Friday, October 29, 2010

Men Who Won't Lead, and the Women Who Follow Them Part 2

In a previous post I wrote: "Some may use the obvious neglect of spiritual things by men to justify flipping the roles of husband and wife or ordaining women to be elders and preachers. In my next post, I'll explain why this isn't a good idea." Well, it has been quite awhile, but I'm going to finally explain why switching roles isn't a good idea. Before I get started, I want to invite you to peruse your Bible for insight into God's design for men and women in the home and the church. I'm not going to explore the roles here. I'm going to assume them.

The short answer is very simple: God isn't a pragmatist and the world he has ordained is built for redemption rather than efficiency. God has not given us an open invitation to do whatever seems right to us. The ends do not justify the means in God's economy. We are all merely stewards or caretakers of what God has already put in place. We are not improvisers and entrepreneurs who win the world and carry the day with our can-do attitude. We are servants who take what our Master has spoken and try to carry it out as faithfully and precisely as we are capable. So if God's plan A - the one he has revealed in the Bible - doesn't seem to be working so well, we are not permitted to develop and implement a plan B that will get the job done better.

Are we to believe that God has been caught off-guard by the lack of godly men in the home and church? Has he been suckerpunched by his sons when he wasn't looking? Is he in Heaven with his head buried in his hands, distraught at how unfaithful men have become? No, no and um, no. God knows the time we live in and he knows our culture. He's aware of our idols and how much they distress and depress us. As we look at the abysmal state of masculinity all around us, we have nothing to fear. God is on his throne and "works all things according to the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11). So we can't allow ourselves to respond out of fear rather than faith. Faith follows God. Fear replaces him.

Here are a few practical things to consider in the home:

1. When husbands won't lead in the things of the Lord, wives must not neglect these things. Would it be ideal for husbands to lead? Yes. Are there many wives longing for their husbands to lead? Yes. But the fact remains that many husbands continue to live for themselves and their little kingdoms. That situation does not lessen the responsibility of their wives to be faithful to God as much as they are capable.

2. However, wives should not reverse Scripture because they think they can lead better than their husbands. Maybe they can lead better, but that's not what they're called to do. This is where wives must not be afraid of God's design, but trust God more than their own ideas.

3. This does not mean that women shouldn't set a good example of faith and godliness. They should obey God while being respectful to their husbands. They shouldn't neglect to meet with their Christian brothers and sisters, even if their husbands forbid it. And if their husbands won't lead in spiritual things, then wives should make sure the kids' spiritual nurture isn't neglected. But they must be respectful to their husbands anyway.

Here are a few practical things to consider in the church:

1. Even though a group of godly men (elders) is ideal to lead a church, it is not wise to settle for ungodly men if there aren't any godly ones. In other words, one godly elder is better than five ungodly ones who aren't really qualified.

2. In addition, we can't appoint godly women as elders, even though they may best the most godly men in the church in terms of faithfulness and love. Again, God is not always efficient. Pray for God to raise up godly men to be elders and wait.

3. This doesn't mean that women don't have important roles as sages and godly examples in the church. Men and women can grow in faith and godliness from the wise examples and even teaching of godly women. There is a difference between using spiritual gifts that both men and women receive and making definitive decisions concerning the direction of the entire body.

This post has been brief because the premise is simple. As backwards as it sounds, and I agree that it does sound backwards, it's better to follow God's plan for gender roles than replace it with something that seems better to us.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pastoring Women from IXMarks

There's a lot of good stuff in the latest 9 marks e-journal. I thought Jani Ortlund's article was particularly helpful.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Men Who Won't Lead, and the Women Who Follow Them

In The Pursuit of Pleasure in the Pleasure of Another: A Christian Hedonist Guide to a Happy Marriage, I argue that husbands are "leading lovers" who sacrificially strive to use their God-given status as husbands to benefit their wives rather than consume them. And wives are "submissive helpers" who submit to their husbands' loving leadership. These roles complement rather than compete with one another. Everyone is happy, and all is good and right with the world... until reality sets in.

The truth is, I know many wives who would say, "My husband isn't loving or a leader. How can I submit to him?" On the flipside, I know many husbands who would say, "My wife doesn't submit to anything, no matter how much I love her." I'm the first to admit that the vision I propose in the book is more an ideal to be attained rather than a reality to be enjoyed. But it's better to know God's view of marriage, and the role of husbands and wives in it, then it is to coast through with no goal other than immediate personal gratification.

I've been reading an excellent biography of John A Broadus. Broadus was a baptist preacher in the mid 1800's. He is regarded as one of the greatest American preachers ever. He was also one of the founders of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Charles Spurgeon, a renowned British preacher and contemporary of Broadus, called him the "greatest of living preachers." That is quite a compliment coming from someone as popular as Spurgeon. Why do I bring up John Broadus? Because he dealt with an issue that we are still dealing with today, and the excerpt I'm about to quote could have been written by any contemporary pastor.

Charlottesville Baptist Church, where Broadus was pastor, experienced a kind of revival while he was there. Reflecting on the revival, Broadus wrote this: "Sunrise prayer meetings were kept up for the next two weeks, and the members, especially the sisters, increased much in fervor of feeling; but most of the male members neglected the meetings, and could not be induced to do otherwise."

I want to chuckle and weep at that testimony. Chuckle because it sounds like something out of Why Men Hate Going to Church (which was published in 2004). And weep because the same dilemma that Broadus lamented has continued to this very day. Men don't like church. If Broadus, one of the greatest preachers of his day, in the middle of a mini-awakening in his community, lacked "most" of the male members at his meetings, how much more can I expect similar findings today?

I've been asked more than once by wives who long for their husbands to take the lead in their homes, "Why won't he lead?" They aren't talking about leading in where to eat or whether to get the extra 50 channels on the cable package. They're talking about in spiritual matters. They're wondering why their husbands seem to be intent on leading them away from God rather than toward him. I haven't come up with a good answer yet. And then I read a quote like the one above from Broadus and realize this has been going on for some time. I don't think it's because the carpet in the church is purple or the worship leader isn't masculine enough. I'm beginning to think many men don't lead in spiritual things because they don't care about spiritual things. They're more concerned with this world than the next and instant gratification rather than eternal.

Some Christians will take what I've written and say, "Yeah, that's exactly right. So if men aren't going to do it, then women should take the lead, like Deborah in the Old Testament." Some may use the obvious neglect of spiritual things by men to justify flipping the roles of husband and wife or ordaining women to be elders and preachers. In my next post, I'll explain why this isn't a good idea.

The Insanity of Preaching

Over on my church-planting blog, I posted some thoughts concerning preaching. Here's the link for anyone interested.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Distracted by Holiness?

Can the desire for holiness be a distraction? Or to rephrase the question: Can one's quest for personal or communal holiness be so intense that it is actually detrimental to the Christian life? Before the question can be answered, we must address a presupposition to the question; namely, that holiness isn't God's ultimate aim in this present evil age. In other words, in order for holiness to be a distraction, there must be something besides holiness that could get shafted by the pursuit of holiness. In spite of the many verses concerning God's will for our holiness, I think that the pursuit of holiness can be, though by no means has to be, a distraction for the Christian. I'll lay out this argument point by point.

1. The aim of the Christian in this present evil age is to find his place in the making of disciples in all people groups. There is such a thing as the gospel and it is to be proclaimed to all creation and then the end will come. Jesus, Paul, Peter and John clearly connect the mission of gospel proclamation and the second coming of Jesus. Scripture promises the return of Christ when the elect are called out from all people groups in the world. Jesus didn't promise his return when a certain number of people stop drinking or eating too much cake or scratching off tickets or wearing bikinis.

2. If Jesus' primary aim for the Christian in this present evil age is personal holiness, then he would take the Christian out of this present evil age where he will forever be perfect in Heaven. Notice that I'm not saying holiness isn't a goal or a worthy pursuit. And I'm certainly not saying that holiness doesn't have a place in actually fulfilling the great commission. We must be a light so that others see the shining. But I am saying holiness is not the ultimate pursuit or priority here and now. Mission is.

3. Therefore, anything that stands in the way of mission is a distraction from the ultimate goal of the Christian life.

A. For some folks, sin will distract from mission. Lust and greed and ambition and sloth get in the way. For example, some are so enamored by pornography and the consequent guilt that they can't get out of the house long enough to make a disciple. Christ's mission will have to wait until they overcome their passions. Others are so smitten by success that they can't stop thinking about work long enough to focus on God's mission. So sin keeps them distracted with things that don't matter. The devil has these Christians right where he wants them - on the sidelines so captivated by their own sinful desires that God's real mission isn't even a blip on the radar.

B. On the other hand, folks are distracted by the pursuit of holiness. For example, some men are so worried that they might lust that they can't even talk to the cute girl next door long enough to be an ambassador for Christ. They feel like they've accomplished something for God by just avoiding her altogether. Let someone else reach her. And some women are so concerned with modesty that they fret over whether the blue eyeliner looks more trampy than the beige and feel like they've accomplished something for God when they finally throw the immodest makeup and shirt and shorts and shoes and slacks in the trash. They feel good about selfishly spending all their money on themselves if the clothes they buy are modest. Others fret over whether they can drink a beer or not, eat a piece of cheesecake or not, listen to Jay Z or not, watch Harry Potter or not, read The Shack or not, play poker or not, buy a car or not, homeschool their children or not, have non-Christian friends or not and the list goes on. Just like the sinful folks, the devil also has these Christians right where he wants them - on the sidelines so captivated by their own pursuit of holiness that God's real mission isn't even a blip on the radar.

4. Sin and the pursuit of holiness do not have to distract from the Christian life.

A. Those caught in the vicious cycle of struggle... sin... shame... sequester... struggle... sin... shame... sequester... need to realize all the shame and solitude in the world is not going to atone for the nasty people they are. Christ came to perfect for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14). So when people succumb to their particular lusts, they need to repent of their sin - if hourly, then hourly, if daily, then daily, if yearly, then yearly. Repentance is not so much turning from committing a sin to not committing that sin, but rather turning from self to God's mission. So the man who looked at porn for the 500,000,000th time after swearing yet again to never do it again needs to fall on Christ, swear yet again, and then GO MAKE DISCIPLES. What other option is there? Reserve himself for hell and just give up?

B. Those caught in the vicious cycle of thinking that God left them here to see how well they could fight against their lusts in the privacy of their own homes need to realize that Christ knew their nastiness when he called them. Christ came to perfect for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14). So when people delude themselves into thinking that taking up their cross is giving up watching Modern Family, or trading in a two-piece suit for a one-piece, or trading in sugar for Splenda, or giving up bowling for sitting at home on the couch, they need to repent of their righteousness. Taking up the cross is about trading a selfish agenda - one that loves sin or one that loves trying to avoid sin - for a missional agenda where spreading the gospel shapes the Christian's priorities.

For those who think I'm off my rocker, I give you Jesus: "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." He told us his priority loud and clear. But it is easier for us to sit at home debating whether chicken is more holy than steak or Spongebob is more holy than Family Guy than leaving both off to go and tell someone else about Jesus. Or enjoying either for a time of relaxation between telling people about Jesus. Or watching them with non-Christians while telling them about Jesus during the commercials. There is joy in Heaven over folks who fight sin. BUT there is more joy in Heaven when a sinner comes to Christ than when a righteous person makes yet another righteous choice. So why do we spend so much energy debating with ourselves and others a secondary cause of joy to God when he has told us what really floats his boat? Could we be distracted by holiness?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Excellent Insight Into Gospel-centered Homes

Timmy Brister gives excellent insight into gospel-centered homes.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Knowing Jesus is Knowing Doctrine About Jesus

Just a head's up to all those readers of The Profound Mystery who live on the cutting edge of evangelical life via the internet and There is a huge push in publishing these days, both on blogs and in print, to leave behind all the divisive and constrictive doctrines about Jesus - things like church structure and authority, substitutionary atonement and Divine wrath. The reason for this push, stated in various forms, is that the doctrines that have grounded evangelical churches for so long have not resulted in a true knowledge of Jesus, but rather a replacement of Jesus with the doctrines themselves. In other words, evangelical Christians are accused of worshiping an idol of Jesus instead of the "real person" Jesus. This is the supposed reason for the terrible state of the church in the west and the apathetic and carnal nature of Christians in the west. These "prophets" of Jesus want everyone to believe that in order to fix western Christianity, we must put Jesus back at the center of the church.

I am in full agreement with ensuring that Jesus is at the center of everything. However, I am convinced that the Jesus these folks are arguing for isn't the Jesus of the Bible - at least not in his fullness. Let me be as clear as possible. Jesus cannot be known without knowing him through propositions derived from Scripture. Period. All this notion about knowing and following the "living Jesus" rather than the Jesus of doctrine is a load of crap. Jesus lives in the living and active Word of God. That is where he chooses to reveal himself.

It is not my intention to bash certain people, but it is my intention to warn potential readers of all the emerging and missional literature flooding the market today to be careful. A Christ divorced from Scripture is a Christ of fantasy. I'll go one step farther. A Christ proclaimed from the Gospels alone, without the apostolic insight of the rest of the New Testament is also likely to be a Christ of fantasy.

This quest to get Christians back to the real Jesus is not new, though these writers continue to act as though they're saying something new. This is the down-grade that Charles Spurgeon fought and the liberals that J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos fought. It's just repackaged in missional clothing.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Is Youth Ministry Broken?

Off the topic of marriage, but I couldn't resist linking to this excellent series of articles on youth ministry. They point out a lot of issues that I've thought for a long time but haven't put into writing. It's amazing to me how sacred youth groups are to churches when they have so little fruit on the tree long term.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Paul the Antinomian

Here's a little quote from our dear brother Paul:

"Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code" (Romans 7:1-6).

If you want to bear fruit for God, then please accept this challenge: Read this text. Do not immediately filter this text through everything else you think you already know about following God. That will be hard, but try. And do not immediately say, "Yeah, but what about ___________? (Fill in your favorite verse.) Just read this text and write down what you think Paul is saying. The language Paul uses is not hard to understand and the sentences are very clear. What Paul is saying here is very straightforward to understand. But it might be difficult to accept.

Exegeting (interpreting) a text requires us to come to terms with the text itself before running all over the rest of Scripture looking for help explaining it. Only after we are confident that we have wrestled with a text like the one above long enough to hear what the author is saying are we free to see how all the pieces fit together.

Now, about the title of this post. There are those who insist that anyone who doesn't view the "law" in the same way they do is an antinomian, or against law. They mean this term in a derogatory way, suggesting that such a person just wants to be able to freely sin. If I wrote Paul's words above today, instead of finding them in Romans 7, I have no doubt such people would accuse me of being antinomian on the basis of this text. Paul's writing above fits their definition. But I doubt they'd admit it. Instead, I think they'd sidestep this text rather than exegete it and find some other text they think fits their idea better. Rather than let Paul say what he says, they just might say, "Yeah, but what about ______________? and fill in their favorite "pro-law" text, probably from the Psalms. Beloved, we cannot be more righteous than the God who wrote Romans 7:1-6. I don't care how many laws we try to follow.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When Radical Amputation is Wrong

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell" (Matthew 5:27-30).

I was recently at the Desiring God pastor's conference. It was a great time and I came back very refreshed and invigorated. I went with a very close friend and we had hours of conversations about biblical and ministry issues. It was truly great. One incident stuck out in my mind and I thought I'd share it.

The conference was in the Minneapolis Convention Center and most of the pastors stayed in the Hilton. There is a skyway that connects much of downtown, including our hotel and the convention center. On the way to one of our sessions, clusters of pastors were walking along the skyway when an attractive young lady dressed in a fairly short skirt rounded the corner coming the opposite direction. She obviously worked somewhere downtown because her clothing was fashionable yet professional. You could have heard a pin drop. You'd have thought the poor girl was a rattle snake, not a human created in the image of God.

A hallway full of pastors looked straight ahead like robots. No smiles. No "Good morning. How are you?" I haven't seen such discipline since standing at attention in formation in the Army. Here's the funny thing though. I guarantee you every pastor in that hallway knew precisely what that girl was wearing. So I immediately made fun of the situation to my friend, saying something like, "A hallway of pastors can't even smile at a girl passing by? What is wrong with this picture?" (Actually I hinted that we haven't come so far from the blind Pharisees days).

Now, I understand that lust is a serious thing. The above text makes that point clear. You don't want to go around lusting. But here's the problem. The lust wasn't killed in the hearts of those pastors. What is the difference between treating a cute girl as an object by lusting after her or treating a cute girl as an object by totally ignoring her existence because of your own selfish heart? Either way the girl isn't treated as fully human, worthy of love and respect. It's pure legalism of an ugly sort that allows for a hallway full of pastors to go to a conference on Christian happiness congratulating themselves for how well they fight the fight against lust, even though they had to dehumanize a girl in the process.

John Piper's biography of C. S. Lewis was fantastic. One small part of it really hit me when it came to this incident in the hallway. He said that morality (law) is like a crutch that righteous people don't need. Sometimes we need laws to function in the same way that sometimes a person needs a crutch to walk. But the object isn't to stay on the crutches forever. Healthy people don't need crutches and righteous people don't need laws to make them love others. Is the state of Christianity so weak that a bunch of Christian hedonist pastors gathered from all over America need to look at every pretty woman through the lens of Matthew 5? When do we move beyond Matthew 5? We can't even look at a girl, can't even say hello, can't even talk to her without lusting? For real? Then we're in serious trouble! But if we can, then we should. Our first instinct shouldn't be to close our eyes. It should be to reach out in love. Put the crutches away and start treating women as women, created in the image of God and worthy of acknowledgment.

As I started watching people's interactions more after that hallway incident, I realized it wasn't an isolated thing. It seems the natural inclination for pastors, when passing hot girls, is to totally ignore them like they're not in the room. Interestingly enough, older or not as pretty of women get to be treated like human beings. They get a smile or a word of greeting, and maybe even a conversation. They're not inherent Jezebels out to send poor Christian men to their dooms. Only the hot ones are worthy of totally ignoring so that they never get a smile of kindness except from men who want one thing from them. My friend summed it up best. How can a pastor who can't look at a pretty girl without lusting shepherd a congregation of them? I guess blindly with no arms.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pathetic Husbands and Hindered Prayers

Do you think God holds a grudge? If you sin and seem to get away with it, does God come back to get you in another area? What about for Christians whose sins have been forgiven, and the wrath of God against them has been forever assuaged by Christ? Of course, we're all familiar with lying in the bed one has made and accepting the consequences for one's actions. But does our sin personally affect our relationship with God? Or is God just statically, perpetually level in his response to us? We have to be careful.

On the one hand, if you are in Christ and he has paid your sin-debt, the wrath of God does not remain upon you (Colossians 1:13-14). His forgiveness has perfected you for all time in his eyes (Hebrews 10:14). But does this mean that God is static in his relationship with you? That what you do, whether good or evil, doesn't matter anymore because God never changes in his relationship to you? I don't believe so, and I believe that by believing this, many have rushed headlong into all sorts of sins and cut out a vital aspect of our union with Christ.

Was the wrath of God lifted from the apostle Peter when he wandered around Israel with Jesus? Yes it was. Was Peter forgiven through the blood that Jesus would soon shed for him? Yes he was. Was God happy with Peter because of the work Christ was doing on Peter's behalf? Yes God was. So consider this disturbing voice of Jesus: "But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man'" (Matthew 16:23). Jesus called Peter Satan! That's a very stern rebuke. Did God suddenly change his mind concerning Peter? Was the wrath of God all of a sudden thrown back upon Peter? Did the blood lose its power? No. But Peter was made well aware that his agendas were bumping up against Christ's. The covenant love of God for Peter never diminished, even though the relationship went through a rough spot. Peter is righteous in Christ and representing the agenda of Satan to God himself - at the same time. What does this mean?

Peter writes to husbands: "Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7). There are many husbands who profess to be Christians, yet refuse to obey this verse. They will not be gentle with their wives, and they will not treat them like precious china dishes. They are harsh and snappy and crude toward their wives. They are quick to anger and ridicule and criticize. They place burdens on their wives that they would never bear themselves. They degrade their wives and treat them like objects or like little children. They will not put their wives on pedestals of honor and adoration. They are pathetic husbands - Pathetic [puh-thet-ik], adjective, 4. miserably or contemptibly inadequate. They're husbandry is inadequate to nurture flourishing growth in their wives. They're pathetic.

What is God's response to pathetic husbands? He doesn't listen to their prayers. For a Christian who truly understands how radically God-centered this universe is, there is no greater threat available to offer. The Christian knows he is positionally right with God because of what Christ has done for him. But that doesn't mean that the relationship doesn't fluctuate. Think of it like this. Imagine that you were born with the last name Jones. But the Smith's adopted you, so you became a Smith. Now, if you do something displeasing to your new parents, they don't un-adopt you and take away your name. They don't say, "You trampled my flowers so you're not a Smith anymore!" Instead, they say, "You trampled my flowers so I'm taking away your video games until they're replaced." If you ask them if they still love you and if you're still their child, they say, "Of course we love you. We always will, and you'll forevermore be a Smith. But you're not getting your video games back until the flowers are replaced."

Being adopted by God through Christ didn't protect Peter from being called Satan when he set his mind on earthly things. And the prayers of husbands who are adopted by God into the family of Christ are not protected when they prove to be pathetic husbands. I've heard several preachers explain our relationship with God as follows: A husband and wife were driving in a car when they passed a young couple in a convertible snuggled right against each other. The wife asked her husband, "Why don't we sit like that anymore?" to which the husband replied from behind the wheel, "I haven't moved." Everyone in the congregation laughs at the joke, and then the preacher says, "If you don't feel as close to God as you used to, just know this: God never moves."

Now, I understand the intention of this story. It is to show the dependability of God. But I'm not sure we can defend it from Scripture. Consider these verses:

"If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Psalm 66:18).

"If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Proverbs 28:9).

"But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear" (Isaiah 59:2).

"We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him" (John 9:31).

These verses, along with the one Peter wrote to husbands concerning their prayers, does not seem to support the idea that God remains the same with a Christian who moves away from God. In other words, if you choose to act as though God's Word and will do not count when you want to treat your wife like dirt, do not think that God's Word and will are going to be there for you when you ask for a raise at work or relief from an illness or the salvation of your mother or a more smooth-running home life or guidance in a decision.

Jesus did not let Peter's mind remain on earthly things. He didn't allow Peter to be a perpetual representative of Satan. How long do you think he'll tolerate your earthly-minded agenda, pathetic husband? How many prayers are going unanswered right now in your life because you refuse to honor your wife? It rhymes on purpose. Start chanting it to yourself: "How many prayers are unanswered in life because I refuse to honor my wife?" If you choose to live as though God is insignificant in your marriage, don't be surprised when you can't find his significance anywhere.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ortlund: How to Wreck Your Church in Three Weeks

I don't usually post church-type things on this blog, but I'll make an exception with this recent Ray Ortlund post.

How To Wreck Your Church In Three Weeks

Ray Ortlund:

How to wreck your church in three weeks:

Week One: Walk into church today and think about how long you’ve been a member, how much you’ve sacrificed, how under-appreciated you are. Take note of every way you’re dissatisfied with your church now. Take note of every person who displeases you.

Meet for coffee this week with another member and “share your heart.” Discuss how your church is changing, how you are being left out. Ask your friend who else in the church has “concerns.” Agree together that you must “pray about it.”

Week Two: Send an email to a few other “concerned” members. Inform them that a groundswell of grievance is surfacing in your church. Problems have gone unaddressed for too long. Ask them to keep the matter to themselves “for the sake of the body.”

As complaints come in, form them into a petition to demand an accounting from the leaders of the church. Circulate the petition quietly. Gathering support will be easy. Even happy members can be used if you appeal to their sense of fairness – that your side deserves a hearing. Be sure to proceed in a way that conforms to your church constitution, so that your petition is procedurally correct.

Week Three: When the growing moral fervor, ill-defined but powerful, reaches critical mass, confront the elders with your demands. Inform them of all the woundedness in the church, which leaves you with no choice but to put your petition forward. Inform them that, for the sake of reconciliation, the concerns of the body must be satisfied.

Whatever happens from this point on, you have won. You have changed the subject in your church from gospel advance to your own grievances. To some degree, you will get your way. Your church will need three or four years for recovery. But at any future time, you can do it all again. It only takes three weeks.
Just one question. Even if you are being wronged, “Why not rather suffer wrong?” (1 Corinthians 6:7).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Our Ability to Love Virtuously is Utterly Trashed

Our ability to love virtuously is utterly trashed. Radical statement, I know. But this statement is more than my usual disregard for nuance. I carefully measured every word before writing it. As we've been looking at love as a progression of phases, I'm pretty sure you've come to a disturbing conclusion if you've read carefully. We don't love the right things with the right intensity, and most of the time, we don't love the right things at all. A view of love would be incomplete without considering it from the perspective of original sin, or Adam's horrifying fall in the Garden of Eden. Here's the thing about sin: it is passed down from generation to generation like eye color or temperament. I have affections and desires for disgusting things. I got that from my parents who got it from theirs and on up the line back to Adam and Eve.

Consider this paragraph from the Belgic Confession of 1561: "We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has been spread through the whole human race. It is a corruption of all nature - an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother's womb, and the root which produces in man every sort of sin. It is therefore so vile and enormous in God's sight that it is enough to condemn the human race" (Article 15). Notice the cancer-like language: it "has been spread" and "it is a corruption" that "infects" even infants. It is really beautiful language to describe a devastating reality. Original sin corrupts our ability to evaluate rightly.

I recently saw a dead and decaying pig on my dad's farm. I will spare you the details, though it's the details of that vision that brings this post into focus. As I walked past the rotting pig with fluid leaking from its body, I imagined sitting down beside it with a tray. On the tray was a plate with a big juicy pork chop, a bottle of A1 sauce and of course, a Mountain Dew. I would not have been able to eat a pork chop sitting next to that dead pig. How much less would I be able to eat the meat of that dead pig itself? Just take a bite out of it as it lay on the ground? Seriously, weak stomachs might gag at the sight and smell of it. Or the thought of it. Eat it? No way. Or is there a way I might be convinced to eat it after all? What if I like rancid, maggot-infested meat? Dogs do. Pigs do.

Before you write me off as an idiot, consider this verse: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). This verse is all about extent. It's describing the condition of mankind's heart. Man's heart is what? Loving? Pure? Neutral? Agnostic? Skeptical? Passionate? Slightly bent? Aching? Breaking? Try deceitful and sick. You know what that means don't you? Sick, like my pig illustration above. Sick, like when you say to someone, "You're sick," and you don't mean ill. So when God looks at the human heart, he sees sickness. To what extent? Desperately. You know what's really bad about that? In addition to being sick, our hearts are also deceitful - above all things. The chief characteristic of your heart and mine is that it lies. What do our hearts lie to us about? Being sick of course. Our own heart is desperately sick and refuses to acknowledge it. In other words, our heart does like rancid, maggot-infested meat. But that's not the worst part. It also convinces us that the rancid meat is really a tasty pork chop. The whole human race is delusional.

Now, I began this post stating that our ability to love virtuously is utterly trashed. Virtuous love is love that pleases God. Virtuous love is that love which proceeds from Christ, flows through Christ, and gives glory back to Christ. This kind of love is supernatural. It cannot be drummed up from a sick heart, no matter how hard that is to believe. Only God can give this kind of love to man. So if you're relying on the quality of your love to feel right with God, you're in for a long, miserable life. Fortunately, God has shown us a better way.

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). The Spirit of God shines into our sick hearts the light of Christ's glory. "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). In other words, we are given by God the ability to find Christ valuable. But here's the catch. It's not automatic. Let me repeat. It's not automatic. Our sick hearts still find rancid meat tasty. We just also find Christ appealing now as well.

If I sit and ponder the world through the eyes of an apocalyptic movie, the world is very dark. There is a shroud of darkness in our hearts that keeps us from seeing the world as it really is. Think with me for a moment without the aid that revelation has given us. I find sex outside of wedlock quite appealing. The more debased the better. God sees it as a rotting pig. I think nice things are the secret to happiness. Show me the money. God sees maggot-infested flesh. I see every reason to nurture and protect my own comfort and convenience. Look out for number one. God sees dead nasty pig. Do you get the picture? When I see dead, rotting pig, it turns my stomach. That's not as bad as what God sees when he looks at the things our hearts find attractive - the desires of the flesh and desires of the eyes and pride in possessions. He sees a heart that finds those things valuable and says, "Deceitful above all things and desperately sick!"

Don't put your faith in your love. It will lead to despair. Put you faith in Christ, the One who is love incarnate, the One whose heart always loved virtuously, not just as an example for us, but as our substitute. If it were enough for Christ to come to earth as an example, he wouldn't have had to die as our substitute. Do you want to love the right things rightly and the wrong things not at all? Don't count on your ability to diminish things that you know shouldn't be valuable to you. The sickness is too deep to cast out by will-power. You can't fall out of love by trying to. Your evaluator is utterly ruined and finds repulsive things attractive. Instead, look to Christ, in the Bible, in the Bible-based insights of other Christian speakers and writers, in the solitude of private prayer and the community of corporate worship. As you behold the glory of the Lord, the Spirit of God transforms you into the same image.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Gospel and Virtuous Love

The gospel is the only life-giving force in the world. Everyone is born under a sentence of death. The wages of sin is death and everyone sins, so all die. When sinners are given "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6), part of that knowledge of God's glory is his infinite love. God's love "has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:5). Now that we're Christians, "the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor. 5:14-15). True Christians are animated and controlled by Christ's love operating in them. They no longer value themselves as the highest good, they value Christ. The value that Christians see in Christ compels them to incline their focus to act on Christ's behalf in the world, or to virtuously love. So having Christ's love inside of us enables us to love like Christ. When a Christian practices virtuous love, it is actually the overflow of Christ's love working through his body. John says something similar when he points out that: "no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4:12, emphasis mine). When Christians love others, God's love is made complete through their love. God has chosen to show his love to the world through the love given, first by Christ, then by his body, the church. So the natural fruit and outpouring of the gospel is the love of Christ proclaimed and illustrated to his creation through his church.

This gospel-driven love is recorded in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Paul is trying to motivate the Corinthian Christians to give a generous offering to the impoverished church in Jerusalem. He does this by pointing out what the Macedonian Christians have already done: "We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints -- and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us" (2 Cor. 8:1-5).

The first thing that Paul brings up is God's grace. God had given grace to the churches of Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica and others). We can assume this grace enabled the Macedonians to rejoice in God so much that they could give abundantly, though their own possessions were few. Paul says they even freely gave beyond their means. When Paul was reluctant to accept their gift due to their own poverty, the Macedonians begged Paul to take it. Paul says they "gave themselves first to Lord and then by the will of God to us" (8:5). God's grace produced joy in God that overflowed in free, abundant giving. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. "But as you excel in everything -- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you -- see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have" (2 Cor. 8:6-11).

Now Paul shifts gears from the Macedonians to the Corinthians. Paul is expecting that just as God gave grace to the Macedonians, he also has given grace to the Corinthians producing similar results. Paul even calls their giving "this act of grace" (8:7). Paul says he wants the Corinthians to "prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine" (8:8). The key word in that verse is also. Paul wants the Corinthians to prove their love is genuine like someone else proved their love was genuine. The also obviously refers to the Macedonians. The Macedonians gave out of the grace-given overflow of joy in God. Paul calls that God-given graciousness "love" and wants the Corinthians to do the same thing. Notice how Paul calls their desire to give incomplete (8:11). It's not enough that the Corinthians desire to give. They must finish doing the good they desire. That's how their love will prove its grace-given virtue. "You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!" (2 Cor. 9:11-15).

Paul expresses the benefits of giving cheerfully in the first part of chapter 9. He says giving cheerfully benefits the giver. He says the Corinthians' generosity will produce thanksgiving to God. The generosity of the body will bring thanksgiving to the Head. Why? Because the Jerusalem Christians know that their Macedonian and Corinthian brothers only give because the love of Christ controls them and operates through them. Paul says the love shown by the Corinthians will bring glory to God. This love is "flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ. . . ." (9:13). Notice the word "flowing." God-glorifying, virtuous love is flowing from a confession of the gospel. Notice how the Macedonians' love follows the progression of phases. The Macedonians began with an affection for God flowing from a sense of his beauty or value. It was out of "their abundance of joy . . ." (8:2). They had a desire for God as "they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us" (8:5). They inclined their focus from things of the world to God and his cause "begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints" (8:4). Their inclination of focus overflowed in action since "they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will" (8:3). All the phases are there in this act of love.

Virtuous Love

We can safely infer from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 some boundaries around virtuous love. First, if love is to be virtuous, it must flow from the grace of God through the gospel. Love is common to all mankind, virtue is not. The reason for this is simple. In our natural state, we don't value God, the Fountain of all virtue. God must give us the sense of his value (faith) and feed and develop it through his Word if we are to see any virtue in virtue. We are dependent on God to produce virtue through us. If he doesn't do this, then we find substitute things from the creation to value and love independently of God. The problem with this love for the world is that nothing in the creation is to be valued independently of God. This brings us to our second boundary.

Second, if love is to be virtuous, God's glory must be manifested, proclaimed and praised. "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:36). "For by him [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him" (Col. 1:16). "Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (1 Cor. 8:6).

Love can have a lesser direct object (like a spouse), but if it's to be virtuous it must ultimately present God as glorious. The one doing the loving must consciously desire that God be the receiver of thanksgiving, praise and glory. In order for this to happen, God must be the central focus of our activity. We aren't meant to operate independently of God. This is why I warned in the Introduction against trying to balance God among other areas of life. God is to be the ground, channel and recipient of every area of life. For instance, the direct object of the Corinthians' offering of love was the Jerusalem Christians. However, the ultimate recipient of glory was God. Love is never independent of God. It's either magnifying God's glory or stealing it. The Corinthians loved their brothers in such a way that God got the glory for it. The Corinthians loved the Jerusalem Christians on behalf of God.

When we take these first two points together, 1) virtuous love flows from the grace of God through the gospel, and 2) virtuous love must manifest and proclaim God's glory; we realize the Christ-centered nature of virtuous love. Love comes from Christ, works through Christ and returns to Christ. This may seem radical at first. Is there virtue in a non-Christian soldier dying for his country? No. Apart from the gospel, this soldier is going to hell. Is there virtue in a mother nurturing her child without a desire to see God's glory manifested? No. Since God does everything for his own glory, anything not done by his creatures with the same ultimate motive would be a competitor to his glory. How can a competitor to the Fountain of virtue be virtuous? If there's one thing the Bible is clear about, it's God's passion for his own glory. All acts of love must flow from him, through him and back to him in order to be virtuous love. The very fact that living in such a God-centered way seems impossible to us just goes to show how far we've fallen. Worse yet, we often whittle down love from such a radical, Christ-centered virtue to some small act we can attain. When seen in this light, we can see just how depraved and stained we truly are. When Paul says we all sin and fall short of God's glory (see Rom. 3:23), he means way off the mark! We all desperately need Jesus Christ to wholly deliver us, not just dress us up a little bit.

Finally, if love is to be virtuous, it must be the overflow of joy and value in God. Paul said the Macedonians "gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us" (2 Cor. 8:5, emphasis mine). The Macedonians had an overflow of joy. It wasn't in their physical circumstances. They were dirt poor. It must have been in God. They consciously gave themselves to God before all else, and out of the overflow of the joy he gave them, they gave their possessions to Paul to give to the Jerusalem Christians. Virtuous love for others comes through "cheerful givers" (2 Cor. 9:7) who know the soul-satisfying pleasure in seeking God above and before all else.

Virtuous Love in Marriage

We must understand the difference between God-centered, virtuous love and non-virtuous love if we're going to ensure our marriages are glorifying God rather than competing with him. Non-virtuous love is seeking to fulfill our desires independently of God. With non-virtuous love, as long as our desires are fulfilled, we don't care where the glory goes and if God is pleased. Virtuous love, on the other hand, consciously seeks to glorify and please God all along the progression of love. Marriages that operate independently from a conscious desire for God's glory, no matter how loving and happy, cannot bring ultimate satisfaction. God is very clear in stating, "I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols" (Is. 42:8). A rogue marriage being lived for the vain, temporary pleasure of the couple at the expense of God's praise is a carved idol. God will accept no rivals of his glory. Many rogue marriages end in divorce. However, some couples hold on to an unhappy, rogue marriage for some other benefit (kids, praise of man, security, etc.). Other couples continue operating independently from God their whole lives and happily die together in their old age. God will not be impressed with those "golden" couples. They weren't any more virtuous than the others. Apart from a conscious decision to glorify God through their marriage, every couple hijacks God's creation and uses it for their own private agenda, regardless of how long they make it work. Is God supposed to congratulate seventy years of hard-heartedness more than ten? This may sound new to us and bump up against our legalistic, culturally acceptable sensibilities. Isn't marriage a good thing? Yes, marriage is a good thing so long as it fulfills God's purposes for it. Doesn't God hate divorce? Yes, God hates divorce, but that doesn't mean he can't equally hate a marriage. God can hate both if they both steal his glory. We seem to frequently forget that. Isn't divorce the cause of societal instability and wickedness? No, divorce is not the cause of anything. It's merely a further symptom of man's total depravity. In a world set up against God, divorce should be expected.

The answer to our culture's problems isn't longer marriages, it's the gospel of Jesus Christ. Shouldn't we honor those who remain faithfully married their whole lives? Yes, we can honor those who remain faithfully married their whole lives provided they did it for the glory of God and proclaim it as such. Otherwise, no, it's not good to honor a rogue couple any more than it's good to honor a bank robber as though he worked "heartily, as for the Lord and not for men" (Col. 3:23). "In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty" (Prov. 14:23). Obviously, the "all toil" Solomon wrote about wasn't sinful toil like robbing a bank. When a couple hijacks a marriage from God and uses it to fulfill all sorts of private agendas at God's expense, it is sinful, idolatrous toil and unworthy of honor.

So if we want our love in marriage to be virtuous and God-glorifying, we must make the conscious decision to live that way. We must have an affection for God flowing from a sense of his value. We must value his purposes for marriage (we'll look at those in the next chapter) as an extension of our valuing him. We must desire God above and before all else, even our marriage. We must desire our spouse as an extension of desiring God and enjoy our spouse as an overflow of our joy in God. We must incline our focus toward God-glorifying objects with God's pleasure in mind. We must zone in on what God deems important in our marriage and zone out what God calls "worldly." We must allow our love to overflow in godly ways that enable God to get the praise and glory he so richly deserves, while we thankfully get the benefits of his goodness. We must pursue our pleasure in our spouse's pleasure in God.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Love and Marriage... And Counseling

In the previous four posts about love, I proposed that love is best defined as a progression of phases: Affection... Desire... Inclination of Focus... Action. In the next few posts, I'll lay out some of the implications of this definition for marriage and marriage counseling.

Marriage Counseling Along the Progression

Let's suppose a couple comes to see me. They're struggling in their marriage. I set up chairs close to each other. When they arrive for counsel, they move the chairs apart. They don't directly address each other at all. Both talk as though the other person isn't even in the room. As I ask some questions, I learn that this coldness has been progressing for about a year. The problem they present to me is lack of intimacy. As I dig a little deeper, I realize they live two entirely separate lives under the same roof. My first instinct may be to take some very good Scripture texts and show them the importance of intimacy. I may take them to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 or Hebrews 13:4 and express the necessity of selflessness in marriage. I may have them meditate on Ephesians 5:22-33 and each spouse's role. I may point out Genesis 2:18 and how neither spouse is being a companion to the other. I could also point out the myriad of texts commanding spouses to love one another. That may be my first instinct. And though it wouldn't be wrong, I would be starting on the wrong side of the progression of love, focusing on actions.

"You guys aren't intimate? You need to be intimate. Read these Scriptures so you can see the importance of intimacy. Try a date night. You guys don't like sex together? See how the Bible says you must have sex together. It's good. You guys need to like sex together. Just do it till you like it. You guys share nothing in common? You guys should find some things in common. You guys spend your time at home online and watching TV? Turn off the computer and television and spend time together. Neither one of you is forgiving the other for offenses? You have to forgive each other. Write down all the offenses you aren't forgiving. Read these texts on forgiveness. You're not loving each other? You must love each other. Follow this list of 'loving things to do for your spouse.'" While all these things may be necessary, I think the order is wrong. If my goal is to make a Pharisee, all those things might work! But if I'm truly working with them for their joy (see 2 Cor. 1:24), helping them run the race of faith (see Heb. 11-12), and be pleasing to God (see Mat. 23:25-28); I can't start on the "action" side of the progression. Remember, apparently "loving" action isn't necessarily flowing from a virtuous love! Even action resulting from counsel isn't necessarily flowing from virtuous love. In other words, I might tell the couple, "Love is giving of yourself selflessly to the other."

Let's say the couple leaves counseling knowing they have to have sex to have a "godly" marriage. A husband with ungodly affections is just going to hang my counsel over his wife's head. "Honey, you know what the pastor said about giving yourself to your spouse!" What happens when the husband hangs the Bible over his wife's head and guilts her into having sex, the whole time thinking degrading thoughts about her? What happens when the wife with ungodly affections has sex because the Bible says to and resents it (and her pastor's counsel) the whole time? When they come back to counseling, do you think they've made progress because they "obeyed" Scripture and had sex? Did they love each other through their giving? Of course not. And for all their obedience to Scripture, the real problem hasn't been addressed.

In order to help the couple, I have to begin where love does -- with an affection. Remember, when affection dies, love dies. Just because the couple is still married does not mean they still love each other. My goal is to explore what pushes each person's buttons. Love flows from a sense of value. What does each person value? Why do they value what they value? What factors are influencing their sense of value? How are they seeking for and receiving pleasure? When young couples aren't sexually active, something is taking the place of intimacy in both partners. What is it? It isn't necessarily sexual. Why is the replacement seen as more pleasurable than intimacy with their spouse? I'm wanting to learn how each spouse assesses value. I'll move along to each phase on the progression -- "Affection," "Desire," "Inclination of Focus," and "Action." As I'm exploring these phases in both spouses, I'm looking for all the ways sin affects each phase. Sin distorts what is truly valuable so that the wrong things are valued or the right things are valued too little or too much. Sin puts up walls between an object of affection and the beloved. Sin keeps track of wrongs so that what should be valuable is degraded. Sin sorts wrongly and inclines the focus on wrong things. Sin works to achieve the wrong goals. Sin can be active at every phase of the progression.

The Gospel and Counseling Along the Progression

Sin is operative all along the progression and must be dealt with all along the progression. Simply pointing out sin is not enough to properly deal with it. Confession accomplishes little by itself. Dealing with sin properly is also more than just stopping an action. We should know that by now. If our goal is virtuous love, we must bring that about by God-pleasing means. Rebellion or reformation are not God-pleasing methods of dealing with sin. Redemption and repentance are God-pleasing methods of dealing with sin. The important thing to remember as we make our way through each phase is that sin is irrational. We'll wonder in our own marriage or in counseling others why we value what we do. "How can that be beautiful?" "How was that worth it?" "Why am I such a creep?" "Why don't I love like I should?" Once we get to what is valued and how it brings pleasure, it does no good to try to go deeper. There is no deeper. When we uncover what is believed and what is wanted, we have the tools necessary for change. Let's be realistic, love doesn't always make sense. It isn't rational to love a drug that kills us! It isn't rational to give up a lifetime mate who waits on us hand and foot and serves us daily for a fifteen minute affair with a co-worker on lunch break! And if we start asking "why?" we'll likely never be satisfied with the answer.

The answer is sin. That's it. Nothing more. We have to bring ourselves or those we counsel to say, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 8:24). That's the conclusion God wants to bring us to. God isn't looking for us to reform ourselves. When we counsel ourselves or others, we cannot forget God's purposes in the world. Remember, God chose to glorify himself through the gospel, not ascetic self-righteousness. God is bringing about his plans through redemption, not reformation. So when we look at ourselves and others and realize our love is all messed up, we can't despair, and we can't just try harder next time. We must do what Paul did. We must look to Christ. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 8:24).

Of course, dealing with the sin problem correctly is why counseling must be centered on the gospel, not just actions. Right actions alone can't overcome sin. Only right actions flowing from the gospel can overcome sin. The sooner we realize this the better. As I'm working my way through each phase, I'm continually seeking opportunity to apply the couple's struggles to the gospel. Notice the order here. I'm not applying the gospel to the struggle. That would make the struggle supreme, with the gospel serving the struggle. The gospel is bigger than the struggle. The gospel is bigger than the couple. So I help the couple see themselves wrapped up in the gospel. In other words, I'm giving hope by helping the couple see themselves as sinful, yet provided for by God. I want them to see the gospel as bigger than their sin. I'll give a step-by-step process of how I'd deal with one phase. I'd deal with the other phases almost identically.

I begin on the left with pen in hand. I ask questions to determine where affections are. "What do you value? Why do you value that? Why is this or that beautiful to you? How does this or that thing bring you pleasure, or security or fulfillment? How do you expect to get pleasure from this or that? Why do you think this object will bring more pleasure than another one? Why do you think this object is more valuable than that object?" I'm trying to figure out what you believe about life and what you want out of life. As I'm trying to determine from Scripture where affections are sinful (not God-pleasing), I ask a couple further questions. "What did you think or do when the expected payoff was or wasn't there? How did you react when your agenda was or wasn't interfered with? Were you bitter or angry?" I'm asking these questions to figure out whether love began with a wrong affection or if love began right and went haywire along the way. I want to bring to light a desire to control the flow of a blessing from God. If an affection begins virtuous, bitterness shouldn't be the result.

As these questions are asked, I'm listening for certain types of speech. Is the person using extreme words (always, never, hate, etc.) Is the speech sacrificial? Does the person see himself as a perpetual victim? Is the person precious in his own eyes? Is anger and bitterness manifested? Speaking in this manner may display wrong affections. They will reveal a desire to control God's good gifts, rather than enjoy them. As I go through this entire process, I'm keeping track of the sin that bubbles to the surface. That has to be dealt with according to the gospel. Sin must be repented of. To repent means to change the mind. At this level, repentance may require letting the Bible inform what the person thinks is valuable rather than what he naturally thinks is valuable. It will require asking forgiveness of God and any person wronged. It will require affirmation of what is valuable and why it's valuable. If that affirmation cannot come (because unlike changing actions, changing affections is difficult), then he must pray and pray that God would help him change his affections. "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer" (Ps. 19:14). I would also give him some biblical study and application to help him renew his mind (see Rom. 12:2).

The goal of repentance is to go from wrong affections to right ones. If our affections lead to actions, and we have affection for what we value, then my goal all along here is to paint a huge, beautiful, magnificent picture of God, Christ, his purposes, his church, and his promises. It does no good to say, "Change your affections!" We must help change them by providing a more beautiful object than the wrong one they're loving. As I'm counseling myself or someone else, I'll spend most of my time here in the "affection phase." The reason is simple. This is the heart of it all. If I get the affections wrong, everything else will be wrong -- I cannot get to a virtuous action. If I get the affections right -- sin can interfere all along the rest of the progression -- but at least I'm on my way toward a virtuous action. So I want to be sure the affections are pleasing to God before moving on. Though I won't continue spelling it out here, I would go through the rest of the phases in a similar manner.

The good news about counseling along this progression is that most of the work is done in the "affection" phase. If you get to the bottom of each spouse's affections, and show them how the gospel overcomes wrong affections and inspires correct ones, the rest of the phases should open up to you. You can help them see how to apply their marriage to the gospel by working through the rest of the material in this book with them. I'm not saying all their marriage problems will be solved. Heaven alone will accomplish that. It's doubtful that all their problems will just be solved overnight. There's still sin perpetually interacting with their thoughts and desires. But their eyes will be open to what the true problem is.

Counseling is one way that God has provided for us to overcome the effects of the fall. Thoughts and desires can be complex. It may therefore be a complex process to overturn the impact that years of wrong thoughts and desires have had on our lives. But by the time you take a couple step by step through this progression, they'll have the gospel ammunition to fight the war for happiness at home and stay in the battle until it's done. It's almost unnecessary to point out that every marriage problem is a God problem. This is without exception. Every marriage problem is a result of the fall. The fall is about man's separation from God. Therefore, marriage problems are about separation from God. Jesus Christ is the Mediator between God and man, overcoming the separation and the effects of the fall. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the Mediator within marriage as well. Christian marriage has been redeemed by Jesus Christ. The effects of the fall that resulted in conflict, separation, blame-shifting, fear, shame and guilt have been overthrown in Christ. Through Christ it truly is possible to pursue pleasure in the pleasure of another. A gospel-centered person must be a loving person. The gospel overflows in love.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What is Love? Part 4

With Valentine's Day quickly approaching, I'm sharing a series of posts on love taken from my book on marriage. In order for today's post to make the most sense, I'd recommend reading parts one, two and three first. I believe a concept as complex as love is best described as a progression of phases. I think love develops along a chain from one phase to the next. It's sequential. I think love (both virtuous and sinful) follows a certain reproducible pattern every time. From the beginning of the progression to the end, as long as the sequence is followed, any point along the chain could be called love. Here's the progression: All love begins with an affection... from there it may or may not develop into a desire... if a desire is strong enough, it may or may not proceed to an inclination of focus... and from there, it might or might not overflow in an action toward or on behalf of the beloved object. Part one explained affection, part two explained desire, and part three explained an inclination of focus, or what happens when a desire just has to be fulfilled. Today we'll take a look at the action part of love.

Love May Progress to Action

We've finally come to the point that many begin to talk about love -- action. When we have an affection flowing from a sense of beauty or value, that sparks a desire and progresses to an inclination of focus, love may overflow in action toward or on behalf of the beloved object. Love doesn't have to overflow in action, but it would usually be (feel) incomplete or insufficient without some form of action. The action may be something seemingly insignificant or highly sacrificial. The action may overflow in any number of ways.

Virtuous Affections, Virtuous Actions

We could begin with a virtuous affection and end with a virtuous action, with all points along the progression being virtuous. This would obviously be what the Lord Jesus Christ did when he walked the earth. He said he always does what pleases the Father (see John 8:29). His love was perfect at all points, and unblemished by any stain of sin. He always had perfect affections, valuing just what needed to be valued with just the right intensity. He always had righteous desires in perfect measure. His inclination of focus was zoned in on his Father's will every moment of his life. He ruthlessly prioritized and sacrificed to achieve his righteous goal "for the joy that was set before him" (Heb. 12:2). Jesus' actions were always wholly virtuous. His actions were always appropriate and always flowed from virtuous affections. Jesus (and only Jesus) was sinless all along the progression of love his entire life. Such perfect virtue all along the progression of love will also be the norm in the new heavens and earth that Christians will inherit.

Virtuous Affections, Sinful Actions

We could also begin with a virtuous affection and end with a sinful action. This is because anywhere along the progression, sin can stain and pervert love. Amnon had an affection for Tamar. It's not a bad thing to have an affection for one's sister. A virtuous affection for his sister could have overflowed in guarding her purity and providing for her. On the other hand, sin could have intermingled with the original virtuous affection and tainted and twisted it. As children, Amnon's affection for Tamar may have been fine. But 2 Samuel 13:1 says, "After a time Amnon, David's son, loved her." Where Amnon may have begun with a virtuous affection, his sin distorted his sense of beauty so that Tamar's value to him flowed as an object to be consumed; rather than a sister to nurture and cherish by helping her be happy in God.

Sinful Affections, Seemingly Virtuous Actions

Though we can begin with a virtuous affection and end with a sinful action, we cannot begin with a sinful affection and end with a virtuous action. That's why it's a progression. If an action is going to be virtuous, it must come from a virtuous affection. Once an affection is sinful, a virtuous action cannot flow forth from it. We must repent of the sinful affection and begin again with a virtuous affection if a virtuous action is going to flow from it. We see this clearly in the Pharisees: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Mat. 23:25-28).

The Pharisees outwardly appeared beautiful. In other words, their actions looked right! How many people are being counseled everyday to make their actions look right? But the Pharisees were hypocrites. Why were they hypocrites? It wasn't as though they told others to do what they themselves didn't. They wanted everyone to live by their rules. They wanted people to tithe, and they tithed. They wanted people to pray, and they prayed. They wanted people to give alms and they gave alms. They wanted people to live by their rules, and they lived by their rules. There's no hypocrisy in that. Their hypocrisy was in the realm of their affections.

Two different affections can bring forth the same action. Love for God and love for man's praise can both motivate tithing, praying, giving and keeping rules. The affections of the Pharisees were bringing forth actions that most people thought God should be pleased with. However, he wasn't pleased because he wasn't just interested in their actions. He wanted their hearts. "This people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men" (Is. 29:13). God doesn't say, "Go to church and worship, even if you don't feel like it. Give, even if it isn't cheerful." He tells us to go to church and give because we feel like it. The only way we'll feel like doing God-pleasing action is through God-pleasing affections.

At this point, someone may argue that we must complete certain actions whether we feel like it or not. We do have a duty to perform as Christians. We have rules to obey. That is true. However, it's not enough to just do the actions, even though we don't feel like it. We must do the actions while confessing to God our hard-heartedness. We must pray that God would change our affections and trust in Christ's atonement for our callousness. We cannot fall for the deception that it doesn't matter how we feel or what we want. If our actions flow from our hearts, the root is just as or more important than the fruit. It is possible to begin with a non-virtuous affection and end with a seemingly virtuous action. This is where many people are in their spiritual lives. For example, it's possible to have an affection for our own reputations. So we go to church to look respectable or to follow a counselor's suggestion. Now seated right beside us are people that began with an affection for God. They came to church to be satiated with God's glory. Which love is virtuous? Both resulted in the same action -- being at church. But only one is virtuous because only one began with a virtuous affection; namely, to be happy with God.

This also happens often in marriage. Rather than having an affection for God or for our spouses, we have an affection for ourselves or sex, or money or comfort or security. So our actions can come out all wrong and openly display our faulty affections (in adultery, for instance). Or it may take a very long time to figure out that our affections are non-virtuous because the actions seem to be so virtuous. An example of this might be a husband who works sixty-five hours a week and provides well for his wife and children. His seeming virtue may just be hiding a love for money. Even if his wife and children would leave him, he'd still work sixty-five hours a week. Even if his wife and children desired him to work less, he wouldn't because it's not concern for them that's motivating him -- even though it superficially looks like concern for his family. God is not pleased with this hypocrisy.

Love Can Overflow Toward the Beloved Object

Love can overflow in action toward the beloved object. We see this with Amnon and Tamar. Amnon's love for Tamar overflowed in a sinful act directed toward her. She was the direct recipient of Amnon's sinful action. This would also be true of a steak. I love steak. I have a desire for steak. I eat steak. Steak is the direct recipient of the action. It would be the same with other objects of the creation that people consume (alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, etc.). Love overflows in action toward the beloved object in marriage all the time. Imagine a husband coming home from work with flowers for his wife. He gives her the flowers. She is the object of his affection and she is the direct recipient of his loving action, giving flowers. Picture a wife wanting to hug her husband. He is the object of her affection and he is the direct recipient of her loving action, a hug. So when an object of affection is the direct recipient of the action, then the love is toward the beloved object. Love overflows in action toward children as well. A mother loves her children, so she gives herself to her children. She may give her children herself in spending time with them. Or she may give presents to them on their birthday. Or she may give them special attention when they need it. They are the direct recipients of their mother's love. Her affection is for them, and they receive the action.

Love Can Overflow on Behalf of the Beloved Object

Love can also overflow on behalf of the beloved object. We also see this often with a husband and wife. Not only does the husband's love for his wife overflow in direct action toward her, it also overflows in action on her behalf. So one day, the husband could bring home flowers for his wife. She is the direct recipient of his loving action. That night, out of affection for his wife, he takes out the trash. The action was taking out the trash. But the love behind the action was directed toward his wife. So she wasn't the direct recipient of the action. He didn't take her out. She was an indirect recipient of the action. The husband's love for his wife overflowed in action on behalf of his wife. This distinction is important because it shows that love can begin with an affection for someone or something and end in a loving action that benefits someone else. In other words, what if love spreads into more love? What if the man didn't just take out the trash on behalf of his wife? What if he loved her children on behalf of his wife? Rather than love overflowing in taking out trash, what if love overflowed in creating more love?

Consider a man who marries a young widow with two young children. The first time he laid eyes on her at a church picnic, his affection was stirred because of her beauty and value to him. He began talking to her and found out she was widowed the year before. He really desired to be with her and inclined his focus toward her. His love overflowed in action toward her and he proposed. She is the direct recipient of his love. He wants intimacy with her and he wants to give himself to her. However, her children also benefit from his love for their mother, even if he doesn't highly value her children at first (please don't act as though that never happens). His affection wasn't for the children. He didn't propose to the children. His love was directed toward his wife and the children were part of her life. But even though he doesn't value her children (yet or highly), his love overflows toward the children on behalf of his love for their mother. I'm not saying that he may not develop strong affections for the children. He probably will. However, at first, when love is new, he loves what his new wife loves as part of loving his wife. So he loves his wife's children on behalf of his wife. Love for her actually sparked love for a whole new object that may have otherwise never happened.

This dynamic also explains how we can love our sinful neighbor out of love for God. We see this dynamic clearly in the life of King David. "And David said, 'Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan's sake?'" (2 Samuel 9:1). The word "kindness" there is often translated "mercy" or "lovingkindness." What if our love for our friend was so strong, that even though our friend died, we still honored his friendship with our love? Out of the overflow of affection for our dead friend, we seek out one of his relatives to show loving favor to. That's what King David did for Mephibosheth, Jonathan's son. David took him into his own court and treated him as if he were his own son. David had no direct affection for Mephibosheth. He didn't even know he existed. He had to ask someone. But he knew Jonathan. And he remembered his love for Jonathan (though Jonathan was dead). And out of the overflow of his love for Jonathan, he loved a stranger on behalf of Jonathan, "for Jonathan's sake."

Loving on behalf of another in this way can be a tremendous benefit to our marriages. What happens when we stop valuing our spouses? Affection weakens or dies. What happens when affection dies? Love dies. What happens when love dies in marriage? God's glory gets tramped on. So what happens when our spouses are really not that valuable at the moment? What if we catch our spouses in adultery or they get their fourth DUI? Our affection for them may be at an all-time low. So how do we continue to love them? How do we be a blessing to them? How do we keep giving and serving them with loving actions? We see from King David that it's possible to love someone on behalf of love for someone else. So we can value our spouses even when they don't seem so valuable, because God is. God loves marriage. He hates divorce. So it's possible for a godly spouse to value his mate, not for something inherent in his mate, but on behalf of God. We could say we value our spouses, not because of inherent worth, but because of the preciousness of marriage and the preciousness of God who gave us a spouse. Our spouses are automatically valuable because marriage is valuable. Marriage is valuable because God loves marriage and God is valuable. So, even when our spouses are not living up to our expectations, we can continue to love them out of the overflow of our love for God. We may say something like, "How can I love my spouse for God's sake?"

The best example of love is Jesus. He loved the church and died for her. Christ's loving action flowed toward the beloved object. The church is a direct recipient of Christ's loving action. He loved his church from all eternity (see Eph. 1). He came down to earth as a man. He desired fellowship with his bride. He wanted her and made advances toward her. The church is also an indirect recipient of Christ's love. When sin stood like a wall between God and man, Christ acted on behalf of his bride. He died in her place and tore down the wall. He took on her shame and her guilt and her punishment. "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed" (Is. 53:5). Christ died on behalf of the church. Where an ordinary husband may take out the trash, Jesus hung on a cross. So Christ's love overflowed in actions both toward and on behalf of his bride.

Let's briefly review how far we've come. 1) Love is best described as a progression of phases. 2) Love begins as an affection flowing from a sense of beauty or value. 3) When affection for an object dies, love dies. 4) An object's value is determined by the pleasure granted or expected. 5) Love may progress to a desire. 6) Desire is sparked when affection is intense and the object of affection is potentially available. 7) Thoughts and desires determine choices. 8) Love may progress to an inclination of focus -- prioritizing and pressing in on the beloved object. 9) With inclination of focus, love becomes increasingly unreasonable and sacrificial. 10) Love may progress to an action toward or on behalf of the beloved object.

In a few upcoming posts, I'll tease out the implications of this description of love.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Be Content!

Here's a short post for the short-attention span people struggling through the more lengthy love posts.

"3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths" (Genesis 3:1-7)

"Mom never let's me do anything." If you have kids, you've probably heard it or something like it. If you've been a kid, you've undoubtedly said it yourself. Here's a typical conversation for those who are totally unfamiliar with this statement:

Tommy: "Mom, can I go to Billy's party on Friday?"
Tommy's mom: "Are his parents going to be home?"
Tommy: "Not sure about that, but there's going to be girls there."
Tommy's mom: "I'm going to have to say no to that."
Tommy: "You guys never let me do anything!" (As he storms off to his room.)

Of course, Tommy is lying in his last statement. It's not that his mom never let's him do anything. It's just that she didn't let him do that one thing. But in Tommy's mind, that one thing is all that matters at the moment. He isn't content with his current life-circumstances. He wants Billy's party and the girls who will be there. In addition, in Tommy's mind, if his mother has habitually said no to his requests, then to Tommy, it's going to feel like his mother never let's him do anything, even though she may let him do all sorts of things he doesn't appreciate.

This is the same concept taking place in the text I quoted above from Genesis. In this account of "the Fall" we read that the serpent provokes discontent in Eve. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Let me translate that: "God never lets you do anything!" Notice, Eve's answer. She informs the serpent that God hasn't forbidden everything. There are plenty of wonderful trees in the Garden to eat from. But then the one she isn't allowed to eat from takes center-stage in her mind. Eventually she agrees with the serpent that God doesn't let her do anything. He's holding out on her and Adam. And like a spoiled child, she ate the fruit along with Adam, they both realized they made a mistake and tried to fix it themselves. We do the same thing all the time.

"There's nothing in the house to eat." Really? Nothing at all? Or is there nothing to satisfy your craving for a particular thing?

"You're always putting me down." Really? All the time? Or is that just what sticks out because it doesn't satisfy your craving for honor?

"We can't go anywhere on twenty bucks." Really? Or is it that you can't go to that one place you had your heart set on?

"We never get any breaks." Really? Or is it that you don't get the kind of breaks you think you have coming?

Do you get the picture? If we're honest, we have to admit that we're often like Tommy or the serpent or Eve. How often do we let our minds skip right over a hundred blessings and zoom in on the one thing that we don't have or can't have? Then we interpret our entire life through that one thing that we're lacking? It's not so much that we're dissed as discontent. You don't have to have everything. You don't have to get your way all the time. Just be content!

Friday, January 15, 2010

What is Love? Part 3

With Valentine's Day quickly approaching, I'm sharing a series of posts on love taken from my book on marriage. In order for today's post to make the most sense, I'd recommend reading parts one and two first. I believe a concept as complex as love is best described as a progression of phases. I think love develops along a chain from one phase to the next. It's sequential. I think love (both virtuous and sinful) follows a certain reproducible pattern every time. From the beginning of the progression to the end, as long as the sequence is followed, any point along the chain could be called love. Here's the progression: All love begins with an affection... from there it may or may not develop into a desire... if a desire is strong enough, it may or may not proceed to an inclination of focus... and from there, it might or might not overflow in an action toward or on behalf of the beloved object. Part one explained affection, part two explained desire, and in this part, we'll see what happens when a desire just has to be fulfilled.

Love May Progress to Inclination of Focus

Love may progress to what I've labeled an "inclination of focus." I am inclined, or propelled toward the object of my desire. I have such an affection for the object that I press my whole being toward that object or I choose on behalf of that object. Inclination of focus may sound similar to desire, and it is. But there's a critical, qualitative difference that moves it beyond desire on the progression of love. With desire, nothing (or very little) has happened yet toward or on behalf of the beloved object. Love may stop with desire. With inclination of focus, I'm starting to sort out options and weed out what seems less valuable so that I can hone in on what seems more valuable. This is about priority. This is the bridge between desire and action. This is perhaps the most dangerous phase. Here's why:

An Inclination of Focus Prioritizes and Imagines

A man may have an attractive neighbor. He develops an affection for her based on his sense of her value. He begins to value her so intensely and she is so potentially available (she lives next door), a desire for his neighbor is sparked in his heart. He begins to fantasize about her, and build up her value in his mind. Now, this man's love for his neighbor may stop at a desire. He never acts upon it, never brings it up and buries it until she and her husband move away. But what if he doesn't bury it? What if in his mind, the potentiality of pleasure is so great that it's worth whatever consequence comes to satisfy that pleasure? What if he starts fantasizing about how great an encounter with her may be? What if the thoughts are very vivid in nature and he begins to confuse fantasy and reality? What if he actually gets to the point where he talks himself into it? You may think that sounds like a stupid, reckless thing to do. But how often does just such a thing happen? Probably everyday somewhere. Now, in addition to the fantasies, the man starts scheming in his mind how to overlay fantasy on top of reality. He starts weighing priorities and consequences. "How can I get her to agree to an affair? Maybe I could probe and see if she's happy with her husband. I need to find a crack in her armor, or a hole in the wall that I could wrench through. What kind of leverage can I use? What will the guys at work think if they find out? Would her husband come after me with a gun? I'd be thrown out of church. My wife would be devastated. She'd probably divorce me and take the kids. They'd hate me forever and I'd be a social outcast. Not to mention God would be mad. That's a lot of bad consequences. But she's so beautiful and an encounter with her would be so rewarding! I've been distracted with her for weeks already. I'll talk to her tomorrow over the fence and drop a few hints that I can easily weasel out of if she doesn't respond favorably." That's the inner working of a mind that has moved from desire to inclination of focus. Notice that consequences are inconsequential. He thinks he must fulfill his desire. He will put things in motion, through manipulating, lying, bribing, leveraging, threatening, sacrificing or whatever else it takes to have his desired object. We can see how the man's inclination of focus zones in on his neighbor and zones out any other option.

Consider another, more frivolous example. Imagine me sitting back in that new restaurant with no idea what they serve. I order the special -- tuna noodle casserole -- because it was on the sign at the front door. The waitress goes by with a steak. I love steak. I have an affection for steak flowing from a sense of its value. Now seeing that steak go by has awakened in me a desire for steak because steak is valuable to me and it's available. I start thinking to myself, "How can I get a steak instead of that nasty old tuna casserole?" As I incline my focus toward steak, I devalue all other options in my mind. What may have been perfectly satisfying is no longer good enough. I must have steak. "I could stop the waitress on the way back. But then that'll just cause problems. The chef will probably spit in my food for changing the order. But steak is so good. It's worth the risk! But wait, I only have seven dollars on me and the steak will be more. Wait again, I can float a check until tomorrow. But I don't even know if they take checks. I could find out, but it's not worth all that. No. It is worth all that. I will not be satisfied with tuna -- I must have steak." Then my love is expressed through action, "Waitress, could you please bring me a medium sirloin instead?" Can you see my inclination of focus zone in on steak and zone out any other option?

Love Becomes More Unreasonable and Sacrificial

When love progresses to inclination of focus, it becomes more and more unreasonable and sacrificial. The mind is fantasizing and imagining all the pleasure that will come through the beloved object. Love for an object is difficult to cut off at this phase. By the time love reaches this phase, thoughts and desires are likely so vivid that we start sensing our own well-being hinging on the beloved object. We start believing that the beloved object must be had or life won't work as well. This can be a great virtue when the motive is noble and the end just. It can motivate the highest acts of sacrifice. "For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2). We also see this inclination of focus in missionary biographies where saints sacrificed earthly comfort and security despite the pressure from loved ones to "just be normal."

Love can also make the biggest fool of anyone (like Amnon). The saddest part in sinful inclination is that reality does not match up with fantasy. We have the ability to imagine in our heads at a far greater pace and intensity than life can deliver. Sin never truly pays off. It just feels like it does. It always costs; maybe not immediately, but inevitably. That's why "love hurts" and "reality bites." Rarely can a beloved object deliver what love imagines. We see this once again with our running illustration, Amnon and Tamar. Amnon had a clear inclination of focus toward Tamar. It was unreasonable and sacrificial. Amnon was King David's son. He could have been king. Instead, he traded that for one encounter with Tamar. In fact, Tamar's brother, Absalom, avenged Tamar by killing Amnon. Amnon's love for Tamar cost him his life. What would drive a person to give up everything for one encounter with a beautiful virgin? Love -- virtuous or otherwise.

"But Amnon had a friend, whose name was Jonadab, the son of Shimeah, David's brother. And Jonadab was a very crafty man. And he said to him, "O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?" Amnon said to him, "I love Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister." Jonadab said to him, "Lie down on your bed and pretend to be ill. And when your father comes to see you, say to him, 'Let my sister Tamar come and give me bread to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, that I may see it and eat it from her hand.'" So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. And when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, "Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, that I may eat from her hand" (2 Sam. 13:3-6).

With a little help from a scheming cousin, Amnon moved from desire: "Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister. . . ." (13:2), to inclination of focus. He started to develop a plan to have the object of his desire. At this point, Amnon cannot figure out a way to get alone with Tamar. She's beautiful and valuable to Amnon, but not exactly available. She's available enough to stir affection, but not enough to satisfy desire. But "Jonadab was a very crafty man" (13:3). He provided the skill to zone in on Tamar. Notice how Amnon's desire was affecting his whole life. "Why are you so haggard morning after morning? . . ." (13:4). That's a clue that Amnon's love was perverted and non-virtuous. Amnon put into motion his plan. He weighed all the options. His desire for Tamar would be fulfilled. Action would spring forth. He would have his beloved Tamar, no matter what the cost. "Dad, I'm sick. Could you have Tamar make me some cakes and feed me?" And David, the accommodating father, says, "Sure, son. No problem."

"But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, "Come, lie with me, my sister." She answered him, "No, my brother, do not violate me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this outrageous thing. As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the outrageous fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king, for he will not withhold me from you." But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her" (2 Sam. 13:7-14).

Notice Amnon's absolute unreasonableness. He cannot be dissuaded. Every defense is refused, every plea ignored. He has an inclination of focus that will not be denied. He knows he'll be considered "one of the outrageous fools in Israel." He doesn't care. "But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her" (13:14). Amnon bridged the gap between desire and action. Don't forget, the writer of 2 Samuel called Amnon's desire love (13:1, 4, 15). He didn't call it virtuous love. It was sinful, perverted love. But it was love nonetheless. Not for long, though. Love turned to hatred with a vengeance. "Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, "Get up! Go!" But she said to him, "No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me." But he would not listen to her" (2 Sam. 13:15-16). I'm guessing that the encounter that Amnon had been dreaming about in his perpetually haggard state was not even close to what reality delivered. I'm sure in the state in which it happened, Tamar was far less pleasurable than Amnon had imagined. It's a shame, too. Amnon's unchecked imagination cost him his life and Tamar her purity.