Tag Archives: marriage

Laughter in Marriage

Nothing is more false than the idea that mockery is necessarily hostile. Until they have a baby to laugh at, lovers are always laughing at each other.

-CS Lewis, the Four Loves

I came across this line in my morning reading. It seems like the greatest blessing in life has been laughing and playing with my wife and kids. The biggest mistake I’ve made is trying to take our time together too seriously. Some of the best conversations my wife and I have involve laughing about the craziness of our children. I kinda suspect that God probably laughs about us too.

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8 Ways to Show Your Wife that You Love Her


I love my wife more than I can say. Unfortunately, I often neglect to say or show it. I may just be in the remedial class of romantic husbands, but a few years ago, I realized that I didn’t do nearly a good enough job telling/showing my wife what she means to me. Saying “I love you” is a good start, but I have discovered that actions speak much louder than words when it comes to making her feel loved. In fact, I’d argue that love is best shown through actio, rather than words. Jesus demonstrates this principle through his service and sacrifice for those he loved. Certainly words are necessary, but actions are vital. My biggest problem in showing my wife how much I love her is conjuring up clever ideas for showing it. Knowing what to do is a real challenge.

  1. Talking– Remember when you were dating and you used to sit and talk for hours without any effort? When was the last time you did that? Talking is important to most women, far more so than it is for most men, who typically talk less. They just don’t need to talk in order to feel close to their wives. This is not the case for women. Most women identify conversation as a major emotional need. Unfortunately, what was easy while you were dating can quickly become an enormous challenge. After marriage, it’s important to intentionally spend time talking to her. Ask her about her day, her feelings, and what she thinks about various matters. Paying attention to her, listening to her, and opening up to her means a lot. Of all the things you can do to show your wife that you love her, this is at the top of the list. Do it every day.
  2. Love Notes– This is my favorite. Telling your wife that you love her is one thing, but writing it down for her to read and reread is another entirely. For most women, words of affirmation are important. She may already know that you love/admire/yearn for her, but regularly telling her is a big deal. Writing love notes is easy to do, takes almost no time, and it means a great deal. It just makes sense to do it regularly. In addition, I often say the wrong thing in the moment. Somewhere between my brain and my mouth, the wires get crossed. Writing out your thoughts makes it easier to avoid the pitfalls associated with speaking off the cuff. Love notes can range from cards, letters, or post-it notes. In particular, notes that are written and tucked away where she will find them later are great surprise.
  3. A day away– Whenever I notice that my wife is particularly stressed, I plan a day out for her. I try to schedule these outings with one of her friends. I schedule a few activities for them to enjoy, like a massage, painting pottery, a visit to the chocolate shop, etc. The details mean a lot for these outings because they show that you have spent time thinking about her and planning the day. The most important part of showing your love for your wife is showing that you are thinking about her. For example, I paid for everything in advance or left gift certificates and love notes with the owners. Last time I put one of these days together, I was on a work trip. I had her girlfriend come by the house with a babysitter to watch the kids. The whole thing was a surprise. As gestures go, this one required a great deal of planning, time, and effort. Sometimes your wife needs time with her friends away from the kids, the house, and you. Recharge time is a huge deal and will mean a lot to her. I have also put these days together for her to take our daughter out for a “girls day” or our son for a play day. Obviously, these days have different planning requirements.
  4. The away day– My wife works hard and sometimes needs some quiet, down time. She likes getting out, but sometimes rest and relaxation are what the doctor ordered. For times like this, I take the kids out and leave her with a quiet house to herself. Typically, it’s necessary to do some big preparation in advance to ensure that the day is actually a gift. I usually get the house in order, catch us up on laundry, make snacks/food for her, etc. It’s no good leaving her home to relax, only to find that she opted to use the time to wash dishes, pick up the kids toys, and do laundry.
  5. Flowers– My wife doesn’t like flowers, because they die. She has trouble with the idea of buying things that we just throw away a few days later. I buy them sometimes anyway, and she likes them, but they aren’t her favorite. A year ago I happened on a solution to this problem. I read a few origami websites and spent a TERRIBLY frustrating evening figuring out how to fold flowers. It seems cheesy and I expected her to roll her eyes at the gift, but the time I put in meant a lot to her. I made one or two at a time over the course of several weeks, leaving them on her desk or nightstand. One afternoon I walked into her office to find she had put them all in a vase. Once again, the big thing is showing her you are thinking about her and spending time doing something just for her.
  6. Clean House– My wife and I split the workload in our home. We share in chores and childcare responsibilities. Now and then, I take an afternoon to thoroughly clean the house, wash the kids, and cook. When she comes home to a clean house and no chores, she loves it.
  7. Taking care of little things– A couple of years ago, I asked my wife about my habits that annoy her. It took some pushing to get her to open up about what I do that grates her nerves, but when she did, I found that the majority of the things on the list are little things, like changing the toilet paper roll when it’s empty, picking clothes up off the floor, or taking my shoes off when I come in the house. It seems silly, but changing these patterns was noticeable to her. In addition, they were easy habits to change. I had to put effort into remembering, but they made a difference. She noticed, which helped demonstrate my care for her. In addition, fewer annoying habits meant less for her to be upset with me over. Those little things add up quickly.
  8. Date Night– We try to go on a date every week. This isn’t easy, but it’s important. Marriage is maintained through quality time together. We can’t always find babysitters or spend the money for dinner out, but dating each other is a big deal. When we can’t get out we put our kids to bed early and eat dinner alone, play a game, or just sit and talk. Putting the effort in to courting your wife is a big deal. It tells her that she is important to you and that you don’t take her for granted. Planning a date as a way of showing her that you love her involves way more than just walking out the door. Admittedly, getting out the door for a date can be a challenge, but it’s not all there is. It’s important to take the initiative to line up childcare and take care of the “at home” details. If she has to go crazy lining these things up, it makes her evening less enjoyable. Further, it’s a big deal to research and plan the evening. Most of us have sat in the car trying to get our wife to say what she wants to eat or what she wants to do, only to have her respond: “I don’t care, whatever you want.” If this is how most dates turn out, then taking the initiative to plan the evening avoids the frustration of this conversation. Plus, planning shows thought, which is a big deal to many wives. The big goal is to make her feel special. Attention to the little things achieves that goal.
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Meat Eating Vegetarians and Self-Centered, Loving Husbands


Originally published in the “Patching Cracks” Newspaper column- Big Sandy Mountaineer, October 30, 2013. 

For around 7 years before coming to Montana, I was a vegetarian. I did not eat meat. When I moved to Montana, into a cattle ranching community, it just made a lot less sense to be a vegetarian. So, I now eat meat. If I were to tell people that I am still a vegetarian, it wouldn’t be accurate. I cannot truthfully say: “I am a vegetarian that eats meat with almost every meal.” The fact that I now eat meat makes me not vegetarian. The label implies certain things about my personal practices. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is important to understand that if I am going to accurately make statements about myself or my beliefs, they must reflect my reality.
“I love my wife and children.” When I say this, it can mean several things. The most basic meaning of the word “love” in this context is associated with an emotional affinity. I feel emotionally connected to my wife and children. The larger meaning of the word refers to selfless service and care. It is larger than a simple feeling. It is important to note something about the difference between the two. Love that is simply a feeling carries with it a degree of selfishness. The feeling of infatuation that is commonly associated with the simple emotion of love is pleasant. People enjoy feeling it. “You make me feel good.” The greek word for this type of love is eros. It is not a bad thing, it is just different from the deeper definition of love I referred to earlier.

Selfless love, which in greek is agape, refers to love that is primarily concerned about the object of love. The New Testament depicts agape love as an action type word. It is exemplified in Jesus’ death on the cross. According to the Bible, this act of self-sacrifice was Jesus’ taking punishment for the sins we commit. It goes so far as to say that we are God’s enemies before He redeems us through the cross. This means that agape love is so selfless that it would willingly give up everything for the object of that love, even if the object of love doesn’t return the affection at the moment. Agape love is selfless giving. It is more than feelings, though feelings can and do accompany agape love. They just don’t define it. Ultimately, this is the love that God intended to exist between spouses and for parents to have toward their children. Unfortunately, this also often goes against the dominant cultural attitude of “I should be happy no matter what” and “if it feels good, I should do it.”

When I say that I love my wife, I mean more than simply that I feel a certain way. I mean that I am committed to selflessly serve and care for her. It means that I am committed to a lifestyle that God intended for spouses to assume as a part of marriage. I am not perfect in this effort, but I strive to live that way. This is what God calls all spouses to strive for. If I claim I love my family, but pursue my own interests first and foremost, I am like the guy who claims to be a vegetarian, but eats meat every meal.

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God Made Men For More Than Work


men at workLess than a week before my wedding day, I lost my job. It was a terrible fit for me and in retrospect, it was a good thing. However, at the time it was a crushing blow. Going to work and providing for my family was pretty much the most important thing in the world. I had no idea how or when this happened, but I am quite certain that my pride and identity were magically tied to my ability to bring home a pay check, put a roof over my wife’s head, and food on the table. The experience shaped my attitude toward employment to this day. I don’t think my experience is particularly unique to me. Men derive much of their identity and sense of worth from their work. It lies at the core of the masculine identity, which is part of God’s design for men. We see this truth in the book of Genesis. The first thing Adam did after he was created was go to work. God put him in the garden and set him to work. It wasn’t miserable work and it wasn’t all that Adam did. He didn’t live to work. Adam tended to the garden, but he also named the animals. In addition, God recognized that Adam shouldn’t be alone, so he created a wife for him. In short, from the beginning man’s work was pretty important to him. In fact, I’d argue that Adam was designed to set his hand to tasks. If Adam was made in God’s image and God engaged in both creation and work, then it follows that work and creation would be important to Adam. One of the things I love about the creation account is that it gives us hints about the nature of men and women. The intended design is seen clearly without the haze of sin obscuring and distorting the foundational truths. In this case, the foundational truth is obvious: Men were made to work, but that’s not all they were made to do. 

 

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A study was done  with elementary age kids. A group of boys and a group of girls were placed in a room with chairs, told to sit, and then they were observed. The girls put their chairs in a circle and began talking to each other, facing one another. In contrast, the boys sat in a line, next to each other, and talked about what they could do in the room. Their focus wasn’t on relating to each other, it was on what they could do together. This trend continues throughout their lives. Men dream of building things, succeeding, and achieving great things through their work. This drive has roots that go right to the heart of a man. He takes pride, derives meaning, finds purpose, and holds his worth in his work. When this element of a man’s identity is healthy and holds the appropriate place in his life, contentment isn’t far. That appropriate place is in a proportional relationship to his family, his relationship with God, and the other spheres of his life. When a man’s work overshadows his family or stands over God in importance, a spark is cast on the rest of his life. It may not happen immediately, but eventually that spark will light a fire that will consume everything, leaving him empty. No amount of success in life can replace the relationship a man has with his wife and children. In regards to his relationship with God, Jesus put it best when he asked what it profits a man to gain the world, but lose his soul. 

 

Work is a big deal to men. Providing for his family and achieving great things are foundational to a man’s identity. However, they are only part of the foundation. The book of Ecclesiastes says: A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God…(Ecclesiastes 2:24) Enjoy life and enjoy work. My younger brother works for a large international bank. He has told me all sorts of stories about executives who throw away their marriages and families in the name of climbing the corporate ladder. It’s a terrible trade. 

 

The key to managing the proper balance in life is setting the big important things in life under the larger umbrella of a man’s God-given responsibilities. He is called to lead his family spiritually, to love his wife, point those around him to Jesus, to serve God faithfully, to take Sabbath rests and enjoy intimacy with God, to raise his children right, etc. Failing to serve Jesus first and foremost is no small matter. Such failure removes the very thing that keeps everything else in its proper place and proportion. 
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Becoming a Better Man: How to Learn a New Skill


The first car I bought in college cost me $250. It was a ’77 Lincoln Continental. I knew almost nothing about cars, or I probably wouldn’t have bought it. It was rusty, barely ran, and blew such a large cloud of smoke when it started that a friend commented to me that she could see it from across campus. The first time it broke down was about 15 minutes after I paid for it. It was not the last time. Keeping the Continental running soon became a full-time hobby. The biggest problem with this hobby was that I had no idea what I was doing. I had spent almost no time using tools; I didn’t know that my Lincoln had a V-8 engine, and when I looked under the hood of my rusty old car, all I saw was a scary mess. However, my budget (or lack thereof) and my jalopy forced me to take action. I started out by tuning up the car. This meant buying a Haynes manual (a car fixing book) and borrowing some tools. Over the next several years, I read every repair book I could find and I asked questions of anyone who I could find who knew anything I didn’t. My uncles, other students, my philosophy professor, and the guy at the auto parts store all reached a point where they rolled their eyes at the words: “I have a quick question about cars…” Within a year, I was making extra money doing minor repairs to other students’ vehicles. In the 20 years since, this skill has served me more times than I can count. Now, it is a relative rarity for me to pay a mechanic. 

This is one of several skills I’ve acquired over the years, which are purely a product of deciding I want to do it and then applying myself to learning. These skills range from mechanical to computer related talents to relationship skills, and many others. We live in an era where knowledge is easily acquired and is often free. Very little is more fulfilling to a man than learning to take on a problem themselves and then doing it. Solving problems yourself is satisfying and confidence building. I can think of very little in life that feels better than saying: “I got this” and it actually being true. A basic part of becoming a better man is incremental growth through ongoing study and effort. Along the way, I’ve figured out a handful of basic tips that can be applied to the process of acquiring a new skill:

  • Read and ask questions. The great thing about knowledge is that it’s easily acquired by reading books. Libraries, the internet, and bookstores are easily accessible and serve as a wellspring for almost every area of learning. I learned more about how cars work by reading the diagnostic pages of the repair manual than from anyone I have ever asked. This truth isn’t limited to fixing cars. I learned to BBQ ribs, build a campfire, clean fish, aim a rifle, and a dozen other skills by reading books. Further, most folks who have knowledge are happy to share it. Asking questions of folks who know what they are talking about is a great shortcut. The great thing about the time we live in is that the Internet can connect you to experts all over the world, who gather on discussion boards. Further, YouTube offers all sorts of instructional videos on subjects ranging from plumbing to cars to cooking to anything else you can think up. 
  • Don’t be intimidated or work through it when you are. Cars scared the heck out of me when I started. Taking things apart was even worse. I found that diving in was the best way attack the problem. The problem I’ve seen in myself and other novices is the fear of just getting started. Self doubt and worry blocks the path. However, most of those fears are baseless. In 20 years, I can think of only a handful of instances in which I wrecked something because I took it apart when I shouldn’t have. 
  • Be patient. The biggest issues I’ve encountered in learning a new skill is when I get ahead of myself. You can’t expect to be an expert immediately and attacking a project without understanding everything involved can create a lot of headaches. Before starting anything new I make it a point to read and study everything I can find. Reading all the steps first is a great way to avoid those sorts of “uh-oh” moments. Practice is the pathway to expertise.
  • Take notes. My first tune up taught me not to take things apart without making note of how to put it back together again. Since then, I’ve labeled everything, drawn diagrams, taken notes, and photographed everything. A picture makes it much easier to remember which wires go where. Relying on your memory when working in unfamiliar territory is a bad idea. This is especially easy with large projects. It’s easy to forget little details in the middle of a complicated task. 
  • Don’t limit yourself. It’s easy to limit this process to purely mechanical skills. This is simply not the case. A few years ago I decided to needed to step up my game as a husband and father. A couple dozen books on the subject have made me a better man in these areas. Most of my graduate school experience was done through distance learning. Essentially, this means I learned almost everything through reading books and asking questions. You can learn anything through reading and study. I often have folks ask me how they can understand the Bible better, I invariably tell them to read it. Sometimes I give them a couple of guidebooks to move them on their way. 
  • Reading the RIGHT books is essential. Setting out to learn theology by picking up an advanced textbook written for doctoral level theologians might not help, largely because you won’t understand it. Reading a motorcycle repair manual to fix your Honda Civic will likely be of little aid. Find the right material before you start. I have found that most folks will willingly point you in the right direction if you ask. In addition, Amazon searches and book reviews will give you some great hints regarding what level of student a book is meant to help. Finally, if you start on a book that’s too advanced for you, put it down and read a different one. It’s easy to get frustrated and quit, but you’ll gain nothing by doing this. 

The biggest thing to remember is that all education is an incremental journey. We learn to read over the course of several years as children. We learn to walk, only after mastering sitting up and crawling. Anything can be learned if you are willing to put in the work needed to learn it. Any skill you have is a skill you can teach to someone else. 

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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.

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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.

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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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#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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