Tag Archives: Theology

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.

7 Happy Quotes

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Ain’t nothing wrong with some filler content while I’m traveling the UK with friends and family this month! Especially when it’s so TWEETABLE. Plus, who doesn’t love a good quote on happiness? Feast your eyes on some of these gems.

1.  “God made human beings as He made His other creatures, to be happy… They are in their right element when they are happy.” (Charles Spurgeon)

2.  “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can” (Jonathan Edwards)

3.  “Christ [is] the very essence of all delights and pleasures, the very soul and substance of them” (John Flavel)

4.  “The Christian owes it to the world to be supernaturally joyful” (A.W. Tozer)

5.  “Above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord.” (George Muller)

6.  “If you live gladly to make others glad in God, your life will be hard, your risks will be high, and your joy will be full.” (John Piper)

7.  “[God] has no design upon us, but to make us happy” (Thomas Watson)

I’m always posting stuff like this on Twitter, if you want to follow me. And if you haven’t found my Facebook page yet, that’s where I share articles on singleness, sexuality, and happiness — and, of course, the occasional happy quote.

See you when I come back stateside!

Review: Same-Sex Attraction And The Church

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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: People To Be Loved

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Preston Sprinkle’s book, People To Be Loved, is proof that truth and love can coexist. Not only does it address one of the most important issues of our day, but it’s also a reminder, as the subtitle suggests, that homosexuality is more than an issue — we’re talking about people made in the image of God.

This is a quick, accessible read. By “accessible” I mean it feels like you’re ACCESSING the author’s brain as he relays his journey — how he has settled (or not settled) on issues surrounding homosexuality and gay people. His love for LGBT folks is evident, as is his passion to help the reader understand Scripture, including the original languages and cultural contexts.

Throughout the book, Sprinkle takes a gentle stance on the immorality of homosexual practice, making sure we understand it’s just one of many temptations or sins people deal with. He walks us through the “clobber passages” (the few verses where the Bible deals specifically with homosexual practice) and explains what they do and do not say about the CURRENT question facing the Church: Does God condone loving, monogamous, sexual relationships between two people of the same sex? Because no one verse can answer that question — indeed, the Bible doesn’t address it at all — Sprinkle instead provides a “big picture” view of marriage and sexuality in Scripture.

The second half explores practical and pastoral questions regarding homosexuality. One of my favorite sections is a response to Denny Burk’s push for Christians to view same-sex attraction itself as sin — a position both Sprinkle and I believe has no biblical merit. I also appreciate Sprinkle’s plea for churches to value single people — something my local church does so well, but something I know is missing in many congregations, not to mention the culture at large.

There are some “fuzzy” parts where Sprinkle could have dug deeper, such as how to view Christians who affirm same-sex sexual relationships (ex. backslidden, heretics, or wolves) and matters of church discipline for those engaging in such relationships. I’m surprised that, as a biblical scholar, he leaves these questions, for the most part, unanswered. At the same time, I’m not surprised that, as a writer, he sticks with the intent of the book: always siding with people, not with “issues” or quick, easy answers. These are questions that I, too, would have a hard time answering. But I’m a layman. I would’ve loved for him, as a scholar, to press into these questions a little more.

Overall, I’m pleased with this book. It’s free of propaganda, canned responses, and tweetable sound bites. Sprinkle does an excellent job pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of common arguments from both “affirming” and “non-affirming” people. It feels like the book is written for both crowds, which means anyone can learn from it. I hope that you do!

Say Yes!

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Christians who experience same-sex attraction have a tendency to focus on what they’re giving up — marriage, sex, and various other pleasures. I know because I’ve been there. We can start to believe the single, celibate life is a constant journey of saying “no.”

It’s true that all Christians — not just those who experience SSA — are called to deny that which God forbids, but this is never at the expense of happiness. I’ll say it again: This is NEVER at the expense of happiness. Randy Alcorn says,

We need to say no to things that cause harm…but the solution is never to say no to happiness. What we should say no to are false notions of happiness — but this is not saying no to happiness; in fact, it requires saying yes to true happiness.

Christianity is not a religion of “no.” Because when we say no to sin, we’re ALWAYS saying yes to something better. When we say no to pride, we’re saying yes to humility. When we say no to coveting, we’re saying yes to contentment. When we say no to idolatry, we’re saying yes to God’s beauty and worth and preeminence.

But what about Christians, like me, who say no to homosexual desires? Those who choose celibacy, even when loved ones tell us we’re losing out on companionship, fulfillment, and the very thing everyone is searching for — happiness? What are we saying yes to?

•   Yes to the superior pleasure of loving and obeying God
•   Yes to holiness
•   Yes to being conformed to Christ’s image
•   Yes to marriage as God designed it
•   Yes to the blessings of singleness
•   Yes to treasures in heaven
•   Yes to eternal happiness in God’s presence

That’s just the theological stuff. I’m also saying yes to everyday joys: playtime with my niece, hikes in the mountains, game nights with friends, road trips with family, late-night talks about God and love and mysteries with my fellow night owls. When we walk with God, we experience both pleasures now and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Saying no to marrying a man seems a very small sacrifice indeed when I focus on the thousands of happy alternatives God gives me to enjoy in this life — and even greater joys in the next.

Perhaps this all sounds very “Pollyanna.” Trust me, nobody who knows me in real life would call me that. I’m a Christian realist. I’m well aware of everything I’m giving up to follow God’s will for sexuality (and if I ever forget, the world is quick to remind me). But my desire to love and obey God compels me to say yes to greater pleasures. Sometimes it’s a tenuous yes. Sometimes it’s a trembling yes. Sometimes it’s a choked-up yes, forced out only by the grace of God and the hope of future joy. I’m human. It happens.

But I know I’m saying yes to more than I can begin to understand — to this mysterious thing we call “God’s glory” and to everything he’s working together for my happiness because I belong to him and I’m part of his story. I said yes when God called me into his kingdom, and I’ll say yes until he calls me home.

Singleness Is Like Marriage

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Obviously, we could talk about the millions of ways singleness is different from marriage. But I’m a “big picture” kind of guy, and one way to keep an eternal perspective is to focus on what single people and married folks have in common. Not only does this help me relate more to my married friends, but as an added bonus, it also helps me to be content in my singleness. So, without further ado, singleness is like marriage because…

You have to work at it.

There’s so much talk of working on marriages, but so little talk of working on singleness. Part of the problem, of course, is that singleness is viewed as a temporary state on the way to marriage, where the “real work” begins. But in much the same way marriage does, singleness requires time, effort, planning, prayer, and maybe even counseling. If it looks like your singleness will last awhile, it’s worth asking, “How can I do this well?” We can’t expect things to fall into place without putting in the hard work. We don’t expect it with marriage; we shouldn’t expect it with singleness.

It comes with blessings.

Marriage comes with (ahem) benefits. Aside from sin-free sex, there’s also a measure of security, the hope of children, and the honor of being a living metaphor of Christ and his people. And yet singleness, too, comes with blessings. (Although, if you’re watching too many romantic comedies, it may be harder to recognize them.) Being single affords some of the opportunities Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7:32 — a chance to focus on “the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” Single people can minister in ways that require time and energy that married people simply don’t have. That’s a real gift.

It comes with challenges.

If we’re honest, I think married and single folks actually share many of the same challenges. The sins we often associate with single people — lust, discontent, and selfishness, to name a few — are just as real (and dangerous) for husbands and wives. These are things we fight against, not as married or single people, but as CHRISTIANS. The challenges may look different on the surface, but the root sins are the same.

God approves.

Some religious people have elevated marriage too much, deeming it the epitome of happiness, or even worse, godliness. Others have allowed the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction, idolizing singleness. In recent history, of course, the former has won out. (Recruiting offices at monasteries don’t get much business these days.) But one path is not nobler than the other. Single people will learn lessons that married couples never will, and married people will learn lessons that single people never will. We’re all in the business of glorifying God. Whether single or married, if you’re living a life that honors God, then he approves.

It’s temporary.

And here’s where I get really theological. You see, along with companionship and procreation, marriage exists to be a symbol of God’s faithfulness to his people. Jesus said, “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30). That’s because in the next life we’ll all be married to HIM. The shadows will give way to the greater reality, and we’ll see what earthly marriage represented all along: the joining of Christ to his people. This means that singleness, too, is a temporary state. All of us, whether or not we are married in this life, look forward to that final marriage described in Revelation 19, where we become the collective Bride of Christ.

Review: Happiness

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Book Reviews

When I decided to launch this website, I knew Randy Alcorn’s new book Happiness would be a must-read (and must-review). I don’t know if Randy knows this, but he and I are kindred spirits. First there was his book, Heaven, one of the happiest books I’ve ever read, and parts of which I’m sure were taken telepathically from my own brain. (Kindred spirits, you know.) Now there’s Happiness, which is a fitting “sequel.” Also, thanks to Randy, I’ve got tweets lined up for weeks. (No, seriously. Pretty much 90 percent of my tweets for the next few months will come from this book.) Here are my main takeaways from each of the four sections:

Our Compelling Quest for Happiness

If happiness is the one thing ALL people desire, and the one thing only God can ultimately provide, why aren’t churches talking more about it? In part one, Alcorn gives evidence from throughout Church history that happiness is something that saints have always, until very recently, pursued and preached. But he’s also careful to define his terms so that readers understand that the only kind of happiness we should pursue is that which results in glorifying God. That is, we won’t find true happiness in sinful pleasures (or GOOD pleasures that we’ve turned into idols, such as relationships), but we can — and should — seek happiness in God and the gifts of his creation.

The Happiness of God

This section tackles one of the most neglected attributes of God: his happiness. It didn’t take long for Alcorn to convince me that the Triune God is happy in himself and his creation — and that believing this is vital to understanding our own happiness. Many churchgoers imagine God’s default demeanor is one of anger and disappointment, which affects our worship. Alcorn asks us to imagine how our lives would look (and how the world would see us) if we knew that the God we serve is happy. Then we’re given evidence from Scripture that God is, indeed, happy — and he delights to make us part of his story.

The Bible’s Actual Words for Happiness

In what Alcorn calls the most important section, he takes us through passages of Scripture that use the Hebrew and Greek words for happiness, letting the Bible build its own case. One main point here is that these words should often be translated “happy,” but translators and publishers are fixated on the more traditional word “blessed.” We’re comfortable with the SOUND of Psalm 1 (“Blessed is the man”) and Matthew 5 (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”), but we can easily miss the MEANING of the word “blessed” in these contexts: HAPPY! Alcorn takes us through dozens (out of hundreds) of verses where the original languages denote happiness, making it clear that it’s one of the Bible’s most prominent themes.

Understanding and Experiencing Happiness in God

This section could be called “How To Be Happy.” It includes Scripture reading, prayer, corporate worship, repentance, forgiveness, service to others, gratitude, and a focus on our future hope. Now, these are strategies we already know. But with what we’ve learned in parts 1-3, we start to see these not just as things we ought to do, but things we should delight to do. When our DUTY becomes our DELIGHT, Christianity starts to look and feel the way it should: a religion of joy.

This book is a commitment, weighing in at more than 400 pages. But it takes about that long to debunk the myths surrounding happiness. In both the church and the culture at large, happiness needs to be redeemed — it’s demonized by churches, hijacked by prosperity preachers, and misunderstood by unbelievers. With the Bible and Church history on his side, Alcorn puts happiness back in its rightful place and gives us permission to pursue it as an integral part of our walk with God — a God who himself delights with us.

The Happy Commandments

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I’m gonna say something that might make you uncomfortable: God wants us to be happy. No, this isn’t a quote from Joel Osteen. (Or maybe it is, but I certainly wouldn’t know.) It’s biblical. God not only wants us to be happy, he demands it. The Bible is filled with directives to delight, rejoice, and be glad. They’re what I call the happy commandments. Let’s look at just two of them.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4)

Oh boy, this is one of my favorite commandments. This I can handle. Loving our enemies? Hard to do. Humbling ourselves? Hard to do. But rejoicing in our good, faithful, loving Creator? Yes, please! Charles Spurgeon said,

“What a gracious God we serve, who makes delight to be a duty, and who commands us to rejoice! Should we not at once be obedient to such a command as this? It is intended that we should be happy. That is the meaning of the precept, that we should be cheerful; more than that, that we should be thankful; more than that, that we should rejoice.”

But how do we obey a command to be happy? Like anything else, it takes a little practice. It requires reading God’s Word, praying, and meeting with our fellow saints to honor God in corporate worship — the same “spiritual disciplines” we’ve heard about a hundred times. Practicing the things that REMIND us of the Lord will cause us to REJOICE in him.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15)

Of course, that’s only half the command, but we’ll talk more about the second half in good time. This one is great because it gives us a reason to make other people’s joy our own. But once again, how do we obey such a command? I’ve learned two practical ways to do this over the years.

The first is to say, “I’m happy for you.” Out loud. While smiling. And really mean it. When someone gets promoted or engaged or wins a vacation to Hawaii, tell them you’re happy for them. Even better, thank God for those things. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Blessings are blessings, whether or not they’re yours. So take time in prayer to thank God for other people’s gifts. You’ll find there’s a lot to be happy for.

The second trick is to ask WHY people rejoice and WHERE people rejoice, and then go there! Get out of the house and celebrate things that don’t revolve around you: weddings, birthdays, baby showers, retirements, baptisms, and maybe even anniversaries. (Just make sure you don’t drop in at the wrong time!) And if you can’t be there in person, send cards or text messages. Or if you’re REALLY pressed for time, click “Like” on Facebook — let them know you’re rejoicing right alongside them in the laziest way possible.

God commands us to delight in him and our fellow man, just as he commands us to love him and our fellow man (Matthew 22:38-39). I’m with Spurgeon on this one: we shouldn’t delay in obeying the happy commandments. We need to start taking happiness as seriously as God does.