Tag Archives: Advice

Acting Like Men, Dreaming Like Boys

The following is my newspaper column from this week. I do not normally post material I have published in other media (at least not without significant rewriting!). This seems like it was worth sharing. Let me know what you think. It appeared in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/30/15.

IMG_8051My 2-year old boy has a cold and was very cranky this morning. My wife and I tried all sorts of things to soothe him with little success until I pulled out a box of Star Wars toys and settled on the kitchen floor to play with him.

He wasn’t content to play with me in any other setting or with any other toys, but the Star Wars toys captured his attention. Within a few minutes my fussy toddler was flying his space ship around the kitchen, making laser noises and and giggling. He sort of knows which toys are the “good guys” and which are the “bad guys.” I generally pick the villains to play with, because that’s what my dad did, and he always wants to play with the heroes. I won’t pretend to know why my boy decided that would cheer him up, but there is something worth paying attention to in the pattern, which I’d argue is largely true of males in general.

Boys usually crave adventure toys, action, excitement, and they idolize heroic figures. Some of this is likely cultural, but I’d argue that in the hearts of men there tends to be a desire for action, an inclination to aim toward greatness, and a tendency to be inspired by noble things. These tendencies certainly shift and change as they age and develop their own values and interests. However, regardless of what form these desires take in the long run, they begin with a desire to be the hero, to be the best at whatever it is that they are pursuing, and an inclination to dream big dreams. As they age, boys tend to put these inclinations away in favor of more practical and realistic goals. This is natural and normal phenomena. Few men go to work everyday dreaming of being a hero. However, whether or not it is natural and normal, there is a sense in which it isn’t ideal. It is far better when a man realizes that their inclinations ought to be adopted to fit the lives in which they live. As the father of small children, I get to play the part of the hero. This often wears off as time goes by and children grow up. However, there are men I have known who dedicate their lives to being great fathers. Those men often raise children who see them as heroes. The same can be said of a man who dedicates himself to being a great husband. It’s important to note that this is more than just being a friend or a good provider. It is being an example, defender, caretaker, leader, fixer, teacher, and all manner of other things. Further, men who pursue depth of character, integrity, and righteousness grow to a stature that causes folks to see them as heroes and great in their own right. I would argue that this is essentially what Christians refer to when they speak of following Christ’s example. Some of the most impressive men I know are those who try to live like Jesus. Their families, friends and neighbors recognize that they are different. Paul once wrote that when he became a man he put away childish things. The things that make men great are too easily deemed childish. Having a desire to pursue greatness in family and community life, then acting on that desire, is the beginning of achieving distinction.

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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.
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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.

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Josh Duggar, Hidden Sin, and Why Christian Men Fall

IMG_7337This week’s news has been dominated by the story of the Ashley Madison data dump. Hackers, who had stolen the account information of users of the Ashley Madison adultery dating service, released the information of hundreds of thousands of men and women who had signed up to find someone to cheat on their spouse with. The first name to pop up in the headlines was that of recently scandalized Christian marriage/morality crusader and former reality TV star, Josh Duggar. Social media, news outlets, and tabloid websites jumped at the opportunity to denounce the hypocritical actions of Duggar. In the last week, I’ve seen folks claim that all Christians are hypocrites, that Christians are the source of most social ills, that this is further proof that Christianity is a scam, folks have dismiss Duggar as a pervert, and all sorts of other vitriol. Folks who’d previously defended Duggar are conspicuously silent, many not knowing what to say after defending the man in past months. I believe that many Christians reach a point where they expect men to be sinless, instead of knowing that men can easily fall. We need to remember that Jesus is Jesus and we are not. No one is-except Jesus. I’m not trying to excuse the guy’s sins or dismiss him. Frankly, it’s not my job to deal with him. I’m neither his pastor nor his family. It’s unlikely he’ll ever read this. I will say that we need to acknowledge the seriousness of sin and judge ourselves by a higher standard than the world. We can’t wag a moralizing finger at the lost while whitewashing and excusing our own sins. It’s not right. Instead, we should take the opportunity to properly explain repentance and grace. More on that in a future post.

Personally, I’ve been watching the whole thing and feeling sorry for the man’s wife and kids, who will bear the public shame and humiliation of Josh’s actions. In addition, I’ve found myself thinking about how this happens. Whether or not ministers are statistically more likely to get caught cheating, it’s certainly news when it happens. As a guy who works in ministry, I pay attention whenever I hear about it because I’m genuinely bothered by it. For starters, it reflects badly on Jesus and His church. It also raises the specter of potential in my mind. Men that I like and respect have had these sorts of moral failings, so it follows that it could happen to me as well. I’ll admit that I’m very aware of the potential. I don’t think any of these guys planned to cheat on their wives or that they lived their whole lives as con artists, faking their faith in order to trap a wife and get a low paying pastor job. (Though, oddly enough I had a stranger accuse me of that once.) Rather, through observation, I’ve collected some common traits that make it easier for Christian men to fail morally.

  1. A sense of infallibility: I once interviewed at a church where the previous pastor had left when he ran off with a Sunday School teacher he had been cheating on his wife with. One thing that I learned about him during my visit was that he frequently spoke in sermons about being sinless. He literally claimed that he no longer committed sins. The problem with this mindset is that at the point where he began to experience temptation to commit adultery, whether he wanted to confess it or not, he couldn’t without acknowledging that he was, in fact, a sinner. I’ve talked to ministers who suffer with guilt and shame, wishing they could seek help, but feeling trapped because of their sense that they can never acknowledge any of their sins to anyone else. If a man gets trapped in a pattern of sin, one that he cannot deal with through confession and discipleship, it will generally get worse and worse until it’s exposed. I would argue that this is a result of a…
  2. Poor understanding of our need for Jesus: Jesus died for my sins and the sins of all people because we couldn’t live perfectly ourselves. When I sin, I confess it and turn in a different direction. God didn’t pick me because I’m awesome, or good, or smart, or anything else. I belong to Jesus because he recognized my wretchedness and saved me from it. He did this specifically so he could be glorified because of His tremendous grace and mercy. When I forget that I am a wretched man or try to depict something otherwise to the world, I forget or fail to understand my need for Jesus. That need should dominate my decisions and relationships. My preaching and teaching should openly acknowledge my wretchedness and need for Jesus. If I publicly acknowledge my sinfulness regularly, then I don’t need to hide it. From all appearances, Duggar was struggling with sexual sin from a fairly early age. He didn’t seek help in overcoming it, likely because of the shame associated with sins of that nature and because folks assume that we should instantly defeat temptation and be done. Proper emphasis of our need for Jesus and the folly of self righteousness would have created an environment where confession would have been easier. Freedom to speak about it keeps me from falling victim to…
  3. Weak accountability: Men who operate in a vacuum, with no oversight, can easily fall into sinful patterns because no one is watching. He begins to develop the sense that no one will ever catch him. Accountability, in the form of oversight from others and regular meetings, where the man is free to speak openly about his struggles, is vital to preserving morality. In particular, men need to be held accountable when they have…
  4. A marriage that isn’t top priority: It’s easy for marriage to fall lower on the priority list, behind work, children, image, success, etc. The only thing that ought to rank higher is my commitment to follow Jesus, which in turn governs my relationship with my wife. Specifically, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. When spouses fail to meet each others emotional needs, affairs become more likely. Imitating Christ in marriage means serving each other mutually, caring for each others needs. Willard Harley wrote 2 excellent books on the topic, Love Busters and His Needs, Her Needs. I’d highly recommend them both to any married couple. Disclaimer: This isn’t to blame the situation on wives. Each man’s sin is his own. It’s rather to point to a real factor that leads to affairs and offer a tool to ensure it never happens.
  5. Radical Honesty: There are several people in my life, including my wife, several pastors, and a few other men, with whom I practice radical honesty. I tell them every rotten thing I think or do. Sin grows in the dark. The more I hide, the more likely I am to fall into sin. Maintaining several relationships of radical honesty is vital to safeguarding integrity.
  6. Maintaining Good Boundaries: If I were a sleepwalker, I wouldn’t ever go camping at the top of the Grand Canyon. I’d be afraid of walking off a cliff while sleeping. I’m not a sleepwalker, but I am a sinner. I sometimes do sinful things in moments of colossal moral sleepwalking. Because of this, I do not do counseling with women in places where I cannot be interrupted. I don’t spend lots of time alone with women who aren’t my wife. I maintain strict rules about where I go and with whom. This keeps me from moments of stupidity.
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Alcoholics Anonymous and Discipleship

Alcoholics Anonymous and DiscipleshipThrough my work as a chaplain and as an addiction counselor, I’ve learned a great deal about and from Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s often said that AA is simple: Go to meetings, find a sponsor, and work the 12 Steps. The challenge that many folks face when they start going to AA meetings is that they don’t want to get a sponsor or work the steps. Alcoholics often struggle with interpersonal relationships and authority, which makes finding someone to have an honest relationship of accountability with daunting. It’s not uncommon for alcoholics to try to go it alone for long periods of time without ever reading the AA Big Book or working the steps before finally breaking down and finding a sponsor. The most common reason alcoholics eventually enter a relationship with a sponsor and work the steps is that they recognize that their drinking and destructive patterns will destroy everything in their lives if they don’t overcome it. Desperation to escape slow death at their own hands drives them to reach out to another recovering alcoholic to get help in achieving lasting sobriety. Working with someone else, who has overcome similar struggles, works. They understand each other based on shared experience and are able to point each other toward spiritual growth, which is the most important component of the AA approach to recovery.

As a pastor, I’ve long been aware of the Biblical roots of the AA approach to recovery. The alcoholic acknowledges that they can no longer control their lives, turn control of their lives over to God (who is more powerful and able to control their lives), they then confess their past moral failings and seek to make amends with those they’ve wronged. This is essentially the Biblical path to salvation: acknowledge that we are sinners, turn our lives over to Jesus, confess our sins after a fearless moral inventory, then do our best to make it right, while continually striving to overcome our sins. Sponsorship is discipleship. Discipleship is when a believer finds someone- a more mature believer to help them train, grow spiritually, and overcome sin in their efforts to be imitate Jesus. The unfortunate reality is that despite the fact that AA sponsorship is an imitation of Christian discipleship, it is far more common in AA groups that discipleship is in churches. Christians just don’t look for relationships of accountability and spiritual training in an effort to grow in Christ and overcome sin. The desire to overcome moral failings isn’t present in churches in the same way that it is present in AA. This is despite the fact that discipleship is the basic method of spiritual growth and training presented in the Bible. It is how Jesus grew believers and how the church grew disciples for centuries.

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Click to Read Previous PatchingCracks Post: Skipping Workouts and Discipleship Training

I’d suggest that the reason for the lack of discipleship in the modern western church is simple: we aren’t overly concerned with overcoming sin, growing in holiness, or imitating Christ. It’s important to enough to many believers that they might read a few books a year and attend church to listen to sermons, but this is often seen as “good enough.” Serious training to grow spiritually just isn’t often yearned after amongst believers. This is the same reason that there are around 4.4 Bibles for every household in the U.S., but only around 26% of the folks who own Bibles and identify them as important, read them. The folks working the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous see their addiction as a death sentence, so they find folks to disciple them in their spiritual growth as a means of escape. It is far too common for Christians to see overcoming their sins as an optional add-on to the faith or something they ought to do in the same sense as they ought to floss and lose weight. They do not see sin as a road to death or as utterly offensive to God. This general disinterest with overcoming sin is reflected in the literature the church consumes en masse, which tends to focus on how to be happier or more wealthy. Books dealing with imitating Jesus and obeying his commands are far less common and seldom approach the Christian best sellers list. It is often the case that when we preach/write about sin, it is focused on “wicked” groups outside of the body of Christ, rather than on our own failings. The church is content to point to the sawdust in the eyes of others, while ignoring the log obscuring our vision. We are pleased with Jesus as Savior, but uninterested in Him as Lord. Until following Jesus becomes the burning desire and priority in our lives, the church will continue to neglect discipleship. We must learn to detest our own sins and see overcoming them as escaping from death.

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

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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
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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.
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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?
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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.
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5 Ways to Show Your Wife You Love Her the 364 Days that Aren’t Valentines Day

10411953_10152500999866835_664088007240282336_nIf you haven’t noticed the excess of advertising yet, Valentines Day will soon be on us. It’s the one day a year everyone expects you to act romantic. Flowers, cards, candy, stuffed bears, and all manner of other romantic stuff are practically a requirement if you don’t want to get into trouble. The crazy thing is that I know guys who go out of their way to show their wives they care on that one day of the year, but otherwise live like roommates with their spouse. The reality is that February 14th is just another day. If husbands are to take seriously their vows to love their wives and follow the direction Paul gives in Ephesians 5, they have to take loving their wives seriously the other 364 days as well. Here are 5 suggestions to kick off a year of showing your wife how special she is.
  1. Compliment her. Compliments and praise are so easy during the courtship phase of the relationship. However, because men tend to be less verbal, they tend to compliment less often. I have spoken to women who treasure compliments given to them by their husbands literally years ago. Women need to feel affirmed as a part of feeling loved. Compliments are key. Please note, I am not talking about empty flattery. Further, it’s important to offer compliments and praises without strings attached. Many a man has gotten to the point that saying “You look great today” prompts the automatic response: “What do you want?” Offering praise without hidden motive makes the offered praise more believable.
  2. Give her a day to herself. After kids show up, it’s not unusual for wives to feel like there is no time for themselves. With little people constantly demanding her attention and the other demands of life that come with being a spouse, helping to care for a family, and maybe working, it’s easy to feel like there is no “me” time. A simple way to show her how much you care is by taking the kids for the day and letting her enjoy herself. This is a good time to give her the gift of a day spa trip, manicure, or a massage appointment. These aren’t definitive. Figure out what your wife likes to do by herself and gift it to her. The last time my wife did this, she went with a friend and spent the day out relaxing and not dealing with kids. I had a ball with kids, having a tea party, watching a movie, and playing all day.
  3. Deep clean the house. Every now and then, when my wife takes a Saturday afternoon nap or goes out for a doctor’s appointment, I take the opportunity to clean the house thoroughly. Vacuuming, scrubbing, cleaning, laundry, dishes, etc. Mind you, it’s important to pitch in and help with the chores all the time, but once in a while it’s nice to take it way beyond what she expects.
  4. Knock out the Honey-Do list immediately. This isn’t so much a special occasion “I love you.” When a honey-do item pops up, it’s easy to put it off until you feel like it or have a little more time on your hands. But, there is a message that is sent when you put off her requests. You might not notice, but she probably does. Taking care of “guy” tasks immediately shows her that she is a high priority to you. Conversely, when you put her in the position of having to nag you to get things done indirectly tells her that she isn’t a priority.
  5. Plan a surprise date night. Get the babysitter. Figure out where you are going and what you will be doing. Get dressed up. Buy flowers. Pull out all the stops and don’t let her know until it’s time to go. Surprise her. Give her enough time to feel prepared and comfortable, but surprise her. In doing so, you show her that you are still pursuing her as a romantic interest. You are showing her that she is special. You are essentially telling her that you still think about her.
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