Living as strangers in the world

Series: 1&2 Peter, by Rosie Moore

This is the first in a series of devotions in 1 and 2 Peter.

“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-12).

As Christians, we are the most privileged people on the planet. Lest we forget, the Apostle Peter reminds us that we have been chosen by God and our salvation and security rest in the free and merciful choice of God (1 Peter 1:1-3). Nothing can take away our “living hope” in the resurrected Jesus (1 Peter 1:3). Unlike everything else in this flimsy world, our heavenly inheritance is permanent and indestructible—it can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4). And through faith in the Lord Jesus, God will shield us and keep us true to our faith until we see our Saviour face to face, to live with him in his perfect home, forever and ever (1 Peter 1:5). What’s more, as the Lord’s chosen people (1 Peter 1:9-10), we have a secure identity in Christ. And as the family of God, we have a million reasons to praise God with the Apostle Peter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Peter 1:3).

But as privileged as we are, we are also strangers in this world (1 Peter 1:1). This is something we should never forget or underplay, even for the purpose of growing God’s kingdom in the world.

First century strangers.

In fact, the lived reality of Peter’s original readers– Christians scattered across the Roman empire due to persecution– is a picture of Christians in every era, who in a sense are called to be strangers, exiles and pilgrims in the world. It is a picture of us, until we reach our permanent home in heaven.

This is how Peter addresses his original readers:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”. He calls them exiles of the Dispersion, because that is literally what they were. They were scatterlings of Christ in far flung places, away from the comfort, security and community of home.

Let’s walk for a moment in the shoes of these exiled believers who, despite their genuine suffering and grief in “all sorts of trials”, were being urged to “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:68). What exactly was the source of these trials? And how were they to find joy in the midst of them?

Cultural traitors.

History tells us that these Christians had been banished from their homes in Jerusalem and Rome, branded as traitors by their Jewish communities and declared enemies of Rome. This violent dispersion is described in Acts 8:1-4.

Their suffering took many forms (1 Peter 1:6): On account of the Lord’s supper, the Christians were falsely accused of ‘secret’ immoral worship practices, cannibalism and incest. They were caricatured as haters of humanity and scorned for their irrational beliefs. Two years after Peter’s second letter, Christianity was banned in the Roman empire (64AD), so things were getting worse, not better.

But ironically, far from being rebels, these Christians were living out their faith in selfless service to each other and submission to authorities. Their problem was that they did not blend in with their culture. They refused to conform to the world around them, but aspired to God’s standards of holiness instead (1 Peter 1:14-16).

In spite of their quiet, good lives, they committed the ultimate ‘crimes’ of their day: They would not affirm or participate in the sins of their culture and insisted that Jesus was the only way to know God. They didn’t support the Roman ideals of self, of power and of conquest. And worst of all, they would not bow to Caesar or the Roman gods. So, their crime was not that they were evil, but that they were cultural traitors and non- conformists. This was deeply offensive to their society, and ultimately became a crime worthy of death. That’s why they were scattered all over the Roman empire, living as strangers in the world.

Peter drives home their refugee status several times in his letter (1 Peter 1:172:11). But, as strangers, he doesn’t give them false comfort. He doesn’t promise them prosperity, protection or popularity. And he doesn’t urge them to appease or agree or conform with their culture in an attempt to grow God’s kingdom.

Instead, Peter instructs them plainly to “abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul, to live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-12). He reminds them that God the Father judges each man’s work impartially, so they are to “live as strangers here in reverent fear” (1 Peter 1:11). They are to be self-controlled and obedient, holy and distinct from their culture, “for as it is written: Be holy because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:13-16).

The miracle of Christ’s mustard-seed kingdom is that the more Christians were dragged from their homes and persecuted, the more they scattered like seeds, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to the whole Roman empire and beyond. Little churches were planted throughout the empire and gatherings of believers blossomed, even in Africa, until there were more than 40 000 Christians by AD 150.

So what do Peter’s instructions mean for Christians living in the world today?

Strangers today.

Peter’s letter is definitely for us today! Although we naturally crave approval and hope to woo the world with the gospel, Peter reminds us that our ‘narrow’ worldview will always be deeply offensive to those who oppose Christ. Jesus reminded us of this reality too: “If the world hates you, bear in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).  And James is unequivocal about this too: “Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?” (James 4:4) Friendship with the world is a dangerous thing for our souls and it doesn’t help the gospel cause either. God always expects personal holiness from his people. We are to be different.

At the same time, Peter is clear that we should never set out to be offensive, odd or unloving. We must never use our freedom as an excuse for evil but must show proper respect to everyone (1 Peter 2:16-17). We are first servants of Christ, so we must fear God and honour authorities (1 Peter 2:17).

But when we don’t conform; when we seek to obey God’s Word instead of bowing down to the high priests of academia; when we demolish ideas that set themselves against Christ; when we choose a distinct and holy lifestyle, we will automatically be ostracised. We will be ridiculed and caricatured when we expose our culture’s sin, rather than affirm and accept it. And if the prophets, Jesus, and Peter’s readers are our examples, then we too will be offensive to the world. It’s an inevitable byproduct of living as foreigners here.

Timothy Keller explains one area this may apply to Christians in contemporary culture:

“The earliest church was seen as too exclusive and a threat to the social order because it would not honor all deities. Today Christians are again being seen exclusive and a threat to the social order because we will not honor all identities.

But we remember that Christ, who is the “stone the builders rejected…the stone that causes men to stumble” (1 Peter 2:7-8) is a precious Rock to build our lives on, because “the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame” (1 Peter 2:6). That’s why, like Peter’s original readers, “you can greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6). Let’s ask the Lord Jesus to help us to be true to him, always loving God and his Word, rather than the world and its ways.

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

My times are in his hands

Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come” (Prov 31:25).

Proverbs 31:25 paints the picture of a woman who lives out of the security that the Lord is in control of the time to come, that he cares for her and the people she loves. “She laughs at the time to come” is not frivolous laughter borne out of a trouble-free life. No, this woman fears the Lord (Prov 31:30), and so she views the world through a grid of hope rather than dread or cynicism. Because of her relationship with God, she is able to face the future with a confident assurance. She has a certain strength, dignity and joy about her.

I wonder if the trials and dangers the Proverbs 31 woman faced in 1000BC were so very different from ours?

“She laughs at the time to come?” That’s a tall order for 2021, given the blanket of doom that’s shrouded our world in the past nine months. If we’re honest, many of us are shaking in our shoes at the time to come! Behind our masks, we aren’t laughing nearly as often as we used to. And we’re not even sure how best to take care of each other when even a hug or a funeral is translated as an act of unkindness. Many are grieving and facing unspeakable losses.

Everyone is battling. Not only are we struggling to navigate the landmines of illness, debt, social isolation, life-and-death choices, depression and death, but many Christian parents are fearful of how our children will navigate a brave new world, which has untethered itself from God’s law and redefined good and evil for itself.

If we’re honest, it’s much easier to fall headlong into fear, than to forge ahead in hope.

Future hope.

But as God’s redeemed people, we dare not place our hope in our ability to perfectly navigate our fragile lives and our futures. We dare not place our hope in a vaccine, or a financial miracle, or a Government, or a strong immune system. Instead, if we have surrendered our lives to the Lord Jesus, we dare to put all our hope in him, who knows our limitations. Our weaknesses. Our fragility. We dare to proclaim him as the Saviour, who is redeeming many lost people through this pandemic and guiding everything toward his ultimate goal—the final judgment and the new heavens and new earth (2 Cor 5:102 Peter 3:13). We dare to seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness (Matt 6:33), knowing that God will work all things for good in order to make us more like Jesus (Rom 8:28-29).

Unlike the atheist Bertrand Russell, who built his life “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair”, a believer can live with confident assurance that our times are in the Lord’s hands (Ps 31:15).  God’s wise and sovereign providence gives Christians hope and purpose during every season of our lives and at every point in history.

My times are in his hands.

I love the way that Charles Spurgeon expresses this great truth from Psalm 31:15:

“All that concerns the believer is in the hands of the Almighty God. ‘My times’, these change and shift, but they change only in accordance with unchanging love, and they shift only according to the purpose of One with whom is no variableness nor shadow of a turning. ‘My times’, that is to say, my ups and downs, my health and my sickness, my poverty and my wealth—all those are in the hand of the Lord, who arranges and appoints according to his holy will the length of my days, and the darkness of my nights. Storms and calms vary the seasons at the divine appointment. Whether times are reviving or depressing remains with him who is Lord both of time and of eternity; and we are glad it is so…But David’s times were in God’s hand in another sense; namely that he had by faith committed them all to God. “Into thine hand I commit my spirit, thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.”

Living by divine providence

But, if the truth be told, I’m a very slow learner. It’s so easy to see God’s wise and purposeful sovereignty in characters like Joseph and Paul and Jesus, but I find it so hard to surrender to providence when it’s closer to home: This holiday, unbeknown to me, I was bitten by a tick. Soon my body was wracked with raging fever, headaches and muscle aches. Worst of all was the fear and guilt that set in. Fully convinced that I had COVID, I believed that I had already infected my entire family, including my elderly parents and other family members with immune problems. In my delirium, I had visions of an entire clan gasping for breath on a remote Eastern Cape farm. And I was the murderer of them all! I worried and fretted about every worst case scenario.

I’ve discovered that many people are currently living with this kind of guilt and fear of what may (or may not) happen in the future, but I’m so grateful that the Lord used my elderly parents and a local Christian doctor to remind me that our times are in the Lord’s hands (Ps 31:15). One of my children also brought this home when she read to me Jesus’s teaching about worry in Matthew 6. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt 6:34).

Jesus holds the keys.

When, as an old man exiled on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John saw a vision of Jesus, he was awestruck and fell at Christ’s feet like a dead man. Nothing could prepare him for Jesus in his heavenly glory. But this is the assurance that Jesus gives his beloved disciple as he lays his right hand of comfort on him:

“Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Rev 1:17-18).

John didn’t need to be afraid because he was in the presence of Jesus who lives to never die again. His victory over sin and death was a permanent victory and he alone has the authority and power to determine life, death and eternity for us too. We can trust that he never lets the devil borrow the keys.

What an awesome picture of the Lord Jesus for us to keep at the forefront of our thoughts! It is our helmet of salvation to protect our minds. And it was this memory of the risen Christ that gave all his disciples the courage to keep seeking and serving God’s kingdom through one of the most oppressive periods of history. This is the vision that I would like to shape my own thoughts as I live out whatever days the Lord has given me on his earth: The Lord Jesus, who was there at the creation of the universe, still holds the keys to life, death and eternity, even during COVID. “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17) “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). Even times of unemployment and disease, times of revival and restoration – All our times are in his hands.

There’s not a single day that slips through the net of his providence.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,when as yet there was none of them” (Ps 139:16).

Praying through pain

I am an introvert. My natural inclination when I experience pain is to be stoic and silent. I hardly uttered a sound in childbirth! The reality is that many people struggle to find words to express overwhelming feelings of distress and bottle them up instead. Many other people prefer to vent their pain outwardly.

Our culture encourages us to air our grievances; tell our stories and bare our brokenness and vulnerabilities to each other. Anything else is seen as unhealthy repression. But while there are therapeutic benefits to honest expression, as sinners we run the risk of seeking sympathy instead of healing. Sympathy will give us momentary comfort, but can also entrench distorted perceptions; excuse our sinful responses and stunt our ability to grow through adversity.

Trusting the Lord of our trials.

But, for Christians there is always a better way than following our natural inclinations or conforming to the patterns of this world. As Peter reminded first century Christians facing hideous suffering, “You have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials… so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7)

If we submit to Christ as Lord of our trials, the Bible shows us how to deal with our pain. It is simply not biblical to say, “My feelings are always right,” or “Always trust your feelings”, because our feelings can easily lose perspective of the truth. Our feelings can lie to us.

In Psalm 6, David gives Christians a godly template to work through our feelings of sorrow. Psalm 6 is the first of seven ‘penitential’ Psalms where the writer humbly describes his predicament (usually the result of his own sin), then expresses sorrow over it, and finally seeks God for the remedy and healing. We don’t know the exact source of David’s distress in this Psalm, but it is probably his sin with Bathsheba, as he begins his prayer with these words:

“O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger

or discipline me in your wrath

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled” (Ps 6:1-2).

David goes on to pray:

My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O Lord—how long?

Turn, O Lord, deliver my life;save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning;every night I flood my bed with tears;I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.
The Lord has heard my plea;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

  1. David confesses his sin. (Ps 6:1-2)

David is not stoical or self-pitying, but honest and humble in his prayer. He confesses that if God treated him as he deserved, with justice instead of mercy, he should be wiped out by God’s wrath. He asks God to correct him gently rather than in anger, just as Jeremiah asked, Discipline me, Lord, but only in due measure—not in your anger, or you will reduce me to nothing (Jer 10:24).

But you may ask—What if my distress is not caused by my sin, but by sickness, bereavement, depression, conflict, divorce, unemployment or someone else’s sin against me? Surely I can skip the confession and get straight to the deliverance I need?

Confession is a good place to begin, no matter what the source of our grief. Jesus taught us to say, “Forgive us our sins, just as we forgive those who sin against us,” because we are always in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. The Apostle Peter realized this when he witnessed the miraculous catch of fish, fell at Jesus’ knees and confessed, “Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).

Likewise, the prophet Isaiah, after seeing a vision of the Lord and listening to the praise of the angels, confessed, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isa 6:5). Neither Peter nor Isaiah had committed a great sin before they made these confessions, but both showed a proper fear of the Lord. They knew that they were sinners approaching a holy and powerful God, and this knowledge humbled them.

Confession is an acknowledgement of who God is, who we are, and our continuous need of his forgiveness and grace. We are weak and sinful by nature. Even our emotions are marred and misled by sin. Again, Peter describes this humble attitude in his instruction to suffering Christians: “Humble yourselves therefore under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6).

  1. David prays his pain (Ps 6:2-3)

David then pours out his heart to the Lord in tears:

  • “How long, O Lord, how long?” (Ps 6:3).
  • “I am faint…for my bones are in agony” (Ps 6:2)
  • “I am worn out from groaning” (Ps 6:6)
  • “All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Ps 6:6)
  • “My soul is in anguish” (Ps 6:3)
  • “My eyes grown weak with sorrow” (Ps 6:7)

David tells God the physical symptoms of his sorrow. There is a desperation about his question, “How long, how long?”

Of course God knows our feelings before we say a word, but when we pray them to the Lord, we are relating to our Father as a child would relate to their parent (Matt 6:8). We are expressing trust in him as our loving Father (Matt 7:11). Prayer is all about relationship, not a shopping cart. God doesn’t want us to put on a brave face or to suffer in silence. Nor is he a cold impersonal force looking on from a distance, or a supplier in a business transaction. He is the Lord, Yahweh who makes a faithful, everlasting covenant with his people (Ps 6:5).

This side of the cross, we pray to God as our Father, Abba, who has adopted us into his family (Gal 4:6-7), our Father who cares deeply about our sleepless nights and our bloodshot eyes that can hardly open in the morning. As Father, he wants you to express your pain to him, to “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

  1. David asks God for help (Ps 6:2; 4)

David knows that the Lord, and only the Lord, is the remedy for every grief. He turns to God for his deliverance and healing, for that is what he needs most:

  • “O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony” (Ps 6:2).
  • “Turn, O Lord, and deliver me, save me because of your unfailing love” (Ps 6:4).

Like David, every believer can simply ask God for help on the basis of God’s unfailing love. The Bible never says that we need a specially ‘anointed’ man of God or pastor to declare healing or deliverance on us. We simply need to get on our knees and ask God for help.

James says, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:1316). Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us our daily bread…deliver us from evil.”

Prayer is sometimes the last thing we feel like doing when we’re in trouble. But that’s when we need to pray most. Phone a distressed friend today and offer to pray with them, even if it’s on Facetime or Zoom.

  1. David preaches to himself (Ps 6:8-10).

Like David, we need to preach the truth to ourselves, because we are prone to forget it when troubles rule our emotions.

After David prays for help, he believes God. He believes that the Lord has heard his prayer and then confidently verbalizes his trust in the Lord, as if preaching the truth to himself:

  • “For the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry to mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer” (Ps 6:8-9).

Athough there’s no resolution or evidence that the source of David’s anguish has vanished, he affirms in words that God cares for him and is acting on his behalf. Unexpectedly, his prayer ends on a note of victory:

  • “All my enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace” (Ps 6:10).

We don’t know whether David’s immediate circumstances changed after this prayer, and we know for sure that he suffered far-reaching consequences for his sin with Bathsheba. But regardless of what happened next, David’s attitude changed from being in anguish, to being quietly hopeful in the Lord. He experiences God’s peace that transcends understanding, as Paul describes when he instructs suffering first century believers to pray,

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).

Find rest in Jesus.

“In Christ Jesus” is the key to our prayers. If you and I have put our faith in Christ Jesus, we have more available in our arsenal of truth than David in 1000BC. We know and are known by “the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” that the prophet Isaiah foretold (Isa 53:3). We have the cross to remind us that there is no anguish of body, mind or soul which Jesus did not experience on our behalf. And there is nothing in Psalm 6 that Christ did not pray to his Father (Matt 27:45-56Luke 22:42).

He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; was afflicted by a terrible punishment he didn’t deserve; was crushed for our sins (Isa 53:4-5). He took the punishment that brought us peace with God, and by his wounds we are healed (Isa 53:3-5). And he too prayed for deliverance the night before he died, but for our sake, his Father did not grant his request… until the resurrection and ascension. In our own fears and anguish, we can trust Jesus who has given us “new birth into a living hope” (1 Peter 1:3).

That’s why King David’s prayer in Psalm 6 ended in hope. And there will come a day when that hope will be fully realized for every believer. Christ Jesus will return in victory to give us full healing and deliverance: new bodies and a new creation where pain, sorrow and death do not exist (Rev 21:4). “All our enemies will be ashamed and dismayed; they will turn back in sudden disgrace” (Ps 6:10). Until then, let’s run to Christ, the Lord of our sorrows, and pour out our hearts in prayer.

The Good Shepherd

I wonder if anyone else struggled to maintain a clear head and a trusting heart in 2020? It would be great to be able to look into a crystal ball and see a peaceful and prosperous 2021 on the horizon, but unfortunately we have no such guarantee!

Seven hundred years before Christ was born in Bethlehem, the prophet Isaiah foretells the coming of the suffering Servant who will eventually restore his people. Judah still had 100 years of trouble before Jerusalem would fall, then 70 more years of exile. Their times were turbulent like ours, but God tells Isaiah to speak tenderly and to comfort Jerusalem, describing God as a shepherd, gently caring for and guiding his sheep, especially the most vulnerable and defenceless members of his flock:

“He will tend his flock like a shepherd;

he will gather the lambs in his arms;

he will carry them in his bosom,

and gently lead those with young.” (Isaiah 40:11)

In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus calls himself the good shepherd (John 10:11;14). He is also referred to as the great Shepherd (Heb 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd of his people (1 Peter 5:4). As believers going into 2021, this image of the Lord as our Shepherd is a powerful one. Whatever the year may bring, Jesus owns us and is committed to his flock. Christ is our only protector.

The wrecking ball of 2020.

This time last year, most of us were in a very different position than today. It feels like an eternity since March 2020, when news first broke about the spread of the Coronovirus. Since then, most people across the globe have felt its effects: Job losses and deaths; masks, online church and study; illness, fear and social isolation; corruption, PPE fraud and fake news, social activism, not to mention the tragic increase in depression, anxiety, suicides and suicidal ideation around the world.

As momentum picked up, 2020 was marked by enmity, hostility, suspicion, grievance and despair. Alienation is the word that comes to mind when I think of last year– Alienation from God, from each other and from self. 2020 has been a spotlight on our true alienation as sinful human beings, bringing it into sharper focus. We are like scattered sheep, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isa 53:6).

The events of 2020 did not create, but merely pulled back the curtain to expose this reality. Without Christ, we are ultimately lost and divided because of our sin. We are without direction, without purpose and without protection against the vicissitudes of life and ultimately against the judgment of God when we die. Jesus is the only truly Good Shepherd that God himself provided. Without Christ, we are all sheep without a shepherd.

False shepherds

2020 has been a year which has also tested and exposed the shallow, me-centred spirituality which, in better times, passes for Christianity. By August, the fuel of self-help, self-empowerment and self–actualisation ran out for those running on self rather than God. It’s clear that DIY spirituality proved to be a useless fuel source, judging by the stats on depression and anxiety. Cultural gurus and self-help experts are strangely impotent to lead people in a real crisis.

2020 has been a wrecking ball to many fake gospels and false human shepherds about whom New Testament writers like Jude forewarned us: “Shepherds feeding only themselves; waterless clouds swept along by winds, wandering stars, grumblers, malcontents, following their own sinful desires, loud-mouthed boasters” (Jude 12-1416).

2020 has been a wrecking ball to the false gospel that proclaims that a child of God should be healthy and wealthy if we have enough faith, and that we should not expect suffering or difficulties in this life.

It strikes me as amazing that not one of the self-appointed Christian prophets predicted the chaos of 2020. Instead, only two months before disaster struck, there was a plethora of the usual optimistic forecasts of a prosperous year for God’s people…especially if we sowed a seed into their ministries! These church leaders remind me of the false prophets of the Old Testament who filled God’s people with false hopes, speaking visions from their own minds, rather than from the mouth of the Lord, saying,

“The Lord says: You will have peace” And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts, they say, “No harm will come to you…” (Jeremiah 23:16-32). Really? No mention of Jerusalem’s coming destruction and being carried off as slaves into Babylon.

The marks of today’s false shepherds are no different to those in Ezekiel’s day: They are self-serving and neglectful of the sheep given to their care; they do not disturb their own comfort by searching for the lost or strengthening the weak (Ezek 34:4); they scatter instead of gathering the flock; they muddy the waters by raising unnecessary doubts and teaching false ideas (Ezek 34:18-19). They do not take care to spiritually nourish the sheep with God’s word, even destroying their food source by twisting God’s word (Ezek 34:8). No word about sin, judgment and repentance, just endless affirmation. No warning about suffering for Christ’s sake. Just an inspirational gospel which assures you that Jesus wants you to be happy, you are enough just the way you are, and you have the inner strength to conquer another day.

I wonder if anyone has questioned those Bible teachers who extracted Isaiah 26:20 from its context to assure Christians to “take refuge in their homes for a little while,” and all would be well, while Coronavirus passed us by. Passover was supposed to be the great reset button to get us back to normal, but April came and went with only harsher lockdown measures. In spite of those who bound and burned the evil spirit of Coronavirus, we face the realities of another year beset by Covid. Yet, no one holds these false teachers to account for their presumptuous words.

Let’s hope that these exposures of 2020 have made us less tolerant of false shepherds. Let’s hope that 2020 has woken us up to the reality that the Bible is not a collection of spiritual pick-me-ups focused on ourselves, but God’s story of salvation history which should be studied for what it is—the word of God.

The Lord is my Shepherd.

The reality is that many of God’s people are stumbling over the threshold of 2021 grieving over what we have lost, fearful and uncertain of what is to come. We are perplexed to hear of the sexual misconduct of yet another Christian leader, whom we have respected for many years. Our souls groan under the curse of creation.

But as we start a new year, let’s remember that Jesus is our Shepherd in the here and now. Let’s remind ourselves of the simple truths of the gospel which Christ himself laid out for us so tenderly in John 10.

In John 10, Jesus proclaimed himself as the good Shepherd promised in Ezekiel 34:23: “the one shepherd, my servant David, (who) shall feed them and be their shepherd.” However disappointing human leaders may be, Jesus is the true Shepherd who laid down his own life for his sheep (John 10:1114). He is not a hired hand, but the owner of his sheep. If we have responded to his voice in repentance and faith, he allows us access to his sheep pen and remains committed to us, no matter what (John 10:12-13). He knows his own sheep personally and intimately, and we are branded as his forever (John 10:14). Instead of dividing and scattering, Jesus is in the process of gathering his sheep from every nation into one fold (John 10:16). Neither Satan, nor his ravenous wolves have the power to snatch us from his flock, nor rob us of his love and eternal life (John 10:1-21). The Lord is our Shepherd, and in him we have everything we need (Ps 23:1).

The cross and the resurrection are proof that Jesus is our Shepherd in life and death, even in the final chapter of God’s big story—Restoration Day. May the apostle John’s future hope profoundly affect our lives in the coming year, whatever 2021 may bring. A blessed New Year to you and yours!

“For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,

He will lead them to springs of living water

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”—Revelation 7:17.

Stay the course!

Series: Marriage East of Eden, by Rosie Moore.

Some final words about perseverance in marriage!

If married couples shared the truth about their struggles, it would soon become evident that every marriage passes through storms and wildernesses along its journey. The problem is that on the day that we say “I do” at the altar, we often have an idealised view of marriage, thinking it’s the end of all our loneliness and troubles, the ultimate island retreat! We don’t imagine that we could ever be overwhelmed with division, anger, disappointment or despair. We are ill-prepared for manipulative in-laws, childlessness, strong-willed children, chronic illness, tragedy, joblessness, burnout or the effects of sin and abuse. We’re not even prepared for the normal everyday stresses of life, which rock the strongest of marriages. As the years roll on, sometimes it may feel as if our actions don’t really make a difference, because nothing seems to change. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our actions really do matter.

Listen to the advice given to Frodo the hobbit and his unlikely companions on their perilous quest in  The Fellowship of the Ring. It could just as well apply to us on the quest of marriage:

“Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens…All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us….The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” (J.R.R Tolkien).

Small hands matter.

Small hands, not distracted eyes, make all the difference in marriage. Ordinary actions in the hidden rooms of our homes matter more than any lofty words we may profess. It matters what we do with the short time that is given us in our marriages.

Ask yourself three simple questions at the end of every day: Did I honour? Did I cherish? Did I thank my spouse today? Small deeds done over a lifetime will make or break our marriages. 

Remember this—If you’re a Christian, the greatest quest in life is to know and grow in the love of the Lord Jesus. It is to imitate our Saviour wherever He’s placed us. He is our Holy Grail, not our spouse or our marriage! And as on every quest, actions speak louder than words. Small actions, done day after day, over a lifetime.

Winston Smith expresses it well:

“True faith is most obvious when it empowers you to action that’s opposite of your emotions. Doing what you feel like doesn’t take faith…In your marriage, you choose to act not just because you feel things but because you’re moved by another relationship that’s more powerful, your relationship with God. The power of that relationship becomes most obvious when it moves you to do what God wants, rather than what you want” (Marriage Matters, p 263).

This is seriously counter-cultural at a time when feelings are on the throne and being true to yourself is the highest good! So, our Christian faith is practised when we are unselfish in the unseen moments of our ordinary marriages, whether or not our actions are affirmed or appreciated by our spouse. Irrespective of whether our actions change our spouse, they will change us. Obedience to God always does.

As I read through the list of faithful believers in Hebrews 11 this week, it struck me that these were men and women of action: Noah built an Ark in obedience to God’s command; Abraham and his family uprooted themselves from civilisation to go to a place they’d never seen; Rahab gave up all the security she ever knew in Jericho to follow the Israelites’ God. None of them would have felt like doing these counter-intuitive things!

These heroes of the faith were ordinary believers who acted in response to God’s promises. They didn’t just speak about their faith, they acted upon it! “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6). It is our acts of obedience in marriage that prove whether we earnestly seek the Lord. Our willing hands and feet show that Christ matters most to us, not our feelings or circumstances.

Marriage is a longterm farming operation.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds us that our acts of obedience do indeed make a difference, but the difference isn’t always obvious to see from the outset. Marriage is more like the diligent work of a patient farmer, who sows his seed and tends his fields for ages before he finally reaps a harvest. In fact, most of the hard work is done under the ground, invisible to the naked eye.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Gal 6:7-9).

So, if we hold to a Biblical worldview, marriage is not a Facebook post, but a longterm farming operation! It requires time, effort and grace. It requires us to persevere in doing good to our spouse, even when we are weary. Like a farmer, we cannot control our spouse or all the external stressors of our marriage, but we can trust God to provide manna and water one day at a time. He will see us through the darkest seasons and driest deserts.

The principle of sowing and reaping means that no matter how hard the soil of your marriage, keep moving towards your spouse in faith and obedience. Keep your eyes on the Lord’s promises, the Lord’s love and the Lord’s faithfulness. It’s only His daily grace that can sustain us. Remember that marriage was always intended to draw you closer to the perfect Bridegroom, so fix your hope on Him.

Blessed is the one who perseveres.

As we reach the end of 2020, it’s natural for us to be weary, but we must fight for hope. This year has taught many in Christ’s family that human existence is often hard, dark and fragile, full of brokenness and hidden desperation. The reality is that earthly marriage is not miraculously sheltered from the ‘trials of many kinds’ that are part and parcel of the Christian life, no matter which century or continent we live in. But amidst the persecution of first century Palestine, James reminded believers to cultivate a hopeful mindset towards their trials, as they trusted in Christ:

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing…Blessed is the one who remains steadfast under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:2-412).

And so, as we navigate the difficult seasons that test our marriages, let’s see our relationship as a classroom where the Lord is teaching us more about who He is, a crucible in which He is growing Christ’s character in us.

As husbands and wives, let’s stand steadfast together by allowing what we know about God to inform what we feel about our circumstances. And let’s press on in faith together, as we prepare for the day when our Bridegroom will return to claim His Bride (2 Tim 4:8). On that day, all who are in Christ will celebrate the great wedding feast that will never come to an end (Rev 19:7-10). “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”

Prayer

Lord, thank you for the blessing of marriage. Please help us navigate the challenges we face together and be willing to be honest about our struggles. Help us to honour, cherish and thank our spouse every day.

Lord, give us a hopeful outlook, because of the character and perseverance that trials can produce in our lives. Help us to focus on how we can walk faithfully alongside our spouse and love him/her well, showing the same selfless love that you have poured out on us. Finish the good work you have begun in us.

Father, protect our marriages from the enemy’s schemes to divide us. Give us grace to cherish one another for as long as we live. Fill us with hope to keep trusting in your promises, until the Bridegroom returns to restore all things.

Amen.

It’s been a privilege to share The God Walk with you in 2020. What gems we’ve discovered in God’s Word along the way! If you’ve missed any of the previous devotions in this series, Marriage East of Eden, click on the links below:

  1. Whatever happened to marriage?
  2. Laws for lasting marriage.
  3. Worshipping the idol of blame.
  4. Demolishing the idol of blame.
  5. Redeemed roles.
  6. Husbands, love your wives!
  7. An excellent wife, who can find?
  8. Designer sex! A very good gift indeed.

Useful Books referenced in this series:

Winston Smith, Marriage Matters.

Walton, Jeff and Sarah, Together through the Storms.

Christopher Ash, Marriage and Sex in the Service of God.

Kevin Leman, Sheet Music.

Emerson Eggerichs, Love and Respect.

Designer sex: a very good gift indeed!

Series: Marriage East of Eden.

“No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps 84:11).

From the first two chapters of the Bible, it’s clear that God created sex to be a blessing to married couples. In fact, our love life is a very good gift from God, the Designer of the universe, and it’s a gift that married couples should not neglect. If God made us sexual beings, then a good sex life colours our marriage. It may take a little work and forethought at times. It may require that we stand up to our own feelings when we’re just not in the mood. But the dividends of a good sex life are more than worth the effort.

Designer sex.

When God created Adam and Eve, He joined them as man and wife. Then he blessed them and commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:31). He actually commanded them to have sexual relations! Moreover, when God looked at all that He had made, including the sexual act, he pronounced it “very good” (Gen 1:31). So then, we can say with absolute certainty that sex within marriage is not embarrassing or unspiritual, but a God-given gift to express and strengthen the covenant of marriage itself.

Intended for pleasure.

If you ever doubt that God designed the sexual bodies of husbands and wives to experience lifelong pleasure together, the Bible is not prudish or embarrassed about this divine intention:

“Drink water from your own cistern,
    flowing water from your own well.
16 Should your springs be scattered abroad,
    streams of water in the streets?
17 Let them be for yourself alone,
    and not for strangers with you.
18 Let your fountain be blessed,
    and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
19     a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
    be intoxicated always in her love”. (Proverbs 5:15-19).

I’m not sure how relatable the ‘lovely deer’ and ‘graceful doe’ imagery is, but it’s clear that God created husbands and wives for enduring sexual pleasure! This is a poem of pure sexual delight, blessing, fulfillment, fun, joy, even intoxication. But the Bible is equally clear that sex is a divine gift, not for strangers, but for monogamous, faithful, committed, lifelong marriage partners (Prov 5:15-17). Isn’t God’s design amazing? He gave us a little slice of sunshine amidst the grey humdrum of domestic responsibilities! And He means us to bask in the sunshine, not stay inside the house all day!

But sex is not only a pleasurable gift. It is also a powerful glue that God has given to married couples to bond us together.

Sex is divine glue.

Of course, common beliefs, interests, hobbies and children also bond married couples together, but sex is a very unique kind of glue.

Sex is about knowing another human being and being known, in the deepest Biblical sense of the word (Gen 4:1). “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.  Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Gen 2:24-25)…Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived” (Gen 4:1).

Lovemaking is the beautiful, tangible expression of being united as husband and wife physically, emotionally and spiritually. There is great vulnerability in the two becoming one. They have entrusted themselves to each other. They are unashamed, known, understood, safe, accepted, cared for.

I find it fascinating that God designed our human bodies to release oxytocin (the ‘love’ hormone) when we make love. It’s the same hormone released when a mother is breastfeeding, to strengthen the maternal-infant bond.

Amazingly, oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust in the most intimate of human relationships. It’s been shown to be a powerful antidote to depressive feelings, and takes the edge off our emotions. Oxytocin makes it easier to resolve conflict and overlook offences in your partner. So, you see, sex doesn’t just bring momentary pleasure, but also bonds us together as husband and wife. It makes us more loyal, more committed, more forgiving, even a little irrationally fond of each other! And oxytocin is a totally natural hormone, with no unwanted side effects!

Study after study has shown that a sexually fulfilled wife will have less stress and more joy in her life. A sexually fulfilled husband will normally be more dedicated and confident as a husband, father and employee. So, a fulfilling sex life is about more than procreation and erotic pleasure. It actually knits us together in greater intimacy that deepens over the years. Sex gives us a spring in our step so that we can manage more difficult areas of our lives. Therefore, it makes sense that husbands and wives shouldn’t neglect our love life.

It’s interesting that even secular researchers have reached these conclusions. In 1995, one of largest studies ever conducted on sexual practices showed that married couples report considerably higher rates of sexual satisfaction than singles. Among women, conservative Protestant women have the highest rates of orgasm. I enjoyed this comment on their findings:

“The young single people who flit from partner to partner and seem to be having a sex life that is satisfying beyond most people’s dreams are, it seems, mostly a media creation. In real life, the unheralded, seldom discussed world of married sex is actually the one that satisfies most people” (Robert Michael and John Gagnon, Sex in America: A definitive survey: P127-131).

The Psalmist seemed to understand this 3000 years ago:“No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps 84:11).

Sex is a mysterious mirror.

And yet, even more mysteriously, God created sexual intimacy to mirror the faithful, committed servant-hearted relationship between Jesus and his Bride, the Church. As John Piper rightfully reminds us, “the goal of sex isn’t ultimately just enjoying your spouse, but it is enjoying God as the giver of good gifts. God is better than the best sex. We know this because for all of eternity we will live in a new heaven and new earth better than this one, a world in which we will not experience marriage or sex as we do now, but we will have a better and lasting pleasure with God (Matthew 22:30 Psalm 16; Isaiah 51:11; Revelation 21–22).”

For all these reasons, sex outside of marriage is repugnant to God and damaging to ourselves. Sex was never created to be a mere function of biology, as human beings are not animals, driven by biological urges. If we’re to be blessed by the roaring fire of sex, we must use it within the mantelpiece of marriage. Outside of this covenant boundary, the fire of sex will burn the house down.

Five ingredients to sexual fulfillment.

Most of us complain that men are from Venus and women are from Mars! We may be different, but together, we’re better. God created the sexual differences in us to make our marriage more fulfilling. We fit together as we should. And if we truly believe that sex is a good gift from a good Creator, then it is a rejection of God himself to neglect this good gift. We cannot use our differences as an excuse.

So, let’s get intentional about fanning the flames of our love life. Here are 5 practical commitments that you and your spouse can make to each other today:

  1. Commit to meeting your spouse’s needs in a faithful and intentional manner. Since our bodies belong to each other, we should never use them to punish, manipulate or withdraw from each other (1 Cor 7:5-7). Remember that men and women respond to sexual stimulation at different rates and our needs are different. But it really doesn’t matter who is more sexual in the relationship. What matters is that you each commit to meeting your spouse’s sexual needs, provided that they do not violate your marriage covenant or your conscience.
  2. Commit to communicate your sexual needs and reservations to one another, freely and without fear. Make sex an open topic in your marriage and don’t be ashamed or prudish. Never ridicule or shame your spouse. If you talk things through respectfully, you’ll have a great time in bed.
  3. Commit to sexual purity in your marriage. God’s parameters are wide, but there are some boundaries which God’s word lays down:

For starters, don’t allow fantasy lust into your marriage (Matt 5:27-30). Take every thought captive to Christ, as the most ferocious spiritual battlefield is your thought life. Flee from pornography, as it is lust-centred and invites other parties into your marriage bed. Don’t let any person but your spouse into your mind or your heart. Don’t develop an emotional or sexual attachment with any person except your spouse, either on the internet or in real life. Trust Jesus to fulfill your unmet needs and do not turn to sin. Get help and be accountable to someone you trust when you face temptations.

  1. Create an atmosphere of sexual pleasure in your marriage. Lovemaking won’t just happen! Remember that sex begins in the kitchen, not in the bedroom! If a husband is impatient, angry and inconsiderate all evening, he’s crazy to think his wife will be eager for sex when they go to bed. Romance happens outside the bedroom. Plan a date night, and make sure the kids and housework are taken care of. Set aside times just to enjoy each other in a non-physical way, to talk and build trust and friendship. Become BFF’s (Best Friends Forever), as relational intimacy spawns sexual intimacy. If there’s no connection on the soul level, there’ll be no connection on the physical level.
  2. If you have sexual problems, deal with them together. At some point in nearly every marriage, there will be obstacles to sex. Lack of desire, chemical, hormonal, unresolved conflict, stress and fatigue are all part of our broken existence. Go to the Doctor; pray together; go for counselling for past abuse; go on holiday; do whatever you’ve got to do. Don’t strand your spouse sexually because of a problem that you need to deal with.

Sheet Music.

Finally, make a worthwhile investment into your sexual life by buying and reading together Kevin Leman’s book, Sheet Music—Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage. This is a wise, hilarious, straight-talking author, who understands sex from a female point of view!

“If you and your spouse work in tandem”, says Dr Leman, “you’ll create some of the most stunning music ever heard! All it takes is practice…and the right attitude. Sex is about the quality of your entire love life, not just the alignment of your bodies. So why not put inhibitions aside and give your spouse the best gift ever— a sexually enthusiastic mate?”

Recommended reading:

Dr Kevin Leman, Sheet Music—Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage.

An excellent wife who can find?

Series: Marriage east of Eden

10  An excellent wife who can find?
    She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
    and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
    all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:10-11).

“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting to the Lord” (Col 3:18).

If the idea of a husband’s headship is a cultural hot potato, then a wife’s submission is a hot potato stuffed with radioactive chilli! To our 21st century ears, submission sounds a lot like mousy silence, subservience, humiliation and inferiority. Surely strong, intelligent women don’t submit to any man!?

But, if we’re Christians, we need to allow God’s timeless and infallible Word to recalibrate our distorted, preconceived ideas. We need the truth of the Bible to define what God has established as the good life. We need to be led, not by culture, but by the divine Choreographer who invented the dance of marriage in the first days of Creation (Gen 2:22-25). That’s how we, as God’s children, demonstrate that Christ is truly Lord of our lives. After all, marriage is not an end in itself, but a metaphor pointing to a much more profound spiritual reality– Christ’s relationship with his Church (Eph 5:32). Ultimately, everyone who is born again is His Bride, and we respond by gladly submitting to Him in all things.

Last week in “Husbands, love your wives,” the heat was on men! Today we focus on what it looks like for a wife to submit to her husband and be his helper, as Scripture teaches us.

Let’s start by reading the verses relating to wives in Ephesians 5:

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church (he himself being the savior of the body). 24 But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  32 This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself and the wife must respect her husband” (Eph 5:1-222-2432-33).

Simple, yes! Easy, no!

You’ll notice from last week that Paul uses much more ink on husbands than on wives! A husband is called to cleave to his wife, lead her spiritually, nourish her like his own body, put her ahead of himself and sacrifice his own interests for her good.

But, there are only two little verbs that describe how a wife should relate to her husband: Submit and Respect. She is responsible to love her husband by accepting his authority and respecting his God-given role as head of their marriage. A Christ-honouring wife will not try to undermine her husband’s leadership in any way. She will allow her husband to care for and love her, and trust God to care for and love her even when her husband fails…and he will! Marriage is a Christian wife’s tool and test to deepen and demonstrate her reverence for her Lord (Col 3:18Eph 5:22).

Submission and respect is really quite simple for us wives…when all is going well and we agree with our husbands! But it’s in the messy pressures of life that the rubber really hits the road. It’s that pesky little phrase “in everything” that gives me trouble (Eph 5:24)!

In those heated moments when things are falling apart, isn’t it easier to be critical, to nitpick and second-guess his decisions? There are so many subtle ways to undermine his authority. A roll of the eyes, a gesture that says, “Not again!”

Isn’t it sometimes more intuitive to save our best behaviour for the world, and give our husbands our grouchy, most negative self? Isn’t it easier to try to control things, rather than build up our husbands to become godly leaders of our family?

Isn’t it more natural to try to change our husband’s behaviour, instead of praying for him and allowing our quietness and respect to change his heart? Isn’t it easier to stay silent and sullen, rather than respectfully correcting him, speaking the truth in love in a gentle, patient and self-controlled way? Yes, submission is simple, but definitely not easy “in all things!”

A wife’s unique temptations.

Like a husband, a wife faces unique temptations in marriage.

Emerson Eggerichs, in his book “Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires. The Respect He Desperately Needs” cites a study of over 7000 men and women who were asked a simple question: “When you’re in conflict with your spouse or significant other, do you feel unloved or disrespected?” 83% of men said ‘disrespected’, 72% of women said ‘unloved’.

Of course, husbands and wives both need love and respect equally, but often our felt needs differ during conflict. This seems to be borne out by Eph 5:33. A woman’s natural response to feeling unloved is to respond disrespectfully. A man’s natural reaction when disrespected, is to respond unlovingly. Regardless of who started it, the crazy cycle continues—leading down a dangerous path of endless contempt, criticism and anger. Intimacy can’t weather this onslaught, so the relationship inevitably withers and dies. Contempt is known to be the greatest early warning signal of impending divorce.

To avoid this inevitable destination, either husband or wife has to break this self-feeding cycle. It’s no use blaming your husband if you’re not obeying God’s word to submit to him. In fact, your failure to submit could stand in the way of God’s dealings with your rebellious or unbelieving husband. It’s best to stand aside and let God do His work.

But let’s first get a proper understanding of what submission means, and doesn’t mean.

Defining submission.

Some of us have bought into faulty definitions of submission. Literally, the word ‘submit’ means to arrange oneself under.

Submission is not mousey subservience or inferiority.

We can know this for sure because of the dignity Jesus gave women in the Gospels; the many women who flourished and actively participated in the early church, and because of the Bible’s insistence on equality of men and women in the Old and New Testament (Gen 1:27Gal 3:28).

There is nothing mousey or weak about the Proverbs 31 ‘wife of noble character’, or about Ruth or Rahab, or Jesus’s own mother, Mary. And there is nothing degrading about submission, as even Christ submitted to his Father (Luke 22:42). Jesus’ submission was actually an expression of his great love for us, a show of profound strength rather than weakness. Would we call Jesus a doormat for submitting to his Father’s plan of salvation? So why then would we caricature a submissive wife as a doormat?

Submission is not silence or blind acquiescence.

Honest, godly communication is expected of all Christian men and women (Matt 18:15Eph 4:152 Tim 4:2). In fact, respectfully correcting your husband is part of loving him and being his helper. You share in the calling to “love your neighbour” just as your husband does.

Love speaks sincerely, exhorts, corrects and says no to evil. That means that if your husband is verbally, physically or sexually abusing you or your children, you must say No to his sin. You cannot acquiesce in humiliating sexual acts. You cannot be his enabler in shaming and blaming sessions. Get the support you need from CCM’s Crisis and Care Centre. Submission doesn’t aid and abet sin.

A positive portrait of a godly wife.

It’s always best to go to the Bible for the real deal, instead of being misled by false caricatures and stereotypes. Proverbs 31:10-31 is a vivid cameo of a respectful, godly wife. Yes, it was written three thousand years ago, spotlighting a wife with many years behind her. But the timeless principles in Proverbs 31 show us that there is endless scope for a submissive and respectful wife to flourish as a woman and a mother.

This is a woman who is anything but a doormat! She has a good mind and is capable and strong in helping her husband to lead the household (Prov 31:16-171825). She has practical street savvy. She is caring and generous to the needy (Prov 31:20). She is resourceful, shows initiative and thinks for herself (Prov 31:21). She is a blessing to her husband (Prov 31:23). She is hardworking and wise in handling money (Prov 31:24). She takes her responsibilities at home seriously (Prov 31: 27). She is wise, and passes on her wisdom to others (Prov 31:26). Her family respects her (Prov 31:28). Most important of all, this woman fears the Lord. Her identity is in Him, rather than external status and charm (Prov 31:30). These qualities, coupled with fear of the Lord, leads to enjoyment, honour and worth (Prov 31:31). Peter paints a similar portrait of a wife who follows Christ in 1 Peter 3:1-6. Her identity and faith is in Jesus alone.

There’s no way we can do, or be, the wife of noble character, unless we look beyond our husband and see Jesus! Your husband’s behaviour may deserve contempt, but that won’t win him over any more than your husband’s harshness will win your heart. If your husband is an unbeliever, cling to 1 Peter 3:1-6, and nag God for a miracle in his hard heart. Put your hope in Christ, not your husband. “Do what is right and do not give way to fear” (1 Peter 3:6).

Wives, let’s do our own verse, and let Christ take care of the rest!

Prayer

Lord, we pray for marriages in our church and life groups. We pray that you would help us to learn the steps of the marriage dance you have choreographed for us. Lord, help husbands to see the opportunities you’ve given them to lead sacrificially. Lord, help wives to respond by being our husband’s helper, respectfully arranging ourselves under his leadership. Lord, whether we are married, single, divorced or widowed, help us to resist the urge to find our identity in our marital status. Instead, may we find our hope only in you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Redeemed Roles

Series: Marriage East of Eden, by Rosie Moore

“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them”. (Col 3:19)

I’ve always loved watching my parents dance! Rock n Roll, Swing, Jazz, Waltzes— even in their eighties, my dad still leads my mom across the floor, much to the amusement of their teenage grandchildren!  Fifty years ago, they were probably awkward and stood on each other’s toes, but today they move comfortably in unison. My dad is clearly the leader and my mom keeps in step. Their dance reminds me of what the Bible teaches about marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33: Equal in value and worth; one in heart and purpose, yet distinct and complementary in roles. Marriage is not supposed to be a lifelong battlefield or an oppressive prison, but a rhythmic dance choreographed by Christ Jesus himself. The dancers are an imperfect husband and wife living and growing together, in step with their Redeemer, and in step with one another. This is the redeemed marriage, which is as foreign and radical today as it was when Paul wrote his letters to the first century believers.

Before you burn this blog, let’s dismantle a few cultural roadblocks which have twisted our understanding of authority into something archaic, evil and oppressive to those who submit to it. Let’s cling instead to the truth of servant leadership that Christ taught and lived out (Eph 4:21Phil 2:5-8). As King of Creation, Jesus expressed ultimate authority. And as the suffering Saviour, He expressed ultimate submission to God His Father. In our own marriages, let’s turn to Jesus and take our cue from His surprisingly radical authority and submission, rather than from our culture’s ideas on these things.

So, what does the Bible say about authority in our imperfect marriages?

No apologies.

There’s no way to explain away God-ordained authority in marriage. As offensive as this idea may be to minds that have marinated in feminism for the last sixty years, it’s taught without apology throughout the Bible (Eph 5:22-25Col 3:18-191 Peter 3:1-7Titus 2:4-5). Each text teaches a wife to respectfully submit to her husband, as to Christ, and a husband to lovingly and sacrificially lead his wife as head of their family.

So, in the partnership of two spiritually equal human beings, the husband bears the primary responsibility to lead the marriage in a God-glorifying direction. He is committed to his wife’s physical, spiritual and emotional maturity (Eph 5:26-27). He is to be considerate and humble, treating his wife as a sister in Christ, not an object who exists for his own convenience (1 Peter 3:7). For “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Eph 5:29). And the woman is to love her husband by supporting him in that godly undertaking (Eph 5:22-24). Each must do their own verse, as an expression of their submission to Christ as Lord. If I’m honest, I think the wife’s job description is a whole lot easier than the husband’s!

Alongside their distinct roles, both husband and wife share the common duty to love each other and submit themselves to Christ as Lord (Eph 5:211-2).

Headship and submission is like the mantlepiece within which love is encouraged to burn brightly between husband and wife, bringing warmth and blessing to everyone near them for generations to come. It is a godly legacy that will be passed on to your watching children. But it is also radically counter cultural.

Cultural roadblocks.

Even as I write, I can hear you say, “This picture sounds so warm and cozy, but you’re living in a dreamland! Most marriages are as frosty as the Arctic! What about the scourge of gender-based violence in our society? What about abusive husbands and women’s rights? Doesn’t man’s headship mean woman’s inferiority and oppression? Isn’t patriarchy everything that’s wrong with the world?”

Given the nature of our fallen world, it is natural to be suspicious of authority. We see its abuse everywhere we look. All of us bring baggage to the idea of authority. We carry baggage from the dysfunctional marriages we’ve seen and those we’ve personally experienced. We also carry ideological baggage from the ideas we’ve been taught as fact since the rise of feminism in the 1960’s.

Listen to the solutions proposed by two radical feminists:

“Under patriarchy, no woman is safe to live her life, or to love, or to mother children. Under patriarchy, every woman is a victim, past, present, and future. Under patriarchy, every woman’s daughter is a victim, past, present, and future. Under patriarchy, every woman’s son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman” (Andrea Dworkin).

“The nuclear family must be destroyed… Whatever its ultimate meaning, the break-up of families now is an objectively revolutionary process…. No woman should have to deny herself any opportunities because of her special responsibilities to her children… Families will be finally destroyed only when a revolutionary social and economic organization permits people’s needs for love and security to be met in ways that do not impose divisions of labor, or any external roles, at all” (Linda Gordon).

The problem is that if we allow our ideological baggage and bad experiences to define what manhood and womanhood are, we will be be swept away by the cultural tsunami, which leaves only hatred and misery in its wake. Our current society is living proof of that, with exponentially rising rates of divorce, single mothers, fatherless children, gender-based violence and every other type of abuse and neglect. After 60 years of feminist ideology and #MenAreTrash and #MeToo, there is still an abundance of passive men, abusive men, men engrossed in porn, men who neglect to lead their families, men who cannot even govern themselves or make their own beds, men who are completely confused about their role and identity. There is still an abundance of abused women, aggressive women, resentful women, distracted women, depressed women, overworked women, women who are completely confused about their role and identity. Despite women’s rights enshrined in law, in reality male domination and female victimhood remain the norm. Feminism has proved to be a terrible counsellor. No, if we want whole marriages, we must not seek counsel from our bankrupt cultural norms. We need to cling to God’s truth and do marriage God’s way, for “you, however, did not come to know Christ that way” (Eph 4:20).

Christ’s way.

Scripture shows us a much better way than male domination or feminism. It involves the redemption, not the destruction of a husband’s authority in the home. Marital roles are actually not about who does what in the home, but they are ultimately a worship issue. Do we submit to God’s revealed will in this area of authority?

On his final journey to Jerusalem, Christ offered a radically different picture of roles and authority than our culture. He showed us that authority doesn’t need to be toppled, but redeemed. His disciples, James and John were jostling to sit in the places of honour (Mark 10:35-38). Like us, they saw everything through the lens of personal power and glory. They expected a Messiah who would operate the way worldly politicians do, wielding power for personal gain. But Jesus’s response to his disciples was striking.

Not so with you! Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:31-32).

Jesus’s role was not to deny his own authority, because it was God’s gift for the mission to which He was entrusted. On the contrary, Christ showcased his power over nature, sickness, demons, the Pharisees, sin, Satan and death. He exercised his authority for good. Moreover, Jesus’s role as God’s Son was to meet people at their level, to be a blessing to them and ultimately to sacrifice himself for the people He loved, his Church. He didn’t use his authority for his own gain or benefit. Against every human instinct, Christ entrusted himself to His Father and gave His own body for His Bride. He showed us what perfect authority and submission looks like in a fallen world. What an example to spur us on!

Jesus knows the way authority is abused in our world, as it was in the Roman Empire. But He says to Christian husbands and wives today, “Not so with you!”  Jesus redeems our roles. He shows us with his life that a husband’s authority is God’s gift for the purpose of expressing love to his wife and presenting her holy before the Lord. Leadership is about service, not a thirst for control. And a wife’s respect for her husband signifies that she has entrusted herself to Christ’s care and submitted to His authority as Lord of her life (Eph 5:33). If we neglect or rebel against our God-given roles, we will never mature into the godly men and women the Lord intends us to become over a lifetime. This is the way the great Choreographer leads husband and wife in the dance of marriage. Let’s follow in His footsteps, even if we stand on a few toes as we learn!

Join us next Friday for some practical implications of Redeemed Roles:

Part 2: Portrait of a redeemed husband.

Part 3: Portrait of a redeemed wife.

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them”. (Col 3:19)

It’s not my fault! Demolishing the idol of blame.

Series: Marriage East of Eden

“It’s all your fault! You drove me to it! I’m sorry you’re upset by what I said, but I just had to get it off my chest!”

Last week we saw how each human sinner is born with a natural tendency to cloak our sin and play the victim. It’s a universal idol that first raised its head in Genesis 3:10-13 and it’s been the predicable pattern of this world ever since. When life is tough, we become experts at creating scapegoats out of anything and anybody in our line of sight: My colleague…my boss…my children…my past…the system… they’re all to blame, except me! Sadly for marriage, the first person in sight is often our spouse and closest neighbour! It is the “flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones” who bears the brunt of all our struggles. Isn’t blaming a lot easier than being accountable?

The ultimate Scapegoat

But there is good news for husbands and wives who have repented, taken up our cross and followed Jesus! The only blameless man who ever lived shifted all our blame and all our spouse’s blame onto Himself. On the cross, Jesus Christ became the ultimate Scapegoat, who took the blame our many sins deserve. The same Lord who commands us to love our spouse has shown us what genuine love looks like, and his Holy Spirit empowers us to love in this way. He is, after all, the source of love.

The good news of the Gospel is that we no longer have to follow the default pattern of this world (Rom 12:2), which ends in hostility and divorce. We can build the one-flesh intimacy God intended for our marriages. But first we must resolve to stop hiding and blaming. We must demolish the idol of blame as though our one-flesh union depends upon it. Because it does.

Demolishing the idol God’s way.

In the Bible, God gives Christians a blueprint for dealing with conflict and disagreement in relationships, so that we don’t resort to blaming and shaming. These four general principles are as relevant in marriage as they are in every other relationship:

1. The real War.

The battle starts with you! You’re in spiritual warfare and home is where the ultimate enemy (Satan) finds ample opportunities to strike (Eph 6:14-17). God can use everyday conflict with your spouse to help you root out the sin of your own heart and to serve His good purposes. So, let’s remember that the conflict itself is not the root problem, and your spouse is not the enemy! Make sure you fight the real battle with the armour that Christ has provided.

2. The danger of offence.

“An offended brother is more unyielding than a fortified city” (Prov 18:19). Solomon warns that a stalemate results if one spouse digs in her heels and stubbornly refuses to let go of her offence. Offence becomes a stronghold from which there’s no escape. That’s why, in Matthew 18:15-16, Jesus tells his followers to meet face-to-face with a brother or sister who has sinned against him and to communicate his grievances clearly and honestly.

So, in marriage, we talk directly with our spouse, rather than resorting to emotional outbursts, slander or withdrawal. We don’t run off and gossip to our best friend or mother if our husband has offended us! We don’t generalise or caricature our spouse, but we give examples of actual conduct, so that our spouse can understand how they have offended us and make changes. We centre our discussion around the truth and resist the urge to judge our spouse’s motives. And if we reach a stalemate, we’re to call in an independent arbiter from the church to judge between us and help us to restore the relationship. Offence must be stopped in its tracks if we’re to guard our one-flesh bond.

3. Mind your own logs!

“You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:5).

It’s not just your spouse that needs to change! When you take the plank out your own eye, you need to describe yourself accurately, so that you can change. You needn’t be afraid to look at yourself, as you won’t find anything there that will surprise God or that He cannot cleanse and transform. I love the pattern David lays down for us in Psalm 51:3-4. Remorse and repentance are not the same thing! Repentance is about being restored to God and changing direction, not just saying you’re sorry to get something off your chest.

When we first confess our sins and selfishness to God, our confession creates a soft, gracious heart from which to apologise and make amends. You cannot discuss our spouse’s faults unless your own heart has been humbled before the Lord. Take time to listen to how your sin affected your spouse before you launch in with your complaints. And be ready with practical ideas of how you’d like to work together to change these patterns in the future. Marriage is not a contest, it’s a collaborative effort.

4. Choose the wisest approach that fits your knowledge of yourself, your spouse and the need of the moment:

a) WAIT“It is to a man’s honour to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Prov 20:3). Rather than calling out every instance of failing, we need to be patient with our spouse, as God is with us. “Bear with each other” is a good formula for a great marriage! The world’s pattern of venting every thought and emotion is not a godly pattern, and it bears terrible fruit.

b) CONFRONT“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord”. (Lev 19:17-18)

These two beautifully balanced verses point out two common pitfalls in mishandling conflict: Some of us hate our brother in our heart by nursing grievances and incubating a silent grudge. But some of us hate our brother in our heart by playing tit for tat. Moses says that it’s actually unloving and sinful not to speak up and reason frankly with your neighbour (Lev 19:17). But it’s equally wrong to take vengeance and repay evil with evil.

In truthful confrontation, let’s remember that God is the ultimate judge of you and your spouse, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom 14:1012Lev 19:8). He is the silent witness to each of our relational encounters. Our responsibility is to speak up and reason frankly with one another. But at the same time, it is our responsibility to  do everything to safeguard the dignity of our spouse as we speak the truth. That’s how we will love our nearest neighbour as we love ourself.

c) YIELD“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul points out that in conflict, being right and doing right aren’t always the same thing. It’s not about winning the argument, but about how you can best love and minister to your spouse. If something isn’t helpful for your spouse, don’t get stuck on who’s right and who’s wrong. Don’t pursue your rights at the expense of your relationship. Always seek the good of your spouse, even if it curtails your freedom (1 Cor 10:23-241 Cor 8:9-13).

The Sweet Fruit of a Peacemaker.

Whether you choose a), b) or c) in resolving conflict, is a matter of wisdom. Seek the Lord in prayer and ask Him for the wisdom you need to make everyday choices which yield the sweet fruit of peace and order in your home (James 1:5). James contrasts the fruit of godly and worldly wisdom in relationships: “A good life, deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom…but where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness (James 3:13-18).

Are you seeing evidence of this sweet fruit in your own marriage? Or are you tasting the bitter fruit of envy, selfish ambition and disorder? Perhaps it’s time to go back to biblical principles and submit to the wisdom from heaven.

Don’t buy the lie!

It is Satan himself who whispers slander about your spouse in your ear. Every time your husband fails you, every time he offends you, every time you feel hurt or disappointed, the Accuser is whispering slander in your ear about your spouse. He is interpreting your wife’s motives to convince you that she means harm towards you. He is tempting you to think that you’re your own moral compass, so it’s always her fault, never yours! Don’t buy the lie! Use conflict as an opportunity to grow up and deepen your relationship: Don’t take offence easily. Mind your own logs. And choose the wisest godly path to resolve disagreements. That’s how you’ll be a channel of Christ’slove to your spouse.

Prayer

Oh Lord, we long to be wise in our marriages! Free us from the idol of self which makes us think we are always right, and that our rights are all that matter. Help us to hear your voice clearly in your Word, so that we will not listen to the voice of slander and blame in our own hearts. Give us the apt words to speak graciously and frankly to each other. Help us to see our marriage as a one-flesh union, so that we will regard our spouse’s pain and progress as our own. Empower us to be more like you, and to seek out little and big ways to minister to our spouse for their good and their godliness. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

It’s not my fault! The idolatry of blame-shifting

Series: Marriage East of Eden

“The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen 3:12-13)

Blame-shifting is an idol inherited from our ancient ancestors. It’s an insidious idol of the heart that threatens to poison our relationships, especially the unique one-flesh bond of marriage. Left to rule the roost, this idol can lead to an abusive marriage in which a manipulative husband uses every trick in the book to avoid being held accountable for his own behaviour. A wife may play the victim or get angry and aggressive if her husband fails to show her the sympathy she feels she deserves. As Christians, we must recognize that blame-shifting is an idol that has set itself up in every human heart since the Fall. It is a tendency that is in each one of us as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

The original ‘victims’

Genesis 3 tells us that every marriage has an Enemy, and that enemy is not our spouse! Notice that Satan slithered in by stealth to tempt the first married couple (Gen 3:1). He didn’t announce himself as the Enemy. And yet, before Adam and Eve knew it, Satan had slandered God’s goodness and his Word (Gen 3:4-5). He convinced the first humans that God was a killjoy and that they could judge for themselves what is right and wrong.

Then, instead of taking responsibility for their sin, Adam and Eve blamed each other, blamed God and blamed Satan (Gen 3:12-13). Adam accused Eve, and even blamed God for giving him his wife. “The devil made me do it!” said Eve. They created scapegoats to divert from their own guilt. In today’s language, Adam and Eve played the victim card. Their rebellion was everyone else’s fault except their own.

Tragically, each of us carries into our marriage this idol of blame to protect ourselves and hide from our guilt. We look for solutions out there, to avoid looking into our own rebellious hearts, which do not worship or love God as we ought. We pretend to be the poor hapless victims of other evil people or circumstances.

Worshipping at the altar of blame.

So how does this idol of blame rule and reign in our day-to-day marriages?

Being married to another human being is inevitably hard, because the moment we turn away from God, we naturally turn our backs on each other. We offend and get offended far too easily. We get stuck on who’s right and who’s wrong, instead of acting to build the other in love. It doesn’t take long before we think our spouse is the enemy, instead of the issue at hand. We get angry and aggressive, or we ‘stonewall’ honest conversation and build walls. We manipulate our spouse’s emotions and put him/her on a guilt trip. Without help, we’re often blind to what’s really going on in our relationships and our own heart, so the destructive cycle continues.

Blaming and complaining.

The blame game is nothing new to human relationships. It’s what the Israelites did in their distress, when they blamed God, Moses, the water and the manna that God provided generously in the wilderness (Ex 16:2-5Num 11:4-614:2Num 20:2-521:5). Remember how they even turned on Moses when God judged them for their incessant grumbling (Num 16:41). When we blame and complain against our spouse, the Lord hears our grumbling and it greatly displeases him (Num 12:2). Blame-shifting is no small thing to God, because it is an idol of the heart that steals our devotion and gratitude to Him.

The child of entitlement.

James says that grumbling results from not getting what we want or expect (James 4:1-3). It is the child of entitlement. But in reality, when we blame our spouse, the one we are really complaining against is God Himself (Ex 16:8). Blaming is just another way that we grumble against God and slander our neighbour, instead of loving God and the nearest neighbour that God has provided—our spouse.

Believe me, I’m not speaking here as a Christian who has demolished this idol in my own life. Far from it! I still struggle against the powerful urge to put myself at the centre and worship at the altar of blame. It doesn’t take much to unleash the little narcissist in me, besotted with my gripes and grievances, searching for anyone and anything to blame. I hate not getting what I want or expect! “I’m tired, that’s why I’m in a bad mood! If only God would fix this person/system/situation, I would be a much more godly person!” When I look through the lens of entitlement, I attack or become defensive and demanding. I pity myself and am easily offended. Worst of all, I’m usually guilty of the very same things I point out in Pete! That’s because we become like our idols (Ps 115:8135:18Jer 10:14). The sanitised term is ‘projection’.

The antidote to blame-shifting.

The Fall demonstrates our natural tendency to shift blame onto others. But the Gospel points to Christ, who was truly blameless, and yet shifted all our blame onto Himself. He is the only effective ‘blame-shifter,’ and He also calls Himself the Bridegroom. The Lord who commands us to love our spouse has shown us what genuine, self-giving love looks like in the way that He loves His Bride, the Church. He calls us to turn to Himself as the source of love. He doesn’t simply command us to love our spouse and then leave us to do it on our own. He also empowers us to exercise this unnatural kind of love towards our spouse, as we love Him.

Moreover, our Creator-God has also given us the blueprint for godly relationships. In the Bible, we find many practical principles for dealing with conflict without resorting to blame. Given our sinful nature and the dismal state of marriage in our culture, Christian couples would be foolish to ignore these principles, which run radically counter to the pattern of this world. We cannot ignore God’s ethic without suffering serious shipwreck in our marriages, and indeed in all our relationships. Next week we will look at four of these principles in part 2.

Prayer

Oh Lord, you are the Groom and we are the Bride. We know our marriages are supposed to reflect the beautiful unity of the Trinity– Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but so often they don’t. Help us to know the depth, length and breadth of your great love for us, so that we will be a conduit of this gracious, forgiving, faithful, enduring love to our marriage partners. Free us from the idol of blame which makes us think we are always right, and that we are entitled to have whatever we want. Teach us to be more like you and to work for the good and godliness of our spouse. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
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