.  Most churches don’t, but all churches should.)  I suppose we could say the same thing about regular prayer and Bible reading.  But going by public profession, and considering that we don’t (in practice) reject folk as believers based on inconsistent use of the means of grace, I am a bit hesitant to go there.

So let me share just a little data, and then some closing thoughts of application.  (By the way, for more detail on this and related issues, see the video of a dinner presentation I gave in April 2015 here.)

First, I need to say some things about measuring divorce in a population.  (a) Divorce is dynamic and on-going.  Thus, in any group of people who have ever been married, you will have some who are now divorced or legally separated, some who are widowed, and some who are married.  Among those who are married or widowed, some were divorced previously.  And among some who are married, some will get divorced in the future.  (b) Divorce is heavily “front-loaded.”  The vast majorities of divorces that will ever occur take place within the first ten years of marriage.  For example, the U.S. Census noted that, as of 2009, the average first marriage that ended in divorce went like this:  separation by year 7, finalized divorce by year 8.  As a result, researchers typically look at marriage cohorts (that is, every marriage that started in a given time period, such as “first marriages that started in 2000 through 2002”).  They do so ten to fifteen years later or more.  Then, they make a reasonable projection, based on standard patterns of frequency of divorce across the span of marriage, on how many additional divorces will take place in the future, among those marriages that are still intact at the time they captured the data. Roughly, if about 38% to 40% of all couples who got married in 2000 are divorced or legally separated by 2010 to 2015 (and I am being conservative here, I’d go with just 2010 with a lot of confidence), about half of those marriages will have ended in divorce by the time that every person in that original, 2000 marriage cohort is deceased.  This is not that speculative, this is based on very sound, long-term, empirically-measured experience.  (c) Legal separations need to be included.  Although some happy exceptions occur, the overwhelming majority of legal separations are in fact a virtual divorce.  Either the couple ends up formally divorced eventually, or the legal separation remains permanent and irreconcilable.

OK, that technical stuff is out of the way.  What are the facts?  I will look at one excellent data source, the General Social Survey (GSS).  This has been performed using large national samples since 1972, by the prestigious National Opinion Research Corporation (NORC), and is widely used by researchers and policy makers.

Taking only those who have ever-been married, and combining the years 1972-2012 of the GSS, I see that for those who had first been married ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed, 36.5% had been divorced or legally separated at the time they were surveyed.  (Some had then remarried, others had not.)  Among those in the same group who were classified as “Protestant fundamentalists” (based on a combination of factors, which would together include almost all professed “evangelicals”), that figure was 41%!  That is actually higher.  But among those (again, who had been married for the first time ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed) who attended church about every week or more, that figure was 24%  Add in those who say they attended church at least two to three times per month, and the figure was 28%.

So, regular church attenders had much lower divorce rates.  Still too high, but lower.

(If we restrict ourselves only to more recent decades, by looking at 1992 through 2012, the situation gets worse.  Overall, 40.5% of all couples first married ten to fifteen years prior to being surveyed had divorced or legally separated, and the same figure was 43% for conservative Protestant believers.  But again, for regular church attenders divorce rates were far lower:  31% for those who were in services about once per week or more.)

So if regular church attenders have lower divorce rates, why are the divorce rates of conservative Protestant believers just as high, or even higher, than average?  Because lots of these folk, despite what they claim about their faith, don’t attend church regularly.  In fact, among ever-married “fundamentalist Protestants” who were surveyed by the GSS between 1972-2012, fully 54% admitted to attending church less than once per week.  Another 17% attended church one to three times per month.  The rest were very infrequent and sporadic.  This is especially troubling because, in surveys like this, particularly among those who are more religious, there is a demonstrated tendency for respondents to overstate how often they attend church.

These low church attendance rates are not, as some claim, something one only sees at places like megachurches or the more liberal wings of the evangelical world.  Even in one fairly small conservative church we were members of for some years, the gap between the voting members listed in the church directory, and the folk one saw at church most Sundays, was huge (as I mentioned earlier).

As I used to tell my Sunday School marriage class – “if you aren’t here, we can’t help you”. (Of course, the folk who needed to hear me say that weren’t there!  Which I suppose is the point.  My hope here is to reach some of them on the Web instead!)

The author of the Book of Hebrews strongly warned early Christians that they should not “forsak(e) the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some…” (Hebrews 10:25a)  After all, it is in that assembly that we “exhort one another” (v. 25b), in which we help each other to “hold fast the confession….without wavering” (v. 23) and “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (v. 24).

Christians need each other, and they need to relate to each other (in addition to other ways) within the on-going ministry of the Church, especially meeting together on the Lord’s Day.  Christian marriages need the instruction, encouragement, on-going ministry and care, preaching, sacraments, fellowship, practical support, early intervention, pastoral care, and all else that a healthy, Biblical church should be providing.  If their church is not a healthy, Biblical church, and constructive change is not likely, then they should consider finding another church.  (Not church-hopping, but also not “sticking out” a place in which basic spiritual meat and drink is too sparse to keep them “alive.”)  To believe we can function without the church is to claim that we can be faithful to God without also being faithful to doing what God says we need to do!  How much sense does that make?  That is impossible by definition.  If we claim to live under the authority of the Word of God, while neglecting its clear instructions about being regular participants in the assembly of His saints, we are deceiving ourselves.  And the fact is, we were not designed to make it on our own.  (Except when God provides extraordinary grace for unusual (and hopefully temporary, circumstances.)

This is also developing a habit of commitment to something larger and more important than ourselves.  This is being committed, week in and week out, to something that we need and to others who need us, whether we feel like it or not.  And isn’t that what marriage requires too?

Imagine that someone told you that you can get into athletic trim while exercising only when it is convenient or pleasurable, never when it is hard, and that you can do it without ever skipping anything that would be more fun than exercising. Would you believe it?  Why then do we take that approach to the discipline of regular attendance, with our family and our spouse, at church?

Ultimately too, the real question of faith-authenticity has to be addressed.  That is not for me to answer for anyone ultimately, but for infrequent attenders to confront honestly.  Real faith produces action consistent with it.  Because I believe the floor is solid, I stand on it.  If I was afraid to stand on it, then that would mean I don’t really believe that it is solid, regardless of the claims I am making with my lips.  The Apostle James said that we should demonstrate our faith by our works.  He said that faith without works is dead. (He actually says it twice in the space of four consecutive sentences.)  James said that even the demons believe in one God, and fear Him, and yet do not have true saving faith. (James 2: 17-20)  Real faith produces works consistent with it.  And for the Christian, that includes joining oneself to the Body of Christ, to serve, and to be served, by and within it.

Of course we are sinners.  Of course the carry through of our faith into our actions is going to be horribly flawed, beset by stumbling and backsliding.  Of course this includes our commitment to the church, and to other basic disciplines of the Christian life such as Bible reading and prayer.  But the very sin nature that often makes it hard for us to be as committed to regular church attendance as we ought to be, is the very reason we need it.  In a healthy church, sinners help sinners under the care of the Good Shepherd.  You need it.  I need it.  Your family needs it.  My family needs it.  Your marriage needs it.  My marriage needs it.

Keeping Marital Vows in an Egoistic World

One of the fatal weaknesses of the modern evangelical church, and to a great (though lesser) extent of those who are active Roman Catholics, is that we have not demonstrated, to a watching world, a radical commitment to honor our own marital vows through thick and thin.  We allow the slightest things, even variations in our feelings and personal emotional states, to serve as excuses to walk away from our marriages and, when we deem it necessary, our children. Leaving our spouses to find greener pastures appears to be about as common among professing Christians as everyone else. (I will back this up with some data in my next post, but I don’t wish to focus on statistics here.)

High divorce rates, low and declining marital rates, high out-of-wedlock birth and cohabitation rates and (yes) homosexual “marriage” all reflect this highly individualized, “therapeutic” view of matrimony.  That is, marriage is seen as being just one relationship choice among many to be abandoned or turned down if it fails to deliver personal happiness or fulfillment, vows or not, children or not.  Not surprisingly, the more Americans look to marriage as just another “voluntary committed relationship” to deliver subjective and emotional benefits on their own terms, the less it is able to actually deliver these desired “goods.”  As Robert Bellah et al pointed out in the 1985 social science classic Habits of the Heart:

‘Finding oneself’ is not something one does alone.  The quest for personal growth and self-fulfillment is supposed to lead one into relationships with others, and most important among them are love and marriage.  But the more love and marriage are seen as sources of rich psychic satisfactions, it would seem, the less firmly they are anchored in an objective pattern of roles and social institutions.  Where spontaneous interpersonal intimacy is the ideal, as is increasingly the case, formal role expectations and obligations may be viewed negatively, as likely to inhibit such intimacy.  If love and marriage are seen primarily in terms of psychological gratification, they may fail to fulfill their older social function of providing people with stable, committed relationships that tie them into the larger society.  (P. 85)

Love and commitment, it appears, are desirable but not easy.  For in addition to believing in love, we Americans believe in the self.  Indeed…there are few criteria for action outside the self.  The love that must hold us together is rooted in the vicissitudes of our subjectivity.  (P. 90)

Every trend that Robert Bellah and his co-authors noted in Habits of the Heart regarding love and marriage has accelerated in the thirty plus years since it was first published.  At that time the authors noted that the evangelical church was one of the few remaining groups consciously and intentionally bucking the therapeutic view of marriage.  Since then, it too has increasingly succumbed to the siren call of rooting marriage in egoism, rather than seeing it as love realized in action within institutionalized and publicly affirmed solemn commitments.  Marital love of this latter, more durable sort is actually able to deliver personal meaning and happiness better precisely because it is motivated by things far larger, better, more important, beautiful and profound than self-gratification.

Even the rationale for having children, and what we expect from them and feel we owe them, is now seen in egoistic terms not only in the larger culture but, too often, in the professing church.  Every time a professing believer says to me, “The main way to make sure children are happy is to ensure that the parents are personally fulfilled” (usually as an excuse for “moving on” in divorce) I cringe, and am saddened that even our commitments to our children are now subject to the adult quest for self-realization.  A sad fact I have to cover each time I teach Marriage and Family class is that, according to most research, the presence of dependent children has little impact, pro or con, on the chance that a married couple will divorce.

(If our culture as a whole, including the professing church, has pushed increasingly toward the “therapeutic” orientation described in Habits of the Heart, the so-called “millennials”– professing believers or not–are going beyond anything Bellah and company might have predicted, and to breathtaking degrees.  Not only have their “committed relationships” become extremely fluid and anomic, but we now even see therapeutic, subjective, shifting choice in sexual roles and identities.  Many if not most millennials take it as an article of faith that reality can be bent to match their personal feelings, including their “gender identity”.  Each year, fewer millennials view living consistently, and comfortably identifying, with their biological sex as something normal and natural to be embraced. Rather, according to some studies half or more see their gender identities as “assigned” or “chosen” rather than God-given and rooted in biological fact, shifting with time, self-perception, and peer-influence, and available in more “flavor combinations” than Baskin Robbins ice cream.)

Marriage as a disposable consumer good?   It was not always so.  As recently as the time when many Baby Boomers like me were born, believers and unbelievers alike accepted the idea that marriage was something larger than the individuals within it and their personal gratification.  In ideals, culturally-admired examples and heroes, and often in fact, the idea that simply keeping one’s word, including one’s marital vows, is honorable, morally good, and expected, even though it might become very hard, was widely held.  That this involved men taking on the obligations of men, and women those of women, and both willingly sacrificing themselves for the welfare of each other and their children, as well as for their communities, beliefs, and nation, was unquestioned.  We saw it all around us.

My wife Kathy’s family doctor from when she was growing up in the 1960’s was not a Christian believer. And yet he displayed wonderfully the beauty of commitment to marital vows to remain faithful to our spouses in all circumstances as long as both partners live.  His wife had a complete mental breakdown.  She had been locked up in a mental hospital for decades, and was probably going to remain so for the rest of her natural life.  This physician thus had no normal access to his wife – sexually, emotionally, or relationally – other than to visit her in the state hospital.  There wasn’t much opportunity for her to satisfy his “felt needs.”  People used to ask him why he just did not simply divorce her.  His answer was very simple, and went something like this: “When I promised that I would be faithful to her in sickness and in health until death do us part, I meant it. I am going to honor my promise”.  Now this is an unbeliever honoring his promise to his wife through enormous distress in ways that go beyond what many believers would be willing to endure.  Can I learn from that? Should we all learn from that?  Should we respect that?  Should we honor a man like that?  Unbeliever or not, is Jesus modeled in that, does this physician tell us something about our Savior?  I think the answer to these questions is clearly, “yes”.  I know that he had a very powerful and positive impression on my wife, and I am grateful for that. Because you see, by God’s grace, my wife and I hope we have that kind of commitment to each other, and we know that the future could require just that kind of sacrifice to something larger than ourselves, and to each other.

Compare this unbelieving physician to Rev. Pat Robertson, the famous television preacher, faith healer, and ordained Baptist minister. You may recall the dust-up a few years ago when he claimed, on national television, that it is acceptable for a committed Christian to divorce his wife and marry someone else if she has Alzheimer’s disease. His reasoning was that a wife with advanced Alzheimer’s was more or less dead, unable to meet her husband’s needs.  So at that point, as long as her husband makes sure she is taken care of, he should be able to put her away, divorce her, and get himself another wife who can better fulfill his marital needs.  That is a hideous claim.  I know there are a lot of wonderful things that Pat Robertson has done and said, but the bottom line is that this counsel encouraged the man in question to defy the vow that he and his wife almost certainly made to each other before God and human witnesses when they got married.  It doesn’t, at all, fit the teachings of the Scriptures that married persons are bound to their spouses as long as either of them lives (or for many, unless the extremely serious moral failing of one party has created legitimate grounds for divorce).

From which person am I getting a more truthful statement about what marital vows should mean for, and might require from, me – my wife’s childhood family doctor, or Pat Robertson?  I think the answer there is quite obvious.

Rev. Robertson would probably assert that his teaching here bears no resemblance to that of the Christian rock musician Trey Pearson who recently claimed that, having “discovered” that he was homosexual and would never change, he was being “led” to leave his wife and two children to pursue the gay life, apparently with the blessing and encouragement of his professing Christian counselors and pastors.  It is interesting to see the way Mr. Pearson describes this, in terms that Robert Bellah and his co-authors would have found very familiar:  “There is absolutely no conflict with accepting who I am and following Jesus.  God wants me to be healthy, authentic, whole, integrated and my truest self.”  Trey Pearson has to be “me.”

Authentic identity for a true Christian can only be found in self-sacrificing service to the Lord Jesus Christ in obedience to the Word of God which He is also identified with and affirms as being the essence of (John 1:1-5).  This includes keeping his public vows to his wife and two children.  Apparently, these are not constraints that Mr. Pearson or his pastoral counselors felt should interfere with his pursuit of self-fulfillment.  My heart breaks for him, as it does for the false guides who helped to lead him to this awful decision.  I am further grieved by his choice to market this “revelation” to the larger Christian church.  This hope that he has and that he was promised is a mirage; it is sand not water, and it will not deliver the goods for which he longs.  “For My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.”  (Jeremiah 2:13)

We find something similar in the “testimony” of the (now retired) highly popular Evangelical (now, “and Ecumenical”) Women’s Caucus speaker Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.  What she describes as the “Voice” spoke to her brain, as her husband and son lay sleeping, and informed her that God just wanted her to be happy.  Thus, she was able to joyfully leave her husband and son in order to pursue life as a self-described Bible-committed lesbian activist, in about 1973.

These kinds of stories are becoming increasingly common, and those of us who remain committed to a Biblical view of marriage and sexuality find them, and their broadening acceptance in both the larger culture and in the professing Church, disturbing and saddening.  However, if we are honest, how much worse or different are these than the many narratives of heterosexual professing Christians explaining and justifying why they have abandoned their spouses?  I recall one very nice woman who was one of my students in Dallas.  Describing herself to me as a committed, conservative, Bible-believing Baptist, she went on to tell me that she was in the act of divorcing her husband, despite the toddler son they had together. Why?  Because, tied up as he was in completing a medical residency, he did not feel he could quit to stay home with their son full-time so she could attend law school (and first, finish college).  God did not want her to be unhappy, she informed me, and He had also promised to take care of her son after their marriage dissolved.  She did not see any conflict between her Biblical convictions and leaving her husband.  This is not quite as bad as the woman I know who left her husband for someone else’s husband because (she claimed) the latter was a “stronger Christian leader,” but its right up there!

Years ago, my pastor in Texas gave me a book of sermons by a fellow that I had heard of but was not personally familiar with, named B.B. Warfield.  Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921), the famous “Old Princeton” Seminary professor and minister, had quite a pedigree: his uncle was a former U.S. Vice President and Confederate general, his father a U.S. Senator and Attorney General, his brother a college president.  This set of sermons my pastor gave me is called Faith and Life.  It is a collection of sermons that he preached to Princeton seminary students on Sunday afternoons.  Every single one of these sermons was theologically rich but practical and inspiring.  Dr. Warfield was the quintessential Renaissance genius, but the warmth of his heart was incredible.  After reading a few of these sermons I decided that this is a man I wanted to know more about, to see what B.B. Warfield the man was all about.  And here is one of the things I read about (sometimes exaggerated in some accounts, but even in recent, carefully checked biography still inspiring and convicting).

B.B. Warfield

B. B. Warfield

In 1876, Benjamin Warfield got married.  He and his wife Annie took a honeymoon to Europe.  When he was with his brand new bride, probably married for a few weeks, they were in the mountains hiking.  They were caught in a severe lightning storm.  If you have ever been out in one of those, you know what they are like. Something happened to her that day, no one appears to be certain exactly what, but it appears to have led to a nervous disorder.  She progressively got worse over time, eventually becoming an invalid.  Though many accounts appear to have overstated the speed of the onset, and severity, of her disability, there appears to be little doubt that she required a lot of ongoing care that increased over time especially by the 1890’s, and that her husband lovingly cared for her until her death in 1915, then he died about five years later.  They were never able to have children.  Caring for her certainly meant limiting his engagements elsewhere (a tough thing for a world-famous Princeton theologian), especially in their later years.  Interestingly, this appears to have increased his scholarly productivity.

People used to comment that B.B. Warfield was called “the Lion of Princeton” and “the last of the great Princeton theologians”.  Dr. Gresham Machen, no slouch himself in the defense of orthodox Protestantism, said “When B.B. Warfield died, old Princeton died”.  Some people were afraid of him. When he would go into a meeting and begin to attack heresy, his opponents had to hold onto their hats, because he was going to win.  He hated to see professing Christians corrupting the church.

Imagine his students observing his care, devotion, and commitment to his wife and his marriage, living out the tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith that he loved and defended so ably, including its categorical call to marital commitment and endurance in Chapter 24 section 6, and the reminder that the purposes of marriage include the “mutual help of husband and wife” in section 2 of that same chapter.  We know that the quality of Warfield’s marriage had a profound impression on not only Machen but one of his other famous students, O.T Allis.

Warfield would be someone with real “street cred” when it comes to faithfully applying Biblical teaching on marital commitment, to use the modern slang.  He would certainly not agree with Trey Pearson and his counselors, or Virginia Mollenkott and her Voice, or Pat Robertson (“my happiness, ‘needs’ and personal fulfillment, vows or not!”); but his life would also give his faithful Biblical teaching authenticity.  Nobody could say that B.B. Warfield was not committed to the institution of marriage and that he was not willing to give up personal pleasure if that is what it took to maintain his vows.  Is this characteristic of the church today?  It should be.

In contemplating this, I will say that when I need examples of marital commitment, tenderness, fidelity, and self-sacrificing love I don’t need to only think of well-known Christians far away in status, space and time like B.B. Warfield.  I have had the privilege of knowing more than a few folk, some of whom I know I have profound theological and political differences with, who inspire me with the love they have given their spouses, and continue to sacrificially serve when many others would have given up.  I have seen, and been inspired by, this across decades of my Christian experience.  Marriages that have withstood the overdose deaths or suicides of sons or daughters, spouses who have remained tender and faithful in the face of the complete disability of their partner through various forms of profound, chronic, and terribly disruptive mental and physical disability, permanent emotional and sexual rejection, and more.  Yet, like Jesus to His Bride the Church, to His people, to us — faithful.  May that be said of us, lesser, married saints also.

wedding-vows

Truth and Love: Staying on the Log

Birling is a little known sport featured at lumberjack contests.  The trick is, roughly, to maintain one’s balance on a spinning log floating in the water longer than one’s opponent who is trying to do the same thing on the same log.  This always struck me as frightfully difficult. Something similar is funambulism, or, walking on a tightrope.  In both birling and funambulism, special gear is often used to assist the person, including the right footwear, and balancing poles (in birling, abandoned once the contest begins in earnest).

Birling Contest

Imagery from these sports has found its way into popular speech.  We might make a comment such as “he constantly has to walk a tightrope.” (One is reminded of the well-known section in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels describing how Lilliputian ministers were chosen or kept their rank by performing this task.)  Or we might say that someone is trying to avoid falling off one side of the log or the other.  When we point out that doing something is as “easy as falling off a log” (as Frank Gilbreth unwisely predicts about having his tonsils out without anesthesia, in the original film version of the book Cheaper By The Dozen), we are stating the truth by declaring its opposite – that staying on that log is extremely tricky, while falling off of it is unbelievably easy.

The idea is of course maintaining a delicate and difficult balance between two equally important and necessary things, in the face of not only our limitations, but opposition, including opponents who seek victory over us by “knocking us off balance.”  It is much easier to go one direction or the other than to stand upright.  Constant vigilance and corrective action is necessary to succeed, and frequently failing, then having to get back on that log (or tightrope), is the experience of all who attempt to master it.

Philipe Petit Walking Tightrope World Trade Center

Philippe Petit’s Famous Tightrope Walk at World Trade Center, 1974

It seems to me that the Christian life is filled with birling and funambulism.  There are many areas in which fruitful and faithful service to Christ requires standing upright on a log or tightrope, often while life, the world, our own inadequacies, the actions of opponents, and certainly our real enemy (Satan) makes being swept off to one side or the other almost irresistible.  Heart or head?  Both.  Word or deed?  Both.  Work or rest?  Both. Grace or law?  Both.  Denounce sin or declare grace?  Both.  And just like folk doing birling or funambulism, we as Christians need to have the right equipment and know how to use it.  For us, these include: the Word of God; the Holy Spirit working within us and speaking to us in His wonderful “still, small voice”; the wise counsel of our spouses, families, spiritual overseers and friends; regular and faithful preaching applying Scripture to our lives; and even at times the solid truth embedded in the rebukes and attacks of our critics, enemies and opponents.

We can also see that maintaining equilibrium doesn’t simply mean keeping opposites in balance.  Rather, it involves understanding the mutual complementarity of both sides in a marvelous whole; appreciating the ways one cannot really exist without the other, but rather are mutually depending and reinforcing.

One of the hardest logs to stand balanced on is “truth or love.”  In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul describes “speaking the truth in love” (v. 15).  The reader, as always, should note the larger context of this phrase.  That is, speaking the truth, but in love, is part of the work of the Church and the saints together, as the Church and its people individually grow in unity and in Christ, become mature (‘no longer children”), and avoid being “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men….” (v. 14).  The saints within the Body of Christ speaking the truth in love and so growing individually and corporately while remaining faithful to sound teaching in the face of opposition and false doctrine.

This applies so very clearly in the modern conflicts about matrimony in which every single area of godly marriage, including sexual practice and gender identity, is being contested inside and outside the professing church.  On the one side, we have those who are willing to compromise truth to be “loving” – and so fail to be truly loving despite their good intentions.  On the other hand, often (actually or in their minds) provoked by the increased hostility of our culture to sound Christian teaching and practice, we have those who claim to pronounce truth but do so in mean-spirited, hateful, out-of-balance ways.  Since they are rejecting love for truth, they generally end up with neither, as their understanding of truth becomes twisted by their lack of love.  Either way — truth without love, or love without truth — we have neither, and because of that, we also do not have unity, maturity, or any of the other fruits we enjoy when truth is spoken in love.

When we hear awful things like Pastor Steven Anderson celebrating the Orlando massacre because its victims were (mostly) homosexual, we do not see truth.  Rather, we see someone with a terrible black hole where love should be, wielding Scriptures out of context as weapons to destroy.  We have a man who is far more in need of forgiveness than the unfortunates he is denouncing and mocking.   In the mouths of the Steven Andersons (or Westboro Baptist churches) of this world, the Biblical teaching that God regards homosexual practice as sin is not magnified at all, but lost within a terrible, sick, perverted lie – that God would ever rejoice in someone engaging in the mass slaughter of innocent people.  I cannot judge this man’s ultimate state before God, but I can say that, so far as I can tell, “Pastor” Anderson and I do not serve the same God.  My God delays final judgment not because He winks at sin, but because He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  In other words, my God presents truth in love.  He presents truth because He loves.  My God, in His zeal for both truth and love, would rather sacrifice His own Son to a criminal’s death in the Cross than to see one of His little ones perish; showing Himself to be both just and our justifier (Romans 3:26).  My God Himself not only endured the full horror of our just punishment, but He also forgave the men who stood at the base of the Cross who had hammered thorns into His head, spat on, whipped, and mocked Him, were taking public pleasure in His suffering.  Love and truth.  Mercy and justice.  Each one-hundred percent, in harmonious, complementary, radiant beauty.

I learned something about this need for both truth and love, joined at the hip, when I was a fairly young college professor in my first teaching position.  We had professors in this college who, despite the evangelical nature of the school and a clear statement of faith, were downplaying Biblical teaching on sex outside marriage (for example, one group wanted condom machines installed in the bathrooms!).  Some were even openly promoting and defending abortion, with some students even claiming that one professor was actually transporting pregnant students to abortion clinics.  Partly as a result, according to the Director of a local pro-life pregnancy center who sought me out, we had a high rate of sexually active students, pregnancies, and (sadly) abortions.

Sobered by this, where appropriate, I used my classes (for example, Social Problems, or Family) to tackle issues such as sex outside of marriage and abortion head-on, using Scripture but also empirical research to underscore the damage, risks, heart-aches associated with both.  I counseled students about it, trying to be direct and loving at the same time, though I am sure that my carry-through was often of lower quality than my intentions.  (I imagine my students often forgave a lot!)  At one point, I even sponsored a “standing room only” debate between two local church leaders on the issue of how to best promote the pro-life agenda. Not everyone was happy about this of course, though students seemed to honestly appreciate it and the classes in which I dealt with this material were extremely well-enrolled and got solid course ratings.  I wasn’t perfect, far from it, but I did try to be loving and truthful at the same time, and I did regularly get counsel from others as I tried to minister in this area, including from my pastors.

Being young and stupid, one semester, I made the class project for my Research Methods course a survey of students’ sexual practice and beliefs.  The results were awful, revealing that the majority of our students were sexually active by the time they graduated, and that most of these became so while enrolled there, despite promises they made and the statement of faith each had signed.  These were traditional-aged students, and virtually none of them were married.

Back then, when one did statistical analysis on the computer, one issued “orders” from a computer station that were then sent to a printer in a separate room, generating results on large sheets of green and white striped paper.  Results did not appear on the screen.  So if one had help, rather than running back and forth between one room and the other as one generated and checked requests for tables, F scores and the like, one would station a helper in the printer room to check results, who reported back to the person actually doing the statistical requests on the computer, sorted findings into various stacks, and so on.  On the evening when we were finally ready to run the results from the survey data we had quality-checked and entered, I did the computer work, while one of the members of the class, a young lady, was stationed at the printer.

I realized as I was working that I had not heard from her in a while.  These were the days before cell phones, so I went to the printer room to check on her.  I found her there openly weeping, the results before her on the table. She turned to me, tears streaming down her face, and said something like “this is just awful.”  When I looked at the figures, I agreed with her – I had no idea things were this bad, especially knowing (given how surveys of sensitive issues worked) that the reality at this college was probably worse than those numbers.  “What do you think we should do?” I asked her.  She replied something like this, “Can’t we just bury this, forget it?”  I knew she was distraught, and of course tried to minister to her.  At the time, I thought that her tears were simply a Biblical reaction to learning about the reality at this school.

The following year I had taken another teaching position and moved far away to another state.  One day, I was working in my office in my home.  My wife Kathy brought a letter to me that had just arrived, from one of my former students.  I opened it.  Soon, I had tears falling down my cheeks.  I will never forget it.

You see, the letter was from the young lady who had been in the printer room that night.  She said something like this:  “Professor Ayers, you may not remember me, but I was the girl crying at the printer that night.  What you didn’t know at that time was that, when we were running those results, I had just discovered that I was pregnant.  What you also didn’t know at the time was that I had already decided to have an abortion.  You were the only professor at [this college] who talked to us about these things.  I wanted to let you know what happened.  I wanted to let you know that I decided to keep the baby.  And I wanted to thank you.  As I write this letter, my little girl is on my lap.  She is alive because of you.”

In New York City where I lived, a number of Hassidic Jews were involved in the pro-life movement, often quite actively so.  They used to cite their Talmudic belief that “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”  Whether or not that is a valid interpretation of the Talmud is beyond me.  I do know that, as each human being is of infinite worth, logically, this statement is true.

Regardless, I realized then what I still believe.  I face pressure to compromise the truth.  Not for my sake, or for my pride, but for the sake of not only my own soul but everyone and everything I care about, I cannot and must not do that.  Wisdom?  Surely.  Discretion?  Absolutely.  But speak the truth as best as I am able to comprehend that truth.  But I also face pressure to compromise love, to lash out, to hate, to feel righteous, censorious, superior.  To focus on winning arguments rather than embracing people.  And so I have to try, by the grace of God and with the constant help of others, to stay on that log, to walk that tightrope.  When I fall off, to get back on, and quickly.  Maybe, just maybe, someone’s life will (once again) depend on it.