What Does 1 Corinthians 7 Say?

Steve by Jon

The Bible is the inspired word of God. It is the place we can go to get direction and guidance for day-to-day life. It addresses issues we face and contains incredible wisdom we can apply to our lives. But occasionally passages of scripture are interpreted in a way I believe was not intended. The misinterpretation may cause damage to individuals and relationships. One passage I believe is often misread is from 1st Corinthians.

“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Co 7:1–5). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

As a counselor working with Christian couples to improve their marriages, I am aware of serious problems with how this passage is interpreted in some evangelical churches today. I believe that this passage is sometimes presented in ways that coerce women into conclusions, and consequently actions, that are clearly not what Paul is saying. In fact, those conclusions are not what the Bible consistently teaches about marriage and relationships with spouses.

I want to make some initial comments to set the stage for the rest of this article. Paul is not saying there is a universal truth that sexual relations are bad. Paul is warning of the danger of sexual immorality, and that can exist inside and outside of the marriage covenant.

We have a propensity to think narrowly and take things out of their context. In this passage we read about sexual immorality and about conjugal rights and reduce those to a physical act. But conjugal rights are not exclusively a physical thing. By making this assumption, we lose sight of the context of the overall marriage relationship. We truncate the truths that Scripture teaches, to the singular issue of physical union, to sexual intercourse.

But joyfully, Scripture talks about marriage in much richer ways. Genesis 2 reveals God’s establishment of the marriage relationship when it talks about the creation of Adam and Eve, and as it follows their story after the entrance of sin into creation. We need to understand that God created Adam as an embodied spirit. Adam, along with all who follow him, are bodies and spirits combined in one being. We cannot lose sight of this truth or we fail to understand ourselves.

In Genesis 2, God concluded that it was not enough to create Adam. In fact, he created Adam and all the creatures who were to inhabit the world, and in His evaluation of that creation concluded, “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Adam was with God. Adam had all of the animals God had created to fill the earth. In spite of being with other “beings,” Adam was alone in a sense that God judged to be “not good.” As a result God created humanity male and female to reflect the community of the trinity. “Let us make man in our image.” Eve was the perfect helper for Adam and united they had the opportunity to be more than either one could be alone.

So God caused a deep sleep to come on Adam. Adam awoke and God had created a woman. Adam saw Eve and spoke of the joy he had at the relationship God had provided through Eve’s creation. “This at last….”

As Adam and Eve spent time with each other the depth of their relationship matured and we read that Adam “knew” Eve and she conceived Cain. Obviously this knowledge included physical, sexual union. But we are guilty of terrible minimization if we limit this knowledge to simply physical activity. This indicates a total knowledge of the other person. Adam and Eve, as embodied spirits, shared their lives with each other. They related emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Their relationship engaged all of who they were.

Jesus is the model for how a husband relates to his wife. Since Paul tells us that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves his bride, we need to closely examine this relationship. We read of this all-encompassing dynamic in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. Jesus sacrifices Himself for His bride. His physical interactions with the church include protecting the church at the cost of His comfort, His health, and even His death. He relates to the church spiritually. He washes His bride in the Word. He sanctifies the church and brings her to spiritual completion. She is spotless, blameless, without wrinkle or blemish. He reveals Himself to the church. He interacts emotionally with the church and knows her fully.

Husbands are called to love their wives in the same ways. Our relationship with our brides must have emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical elements. We cannot limit what the Bible teaches about marriage to discussions about sex.

So now we return to the scripture from 1st Corinthians, having an understanding of the overall context of marriage in Scripture. We recognize there is an emphasis on the physical aspect of marriage in this passage. It contains a warning about the dangers of sexual immorality. It starts by making the comment that sexual relations are not necessary.

Paul is not trying to say that sexual relations are essentially bad. We have the rest of Scripture teaching that marriage is something God established because it is good. What he is saying is he believes that given the urgency of building the kingdom, it is good if people focus on that and not be distracted by other things. Paul speaks later in this chapter about devoting ourselves completely to the work of the church as she reaches the world with the gospel. But sexual immorality is such a danger, that even in a time when Paul believes we should focus on establishing Jesus’ kingdom, he agrees that marriage is one of God’s provisions for battling our temptations.

There are many different aspects of sexual immorality. The word Paul uses is porneia. It is the root of our word pornography. At times, it is used to discuss unmarried sexual activity, but it covers much more. At the root of this immorality is a core of selfishness. That selfishness includes treating others as objects rather than image bearers, using others only for our personal sexual satisfaction, whether that is through the use of images, bodies, or even fantasies to provide the “sexual fulfillment” for which we lust.

But if we think Paul is saying that just having a physical relationship or “sex” is the answer to sexual immorality, we are wrong. A simplistic understanding of what Paul is saying is the source of much damage to individuals and to the church at large. Paul is talking about the whole of the marriage relationship. Healthy relationships between spouses include all of who we are as people. These relationships are wonderful protection against settling for the fragmented and destructive experience of a merely physical relationship. In today’s language we often refer to this holistic relationship as intimacy. An intimate relationship is a lot of work. It requires time, transparency, and trust. It is in such relationships that we grow in our sanctification and become who we were created to be.

Sadly, I see this passage being wrongly used in some churches today. I know of husbands and church leaders teaching that we are required by scripture to be sexually active with our spouses and that it is enough to be sexually active physically. In some cases women are told that if they provide their husbands with satisfying sex, they will free them from sexual immorality. The problem comes in because the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual components of relationship are ignored in this demand. We reduce having a husband or wife to the concept of having a sexual partner. We limit conjugal (marriage) rights to physical, sexual rights. We reduce depriving each other to refraining from the physical act of intercourse. We elevate the importance of the physical and completely separate it from the overall relationship we are commanded to enjoy with our spouse. In doing this, we rob those who are hungry for what they are created to have. We deny the importance of relationship and love, and diminish emotional and spiritual nurture.

So in trying to rigidly adhere to scripture and force our spouse to, “do your duty,” we foster sexual immorality even as Paul is warning us against it. It is immoral to truncate the marriage relationship by commanding the physical relationship separate from the complete relationship God provides through marriage. To ask someone to submit to being physically present in sex without recognizing that they are embodied spirits is to objectify them. When I fail to relate to my wife as a complete individual who bears the image of God and who brings the offer of a complete relationship to me and instead use this passage to tell her that she is required to engage in physical, sexual activity with me whether that feeds her emotionally and spiritually is a sinful denial of who we are. It fragments her and denies her spirit whether I understand that or not. This kind of selfishness and objectification is at the heart of pornography. It is essentially sexual immorality.

Please hear this clearly. That which is essentially immoral is not made moral by taking place in the covenant of marriage. Selfishness and objectification are the roots from which pornography grows. It is always wrong to allow this root into the sacred relationship marriage is created to be. It pollutes the marriage. It is incredibly destructive. It does not strengthen the bond. It kills it.

Husbands, please love your wives well. Engage with them holistically and feed them as complete individuals. We are created to share ourselves emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. When we cultivate our relationship with our wives emotionally, intellectually and spiritually they will gladly join with us. When we have this foundation, our wives are free to express themselves physically in their love for us.

There is much more to address in the way we are to relate to one another in marriage, but that will have to come in future articles.

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10 Things I’ve Learned, and Continue to Learn, About Singleness


  1. KSilvasmall-5It’s worth the effort to fight against the lie that you’re single because something is wrong with you. There’s not. At least not anything that would keep you from being able to get married.* I know this not because I know you or the intricacies of what you struggle with. I know this because I know married people – tall, short, skinny, fat, strange, quirky, awkward, smart, dull, beautiful, ugly, broken, messy, pulled together, adventurous, boring people who have all gotten married. It’s important to fight against that nagging feeling that we would be married if ____ were true of us. 
  1. It’s hard to fight against the lie that you’re single because something is wrong with you. This feels backwards. It seems from the outside that this should be great news but it’s not is it? If you’re like me your response to this truth is often discouragement. I think it’s disheartening for two reasons. First, it means singleness truly is out of your control. If the problem were your body type there are things you might be able to do to fix it. You could go to the gym and get some muscles or lose some weight. If it really was because you weren’t funny enough then you could work on developing some witty banter. If it was because you’re just not looking hard enough you could hop on 87 online dating websites and devote your life to finding a spouse. But if those aren’t the reason you’re still single then it means you’re powerless in it… and that’s hard. That leads me to the second reason I think this is discouraging. If you can’t blame some feature of yourself, some action in yourself, then you’re left to wrestle with the reality that the Lord has intentionally placed you here, that for this moment right now it is his ordained plan for you to be single. I have often found it easier to blame my own quirks (or the quirks of the men around me!) than to do the painful work of wrestling with the Lord on this one. He has me here and if it was his intention for me to be married today, I would be. 
  1. Marriage isn’t the solution to your problems. I know, I know, you already know this. But seriously, it’s not. And you must tell yourself this all the time. It is sneaky and it slides its way back into your thinking before you realize it. Marriage won’t fix the things that are struggles for you now. If you’re struggling to have purpose in life and you think being a wife and mother will fix that the hard news here is that the problem isn’t your marital status, it’s where you’re finding your purpose. If you struggle with sexual temptation marriage won’t fix that either. Sure, you’ll have someone you could satisfy those desires with, but what happens when they don’t want to? Idols don’t become less destructive when we add more people into the mix. If anything the damage grows because it extends beyond us. Whatever you’re struggling with in your single life will carry over to your married life and be affected by your spouse’s sinful nature on top of it. Fight against the lie that things would be easier if… better if… fixed if…  It’s just not true. Marriage changes things, it doesn’t fix things. 
  1. Marriage can be one of the most incredible blessings here on earth. Ouch! Throw salt in my already gaping wound. Rub it in by reminding me of what I don’t have. I put this one on the list not to stir up something painful but because it’s not actually helpful for you to ignore it. I’ve experienced myself and seen in others a number of different responses to this truth. We can respond in denial and look at all the marriages around us that are less than ideal. We comfort ourselves with the misery of others. If that’s what marriage is, I don’t think I even want it! But there’s something wrong when our comfort in loneliness is a jaded and cynical response to marriage. Certainly we’re called to something more lovely than that. Or maybe you experience jealousy, the kind of jealousy that runs so deep it hinders you from being able to rejoice with those around you. So rather than face the beauty of the blessing others have, you just ignore it. If you’re going to find contentment as a single person you need to be able to revel in this blessing for others and know certainly that Christ is good to you too without it. 
  1. God is not withholding. So this is a tricky one because it really looks like he is. After all, if he wasn’t wouldn’t you be married? But here’s the thing… it’s more about the character of God than the specific blessings he chooses to give us. There will always be things he will withhold from us, but that doesn’t make him a withholding God. Not all of us will be brilliant. Not all of us will have athletic prowess. Not all of us will be born in a first world country. The question here is if he can still be the giver of good gifts who generously lavishes blessings upon his children even if he chooses to not to give you certain things. We would never say he is a stingy God because he chooses not to make me a millionaire. In the same way he’s not stingy if he chooses to not give me marriage. The next two points fill that out a bit. 
  1. Understand how singleness fits into the greater story. There’s a beautiful emphasis on family in the church and while I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I do think we also need a robust understanding of singleness. It makes sense to me why we’re so much better at understanding families than singleness, we have a longer history of thinking about the Kingdom of God in terms of families. Consider the Old Testament. Israel is one big family and the way it grew was primarily through marrying and having children. Sure, there were some foreigners along the way who got grafted in but, on the whole, your job as an Israelite was to raise kiddos to become God fearing Israelites. In the New Testament this didn’t go away but it did expand. There is still a place for marrying and having children, for raising them to be God fearing Christians, but that’s just one of the ways the Kingdom grows. After Jesus we have this new commission – “Go and make disciples of all nations.” And we have two prominent figures, right off the bat, who model a different way of expanding the Kingdom. Jesus himself and Paul his apostle show us an example of fulfilling the call to fill the earth without being married. As a single woman I’m not called to make babies but I am called to expand the Kingdom through relationship with unbelievers. Why do I include this on the list? Because it’s never a good thing in my life when I feel like my circumstances are outside of what should be happening. Marriage is a good thing, we’re called to fill the earth, why if I should be married am I not? Seeing a place for my current status helps me find ground to stand on. Singleness isn’t outside the realm of God’s greater plan, I’m not lacking if I never get married. I’m not on the B Team if this never happens in my life. In fact, there’s an incredible call before me as a single woman that excites me when I look at it through this lens. I have the opportunity to serve the church and those around me in a unique way and that’s lovely. That’s why I include it. 
  1. Being united to Christ is more glorious than marriage. I cringe when I write this one. Not because it’s not fantastically true, because it definitely is, but because I might hate it when people tell me that Jesus needs to be my husband. Something so glorious often feels trite. Oh? You’re struggling with singleness? Well then you just need to know Jesus is your husband. Problem solved. Except it’s not. It still feels like someone is missing, I still long for a partner in life. So how do you move from trite to true? For me it’s helped to think about it in terms of heaven. I still struggle with what that looks like here on earth but when I think about what we’re pointed to I can find things to sink my teeth into. Think about it, marriage can be one of the most extraordinary and beautiful blessings here on earth but it dissolves in heaven, not because it’s not good here but because what is coming so far outshines it, because it’s function here on earth is to be a pointer to something better. What is coming is so much greater that the relationship that could be one of the greatest blessings here on earth ceases to exist. That shouldn’t devalue marriage here on earth, but it should cast our vision forward and grow in us a longing for what is coming. As a single woman I long for marriage but it’s comforting to know that I’m not missing out if I don’t get it. I may be missing out on the appetizer, maybe I don’t get the mozzarella stick, but certainly I will be given the feast and it will be more glorious than I can imagine. 
  1. Contentment comes as you let go AND embrace. I’m not talking about letting go of the hope of being married or the desire to be married, but the priority of being married. Let go of the things it’s come to mean for you. Let go of the idea that life will start when… Let go of the lie that value lies in another’s valuing of you. Let go of marriage as a need. But don’t just let go, also work to embrace where you’re at. Singleness isn’t all drear and drudgery. My roommate and I often delight in the beauty of a quiet, still, and clean home. One of the moments I’ve come to cherish the most is coming home after a day spent pouring out into the lives of others.  I’m able to give more outside of my home because nothing is required of me when I get back. There is no child who needs me, no bedtime routine I have to jump into, no relationship that I have to work on. When I come home I can just rest, that is a blessing. And it is a blessing to have the freedom to pour myself out with others in ways I know will change if I ever am married. Contentment for me means embracing and utilizing the beauty of this period in my life to the glory of the Lord. 
  1. “Why?” won’t serve you. I get stuck in this one. I see something the Lord has been working on in me in the context of my singleness and I begin to assign it a deeper reason. THIS, this is why I’m still single. The Lord had to leave me here so he could work on this before I got married. But where does that lead me? To the assumption that now that we’ve worked on it that marriage is just around the corner. And so far that’s always brought disappointment. It’s tempting to think that knowing the reason behind your singleness will help you be content in it. But why did I have to be single to deal with these things in my life and others got to do it in the midst of a marriage? The pitfall of trying to find a reason for it is that you’ll always be able to see through it if you try. I don’t know why the Lord has chosen to work on certain things in me as a single woman as opposed to bringing me into a marriage to work on them. But he has and I don’t need to know all the whys behind that. The fullness of his reasoning exists in his own mind alone. Sure, there are times when we’re able to see something that the Lord accomplished through certain events, but even then, it’s naïve to think that now you know the full purpose behind why he does what he chooses to do. While the Lord invites us to ask these questions of him, and he does because he desires relationship with us, the answers he gives in Scripture aren’t likely what you’re looking for. Job asks that question and God says, “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Habbakkuk asks that question and essentially he ends up saying “Whatever you do Lord you’ll equip me to walk in it.” Ask “why” if you must, if that’s all you’ve got then certainly go to the Lord with it, but in my experience “Help!” is sweeter. 
  1. Wrestle and turn outward. Contentment isn’t found by reading some crazy woman’s blog post on singleness. The truth is, you’ve probably heard all of these things before in one version or another. And even if there was something you haven’t thought of, I can promise you it won’t be the magic truth that makes you content. Here’s why… contentment doesn’t come from truths, it comes from a heart molded by the Spirit himself. It comes through the many hard conversations with the Lord wrestling with things you know to be true but struggle to believe.  It comes from the moments sobbing on the kitchen floor with a broken heart pleading to believe that he is still good.  It comes when you attend yet another wedding and ask the Lord to teach you how to rejoice with those who rejoice. When you go home and cry because it was hard and you know that he sees your tears, that they matter to him, and that he loves you deeply in that pain. It comes when you tell him that you’re not totally bought in to this idea that he’s not withholding from you, but you want to be, and you ask for help. It comes when you begin to delight in serving others with the unique things singleness affords. When you use your disposable income to be generous to those around you. When you enter the world of a young family and find ways to bless them because you can, because you have the time to do so. In short, it comes when you wrestle and turn outward.


*Ok, so this is more complex than a broad blanket statement. But this is a blog post not a textbook so bear with me while I gloss over the nuance a bit.


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The Manual

Kristin2The Manual

I’m self-diagnosed as an anxiety sleep walker. As a kid I used to sleepwalk for any and every type of dream. I remember trying to convince my mother to come to a concert in my bedroom once and being mightily offended when she told me to go back to bed. Who was she to question if there was a concert happening in my room? It’s lent itself to some good stories, but I’m thankful that in adulthood my midnight antics have dwindled.  These days, romps around the house in the middle of the night are saved only for particularly anxious seasons of my life and always focused on one thing – my endless search for… “The Manual” (dun dun duuuuuun).

It’s not difficult to uncover the true meaning behind my sleepy restlessness. Some people’s dreams contain deep and complex metaphors. Mine’s more of a one-to-one correlation, I’m afraid my brain just isn’t creative. Basically if, during my waking hours, I’m in the middle of a situation where I feel uneasy, unsure of myself, unequipped, or fearful, then in my dream world I create the solution. Clearly the problem is that I’ve lost the manual and all I have to do is find it. Sadly though, the manual is always just out of reach and I can never quite get it despite my best efforts. It feels like the formulaic plotline for some cheesy drama on tv.

Over and over again I sleep poorly and fret about my inability to find this magic manual. In my dreams I feel guilty that I’ve lost it, foolish that everyone else has their manual and I can’t find mine, fearful of what people will think when they realize I don’t have it. I wake up the next morning and get a good laugh out of it when I remember searching under couches and through drawers, but I also know that my dreams lay my heart bare.  It is a stark and telling picture of something I believe will save me.  I truly do long for the manual. Deep down in there I do want to solve my own problems and believe I just need to know what step to take, how to behave in order to do so.

The obviousness of my dreams is laughable. Though it’s not lovely that I often get very poor sleep during these seasons of sleepwalking, there’s also something merciful about being able to see it so clearly – of course there’s not a step-by-step how-to guide for all of life’s complexities.  When I awake the next morning I can see the silliness of searching endlessly for something that doesn’t exist. But as I consider this concept in my life I’ve come to realize that I do this very thing when I’m awake, just in much more nuanced and creative ways. The manual in my waking hours isn’t a book, it’s often a set of expectations I place over myself – things I must accomplish to be ok, ways I must act to be who I’m supposed to be. Or to put it in biblical language – laws I must live by to be righteous. Yikes, if you see where I’m going we’re starting to talk about serious stuff here.

Let me slow down and give you an example.

The setting: Financial insecurity

The response: Fear and anxiety

When finances are uncertain my fears can be complex. The easiest to identify is the worry that I will not be taken care of. That’s a real and legitimate fear but if I’m honest with myself it’s just the tip of the iceberg. When I push into it I realize that I don’t fear starvation or homelessness, I have a loving family and community. What I’m more worried about is that I won’t be taken care of the way that I want. Being financially secure holds more for me than just physical care, it’s an identity. I am NOT the kind of person who fails financially. I am NOT needy. I do NOT want to have to ask for help. (Imagine those with the intensity of a 3 year old’s temper tantrum…. this is serious business!) What will others think? What would that say about me? Are you starting to see how what is at stake for me is masked behind a physical concern but really is a fear that I’ll lose my right standing before myself and others?

The solutions: I have a choice here: How will I respond to that desire to be righteous before others?

The manual: If I jump immediately to actions I will take to fix the problem – saving more, spending less, I’m setting myself up as my own savior. My problem now becomes twofold. Not only have I erected a false standard for righteousness (right standing before others), now I also have an inadequate savior to rescue me from it. It’s no wonder that anxiety begins to consume me here.

Christ: Turning to Christ at this point involves rejecting and turning away from the false standard. My life before the Father is the only standard I live by and that standard is fully satisfied in Christ. Any other standard and any other savior are what the Old Testament identify as idolatry and the consequences of that are dire.  Psalm 130 comes to mind here. I begin to cry out to my Heavenly Father pleading that he hears my voice, I cry out for mercy (vs. 1-2). I know he is with me and I know that forgiveness of my sin is the greatest need that I have. Repentance comes, a turning away from a craving for a right standing before anyone but him (vs. 3-4). I know fully that he’s satisfied the thing I need the most and a hope in his steadfast love builds in me, my heart learns to hope in the Lord (vs. 6-8).

The result:

The manual: My actions and behaviors will begin to carry the weight that only Christ himself could carry. Any infraction no matter how small  will lead to self-condemnation in the form of guilt and an increased fear of failure. As the tyrant of my false standard persists I’ll be more and more likely to turn to other things to fix it, the temptation toward more false standards amplifies as does the lure of methods to escape.  I turn inward, my ability to be generous decreases and my thoughts about money and saving begin to consume me. I may cry out to the Lord for help but his help to me in these moments is the growing awareness that I must reject the things that I have come to love, the standards I want to fix me. And when it’s gotten deep enough, I will begin to sleepwalk.

Christ: Money begins to lose its grip on me. Tithing feels less painful. Freedom to be generous returns. Financial planning brings freedom instead of guilt. I learn to embrace my neediness instead of fighting against it. I can feel weak and needy because Christ is strong within me. Failure loses its power to condemn because Christ has been victorious and he will finish what he’s started.

It’s interesting that from the outside each of these responses may look fairly similar. Both involve making financially wise decisions. Life might look fairly hum drum in either situation. Even if I am living by the manual it’s not like I’m spiraling out of control (though sometimes this is what people experience). I might just be feeling a little more sensitive in my relationships (for me, a symptom of other false standards) and watching a little more tv (escapisms). Both may even involve a conversation with the Lord. I know I’ve prayed that I might trust that he’ll provide for me even while I continue to live in submission to a standard outside of him (praise the Lord for his mercy!). My heart left to its own devices is sneaky, it’s amazing to me how I can easily convince myself I’m autonomous, self-sufficient, strong on my own, and wise within myself. Added to a propensity toward blindness is a hiddenness from the outside. The kinds of effects you begin to feel from living under a false set of standards starts internally. Though you may start to see negative effects in your relationships most often you can manage those through discipline. You don’t feel generous but you give anyway. But you can’t manage the inside. You can’t manage guilt and condemnation. When the gospel begins to feel trite, when Christ’s death on the cross doesn’t touch the guilt you feel, it’s a tell tale sign that false standarditis has set in. Christ’s death only satisfies one standard, the Father’s. It will not ease the guilt of rules it was never designed to fulfill. The beauty here is that while it will not rescue you from false rules, it does bring the grace and mercy we need to come to the Father in our lowest and most rebellious moments.

Finances is just one example of this. To be honest it’s just the least vulnerable example of it in my own life. I can think of 2 more right off the top of my head that would be far too scary to post online and those are just the ones I’m aware of. We do this at every turn – beauty, academic achievement, parenting, business success, professions, relationships, health. Goodness, we even turn the right standard into a false standard when we remove Christ from the picture…but that’s a post for another day.  In some ways I think we’ve grown so accustomed to the burden of living under false standards that the negative effects of them somehow feel normal. They’re easily excused because everyone everywhere does it all the time. But to a life abundant you were called. In Christ is a freedom your heart can barely imagine.

Today I’m repenting of my false standard and experiencing the joy of living, in this moment, before the eyes of my Father whose love is unending, whose mercy is deep, and whose grace is extravagant. Help me Lord Jesus in the rest of my moments as well!


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Forgiving the Big Hurts

Steve by JonIn South Africa the Forgiveness Project has worked diligently to promote forgiveness following the end of apartheid and the incredible wounds that South Africa has  faced.  This same group has worked at promoting forgiveness and healing in Rwanda following the genocide in which the Hutus and the Tutsis inflicted unimaginable wounds upon one another.

Most of us wonder whether or not such forgiveness can be real.  Is it possible for someone to suffer such trauma and then in response act with the grace and compassion necessary to get beyond their pain and actually talk with those who have done the damage they have to endure?  How can anyone demonstrate this kind of strength?  Is it real?  If so, how can they do this?

Those questions are straight from the epistle of 1 Peter.  Peter is writing to those who  are being abused.  They are being persecuted.  Some are being arrested and tried.  Others are being beaten and losing their homes, businesses, family members.  Sometimes they are being killed for their faith.  These are the people Peter writes and says “always being ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you.”  Peter assumes these brothers and sisters will have hope.  In chapter one he tells them that God, who is the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, has caused us to be born again to a living hope through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He tells them that their hope is to be fully set upon the revelation of Jesus, who has revealed Himself in His first coming, and will reveal Himself again when He comes back to make all things right.

As we hear that people are facing those who murdered their family members, and then granting them forgiveness, we do not have any categories to make sense of this.  It really is not human.  When they forgive those who maimed them, physically, emotionally, even spiritually we struggle to understand what they have done.  Most of us have not suffered anything comparable to what these people have experienced.  We still find it nearly impossible to forgive the wounds we have experienced.

As I have thought about this I think I understand something about why it is so hard for us to forgive.

Those who hurt us aren’t human in our minds.  They are somehow less than human.  They are sources of pain.  They are angry and act with evil intentions to hurt us.  We respond to them as if they are objects who deserve wrath and judgment for their evil.

We believe a lie.

Those who wound us, who cause our suffering and grief are themselves human beings who are acting out of their own wounds and fears.

When they hurt us we have profound choices to make.

We can react out of our hurt and try to escape the hurt.

If we do, we will become exactly the same as those who have wounded us.  We will pour out our hurt and create pain for others.  We will leave others in our trail who have been hurt just as we have.

In South Africa and Rwanda the source of the horror was earlier horror.  Those who hated their enemies had previously suffered wounds like those they decided to inflict.  Not necessarily the same wounds, but deep wounds that caused pain they had to pour out.

Another choice we have is to see the hurt that the people who have hurt us are experiencing.  To move toward them with the desire to see healing.  We can invite them to face the horrors of their own wounds and grieve them instead of pouring out upon others the same evil that they have experienced.

There is a battle that rages within us when we are hurt.  Do we face the hurt and work toward healing or do we pass the pain out of us onto whomever, in the hope that it will not continue to hurt us.

What we choose to do will depend, to a large degree, upon whether we believe that Jesus gives us grace to endure the hurt we experience.

More to come…


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What now? I have sinned again!

Steve by JonWe, like Isaiah in chapter 6 of the book of Isaiah, are a fallen people.  When Isaiah saw the throne room and was face to face with God he cried out in fear and said “Woe is me!  I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the Lord!”

Isaiah knew that what should happen next was judgment and that he deserved to be condemned and his sins deserved punishment.

When we become aware of our sin, we recognize what Isaiah recognized.  God should punish me for my sin.  I should be cast out from his presence.  Sometimes we know that what we really deserve is hell, in whatever form it truly exists.

The moment I am aware of my sinfulness I need to understand grace.  I need a vision of God’s redemptive plan.  At this very moment I teeter between a vision of why I love God–Father, Son, and Spirit, or why I am lost.  If I focus on my lostness I teeter toward hopelessness.

On the one hand my sin leads to a richer understanding of the blessing of redemption and on the other it presses on me with such a weight of condemnation that I am prone to give up.

I think it is an issue of life or death to understand what will push me to one side, and what will push me to the other.  As I swing between knowing my Father loves me, and feeling like I face eternity under His condemnation I think it is possible to move toward Christ.

The question I  think at the heart of this is what does my sin do to me?  What does it do to my relationship with God?

Bear with me for a moment, but the movie Groundhog Day has helped me to recognize a something helpful.  In the movie the main character is a news channel weather man who is full of himself and incredibly self focused.  He hates the fact that he has been assigned to broadcast the farce of Punxutawney Phil and whether or not he sees his shadow.  He can’t wait to get out of town, but is forced to stay due to a storm.  When he wakes up the next morning it is actually yesterday and he is the only one who knows this.  He is not only forced to stay in town, but he is forced to repeat the same day over and over and over and over and over.  For what seems to be forever.  Everyone else is blissfully unaware that life is on an endless loop.

At first he tries to take control by killing himself.  He simply wakes up from death and it is the same day.  Again.

Then he decides to use this “gift” to pursue his selfish desires.  He has a blank slate.  No one but the main character realizes what has happened the day “before”.  He fully expresses his selfishness.  Over a very long time he becomes bored with the meaninglessness of his experiences.  He is a very selfish man and he uses the “opportunities” he has to live very selfishly.  He comes to realize that, as the Westminster catechisms say,  this place of selfish sin is really miserable.

The next phase of this life is that he decides to make a difference.  He learns medicine to save a homeless man’s life.  He learns to play the piano to entertain.  He does many small things to help others because he has learned the bad things that are going to happen and he prevents them.  Slowly he changes from his selfishness to becoming more selfless.

The story presents a worldview that man is good, and that even a bad man, given enough opportunity will become good.  At the end of the story the main character finds love, makes a difference in the lives of the people in the town, and then finally wakes up and it is the next day.  Now that he is “good” life can go on.

The truth I mentioned above of which this story reminded me, is that we are given continually new opportunities.  We do not live the same day over and over.  Each day is a new day.  Lamentations 3:23 tells us God’s grace and love is new every morning.  We do not depend upon ourselves to get better.  We are brought to new life by God’s redemptive love.  He has paid the debt of my sinfulness, and has made me a new creature.

But as a new creature I have sinned.  What do I do now?  Have I lost my relationship with God?

This is the razor’s edge upon which I believe that we balance.

Scripture makes clear that we have not lost God.  1 John 1:9 points out that we are sinners and that we need to deal with the reality of that sin, but there is a way to deal with it.  I confess and repent.

Scripture also makes clear that I am not a prisoner of my sin.  Sin is not my master.  Romans 6:14 tells me that I am not under law, but under grace.  When I confess my sin and repent of it, I am free to live in the new grace that God gives me.

When I believe that God cannot accept me because of my continuing sin, I will be tempted to give up and live in hopelessness.  When I believe that I am so far into my pattern of sin that I may as well just give in to it fully and give up, I will live in hopelessness.  I am believing the lie that because I have started to sin I am already a lost cause.

I am also believing the lie that sin is pleasant, at least for the moment, and that I am as guilty for starting as I would be for finishing.  So I believe that fighting against my sin is not worth the pain.

The truth is that God loves me, redeems me, and is holy.  He is worthy of everything I do to fight my sin and to live out my love for Him.  He has saved me, no matter what.  He loves me no matter what.  He is giving me growth in holiness, no matter what.  And I can live in light of that truth.

John 14 tells us that those who love God will obey Him.  We may be tempted to interpret that as saying that I have to obey God in order to love Him.  If I work hard enough I will love God.  Luke 7 tells us that those who are forgiven much love much.  When I recognize how good God is, how much He has loved me and demonstrates that love, then I am moved to love Him.  Because I love Him I act out of that love and grow in my obedience.

This is what I need to know in order to swing to the side that says I confess and hate my sin, but I love God and with renewed energy and strength I start anew to love Him by living to please Him.  I am free to love and obey because He has paid the debt of my sin and given me a clean slate, no matter what I do, and now I can battle my sin patterns and love my redeemer.  I have eternity, beginning now, to grow my love, to live in obedience, and to please my savior.

If you are living in hopelessness look at how Jesus loves you in spite of your sin.  He says that He will never leave you nor forsake you.  If you are teetering on the edge and battling the slide into hopelessness, look to Jesus and see that He gives you new grace every moment.  Do not work to obey to build confidence that you belong to God.  Focus on the love God has showered on you.  He created.  He redeemed.  He holds on and never forsakes.  He promises you heaven and will fulfill that promise.

And for now as you know Him, love Him.  Your love for Him will give you all you need to act and to love Him in return.  Loving Him moves us to serve.

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Intimacy in its various forms

SteveI am frequently working with people to help them with issues in their relationships.

Tim Keller, in a sermon from Proverbs that he entitled “Repairing Relationships” makes the point that relationships are always in need of repair.  We live in a fallen world, among fallen people, and we ourselves are fallen.  Our relationships require a lot of work to keep them working well.

One component of the work I do is to address the issue of what intimacy looks like in relationships.

I think intimacy is a term that has lost meaning because it is used casually in our conversations.  When we hear “intimacy” some of us think immediately of sexual intimacy.  The word intimacy has become a term to talk about sexual intercourse (and intercourse is a word that has suffered the same fate I am claiming intimacy is suffering today).

You might be wondering “What is he going to say about the forms of “intimacy”?”  Is this some sort of guide for sex?

Yes and no.

Intimacy is a very rich word.  It has a lot of content.  In comparison, sex is a limited term.  I also believe that sex is a poor substitute for intimacy.

We experience intimacy in different forms.  There is emotional intimacy.  There is spiritual intimacy.  There is social intimacy.  And yes, there is physical intimacy.  Physical intimacy is a subset of sex.  It is the purer aspects of sex.

Sex can be selfish.  We see all around us the selfishness of sex.  Sex focuses on my pleasure uses the other person, whether inside or outside the boundary of marriage, and sex is at that moment something selfish.   We see this most clearly in porn addictions.  I can speak at length about this, but for this blog I am going to focus on intimacy.

Intimacy cannot be selfish or divide those who experience it together.  Physical intimacy is always something that connects people.  We cannot deceive, use, or harm others while we share intimacy with them, without damaging intimacy.  Perhaps we destroy intimacy by these actions.

It can be restored.  But that requires a change of relationship that understands and builds intimacy.

We also cannot experience one “variety” of intimacy and ignore the others.  We cannot experience great physical intimacy and ignore emotional and spiritual intimacy at the same time.  We are embodied spirits and we cannot break ourselves apart without damage.  We cannot break apart the intimacy we experience without damage either.

If we want to build any form of intimacy we have to be working to build them all.  I enhance my physical intimacy with my wife by building my emotional intimacy with her.  I also build both my emotional and physical intimacy with her by building my spiritual intimacy with her.

Let me say that again, perhaps more clearly.  If I am looking for a more wonderful sexual union with my wife, I build that by sharing myself with her spiritually.  When we worship Jesus together we build our total intimacy.  As we grow in our spiritual intimacy we will also grow emotionally and physically intimate.  As we grow in intimacy, we will also grow in how we express that intimacy physically.  We will be safer, more honest, and more deeply connected with one another.  We will have so much less blocking us from each other and we will find it so much easier to touch each other.

I am only trying to introduce some thoughts today, but I will write more about this in the future.  Check back to see when it gets posted.



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Grenades and Healing Relationships

SteveI work with a lot of couples.  Most of these couples will come to me for counseling because their relationship has deteriorated and they are growing more distant and unhappy with each other.  They want a good marriage, and in many cases are working with their spouse to build a good marriage.

They frequently do not know how to move forward toward a good marriage.  Which is why they come to me.  They are looking for help.

There are patterns that have developed in how they relate to each other that have become the norm and are in many cases so familiar that my clients are oblivious to them.

One such pattern that I deal with regularly is what I call grenades.

A grenade is a statement that not only addresses real issues, but it does so with criticism and even contempt.  If you are on the receiving end of a grenade you know it immediately.  Grenades blow up.  They wound, if not kill.  When I see a grenade thrown and watch it blow up I also see the hurt that passes over the victim’s face for that split second before it turns to anger, hatred, despair, or rejection.

One problem with grenades is that they multiply faster than rabbits.  Faster even than hamsters!  I watch in sessions as one throws a grenade and the other throws one back almost before the first grenade has exploded.  We seem to think that the best defense against a grenade is to throw one back.  I can tell you with great sadness that any Mutual Assured Destruction program for grenades does not work.

People throw grenades back and forth until they respond by rejecting and withdrawing from each other or they are simply too exhausted to continue.

The only time I see clients avoid this pattern is in the first exchange.  If the person that receives the first grenade stops and deals with the hurt we can stop this cycle.

“You did it again!  I knew you would!  You always treat me this way.  I trusted that you were going to listen.  That you were hearing me and what you heard would matter to you.  But you didn’t change.  You have never loved me!”

If instead of defending or withdrawing when they hear this my client would stop and hear the hurt under the anger, they can defuse this attack.

“I am so sorry that I have communicated to you that you don’t matter.  I really want to love you well and I understand that you do not feel that I love you.   Can we talk about this when we are calmer?”

Proverbs 15:1 tells us that a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

I have found that if we can hear the hurt that undergirds the anger, we can respond with gentleness.  When we can understand that there is a wound that has provoked the anger and led to the grenade we can also move toward the other person and bring healing.  We need perspective and support to do this, but when this pattern replaces the replicating grenades cycle real change and healing can take place.  We need other people to help us to see past our own hurt and to move toward the one throwing grenades.  That is where Biblical fellowship is so important.  The church can do a lot to promote this fellowship.  In our culture today we often turn to counselors for this help.

More to come on how to hear the hurt that is camouflaged in anger.  Check back for that article.


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God is not an Object

Steve by JonWe are tempted by our nature and taught by our culture to treat others as objects instead of people.  Whether we are in conflict with others and think of them as barriers to what we want or we treat them as those who serve us, we frequently minimize others.  We equate them with the functions they serve in our lives instead of as people who are complete individuals and have lives of their own.  We do not think of them as people who have feelings, who have value.

We will often do the same thing with God.  Cornelius Van Til is a theologian who spoke of the Creator Creature distinctive.  He said that God is the creator and is the authority.  God is, simply stated, the authority and ruler.  Van Til also talked about how we frequently live as if we are the ruler and authority and we reverse the Creator Creature distinctive and think that we can tell God what to do and how to do it.  In our minds God becomes our servant.  We believe He is a tool we use to get what we want.  He becomes an object to us.

God has not been, is not now, and cannot ever become an object.  He is uniquely a complete and self defined being.  He is the creator who defines everything else.  He deserves worship and obedience.  We are valuable and deserve respect because we are created in His image.

This is an important truth in how we live and how we counsel.  When we believe we need to tell God how to act and what to do, we take up a job we are completely unfit to perform.  When we look at our circumstances and believe we know what we need God to do to take care of us, we have made several errors.  We have assumed that we have the ability to know what needs to be done.  We do not.  We have assumed that God does not know what needs to be done.  He does.  We also assume God is willing to allow us to be the authority and will do what He is told by us, His creatures.  He is not.  That does not mean that prayer is pointless.  As we pray and talk with the Father, we grow.  God teaches us to pray.  He reveals Himself to us through Scripture and gives us promises He intends to fulfill.  Even in such promises as Psalm 37:4-5 God calls us to delight in Him and promises He will give us the desire of our heart, which is God in whom we  delight.  However, God never becomes our tool or our servant.  We never become the ruler.  We never command God.

God loves us too much to let us take over the role that only He is able to fulfill.  It would not be loving for Him to allow us to lead Him.  He would be abdicating His place as the one who uniquely knows what is right and what He needs to do.  Even Christ, in the garden of Gethsemane prayed to the Father and honestly spoke of His desires, but also submitted to the Father’s will because the Father would do what is right and good.

God is always active.  He is always doing what is good.  When we suffer, God is still active and is still loving us.  It is important that we remember He is for us.  We are the bride He loves.  The problem is not that He is at a loss about what to do and is waiting upon us to tell Him.  He is already doing what is good and necessary, but we do not see that.  The problem is that we need to see Him at work.  We need to focus on His plans and purposes. We need to trust Him.

One thing we can do to correct our perspective is to remember that He is sovereign.  He cannot be ruled by another, and He is not an object.

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How to Battle Anger in a Relationship Pt. 2

SteveI wrote recently about how to deal with anger in relationships.  I introduced the idea of working through real issues without criticism or contempt.

This is really hard, but an important step in healthy relationships and in growing in our Christlikeness.

I work with my clients to help them to understand what is really going on in their hearts and how to talk about that without beating up on the other person.

One of the critical steps in this work is to think and communicate with “I” statements.

We might think this is easy.  All we have to do is to say what we are thinking using “I.”  It is actually fairly hard to do well.  It involves knowing what I am feeling, how I am responding, what I am hearing, etc.

When we are responding to hurts we receive from others, we typically move quickly to the sins we believe the other person has committed against us.  We might even think the following is an “I” statement.  “I can’t believe the way you just spoke to me!  You are so mean!  You have no idea how much that hurts me.”

This, to be clear, is a grenade.  It is an anger response.  We have spoken using the word “I” but the intent is to inflict hurt on the other.  The anger response is about giving away my pain and typically we are trying to inflict that pain on the one who hurt us.  When we stay in the “hurt circuit” we are not trying to inflict pain, we are trying to express the hurt we feel without criticism or condemnation.  We want the other to understand and care about what we are experiencing.  We want to work at eliminating whatever is causing our pain, not simply passing the pain on to another person.

Anger responses focus more on trying to have the pain flow through us without having it stay long enough to damage us.  The problem is that anger generates more anger.  When I try to give my pain away I create pain in the other.  They then have to decide how to deal with their pain.  If I have hurt them then they typically are tempted to respond by returning that pain to me.  Now I have two sources of pain.  I am likely to throw another grenade and inflict more pain on them.

The cycle will intensify unless it is broken.  It is very hard to break this cycle when it is actively building.

When I am hurt I have the choice to respond by expressing my hurt clearly and without criticism.

“I am not sure what you were trying to say, but I have to tell you that what I heard you say was very painful.  Am I right to understand that you were saying that …?”  “Can you tell me what you felt when I told you that I am hurt when you forgot our date tonight?”

This may sound unrealistic.  You may be thinking “No one speaks like that!”  “No one can bite back their anger like that.”

I am telling you I work with some who do.  I am also seeing people come to understand how important it is do build the skill of thinking and speaking in “I” messages.

As we grow in Christlikeness we will have the safety to feel hurt without fearing the pain.  As we grow in Christlikeness we also have the strength to respond with gentleness and love.

The foundation for this lifestyle is to know Jesus intimately and to trust Him with all of who we are.  This is not simply an issue of skilled communication.  Those who teach this skill without recognizing our need for Jesus are building a second story without the foundation or first story.  The building will always collapse.

We need Jesus.  We need the Holy Spirit indwelling us.  We need the Father justifying and empowering us to grow in grace.

More to come in a future post.


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God’s Plan

 Steve by JonLife can be hard.

We live in a real world, with real people, and real trials.  Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that feel frightening and out of control.  It is easy to find ourselves looking for some way to gain control and find safety.  We scramble for a way to protect ourselves and feel safe again.

There are some important stories God gives us in Scripture that address this reality.

One such story is found in Genesis 22.

Abraham had followed God throughout his life.  God had called him from his father’s home in Ur of the Chaldees and told him that He was going to give Abraham a new land.

Abraham left his father and followed God.

God also promised Abraham that He would give him a son.  Through that son God would bless the nations.  Abraham was 75 when God promised a son.  He waited for his son for 25 years as he learned to follow God in a variety of trials and difficulties.  He slowly came to know God intimately.

When Abraham’s promised son, Isaac, had grown to be a young man, God spoke yet another time to Abraham.  In Genesis 22 God spoke to him and told him to sacrifice Isaac.  The son Abraham loved with all his heart.  The son for whom Abraham had waited 25 years and whom he had loved for probably more than 10 years.  Isaac.

Abraham was faced with an incredible dilemma.  Obey God or spare Isaac through whom all the promises God made to bless Abraham and bless the nations were to be fulfilled.  God had created a problem.  A very big problem.  A problem Abraham could not resolve.

But over the years he had followed God Abraham had learned that this was a problem that God not only created, but could also resolve.

So Abraham said yes.

He took Isaac, some servants, a knife, fire, and went to the mountain God had commanded him where he was to sacrifice Isaac.  At the base of the mountain Abraham spoke to the servants and told them to wait.  He and Isaac would return after the sacrifice.  Then he took Isaac and went up the mountain, where he built an altar.  Isaac then spoke to his father and said he could see the wood and the fire but he did not see the sacrifice.  Abraham told Isaac that God would provide the sacrifice.

In my cynical moments when I wrestle with the hard places and wonder what God is doing, or perhaps not doing, I find myself thinking that Abraham knew that if he spoke the truth that the servants would stop him and Isaac would run away.  He decided to “lie” in order to do the terrible thing God commanded him to do.  I also wonder if Abraham was trying to think of some way to rescue God from the dilemma He had created.

“What can I do that will protect Isaac and still technically be obedient to God?”

I go there.  I find myself thinking that way.

Abraham honestly was not thinking that way.  In Hebrews 11:17-19 we hear what was going on in his mind.

Abraham knew, because of his long journeys following God, that God had not only created a dilemma, He had an answer.  We read in Hebrews that Abraham knew that God could raise the dead.  The promise was going to come through Isaac no matter what God commanded Abraham to do.  God had a plan.  Abraham only needed to trust God, obey Him, and watch God’s plan unfold.

When I am in hard places, I quickly shift into trying to solve God’s problems.  I look for an answer that will maintain God’s honor and my obedience.  When I do this, I am doubting God, trusting myself, and moving headlong into sin.

What should I do instead?

Trust God.  Pray.  Listen to God.  Wait expectantly for His solution.  Live with integrity and obey what God has told me.  Psalm 46:10 tells me to be still and know that He is God.  Just like Abraham did.

God stopped Abraham as his had was descending to sacrifice Isaac.  He provided a lamb.  Both Abraham and Isaac returned to the servants at the bottom of the mountain after the sacrifice was complete.

There have been times when I have waited upon God.  When I have been able to be still and I have then known in clearer ways that He is God.  He has solved the problems in which I found myself.  The dilemmas God has created.

The Bible is full of such stories.

In the Exodus God led the Hebrews to the Red Sea where Pharaoh’s army threatened them with annihilation.  God spared the Hebrews as they walked across the Red Sea on dry ground, and annihilated the Egyptian army as the waters flooded over them when they followed the Hebrews.

God protected Daniel in the Lion’s Den.  He spared Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the furnace.

He has done so many miraculous works to take care of his people.

And I still wrestle with what He is going to do in the problem I face today.  Silly me.

The message to take away is that I need to learn more about Him.

Be still and know that I am God.

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