Thursday, June 27, 2013

Born that way?

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about God's response to our inborn desire for sin:

Q:  If a person is born with the inclination to desire certain things or act in certain ways, then how could God judge them for acting on it when He created them that way?    

This is an interesting observation that has resurfaced only recently—that people possess certain inclinations even from birth, as a sort of default programming.  This time, contrary to the usual way of things, the new observation turns out to be quite correct.  For decades, if not centuries, it was assumed that humans began as a neutral “blank slate,” and that from morality to aesthetic tastes to various sorts of desires, they were shaped by authorities and experiences toward certain outcomes. 

It turns out, however, that the idea that humans are born already possessing a variety of inclinations is quite Biblical.  King David lamented the fact in the Psalms that he was sinful “from birth, even from the time my mother conceived me.”  Likewise the Apostle Paul observed how his highest desire to please God and do good was at war within him against an entrenched inclination to do what is evil and disobey God. 

The difficulty with this newly rediscovered truth is the next step that is often taken in argumentation: that such inborn desires are part of God’s creation and therefore not contrary to God’s will or subject to his judgment.  The Bible describes humanity as created in perfect harmony with God’s will and only later plunged into the desire to do evil after Adam and Eve first disobeyed God and introduced sin into the world. 

Although different Christian traditions handle the details in diverse ways, they do hold in common, first, that the desire for sin is not part of God’s original creation; and second, that humans are fully responsible for the way in which they behave in response to their desires.  Therefore, even though the particular sort of desire might vary from individual to individual and across the seasons of life, all desires are subject to the scrutiny of God’s law, as revealed in Scripture.

Consider the partial and biased way in which society often reacts to certain offenses:  if a person is greedy or lustful, it is typically brushed off as a mere weakness or a character flaw, but pedophiles and drunks are judged harshly and made outcasts.  Certainly some actions bring more far-reaching harm to others, but according to this assumption if these individuals were born that way, they should be exempt from any judgment—whether by God or by man. 

The approach Jesus takes in the Gospels is not to debate which sins to excuse and which to condemn.  Instead, He preaches that all of God’s law be taken seriously, so that not only murder, sexual immorality, and theft are to be avoided, but even hatred, lustful thoughts, and covetousness.  And just as all sin, whether in thought, word, or deed, whether by commission or neglect, whether against God or against man, is judged equally seriously; all sin is also forgiven equally freely through trust in Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t excuse any sin or declare anyone merely close enough to make it.  Instead, He dies for sin, in the place of sinners, even though not guilty of it Himself.  Then He invites all people to agree with God’s law by acknowledging their failure to keep it and to trust in Him as the substitute who did so in their place. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Theological Reflections on Pastoral Pornography

I compiled these reflections for the work of a task force I am participating in on the topic of treating habitual pornography use in pastors, and thought perhaps they might be beneficial for others if they were also made available here:

The starting point for any question of sexuality for the Christian is always the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”  This commandment not only demands that man “lead a sexually pure and decent life,” but also that “husband and wife love and honor each other,” but, as we confess in the liturgy, this decency and honor are to be carried out “in thought, word, and deed.” 
Throughout the Old Testament, from Job’s making “covenant with [his] eyes not to look lustfully at a girl,” to King David’s ill-advised glance at Bathsheba, its consequent calamities, and their son’s admonition in the Song of Songs not to awaken sexual desire prematurely; from Ezekiel’s description of the Israelites’ lust after their Egyptian captors to Hosea’s divinely-mandated marriage to the prostitute Gomer, the dangers of lust are demonstrated and the relationship is established that adultery and idolatry go hand in hand.
Jesus gives this idea New Testament expression in no uncertain terms when He declares, “You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, if a man even looks upon a woman with lustful intent, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  In saying this, He gives us absolute certainty that there is not a certain plain which one may not cross or a certain base that one may not round.  Instead, the moment that the desire is entertained or the intent is formed, the sin has already been committed. 
The Apostle Paul warns similarly in Ephesians that there should not even be “a hint” of sexual immorality among Christians, and to Timothy that young men and women ought to treat one another like siblings outside of marriage.  Although there may be differing degrees of earthly consequences, pornography, “adult” entertainment featuring live nudity, physical extra-marital affairs, and even inappropriate fantasies about other people who remain fully-clothed, are all, spiritually speaking, sinful violations of God’s intentions for human sexuality. 
While our identity as Christians and as Church is not found in our morality, nor are we to consider ourselves superior to those whose immorality is of a different, less socially-acceptable, variety than our own, out of love for our neighbor, we confess the goodness of God’s design of our physical bodies and His intent for the marital union exclusively between a husband and wife.  We likewise confess that any thought, word, or action which breaks or interferes in this union is contrary to His will and not to be entertained by Christians. 
God institutes all of the horizontal relationships of human life (parent-child, pastor-congregation, government-citizen, etc.) to be reflections of the greater vertical relationships between God and humanity or Jesus and His Church, and whenever an alteration occurs, whether to the number or the identity of the participants (even if only in thought or fantasy) they fail to reflect the greater divine truth as he intended.  Among these relationships marriage is a particular reflection of the relationship between Christ and His Church as described by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5. 
There is one Christ and one Church just as there is one husband and one wife.  Christ does not have many churches or fantasize over other churches, nor is He satisfied to dwell alone, apart from His Church.  Likewise, the Church does not have many saviors or fantasize over other saviors, nor does she satisfy her own needs alone, apart from Christ. 
As pornography allows one to achieve sexual gratification based on the image of a partner other than one’s own spouse, it certainly constitutes adultery by Scriptural definition.  Furthermore, it causes the practical consequence of relational destruction between husbands and wives, parents and children, pastors and congregations.  In doing so, it causes pain and division between individuals and places barriers between the earthly vocations through which God desires to bless us and illustrate His fatherly care and deliver his forgiving grace. 
This affliction is particularly damaging when the man guilty of such sins is a pastor, because by causing scandal in the congregation it has the potential to become an obstacle to the reception of God’s forgiving grace which is dispensed there.  A fit pastor is therefore described in Paul’s epistles to Timothy and Titus as being “a one-woman man.”  Just as Christ is devoted to His Church, so also is a man to his wife.  While this expectation is true for every Christian, a failure in this respect may disqualify a man from the office of pastor, making pornography habits a particular burden for Christian clergy and, along with the tarnished reputation to the congregation if publicized, a particular concern for their congregations. 
As Christians confronted with the temptations of lust and sexual immorality, we live repentantly, acknowledging our fault for such desires which arise from within our own hearts (Mark 7:21).  Although we do not resist them perfectly, we confess the goodness of God’s law and our failure to keep it; we receive His forgiveness by grace, through faith, on account of His crucified Son; and we desire to go forward in lives which reflect His character and design. 
While the Lord has provided the means to forgive our sin in His Gospel and Sacraments, Confession and Absolution, we continue to struggle against sin just as Paul describes of his own experience in Romans 7.  Simultaneously saint and sinner, we are forgiven yet struggle against the habits and desires of our sinful hearts.  For this reason the assistance of a Christian professional skilled in the observation of human behavior and the workings of the mind is a beneficial support alongside the cure of the soul provided by one’s father confessor.  The grace of God relieves the guilt of this sin and produces the desire to amend one’s ways, and the competent guidance of a Christian counselor assists in the practical struggle toward that end. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"God is love."

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about the statement "God is love."

Q:  If “God is love” as it says in 1 John 4, then why do so many other parts of the Bible seem so unloving?    

As with many challenging portions of scripture, the first step to understanding what is being said is to realize that we are reading something that was written by someone in a different culture, to readers from a different culture, and in a different language than the translation we are reading from. 

On many occasions, words from other languages do not have a direct equivalent in English, leaving translator to come as close as they are able, yet still rendering the idea imperfectly.  Other times, even though there is an adequate English word to select in translation, the concept carries ideas in one culture that differ from those it conveys in another. 

In this example from the Epistles of John, “God is…” is a fairly straightforward translation.  Even “love” is a relatively safe translation—although there are several Greek terms which reflect particular aspects of the very broad English word, love—but most of the difficulty for Americans for understanding this statement comes in the cultural baggage which clings to the concept of “love.” 

Our culture tends to focus on love as a sentiment or emotion that is experienced by and between people.  For us, love tends to be an expression of desire, attraction, or affection.  It is understood as something experienced or felt within. 

In keeping with this understanding, many would argue that if an action or a relationship flows from this sort of internal, emotional motives, then it must be pure.  It must be good.  It must be right.  Many might argue that if the entity or experience they are describing fits this description, then it must be approved by God.  It is assumed that if something feels right it must be right, and that if it is accompanied by the expected emotional characteristics, then that serves as confirmation of its goodness before God. 

But such an approach fits better with the statement “Love is God” than “God is love.”  This is because in this sort of statement, the first word is a known quantity and the second depends on it for definition.  So, the natural approach of most Americans assumes and cultural understanding of love, then continues to build an understanding of God based on that assumption. 

John, on the other hand, does the opposite.  He begins with a history of God’s words and deeds.  By the time John write this letter, the entire Old Testament, all four Gospels, all of Paul’s epistles, and several other New Testament books have already been written.  These documents provide a verifiable definition of who God is and what His will is.  That, John says, is the definition of love. 

So, whatever we understand love to be must be consistent with the character of God, who is the very definition of love.  If God did something, it was loving.  If God commands it, that is loving.  This is true even when it seems hateful or horrible to us.  If it conflicts with God’s prior commands, it is not love, no matter how it feels.  If it is not consistent with the character of God revealed in previous scripture, it is not love, regardless of assumptions to the contrary. 

John even gives the prime example of love in the same chapter when He says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

So, when John says, “God is love,” he is describing to his readers what their lives as Christians are to look like—that as people who have been forgiven by God, called by God, and chosen by God, they now reflect the character of the God who has made them His own, not that they begin with their own desires, assumptions, or understandings, then arrive at conclusions about God in light of them.