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Thursday, January 26, 2017

"Is it really that dangerous?" The (un)Acceptable Sexual Sin, Pt 2

(Warning: This article could be considered “not safe for children.”)
In the first article of this series, we introduced the topic of a widely practiced, but seldom discussed sexual sin – depriving one’s spouse.  If you missed that article you can find it here.  In this article, let’s consider why this sexual sin is so dangerous.
First, depriving one’s spouse adopts the world’s rules for the use of God’s good gift.  This never turns out well.  God designed, created, and is Lord over marriage and sexuality.  He has designed them to work in a particular way.  When they are used in ways contrary to God’s design, it leads inevitably to heartache.  For example, according to God’s Word, the only appropriate context for sexual activity is the monogamous marriage of a man and woman.  When sexual activity takes place outside of that context, all kinds of problems ensue.  (Examples from Genesis alone: Gen16:1-6; 19:1-29; 19:30-38; 29:1-24; 34:1-31; 38:1-30; 35:22 [cf. 49:1-4]). 
In addition to that contextual boundary, God’s plan is for marriage/sexuality to be other-centered or service-oriented.  We learned this from 1 Cor 7:1-5 in our last article, but it is also the overarching picture derived from the Christ/Church depiction of marriage in Eph 5:22-33.  I am here to serve, is the God-intended attitude for every husband and every wife.  Regarding the sexual relationship, that attitude should take the form of, my sexual energy exists for the pleasure of my spouse.  That is why God gave it to me (1 Cor 7:3-4).
To deprive one’s spouse is to assume that the opposite is true, which is that my sexual energy exists for my pleasure.  This is the message that the world propagates.  It is the message that the world received from the god of this world, a message he first preached in the garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-7).  God gave boundaries for Adam and Eve in the garden, boundaries for their good lest they die.  The serpent contradicted God, questioned His motive, and accused Him of withholding something good.  By this, he introduced a new ethic, prefer yourself. Don’t listen to God. Do what you want.  And of course, following the devil’s rule in God’s world was disastrous.
The same principle applies in marital sexuality.  God has designed it to work one way, but when we bring in the world’s perverted ethic, difficulty follows. The sexual relationship in that case will not be a neutral component of the marriage, causing neither good nor bad.  Rather, that gift of sexuality will create frustration and strife instead of bliss and unity.  Bank on it. 
A second danger is that this sexual self-centeredness will permeate the rest of the marriage so that the whole atmosphere of the home will be one of self-fulfillment (the world’s ideal) rather than selfless service (God’s ideal).  Much of what is written above could be repeated here.  We cannot adopt the world’s thinking on marriage as a whole and expect marriage to function as God created it.  The world’s thinking on marriage is antithetical to God’s design.  If we think that we can quarantine self-centeredness to the sexual area of the marriage but have loving, selfless service in every other area, we are mistaken.  Do you know why?  Because this is a heart issue.  And the heart that says, “no” in the bedroom is the heart that you take with you into the living room and kitchen and everywhere else.    
A third danger is the danger most explicitly mentioned in 1 Cor 7:1-5: depriving one another can lead to sexual temptation.  Paul begins in v2 by writing, …but because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have is own wife and each woman her own husband.  Remember that the Corinthians were under the mistaken impression that ALL abstinence was good, including within marriage!  The apostle corrects this by teaching that marriage is part of God’s remedy for sexual temptation. 
So he commands sexual activity in marriage in v3 and forbids depriving one another in v5, after which he gives the reason for these commands: so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 
In the original language, all the verbs and pronouns there are plural.  So Paul is teaching that when we deprive our spouses, we put ourselves and our spouses in harm’s way.  We are either creating an atmosphere conducive to sexual temptation or exacerbating temptation that already exists.  We ought not be surprised then if a different sexual sin, either ours or our spouse’s, rocks the marriage.
When a husband or wife commits adultery or becomes involved with pornography or some other sexual sin – sometimes it is the case that that person’s spouse deprived them of sexual relations, exacerbating the sexual temptation.  Does that mean that the depriver is responsible for the sin of the adulterer?  Certainly not.  No one causes another to sin.  (And many people deprive their spouses without their spouses then giving into sexual temptation.  Therefore, putting a stumbling block in front of someone is not synonymous with causing them to sin.)  But I do believe that Paul would say that the depriver is guilty of the depriver’s sin – the sin of withholding sexual relations and thereby putting a stumbling block in front of the spouse.  In those cases, there have been two sexual sins, not one.  Some people may be troubled or even angered by this paragraph. I would just ask you to read 1 Cor 7:1-5 again and see if these things are not so.  When we deprive our spouses, we invite danger. 
Please understand, I don’t write these things to trouble those who have been hurt by the sexual sin of a spouse, but to warn all of us of the danger of depriving our spouses.  This is not a small thing.  We must treat it with seriousness.  
It is also not my intention to imply that the only reason to avoid any particular sin is the danger is poses to us.  The first and best reason to hate and kill any sin is that we love God.  That He tells us to do something or not do something should be good enough for us.  This issue should be no different.
“So, does that mean I can never say, ‘no’?”  This question and others will be considered next time, Lord willing.  Until then, if this is a sin you struggle with, prayerfully think about the dangers discussed here.  The Lord has designed good things for you.  And His commands regarding this area of marriage are for your good.  You can trust Him. 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The (un)Acceptable Sexual Sin

(This article could be considered “not safe for children.”  I’m not sure there are any children/teens who read this blog, but if your children do, you might want to read this first, before giving them the green light.)
When we think about sexual sin and its potential to destroy a marriage, most of us immediately assume that the sexual sin in view is pornography, adultery, or some other extra-marital perversion.  Certainly, those sins have laid waste to their share of marriages.  We’ve all seen it.  But I challenge you to consider that there is another sexual sin that plagues marriages perhaps even more pervasively than these.  It is a sin that is most likely not even considered a sexual sin by most people. And though we are warned against it and its dangers in God’s word, some may not even consider it a sin at all.  For this reason, it may be the most insidious sexual sin out there.
First of all, what is a sexual sin?  It is any violation of God’s standards for sexual conduct.  There are sins of commission – doing what God forbids.  And there are sins of omission – failing to do what God commands.  As we will see from the Scriptures, the sin I’m referring to is both a sexual sin of commission and a sexual sin of omission.
First Corinthians 7 is a goldmine for sexual and marital ethics in the New Testament.  “Should I marry and if so, when?”  “Is divorce biblical? If so, in what circumstances?”  “If I marry, whom may I marry?”  “Should sexual desire be a factor in my decision to marry or not marry?”  First Corinthians 7 answers these questions and a host of others. 
It begins by addressing an erroneous view held by some in the Corinthian church that abstaining from sex, even within marriage, was a virtue: Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman" (1Cor 7:1).
So, beginning in v2, Paul shows that abstinence is intended outside of marriage, but is sinful inside of marriage. He writes, But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband (1Cor 7:2).  We know from other passages, like Eph5:22ff, that the ultimate purpose of marriage is to serve as a living picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.  But here we find that another purpose, a perhaps more immediately practical purpose, is to provide an appropriate context for sexual activity. 
From Genesis 2 on, we see that marital sexuality is a blessing from God.  It pleases Him for husbands and wives to enjoy their sexual union.  Conversely, sexual activity outside of marriage is universally sinful.  So the idea of the Corinthians, that it might be virtuous for married people to not have sexual relations, is backward.  And v2 corrects this idea by assuming again what is taught from the beginning of the Bible: sex outside of marriage is sinful and is to be avoided, but sin inside of marriage is blessed and is to be pursued.  But v2 goes further by teaching that sexual activity in marriage is a godly means of fighting sexual temptation. 
Paul continues in v3: The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband (1Cor 7:3).  Quite simply, this is a command to have sex with one’s spouse.  The Holman Christian Standard Bible reads, A husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife…  The New English Translation: A husband should give to his wife her sexual rights…  The most woodenly literal translation would be, “the husband must pay to the wife the obligation, and the wife to the husband.” 
All of these translations are good and pick up the sense of the text.  This verse assumes that a wife has a right to have sex with her husband, and it explicitly commands the husband to fulfill the wife’s right.  And vice-versa.  Now, what we assume from this verse – that one spouse has a right to have sex with the other spouse – we don’t have to assume for long because the apostle makes that truth explicit in the following verse:
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 (1Cor 7:4).
This is startlingly counter-cultural in our modern context.  Our culture tells individuals that sexuality is ONLY about self-fulfillment and you are the master of your own sexuality.  Further, marriage itself is about self-fulfillment.  But this is precisely backward.  Now, what Paul writes in 1 Cor 7 may feel backward to us, but we must realize this is only because we’ve been indoctrinated by a culture ruled by the god of this world.  It is that indoctrination that is backward.  Right thinking about marriage is that it is about serving another and sexuality is about bringing pleasure to another.  Period.  This other-centeredness of marriage is clear from the picture of Christ and the church in Eph 5:22-33.  Christ gave Himself up for the church and the church submits to Christ.  This is intended to be reflected in marriage.  That is the right way to think about marriage and sexuality.
The command to have sex with one’s spouse is grounded in the truth of v4 that there is a cross-ownership of sexuality that takes place in marriage.  The idea expressed in v4 is that the husband’s sexuality does not belong to him.  It exists for the pleasure of his wife; she owns it.  Likewise, the wife’s sexuality does not belong to her.  It exists for the pleasure of her husband; he owns it. (By the way, this why masturbation is sinful.  In masturbation, you use sexual energy that does not belong to you for your own pleasure.  It violates the other-centered, Christ-and-the-Church design of marriage and sexuality.)
So Paul has given the positive command – have sexual relations with your spouse.  Then in v5 he continues by forbidding not having relations with your spouse: 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 (1Cor 7:5).
The negative command here is “do not deprive one another.”  “Deprive” is a word that deserves some thought.  It means to withhold something that is necessary.  In this context, it means to withhold something from someone to which they have a rightful claim, keeping back something that belongs to them.  Don’t do this, he writes.  If you’re going to abstain, it needs to be by agreement, for the purpose of prayer; and it needs to be temporary, otherwise you’re defeating the purpose that he began his argument with – you’re flirting with temptation. 
This means that when deciding whether or not to have sex with one’s spouse, the appropriate internal question to consider is not, “do I want to or feel like it?”, but rather, “does my spouse want to?”  Some people have the mistaken idea that a couple should only have relations when they both desire it at the same time.  This is wrong.  According to 1 Corinthians 7, they should do it anytime either one of them desires it.  Otherwise, they are depriving the spouse of something that belongs to them and they are exacerbating potential sexual temptation.
This teaching is part of God’s standard for sexuality in marriage.  We have it stated as a command (v3) and as a prohibition (v5).  To violate the command is a sin of omission.  To violate the prohibition is a sin of commission.  To deprive one’s spouse of sexual relations is sexual sin.  And if it is a pattern, it is habitual sexual sin.
And we’re not playing cheap word games by calling it sexual sin.  To violate God’s standard for sexuality is an inherently sexual sin.  It is to misuse God’s good gift of sexuality.  For some reason, this particular sexual sin does not carry the stigma of other sexual sin.  However, it is no less sinful.  And it can wreak havoc on a marriage.
Some may be thinking that this is a hit piece aimed exclusively at wives.  Not true.  Please consider that Paul addresses the husband first – “the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights…”.  Paul is not just using a rhetorical device here.  There are men who deprive their wives.  In fact, I have counseled as many married couples in which the husband was depriving the wife as I have where the situation was reversed.  We must not adopt the assumptions of our culture.  Similarly, we should not assume that pornography is only a male problem.  It isn’t. 
As with any topic, things get more complicated when we start to talk about real life situations.  So I know that there are objections out there.  I want to deal with those.  There are also caveats that I would add to what has been written here.  There are special situations.  I want to present those as well.  I also want to discuss why this sin is so dangerous.  Further, I’d like to offer suggestions for killing this sin.  But I’ll save those for the next articles in the series. 
For now, consider that to deprive your spouse of sexual relations is sexual sin.  Perhaps you are in the habit of doing so.  Recognize that the only way forward begins with confession and repentance.  Confess and repent to the Lord and your spouse.  And believe that in Christ there is hope and help to change.  More on that to come.
If you have comments/questions pertaining to this article, you can leave them anonymously in the comment section.  No comments are automatically published.  I’m the only one who will see them and you don’t have to leave your name.  But your thoughts/questions may help make the other articles in this series more helpful to others.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

How the Pursuit of Happiness Can Rob Me of Joy

I’ve been overwhelmed recently by a wave of acquaintances, all professing believers, who have modified or abandoned certain biblical convictions for the sake of personal happiness.  There is the pastor who divorced his wife in order to embrace a homosexual lifestyle and “find Jesus” in the gay community.  There is a pastor’s wife who abandoned her faithful husband and children in favor of the freedom of a single lifestyle.  There is a woman who is divorcing her chronically ill husband because she desires to be cared for rather than to serve as a caretaker. 
All of these people are tied to the same conservative Christian community and should know better.  They do know better.  But how is it that they have each walked away from obvious biblical principles?  It seems that they have bought the lie, created long ago but perpetuated by our culture, the Hollywood ideal, and even the founding documents of this country, that “I deserve to be happy.”  And that conviction, fueled by the selfish human heart and prodded along by the evil one and this complicit world, begins to override all other previously closely held convictions, including biblical inerrancy and till-death-do-us-part.
In each of these situations, certainly there was great difficulty and anguish. There was initially the desire to fight to do the right thing.  The pastor struggling with same-sex attraction resolved to kill that compulsion.  The wife of the chronically ill husband sought to serve well.  But somewhere along the way, fuel for the fight was expended, and right and wrong became confused with happiness and unhappiness. 
At its root, the problem is a misidentification of the source and nature of happiness.  It stems from wrong thinking regarding who knows best what is good for us.  Left to ourselves, our definition of what is good for us will always stray from God’s definition, which is what is truly good for us.  Therefore, when influences outside of biblical truth, including the fantasies of the entertainment world, the examples of unbelieving friends and family, and even our own perception of our circumstances, begin to overwhelm our pattern of thinking, it’s a very short walk from “I’m fighting this” to “I deserve this.”
Discerning believers must keep in mind that frequently the idea I want to be happy is just a sanitized, justified version of I want my sin.  It is shorthand for I want to be happy outside of God and what He has declared to be good for me.  And if you listen closely to this culture and its disciples within the nominal church, you can hear echoes of Eden: "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?"  Behind that first sin was the newborn conviction of a right to autonomy from God and the lie that a personal brand of happiness could exist there.  In spite of the knowledge of God’s good law, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate… (Gen 3:1, 6).
And what did she lose, she and her husband?  They lost God.  Ironically, they lost the source of true happiness.  For their sin, they were removed from His presence (Gen 3:22-24). 
The psalmist captures for us the true import of that loss by how he describes the value of God’s presence and the heartache of those who chase other brands of happiness, other gods:
I say to the LORD, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you."…The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply…The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.  The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance…I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.  Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure…You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psa 16)
The Lord Himself is the source of true joy and happiness.  There can be no happiness apart from His presence and an unfettered relationship with Him.  But as the scene in the garden shows, we cannot embrace our sin and Him at the same time.  Thankfully, within that third chapter of Genesis, God promised a provision for the defeat of sin and the reconciliation of God to man.  He promised a seed, who would crush the head of the serpent, that seed being Christ (Gen 3:15; Heb2:14-15).  Christ died to save us from the tyranny of the pursuit of “happiness” and its penalty, hell, in order that we might be returned to the true source of happiness, God.
When people who profess to be believers turn from God in Christ, the true source of happiness, so that they might pursue personal pleasures and comforts outside of Him, they repeat the sin of the garden, and come perilously close to what the writer of Hebrews describes as trampling underfoot the Son of God and profaning the blood of the covenant by which He was sanctified, outraging the Spirit of grace (Heb 10:26-31).  They sell their birthright for a bowl of stew (Gen 25:29-34; Heb 12:14-17).  The horrible irony is that their “happiness” can only lead to misery.
What a sad poverty to cast aside this great gospel in favor of the isolation from which the Son died and was raised to rescue us.  How blind to prefer that slavery simply because our flesh and the world and the devil have convinced us that because it seems easier it must be better.  When we see people falling for that lie, when we feel ourselves being tugged by it, we should view it in the context of a serpent lying to a woman in a garden, convincing her that what God has said is good is bad and what is bad is good.  We should understand that the result is not happiness but misery, not life but death. 
And consider that the thorns in the flesh represented by our battles with sin and our difficult circumstances are the very vehicles through which we may experience true joy in the strength of Christ at work in us.  Those who walk away from the difficult in favor of worldly happiness forfeit the surpassing joy of saying with Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, harships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).  The truth is that the strength of Christ is absent from those who follow after the happiness of the world.  They will never know the joy of weakness strengthened by Christ.
When we are looking for happiness in things outside of God, we are in danger of falling for a lie.  Let’s pay much closer attention to the influences in our lives.  We must guard our hearts and minds by filling them with the truth of the Scriptures, investing ourselves in meaningful conversations with other believers for the purpose of stirring one another up to love and good works, and praying that the Spirit would assist us in watching for the dangers posed by our flesh, the world, and the evil one.