Category Archives: Christianity

Men With Stone Hearts: Becoming an Emotionally Mature Man

We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. Then they become gods: then they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves. For natural loves that are allowed to become gods do not remain loves. They are still called so, but can become in fact complicated forms of hatred.

C.S. Lewis — the Four Loves

doodle_pro_2016-05-23t15_44_17zIn general, emotions are a difficult topic for men. This difficulty spans a broad spectrum, from emotionless stoicism on one end, to the uncontrolled passions of aggression, anger, lust, and ambition that have earned the male gender a reputation for acting as the bull in the china shop of their relationships. One of the hallmarks of a mature man is his ability to manage his emotions. This is not full repression of feeling and passionless existence. The stoic philosophers succeeded in producing incomplete men by attempting to avoid one of the fundamental strengths of man. God designed passion into men, that we might reflect his character. You cannot read the scriptures and miss God’s love, joy, sorrow, rage, and jealousy. In short, we were made in the image of a passionate God. Jesus was often angry.  He loved folks passionately.  He wept at the death of Lazarus, and he mourned over Jerusalem’s ongoing rebellion. It is important to understand that God’s passions are restrained by His will and holiness. Further, it is important to understand that these are qualities of God, they are not God himself.

C.S. Lewis explains this idea well by pointing out that “God is love”, but “love is not God.” Men can find it tempting to turn their passions into gods. It’s easy to do because in its finest state, love can resemble God. This is appropriate, being that God’s perfect love is one of His major attributes. However, when love, or any of our passions, is elevated to the level of a god to be worshipped, it quickly also becomes a demon. Lewis’ book exploring this topic focuses exclusively on love, and he is correct in asserting that love, apart from any of our passions, most tempts us to worship it as a god. However, I would argue that all of emotions and passions can quickly take control of our lives. A man who pretends that he experiences no lust is no more honest and right than a man who worships romantic love and connection, being led by the nose from romantic infatuation to infatuation. A man who follows his heart and his secretary’s short skirt away from his wife and children is not magically virtuous if he justifies it saying: “The heart wants what it wants” with the reverence of a man righteously worshipping romantic infatuation.

0ffdb0d33713b446a2323b461cf423ee8857a47a2f4d44f0190d0a854871f761.jpg

We joke about men being emotionless, but it’s not really true. Watch a man jump up and down cheering on his sports team for proof of this idea.

Lewis classifies love into four categories: affection, charity, friendship, and Eros (romance). A man does well to exhibit each with zeal where appropriate; along with other emotional states, like anger, pride, sorrow, etc. The mark of a mature man is that he is not controlled by these emotions. A mature man doesn’t drop into fits of rage like a petulant child, flinging hurtful words at those around him in retribution for not getting his way. Rather, godly men control anger, using it judiciously to improve the world around them, imitating Christ in passionate pursuit of what is right and good in the creation. A righteous man strives to love his wife faithfully, devoting his romantic energies to her and investing in the relationship so as to strengthen the marriage, enjoy his wife, and model Christlike marriage to his children. This precludes his chasing after romantic trysts, allowing a momentary infatuation to ruin his family, or submitting to his lust by indulging in pornography. Maturity sees romantic love as a component of long term committed relationships. Love for life’s mission and goals is another area where passion can quickly overrule good sense and wreck a man’s good judgement and direction. This is often seen with ministers who sacrifice their marriage and family on the altar of ministry success. This is a passion that neglects the weightier things of mature, Godly manhood. A man’s pride will drive him to work tirelessly to provide for his family, but the same pride can lead him to abandon his family in favor of his work. Desire to win drives athletes to training and living lives dedicated to success, though the same desire to win can lead a man to cheat or compete dishonorably. These are only a few examples of powerful passions that can drive a man to accomplish great things or break him.

This is no easy task. It requires maturity, accountability, prayer, and learning to imitate Christ. Jesus repeatedly proclaimed that his actions were a reflection of the Father’s will and in pursuit of his earthly mission. Mature men learn to bring their passions into submission, not ruled by them. But rather harnessing them in the pursuit of life mission.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Falling “Christian” Stars: Josh Duggar and the Cult of Christian Celebrity

IMG_7424With the recent release of hacker data stolen from Ashley Madison, a dating service for married people seeking to have an affair, and the revelations that followed; various tendencies in Christians’ responses have, yet again, sprung forth. Every time a minister or other prominent Christian is caught in some sort of malfeasance, certain responses are predictable. Perhaps the most troubling to me is the tendency to minimize or ignore sin. Jesus and the rest of the Bible tend to treat sin seriously. This is even the case for the “good guys” in the Bible. David, a man after God’s own heart, took it on the chin for his adultery and murder. Peter was called “Satan” in the rebuke of Jesus when he spoke out of his own interests. Paul repeatedly bemoans his own sin, calling himself the least of the disciples and repeatedly referring to his persecution of the church decades after it happened.
In broaching this topic, it’s important to acknowledge a hard truth in our culture: Western civilization likes to idolize people. Politicians, musicians, actors, directors, writers, activists, preachers, teachers, and whatever the Kardashians are (That last one didn’t trigger my spell checker… just take a moment to let that sink in!). We tend to look to these folks as infallible heroes. The problem that comes with trying to make anyone into a messiah is that they can’t save us, and they’re only human. There shouldn’t be any such thing as a celebrity Christian. This is not to say that folks of faith shouldn’t be in the public square and that we shouldn’t support them. Rather, we need to recognize that these folks are not God and shouldn’t be idolized. They’re fellow servants of our Master. When we worship anyone or anything that isn’t Jesus, we commit idolatry.
Some folks might object to my characterization of idolizing celebrities. To those folks I’d say: If you’ve spent more money on, quoted more, given more attention to, obeyed more faithfully,  talked about more often, or pointed others toward anyone or anything more than Jesus, it is an idol. I see this especially with celebrity pastors. For example, lots of folks quote one best selling mega-church pastor or another more often than he or they actually quote scripture. Worse still, it’s seldom acknowledge that many of them are preaching things that aren’t in harmony with the gospel. Rather, fans tend to treat their teachings as though they are the gospel themselves. We are often slow to compare sermons and books to the Bible ourselves because the light of truth exposes falsehoods.
There’s a handful of reasons that it’s easy to latch on to idols. For starters, we are fallen creatures. We rebel against God by nature. Worshipping an idol is a matter of the sinful heart, which will always tend to love the creation more than the Creator. Further, our culture is geared toward this sort of idolizing of men. It’s on our TVs, magazines, books, billboards, conversations around the water cooler, etc. It’s just there and it’s easy to fall in line with it.
The problem that will typically arise with idolizing men is what we see happening to Josh Duggar and have seen with countless folks before him. They turn out to not be God, and as a result, they will stumble or fail to be everything that God is. We will eventually wind up defending, ignoring, minimizing, whitewashing, or pointing fingers at the sins of others all in an effort to draw attention away from the reality that the thing/person we idolize isn’t sufficient to save or worthy of praise. Otherwise, we are forced to disown and destroy our idol. In short, we shoot our wounded. We’ve seen these reactions in the folks who tried to defend Duggar or ignore his failings, as well as those who tossed him under the bus when it turned out that he’s a sinner, too.
The solution is for believers to come to a point that we recognize that God is deserving of our worship and adoration in a way that no one else is. We must remind ourselves of this daily. When His people who live in the spotlight of public scrutiny fall short, we need to acknowledge sin for what it is and point to Christ. Further, we need to hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard than we hold the world.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Does It Mean to Be A Real Man?

IMG_7389“Next week, if you guys would like, we will start a teaching series on ‘what does it mean to be a man?’” I was pretty surprised by the response this statement garnered amongst the young men in the room. I was teaching Bible to a group of clients at a drug treatment program. The boys were largely placed by the local jail, most were from bad neighborhoods and broken homes. There were lots of kids with gang affiliations and long criminal histories. The biggest challenge in teaching them anything was finding things they would engage with at all. In this case, the young men who were present responded enthusiastically. Many of them approached me later, individually, to express their excitement about learning how to be a real man. I was initially perplexed by the response, largely because the young men routinely and loudly proclaimed their manliness. It was common to hear them yell and carry on about how tough they were. I often joked that it was like watching an episode of wild kingdom, with the young male lions strutting and posing in an effort to intimidate each other. The crazy secret behind the whole display was that most of the young men had no idea at all about what it meant to be a real man. They just figured that if they faked it loudly enough everyone would buy their act. Boys learn how to be men by watching their dads. This is the way God designed the world. If fathers are flawed, their children learn to be flawed men. This is one of the reasons why alcoholic men tend to raise alcoholic men and why the Bible says that sons are punished for their father’s sins for generations to follow. In the case of the boys in the program, because none of them had a dad to watch and emulate, they were left with what they could piece together from pop culture and their peers. The challenge with that is that boys compete with each other naturally. This meant that the fatherless boys tried to be men by being tougher than the other guy. The end result was emptiness. If a man tries to find his manhood in violence, sex, work, wealth, or anything else in the world that is temporary and fleeting, they will simply end up emptier. Solomon said that wealth, sex, work, and everything else is just a vapor. It passes and disappears as though it was never there in the first place.

atlasThe topic of manhood is complicated and will take more than one post to properly explore. In the short term, it’s important to establish a basic concept of manhood from which to work. I’d suggest that the place to start is with the source of manhood identity that is built into our world: Boys learn to be men by watching their fathers. This is because parents stand in God’s place in the lives of their children for the first several years of their lives. They provide life, food, shelter, moral guidance, correction, etc. Children’s conception of God is often shaped by their perception of their dads. Genesis tells us that when God created man, He created them in His own image. Fathers (and all men for that matter) are supposed to be copies of God in many respects. We are to share His heart, passions, loves, understanding of family, and work. When dads fail to model this lifestyle and teach their boys to do the same, they create problems. Fortunately, God provides us a more clarified example of manhood in the person of Jesus, who is God made flesh. A boy without a good fatherly model to follow can see ideal manhood in Jesus. When we choose to follow Jesus, our job is to learn to be like him through a lifetime of training, which is discipleship. This is why Christ’s self-sacrificing love and attitude of humble service is the example for husbands. He demonstrates the ideal manner of intimate relationship through his relationship with the church.

overly-manly-man-ansd-steakIt’s easy to picture Jesus as a pollyanna-type figure or as the feathered haired guy in a bathrobe that we all encountered on flannel graphs in Sunday School as kids. Fortunately, the tame version of the Son of God is far from accurate. C.S. Lewis captured Jesus’ identity best when he wrote: “He’s not safe! But, he’s good.” Jesus’ integrity, passion, penchant for action, grace, wisdom, willingness to speak openly (even offensively if necessary), self-sacrificing service, and lifetime focus on making the world better are just a few of the qualities that make Jesus is the ideal standard of manhood. He is the ideal mold from which men were meant to be cast. It is from Him that we learn how God desires us to be. Once we know, our job is to enter training to become like him.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sermon Link: From Rubble to Return

This week’s sermon on Nehemiah 10, dealing with the Jewish people’s community commitment to obey and submit to God’s law after returning from exile and restoring the walls of Jerusalem. The message looks at the Hebrews’ repentance, compares it to repentance in modern believers, and talks about how God provides restoration through faith in Jesus. 

Preached by Erik Sietsema at Big Sandy Community Church of God in Montana On 8/16/15. 

http://patchingcracks.sermon.net/main/main/20467287

Click the Image To Listen to the Message

Tagged , , , ,

Skipping Workouts and Discipleship Training

  

A Patchingcracks Post

 Several friends of mine have been employed by gyms. All of them have shared similar, very funny stories about gym members who show up regularly, dressed in the finest of exercise clothes, spouting workout advice to anyone who will listen, though never seeming to manage to work out themselves. These folks maintain an expensive gym membership, show up regularly, but it makes no discernible difference in their everyday lives. The reason for this lack of impact should be obvious: even though these folks look and talk the part of the fitness fanatic, their lack of exercise yields the predictable results. As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s nothing new. James acknowledges the phenomena amongst 1st century Christians when he wrote that anyone who hears the word, but doesn’t do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, but immediately forgets what he looks like. The idea is that the man hears what God expects of him and is shown his sin, but doesn’t bother to live differently as a result of the revelations. Churches are far too frequently heavily populated by folks with memberships, who wear their finest church clothes as they faithfully show up and offer spiritual advice to those around them, but never manage to grow spiritually by putting into action the teachings of Jesus. Dallas Willard attributes this phenomena to the decision amongst church leaders to teach that discipleship is an optional part of following Christ. Essentially, the modern church has chosen to teach its attenders that Jesus can be their Savior, without being their Lord. The emphasis has been that we need only believe in Jesus to be saved. This is absolutely true, but it is only part of the picture. Because if we truly believe Jesus is the Son of God and that He died to take punishment for our sins, then we must also recognize the rest of His teachings, including the demand that we claim Him as our Lord and take on the yoke of His teachings. These two ideas change everything, but they can be tough to understand without proper context.  

Lord: In the ancient world, if someone was your “lord” it meant that they were your master. You obeyed their will as your ultimate, totally authoritative boss. Paul is not overstating the concept in the least when he calls himself a slave to Christ. In this modern western world, this word conjures images of an abusive overseer, but this is not accurate to who Christ is. He is a loving, self-sacrificing master who lays down His life for His followers. He bids us to love Him and each other as He has loved us. Now, it’s important to recognize that loving is not synonymous with permissive. A loving parent doesn’t let their kids run wild. Rather, they discipline and teach their children, helping them to grow/mature into good people and prepare them for the rest of their life. The same is true of Christ, who leads us to become what God created us to be and prepares us to enjoy life with God. Jesus being our lord is a total life commitment, not an image or part time commitment.The Yoke of His Teachings: A yoke is a large piece of wood that lays across the neck of an ox or other beast of burden. The yoke transforms the effort of the oxen into work, by moving a plow, hauling a cart, or turning a millstone. Ancient students were said to take on the “yoke” of their teacher when they learned the teachings of their masters. Essentially, Jesus is calling us to take on His teachings, that turn our efforts into something valuable. That something valuable is our maturing into people who have hearts like Jesus’. It is also our good works that make our world look like the kingdom of heaven. Taking on Jesus’ yoke means learning/living/loving His teachings. It is a lifestyle of training for heaven. The good news is that Jesus describes His yoke as “easy” and the burden of His teachings as “light.” It doesn’t crush us, though there are those who think it ought to and try to change the teachings of Jesus into something that is unbearable. 

For everyone who chooses to call themselves a Christian and align themselves with Jesus, discipleship and growth is essential. Jesus was serious when He said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” He was also serious when He warned that not everyone who says to Him “Lord, lord” will be accepted into heaven. There are those who He will turn away saying: “I never knew you.” Discipleship is following Christ, not earning heaven. It is the call to all who identify Him as Savior.  

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

#OfficeArtifactWednesday: The Redneck Fish Finder… Thoughts On the Power of Words

href=”https://patchingcracks.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/11033172_10152526992796599_5962141194889879315_n-1.jpg”>11033172_10152526992796599_5962141194889879315_n-1

Anyone who has ever visited my office knows that it has always been filled with odds and ends. Little collections and keepsakes. A big part of the reason I collect things is to spur my thought processes. Being surrounded by odds and ends sort of feeds my short attention span and sometimes results in interesting thoughts. #OfficeArtifactWednesday is a weekly Facebook/Twitter posting I am doing to share a bit of what I’ve accumulate and some of how it makes me think. Let me know if you find it interesting.

For my first Office Artifact Wednesday item, I decided to share a picture of my redneck fish finder. 15 years ago I preached my first sermon in a church. During the sermon I told a joke about fishing with dynamite. The next morning, when I came into my office I found a bundle of wooden dynamite with the label: “Redneck Fish Finder.” There was no card or label. No one ever took credit for the gift. Someone thought enough of the anecdote (or me) to bring the knick-knack by and gift it to me. It has been a part of my office collection everywhere I have gone since. It is the very first office artifact.

Over the the last decade and a half of looking at the redneck fish finder on my desk everyday, my thoughts on it have changed. In the beginning I was encouraged that my story had caught someone’s attention. It was very encouraging for me as a young preacher. It’s not often that sermons illicit responses, so this has served as a bit of a reminder that folks are listening.

As time passed my perspective changed. The dynamite began to serve as a reminder of how powerful stories can be in conveying a point. I love telling stories and bridging them into principles or lessons. I’ll admit that I do this almost constantly, looking at things and considering how they can be used to illustrate an idea. I do this because stories can create deeper understanding. They can help people identify with what is being conveyed. They also draw in the listener’s attention. My fish finder always brings my mind back to this concept.

In the last few years, as I have finished seminary, studied the Bible more deeply, and worked with people more seriously, the fish finder has grown to reflect the reality that the things I say from the pulpit have the potential to make a huge impact on those I serve. I’ve spoken carelessly to folks and regretted it on more than one occasion. This is especially the case when preaching, because it involves standing in a spot where folks look to you to learn truth about God. The responsibility involved ought not to be taken lightly. Over the years I’ve known people whose words were like a carelessly tossed bomb in any situation: inflicting pain, provoking anger, and breeding dissension. I’ve also watched as preachers ignore the scriptures in favor of their own agenda and opinion, misleading folks for selfish gain. Being a professional talker (and a guy who tends to to talk too much) it’s important to remember the power of words and to choose them accordingly. Jesus once said: I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. (Matt. 12:36) He also taught: “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.”  (Luke 17:1-20)

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18

Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues. Proverbs 17:28

Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, “I was only joking!” Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. Proverbs 26:18-20
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where in the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 2 Picking the Right Approach

Recipre-for-a-perfect-wife-v3This is my second blog post on the Proverbs 31 woman and I haven’t started to really dig into the passage. I usually try to write shorter essays because most folks won’t read thousands of words just to get an answer. Easy answers are nice, but they are often incomplete. There’s always a temptation for pastors to shortcut and assign meaning to scripture rather than digging for the author’s intent. Understanding what the author meant to tell the reader means looking at it from their cultural perspective/historic perspective.

Interpretive Decisions: Allegory, Literal, or Something Else
There is a final matter that needs to be considered when deciding how to interpret the text properly, that is selecting the right interpretive approach. This basically means that we need to decide if the author intended the reader to see the passage as referring to something other than is being presented, if the reader is supposed to understand it in a word-for-word sense, or if it’s a combination of the two.

Proponents of taking an allegorical approach argue that the wife in the passage is symbolic of wisdom. Thus, the advice being offered is that young men keep wisdom as though it is their wife. This position has the benefit of being consistent with some of the rest of the book. Wisdom is repeatedly referred to as a woman. The advantage of this approach is that it can easily end the argument with folks who misuse this passage by making it about something else entirely. There are several problems with selecting the allegorical approach. For starters, the book of Proverbs does speak of women without doing so allegorically. Chapter 5 is a great example of this. The adulterous woman discussed in the passage isn’t indicated as a symbol for sexual behavior. Rather, the advice seems to be to avoid loose women, which is in harmony with the direction in 2:16-19, which advises the young man to avoid getting trapped in sexual sin, with no indication that is is an allegory. Later in chapter 5, advice is given about “drinking water from your own cistern” and the value of not spreading your streams of water into the street. These warnings about not being sexually loose are paired with an instruction to “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.” The wife in the passage is clearly a reference to an actual wife, who young men ought to confine their sexual behaviors to. There is no indication that she is anything but a wife. Further, it would be extremely weird to approach this passage allegorically, trying to make the talk of sex fit somehow with wisdom personified as a woman. It makes far more sense that the instruction is to enjoy sex with your wife, and only your wife. Beyond just being awkward, the text offers no hints that the passage ought to be read that way. Contrast this with passages like 7:4: “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call insight your intimate friend…” The author tips his hand that he is speaking allegorically. The same practice is repeated in 8:1: “Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?” The author tells you that he has shifted into allegory. The same can be said of 1:20 and 9:1. The text tends to telegraph these ideas. The author tells the young man when he is instructing through allegory. The problem with ignoring this tendency is that it results in a book of advice for young men that in no way addresses their interaction with women in any capacity. It cripples the text by applying a template automatically without regard for contextual prompts.

Regarding the allegorical approach and Proverbs 31, there is no indicator that the wife mentioned is wisdom personified. Nowhere does the author telegraph his intent to shift into allegory. Further, if we are going to read it as an allegory then we have to ignore a rather awkward idea presented in 26, that she (Wisdom) opens her mouth with wisdom.  It’s a bit of a circular concept.

There is one other matter to consider when looking at whether or not the passage is allegorical: the context for the passage in terms of the surrounding verses and who is speaking. In this case, the mother of the king is speaking. She offers advice on how to rule wisely, specifically instructing her son: “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.” She then goes on to direct him to avoid strong drink. It seems clear that the women described are actual women, because there is no indication of allegorical intent. Further,  the advice about women is paired with a direction about liquor. If one is figurative, then the next line would be as well. It makes very little sense for allegory to be inserted randomly in this manner. For this woman to advise her son to avoid women that are destructive and to follow it up a few lines later with advice on how to properly select a wife makes sense. It fits the context. She is giving whole life advice.

prov 31Part of the temptation to read the wife in Proverbs 31 as wisdom personified is rooted in the fact that she is living out many of the tenets of wisdom presented in the book. She is demonstrating wise behaviors. They are the same types of behaviors that the young men are instructed to try to live out. It seems reasonable that a man ought to seek out a wife who is strong, intelligent, hard-working, independent, and compassionate. Really, as far as ideal wives go, this seems to be a very positive message regarding what is important to seek out in a wife.

The other extreme position sometimes taken when interpreting the passage is to read it with a strict literal understanding. This would be unusual in wisdom literature and poetry, which tend to describe concepts. Lines in poems ofter reflect qualities or ideas. Further, reading the text in a strictly literal manner makes finding the ideal wife nearly impossible because meeting all of the behavioral requirements is nearly impossible, particularly since many of them require that the couple already be married. If the son is seeking a wife who takes care of their kids, they have to be married. Further, the list is lofty and towering to the point of being impossible to meet. For example, if we summarize only some of the qualities we find that the ideal wife makes clothing from scratch, buys property, plants vineyards, she is strong enough to work the fields, and sells some of the clothing she produces. As a checklist for wives, it’d be silly to expect that every woman ought to be making her own thread or even sewing. In addition, not every family has need of a vineyard. Not every family has the financial wherewithal to purchase land, nor is land available for every family to purchase. I don’t even need to comment on bartering. If we are to read these lines from literal perspective, we have to force every 21st century woman into a wealthy family from 900 BC and the middle east. I am taking this to an extreme, but the point is that the list of behaviors is not reasonable for anyone to take on in our context. Even in the day the text was written, only a small percentage of families would have the servants necessary to fulfill verse 15. It’s easy to talk of taking the text literally without engaging the reality of the position properly. The premise falls apart quickly when we look more closely.

One might suggest that we should back off of the literal reading a little. I’ve read several essays that argue that we ought to interpret the text as pointing to a super housewife, that is subjected to her husband’s beck and call. She sews, cooks, plants a garden, stays up all night doing housework, and then gets up before dawn to make breakfast. The problem with this perspective is that the wife in the chapter takes on a number of tasks that are overtly masculine according to ancient standards. Beyond masculine, they are downright liberated, particularly when considering the standard social expectations for women in the ancient world. She makes financial decisions, is physically strong and demonstrates it through her participation in what would otherwise be seen as “man’s work.” She also produces income through her own work. Many of these activities were off-limits to women in the ancient world, particularly women of social stature. The “super housewife” perspective fails when the passage is considered according to the historical context. Though she takes on domestic responsibilities, this woman works outside the home and clothes herself with strength.

Good-Wives-01How then are we to properly interpret the text? The answer is a mixture of the literal and the figurative. It is typical of Hebrew poetry to offer examples that represent virtues. This is most easily seen in verses like 20: “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.” Verse 20 can easily be read literally, but it represents more than a behavior. The wife described in verse 20 is compassionate to the needs of others. This is an attainable quality and is in harmony with the depiction of wise behavior discussed in the rest of the text. Apply the same approach to verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” I’ve already dealt with the problem with handling this literally. If instead we see it as representing a particular type of behavior, we quickly recognize that the passage describes a common sense business decision that she willingly follows up with hard work. Boil it down further and we have: She makes wise decisions and works hard. Neither of these is as unattainable as purchasing real estate and hand-planting a vineyard.

Much of the difficulty I have heard expressed in terms of this passage is connected directly with reading the passage overly literally, and ignoring the literary genre. This is often done in the name of forcing an interpretation on the text that is outside of the author’s intent. It is also done without viewing the additional meaning given to the text by the coming of Jesus and the new Covenant. If the poem is a to do list, it easily becomes law for a wife to obey. Paul tells us repeatedly that the law is impossible for us to attain. It is a crushing weight on us because of our imperfection through sin. In the next installment we will look at how understanding this passage is altered by the gospel.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Where In the World is the Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1 Understanding the Background

goodwifeguide-331x268Over the past few years, I’ve read several articles arguing varying perspectives on the ideal wife portrayed in Proverbs 31. Most of these articles have argued the matter in terms of whether or not this woman is a standard model for wives and women everywhere to aspire to be the best housewife possible in serving her 1950s family or an allegory for wisdom so as to remove the unattainable ideal that just serves to discourage women into standardized gender roles. I’ll admit that these characterizations are hyperbole, but I am exaggerating the extreme sides of this debate for a reason: because this text has become a bit of a tug-o-war passage for folks in the battle over the role of women in the church. Each side pulling for a gender political stance and taking pride in their position, sometimes without bothering to ask whether or not they are glorifying Christ in their stance. My intent in this post is not to engage either of these positions, but rather to offer an analysis of the text with an eye on shedding a little light as to what believers are actually supposed to do with these passages.

Preliminary Issues: Genre, Audience, and Context
In advance of the discussion, there are a few important concepts that need to be understood as a lens through which we must look in interpreting the passage. The first is the genre of literature being discussed. Wisdom literature, and more specifically the proverb, is a specific genre that needs to be understood on its own terms. Reading Proverbs isn’t like reading the instruction manual for your toaster. It’s a highly defined style of writing, featuring multiple sub-genres. In this case, it’s important to recognize that the text is presenting an idealized truth. It is the same throughout the book. This idealized truth must be understood as such. It’s easy to recognize this when comparing the book to other wisdom texts. For example, read Proverbs straight through, then read Ecclesiastes or Job. All three are wisdom literature, but the three texts offer very different perspectives on the world. In Job, the righteous man loses everything and suffers despite being blameless. In fact, Job’s friends seem to reflect a position that might be supported by the book of Proverbs: If bad things are happening to you, you must have acted wickedly. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon declares some hard realities that seem to stand at odds with the more idealized book of Proverbs. There seems to be a contradiction between the books. However, this contradiction is pressing only if we rigidly look at the proverbs as absolute statements of truth or rules for the universe, instead of recognizing that ideals are being presented. To this end, it is important to recognize that this is an idealized version of women, a target to aspire to. It is not a list of hard and fast rules for wives. Rather, it is an ideal.

Further, the passage itself is Hebrew poem, written with a structure that gives hints as to what the main point is. For starters, each line of the text begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which points to the completeness of the truth being presented. Acrostics could also be used to aid in memorization. This is important because the book is intended to be instructional material for young men. Easy memorization would be a desirable feature. In addition, the poem itself has a Chiastic structure. This is when the first and last line parallel each other, the second and second to last line parallel each other, and so forth. The middle line of the poem, which has no parallel, is the major point being made. In this case verse 23 is the center of the poem:Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. Essentially, the poem culminates in the instruction that a man with a good wife will be lauded publicly. A modern equivalent would be: “Behind every successful man stands a strong woman.” This may seem like a back-handed treatment of women, saying that their only purpose is to make their husbands successful, but this isn’t the case because wives aren’t the target audience of this text.

When interpreting scripture, understanding the target audience intended by the author is valuable for understanding the message being presented. In the case of the book of Proverbs, the target audience is young men. Throughout the book, young men are addressed in the instructions. In fact, chapter 31 is advice given to King Lemuel by his mother. In this context, the advice being given to sons in the chapter is essentially that picking a good wife will aid in you becoming the kind of man that folks esteem highly. This is hardly unique in the text. 25:24 warns: Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. What sort of wife should you seek? One that you don’t fight with constantly, or you’ll hit a point where you’d rather sleep on the roof than with her. Chapter 5 is loaded with advice for young men regarding loose sexual morals. Young men are instructed to avoid such behavior and keep their sexuality confined to the relationship with their wives. In this light, the passage fits the larger context of the book’s tendency to offer advice to young men about ideal truths. This is most evident in verse 30: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Young men tend to gravitate to a pretty face when selecting a wife, while ignoring more important qualities, like character. The advice being offered is heavily oriented toward young men’s inclinations. Again, the audience is important because it reveals a truth that is often ignored by those who attempt to interpret the text in terms of gender roles: chapter 31 is never intended to be used as an instruction manual for wives. It is not a checklist for being the ideal wife. Rather, it is advice for sons to look for certain qualities in their wives if they want to be successful and well thought of. That having been said, there are truths that can be gleaned and applied for wives, but more on that later.

1f63a8228ad74caec641eaecef106871Understanding the historic context is also important for getting a solid grip on the meaning of the passage. The advice being offered isn’t being given in a culture where people typically married for love. Marriage was generally a very utilitarian institution. Wives were selected based on all sorts of considerations, most of them pragmatic. The poem is literally about choosing a wife according to high character standards. This choosing was more akin to shopping than our culture tends to immediately recognize.

In the next installment, we’ll look at the most important background issue: How to interpret what King Lemuel’s mom was saying. Is it symbolic of something else? Is it a guide for being a perfect housewife? Is it a call to return to the 50s? Or is it something better that all believers can take hold of with joy?
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Christianity’s Missing Ingredient

UnknownLast weekend, I baked chocolate chip cookies for a tea party I had with my kids. I don’t bake cookies particularly often and don’t have an old family recipe, so I went to the internet and followed the instructions on the first recipe I clicked on. Several hours later, when we sat down to eat the cookies, it was difficult to miss the fact that something had gone wrong. They didn’t taste bad, once you gnawed through the cookie to get a taste, that is. It was undeniable that my cookies could be used as rocks. My 19-month old spend over an hour gnawing on his cookie, and only managed to consume half of it. The next morning, I discussed the baking project with some ladies from church and quickly zeroed in on the problem: softened butter doesn’t refer to butter melted to liquid in the microwave. I didn’t want to wait a couple of hours for butter to soften naturally, so I sped up the process using a power tool at my disposal. As reasonable as it seemed at the time, my one ingredient mistake had rendered the cookies inedible. They looked pretty good. They smelled as good as fresh baked cookies ought to smell. They just weren’t right. It wasn’t even a wrong ingredient. It was a correct ingredient in the wrong state. I have seen a similar phenomena in my own life and in the lives of others during my 16+ years of ministry work. It is an ingredient that is wrongly added (or not added at all) in the lives of Christians, which results in something that looks and smells pretty good. However, it is associated with a hardness in the heart and life that is tough to miss.

wilberforceIf you spend time in a church or interacting with believers on the internet, you will encounter those whose words and deeds are not in harmony with what the Scriptures direct. Pettiness in interpersonal squabbles, judgmental attitudes toward others, a lack of self examination and dealing with personal sins, and all manner of other inconsistencies are symptoms of a missing or wrongly added ingredient.This ingredient is “discipleship.” Discipleship refers to a lifelong process of following Jesus and subordinating our lives to His teachings. Mind you, I am not talking about following the ten commandments or pointing out the sins of others wherever they turn up. I am referring to a lifelong training effort to live a life of service to God through application of the teachings of Jesus in faith. Mind you, this isn’t a “just do these things” type existence. Jesus does not disseminate a new collection of rules for believers to toil under. Discipleship is learning to live this way through following Jesus in gratitude for the grace we receive in salvation. It is conforming our hearts to Jesus, an intentional process that Christians commit to as a part of following. When the Lord invites believers are to take his “yoke,” he is using a figure of speech typical to ancient Israel. A rabbi’s yoke was their teachings. He is literally instructing his followers to take his teachings on themselves. The yoke of his teachings are light in contrast to the crushing legalism of the Mosaic laws. In Christ’s teachings, the teachings shift the believer from a focus on “thou shalt not…” to a directive to love God and love your neighbor. This is more than a sentiment or lips service. It’s something that needs to translate into new action and a new way of living that flows from a heart made new.

Going to church, reading the Bible, feeding hungry people, striving to not sin, taking care of the sick, sharing grace with folks who find themselves stuck as a result of destructive decisions, and all the other trappings of Christianity are not discipleship. They may be part of the picture, but they are not the whole thing. They can be the inviting smell and attractive appearance of the Christian life, but without discipleship, they are far less than the whole thing and can result in the sort of hardness of heart that folks often complain about in relation to Christians.

Discipleship involves prayer, studying the scriptures, submitting to accountability relationships, confession of sins, and all manner of other practices aimed at bringing the believer’s heart into conformity with that of Christ.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Daddy-Daughter Date Night Idea: The Last Minute Tea Party

IMG_2893 2
IMG_2878The last few days, which were supposed to be days off, wound up being impromptu work days for me. When I came home this evening, my 3 year old attacked me with pleas for attention and play time. It’s important to understand that as a dad and a follower of Jesus, I consider it my duty to love my daughter in a way that shows her who Jesus is. It’s a job I take very seriously. So, I spent some time playing, but I had to start making dinner. It was late and I was tired, so dinner was not going to be anything spectacular. I put a frozen pizza in the oven and made sandwiches and salads for my wife and I, all the while my daughter was danced around me in an effort to get my attention. Then, I had an idea. I put on the kettle to boil and made tea in her teapot, one I picked up specifically for tea parties with her. As soon as she saw it out and me filling it with water, she started squealing about having a tea party. I set the table with candles, put out teacups and saucers, put her in her fancy dress, and put on my suit. My wife quickly joined the act, putting on a dress. The result was a IMG_2868 2tea party with our little girl over a regular dinner of frozen pizza and salads. It’s not an elaborate daddy-daughter date night, but throughout dinner she repeatedly exclaimed how excited she was to have a tea party for dinner. It wasn’t my preferred daddy-daughter day together. However, given the brief time I had available to plan dinner, our impromptu candlelit tea party was a huge hit with one of the people who matters most to me.   IMG_2879 IMG_2883click here for dad daughter

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,