Category Archives: Faith Questions

Being “Quick to Listen”: A Letter From the Editor

“That was more meaningful than any baptism in a church that I’ve been to.”

“There’s a feeling I get [there] I never got at church.”

“It was those moments when she realized that she didn’t need religion to tap into that feeling.”

I finished reading a helpful book yesterday, written by an atheist mother of three. Continue reading

High Ground, Slippery Slopes, and Bottomlands (Part 2)

Haven’t read Part One yet? Find it here.

Emperors and Elephants

Someone once observed, “It only takes one person to produce speech, but it requires the cooperation of all to produce silence.”36 History has its share of corporate silences. The Holocaust, for example, will not be remembered so much for the extraordinary numbers of people murdered in gas chambers as it will be remembered for the silent conspiracy that permitted such an unthinkable thing to happen.

Continue reading

High Ground, Slippery Slopes, and Bottomlands (Part 1)

T. S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” How true. When conflict threatens to destroy us, we do our best to find a solution. But we do not always deal with our conflicts in the same way or employ the same strategies for untangling our hate-filled messes. In his book The Peacemaker, author Ken Sande depicts a range of 12 conflict-resolution strategies as a “slippery slope.” (See Illustration 1.)27 This panoramic view shows that at least half of our conflict-resolution strategies are actually negative and destructive.

Continue reading

Teach With This Trait in Mind: Problem-Solving

Teach the WordThis is the fourth article in a five-part series by Prof. Stephen Geiger, who teaches education and New Testament at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, the seminary of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

No one likes to have problems, but everyone likes to be able to solve them. Endless conversations seek to solve relationship problems. Other conversations target—and seek to solve—issues with a sports team. Adults like to solve problems.

In so many ways, this dynamic drives the human experience. Because of sin, we are constantly confronted with problems. By God’s rich grace, he has brought about the greatest solution, also providing perspective that offers divine solutions to all of the challenges we face.

So adults love to solve problems, and God actually solves problems. This can be a great mix, as God shares perfect solution for adults who crave just that.

We are looking at five key characteristics of adult learners. Adult learners are self-directed, experienced, task-oriented, problem-solving, and interested in immediate application. Today, consider the doors that are wide open for teachers, because adults are instinctively passionate about figuring things out.

Adults are problem solvers. How can my teaching of a Sunday morning Bible class be different if I keep this particular trait in mind?

  • Look for problems: This may not be a general principle to follow in life, but it does work when you are preparing to teach a Bible class. In connection with your Bible text, what dilemmas need solving? Perhaps you are writing a Bible study on Jesus’ words to the church in Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17). You decide that a key issue for discussion is sexual temptation. What problems do adults face in this regard that need solutions? Do they find it difficult to talk to teenagers about sexual temptation? That’s a problem. Adults would love to have a solution.
  • Invite diagnosis: Diagnosis is key to being a good doctor. Adults enjoy not only solving problems but first of all identifying them. Challenge your fellow Christians to be doctors in training. Begin a particular class by asking them to do a diagnosis of some sort. For example, if your focus is on Jesus’ message to the church in Sardis, you know that the external appearance of strength is masking great spiritual weakness within. Invite your fellow Christians to evaluate their own congregation. Ask, “What are our strengths as a congregation? What do you think might be our weaknesses?” If you wish, make it even more personal: “What are your own personal spiritual strengths? What do you think are your own personal spiritual weaknesses?” On their own, your Bible class participants have identified the problems. This sets up well for a class that is focused on finding solutions.
  • Question design – Practice problem-solving: Craft questions that directly ask adults to solve a problem. When Jesus speaks to the Ephesian Christians, he tells them that they have lost their first love. That’s a problem. After inviting adults to consider in what different ways that same temptation challenges them, then invite them to do this: Write out for yourself a personal strategy for “regaining your first love.” Perhaps the answers will come easy. Or perhaps their struggle to come up with an answer will create great interest on their part to hear what you, their teacher, are going to say next. Either way, you have crafted a question that appeals to their instinct—their desire to solve problems. Finally, your goal is to be sure that they understand what God’s solution is.
  • Question design – Provide the tools: Consider again Jesus’ words to the church in Pergamum. The key issue is sexual temptation. The problem you have identified is that adults want to know how to talk to teenagers about sexual temptation. But how can they solve that problem without some direction from the Lord? Craft a question that itself provides the tools for discovering the solution. For example, “As you read through Ephesians 5:1-20, underline words that you feel can assist in battling sexual sin. Which thought do you feel would be very helpful to emphasize as we want to encourage each other in our Christian living?” Right underneath that question are the first twenty verses from Ephesians chapter 5. The substance of the solution is there. They just have to find it.

Life is full of problems. The Scriptures provide all the answers God knows we need. Invite your problem-solving adults to discover all the solutions they need in God’s powerful word.

In next month’s issue — Adults are . . . Interested in Immediate Application

“No One Believes in Sin Anymore”

8715936880_8bec919b3c_oIf you have ever wondered why anyone would have wanted a nice man like Jesus dead, your answer can be heard, furious and shout­ing, in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 23. We call this scene the Seven Woes of Jesus.

Savor the bitter words. Read the pathos and pain between the lines when Love got up and told the truth in the temple courts at Jerusalem. The truth that those who thought themselves good people doing well were sinners living a split second from hell.

“How will you escape?” Christ bellowed. For God is holy. God is unalter­ably just. And there is such a thing as sin. So the solemn quiet of the tem­ple courts was pierced by the seven bitter shrieks of desperate, good grief. “Woe to you!” That is to say: “Oh, be careful. If you only knew the holiness of God!”

Then, as suddenly as it began, the mighty thunder of Jesus turned to sorrowful rain. “Jerusa­lem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together . . .” He wanted the sin­ners anyway, even though they were what they were. The woes were wounds from a friend, the kind they could have trusted. They had lived to hear the Lion of Judah roaring in their temple courts on a holy weekday, setting dreadful things in motion, pushing the buttons that would get him killed, orchestrating his own death to occur on the Jewish Day of Preparation. That means Christ was calling out words like Father and forgive and finished even as ten thousand Passover lambs were crying in the holy city and in the temple courts, even as sheep blood flowed like a river down the jagged grooves of Mount Zion. For the Lion became “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

(Please read Matthew 23:1-39.)

I entered the work force as a seventh grader, earning peanuts at a garden nursery. One day I was carrying a wooden tray of carefully separated seedlings—cucumbers on one side, watermelons on the other. I managed to spill them all over the floor of the greenhouse. When I tried to reor­ganize the seedlings, they looked identical. I thought for half a second of telling my boss what I had done, but there was no way I saw that conversation going well. Before I knew it, a farmer’s wife was asking for cucumber seedlings. And . . . well . . . I sort of guessed.

I’ve thought about those little seedlings many times over the years, reflecting deeply on the fact that watermelon seedlings inevitably grow up into the surprise of full-grown watermelons, no matter what anyone says or thinks about them. They become what they have to become, ignoring and denying all other beliefs to the contrary.

Call it the inexorable law of the farm. “God cannot be mocked,” the Scriptures declare. “A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction.” We reap what we sow. People who deny the reality of sin do not exempt them­selves from sin’s natural consequences. If you don’t know sin by a sensitive conscience anymore or by the dos and don’ts that were clear enough when you were small, then recognize sin by its results. Sow criticism into a marriage, anger into a childhood, lies into a friendship, sexual immorality into a life, and stand back to learn the law of the farm. Neglect to do good things that you know are yours to do—recall the words left unspoken, the hand that wasn’t held, all the gifts never surrendered—and reap what you sow. The critics wind up condemned. The merciless fall and are not forgiven. The selfish wake up alone. The violent lie in pools of blood. Not all the time, and the price paid is not always quite so obvious. But these things certainly happen predictably enough to detect the pattern. You can recognize the sinful seeds by their fruit.
Tragically, however, there’s more in view here than just the deserts that might come to us during our lifetimes. The verse above talked about “destruction.” God’s Word states that death, physical death that seals eternal separation from God, is the very thing sin insists on growing into. And while Sigmund Freud commented that “no one really believes in his own death,” disbelieving won’t keep you from dying anymore than denying gravity can help you when you’re falling.

A nagging conscience does not just make stuff up. Sin is what it is nagging about. For a blunt biblical definition, “sin is lawlessness.” Sin means neither following the good will of God nor even wanting to. To use the Bible’s own pic­tures, sin is failing to hit the target of goodness, it is will­fully wandering from the right path and it is being bad enough to step across a good line. Sin is a hard heart, a stiff neck, a beast crouching at the door. We don’t merely break commandments; something ugly stirs within that breaking. We declare our insane independence from God, our life; we show him that we don’t need him, don’t want him, and are not going to follow him anymore. Thus sin is irrational. Though it makes a certain kind of sense to the sinner, sin is ultimately self-destructive. Our very natures are filled up with deep hostility, rebellion, pride, and selfish desire, therefore, every human endeavor is tragically flawed from the start. It sticks in my ear, the ominous sound of the Hebrew words tohoo vavohoo, which mean “formless and void.” These ancient words of Genesis describe the chaos at the beginning of time before God began his ordering words, “Let there be light.” Significantly, this phrase is used one other time in the Old Testament. God intoned through the prophet Jeremiah “tohoo vavohoo” about the sinful condition of the world . . . as if human sin had ushered back in a kind of deathly chaos, a sickening spiritual entropy.

It’s the nature of the beast that we, being the sinners in question, don’t detect anything quite as bad as all that. Ultimately, sin isn’t measured by how we happen to feel about it. Sin gets its gravity not only from its inherent bad­ness but also from the infinite greatness of the one it offends. Guilt looms precisely as large as the One who says, “Do not,” yet we do. Even “little” sins are a “big deal” because God is. Sin is the history-long tragedy of humankind’s hostility toward God. Can’t you tell that something happened?

You see, humanity itself is implicated in a terrible primal crime. Humankind has “a past.” Spiritual death came to our first parents when they sinned the original sin, when they met with God face-to-face in the Garden of Eden and slapped the original slap. And what happened to them also happened to us, hiding, as we were, in their bodies. Indeed, the human race, as one thing in Adam and Eve, fell away from God when it rebelled against him. The very skies seemed to crack like a mirror. The great human ship ran aground. A once beautiful world just fell apart in cer­tain ways, and we are living in the wreckage, daily stum­bling through sin’s consequences. That is to say, we aren’t in the garden anymore. We live “East of Eden,” where we hear the screams of childbirth and feel thorns tearing at our ankles.

So you may call sin the great No Wonder. It is not a pleas­ant thing to confront, but at least we have a perfectly con­sistent explanation for the way things are. No wonder it’s so hard to keep a family together, make life work out to ten minutes of pristine happiness, or change ourselves in even little ways. Sin is the reason. Existence itself, as we now know it, is out of sync with its good Creator. There’s some­thing wrong, terribly wrong, with everything. Please don’t say you hadn’t noticed.

Cornelius Plantinga’s chilling book Not the Way It’s Sup­posed to Be: A Breviary of Sin deals with that pregnant Hebrew word shalom. The word is translated “peace,” but “everything the way it’s supposed to be” comes a little closer to the meaning. Shalom is unspoiled harmony with yourself and with every sister and brother, with the whole universe, and with God from whom, for whom, and to whom are all things. And everyone gets loved. And no one dies. Shalom is perfect well being, such as you’ve never seen but privately ache for. I’m supposed to sing every morning a song that won’t be quiet. And you’re supposed to laugh every day from a full, full heart. We’re supposed to explore in perpetual discovery the landscape called his and stand together, beside ourselves, by some lake, on some green hill, in our sanctuary the size of the world, and robustly holler his name. The way it’s supposed to be.

I think of that shalom . . . and I step disgusted away from my own cowardice and meanness and deliberate, blissful ignorance of human need. I let awaken my sense of sin. Yes, sin. I say the embarrassing word out loud, because loving Jesus means being willing to use his words. The title of Plantinga’s book is not a bad working definition of sin: “Not the way it’s supposed to be.”

There is something terribly wrong with me! Dear reader, don’t think I’m talking (or writing) down to you. The truth is, I know why you sin. I know. Each of us is an intimate part of what’s wrong with everything. I cannot sit high above the world I criticize and not get splashed myself.

Only Jesus can criticize and not get splashed. Think of his gentle healings, his patient teachings, his bold confronta­tions, his persistent forgiveness. Think of all his words: “What God has joined together, let no one separate!” and “Let the little children come to me!” and “Little girl, get up!” See how his whole life sparkled with the way things were supposed to be.

No such thing as sin? In our own popular culture are hints of the things most of us really believe. How many novels fairly weep over that something that is wrong with everything? How many of our favorite films take their power from that vague modern hunger for redemption? In The Green Mile, for just one example, a black mountain of a man, a condemned man of perpetual tears, is cursed to always feel within himself the ethical horrors of the human race, like bits of glass grinding in his brain. He sees in his mind the vile act another man commits and murmurs, “It’s like that all over the world.” He looks deep into the soul of a woman wasted by a foul disease and whispers the stirring, hopeful thing, “I see it.” He sees what’s really wrong and is one who can reach for it and perform the awful miracle of taking the horrible stuff into himself. In the end, the miracle worker dies, blameless but blamed, in the place of the guilty. We walk out of movies like that thoughtfully, with a dull ache behind our eyes. But I have a story twice better. In my story of redemption, the hero returns alive. Oh, and mine is true.

“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” His incarnation was a quiet echo of the ancient “Let there be light.” It is Christ who saw to the depth of you and me; it was sin that met his eyes. There was only one thing that would matter at all: his beautiful life given in exchange for ours, such as we were. Look at your own spiritual con­dition and be appalled; it is at this point that Christianity begins to speak its two languages of sin and grace. To hear the one is to be able, for the first time, to know the other. The paradox, as described by Paul Tournier, is that those who are most severe with themselves, calling sin by its name, are those who live in the most serene confidence in the mercy of God.

Awareness of sin and awareness of our Savior grow side by side. Christianity has always measured the weight of humankind’s actual guilt by the price that was required to atone for it. The very coming of Christ into the world can only mean that we were lost in the sight of God. The agony of God himself on Calvary and the urgency of the call to unite ourselves to him in faith tell us that the main human trouble was desperately difficult to fix, even for Divinity, and that sin is the longest-running of human emergencies. But don’t be afraid. If sin is the ugly man-made scratches on the human shore, grace is the smoothing, covering tide. The news is good.

God has taken away your sin. Because you are loved and because you are grateful, you mumble attempts at encouragement and fumble with small acts of kindness—new seeds you sow in hopes of what they will become.

As for me, I survey the faces of my loved ones and I see that the law of the farm has from time to time, more often than not, been set aside for me. In their presence and their kindness, I am reaping more than I have ever sown, grace upon grace.

The painting at the Christian bookstore holds me in its grip. It is a portrait of the face of Christ, yet his face is par­tially obscured by the person he embraces, by an anony­mous head that is turned away and covered by a cloth.

The fierceness of that hug. The warmth of that smile. The shine in his eyes . . . so happy. So happy. Yet a hint of the pain behind his costly joy remains in Jesus’ face. And with his loved one’s head all covered up like that . . . it could be anyone at all.

The longing for what this picture contains wakes up, sudden and unexpectedly intense. It matches the depth of human desire for the Agnus Dei. The Lamb of God. The Sar Shalom.

That is, the Prince of everything the way it’s supposed to be.

122022_morepreparedtoanswerFrom More Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit by Jim Champion and is licensed under CC0 2.0

 

Priorities Chapter 3: Priorities For Our Families

 

6529032199_a7910559d7_oTethered to his room by an oxygen hose, Art could do little other than sit and think. The prospect of impending death drove his thoughts back to a time he had desperately tried to forget. Though 20 years had passed, Art could barely contain the sob that surged from deep within.

His son had seemed incapable of taming the impulses that controlled so much of his life. As he had lived, so he had died—quickly and violently—his car wrapped around a bridge abutment on a deserted country road. The police investigation discovered that he had been driving at a high rate of speed while under the influence of alcohol.

As the memories taunted him, Art voiced the question that had burned in the back of his mind these many years. “Would things have been different if I had been there for him?” He saw his toddler clinging to his leg as he walked out the door with his suitcase in hand. He saw the eager sixth grader fighting back tears when Art told him that he would be working late and wouldn’t be able to watch his baseball game. Such scenes had repeated themselves many times.

Art couldn’t recall exactly when his son’s tears had given way to anger and resentment. However, he could remember the increasing alienation throughout his son’s teenage years. He remembered how angry he had been that Terry didn’t seem to appreciate what he was doing for him—the hard work that provided a nice home, food, a stereo, and much more. Even the graduation day “thank-you” seemed forced when Art handed Terry the keys to his own car. “Could it have been different if I had been there more?” He couldn’t help but wonder.

As much as those thoughts caused his heart to ache, it was a more recent incident that convinced Art he had neglected his children .

Just a week earlier, Art had phoned his daughter. Though they had never been really close, Art wanted to express the thoughts that were churning in his heart. But his daughter put him off, explaining that she needed to get back to the party she was hosting. She would call back as soon as possible, she promised.

The call never came.

Now he wondered how often his kids had felt so rebuffed.

Is Art’s case extreme—an exception? No.

Our world offers us an abundance of choices: many affect our families. We sometimes forget that in choosing one thing, we may be turning our backs on another. A job promotion may allow us to provide our family with a higher standard of living, but it may take us away from them. That choice may very well mean we will have less time to spend with our children.

Our children are faced with a multitude of choices also. Partici­pating in certain activities may be good for our children while making it impossible to participate in other equally good activities. Being very active in sports, for example, may take away from study time. But time spent working to get straight A’s may interfere with learning lessons in teamwork and good sportsmanship. And a student who chooses to have a full-time job forgoes time for relaxation or study.

Each day in God’s perfect Eden was 24 hours long. Each day in America still is. We need to fill those days wisely. But a veritable marketplace of choices and opportunities lies before us, and the choices that confront us are not always easy. Each day we walk up and down the aisles, picking and choosing experiences we hope we or our children will enjoy. The problem for many, as they shop for life experiences, is that they wander through the marketplace with no priorities. They grab an inviting bauble from this table, a useful item from that shelf, and some “necessities” from this stack—none of them necessarily bad—but suddenly the basket is full. And then they pass by the table with the highest treasure—a personal invitation to a feast in the heavenly Father’s kingdom. How many families haven’t filled their baskets with dance lessons, baseball or soccer games, school parent meetings, town council meetings, and night classes? They are all inviting and useful activities. But by choosing a maddening schedule of activities and events, families have forfeited quality family time, so much so that no time for spiritual nurture remains.

Several years ago some of us had opportunities to attend workshops on the subject of sharing God’s promises with our children. The opening devotion included this rather thought provoking illustration: Imagine that it is judgment day. Our Lord has separated the sheep from the goats. From your vantage point among the sheep, ready to inherit the kingdom the father has prepared for you, you see your child—on the other side. Maybe you worked hard to fill her life with experiences or his room with gadgets, but at what cost? Certainly that is food for thought.

Art questioned the priorities he had set for himself and his family. He realized too late that it isn’t the experiences they encounter that prepare kids for life, or an understanding of the latest technology that will benefit them most. It isn’t a closet full of brand name clothes that will enable them to face the world with confidence.

What Art finally realized is true. Some of the happiest people on earth have never left the state in which they were born. They may not know how to operate a computer. They don’t fret about what to wear to a party. But they recognize the rich treasure God has given in his promises to be with them, to provide for them, and to give them eternal life in Christ.

God knows what our children need to be prepared for life. That subject has always been important. When the Israelites were poised in the desert, east of the Jordan River, ready to enter the land of promise, God had his people pause. As eager as they were to finally enter the Promised Land, God first took the time to talk to his people about nurturing their children. Speaking about his commandments, God said, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds. . . Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the Lord swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth” (Deuteron­omy. 11:18-21).

The silence in this part of Scripture about feeding and clothing our children or providing a good general education for them doesn’t mean that those things aren’t important. They are. The psalmist wrote, “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. . . . Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them” (Psalm 127:3,5). The word heritage implies that children are both a blessing and a responsibility. We treasure our children and show our thanks to God for them by embracing them in love. We express that love by providing for them and nurturing them. In short, we simply take it for granted that we are to provide for and nurture our children physically. But God wanted to make sure parents didn’t take the spiritual training of their children for granted or neglect it. They were to spend time with their children and teach them. Their teaching wasn’t to be confined to a few brief minutes given to some cursory daily devotion; they were to apply God’s Words to their children’s lives throughout the day—in their discussions at suppertime, as they walked together to the fields or to visit their friends, in their conversations after they blew out the candles at night, and when they got up the next morning and readied themselves for the day.

What things would they find to talk about and what lessons were they to teach? Quarrels caused by selfishness would provide many opportunities to talk about kindness and generosity. By reminding their children of God’s abundant provisions, the parents could cultivate an attitude of generosity toward others. Their sacrifices and daily prayers provided chances to talk about the effect of sin in their relationship with God and the blessed promise of a Messiah. Harsh words spoken in anger or bitter acts of revenge would provide opportunities to teach about forgiveness. They could teach their children that God’s forgiveness of their sins empowered them to forgive others. At harvest time they might point to the gifts that come from God; and when drought threatened, they could talk about trust. When physical yearnings began to awaken within young bodies, they could talk about God’s gift of sex. They would teach their children that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that God would have us honor him with our bodies. Yes, these routine issues provided ample opportunities to train the children. They still do today.

As we monitor what our children watch on TV, we can teach them to be discerning. As we dry their tears after someone has hurt or betrayed them, we can talk about forgiving others because Christ has forgiven us. As we worship and lead our daily devotions, we can remind them of our dependence upon God, our privilege of knowing him, and the natural desire to worship the one who has given us eternal life. We can model a thankful spirit as we acknowledge God’s grace in providing jobs for us and giving us opportunities to support our families. By joyfully obeying God’s commandments, we can guide our children to learn God’s will—and to thank him for all of his gifts. When a serious illness or financial challenge calls for a change in our lifestyle, we can encourage them with the reminder of the mansions God has prepared for us in heaven. When our values earn ridicule and the label of being narrow minded, we can assure them that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us through Christ Jesus.

We must recognize that our children’s well-being is not based on popularity or wealth. People prepared for life are those who are confident of God’s forgiveness, protection, and care. We must recognize that the greatest gift we can give our children is to lead them to that place where there will be no more weeping, crying, or pain. People are prepared who see their entire life as preparation for the eternal glory of God’s heavenly kingdom.

Art had been too busy to teach his children about kindness, forgiveness in Christ, trust, dependence upon God, and many other spiritual lessons. He had been so busy he had forgotten the lessons himself. That tragedy occurs so often.

Let’s talk about this:

  1. Read Deuteronomy 11:18-20, and reread the discussion on this verse in the chapter. God commanded his people to use every life experience to teach their children of the grace of God. Give some general examples of ways parents can carry out that command.
  2. Think of ways you carry out the command in Deu­ter­onomy chapter 11 within your home.
  3. What obstacles hinder you from carrying out this important parental role?
  4. Take a moment and think about each of your children. What could you do to nurture that child specifically? (You don’t need to share this with the group if you prefer not to.)
  5. Consider the time and money you do/will expend providing an education for your child. How does the amount of effort, energy, and money you put forth reflect your appreciation for the truth expressed in Proverbs 9:10? How do these issues reflect a need for you to rethink your values?

Image by Gordon is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“The Christian Faith is Too Negative”

GerardofeganA secret disciple from the ranks of Jewish leadership, Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows to ask for the body of Christ. At great personal cost, he and another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, climbed that dreadful hill and approached the lifeless Jesus.

They worked in a rush as they wrapped his body. The sun was setting and the Jewish Passover was about to begin. There were rules about such things, and it was rules that mattered most to their religious sect. With Joseph’s tomb so close by, he permitted Jesus’ body to rest on the place reserved for his own. In a freshly hewn rock, where death had never been, they laid the forgiving flesh. The two Marys sat opposite the entrance and watched.

As you watch with them the ultimate incongruity that is the burial of Jesus Christ, there’s more than meets the eye. They lift one arm, then the other. They fold them across his still chest, tuck in the spices, and mercifully cover his face, so taken over by death it is barely recognizable. While they do these things, know this: the Passover was the highest celebration in the life of a Jewish man, especially in the lives of privileged leaders such as these. When you look at Joseph and Nicodemus from now on, see two old Pharisees who just gave their Passover away. They wouldn’t be taking part . . . not that year . . . not after the way they had handled the dead body of Jesus.

These two who loved their rules must have loved Jesus more.

Do you see it there against the backdrop of Golgotha? There, so close to the battered and breathless body of God, was the release of something new.

(Please read John 19:38-42.)

Some people have a problem with Christianity that can be stated like this: “I’m a positive person. My philosophy is to see the bright and lovely side of life. Christianity is always talking about sinning and repenting, always making rules and judgments, always imposing guilt and fear. ‘People are bad and going to hell’ and ‘the world is evil’ and ‘we’re all dying’ . . . frankly, it turns me off. I don’t need the negativity bringing me down.”

This objection deserves a thoughtful answer. It’s the apostle Paul himself, under divine inspiration, who counsels us that “whatever is noble, whatever is right . . . whatever is lovely . . . think about such things.” By all means think about those things, “and the God of peace will be with you.” However, do you know what adjective actually appears first on his list?

“Whatever is true . . .”

You want to think positive thoughts? Good. But this is first: they must be true. Positive thinking cannot mean pretending—being unwilling to see painful realities. (By the way, we are all dying.) A personal philosophy of squeezing your eyes shut to the things that you do not want to see, if you can manage it, could seem to work for a while.

Spiritually speaking, it will kill you.

When ugly grasshoppers had eaten everything in sight, devastating ancient Israel, the people asked the prophet Joel what they should do. His answer? “Weep!” “Wail!” “Mourn!”

His answer was not, “Look on the bright side.” It was not, “Stay positive.” In fact, no response was called for but that they open their eyes, see what they had become before God, and let the painful truth in.

Think of all the means God has used to open people up to truths they never wanted to see—truths about the world, about life, about themselves. He wrote pain into their child- bearing. He planted thorns in their soil. Waters ravaged the ugly world. Fire fell from the sky. He permitted the evil hiding within people to be expressed in openly evil acts. He let the ground open up at their feet. He sent prophets to shout at them and enemies to carry them away . . . all to show them their own desperate conditions. The news was worse than they could have imagined. They had a problem with sin, which meant they had a problem with God. For this reason they lived in a world for which no one is truly equipped, among horrible dangers and far, far from home.

The Israelites answered their prophet Joel, “Tell us pleas- ant things . . . and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” Sound familiar?

So, to reach them, there was one thing God had never done before.

From now on, if the idea begins to appeal to you that there is nothing so much wrong with life, with the world, or with you and me that thinking differently can’t solve, think about this: God lying there dead—brutalized, butchered, murdered by this world.

Whatever was really wrong with everything, measure its weight by the fact that this was the only solution: God, in the person of Christ his Son, lying there dead. I am convinced that the only solution to my life, which God can always see just as it is, no matter how nice I make it appear to you, was my Lord Christ lying there dead. Yet out of the most awful thing we could ever confront comes the most beautiful.

It’s something like what the grief counselor means by the word closure. It can be important for family members to see the body of their loved one to help them accept the fact and achieve closure: “Okay then. So it’s really over. So it’s really done.” In this way we come to the public death of the Son of God while hundreds stood staring. All four of the gospels call us to come close and watch. Sit there with the two Marys. Draw near to the funeral of the Lord, because here is closure . . . on the matter of all your sin, your guilt, your grievous and unending hell.

“So it’s really over then. So it’s really done.”
Yes. For he was, for a time, really dead.
 Christianity is never mere positive thinking alone. It’s always thinking that turns positive in the end. It always starts with some profoundly disturbing truths. If you’ll see them, if you can handle, so to speak, what God himself is showing you by his Word—and only then—they will give way to other truths, exhilarating truths that make you alive and set you free. That’s the way it works. Forgiveness makes me come alive precisely because I still see my sin. I celebrate the gifts of faith and love in the people I’m with, for the very reason that I’ve seen what we are like if left to ourselves. Heaven fills me with longing and hope to whatever degree I’ve seen this world as it really is. The truths of Christianity get up and dance to the degree I get it: I’m a sinner who is going to die.

But there stands Jesus.

Everything that it meant for the two Marys to see him alive that one particular Sunday morning came to them entirely because they had first seen him die. So, in Christ, there is an eternal optimism and a joy that doesn’t depend on you closing your eyes to any painful thing. Whatever God wants you to see during this life, which he will gently but relentlessly show you, there will always be forgiveness on the other side. There will always be his Spirit holding you together. There will always be heaven standing open, waiting inevitably, more beautiful than your mind can conceive. When a personal philosophy of positive thinking leaves you cold because you’re dying and you’re scared, think with me of Jesus—so noble, so right, so lovely, and, best of all, so true. He lives! You need no other affirmation than this!

Here is all my resilience, and yours if you do not refuse to believe. It lies in knowing that whatever valleys the river of your life will run through, in the end it will empty out into heavenly glory.

You only think of Jesus, and you are positive.

Consider an analogy from C. S. Lewis. A hundred people went to live in the same building. However, 50 of them were told the place was a hotel, and 50 were told it was a prison. Ironically, those who held the positive view became the bitter ones: “What kind of hotel is this!? It’s drafty and smelly and . . .” You get the idea.

On the other hand, the 50 who seemed to have the pessimistic view were pleasantly surprised. “Hmmmm. Spacious rooms. Fully furnished. The plumbing works. You know, for a prison . . . it’s not bad!”

And so, it is precisely those who naively try to maintain a positive view—as if the world is designed to make them happy, as if people are basically good—who wind up in cynicism and tears. “What’s the matter with this place? What’s wrong with these people? It’s not supposed to be like this!”

A hotel? The followers of Jesus have no such illusions about the world or about themselves. The biblical view is of that most awful ground from which grows beauty, gratitude, and joy. Given the life I should expect in a world moaning with sin and overwhelmed by death—given what I must be prepared for even now—I live among unexpected surprises, unbearably sweet.

My comfortable home and meaningful work—which of these did I deserve?

The love of family and friends—something only God could have given.

This faith, this hope, this inexpressible joy that stirs to life as I sit staring at Christ.

You know, for a prison, it’s not bad!

Prepared to AnswerFrom Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Gerardofegan, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Priorities Chapter 2: For Husbands and Wives

Tela ChheArt Remus couldn’t sleep. He was dying of cancer, and the process seemed to consume every minute of his existence.

The doctor hadn’t said much—he hadn’t needed to. The familiar twinkle was gone from his eyes; there were no more jokes. These things had betrayed the truth: The disease was out of control. Art wouldn’t live long.

As he waited for the pain pills to bring coveted sleep, his thoughts swirled like elusive snowflakes on a windy day.

Wanting to spare his daughter the imposing task of cleaning out after his death, Art had spent hours sorting through the contents of his house. One day he found the diaries his wife had left behind when she died. He leafed through the first one and began to read—until tears began to blur his vision. The pain that ripped his heart was worse than that which coursed through his body. The words were the quiet tears of a miserable, lonely woman.

While he had been climbing and clawing his way to the top of the business world and collecting the trophies of his success, her heart had been bleeding in secret—empty and without fulfillment. While he had traveled across the country and wined and dined his clients—and worked and worked and worked—his wife had raised their children and taken care of their home—alone. While he had basked in the recognition and respect of the community, his wife had yearned for some attention. While he had kept an eye on his investments and had gained riches, his marriage had floundered in bankruptcy—and he hadn’t even seen it. Turning the pages, he shuddered as he realized that her life had ended long before she died. Now he was haunted by the lingering thought that it could have been different. If only he had told her he loved her. If only she had been the first priority of his life.

Art’s mistake is repeated untold thousands of times by both husbands and wives. They use up their lives on trivial pursuits, abandoning the true treasures in their lives—their marriages. They trade this precious pearl for baubles of painted plastic. Then, when nothing is left except memories and a tombstone, or bitter words meant to hurt, or when the family has splintered and the judge’s gavel signals the end of the marriage, they wonder what happened. Far too many catch on only as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Some never do catch on.

For many, the journey down that errant path begins innocently enough. It had for Art. His father’s drinking binges had shaped much of Art’s perspective on life. The sporadic binges and consequent job losses had extinguished any hopes the family had for a comfortable life. Art was determined to do better for his family. His family wouldn’t shrink under the pitying gaze of the community or live in the most run-down house in the neighborhood. People wouldn’t snicker at Art Remus the way they had at his father.

And they hadn’t.

Art’s obsession to succeed had driven his life. That goal governed his priorities. Hard work was his trademark. But now he had to wonder whether his addiction to work wasn’t just as destructive as his dad’s addiction to booze. He could no longer deny the truth: His marriage had fallen victim to his skewed priorities.

Marriage is a most precious institution from God. Through this institution God bestows a special companionship, a companionship that delights in the highest level of intimacy. Through this institution God establishes the family and gives the blessing of children. The family, which God provides, forms an umbrella of nurture and love for children and a vehicle to carry God’s Word of salvation from generation to generation.

It is hard to think of an earthly blessing more precious or more important than marriage—or more neglected.

In Ephesians chapter 5, the inspired writer points to the reason why Christian couples view the institution of marriage as a priority. He compares the relationship between a husband and his wife to the glorious relationship between Christ and the church. “Husbands,” Paul writes, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (verse 25).

Love your wives. But Scripture isn’t talking about the spiceless love the world exhibits—love that is little more than liking something that pleases us. Instead, God’s formula for love between husbands and wives involves the same kind of love that he has for us—the sort of love that is shown by action and purpose. Christ demonstrated such love when he willingly took God’s anger for our sin upon himself. His love stems from a commitment that exists whether or not there is a response. In fact, he loves us even when we don’t love him. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That same kind of active love is what God wants husbands to have for their wives.

A husband reflects that kind of love when he gives his wife the number one position (under God) in his life. He cherishes his wife as a gift from God, and his actions show how much she means to him. He lives for her and would even die for her as Christ willingly died for the church. He is sensitive to her needs and desires and is eager to satisfy them. He recognizes that she needs his companionship, and he loves her so much he is willing to sacrifice other interests in order to spend time with her. He knows that a status symbol car is not what his wife needs. A house in the right neighborhood will not satisfy her deepest yearning. She needs companionship. As her closest companion, the husband strives to give his wife what she needs. And above all, as the spiritual leader in the family, he eagerly shares his eternal hope with her. He takes her to church, prays for her and with her, and studies God’s Word with her—and as they grow in their love for God, they will grow in their love for each other.

A Christian husband is always mindful of the love his Lord has showered upon him. Following Christ’s example, he expresses his love without looking for any response in return. Living for his wife is a priority for him—a priority he will not forget when he considers a job promotion or his hunting and fishing schedule or the offer of tickets to a professional hockey game. Living for her is a priority because his marriage is one of his highest blessings from God.

Marriage is a blessing of equal importance for the wife and, according to the Scriptures, deserves equal consideration from her. Paul wrote, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24). A woman is to respect the leadership role God has given her husband and to encourage him in carrying out that role. The relationship of the church to Christ is her model. As members of Christ’s church, we recognize that Christ is our head, and we gladly put the goal of his honor and glory ahead of our own desires. We do this gladly because he is the very source of our lives.

So also, the Christian wife sees the role of supporting her husband as the highest priority, even higher than her own happiness and joy. She gladly supports her husband because she recognizes the blessings God has given them through marriage. She views her role as a special way to thank God for counting her as his child—a child who possesses the treasures of God’s eternal kingdom. As a fellow heir of God’s glory, she is careful not to be a snare to her husband by coaxing him to follow the path of materialism. Instead, she helps him recognize that the rock-solid promises of God are more important than the short-lived material trappings that mark their lives together. She encourages him with the reminder from the psalmist who said that the man is blessed who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly or stand in the way of the sinner or sit in the seat of the mocker, but delights instead in the law of the Lord. In times of challenge and adversity, she reminds her husband of the faithful love their Lord has not only promised but has shown them many times. She lovingly encourages him to remember their responsibility to model God’s love for their children. She encourages his attempts, no matter how halting or imperfect, to be the spiritual leader of the family. Living the respect she has for her husband is the top priority for a wife.

God highlighted the priorities of a husband and wife toward each other in one short sentence. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). To those who have imbibed the deadly poison dispensed by our self-centered society, submit is a bad word. To the Christian, however, it is not. Rather, in that word, the Christian sees the loving commitment husband and wife have for each other. They are so committed to each other that they are willing to live for each other. Each puts his or her own interests behind those of the other, their marriage, and Christ.

Yes, submitting to each other also goes against our sinful natures. But we can and will gladly submit to each other when we see that Jesus submitted to the will of his Father in order to bless us—his bride. Out of reverence for Christ, we can commit our lives to each other. With power from the Holy Spirit, we can root out the selfishness that pokes to the surface of our hearts. We can nurture the desire to serve each other. Marriages that grow in such a garden will flourish, blossom, and bear fruit. Marriages that don’t will whither and die at an alarming rate.

In 1981, officials in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, sponsored a divorce counseling seminar to which they invited interested seniors at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. The invitation letter suggested that future members of the clergy might be interested in the seminar. A number of seniors were interested enough to attend—but were dismayed by what they heard. Speaker after speaker (divorce lawyers, psychologists, and counselors of various stripes) all had the same message: “If you are not getting out of marriage what you want, then you should get out of your marriage.” They actually said it in just those words. Never in the course of the two-hour presentation did anyone mention trying to strengthen or rebuild a marriage. Never did anyone suggest that marriage requires work or sacrifice. “If it isn’t helping your career, your self-esteem, your whatever, then free yourself from that burden.” That was the clear message. The suggested priorities were evident: your career, your happiness, your goals—you. Though the students were saddened by what they heard, they did learn something that day, namely, the reason the estate of marriage is in its present condition. The world has bought into the philosophy expressed so eloquently that evening. It is no wonder that a large percentage of marriages end in divorce. Marriages of those who hold such a self-loving, self-centered view of marriage have little chance of survival.

God’s Word doesn’t ask us to focus on what we can “get out” of marriage. God tells us, instead, to focus on what we put into it. The question isn’t whether our partner is uphold­ing his or her role, but whether we are fulfilling ours. And what are we to put into our marriages? Paul’s words to the Ephesians are very clear—everything, even life itself, if need be.

For a Christian husband and wife, nurturing their marriage will be a priority, just as nurturing a garden is a priority for a gardener.

The Art Remuses of the world think their marriages will flourish by themselves. They throw their energy into their careers in order to reap the spoils of success, or they get busy and build a house that will take three jobs to finance, leaving little time for each other. Others follow a different path—eager to give the world to their children, they sign up for every activity, then spend their years driving from game to recital to class. In both cases, the spiritual training and family nurturing is put off until tomorrow. One day they stop to look at the marriage garden and are surprised to see that the flowers are gone, the leaves have withered. In essence, it is dead.

Let’s talk about this:

We show our appreciation for the spouses God has given us by demonstrating our love with our actions.

  1. How does a husband show love for (serve) his wife in the following areas?
    • Companionship
    • Providing for well-being
    • Communication
    • Spiritual relationship
    • Sex
  1. How does the wife show respect for (serve) her husband in those same areas?
  • Companionship
  • Providing for well-being
  • Communication
  • Spiritual relationship
  • Sex
  1. List some specific things you will do, out of thanks to Christ and out of love for your spouse, to serve your spouse. (Consider especially the areas listed above in questions 1 and 2.)