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February 2, 2014

The Power of a Pure Passion

Gary Thomas — 

As an engineer, God hit this one out of the park. Creating a physical act that literally, through the chemical reactions in our brains, renews marital affection; that costs nothing; that offers tremendous physical pleasure in a world filled with frequent pain; that becomes a shared and exclusive experience that protects the stability of the entire family—just from a creative aspect, how can we not be in awe of the amazing invention of God that our culture describes by that little three-letter-word, sex?

When married Christians begin to understand the role, importance and blessing of healthy marital sexuality, that it has the potential to become such a positive, holy force for good, they will embrace it with a new enthusiasm and sense of purpose. Experiencing sexual intimacy on this level will help us to fully live out God’s design for intimacy, creating such a powerful experience that any thought of infidelity is shut out. In fact, positive sexual experience is like pulling the weeds of temptation from the ground; they’re removed before they have a chance to grow.

How God Uses Sex

The past decade has led to an explosion of understanding about the chemical interactions of our brains, and many insights about love and marriage have become more readily apparent. For starters, that wonderfully transcendent, carry-me-away feeling of infatuation will not last more than about 24 to 33 months. This sudden affection is intense, but it’s a “sprinter,” not a marathoner; it has no endurance, and will begin to fade about the time that most couples come home from their honeymoon.

As the inventor of our brains, our Creator knows this, so He also designed a follow-up act that literally renews a couple’s affection: sexual intimacy. Here’s how it works. At any given time, the female brain contains up to ten times more oxytocin than the male brain. Oxytocin is the bonding chemical that creates feelings of affection and empathy. You want to know why women tend to be more invested in close relationships than men? Oxytocin is one of the reasons.

There’s only one time in human experience when the husband’s level of oxytocin begins to approach that of his wife’s: immediately following an act of sexual intimacy. A man’s brain literally re-bonds with his spouse, making him, at that moment, more committed to his family, more satisfied with his wife, more invested in his home. Wives, why do your husbands want sex with you so often (whether they know this is the reason or not)? It’s because they never feel closer to you than immediately following that encounter.

You might wish this wasn’t the case; you might prefer that your husband feel closest to you after he fixes the garbage disposal, or after he spends forty-five minutes talking about his feelings. You might wish this, but that’s not how God created your man, and with good reason.

We men are not, by nature, altruistic beings. One of the most common complaints I hear from young brides is that shortly after the wedding, the husband suddenly gains a new sense of fervor about his job. Now that he “has” his wife, his focus and energies shift to other arenas. None of this is hidden from God, so he gave men a physiological reason to stay connected to and invested in our marriages—the hormonal desire to become physically intimate. Wise husbands will learn that for the wife to be enthusiastic about physical intimacy, we need to maintain our marriage on all levels. We need to listen to her, be considerate and respectful toward her, grow even in spiritual intimacy, or the sexual relationship is likely to fade.

Thus God has created a physical motivation for men to keep growing toward their wives.

Though sex can be extremely pleasurable, that’s not God’s end purpose. Though sex can reduce tension, that’s not God’s primary design for it. Though it can satisfy, at least temporarily, hormonal urges, that’s not why God created it. First and foremost (beyond reproduction, of course), God created a physical act to preserve the marriage and renew the bonds of affection between husband and wife.

Without wanting to remove the mystery, sex is a very effective tool to keep the marital connection strong. Studies have shown a one-to-one connection between the frequency of sexual intercourse within a marriage and the overall satisfaction of that marriage. This doesn’t surprise me, as it reflects what is literally happening to a couple’s brains when they engage in the physical expression of their love–and why premarital sexual experience can preserve an unfortunate relationship. God knew what he was talking about when he prescribed sexual experience only for marriage.

Enjoying the Gift through the Seasons of Marriage

Okay, we’ve established that sex is an effective neurological “glue” that can be applied and re-applied to help keep a couple feeling intimate. The challenge is that, in the words of Dr. Juli Slattery, the “gift” of sex is more like a Legos set than it is a finished toy—you have to build it, rebuild it, and put some effort into fully enjoying it.

Sadly, some Christians feel guilty for doing this. They may be dealing with some residual guilt from pre-marital sexual experience and as a result, they have mistakenly assumed that sex and sin are all but synonymous. They don’t have the spiritual freedom to think about sex, read about sex, or plan a sexual encounter with their spouse without feeling like they are dishonoring God.

This is yet another argument to reserve sexual activity for marriage; it sets us up to embrace sex (rather than fight it as a temptation) for the rest of our lives. We don’t have space to deliver you from this dilemma in this article, but if this sounds like you, please talk to your pastor. Sex is so important to a marriage that it’s worth fighting the embarrassment and pain of dealing with your past to create a richer present and a more hopeful future with your spouse.

When we can embrace sex as a good gift from God, we have the freedom to plan moments of sexual intimacy with our spouse. This becomes a different kind of challenge at all stages of a marriage.

The first real challenge to sexual intimacy often occurs right around the birth of the first child. Because childbirth stops the full expression of sexual intimacy for a number of weeks, and a new baby takes its physical toll on both parents, full sexual intimacy needs to be intentionally re-introduced to the marriage once it’s possible to do so. Psychologically, our brains create ruts after forty days of any particular habit. Going forty days without sex thus becomes the status quo.

It needs to be broken, or it will become a habit.

I encourage wives to make a big deal about this. Just remember that your husband’s sexual needs haven’t vanished, and it’s a wise wife who understands that while full intercourse may not be immediately possible, there are other ways for couples to still express physical affection and care for each other. But when the full expression does become available, make it an event. Buy something special to wear. Get someone to watch the baby so that there will be no interruptions. If you can, go to a hotel, so you’re not surrounded by a house that needs to be cleaned, a phone that might ring, and certainly, a baby that might cry.

When you understand how important sex is to a relationship, and when you realize that preserving your marriage is one of the best gifts you can give to your children, you’ll also understand that leaving your baby for a few hours to reconnect as a couple is a tremendous gift to that child, not just to each other. It’s dangerous, as well as selfish, to ignore your spouse while caring for a baby. You’re putting that baby’s home at risk. You may not feel like leaving your child to enjoy sexual intimacy, but sexual intimacy is one of God’s tools to help you and your spouse reconnect.

When your kids become toddlers, the challenge is often physical exhaustion. Though younger kids often go to bed rather early—thus giving couples time to themselves in the later evening—caring for small children can be so exhausting that there is often little energy or inclination to do so at the end of the day. Couples need to fight this; trading baby sitting with a friend, having family members watch the kids, getting a little proactive to preserve energy and time to reconnect sexually is vital—and wise. It’s okay—in fact, it’s a good idea—to have someone watch your kids in the afternoon and use that time to take a nap or rest up, so that you’ll have energy later in the evening. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your spouse.

When the kids reach their teens, the issue usually isn’t energy as much as it is privacy. Again, spouses looking at the empty nest will need to be proactive, taking time away to reconnect, unless they want to face the empty nest with an empty marriage.

Every season of marriage seems to fight against frequent sexual expression, which is why if a couple isn’t intentional and committed to keeping this aspect of their marriage alive, it will surely die. Here’s the danger of that: most people’s desire for sexual intimacy doesn’t die, which sets up a fierce temptation for destructive extra-marital sexual activity.

Making Sex Count

How can couples use the power of sex to keep them together, through all seasons of marriage?

1. Keep it Exclusive

If you’re frustrated with your sexual relationship, the worst thing you can do is to “cope” with a substitute—trashy novels and television programs, pornography, or an affair. Every marriage is going to endure some dry spells. You can respond by learning to communicate with each other on deeper levels, becoming vulnerable and open to change, growing in empathy and being committed to meeting each other’s needs, or you can take the “easy” way out by falling into the trap of settling for a readily available substitute, in which case sex will surely pull you apart.

Remember the bonding power of sex—something really positive when it connects two spouses, but extremely destructive when it causes one spouse to bond with something or someone outside the home.

Shortcuts often become habits. What “gets you through the night” can be used to weather a difficult month, and then endure a challenging year. Pretty soon, you’ll realize you’ve developed an addiction and feel alienated from, and bitter toward, your spouse.

For sex to work the way God intended it to, we must preserve the exclusive nature of marital sexuality—in thought, word, and deed. When sex begins to wane, your sexual drive and frustration is God’s physical reminder that you need to pay more attention to your marriage, not less. Use your energy to address the frustrating issues in your marriage instead of ignoring your problems and making them worse yet by “coping” with a substitute.

2. Share Your Vulnerability

If your sexual relationship is disappointing at best, that doesn’t mean you merely have to suffer in silence. Guys, learn to be vulnerable without going on the attack. I’ve heard men complain about their wives’ lack of interest on innumerable occasions. My response: do you have the guts to talk to your wife instead of your friends about your frustration?

By “talk,” I don’t mean cruel, cutting sarcasm, but respectfully sharing your struggles and frustration, and being open to how you may be contributing to your wife’s lack of interest.

Spouses need to be sensitive about each other’s vulnerability. Let’s be honest about the spiritual reality of sex: biblically speaking, the only sex life my wife can enjoy is the sex life I choose to give to her. Anything I deny her, by definition, becomes an absolute denial, because she has no other outlet. You know what this reality produces?

Power.

The stereotype is that husbands usually want sex more often than do their wives; there are valid physiological reasons for this, but I’ve talked to plenty of couples where the wife feels cheated by her husband’s diminished desire. Whether it’s the wife or husband who feels denied, one thing is almost always true: whoever wants sex the least tends to have the most power in bed, because they possess the absolute power of denial. And the old adage, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is particularly true in the bedroom.

If you’re the spouse who holds the power, you’re going to be tested spiritually. Will you use that power generously, or to manipulate? Will you use that power to demonstrate kindness, or to pay back your spouse for perceived slights?

The apostle John tells us how Jesus used power. He tells us that while “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power,” (John 13:3) instead of abusing that power, Jesus got up from the meal, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples’ feet, becoming a servant. Two of those feet, by the way, belonged to Judas–the man who was even then plotting to betray him. Jesus still loved Judas in a very physical way, taking his smelly and dusty feet into his lap and washing them with his own hands.

The sexual relationship within marriage gives us a tremendous opportunity for spiritual growth, to become generous and kind like Christ even in the face of others’ unkindness. When we have power over another and we use that power responsibly and benevolently, whether they deserve it or not, we become more like Christ, and we reflect the fact that we were made to love God by serving others.

Too often, the sexual relationship is divorced from our faith experience; popular magazines tell us a fulfilling sexual relationship is all about passion, physical pleasure, performance, desire, and technical know-how. While these elements are all important, they are also all secondary. God can use the sexual relationship to teach us how to serve our mates, and when we do that, we become like our Savior: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Mark 10:45)

Ask yourself honestly, if God looked at nothing other than my sexuality, would he see me displaying the mature qualities of a growing believer in Jesus Christ, or would I look like some selfish, non-believing pagan?

3. Make an effort

Since sex is a good gift, blessed by God, with so many positive benefits, it is our privilege to put time, thought and effort into making it happen—not just in terms of quantity, but quality.

With small kids, tight budgets, and privacy issues, a lack of intentionality is going to erode any sexual relationship. To be honest, most seasons of marriage don’t afford us the opportunity to create a “grand slam” sexual experience every week, or maybe not even every month. We can learn to appreciate those quick moments, the tender moments, the slow and sometimes even tired moments stolen at the end of the day.

But doesn’t it make sense that if a couple isn’t taking each other for granted, there will be at least several times a year when each one puts forth some additional effort to create some really special, even memorable, occasions?

Let me ask you: when’s the last time you’ve done that? What’s stopping you from doing it next weekend?

You may, like so many of us, wish you had a better body to give your spouse; you may lament your lack of skill, or the amount of energy you possess at the end of the day. But more important than these concerns—and even more of a blessing—is to earnestly become a generous lover, bringing the kindness of Christ to our spouse in a very physical and yes, pleasurable way. When we do that, our spouse will be blessed beyond measure—and so will we.

The Truly Intimate Couple

I know some wonderful Christian counselors who specialize in sexual issues. It is their contention that it takes a couple about 20 years to truly connect, sexually, as a couple. Now that my wife and I have celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, I’m inclined to agree with them. I believe a couple can build such a satisfying sexual relationship, getting to know each other so well, growing in intimacy on all levels—that the thought of an affair holds little appeal.

Here’s the test: if God told me he’d grant me a weekend away with any woman of my choice, at a luxury hotel, guilt free, in a millisecond I’d ask for my wife. I wouldn’t even have to think about it. When we talk about the kids for a bit, enjoy a good meal, and then all but melt together—who could ask for anything more? We have a lifetime of knowledge about how to please each other, we have common memories, we have a shared faith in God, and when the sexual act renews our bond—when there is no guilt but great joy—the entire experience approaches that of worship.

There, I’ve said it. Holy marital sex borders on being a religious act when it is done according to God’s design, with hearts full of gratitude toward God, and with the intention of celebrating what God has made and strengthening the family bonds that brings such joy and pleasure to our Creator.

Satisfying sex isn’t just about you and your spouse. It’s not just about affair-proofing your marriage. It’s about pleasing the ultimate engineer, the God who thought it all up in the first place. And for a believer, there is no greater joy than that.

February 2, 2014

The Joy of Selflessness

Gary Thomas — 

Kelsey looked so ridiculously small on that horse. The consent form I had signed before she could ride it warned, “Horse riding is the only sport in which a predator seeks to exert his control over an animal three to four times his own size and power.” But eight-year-old Kelsey’s heart was set on riding horses while we vacationed at the beach (“and I’m not riding a pony!”), and besides, I thought, it can’t be too dangerous or these people wouldn’t still be in business.

We opted for the trail ride, and soon my three kids and I were slogging through the Oceanside forest. I was in the rear on the largest horse, Kelsey followed the leader, and Allison and Graham were in front of me. About 2/3 of the way into our ride, the lead horse caught scent of something that scared him. He bolted back, and Kelsey’s horse reared around in panic, passing Graham’s, running toward Allison’s, and creating a general melee.

The last time I had ridden a horse, I was ten years old. I know nothing about controlling an animal that you couldn’t pick up watching Bonanza reruns. My horse tried to bolt right, but I jerked it back to the left so I could keep Kelsey and the other kids in my sight. As the three horses bolted toward me, I remember thinking, I don’t believe this. I’m going to have to stop Kelsey’s horse.

I’ll never forget two things: the look on Kelsey’s face as that massively larger animal decided to take over, and the way time seemed to stop as I had no idea of what to do other than put myself in her path so she couldn’t get by. I didn’t think about my own horse rearing. I wasn’t thinking about falling off. I was consumed with the thought, How do I get my daughter’s horse to stop?

The trail leader apologized profusely. She had never had something like that happen before, and we slowly made our way back to the barn.

There’s a clarity to our vision when we completely forget ourselves and concentrate solely on the task before us. It’s an energizing feeling to be so focused on someone else that there is no thought of our own welfare, predicament, or problems. Though it seems ironic, it’s a blessed state, far more meaningful than when we are obsessed with our own trials and tribulations—but it’s not one that naturally colors our spirit. Self-centeredness can creep up on us in so many ways. Our fallen nature and our culture collide with the force of an avalanche to push us ever further down the hill of self-centeredness, but true faith calls us back to the summit of selflessness.

Giving When It Hurts

Paul taught that Christian faith leads us to be oriented around the needs of others: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself…” (Rom. 15:1-3)

In fact, Paul took this line of thinking one step further. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (1 Cor. 9:19) Because Paul’s writings are so familiar to us, it is easy to glide right over the depth of Paul’s willingness to put himself completely at others’ disposal.

The extreme to which Paul adhered to this selflessness is, in fact, shocking to modern sensibilities. The great apostle tells the Romans that he wishes he could cut himself off from salvation if in doing so he might save Israel (Rom. 9:3). Again, let’s not quickly pass over this. Paul was fully aware of the total horrors of hell—the physical pain, the emotional angst, the spiritual alienation—yet still he proclaims, “I wish I could be damned in hell for all eternity, if in my damnation the rest of the people of Israel could be saved.”

Where did Paul get this selflessness? How could a man become so others-oriented, so willing to play the role of a servant? I believe it essentially comes down to this: Paul took the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) literally, and found that they were true! Throughout his letters, Paul is effusive with his thanks and affection for others—clearly, his service on their behalf brings tremendous joy to his life: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you…” (Rom. 1:8; 1 Cor. 1:4) “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” (2 Cor. 2:4) “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart.” (Phil. 1:7) Paul’s affection for others was real; the enjoyment he derived from serving them and sacrificing on their behalf was tangible and at times intense. These are not the words of a man who only grudgingly serves. These are the words of a man who has found service to be the most meaningful life imaginable, creating an intimacy many of us could only dream about.

Paul found the hidden, quiet blessing of a selfless life, the kind Solomon talked about when he wrote, “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” (Prov. 11:25) Ironically, this attitude of selflessness actually creates a fountain of joy. It seasons our faith with meaning and applies purpose to our pain.

“The pursuit of happiness”—for which aim our forefathers fought a war—wouldn’t even register in Paul’s top ten priorities. His goal in life was much more simple: “And [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor. 5:15)

Everything Paul experienced was put through this grid. He even learned to “rejoice” in suffering, because by suffering “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24)

Paul didn’t look at what hardship did to him. He was entirely preoccupied by what his suffering accomplished for God’s church. When he was imprisoned, Paul took heart in the fact that “because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” (Philip. 1:14)

The key to Paul’s joy is adopting Paul’s mission: i.e., become a champion of God’s work on this earth. Sacrifice, serve, and tirelessly work to build the Kingdom of God in this world. If you do that faithfully, you may find, as did Paul, that the selfless life, though not an easy life, though filled with much pain, anguish, and heartache, is the most meaningful life that can be lived. When you know you’re doing something solely out of love for God and a desire to see His Kingdom prosper on this earth, there’s an unrivaled inner satisfaction that fills your soul. This satisfaction has been testified to for ages, beginning with the classical Christian writers.

The Classical Chorus

Augustine captured the spirit of Paul’s writing precisely when he wrote that “God fashions us, that is, forms and creates us anew, not as men—for he has done that already—but as good men, which His grace is now doing.” In other words, when God’s Spirit transforms us and re-creates us, He does so with a view toward making us different—i.e., less selfish and more inclined to serve others, that is, to make us good. He doesn’t just save us, but intends to change us.

What else is the meaning of Ephesians 2:10? “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” But here’s the delightful irony: in Augustine’s mind, acts of good will and charity, far from being a nuisance and a burden, actually promote true happiness: “Acts of compassion…towards our neighbors, when they are directed towards God…are intended to free us from misery and thus to bring us to happiness—which is only attained by that good of which it has been said, ‘As for me, my true good is to cling to God.’ (Ps. 73:28)”

Augustine had plenty of opportunities to live out this thinking. When he first became a Christian, Augustine’s ambition was to become a quiet monk, living out his final days in prayer and contemplation. His piety soon became noticed in high places, however, and church authorities asked Augustine to become a Bishop, which led him into a very public life—the opposite of what he wanted. Even so, Augustine agreed to take on these responsibilities. He eventually discovered that a life of service was preferable to a life of self-absorption, so much so that he was willing to risk his life for others. Ultimately, this selflessness led Augustine to an earlier death.

In 427, the Arian Vandals advanced into North Africa, where Augustine lived and ministered. Genserik, the Vandal king, specifically sought out Christian churches, as he heard they were particularly rich with treasures. Refugees poured into Hippo, where Augustine was settled, and soon, Genserik laid siege to Augustine’s city.

The refugees brought more than heightened responsibilities for Augustine; they also brought disease. So many people, packed into so tight a space, inevitably created a sick environment, virtually over night. At this point, Augustine had three choices: he could flee (as bishop, Augustine could have abandoned his people and post and sought safe sanctuary elsewhere in the kingdom, receiving sanctuary in the highest and safest places), he could stay holed up in his palace and ignore the needs of his people, or he could go out, get his hands dirty, and risk becoming ill himself.

Augustine didn’t know how to be a bishop “from afar,” so he kept up his active schedule, being with the people—and paid dearly for his service. During the third month of the siege, in August of 430, Augustine developed a high fever, from which he never recovered. He gave his last hours offering refuge to a frightened flock.

The ancients were not masochists; they wanted true joy like any of us do. Certainly, they sought fulfillment, and even happiness (properly defined), but they discovered that happiness is best experienced in a selfless life; that self-centered living creates its own misery. Fenelon, a seventeenth century French mystic, wrote, “The forgetfulness of self…does not mean never seeing anything in relation to ourselves, but only never staying shut up within ourselves, concerned with our own possessions or welfare. It is the preoccupation with ourselves, which keeps us from love pure and simple, which contracts our hearts, and which turns us from our true perfection, because it makes us seek it with pressure, trouble and uneasiness, for love of ourselves.”

Rather than drink from the satisfying waters of selflessness, our culture has developed a dangerous appetite for the bitter drink of selfishness. “Obsession” is actually used as a popular and inviting word when marketing a book or movie these days: “Obsession… passion… a great read.” It’s as if we think nothing is more interesting to watch than a man or woman in the throes of a genuine obsession. But if you’ve ever met someone who is truly obsessive, there is no romance about it. Being psychologically obsessed is a limiting, tyrannical state, with little freedom, tremendous angst, and much anxiety. Obsession shrinks life rather than focuses it. The word may seem romantically mysterious but it is in actuality a painful foretaste of hell, a tremendously limiting world that will ultimately suffocate our spirits.

Self-forgetfulness, on the other hand, leads us to increased joy because we can truly celebrate when others face blessings, thus multiplying our opportunities for celebration. Fenelon explains, “The entirely pure and detached souls…regard the mercies shed on others with as much love and satisfaction as they do the mercies which they themselves have received.”

The literature of the classics is a veritable chorus of dying to self so that we might truly live. In Beyond Personality, C.S. Lewis writes, “The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you’ll find your real self. Lose your life and you’ll save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep nothing back. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

Self-centered faith ultimately becomes very disillusioning. In the long run, living for our own good—even using religion to do so—leads only to hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. Dying to ourselves and living solely for God and his kingdom, and thus being enlisted to do good to others and focus on serving, gives us God, and in God we have everything.

Like Augustine, Lewis knew what he was talking about when he spoke of the benefit that comes from selfless living. During the Second World War, Lewis took in numerous children who were fleeing from London and other cities vulnerable to German bombing. Bringing children into the Kilns was a lot of extra work—not to mention the excess noise—but this act of service also opened the door to one of Lewis’ greatest life works. You see, one afternoon one of these evacuated children grew interested in an old wardrobe and asked Lewis if she could go inside it and if, perhaps, there was anything behind it?

Thus was planted the seed for perhaps the most beloved of all of Lewis’ books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. George Sayer, one of Lewis’s biographers, writes of this period, “Having children in the house benefited [Lewis] immensely. He had been shy and ignorant of them, but he now gradually acquired the knowledge and affection for them that made it possible for him to write the Narnia books. Without their presence, it is unlikely that he would even have had the impulse.”

The truth is, we need to serve God more than He needs us to serve him. Service can open doors of ministry we never would have dreamed of otherwise.

The Choice

All of us have a choice to make. For most of us, this choice is unconscious, the result of many mini-decisions, the implications of which we may not be aware of. But whenever we choose selfishness, we limit our life. Whenever we choose service, we expand it.

Let me explain. When our happiness is dependent on what happens to us and when our self-focus determines our daily mood, our joy will necessarily be limited to whatever good happens to fall within our own limited experience. But when we truly learn to delight in the welfare of others and rejoice in what God is doing in their lives, the potential for increased joy skyrockets. Even when Paul was in prison, he could rejoice over what God was doing in Colassae; as death drew near, Paul took joy in the rise of Timothy’s ministry; as persecution followed upon persecution, Paul rejoiced at the strength and witness of the Philippians. Because Paul was so others-focused, nothing could get him down. There was always someone to rejoice about and to thank God for! This is the incredible miracle of joy that springs forth when selflessness takes hold in our lives.

Selfishness, on the other hand, is a form of slow suffocation, choking us on the limited air of our own self-interest. I remember Dr. J.I. Packer telling a class at Regent College about a New Yorker cartoon in which a smiling woman is talking to a glum-faced companion. The smiling woman says, “Well that’s enough about me. Now let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” “The happy state,” Dr. Packer commented, “which we know only rarely, is the unselfconscious state in which all our attention is being given to the people around us, to the situation outside us and we’re forgetting ourselves in the service of others. You see that to perfection in the life of Jesus.”

Self-centered living is suffocated living; it reduces our world, our focus, and our concerns to an almost unbearable degree, always eventually leading to misery and, ironically enough, unhappiness.

Perhaps that’s why, scripturally, selflessness isn’t reserved solely for mature Christians. Paul urges all of us to adopt it. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” he tells the Philippians, “but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:3-4) Spiritual health—in Paul’s mind, at least—is marked by a vibrant, others-centered compassion and concern. Far from simply absorbing blessings, we are called to lavish God’s love on others.

If I find myself becoming disillusioned or apathetic about my faith, one of the first things I check is my orientation. Am I focused on how God is “failing” to serve me and answer my prayers the way I want them answered, or on how I am serving God? Am I bitter over how others neglect me, or am I concerning myself with noticing and encouraging others? When I do this alignment, I find that selflessness truly does set me free and lead to many of the Bible’s greatest promises: joy, peace, contentment, and soul satisfaction.

Set Free From Self

My wife startled me with what seemed like a bizarre suggestion. “I think we should let the Smiths borrow our van for the weekend,” she said. Just weeks earlier, we had purchased our first brand new vehicle in almost fifteen years. Finally, we were able to secure a minivan that hadn’t been driven halfway into the ground and littered with a previous family’s supply of fast-food and playground dirt. I was determined to make the car last—and keep the mileage down—for as long as possible. The thought of someone else taking our new minivan over the mountains, dropping 1,000 miles on it in three days (when the car had just 700 miles on it to begin with) wasn’t a pleasant one.

But I knew God had set me up. My morning devotions that day had been taken from the book of Acts, and these were the main verses: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) Sometimes, it’s “safer” to schedule your Bible reading in the evening, after all your important decisions have been made!

When I saw that Lisa was serious, I winced. Clearly this was a case where God had provided and we could help out another Christian couple.

Even so, I was reluctant.

“If money wasn’t an issue,” I protested to my wife, “I wouldn’t mind letting them borrow our brand new van. It’s just that this is our only vehicle, and I want it to last. We’ve been trying to keep the mileage down, and now we’re going to let someone else take it over the mountains?”

Having been married to me for over sixteen years, Lisa knows how to read my face. I wasn’t acting nobly, but I was certainly feeling guilty, and guilt usually wins out. “Should I call them?” she asked.

“I don’t want you to,” I confessed. “But I think God wants us to.” Sigh. Deep breath. Second sigh. “Yeah. Go ahead.”

Here’s the irony: making that decision actually set me free. While I selfishly held onto a piece of metal, it “owned” me. I winced when neighbor kids slammed the door a little too hard. I became worried whenever I thought I saw a new nick somewhere on the body. I began looking for parking spots that might be farther away but which offered increased protection for the minivan’s exterior.

Once I relinquished this van—emotionally and spiritually—I saw it as the tool it was, something that’s inevitably going to get banged up a little bit, but that’s what it’s for. Offering the car to someone else risked increasing the mileage, but what I lost there I gained many times over in spiritual freedom.

Some people are imprisoned by their demand for comfort. Others are imprisoned by their demand to be noticed, or appreciated, or respected. Some of us are imprisoned by being selfish with what we own.

God invites us to experience a new freedom and a new joy that is found when we ignore our first selfish impulses and allow God’s Spirit to give us a heart for others. He wants to expand our focus and turn our eyes away from own small world, and to find ourselves by losing ourselves in service to His people.

I can virtually guarantee you that this is one truth that will be tested in your life within the next 24 hours. For your own sake, I pray you’ll choose the blessed path of selflessness.

January 30, 2014

Marriage Monopoly

Gary Thomas — 
photo: William Warby, Creative Commons

photo: William Warby, Creative Commons

When still in high school, our youngest daughter stayed home one day, too sick to attend school, so my wife and I agreed to play what turned out to be the most boring game of Monopoly in the history of the world.  While all three of us suffered through the ordeal, I had time—plenty of time!—to think about the monopoly created by marriage.

This monopoly game doesn’t use money for currency; it uses love.

On the day you got married, you gained a powerful monopoly

—you became your spouse’s best friend, exclusive lover, most immediate spiritual support, and financial partner.  If you fail on any front; if your love falters in any way, there is no one else to pick up the slack.

The only love life my wife can enjoy is the love life I choose to give to her; do I treat this as a challenge to rise to my best, to be a thoughtful, generous, and enthusiastic lover, or am I repaying her commitment with coldness, occasional disinterest, and an overall lack of zeal?

The only spiritual union within marriage my wife will ever know is the spiritual union I share with her; am I going to allow my fears, insecurities or lack of interest in prayer and shared fellowship become a dead end in our marriage?

How many things in your marriage are such that, if you don’t do them for your spouse, no one else can or will?

Which means, anything you deny your spouse in certain areas becomes an absolute denial. If you don’t take vacations with your spouse, they never get couple vacations. If you refuse to date your spouse, they don’t ever get to enjoy marital dates. If you won’t talk to your spouse, they’ll never know what it’s like to have a spouse be a best friend. They can’t go anywhere else to get what only you can provide, which makes your withholding all the more egregious.

I can work diligently to provide well for the woman who made such a commitment to me—a gift of trust that still leaves me breathless—or I can look on her leap of faith with complete dispassion and a cold heart.  I can abuse the monopoly that marriage creates to indirectly make my wife pay for marrying me (after all, what is she going to do, short of leaving me?), or I can bless her with an abundance of love, care, and kindness.

Let’s use the currency of love to make our spouses glad they chose usLet’s recognize how vulnerable they have made themselves to us and be generous in response to that commitment.

January 27, 2014

God Hates Domestic Violence

Gary Thomas — 
photo: alexandria lomanno, Creative Commons

photo: alexandria lomanno, Creative Commons

Two days before Christmas, I accidentally sent a decorative reindeer hurtling off a small table in our library. This reindeer definitely could not fly and it shattered into five separate pieces. I picked each piece up, knowing there was no way I could repair this, and presented the demolished deer to Lisa.

“That’s fine,” she said, surprising me. “It wasn’t that expensive, I got it at Home Goods, and I wasn’t that into it.”

Our passion over the destruction of something is directly related to how important it is to us.

On another occasion, I dropped a glass cup that had belonged to Lisa’s grandmother. She knew I didn’t mean to break it, but she couldn’t pretend it didn’t hurt because it did. The cup was precious to her. Lisa didn’t even have to speak. I could feel the loss just by looking into her eyes.

When will we men understand how precious God’s daughters—our wives—are to him? To hurt them, even just to make them miserable, must raise a passion that we can’t even imagine. If we don’t strive to understand the depths of God’s love for our wives, we’ll miss the breadth of his wrath when we abuse them.

There’s a reason I’m picking on the men, here. The Bible does, too.

Christians are known for quoting Malachi 2:16 in which God clearly says, “I hate divorce,” but it’s amazing to me how infrequently the rest of the verse is quoted: “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment.” The sad consequence is that this verse is sometimes used to cement the opposite of God’s intent: keeping a woman in a dangerous home.

The force of a sacred marriage—love, absolute benevolence, living to bless each other and showcase each other, being for the other, nurturing each other, supporting each other, encouraging each other—is diametrically opposed to any form of assault. The church should hate domestic violence as much as it hates divorce. It should speak against domestic violence as much as it speaks against divorce. It should support women caught in domestic violence as much as it offers divorce recovery programs.

When we assume that God hates divorce more than He hates domestic violence it shows how little we understand His passion for His daughters. It also leads to the disastrous consequence of making women feel like they are obligated to stay in a dangerous situation that God hates. The last thing a woman fleeing a dangerous home should feel is guilt. She is serving God’s purpose by ending something He hates—violence against her.

Pastors, we must hold all forms of marital assault with the same contempt with which God holds it.

He hates it. Sometimes, it seems like we are more concerned with keeping the marriage going than ending the violence, when in reality, violent men need to understand that in order to keep the marriage going the violence must stop, now. Notice how we put the onus on the woman instead of the man: “Wife, stay in the marriage,” rather than, “Husband, we cannot support your wife staying with you as long as you harm her.”

We won’t counsel like this until we hate domestic violence as much as God hates it.  The harm it does to the children; the deplorable witness it gives to the world; the damage it does to a woman’s soul (not to mention her precious body); the corrupting influence it has on the male perpetrator; the pain it causes our Heavenly Father-in-Law who hates to see His daughters abused—it is as ugly a sin as you can find.

Would you ever counsel your daughter to stay in a place where she winces when she sees a knife, or flinches when her husband touches her? Would you ever tell her to spend a night in a home where she’s not entirely sure she’ll wake up alive or unbruised in the morning? Wouldn’t you do everything in your power to get her out of there, sooner rather than later?

Every Christian wife should be able to look at her husband’s hands not as a threat but as a source of provision

—he will work hard for her and her children. She should view his hands not as instruments of pain but as tools of tremendous sexual pleasure—over the course of their marriage, he should provide countless sessions of loving caresses and experienced affection. His hands should be thought of as a source of protection— those hands will become a fist only to protect the family he loves, never, not even once, to turn on them.

May every church have signs in the women’s restrooms telling women where they can find help. May every woman’s group be on the lookout for any signs that any of the church’s daughters are afraid to go to their homes.

When we think keeping a marriage together is the only biblical solution, even if it means preserving a violent situation, we have become beholders of legalism and strangers to God’s true passion. The destruction of a marriage is a terrible thing; the destruction of a woman’s soul, the damage to the children’s psyches, the triumph of fear and hatred where there should be faith hope and love, is just as bad.

The last thing I am is “soft” on divorce.

I think a case can be made that adultery should still be a criminal offense. You harm a family and a child far more by stealing a mom or dad, a husband or a wife, than you do by stealing a television set. Yet the latter offense will put you in jail while the other gets you, literally, nothing in the way of legal punishment. I have pleaded with couples to reconcile, and I have stressed that making a poor choice in your twenties doesn’t give you an escape clause in your thirties when you meet a “better” choice.

But when I truly understand that my wife is God’s daughter, that every believing woman is God’s daughter, domestic violence isn’t something I just want to “treat.” It’s something I’ve learned to hate, as God hates it. And if getting the woman out of the house is the only way to bring it to an end, then the sin is on the man who hurts, not the woman who flees.

When Jesus seemed so hard and so cold to the Scribes; when he called them out and sounded vicious in His denunciations, what was He angry about? “They that devour widows’ houses.”

If we start messing with God’s daughters, we’re hitting Him where it hurts the most. We’re raising the most furious of His passions. We’re putting ourselves directly in the line of His red-hot wrath.

Let’s hate domestic violence as much as God does.

My youngest daughter Kelsey is strong-minded, as a college editor-in-chief (which she is) needs to be. That has led to some fascinating discussions on what it’s like for a 21 year old woman to sit in evangelical churches. Rather recently, she challenged the way modesty is often handled in local churches. In a follow-up email, she added some thoughts that I’d like to share with you (with her permission), to start the discussion on the best way we can teach this important biblical principle to today’s generation.

Dad,

So I never really got to finish my thoughts on why I thought the way the church has approached modesty in my experience is harmful. I pulled out a few thoughts from my journal and added to it here. This is really long, so if you make it all the way through I will be grateful.

In all honesty, there are some things that as a man you will never be able to understand.

You don’t get whistled at walking down the street. You don’t experience the feel of men’s eyes helping themselves to your body on a regular basis. You don’t get cat calls walking out of a coffee shop that only get worse when you put your head down, ignore them, and walk quickly. I’m sure you’ve had a girl whistle at you a few times in your day, but the fact is this isn’t a constant reality for you. And for me, and most women, it is.

I can’t think of the last time I went more than several weeks without receiving an unrequested comment or call from a stranger about my body. What you then, as a man, also probably don’t know is that it makes absolutely no difference how we dress. The type of comment might change (“why so covered up, pretty lady?” is as offensive to me as whistling at my sundress), but the frequency doesn’t. Men are able to objectify women with little provocation. In some cultures, seeing a women’s hair or ankles is considered tempting and evocative. Men can undress a woman with their eyes whether she is wearing a bikini or a burka.

The world tells women on a regular basis that they are objects. If they dress “modestly” and are virgins they’re called a prude. If they wear slinky tank tops and sleep around they are called a slut or whore. Either way, women are objectified and considered a sex object.

When women are constantly having this degrading message beaten into them all day out in the world, it would be wonderful if they could come into a church and find refuge from objectification. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Growing up, I went to my share of modesty talks and was told it was my responsibility to cover up my body so that I did not lead boys into temptation. I went to a private middle school that walked around handing out oversized (and smelly) t-shirts to girls supposedly not covered up enough. I have a vivid memory of sitting between Willy Hanson, who was sporting a cut-off, and a girl in a spaghetti strap tank top, when the head of the school came in with her bag of t-shirts and made the girl put one on and completely ignored Willy. In high school I got a rash from having to wear a shirt over my two-piece swimsuit at a church camp while all the guys were allowed to run around without a top at all.

This way of approaching modesty gives women the exact same message as the rest of the world: your body is a sex object. You are a sex object. Your body is dirty and needs to be covered up.

Telling women to cover up for men holds women responsible for men’s lust. And that’s rape culture. It’s no large leap from that to telling women it’s their fault they were raped because they were wearing a short skirt.

My freshman year at Baylor, I went to a seminar for all freshman women on basically how to not get raped. The whole time I was wondering why the freshman boys weren’t forced to go to a seminar called how to not rape girls. And you know why? Because it’s seen as my responsibility. It is my job to cover up my breasts so they don’t lead men to lust, and it is my job to not attract or flirt with a man in case this leads him to have sex with me against my will. At their nature, these two responsibilities are not such different things.

I dress modestly because I have known my entire life that I am loved and I have worth and I am valuable, but it is increasingly rare for women to grow up with an intrinsic sense of self-worth like I did (thank you!). Far more beneficial than telling girls to put on a t-shirt to cover up their bodies is to tell them they are loved. They have worth. They are valuable. They are more than a sex object. Because the world isn’t telling them that.

It is even more crucial for men to hear the same thing: Women have worth. They are valuable for far more than their breasts. No type of dress gives a man license to objectify a woman. It is men’s responsibility to change the way women are talked about and looked at by men.

Basically, I believe the church is objectifying me as much as the world. Yes, the church is giving women a different solution: modesty as opposed to parading their bodies around for men to enjoy. But a different solution is not good enough. It’s time the church stopped obsessing over the length of my skirt and changed the message all together.

This is me (Gary) again. This post is already pretty long, so I’ll refrain from making any other comments except for this short one: what Kelsey hits on that the church might be missing is that whenever Paul addressed relations, he spoke to the men first. He doesn’t tell wives to submit to their husbands until he tells husbands to become sacrificial living martyrs for their wives. Have we missed this with our youth? Have we made young women (rather than young men) bear the burden of dealing with lust?

December 9, 2013

Celebrating Humble Families

Gary Thomas — 
photo: lucy96734, Creative Commons

photo: lucy96734, Creative Commons

The storming of the Bastille was the seminal event that unleashed the tumultuous French revolution; Europe would never be the same.  And yet, astonishingly, King Louis XVI’s diary entry for that day was “14/7 1789: Nothing”.

It’s incredible, when you think about it. The road to King Louis’ execution was paved that very day, yet he sat in his palace and thought, “Nothing to write about.”

The greatest events are often missed by contemporary observers.

That was certainly the case with the birth of Jesus. A relatively poor husband, a soon-to-be mother, and an unborn child stood poised to change the course not just of history, but of eternity, yet there was nothing to mark the grand occasion–no parades, no banners, no reporters, not even the most basic comforts. People on that day would be astonished to learn that much of the world, over two thousand years later, now annually celebrates an event they didn’t even know about.

Martin Luther writes, “Behold how very ordinary and common things are to us that transpire on earth, and yet how high they are regarded in heaven. On earth it occurs in this wise: Here is a poor young woman, Mary of Nazareth, not highly esteemed, but of the humblest citizens of the village.  No one is conscious of the great wonder she bears, she is silent, keeps her own counsel, and regards herself as the lowliest in the town…. Imagine how she was despised at the inns and stopping places on the way, although worthy to ride in state in a chariot of gold.”

If you were writing People magazine during the first century or “reporting” for TMZ, there would be thousands of couples you’d include before you would mention this one.  Mary was from a segment of the population that would never be featured in The New York Times.

Luther goes on, “There were, no doubt, many wives and daughters of prominent men at that time, who lived in fine apartments and great splendor, while the mother of God takes a journey in mid-winter under most trying circumstances.”

How much we miss when our eyes follow glamor instead of substance, and romance instead of love.

“They were the most insignificant and despised, so that they had to make way for others until they were obliged to take refuge in a stable, to share with the cattle…while many a wicked man sat at the head in the hotels and was honored as lord.  No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable… See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has and does.”

This Christmas season, let’s remind ourselves that the values of God’s Kingdom bear little resemblance to this world’s.

This ignored baby would one day teach His disciples, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”  But even at His birth He demonstrated, as Luther writes, “the world’s greatest wisdom is foolishness, her best actions are wrong and her greatest treasures are misfortunes.”

As followers of this humble baby, we are called to notice and hold dear what a world lusting after glamor often ignores. We are to prize character over immodesty, generosity over affluence, and humility over power.  We are not to value people because they have fine clothes, expensive cars, or famous faces—God’s greatest heroes are often nondescript, anonymous, and less than pleasing to the eye. Humble parents of anonymous families—faithfully serving God and raising their kids while everything else is valued—are celebrated in heaven this Christmas season.

Luther reminds us, “Behold how very richly God honors those who are despised of men…  The angels [couldn’t] find princes or valiant men to whom to communicate the good news; but only unlearned laymen, the most humble people upon earth… See how utterly God overthrows that which is lofty!  And yet we rage and rant for nothing but this empty honor, as if we had no honor to seek in heaven.”

This advent, what do you find yourself seeking–approval from the world, success in society’s eyes, or obedience to the King of Kings?

The world may care little what’s going on in our homes, but God does. The world won’t clap when a little boy or girl avoids a life-time of regrets by bowing their heads and submitting to Jesus as Lord, but heaven rejoices, and so should we. TMZ won’t mention a husband loving his wife as Christ loves the church, or a wife wrestling in prayer for her husband’s soul. But this season of all seasons should remind us that heaven watches what the world ignores.