It’s not just that it’s been happening throughout history. It’s our collective complicity with it, through knowing and not speaking, through seeing and not saying. It’s the “this is just the way it is” of it that is at the heart of the blight. Turning a blind eye to sexual abuse, misogyny, and the abuse of power in relationships has been happening for millenia. These dark sins have, it seems, been so deeply woven into the fabric of our culture that they’ve gone tragically unnoticed.
Thanks be to God, the tide is turning. Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner occurred at a time when they were viewed as isolated incidents years and decades ago, and presidential liaisons before that were hushed up completely. But the rapid recent succession of Donald Trump, Bill O Reily, Roger Ailes, and now the Weinstein situation have brought the issue out onto the mainstage of culture, front and center. That’s good news, but only if we respond rightly and become part of the healing solution. So how should we respond?
Reject all objectification of women. It’s too easy for those who’ve never been guilty of overt abuse to wash their hands in false self righteousness, ready as they are to throw their stones. But the wise person will see abuse clothed in power as the presenting problem and travel further upstream to find the source of the malady. When he does, he’ll find that always, before there’s abuse, there’s an objectification – the reduction of a woman made in God’s image to nothing more than a body, a thing that exists solely for the satisfaction of the onlooker, as he uses her to fill some destructive void in his life. If this is the real problem, perhaps there’s not a man among us who isn’t guilty – and perhaps this is why Jesus took lust so seriously here.
Overcoming habits of objectification will require an active re-training of our senses, our interior thought life, because the reality is that our culture is complicit in the sex abuse problem, reducing women to objectified images in advertising, bait click portraits, movies, sitcoms, and shopping malls – let alone the vast world of porn. Every time I reduce a woman’s image or her presence to an object existing for my pleasure and satisfaction, I become part of the problem, feeding the purveyors of objectification yet another reason to continue and intensify their offerings.
I get it guys. You’re lonely, stressed, frustrated, insecure. You want comfort, intimacy, less stress, or at least a momentary hit of plelasure – and they all seem out of reach, so you reach for what’s so readily available in our culture and presto – problem solved. You leave satisfied. Except the problem isn’t solved – at all. The only thing that’s changed is that you’ve become weaker. You’ve made an offering to the gods of darkness intent on deepening the strongholds of abuse. O, and one other thing happened. Another woman was used – another story, another wall, another wound.
There’s a better way, and it starts with walking away from every whiff of objectification. And the courage to walk away usually begins by believing that I have a life and calling all my own, a completion in Christ that is real. Because of this, though I might feel lonely and frustrated at times, to the extent that I embrace my deepest and truest identity, I’m freed from letting the false void of inadequacy drive my behavior. I’ve no need to grab, fondle, or even fantasize about doing so, because I’ve an actual life to live, full of serving and sharing, blessing and building. Real life trumps fantasies and objectifications every time.
Restore the primacy of character in our voting, employment, and education. The words of Mr. Trump, caught on “access hollywood” tape should have been a warning: this is a man driven to conquer people, to use them, to acquire them as objects for his own purposes. “… and they let you get away with it…” He’s not the first president with the problem, by any means. Just the crassest, and most cavalier – on tape anyway. The scourge is well resourced with presidents from both parties.
The point isn’t perfection. One look at Abraham, or Noah, or David remind us that perfection isn’t the point. What’s happened in our culture, though, is that our silence, and our collective turning the other way, and our voting, have all become forms of tacit approval, not of those who have failed and know it, but of those for whom the misuse of power as a means of using a woman for sexual satisfaction became normal, even a matter for boasting.
All people are created in God’s image, and as such, none are ever to be treated as objects existing for the profit and pleasure of those with more power. Sadly, this has been one of the most violated truths in the history of the world, including American history. Blacks were literally property, for centuries, as confirmed “on the books” of insurance companies and banks whose records go back to the times of the colonies. American Indians? Objects. Women? Objects for sexual pleasure, void of voting rights, employment rights, equal pay rights, or even the most basic right of all – the right to walk through the world with the confidence that you’re being seen as a whole person, not an object to be used and discarded.
Are you intent on putting people in positions of power who believe in the dignity of all people, precisely because all are made in God’s image? Are you interested in ending the objectification culture that has wounded women in America for centuries? Are you going to take steps, as you’re able, to break down the dividing walls of racism, classism, and sexism that are a blight on both American culture and (too often) the church?
Continuing in a series of looking at ways in which the gifts God wants us to know and enjoy are stolen from us, this entry and the next one will consider how millions have lost their sexual joy and identity, and how all of us are paying a huge price because of it. I welcome your thoughts.
We’re sexual beings, made biologically for reproduction, and emotionally for intimacy. We’re made, by our creator, with sexual longings and appetites, and with the physiological realities that sexual arousal is intended to be pleasurable. There are body parts and nerve endings related to our sexuality that have no other purpose than to be a source of pleasure. Sex is a good gift from our Maker.
Alas, though, it’s a fallen world. As a result, this grand and precious gift has been stolen from us. The enemy of the kind of “life abundant”, which is what Jesus came to bring us, has, for all time, been a master thief in this arena. This theft, which I’d suggest likely has affected 100% of us in various measure at various times, leaves isolation, shame, fear, hatred, and heartache in its wake. Further, the strategies of the thief are many. Here I offer a few “theft strategies” , and with them, some practical steps to take so that sexual identity can return to its intended place in our lives as a powerful gift.
Strategy #1: “Sex as bad” – I put this first because many reading this are Christ followers, and the church has been deplorable in this regard. From the beginning, the early church rightly understood that our sexuality could easily be misused, but the response was to vilify it rather than hold it wisely. Some church fathers forbade sex for any reason other than procreation; others limited the days of the year on which intercourse was allowed; still others advocated castration. At the root of these lies, perpetrated by faith leaders, was the belief that sex is best controlled by killing it. Kill the desire and you solve the problem.
Desire, though, doesn’t die easily, nor should it. Some who manage to attain “purity” do so at the cost of believing in the goodness of sex. Others, who fail, fall into a dung pile of shame – their identity deeply damaged by the guilt heaped on them directly and covertly through an ethic for sex that God never had in mind.
Strategy #2: “Sex as recreation” – At the other end of the spectrum from a fear of sex, is the lie that sex is an appetite just like hunger, and as such, should be honored in a manner similar to our relationship with food. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re horny? There’s an app for that, and a willing partner nearby. It’s a “sex at dawn” mentality, based on the faulty belief that a) we’re nothing more than animals, and b) that the happiest animals were polyamorous. Though “Sex at Dusk” does a marvelous job deconstructing this false edifice with hard science, it’s not sold nearly as many copies as “Sex at Dawn” and appears to be out of print except for the kindle edition. It turns it we’d rather believe the lie.
The fruit of this is that sex in increasingly divorced from any sense of covenant commitment. That might sound appealing, and there are presentations of this lifestyle (such as the classic “Sex in the City”) that make hookup culture appear normal, and relatively risk free.
It’s not. Easy access to commitment-free sex, while superficially appealing to some (perhaps many), more often than not yields the ugly fruits of 1) loss of capacity for real intimacy 2) increased loneliness, which leads to, 3) an increased desire to quench the pain of loneliness, which leads to 4) an increased dependency on another sexual encounter. We call that addiction, and addiction steals huge swaths of your soul, as well as those of your family, friends, and co-workers.
Strategy #3: “Sex as pixels” – Internet pornography, and soon, virtual reality pornography, are creating an alternate universe of sexual pleasure and release ‘on demand’. The effect on the user is a rewiring of the brain in such a way that that began as a “demand” originating from your own will, ultimately becomes a “demand” on your own will creating an arousal addiction. Your brain on porn articulates the destructive consequences of this pathway physiologically and emotionally. Erectile dysfunction is an ever increasing problem among all men, tragically including young men in their 20s.
In addition, all porn users, of all ages, are rewiring their brains so that the scripted fantasies of actors, specifically intended to arouse, become their new “baseline” of what constitutes normal. As a result, arousal in the context of real intimacy (which must, of necessity, be mutual not unilateral, and include self-giving, not just receiving), becomes difficult, sometimes impossible. Thus the spouse of the porn user feels pressured to perform in a certain way, or perhaps doesn’t feel anything at all, because the user has substituted sexual release with pixels for genuine intimacy. The long term effects of either path? Sexual joy is stolen.
NEXT UP: In the next post, I’ll share some solutions to these theft problems. In the meantime, though, consider this read, as a means of re-orienting your brain toward a redemptive view of sexuality: Real Sex offers a way through the minefield, casting a vision of holding one’s sexuality joyfully, in wholeness.
There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem. “Come back! Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!” It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story. She strong, lovely, confident. And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd. Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back. Why? “So that we may admire you!”
They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives. This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate. Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option. Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal. The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta. There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity. The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction. Much of this is cataloged here.
Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science. The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago. You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world. What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same. He/she wants “different”. If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.
What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention. Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required? You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills. But why not play a video game instead? Alone. With no risk of rejection or failure.
In a word: safety. Is this alternate world real? No. Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No. Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel? No. But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.
What’s the way forward?
1. A strong core. If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality. When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping. You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world. Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!
2. A sense of call. When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ. When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.
3. A high view of marriage and sexuality. The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better. It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation. They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O. All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.
4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes. Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world). Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.
The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen! Here are a few resources for your consideration.
There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story. Contact us for details. Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.
The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God. You have a calling, a journey yet ahead. Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you. Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.
Preaching the Song of Solomon this spring has reminded me of a few critical truths that are mostly lost among Christ followers. In our fear of abusing the gifts of sexuality God has given humankind, we’ve unwittingly taught that our sexuality is a liability to be scorned and controlled, rather than a gift to be celebrated. The Bible tells us otherwise:
This past Sunday’s teaching, “Eros Affirmed” might provide some insight into what I’m talking about. Steep a pot of tea, a carafe of French Press, or a glass of “something”, and have a look and listen – and maybe consider sharing with someone who’d benefit from it. One woman told me on Sunday she’s planning on sharing it with a few folks who’d benefit from it.
(audio or video)
I welcome your thoughts!
My present study of The Song of Solomon for the preaching series at the church I lead has collided with my reading of “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”. The result has led me to believe that we need to rethink our notions of “sin”, because our wrong understanding has often led to lives of fear rather than confidence, legalism rather liberty, and anxiety rather than joy. Here’s what I mean:
I. Our typical notion of sin has do with obvious dark behaviors. Murdering another human is sin. Drinking yourself silly is sin. Hating, or even ignoring, people who are different than you is sin. Profligate sexual indulgence, outlandish greed – all these things are seen as sin, and rightly so. It’s the realm of darkness, and we rightly point out that: “this is the judgement – light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…”
The trouble comes when we begin to vilify the activity that is at the source of the sin and call it dark, simply because of the risk of indulging the sin.
We’re afraid of anger because we’re afraid of murder. We’re afraid of alcohol because we’re afraid of drunkenness. We’re afraid of challenging someone of a different race because we’re afraid of racism. We’re afraid of sex because we’re afraid of all that happens when sex is misused. You get the picture; and the picture isn’t pretty. It’s a picture tantamount to that of the climber whose only goal is to not fall. This fear-based approach will no only suck the joy out of living, but fill the soul with an aversion to failure and worse, avoidance of much that God calls good.
This is a far cry from what Jesus appeared to have in mind when he said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly“. Wrong notions of sin can strangle the new life Christ has in mind.
II. a Truer Notion of Sin: Sin is light twisted. In “Out of the Silent Planet“, the first book in my favorite science fiction space trilogy, CS Lewis describes sinful humanity as “bent ones”, a perfect description because it describes a species still capable of creativity, majesty, beauty, and generosity – but who have been “bent” by sin, so that all the glorious qualities inherent in human nature have been corrupted.
The gift of sex becomes pornography, disease, dehumanizing abuse of power, and sexual slavery.
The gifts of food and drink become obesity, eating disorders, body image issues, and drunkenness.
The gift of human diversity becomes racism, oppression, and slavery.
The gift of work becomes industrialization, child labor, environmental degradation, and economic oppression.
You get the picture. God gives humanity gifts and we find ways to bend and twist them so that they destroy both ourselves and others.
This is an important distinction though, because the way forward is not to smash the original thing, but to recover the meaning of the original thing. This is what Song of Solomon is trying to say through its poetry, which exalts covenant love, and contrasts that with the usury and oppression so typical, not only in pornography and prostitution, but also in many marriages that have lost any sense of intimacy. The book doesn’t trash sex. It declares that in a setting of vulnerability and commitment, of affirmation and playfulness – full arousal, full pursuit, and ultimately full indulgence, is a thing to be celebrated. Recover the thing (sex in this case), rather than blaming the thing as the source of the sin. Sin is a good thing bent!
III. Bending our desires back to their Original Design is what Christ does!
This is what I love about the new book I’m reading. It declares:
“…discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’s command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his—to want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all…Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves.”
To the extent that we allow Christ to realign our lives, there’s a sort of spiritual chiropractic thing that happens.
Whereas before, sex was an appetite, now its an artful expression of intimacy.
Whereas before anger was a thing to be avoided, now there’s a realization that, before there’s a move towards advocacy, or repentance, or justice, there must often be anger.
Whereas before the ever expanding GDP was a sign of progress, a discipleship paradigm considers not just national financial wealth, but a nation’s capacity to care for its children, its poor, its vulnerable, its sick, its children living in the womb.
Before it was either “live to eat” (food addiction) or “eat to live” (utilitarian ‘food as fuel’), now its “food as sacrament”, invoking gratitude and pleasure for the gifts of sustenance.
God is aligning our loves and longings, as “You Are What You Love” declares. And alignment leads to greater joy, strength, capacity for service, and ultimately a greater life.
Don’t begin with a massive NO!, either in your own discipleship or in your articulation of your faith to others.
Begin with the glorious YES!, that the life for which we were created is still available, and the seeds of that good life are found in uniting with Christ, who will align us so that we might “run and not be weary…walk and not faint”
“Nebuchadnezzar said to them: “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: Is it true that you don’t serve my gods or worship the gold statue I’ve set up? If you are now ready to do so, bow down and worship the gold statue I’ve made when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, lyre, harp, flute, and every kind of instrument. But if you won’t worship it, you will be thrown straight into the furnace of flaming fire. Then what god will rescue you from my power?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar: “We don’t need to answer your question. If our God—the one we serve—is able to rescue us from the furnace of flaming fire and from your power, Your Majesty, then let him rescue us. But if he doesn’t, know this for certain, Your Majesty: we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you’ve set up.””
Daniel 3:14-18 CEB
I know it’s not technically firewalking, but its fire – maybe “fire bathing“? The point of the story is that there are three men who are so deeply committed to worship their God, and no other, that they’re willing to pay the ultimate price while being mindful, as well, that their God is powerful enough to protect them in the fire.
In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg helps readers see that when we determine in advance what our routine will be when certain cues occur in our lives, our response to those cues become habits. Cue: stress Response: nicotine. Habit: chain-smoking. Cue: weariness. Routine: TV. Habit: wasting your life! Cue: loneliness. Routine: porn Habit: arousal addiction (as brilliantly articulated in this book).
Our three fire bathing friends have something significant to teach us about this. They’ve determined in advance that when the cue is worship, the routine will be to worship their own God, and no other. It’s become so entrenched in them that they don’t seem to wrestle with it at all. They’re all in, with no thought of turning back, even at cost of their lives.
The critical question that comes into play here for me at this point in their story is: “What’s their reward?” It’s an important question because the reality is that we’re built for rewards. You run (or sit and eat ice cream) for the reward. You get an education (or stop learning and growing) for the reward. You do your job with excellence (or choose to scaresly show up) for the reward. We do what we do, including following Christ – or abandon fidelity to Christ in pursuit of other sources, in order to receive a reward.
Our rewards are the same as these three enjoy: confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, and power – which are all promised to us in the scriptures as fruits of faithfully looking to Christ as our source.
Our eyes tend to glaze over when we think of idolatry these days, because the word conjures imagery of statues, altars, and visible representations of false gods. Here in the west, though, our idols are different: less visible, and more seductive.
Our idols anything we look to in our lives as our foundational source for comfort, meaning, direction, security. Our idols, then, are our ROUTINE RESPONSES in the cue, routine, reward loop, that we look toward as a primary means of coping with a particular state of mind and heart.
“When I’m lonely I visit chat rooms”
“When I’m stressed I drink”
“When I’m frustrated I get angry and blame”
“When I’m _________ I ________”
Especially to the extent that any unhealthy response to a cue becomes a habit – we’re enslaved, and hurtling toward idolatry, if not already there. Idols overpromise and under-deliver – every time.
In contrast, whenever I choose cues that contribute to my fundamental identity as a child of God, or to my calling – the rewards of confidence, courage, peace, and freedom, are ignited and I’m strengthened to walk through fires – surely most of which are metaphorical, while believing that if I’m meant to walk through literal fires, the power will be granted.
Consider an unhealthy cue, response, reward pattern in your life and change both the response the reward. Do you believe that, over time at least, the right response will lead to the fourfold reward of confidence, courage, peace, and freeedom? Then determine the right response to the cue, the response of faithfulness that will bring the reward:
When I’m lonely I will call a friend to encourage, be encouraged, or both.
When I’m stressed, I will exercise and give thanks for my body
When I’m frustrated at work, I will pray for the wisdom and strength to be a person of peace, grace, and truth – and by faith thank God that I’m becoming such… little by little.
You get the picture. Changing our habits of response to life’s cues isn’t just what the book The Power of Habit is all about – it’s what Christ followers call discipleship.
We live in an increasingly tribal world, where white supremacists feel empowered in new ways, European nations are finding xenophobic voices on the rise, and whole people groups, like the Kurds, find themselves at risk wherever they turn. In spite of all the good work God has done in Rwanda, tensions still brew just under the surface there, and the developed world is dealing with an exponential increase in refugees, precisely because of tribalism.
With fears of “the other” on the rise, a look at Jesus life, from beginning to end, is like a drink of fresh cold water in the midst of the desert. This is because Jesus loved all, breaking the normal social and tribal walls that so often isolate and divide. Consider:
1. The wise men were from the east, not Jewish, and among the first worshippers, along with shepherds who, by virtue of their work, were considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite.
2. Early in his ministry, he goes out of his way “pass through Samaria” and engage with a woman who, by any standard of Jewish religious propriety, would have been an outsider. She was a) a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealing with Samaritans b) a woman, and men have no dealings with women and c) living with a man ‘not her husband’, which would have rendered her unclean. And yet here he is, talking theology with her, and eventually revealing his identity as Messiah. She becomes an evangelist, telling others what she’d seen and heard, just like the shepherds before her.
3. Jesus heals a Greek woman’s daughter, commending her for her faith, and later, heals the child of a Roman soldier.
4. He calls a despised “tax collector” to become one of his disciples.
5. The complaint leveled against him by the religious establishment is that he spends time with “tax collectors and sinners”.
6. He advocates for a woman caught in “the very act of adultery” saving her life, forgiving her, and telling her to “sin no more”.
7. He tells a thief dying on the cross that he’ll be joining Jesus in paradise.
7. He even has a heartfelt and compassionate conversation with “a ruler of the Jews” who is part of the religious establishment
All these things offend the sensibilities of basically everyone, because Jesus refused to be confined to a single people group or party. Rich or poor. Jew or Gentile. Slave or free. Man or woman. Married or those with failed marriages. Undeniable sinner, or sinner covered in a veneer of religion – Jesus loved them all.
This is a great gift this Christmas season, because the reality is that those who love this way receive a much needed gift as a result of crossing social divides and loving those different than them – they receive the gift of joy!
I know lots of Christians, lots of religious people. One thing I’ve learned is that its the people who “cross over” who find an element of joy in their lives unavailable to those who remain confined within the walls of “their own kind”. This isn’t because crossing over is easy. It’s not. It’s because crossing over is “the life for which we’ve been created” and when we cross over, we become aligned with the deepest part of our soul.
The gift of crossing over began early, as shepherds, judged as unclean, received a message from an angel and “crossed over” into the presence of a holiness that the religious establishment would have forbidden to them. God, far from forbidding, initiated the invitation! Jesus, we are told in Ephesians 2, has broken down the dividing wall. This is a gift.
Have you unwrapped this gift, and begun enjoying relationships with those across the way – racially, economically, socially, politically? There’s joy “over there” friends, for those willing to follow Jesus and cross the divides.
Here’s the deal, as announced in Luke 2:10:
For all people!
There’ll be a banquet in the end, and most folks at the table won’t look like you; they maybe didn’t even vote like you. But though the banquet’s still to come, the party’s started, so enter in – by crossing over!
I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership. The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected. He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world. “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.
It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself. I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”. I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world. Well connected? I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures. I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.
I left class that day wanting to quit. I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job. When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:
Well connected? He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.
Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.” Isaiah 53:2
Agressive and ambitious? There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on. In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life: “What is the will of the Father?” When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds. When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone. When it led to the cross, he went there.
Wealthy? “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.
There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected. It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.
This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.
The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters. I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on. My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).
Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle. Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t. Some could be models, they’re so striking. Then there are the rest of us. Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.
Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26
For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.
But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free? The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies. So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ. They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.
He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
A freedom tied to obedience
These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute. As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.” Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”. The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom. There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.
What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong. If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?
Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love. We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny. This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.
I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers. They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.
A freedom tied to external revelation
One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed. “If you want to own a gun, own a gun. If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion. If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.” What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone. Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being. What if you want my wife? Or my children? Or my stuff?
So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”
Ah, but there’s the problem. One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone. Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server. But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.
The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage. Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul. “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you” Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom. Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.
Simple right? We’re all free. Yes, free. And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom. How’s this working for us? Not so well, I’d argue.
What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke. Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing. My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps. Freedom? Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway. That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.
Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable. Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.
In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more. But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.
The Illusion of Freedom
When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children. We have never been anyone’s slaves…” In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?” I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome. Before that it was Greece. Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire. Before that it was Babylon. Before that it was Assyria. Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.
We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.
But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need. This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”. And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough. Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority. That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.
“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”
In the coming days, I offer some thoughts from my devotions in Jeremiah. It’s been too long since I’ve written, as life’s been full of house sales and meetings, travel and teaching. Jeremiah, though, has been a good friend during these days, and I want to write some things I hope will help you navigate both your own personal waters, and the waters of a culture in upheaval as shootings, racism, and political posture seem to continue unchecked. I write in hopes of helping you become a person of hope in the midst of it all… cheers!
Tucked away at the end of Jeremiah 23, there are two verses that give me pause. In v33,34 God says to Jeremiah, “When one of these people, or a prophet, or a priests asks you, ‘What burdensome message do you have from the Lord?’ tell them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you away. I, the Lord, affirm it! I will punish any prophet, priest, or other person who says, ‘The Lord’s message is burdensome…”
God is mad that people think God’s message to humanity is a burden. This is a point worth pondering, because with just a little bit of reflection, if the truth be told, all of us at times consider God’s commands to be burdensome. Self denial is burdensome when I want to sit on the train, rather than surrender my seat, or when I want the larger piece of salmon, or the job that pays the most money. Generosity is a burden when I write a check to help. Compassion is a burden when I work hard to shut off my narcissism and enter into the suffering of another. In fact, encouragement can even be a burden when the default would be to jump on the bandwagon of negativity that’s in a room, or a meeting, or a culture.
Not burdensome? Oscar Wilde speaks for many when he disagrees with God as seen here:
What is God thinking about when God says the commands and way are not burdensome?
What God’s thinking about is the big picture. When Jesus utters little sayings about crosses and self denial, and also says his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s not contradicting himself. Rather, Jesus is opening the door to two important truths
There’s usually a lag time between action and reward/punishment. This is one of the most important truths in the universe. You can eat trans-fats for years and not know the difference, but eventually they’ll kill your heart. You can enjoy a one night stand, or two of them maybe, but each time you do that, you’re diminishing your capacity for genuine intimacy, and enslaving yourself to appetites.
Conversely, giving, service, obedience, and self-denial will likely all be challenging in the moment, but in the end, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
The best meals are eaten when we’re hungry because we haven’t snacked our way through the day. The best sex with our spouse comes on the far side of conversation, service, waiting, and foreplay, rather than shallow “intimacy on demand” that does nothing more than feed our lusts. The best learning comes through slow reading, and practice and conversation. The best fitness comes through little imperceptible gains that are made simply because we denied our desire to stay in bed and went walking instead, or denied our desire for ice cream and ate a carrot instead.
You do these hard things, and you don’t necessarily enjoy the results immediately, which is what makes them feel like a burden. But in the end? The real burden is born by those with sexual addictions, or health problems, or a greedy narcissism that has destroyed their capacity for joy and intimacy. They chose that which seemed easy in the moment, but paid the price over the long haul.
God calls this the law of sowing and reaping in the Bible, and we’d do well to take our cues from farmers. They do tons of work without seeing any rewards on the day they do the work, because their eye is on the harvest. In a culture of instant gratification, learning the law of the harvest is vital because we suddenly see that the self denial of the moment isn’t some sort of vast burden. To the contrary, what we’re denying in our self denial is that very part of our nature that needs to be denied anyway. Our self denial feeds and strengthens the spirit, and the more we do it, the greater our joy. Our self indulgence feeds the flesh and the more we do it, the greater our enslavement.
Christ’s motivator was joy!
He taught and exemplified loving enemies, going the extra mile, service, generosity, and sacrifice. In the end he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, executed. And yet he said his commands were not burdensome! Is this some sort of Buddhist koan, some Jedi nonsense?
Not at all. We’re told that he did it all for the joy that was set before him. Paul took this and ran with it, when he speak of the “light aflliction” which produces in us the “weight of glory”. We’ve switched that in our culture, making any affliction a weighty burden. I’m convinced part of the reason is because we’ve never really tasted raw glory. One taste though, and we’re hooked. When that happens, the suffering is endured, yes… but even the endurance, when we’re at our best, comes to contain some joy.
A trillion choices of indulgence over self-denial, scattered throughout history has created a world awash in oppression, addiction, destruction, environmental degradation, and loneliness.
And we think God’s commands are burdensome? Maybe we should reconsider. After all, it was the suffering one who said, “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly!”
To suffering. To self-denial. To service. To life!
I welcome your thoughts….