Tag Archives: Church

Review: Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel

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I’m pro-marriage. Coming from someone who’s been single for 33 years, that might sound a bit weird, but it’s true! I’m passionate about marriage because I’ve learned, through the teaching of the Bible and the wise men who expound it, the real meaning of marriage: it’s a metaphor for Christ and his people. A living picture of the gospel. That’s something to get excited about! But sadly, it’s also something many people have forgotten — not only in the world, but also in the Church. We’ve dwindled marriage down to companionship, lovemaking, and childrearing. Of course, marriage is all of those things, but it MEANS so much more. God designed it and gave it to mankind as the most vivid way to proclaim the gospel and live out its principles.

Ray Ortlund wrote Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel in hopes of recovering “joyful confidence in marriage as God originally gave it to us.” Although this book can be read in one sitting, it’s not “theology lite.” Ortlund’s writing is serious and poetic, with tightly packed truths that demand our attention. The book is divided into four sections that paint a sweeping portrait of marriage from Genesis to Revelation.

Marriage in Genesis

The first book of the Bible reveals both “the glory of marriage and the brokenness of marriage.” Eden was the scene of the world’s first wedding, where the crown jewels of God’s creation became “one flesh.” Ortlund spends a good chunk of time talking about the beauty of complementarity, which is not only a major theme in the creation account, but also a necessity in marriage. Knowing our modern sensibilities when it comes to gender issues, Ortlund wants us to recognize and rediscover the “stroke of divine genius” in God’s design for husband as head and wife as helper — the framework for marriage that remains to this day. He also stresses how the fall in Genesis 3 wrecked the dynamics of this first marriage (and all marriages after it) with man seeking to dominate his wife, and woman seeking to subvert her husband. But Genesis 3 also comes with a promise of restoration, not only between sinners and God, but also between husbands and wives.

Marriage in the Law, Wisdom, and Prophets

Ortlund first discusses how the Mosaic Law sought to repair the damage done to marriage after the fall. Some of the laws that seem odd or downright unethical to modern readers (think levirate marriage) were actually quite civilized, especially compared to other Near Eastern cultures. He’s also quick to note that stories of polygamy and other deviations of marriage in the Bible are descriptive, not prescriptive; the original design of marriage still stood, even when God’s people got it wrong. But despite the struggles that come with marriage post-fall, the biblical writers want us to remember its original glory. Proverbs and the Song of Solomon celebrate marital love and sex, and offer warnings to protect marriage from sexual sin, which further proves how important the metaphor is to God. Ortlund then touches on the prophets, where the true meaning of marriage begins to unfold. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea “retell the whole of Israel’s history in a new way — as a tragic romance,” with God as loyal husband and Israel as unfaithful bride. Human marriage points us to a “super-reality,” as Ortlund says; that is, God’s faithfulness to his people, and his resolve to see this divine marriage through to eternity.

Marriage in the New Testament

Enter Jesus, our bridegroom. Seeing as he’s the ultimate reality to which all marriages point, what did he think about marriage? When asked about divorce, Jesus went retro, reaching back to Eden to affirm the original design of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Although Jesus fulfilled the law, eliminating civil and ceremonial customs, one thing that remained unchanged is marriage: one man, one woman, for life. The apostle Paul, too, used Genesis 2:24 as the standard for marriage: once in 1 Corinthians 6:16, and more famously in Ephesians 5 (a passage often recited at weddings), where he explains how marriage reflects Christ and the Church. Paul reiterates the “dance of complementarity,” as Ortlund calls it, between husband as head and wife as helper that was first established in Genesis. Finally, Ortlund takes us to Revelation, where the institute of human marriage comes to an end and the better reality to which it pointed all along begins: the marriage supper of the Lamb, where Christ and his people are united forever. Ortlund notes that God made the heavens and earth for the marriage of Adam and Eve, but he will soon make a new heaven and new earth for the ultimate marriage of Jesus and his bride, the Church.

Marriage in the World Today

Ortlund ends with a sober reminder from Scripture: “Let marriage be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4). Especially now, in a culture where people “don’t believe in marriage” or seek to redefine it, we need to “build a pro-marriage counterculture, where faithfulness and beauty and lasting love point the way not only to a better human society but also, and far more, to the eternal love of Christ.” Because the one-flesh union of man and woman is such a vital and vivid representation of the gospel, Christians have every reason to protect marriage, both their own and in general. Every departure from God’s design for marriage is a departure from the gospel; thus, Ortlund encourages Christians to defend God’s vision for marriage and sexuality with confidence and humility.

If I may have the final word: Marriage is not the gospel, but it is God’s chosen metaphor for the gospel, a motif that runs through the veins of Scripture from the very heart of God, giving us insight to his fierce love and devotion toward his people. That’s why I love marriage! And that’s why I recommend this book. I hope it will encourage married couples to take seriously their role in displaying God’s love to the world, and inspire single people to cherish marriage, knowing it holds the mystery of the gospel for them as well.

Interview: SSA, Singleness And The Church

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Last week, I had the pleasure of joining two great guys at The Rugged Marriage for a conversation about same-sex attraction, singleness, and the Church. We talked about other stuff, too — music and tea and something called “Florida Man.” Let me tell you, I’d much rather type my thoughts from the safety of my laptop than speak out loud, on the spot. But Alex and Chris made me feel right at home. Check out the interview here. And show the boys some love by subscribing to their podcast and following them on Twitter

Why Can’t You Just Be Gay?

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If anyone has a reason to search Scripture for an “out,” a way to be in a gay relationship and yet remain within the bounds of God’s will for sexuality, it’s me — the Christian who experiences ongoing same-sex attraction. Trust me, I’ve heard arguments from Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, and others who try to make a case for gay marriage in the Church. I’ve read books, watched debates, and had long talks with friends who urge me to pursue a sexual relationship with a man. I’ve listened to and reasoned through every attempt to justify gay marriage, but nothing has convinced me — the guy who, in theory, should be the easiest person to convince.

Why?

The simple answer is “Because God said so.” It’s true, only six verses in the Bible explicitly mention homosexual practice. All of them, of course, forbid it. The most quoted are Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1, which, admittedly, come with a fair share of controversy regarding civil and ceremonial laws, cultural context, and so forth. (Although it’s not as if theologians throughout time haven’t already explained why the ban on homosexual practice is different from the ban on shellfish or mixed fabrics.) These verses, complicated though they seem to some, are enough to prove to me that pursuing a gay romance would dishonor God. But let’s say I didn’t have those six verses. I still couldn’t “just be gay,” because there’s still the big picture of marriage in Scripture to consider. Which is good, because I’m a big picture kind of guy.

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, marriage is a symbol for God and his people. God is always the bridegroom; his people are the bride. Jeremiah compares Israel to a bride devoted to her husband, the Lord (Jeremiah 2:2). Ezekiel portrays Israel as an unfaithful wife, while God remains the faithful husband (Ezekiel 16). Hosea’s marriage to his adulterous wife parallels the relationship between God and Israel throughout the Book of Hosea. In the New Testament, John the Baptist calls Jesus the bridegroom, whose bride, his followers, delights to hear his voice (John 3:29). Jesus calls himself the bridegroom, while the disciples represent his bride (Matthew 9:15). Clearest of all is Paul, who says the act of man and woman becoming one flesh “refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). God designed marriage between husband and wife, sexual complements, for a very specific purpose: to be a living picture of the gospel. This metaphor matters to God. And it matters to me, too.

If there’d been a huge paradigm shift on marriage and sex, it would’ve happened in early Church history, not the early 21st century. With something as important as sexual purity, Jesus and the New Testament writers would’ve made it 100 percent clear that the ban on homosexual practice had been repealed, the way God did for Peter regarding dietary restrictions, with a vision of formerly unclean animals and a voice from heaven saying “eat” (Acts 10:9-16). We don’t have that with marriage; we only have reconfirmation from Christ that marriage remains as he established it in the garden: a lifelong covenant between one man and one woman (Matthew 19:4-6). A beautiful picture of the truth of the gospel.

People might ask, “Why can’t two men or two women reflect that same truth?” Well, gender and biological sex are realities created by God, and he uses them in creation and within marriage for his purposes — both for the flourishing of mankind and to tell a story. If you’re looking for a why beyond the why, I can’t help you. To me, that’s like a child asking “Why?” after the parent has already explained— as if additional answers will ever satisfy. (If you’ve spent time with a toddler, you know what I mean.) But there is a WHO beyond the why, and I can tell you he’s good, wise, loving, and he withholds no good thing from those who walk in his ways (Psalm 84:11). This is the God I love, trust, and seek to obey. And I’m OK with the reason he’s given. That’s enough.

At the heart of this question is a plea for me to be happy, which I appreciate. It’s nice to know I have family and friends who desire my happiness. But what I need people to understand is that following Jesus REALLY DOES make me happy! It’s not the kind of happiness a sex-obsessed world expects; it’s the happiness that comes with being given a new heart and new desires. That includes obeying God’s commands for marriage and sexuality — those boundaries set for my joy and sanctification. Violating God’s Word (and my own conscience) actually works AGAINST my ultimate happiness. I have no doubt that a sexual relationship with a man would bring some temporary pleasures, but that’s not the kind of pleasure I’m looking for. I want the kind that lasts forever, which only comes through a relationship with my God (Psalm 16:11).

Yes, I’m still attracted to the same sex, and I imagine I always will be. But I choose to remain celibate and pursue a life of joyful singleness because I believe God and his purpose for marriage. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). I really do love that man, and I want to keep his commandments without people telling me I’d be happier if I didn’t.

On Orlando And The Gospel

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I don’t normally comment on current events or controversies. I think it’s better to stay quiet and keep things in my heart until the storm blows over, at which time the moment has passed and I end up having not shared my thoughts at all. For today’s shooting in Orlando, I wanted to speak what’s in my heart out loud… or at least on a computer screen.

As a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction, I don’t consider gay folks to be my “community” (the Church fills that role in the most beautiful ways). But the gay community represents everything I most certainly would be had the Holy Spirit not invaded my heart and changed my desires (and I don’t mean my sexual orientation). In very real ways, my gay neighbors and I are alike — not only because of our orientation and some of the struggles we’ve faced as a result, but also because we’re made in God’s image, made to need Him. All of us. 

Maybe that’s why this tragedy hit me harder than others have. There’s that extra piece of myself that I see in them, and in this story. I think (I hope) loving our enemies is that easy. Finding ways we’re the same — including our greatest problem, which is sin, and our only hope, which is Jesus.

Conversations in the coming days and weeks are going to touch on parts of this tragedy — gay rights, terrorism, gun control, hate crimes, and (worst of all) politics — but we can’t lose sight of the most central and hopeful part. Jesus came to earth, he “stepped down into darkness,” as we sang at church this morning, to put things right. We’re not there yet, but it’s coming. He’s already started with his resurrection and the outpouring of his Spirit. He’s making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Amid the Facebook posts, Buzzfeed articles, and TV talking heads, I can’t lose sight of the one thing they’re all likely to forget: the gospel.

That’s why I “came out” four years ago; that’s why I launched a blog; that’s why I talk so much about sexuality and singleness and happiness. To share the truth and beauty and goodness of the gospel. To try and bridge the divide, in some small way, between the Church and the people we often see as “other,” the LGBT community. I don’t want to waste another tragedy not talking about the things that really matter.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:3-7)

12 Questions on Love, Singleness and Marriage

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Two years ago I sent twelve questions to myself via email, intending to answer them in the morning. They were sort of diagnostic questions for my soul, as I’d been struggling with singleness and what that would look like for me in the long haul. Well… Last night I found the unanswered questions buried deep in my inbox. (Talk about procrastination.) Since I’m still single — and because there are still nights when I ask myself these questions — I thought I’d answer them here.

1.  Do you believe it’s better to be married than to be single?

I believe it’s better for SOME people to be married, but I don’t believe marriage itself is better than singleness. That is, neither marriage nor singleness is INTRISICALLY better than the other. Both are God-approved paths, and both present opportunities to thrive in holiness and happiness.

2.  Do you believe married people are more important to God, ministry, or the Church?

No, but the Church has sometimes made it seem that way. We tend to focus on the nuclear family with sermons, bible studies, and activities aimed at that demographic. But I’d like to think that’s because most churchgoers are married or pursuing marriage — not because we believe single people are less important to God. There’s no doubt God loves single people. He offers us eternal rewards that rival the blessings of married people (Isaiah 56:3-5), and singleness help us serve him with undivided interests (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).

3.  Do you believe single people are missing out on love?  

I know I’m loved beyond measure; but I also realize there’s a certain KIND of love I don’t experience as a celibate man. It’s the Eros that C.S. Lewis talks about in his book, The Four Loves. The other three loves are great — family, friendship, and divine love — but they don’t “make up” for Eros. In a very real sense, that love is missing from my life, and it’s something that still stings at times. But when I stand before God, I don’t believe I’ll regret having not been married (assuming I remain single). And since I won’t feel slighted then, I try not to feel slighted now. It’s a learning process.

4.  Do you believe single people have more problems than married people?

I wouldn’t say we have more problems; we have different problems. But rather than compare burdens, I think it’s better to reflect on the many ways singleness is like marriage. When we universalize the Christian experience, focusing on what we have in common, we’re better able to encourage one another.

5.  Do you believe marriage will make you happy? 

Not any happier than I am already. There are moments, of course, when I think it will — when I’m watching romantic comedies, listening to love songs, or scrolling through Facebook. But I’ve been working hard in recent years to remind myself that lasting happiness is found in God alone — knowing, loving, and seeking him — and that both marriage and singleness come with bonus pleasures on top of that. It’s just a matter of looking for and appreciating them.

6.  Do you believe you can love God and love others as a single person?

Of course, dummy! (I’m talking to my past self here.) Your relationship status has nothing to do with your capacity to love God and neighbor, which is the calling of EVERY Christian (Matthew 22:37-40). For proof, look to the only person who’s ever kept the two greatest commandments perfectly — the single man, Jesus.

7.  Do you believe marriage is a temporary institution? 

Absolutely! Jesus makes clear there’s no marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:30). Marriage foreshadows a greater reality to come. In heaven, earthly marriages will have served their purpose, and we’ll enjoy forever what they were pointing to all along: Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32).

8.  Do you believe singleness can bring blessings to you and your ministry? 

Yes, it already has. Being single frees me to do things with my time that many married friends are unable to do because of their commitment to spouse and kids. I can’t say I’ve taken full advantage of my singleness (some of my married friends put me to shame in their work for the Lord), but I’m striving every day to be the best possible friend, worship leader, writer, and so forth — and I’m discovering ways to let my singleness serve to that end.

9.  Do you believe single people are less equipped to serve in God’s kingdom? 

I must’ve been feeling inadequate when I asked this, because it seems to be a repeat (or fusion) of previous questions. But the answer is no.

10.  Do you believe single people should be married? 

I believe SOME of them should be married. The Apostle Paul tackles this question best in 1 Corinthians 7, which gives principles for serving God in both marriage and singleness. He says it’s better to marry than to burn with passion, which is good motivation for some people to be married. But he also advocates for singleness, as does Jesus (Matthew 19:12). I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s ever asked this question, and I’m glad God answers it in his Word.

11.  Do you believe marriage will solve your problems? 

My greatest problem has been taken care of: my sins are forgiven through the blood of Christ. I’ve been adopted into God’s family and my salvation is secure. Most of my problems now have to do with still being fallen, not being single. Getting married would create different problems (which my married friends can tell you all about), along with different blessings. See the answer to question four.

12.  Do you believe you’re less human or incomplete without a spouse?

Less human? No! Jesus was single, but also the most perfect human to ever walk the earth. Incomplete? Kinda sorta, but not because I’m single. Like everyone else, I’m not yet fully conformed to the image of Christ, but I’m confident that God will complete the work he’s begun (Philippians 1:6). In the meantime, here’s what I know: I’m chosen by God — part of a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people called out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). God lavishes me with love and calls me his son (1 John 3:1). He rejoices over me (Zephaniah 3:17). None of these blessings is a result of marriage (or singleness), but rather our union with Christ.

Review: Same-Sex Attraction And The Church

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Book Reviews

One clue that I was gonna love Ed Shaw’s Same-Sex Attraction and the Church Both Wesley Hill and Rosaria Butterfield, two leading (but very different) voices on the topic, endorsed the book. Their praise is printed alongside blurbs from Russell Moore, Justin Taylor, and Michael Horton — familiar names among evangelicals. I’m also told this was given to 10,000 people who attended this year’s Together for the Gospel conference. So I wanted to see what the buzz was about.

Dude, Ed did not disappoint. [Insert a million heart emojis here.]

Shaw has written something beautifully honest, yet surprisingly optimistic. As someone who experiences same-sex attraction, Shaw balances the STRUGGLES of his sexuality with the OPPORTUNITIES it’s given him to serve the Church and become more like Jesus. But the book is more than a personal narrative; it’s a call for the Church to change how we view celibacy, to make it easier for same-sex attracted Christians who want to remain faithful to God’s design for marriage and sexuality.

To do this, Shaw takes us through nine “missteps” the Church has taken that make it HARDER for people to remain open to celibacy. I think it’s helpful to list all of them here:

•   Your identity is your sexuality
•   A family is Mom, Dad, and 2.4 children
•   If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay
•   If it makes you happy, it must be right
•   Sex is where true intimacy is found
•   Men and women are equal and interchangeable
•   Godliness is heterosexuality
•   Celibacy is bad for you
•   Suffering is to be avoided

Shaw tackles each topic with biblical aplomb, showing us where we’ve adopted a worldly perspective and how to realign our beliefs with God’s Word. I found myself cheering for him as he urges the Church to redefine family the way Jesus does — not by blood but by adoption into God’s family. I smiled at the passages that see friendship (not just sex) as a means to true intimacy and fulfillment. I applauded his courage in challenging us to change how we measure holiness — to recognize that same-sex attracted Christians need not become heterosexual to experience real sanctification, and to understand that when God causes ALL THINGS to work together for good, that includes same-sex attraction. With every misconception Shaw obliterated, I became evermore joyful in my singleness. It’s crazy that a book can do that.

I felt especially convicted by the first and last chapters. With regard to the first misstep (see above), I realize how sexuality has become a bigger part of my identity than I’d like to think. That’s due in part to the culture’s influence on my worldview, but it also has something to do with writing so much about sexuality; I talk and think about it more than ever before. But ultimately I want to be known as a Christian, not a gay or celibate or [choose your adjective] Christian. With regard to the last misstep, Shaw reminded me that suffering plays an important role in becoming more like Christ (1 Peter 4:12-19) — something I can easily gloss over in my attempt to look at the bright side of life. Honestly, the struggle of same-sex attraction has lessened the more I’ve come to see singleness as the HAPPY ALTERNATIVE to marriage, but that doesn’t mean there’s no suffering in the Christian walk. I hope to never give that impression, because the Bible certainly doesn’t.

OK, personal stuff aside. Same-Sex Attraction and the Church is for all of us — to remind us WHY we believe marriage is reserved for a man and woman, and HOW we can serve those in our churches who, because of their sexuality, have chosen to remain celibate. Or, as Shaw says, “to rebuild the plausibility structure so that we can live in light of the Bible’s clear teaching.” He reminds us that the gospel is, indeed, GOOD NEWS! This book deserves more than a sales pitch, but seriously, BUY IT NOW! I walked away totally encouraged and convinced that, yes, the Church can make celibacy a good thing. I even read the appendices!

For more on Ed Shaw, check out his story at Living Out.

Review: Forbidden Friendships

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One of my dear friends is a divorced mom of two. When I was planning a trip to California last year, she invited me to stay with her family to save on hotel costs. I was super excited to spend time with them — catching up on life, staying up late, not being jolted awake by the evil knock of a housekeeper the next morning. Unfortunately, her pastor had other plans, because he worried what other people might think about a man staying with a woman. Despite having no doubts about our integrity, despite my being attracted to men, and despite the fact that I’d actually be staying with a FAMILY (not a woman), he asked me to stay at his house instead. Not because it really made sense, but because it met the rules and expectations Christians have invented to “protect” male-female friendships from sexual immorality, or in this case, the mere appearance of it.

In his book, Forbidden Friendships, Joshua D. Jones explores these issues, confronting the Church’s fear of opposite-sex friendships and showing us what the Bible actually says about them.

In the past century or so, Christians have been conditioned to avoid meaningful relationships with the opposite sex out of fear they could lead to lust, fornication, or adultery. Jones notes Freud’s influence in causing us to believe all male-female relationships are somehow sexual in nature. As a result, we’ve “tried to pursue sexual purity via gender segregation” and set outrageous extra-biblical boundaries between men and women. He notes one Christian college that prohibits physical contact between the sexes, and where men and women are required to use separate staircases! Jones says these boundaries have harmed rather than helped the Church in achieving sexual purity and obeying our call to love one another as the family of God.

What’s more, these rules are new to Church history. Jones says modern-day Christians are far more leery of opposite-sex friendships than our spiritual ancestors were. From missionaries to revolutionaries, history proves that mixed friendships flourished when rooted in mutual love for God. When it comes to the Bible, the Apostle Paul seems to have had many close female friends, mentioning Nympha by name in his letter to the Colossians. John’s second epistle, or letter, is written to a woman whom he loved dearly. Jesus himself kept company with women, often breaking social taboos regarding male-female relationships (ex. his encounter with the woman at the well). The Bible gives us freedom to pursue mixed friendships and be a witness to the world of how men and women can relate to each other as new creations in Christ.

Of course, we can’t be naive to the very real temptations and sins that can arise in relationships with both men and women. We are, after all, still sinners. Jones admits we need to guard our hearts, especially in a hyper-sexualized culture. But like everything else in this world, mixed friendships need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). Rather than react in fear, we ought to obey in love — learning what it means to see friends as brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers in Christ.

It’s easy to tell when I’ve enjoyed a book because the margins are filled with hearts and smiley faces, and Forbidden Friendships has my graffiti all over it. This is a message churches need to hear — although, I must admit, the flow of his arguments felt a bit sloppy to me. But you know what I love about Jones? He has a bright view of singleness and celibacy. This, of course, endears him to me. He understands it’s possible to be happy without sex, but that we can’t thrive without intimate relationships with both men and women. He believes the disappearance of mixed friendships is a result of a bigger problem: the devaluation of friendship in general. And he knows this has ramifications for single and same-sex attracted Christians, where friendship within the family of God is essential to living and loving fully.

So, should I have been able to stay with my lady friend and her family? Honestly, I’m thankful for the pastor who welcomed me into his home; he and his wife were kind and hospitable and I enjoyed getting to know them. But I don’t think it accomplished what he was aiming for. One day I ended up alone with the pastor’s wife for the entire morning. (And, of course, that was OK!) I think Jones would encourage us to let love and wisdom dictate these decisions, and that one’s personal boundaries don’t necessarily apply to everyone else in every situation. The bottom line is this: if we’re serious about being the family of God, then we’re free to pursue male-female friendships that center on Christ. As Jones says, the cross bridges the divide between the sexes.

For more, check out the author’s interview with my friends at The Rugged Marriage.

Happiness And Joy: What’s The Difference?

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Christians have given happiness a bum rap. You’ve probably heard something like this from the pulpit: “Happiness is a temporary emotion based on circumstances, but joy is an ongoing contentment based on our relationship with God.”

Sounds nice, but is it true?

As someone with a master’s degree in English, I appreciate nuance, and I’d usually agree with making such thoughtful distinctions. I once heard a poet say “a stone is not a rock.” A stone is something the river glides over and makes smooth — something you hold in your hand, or skip across the water. But a rock is something that stands tall against crashing waves; it’s what you build on and break things against. I’ve always stood by these distinctions: a stone is a stone, and a rock is a rock.

But pitting happiness against joy? I’m not feeling it.

Only in church settings do we perpetuate the myth that happiness and joy are different. In his excellent book Happiness, which I review here, Randy Alcorn writes, “an ungrounded, dangerous separation of joy from happiness has infiltrated the Christian community.” Until very recently, he says, happiness had a place right alongside joy in the Christian faith. From Church Fathers to Puritans, Christian writers have used “happiness” and “joy” in the same way the dictionary does, and in the same way we do in everyday conversation: synonymously. Even the Bible itself makes no distinction. In a chapter devoted to this very topic, Alcorn gives a couple dozen examples of where Scripture uses forms of “happiness” and “joy” side by side — pairings that occur more than 100 times in various translations!

Even so, church folks continue to say happiness and joy are different emotions and experiences. I think there are two reasons for this “great divorce.”

1.  They want to make a clear distinction between worldly pleasures and godly pleasures. So they attach “happiness” to worldly pleasures, which are shallow and fleeting, and “joy” to godly pleasures. As a result, well-meaning Christians say things like, “We’re not supposed to be happy; we’re supposed to have joy!” Although the intentions behind it are good, this false dichotomy has consequences for both believers and unbelievers.

For believers, we begin to fear happiness. Instead, we search for joy — something we’ve been told isn’t an emotion and therefore (not surprisingly) doesn’t FEEL joyful. We start to believe God doesn’t want us to be happy, which simply isn’t the case. The Bible is filled with commands to be happy. Dare we tell Christians NOT to pursue the very thing God desires of us?

For unbelievers, the separation of happiness and joy can be a roadblock to believing the gospel. Imagine telling someone, “Jesus can’t give you happiness, but he can give you joy.” That makes no sense to me, much less to an unbeliever. (I imagine it makes no sense to God either!) Happiness is the ONE THING every person is searching for, and Jesus is the ONE PERSON who can offer it. Why on earth would it not be part of our message?

2.  They know God calls us to rejoice in suffering — to “consider it all joy” when we face various trials — and they try to describe this tension using terms that the Church has deemed appropriate. So, for example, when a loved one dies someone might say, “I’m grieving, but I still have joy in Christ.” That’s because they’ve been told joy isn’t an emotion, it’s something more like peace or hope. But we could just as easily say, “I’m grieving, but I still have happiness in Christ.” Does that change the meaning? For me, the paradox of Christians being called to rejoice in suffering isn’t a good enough reason to redefine happiness and joy — as though they’re not what the Bible says they are, and what we, deep down, know they are: one and the same.

If Christians continue to believe there’s a difference between happiness and joy, we’ll lose out on both. We need to reclaim happiness — not just the word, but also the experience — as a vital part of the Christian faith.