Friday, April 29, 2016
Some time ago a journalist friend emailed to ask a question I think many Christian parents have asked. How does one explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to children?
I think the reason this question resonates with so many parents is precisely because we adults can’t adequately explain the doctrine ourselves. We can teach children the inerrancy of Scripture by simply saying, “The Bible Is True.” We can explain something of the atonement by saying, “Jesus paid for our sins and is alive forever.” The Trinity, though, is another matter.
I think much of our fear and stumbling here comes with a misunderstanding of what the Christian gospel is all about. Yes, Christianity is reasonable and intelligible (Carl Henry stands affirmed). But Christianity is not merely about reason and intelligence. The gospel points to a different kind of wisdom, one that silences human mouths (Isa. 55:8; Jer. 8:9; 1 Cor. 1:19-20).
God is one God, and God is three persons in an everlasting relationship with one another, a relationship into which we are invited. That’s not contradictory. God is not one in the same way he is three, or vice-versa. But who can reduce this to some sort of formula or easy analogy?
Sometimes we seek a quick analogy for children because we want to put our kids out of their mystery. If the Trinity is an easy explanation (it’s like a shamrock; it’s like water, ice, and steam), we can “move on.” We’re afraid if we say that the Trinity is in some ways beyond comprehension that our kids won’t trust us to tell them with confidence about the truth of the gospel.
But Jesus tells us there’s something about a child’s way of believing that ought to be true of all of us. We must, he tells us, become like them if we’re going to enter the kingdom of God at all. In one sense, it’s true, children are often hyper-literal. I remember thinking as a child that a “soul” was a little version of myself located in one of the chambers of my heart (and wearing a soldier’s uniform, for some reason).
But, in the more important ways, children are open to mystery and paradox in ways adults often aren’t. Children explore the world around them with a wide-eyed sense of wonder. They don’t comprehend it all, and they know they don’t comprehend it all.That’s the kind of blessed ignorance I believe Jesus commends. In order to believe, you must trust everything God has said to you, but you must also see him, not your own comprehension, as Lord. To see at all we must know that we “see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
With that the case, we ought to boldly say to our children, “God is One and God is three. I can’t fully explain all of that because that’s how big and mysterious God and his ways are. Isn’t that wonderful?” When your child says, “That boggles my mind,” don’t respond with a worried handwringing but with a twinkle in your eye. “I know!” you say. “Me too! Isn’t that wild, and great!” That doesn’t end the conversation, of course. It only begins it. But we’ve got several trillion years and beyond to explore the depths of the Trinitarian reality. A start is what we need.
And learning of God’s oneness and threeness in terms of wonder and awe is a good place, I think, to start vaccinating our children from the kind of sterile rationalism, Christian or atheist, that can lead to a boring, despairing, tragically normal sort of life.
Publication date: April 29, 2016
Thursday, April 28, 2016
I heard not long ago from a man I haven’t seen since high school. When asked about his religious beliefs, he simply says he is “an atheist until proven otherwise.” I fear sometimes that, despite all my Sunday learning, I’m the same thing.
It’s not just that I want to be protected from whatever scares me; I want to be reassured now that this protection will always be there. I want Christ, but I too often want him as a kind of quantifiable spiritual asset, as something I can always check to be sure of just as I can check my bank account balance or my cholesterol level. I want what God has promised, but I want power of attorney to execute those promises when I’ve determined I need them. That’s not what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about.
The second temptation that Satan presented to Jesus was one based on the human need to feel secure. “Throw yourself down,” Satan said, so that God would send his angels and prove how protective he was of his Son (Matt. 4:6). Jesus would hear this temptation again from his own follower and friend, Peter, who vowed to fight anyone who tried to take Jesus to crucifixion. Indeed, when the authorities came to arrest Jesus, Peter unsheathed his sword and lopped off the ear of one of the arresting guards. Jesus turned and rebuked his friend, pointing out exactly what he knew there on the pinnacle’s point: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:54) With the question of protecting self over against the cross, Jesus identified the spirit behind Peter’s pugnacity: Satan himself (Matt. 16:23).
At first glance, the second temptation might seem to be a temptation to risky behavior. After all, what could be riskier than throwing yourself off a tower in hopes that some angels will catch you? But this action would have instead been an evasion of risk. Jesus could have cleared away all the ambiguity, and faced his enemies with the clear, proven truth that his Father was on his side. It was, then, Jesus’ refusal to jump that was courageous. As the Spirit of Christ forms the kingdom, and clears away the strongholds, in your life, you’ll find yourself drawn toward courage over against fearful self-protection as well.
What ultimately undoes the pull to self-protection is the cross. Jesus refused to seek the proof of his own protection because he was seeking more than his own protection. He was looking for you, and you weren’t on the pinnacle of the temple. You were outside the camp, cut off from the presence of God. Jesus didn’t throw himself from the high place for the same reason a faithful husband doesn’t run out of from a burning building to call a lawyer to sue the arsonist, if he knows his wife is trapped inside. Jesus didn’t come to protect himself. He came for the world. He came for the church. He came for you. He bore your reproach, strapped on your curse, carried your exile. This other-directedness freed Jesus to live out a very different life from the cringing, anxiety-filled lives so many of us carry on.
My friend Patrick Henry Reardon notes that “courage” is an elusive virtue in the contemporary context. Because we imagine ourselves to need “safety” and “security” in every aspect of life (even sex!), we’ve lost something of the feel of what it means to learn faith through valor. “Meanwhile, bravery has been replaced by sheer stupidity,” Reardon writes. “Examples of such replacement include things like sky-diving and bungee-jumping, which serve no purpose except the thrill of supposed danger. A largely illusory peril is cultivated for purely emotional purposes.”
Indeed when genuine bravery is sacrificed to an ethic of self-protection, the result is not avoidance of risk but, as in the devil’s suggestion to Jesus, an embrace of meaningless risk. If, for example, one of the critical responsibilities of fatherhood is protection, then what happens to a society when fathers are often absent or neglectful or abusive? The result is not always a kind of cringing passivity in the next generation (although that’s often part of it). The result is often too a kind of hyper-masculine predatory male. Unable to see the model of a self-sacrificial, self-risking kind of protective fatherhood, he replaces bravery with a kind of violent swagger. The Spirit of Christ, though, calls us to a different kind of security, and a different kind of risk.
Hannah can hardly stand to look at old family pictures, seeing her parents smiling, with their arms around each other. She had respected her dad for his Christian conviction, his spiritual leadership, and she always said she wanted to marry someone just like him when she grew up. When Hannah was seventeen, she found out her father had been carrying on an affair with a woman not all that much older than she. Her parents divorced soon after, and nothing much was the same after that. Hannah is a little older now and is herself married, a newlywed. She is tormented by the thought that her new husband might one day do to her what her father did to her mother.
She is constantly interrogating her husband, jealous of any woman who even speaks to him. Despite the fact that her husband seems to love her and to be a man of integrity, Hannah can’t help but think that her father seemed that way too. In some ways, what Hannah is going through is just normal adjustment for someone who has been hurt badly. But in order for her to open herself up to love, she’s going to have to accept that she will never be able to uproot any possibility of risk from their marriage. She’s going to have to love even without “proof” that she’ll never be hurt.
But risk is inherent in every kind of other-directed life. Marriage could result in infidelity. Having children means you may well experience the anguish of seeing one of those children killed in a car accident or shipped home in a casket from a foreign war or sentenced to life without parole in a federal penitentiary. Courage isn’t protecting yourself in a cocoon from these possibilities. Courage is walking forward, and embracing others in love, even though you may suffer greatly in ways you could never imagine now. Jesus walked that way before you, and walks that way now with you. That’s the way of the cross.
This article is adapted from my book Adopted For Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches.
Publication date: April 28, 2016
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Adultery is devastating. In the aftermath of an adulterous affair, the offending spouse must first turn away from sin through repentance before God. But after such repentance takes place, there’s another question that has to be answered: Should you confess the adultery to your spouse?
Sometimes the act of confessing to a wife or husband seems like it would do more harm than good. I once got a letter from a man who said he committed adultery years ago, but the affair had lasted only a week and he had repented to God and others. The reason he was unsure about confessing to his wife was that the marriage was already going through difficulty, and he was deeply concerned that a bombshell like this would end the marriage and harm the children.
This is indeed an agonizing situation. But I still believe that confessing adultery to your spouse is absolutely necessary. Here are five reasons:
1. You have to repent to your spouse.
Biblically speaking, each spouse has an exclusive right to the others’ sexuality. “Ownership” might seem like a radical word but it’s exactly the word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 7:4. This isn’t a license for abuse, but it does mean that neither the husband nor the wife has autonomous control over their bodies. So, because your body belongs to your spouse, your sin affects them, even if they don’t know about it. The marital union is a spiritual, mysterious thing, as Paul teaches (1 Cor. 6:16-17). That means to join yourself to another is to sin against your wife or husband.
2. You have to remove the lie in your marriage.
Concealing the adultery, even if its been repented of, is deceiving your spouse about something that lies at the very core of your marriage. Your spouse deserves to know, so that means you haven’t completed repentance until you confess it to her or him and ask for forgiveness. Until you do this, you’re going to feel a weight of guilt and shame about the affair that won’t heal—or, even worse, you’ll eventually make a friend of sin and cease to feel shame because, through secrecy, you’ve developed a numb heart. The way to prevent this is through confession.
3. You have to take ownership of your sin.
One of the most important reasons to confess your adultery to your spouse is this: You have to decide that your husband or wife is more important to you than the risks you’re taking by confessing. You need to own your sin. You need to communicate this to them as a sin. Do not give any indication that you blame your spouse for your sin. When you confess, don’t bring up any of the other issues in your marriage or any old hurts. That’s not the time to talk about these things. You have to take full ownership of your immorality.
4. You have to accept the consequences of your sin.
Your spouse will feel betrayed and outraged. He or she is going to feel as though they don’t even understand what her world means right now. That is all completely natural because you have broken the covenant. You have sinned against your spouse, and you have broken a trust. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t give excuses or reasons. Let your spouse express the grief and the anger that comes out of this.
5. You have to take the first step in reconciliation.
You can’t expect your spouse to just be sad for a few moments and then forgive you. It may feel to you as you confess that a great burden is being lifted, but this is the first time that they are hearing about this. There has to be a grieving and an expressing of the righteous anger that your spouse has. Let them do that, and then wait patiently for them to forgive you. Don’t think that you’re owed some sort of immediate reconciliation. You are going to have to spend in many ways the rest of your life in your marriage rebuilding the trust that is there, even when your spouse does forgive you. The reconciliation process has to start with confession, and that means it has to start with you.
Publication date: April 26, 2016
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
A young teenage boy died recently, in a hotel room after an overdose of drugs. The partiers around him didn’t even know he was in trouble until it was too late. Sadly, that story is all too common. This story is different, though, because the partiers weren’t peers or friends. They were his mother and grandmother. This man’s mother, who didn’t have full custody, told police she had provided them with drugs because she wanted to be the “fun weekend mom.”
I have to admit that my first instinct is to judge this woman. After all, what kind of person would be this selfish to give her child what would destroy him, just so that he would view her the way he would his buddies? At the root here, though, is a temptation that every parent faces, though usually not to the extreme of dealing illicit drugs. We want our children to love us, and to like us, and many of us do this by asking what our children want and seeking to conform to that.
At one level, the desire to be a “fun” parent is to be commended. We are, after all, to model the Fatherhood of God in our own parenting. His household is not dour and withholding, but full of joy. Some parents interact with their children so much in rebuke and correction that they mimic the older brother of Jesus’ parable—not the joy-filled father who plans a party for his returning son (Lk. 15:11-32). Some families believe they are holy, when they instead are signaling to their children that the kingdom of Christ is a tedious seminar of Pharisees, not a household of those who bask in the favor and liberation of their God (Lk. 4:18-19). If laughter and joy aren’t part of your family, something is wrong.
That said, the overriding desire to be a “fun parent” is overwhelmingly selfish and counter-gospel. Contemporary popular culture prizes youth as the source of wisdom and authenticity, but the Bible sees the matter differently. Parents are to cultivate the kind of wisdom that sees what a child will need, long before the child himself sees the relevance of these things. The Proverbs are filled then with instruction from a father to a child. The Apostle Paul speaks similarly to his son in the ministry, directing him away from youthful lusts toward maturity (2 Tim. 2:22).
This is because that’s what the Fatherhood of God is like. God disciplines and trains us up for life in the future he has waiting for us. This isn’t a sign that we are out of his favor, but a sign that he loves us and has a plan for our lives (Heb. 12:3-11). God does not give us everything we want in our immaturity. That’s not because he is hostile to us, though it may seem so at the time. It’s because God is training us up to be heirs (Gal. 4:1-7). He knows what is best for us, and he prepares us for the Wedding Feast, not for the kind of Esau-meal we clamor for at the moment but will regret later (Heb. 12:16-17).
As parents, we will never get this completely right. Unlike the Father, we are not all-holy, and we are not all-knowing. We will stumble in many ways, and we will not see often what is long-term best for our children. But that should be our goal.
The desire to be a “fun parent” is not only wrong-headed but short-sighted. You might be able to keep your children from rebelling against you momentarily, as long as your concede to their desires or to what everyone else is doing. Your children, though, will soon recognize that you don’t have a longer term view for them than they have for themselves. If you train them to see you as a means to the end of indulging their appetites, they will ultimately choose their appetites over you. See the sad example of the priest Eli, whose sons took from the fat of the offerings (1 Sam. 2:12-21). Fully matured, their rebellion was their father’s great grief (1 Sam. 4:16-18).
Disciplining our children is not just about correcting misbehavior, but about training them in what’s to be loved and prioritized. That means disciplining ourselves to care about our children’s best interest more than our own. And it means seeing our children not just in terms of how they view us in the moment, but how they will view us as elders on their own deathbeds, and, beyond that, as subjects before the Judgment Seat of Christ. That sort of self-sacrificial parenting requires wisdom, patience, and a willingness to be unpopular. That sort of parenting will often be joyous but it will often be far less than “fun.”
Publication date: April 20, 2016