The other day I overheard some friends, fellow believers, bemoaning several problems in American evangelical church life. One of these was the tendency of some people, in a small group setting, to respond to a call for prayer requests by asking for prayer for an “unspoken” concern. My friends sighed in exasperation and rolled their eyes. I once held the same view as they, but I’ve changed my mind. Lord knows we need lots of things changed in American Christian culture, but the unspoken prayer request isn’t one of them.
To be fair, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually heard someone give an unspecified prayer request quite that way, but over the course of my ministry I’ve heard it a lot. I’d end a Sunday school class or a small group retreat asking for what we should pray about, to have one or two people say the simple word, “unspoken.” I think we should hear this more.
The unspoken prayer request is, first of all, almost all the time a genuine asking for prayer, as opposed to a means of communicating facts to others. We’ve all been in prayer meetings where every detail of a skin-rash treatment or of a child’s honor roll grades in college are offered with the kind of specificity that, at least sometimes, is more akin to a Christmas newsletter or a Facebook post than to a petition to God.
The person who asks for a request that is “unspoken,” though, is almost always someone genuinely grappling with a burden or a dilemma. The burden is so great that he or she doesn’t even feel ready to talk about what that burden is. Why would we not want that? When the Bible tells us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), why would we not want to bear even the burden of not knowing whether or how to talk about the burden?
After all, sometimes the requester is dealing with a sense of shame, or navigating how to pray for someone else without embarrassing that person or subjecting the prayed-for to gossip. We actually all have “unspoken” prayer requests. A person might ask you to pray for their Aunt Flossie’s heroin addiction, but it would be terrible to do so on the town’s Christian radio talk show. We should confess our sins to one another (James 5:16), so it is good if a Christian asks her friends or her pastors to pray for her struggle with pornography. She should not make the same request as she’s leading children’s church. When thinking through how to forgive those who’ve harmed me, I can’t very well give a prayer request that is itself can be an attack on those I’m trying to forgive. Would it be better to not ask for prayer at all?
But even more than that, the unspoken prayer request is fully in line with how the Scripture calls on us to pray. Jesus teaches us how to request our daily bread, but tells us not to rattle on and on, as though it is our “many words” that gets God’s attention (Matthew 5-13). That’s partly because our Father knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:33), and he, unlike Baal, isn’t summoned down by theatrics or incantations (1 Kings 18:27-29, 36-38).
God calls us to make our petitions known to God (Philippians 4:6), and so it is good to do that together. But often it’s not just that God knows what we need before we ask, but that God knows what we need before we do. We often don’t know how to pray as we ought, Paul teaches us, and in that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). The person who asks for an unspoken prayer request may well just be in this process, trying to figure out how to pray and for what to ask. Maybe he or she needs prayer to be able to pray. That isn’t a sign of rampant evangelical individualism but rather the exact opposite. Moreover, the unspoken prayer request is often a confession of powerlessness, of vulnerability. God doesn’t despise that, and neither should we.
We pray often for God to revive his church, to breathe life into these dead bones. Maybe one way he will know he is doing so is when we hear more of us reaching out for one another’s hands and, with tears in our eyes, saying one word: “Unspoken.”
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The streamed television series 13 Reasons Why is Netflix’s newest hit program. The program is about a teenage girl’s audio recording, left behind after her suicide, which explains the reasons why she killed herself. Many school systems and psychologists are warning that the series could be dangerous, if already depressed or troubled teens watch and see suicide as an option for them. If not already, every Christian parent of teens and certainly every church youth ministry ought to be ready to explore the questions raised by this dark series.
Some would say that 13 Reasons Why doesn’t at all “glamorize” suicide or anything else. After all, the vibe of the series is jarringly bleak. No one would see, they would argue, anything there that could be seen as an advertisement for suicide. That’s true, of course, but suicide isn’t glamorized by glamour. Suicide isn’t, in fact, “glamorized” at all, anywhere. The appeal to suicide isn’t that it might be fun. The appeal to suicide is that it might be an escape. This is what makes the message of 13 Reasons Why perilous. In order to provoke tragedy in a hurting teens life, no one needs to make suicide glamorous; one only needs to make suicide plausible.
What concerns me about the show is that the central conceit of the series feeds one of the drivers of teenage suicide, and that is the sense of suicide as storyline. Many depressed teenagers that I’ve talked to over the years, and others with suicidal tendencies, don’t actually want to be dead as much as they want to end one story and start another. In many cases, the suicide becomes, in the imagination, the way to resolve storylines that one sees no other way to resolve. In some cases, I’ve found, what the teenager imagines is not so much the shadow of death (though many do speak of a longing for death as a kind of sleep), but instead is the aftermath of the suicide itself.
I’ve not found many depressed teenagers who really longed for revenge (the way sometimes those hurting left behind suppose). I have found though that many of them liked to imagine the ongoing story—the way that those who have hurt them or traumatized them might “come to their senses” after the suicide. The reactions these teenagers sometimes imagine are, in fact, a kind of repentance. The rejecting love realizes how hurtful he or she was. The school bullies see the weight of their actions. Or, maybe, the imagination is that simply those around will see the reality of the burden the teenager is facing. This is not so much vengeful as a twisted-up vision of a kind of repentance. It’s a longing for the story to be different.
The peril here, though, is that, of course, a victim of suicide isn’t able to survey the scene of the aftermath of his or her death the way an imagination can—or the way a filmed drama can. The story for the victim ends at death (as it pertains to this life). What the troubled persons is really longing for—a resolution to his or her story—is then, horribly, ought of reach. The problem here is not that the suicidal person is irrational. The way of death is always irrational. That’s why we need people around us, when we walk in darkness, to point us to light.
13 Reasons Why, I fear, just might fuel the pull to suicide in some because the storyline itself furthers the illusion that suicide is “fixing” something—even if only bringing a kind of closure to the character arcs of the supporting figures in the drama. The “star” of the program is still the deceased teenager. This is not what suicide is like—and the dramatization of suicide as story-shift could be deadly for some.
That said, I believe, as a Christian, that any situation this side of Judgment has redemptive possibilities. While I wouldn’t want my children or my church members watching 13 Reasons Why, I hope the controversy itself might bring some grace-filled moments. Sometimes parents and teachers and peers assume that a suicidal teenager is one who seems sad and down. Such is not necessarily the case.
Sometimes those around someone in suicidal trouble assume that there’s one problem that just needs to be “fixed.” If the series shows anything, it is that there are multiple reasons behind the darkness that can lead to death. Maybe this controversy will prompt friends and parents and youth ministers to talk about suicide, to signal to those in trouble that they are not alone and they won’t be judged if they come forward and seek help. Maybe it will prompt some of us who are parents or friends of teenagers to talk about what to do if one ever does start to see “reasons” for desperation, opening the imagination to what it could look like to share burdens with those who will be glad to help bear them.
Whatever is streaming on Netflix, though, we can be the kind of church that speaks of life and hope to those who see death as their only way out. Suicidal kids aren’t crazy or freakish or, sadly, all that rare. They are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. And, like all of us, they have trouble seeing something in the moment.
It may be that you are one who feels as though you’re living through your own dark, streaming drama. Maybe you are a Christian, and you feel badly about thinking this way, but you want death to interrupt your story. Don’t watch this series alone. Seek out help. Life may seem hopeless to you, but you have a life that is worth living. There are a trillion reasons why.
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Willie Parker is an abortion doctor. He says he’s not ashamed of that. Willie Parker also says he is a born-again follower of Jesus Christ. That one’s more complicated. His new book on why Jesus would support his abortion practice shows us the end-result of a cultural Christianity in which the self can redefine anything: Jesus, the gospel, morality, justice, even life itself.
Parker is a kind of circuit-riding abortionist, spending time at various abortion clinics all over the South. The book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice is one part an autobiography, and one-part a political manifesto for the legality—and even the goodness—of abortion. Even as one who has to wade through all sorts of material assaulting human dignity, I found that I would gasp at the lackadaisical nature of Parker’s reflections.
Parker writes about his profession of faith in Christ. He even discusses listening to some beloved Christian writers—C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton, for instance—on his long drives between abortion clinics. Jesus, Parker tells us, has no issue with Parker’s vocation. And, apparently, neither does Parker. He writes, chillingly, about aspiring to learn how to do abortions. He said that he would go to the Planned Parenthood clinic “and perform abortions, over and over, like the athlete who goes to the gym after practice to shoot three-pointers.” He would sometimes do fifteen abortions, sometimes thirty “I wanted to get to the point where the procedure was automatic, a synthesis of muscle memory and mental vigilance,” he writes.
He learned not only how to do these abortions, but also how to quiet his conscience along the way. Parker doesn’t hide the grisly mechanics of abortion. He writes, step-by-step, of what he does in an abortion, and in the aftermath. “I inspect what has just come out of the woman’s body: what I’m looking for is the fetal sac, which at a later gestational age, becomes the placenta, and, after nine weeks, every one of the fetal parts—head, body, limbs—like a puzzle that has to be put back together.” This job of “recreating the fetus in the pan,” Parker writes, is what “assures me that I’ve done my job completely and well.”
The nonchalance of the metaphors is no accident. The aborted “product of conception” is a puzzle; the act of aborting him or her is like learning to shoot basketballs. Parker writes of how he calms women down as they approach the abortion, sometimes with guilty consciences. He talks to them about Dr. Seuss books or southern cooking, Parker tells us, “and if all else fails you can talk to them about football.” More specifically, he writes, he talks to them about whether they are fans of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide or Auburn.
He admires a similarly casual approach to abortion in his patients. He praises the woman who asks to see the remains of the abortion, nods her head, and goes back to her crackers and juice. He admires the woman who asks to see the ultrasound afterward but seems unmoved by it. He chastises a woman who sees the joking about the abortions by fellow patients on the table around her as lacking respect. “When she wrote a letter to complain of the atmosphere in our clinic,” Parker writes, “I was unmoved.”
And on his enemies list to be attacked in the book are not only pro-life Catholics and evangelicals but also pro-choice feminists who speak of abortion as a tragic, if necessary, choice. “Most of the women I see are utterly matter of fact about they’re doing,” he writes.
In fact, he writes, the problem is, in part, “liberal women with children who themselves became enraptured with the sonogram images they saw at the obstetrician’s office and who wept when they heard the fetal heartbeat.” This is, Parker argues, a “fetishization of motherhood and children that I don’t quite understand.”
Parker issues what amounts to a kind of altar call at the end of the book. He asks the reader whether he or she is truly committed to abortion as a moral good. “Or are you secretly squeamish about abortion rights now that you’ve seen the sonogram images of your precious and beloved children in utero?” he asks. “Do you find yourself agreeing, a little that life might begin at conception, that abortion is tragic?” If so, he implies, repent and believe in the wonders of “reproductive choice.”
How, you might ask, would one be able to boast in a practice condemned by the Christian church from the very beginning in the Roman Empire, while simultaneously claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Well, one does so, first of all, by moving the locus of authority away from the Scriptures. Parker will, at some places, attempt to argue that the Bible doesn’t actually prohibit abortion.
Still, these arguments don’t get him quite to where he needs to go—toward undoing the Bible’s prohibitions on not just killing but on sexual immorality as well. Parker then describes the Bible as misogynistic and patriarchal. Even God must be redefined. Parker writes of God in impersonal, cosmic terms and argues that the Christian vision of a personal God who judges the living and the dead is “a tendency to anthropomorphize” God. Not coincidentally, he argues through the book that to call a “fetus” a “baby” is to “anthropomorphize” the entity in the womb.
The biggest hurdle, though, for Parker, is to redefine life itself. Like many in the abortion movement, Parker scoffs at the possibility of fetal personhood because the child is small, “no bigger, from crown to rump, than the first two digits of my pinkie finger,” and because the child cannot live, in most cases, on his or her own outside the womb. He seems to recognize though that lack of size and lack of power won’t be persuasive on their own, so he continues to what he sees as the real problem: the idea that life is “a miracle.” Parker writes that to say that “conception, or birth, or even death is ‘miraculous’ does an injustice to God.” Life is, instead, he argues, merely “a process.”
As I read this abortion doctor’s repeated inveighing against the metaphor of “miracle” for human life, I could not help but be reminded of Wendell Berry’s manifesto against scientism and materialism, which he says demotes humanity from creature to machine. The rejection of the miracle of life, Berry wrote, leaves us with the coldness of abstraction.
“The giveaway is that even scientists do not speak of their loved ones in categorical terms as ‘a woman,’ ‘a man,’ ‘a child,’ or ‘a case,’” Berry wrote. “Affection requires us to break out of the abstractions, the categories, and confront the creature itself in its life in its place.”
Berry concluded. “We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love.” It all turns on affection.
To dehumanize the unborn child, to reduce the child’s mother to her ability to make “choices” about the life and death of others, is to dehumanize Jesus. In Christ, after all, God has “anthropomorphized” himself. And we are introduced to Jesus in the biblical story, just as John the Baptist was, as an unborn child (Luke 1:44). To keep doing his job, Parker must depersonalize the women and children he encounters. He must depersonalize God into an unblinking, non-judging cosmic abstraction.
The good news is that God has dealt with even guiltier consciences than Dr. Parker’s, and he has done so in mercy. The good news is that Willie Parker may one day see a different vision of himself, and of God. He might one day be found in Christ Jesus, a new creation. That’s happened many times before, to many of us. And this new birth is not just a process but a miracle.
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The following is an edited transcript of Russell Moore's podcast Signposts.
I received a question from a teenager who told me he had committed sexual sin, and is trying to think of what steps he should take next. He seems genuinely repentant and broken over this. And I also received a question from a parent of a teenager, who had also discovered their teen in sexual sin and are trying to figure out how to address it as parents. This isn’t the same family! But both this teenager and these parents are grappling with how they should respond to sexual sin.
First, I want to address to this teen, and anyone who might be in the same situation he’s in. First of all, you should know the weight of what has happened. In some time periods that may not have needed to be emphasized as much, but this cultural moment sees sexual expression as intrinsic to one’s authenticity and well-being, which is not the biblical view. Our culture still sees that there are issues of right and wrong, but it usually restricts those categories to the issue of consent (and culture is right that anything without consent is wrong). So we have to recognize that if we’re looking at the world from God’s perspective, sexual immorality is a serious issue. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 that sexual immorality, unlike other sins that are outside the body, is committed against our own bodies. There is something inherently disordered with sexual immorality, so you’re right to feel the weight of this.
And one thing you may be tempted to do is comfort yourself with the knowledge that no one became pregnant or contracted a disease or is being promiscuous. There are all kinds of ways to think of yourself as having dodged a bullet regarding earthly consequences. But you need to understand that God has designed sex to preach, and to sing, and that what sex teaches is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5 teaches that the one flesh union of husband and wife, with covenant and fidelity and permanence, reflects the gospel. What you have done falls short of that, so you’re right to feel the weight of it.
But I would also say: Feel the weight of your sin, and also receive the gospel and feel liberation from it. Now, you shouldn’t feel liberation if you are “sinning so that grace may abound.” But if you are consciously turning away from this sin and refusing to walk in it, the Bible says that God is faithful and just to forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. If you’re repentant, God is not angry with you or looking to punish you, so receive the liberation from that.
Then there are practical steps you should take, because, and I’m speaking out of experience of dealing over the years with many people involved in various types of sexual sin, it is really difficult to start down the path of sexual immorality and to turn away from it. It happens, and the Spirit is enough to do this, but it becomes very difficult. What you want to make sure to do is notice where all your vulnerabilities are so you can protect yourself from them.
So let’s assume the other party in your sexual immorality is a Christian and is as repentant about this as you are. I think you and she need to talk about why this happened and what kind of boundaries are not in place that enabled this to happen. Also you need some outside accountability. We have one mediator, the man Christ Jesus. You don’t need a priest other than Jesus. But you do need counsel and accountability, especially because sexual sin is a sin of the passions, and when the passions start firing, it is really easy to forget our spiritual commitments and rationalize everything away.
If your parents are Christians and can provide some spiritual sustenance for you, then go to them. Now, not everybody has parents like that. Many have unbelieving parents who don’t understand why you’d want to avoid sexual immorality. Or it may not be safe to talk to your parents about this because of how they’d react. If that’s the case, find someone else to talk to honestly about this, maybe your pastor or youth pastor—someone who is able to check on you and ask if you’re putting yourself in vulnerable situations. So don’t put yourself back in those situations that you can easily fall back into sin.
Now it may be that there needs to be a breakup. If the other person does not see this with the kind of spiritual gravity that you do, it will be a very difficult battle to gain victory over this, because the other person will be pulling you, even subtly, in the opposite direction. If they don’t see this as seriously as you, you may need to breakup, and especially if this person is unbeliever.
Now, to the parents:
First, you also should feel the weight of this. There are far too many parents, including evangelical parents, who assume sexual sin is just part of growing up, particularly when it comes to boys. Feel the weight of this sin against God. And I can tell from the question that these parents get this.
So I want to move on and say: Don’t be shocked. Don’t communicate to your child, “I can’t believe what you did,” or even worse, “I can’t believe you did this to us.” Too many parents take their children’s sin personally, because they don’t understand the weight of sin and temptation and they expect their child to always make the right moral decision in challenging moments. There is no sin except what is common to man. There are extreme sins, but your teen is not inventing a new sin here, so don’t be shocked by this.
Secondly, look at the sort of boundaries that are in place. Having said that, I know there will be some parents who will not have been really involved in their teen’s life and relationships. So they’ll just assume, “This is all their fault.” Those parents need to ask themselves “Where have we left our child vulnerable?” But there will also be parents who blame themselves for every aspect of this. And they’re going to assume, “If we only had the right set of guardrails everywhere then we could have prevented this from ever happening.” If you’re that type of parent you should give grace to yourselves.
But look and see if there are sufficient boundaries to help your child. If you need to, own this and communicate to your teen that you will help them. But as you do this, make sure you don’t unintentionally cut your child off from you. For disappointed parents, there’s a tendency to back away from the child and give the cold shoulder. But your teen needs you to be closer, not farther away.
So model the gospel. If your child is repentant, whether this is physical sexual immorality or pornography or whatever, model the grace you’ve received. That means not taking on a somber persona where every time you talk to your teen, you're talking about the Bible and sexual immorality. But you are showing your child that the parental love is still there, the relationship is still there, and you will get through this. Make sure you’re communicating this kind of grace. Especially if either your child is apathetic about this sin or is crushed beneath shame, you have a gospel opportunity here. This isn’t the last time your child will need to hear this from you. Your child will sin against God in all sorts of ways.
We need to know that God takes sin seriously. And we need to know God does not hold our sin against us but has nailed it to the cross of Christ, and we are free to walk in resurrection life. We can come boldly before the Father because we are hidden in Christ. This doesn’t give us license to continue in sin. It gives us a sense of what a loving Father we must have, who intervened in our own personal self-destruction, to give me the life of his own Son and fill me with the presence of the Spirit to ensure that my body is a temple of his presence. We all need to hear that, and your child needs to hear that right now.
Listen to Signposts podcast audio.
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Publication date: March 6, 2017