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October 17, 2015

6 Marks of Healthy Sexuality

Gary Thomas — 

6 Marks of a Healthy Sexuality Final

What are the marks of a healthy sexual relationship?

It’s not inappropriate to ask what is most pleasurable or most exciting for married couples, but meaningful lovemaking is so much more than creating greater sexual arousal and climaxes. That’s why it’s not a bad idea to also ask “What are the markers of a wholesome sexual experience that is accomplishing God’s relational intent?”

In my view, “healthy” protects happy pleasure it doesn’t threaten it.

I write this post with a bit of pastoral concern: Lisa and I have met some wives (and the occasional husband) who felt tempted to compromise their faith and even their own sense of sanity because they realized after getting married that their spouse has some sexual hang-ups. At first, they thought the best thing to do was to “go along.” Going along never works; it just prolongs the inevitable crisis. Nursing an unhealthy inclination never makes things better; it just makes the way back a little longer and ultimately more difficult.

Seeking a healthy sexual relationship is a fair and good and wise and holy pursuit.

These six marks aren’t exhaustive; I’m sure there are many more, but here’s a short, non-scientific test to see how you and your spouse are doing in regards to sexual intimacy.

  1. Christian sex is always relational sex.

Any sexual experience divorced from relational connecting isn’t healthy sex. Pornography, voyeurism, predatory touching, any form of paying for sex, exhibitionism, group sex, anonymous sex, or objectifying marital sex all have the same common denominator: sex divorced from relational connecting. Most forms of sexual deviancy include a separation between sex and emotional connection.

In a biblical view of sex, physical intimacy draws husband and wife ever closer together. After the intimacy is over they smile, hold on to a very pleasant shared memory, and their bond is deepened accordingly. Unhealthy sex further isolates an already damaged person. They “wake up” from the sexual experience, feel increased shame (making him/her a little less capable of authentic intimacy) and want to hide what just happened from everyone instead of remember it fondly with a special someone.

Healthy sex says to each (willing) participant: “You matter. You are desired. You are cherished. I am not having sex with a body but making love to you as my special 3-dimensional (body, mind mixed with emotions, and spirit) spouse. I affirm you and want to please you.”

Be wary of any form of sexual excitement or fulfillment that is separate from appropriate relational connection. If it’s not drawing husband and wife closer together, it’s not healthy.

  1. Christian sex supports a relationship rather than being the relationship.

Healthy sex serves a relationship; unhealthy sex becomes the relationship which is asking too much of sex. Sex should be an expression of what is, not a way to momentarily and artificially create what you hope to be true. Our culture tries to make sex the pathway to intimacy, rather than healthy sexuality flowing out of an expression of intimate connection.

By nature, sex can last only so long and be performed only so often and sexual chemistry eventually slows down. Sexual desire simply cannot sustain a lifelong marriage. But an intimate sacred marriage can sustain a tremendous lifelong sex life.

When sex becomes the relationship it’s like trying to support a fifty story hotel on a foundation made of toothpicks. You build a healthy sexual relationship by building a healthy marriage on all levels: emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and relationally. As Dr. Harry Schaumberg so ably puts it, “To be spiritually mature, you must be sexually mature; to be sexually mature, you must be spiritually mature. And I’d say that to be spiritually mature, and sexually mature, you need to be relationally mature. In other words, a mature marriage is a three legged stool of spiritual, relational, and sexual maturity.”

My friend Dr. Mitch Whitman points out that the absence of healthy sexuality sometimes increases the aggrieved spouse’s focus on sex almost to an obsession, so that it becomes practically the only thing that matters to the frustrated spouse.

If one spouse says, “The rest of our relationship is so strong you shouldn’t need sex,” that’s tantamount to the other spouse saying, “Our sex life is so good you shouldn’t need anything besides sex.” In other words, we can fall off the rails on either side of the equation: asking sex to do too much, or not taking advantage of its power at all.

  1. Christian sex confronts rather than perpetuates sexual brokenness

Be careful here—this discussion may hurt some people, but I pray it’s a therapeutic hurt that gently confronts and leads to healing rather than further shame. I don’t want to shame anyone. I write as a Christian who respects God’s creational intent and accepts the Bible as the best expression of that intent. If you disagree with that, you’ll disagree with these conclusions.

Many of us stumble into marriage as sexually broken people. We think marriage will cure our sexual brokenness, but problems re-arise when we want to express our sexual brokenness as part of our marriage. That’s like asking a doctor to serve your addiction instead of curing it.

Beware of coercive marital sex. Some men and a few women will use their spouse to serve a sexual addiction—let’s watch pornography together. Let’s swap partners. Sometimes, men will use sex with their wives to deaden their own pain—anesthetizing themselves—and thus put inordinate physical demands on their spouses. Men who insist on daily sex (I’m not talking about the honeymoon phase here) may be using their wives to fight back an addiction or an intimacy problem rather than cherishing and affirming their wives by giving her pleasure.

Women, you’re not helping your husband if he tries to fight the urge to cross dress by openly doing it with you. A potentially ruinous desire will grow not diminish by being indulged.

In our culture today, the most common silly notion (not even questioned by many) is that all desire must be legitimate, equally respected, tolerated, and even indulged. That’s foolish, ruinous, and not true in any other life experience. It’s possible to desire something that is harmful. You can eat yourself sick, you can spend your way to bankruptcy, and you can “sex” your way to disaster. So no, you are not obligated as a spouse to indulge every one of your spouse’s desires.

As one example: specialists who I respect have told me that in their work with men who demand anal sex, there are usually two reasons: they are trying to re-live sexual exploitation from when they were young (but now they have the power by demanding it, instead of being the victim hurt by it) or they are acting out a desire that was cultivated through pornography. Neither is helpful; neither should be indulged. I’d be at least suspicious about ever wanting something that the medical community generally says is not healthy for a woman’s body.  Healthy sex is mutually affirming in all aspects: spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

Dr. Douglas Rosenau stresses that a poor body image, sexual shame, repression of healthy sexuality, and sexual immaturity are also aspects of sexual brokenness. In other words, not wanting to do something that is holy can be every bit as much evidence of brokenness as does wanting to do something that is wrong.

Sex outside of God’s lines is like a snowball. If sexual coercion, obsession, or immaturity is allowed to “roll” it only gets bigger, not more manageable. By giving in to your spouse’s unhealthy urges, you’re not “managing” anything; you’re creating a snowball that may bury you, your marriage, and your family. The sooner we stop the snowball from rolling, the better chance we have to attain sexual health. Allowing your husband to wear your undergarments or indulging some other fetish so that he’s not shamed by it is sort of like holding a needle while he injects himself with heroin. He’s no longer doing it alone, but he’s still doing it. It’s still harmful and the longer he does it, the more harm it does.

One of the most common ways for women to let marriage perpetuate sexual brokenness is by being non-sexual. Instead of challenging deep-seated feelings that sex is “nasty,” she expects her husband to develop and share her aversion to sex rather than develop a mutually satisfying sexual relationship. If she allows past sexual abuse or faulty thinking to undercut or even annihilate sexual activity in her marriage, she’s perpetuating her brokenness, not confronting it. In such instances, she will want to talk to an experienced, professional counselor who has dealt with this issue—few women can just “get over this,” any more than they could give themselves a kidney transplant.

When the marital sexual relationship reveals an ongoing weakness that a change of mind simply cannot heal—whether it be desires for unhealthy activities or aversion toward healthy activities—it’s time to seek help. (Resources are listed below.)

  1. Healthy Christian sexuality is about mutually shared pleasure; perverse sexuality is about numbing the pain with selfish indulgence.happy couple4final

Sex was created by God to (in part) produce offspring and renew intimacy between a husband and a wife. It offers a very pleasurable moment for husband and wife, helping them to cope with (and giving them a vacation from) mundane or difficult duties in life. It is also comforting, and naturally reduces anxiety. These are all wonderful byproducts of healthy marital sexuality. Sex is not meant, however, to be used like a drug.

Unhealthy sex seeks to numb pain rather than serve your partner with true pleasure. Instead of enhancing the present life of your spouse, unhealthy sex tries to escape your past life or selfishly use your mate’s body for personal and ultimately unfulfilling sexual gratification.

I was fascinated recently reading a classic book on sexual addiction (Don’t Call it Love by Patrick Carnes) that’s twenty years old. It describes (as almost pathological) the kind of activity that The Fifty Shades trilogy and movies have tried to de-stigmatize. Carnes warns against “the use of pain to escalate sexual excitement. Chains, whips, sadomasochistic games, self-torture, self-strangulation—how can these be pleasurable? The answer is that often they are not. But the associated emotions of fear, risk, danger, and rage are very mood altering. We can make fun of people who are ‘into pain’; media portrayal of ‘S and M’ roles often involves humorous exaggeration. Grim reality exists that we in our cultural denial attempt to avoid and deflect with humor. For most of us, the combination of pain and sex is as repugnant as violence.”

That quote, just a couple decades old, is already outdated, isn’t it? Our culture no longer laughs at S and M, nor does it make it seem repugnant. Instead, the agenda seems to be to tell us that we are missing out on something if we’re not practicing it. I emphasized the phrase “very mood altering” because that’s the marker of unhealthy sex–using it like a drug (as opposed to an expression of relationship). It’s not even pleasurable. It just puts us in a trance.  Healthy sex affirms lasting pleasure; its focus isn’t to feel less of something negative, but to experience more (and help our spouse experience more) of something positive.

A due warning here: Our Christian culture has often promoted a husband’s selfishness by stressing the wife’s duty to serve her husband sexually, rather than discussing how together a couple can create the mutually shared pleasure of a healthy sex life. Dr. Rosenau, Sheila Gregoire, and others have been strong dissenting voices against this vicious strain, for which I am very grateful.

  1. Christian sex is based in truth

Christianity is about authenticity, reality, truth, being connected to a real person, and giving real pleasure. The world keeps promoting sex that is all about artificiality, fantasy, deceit, and escaping from reality.

“Looking over your shoulder,” lying, afraid of being “caught,” not wanting anyone to find out—these are all markers of sex that is based on subterfuge and deception. No married couple need be ashamed if others think they are being sexual. Nor do they have to pretend they are something or someone else in order to desire and please each other. I’m not suggesting all forms of fantasy (within marriage) are wrong; just that the sexual experience should serve a real couple in a real relationship who know each other, value each other, and are truly present for each other.

To mentally imagine yourself making love to someone else while your spouse thinks you’re focused on them is one of the worst forms of fraud imaginable. You’re sinning against your spouse even as you are using him/her. As they give themselves to you, you are taking what’s offered to you and handing it over to another.

A man who wants to dress like a woman to get sexually excited (there may be other reasons; I’m focused on something specific here) misses the point of biblical sexuality that affirms a man as a man. He will be most satisfied and his wife will be most satisfied when he embraces who God made him to be. If you have to pretend you’re something you’re not in order to experience pleasure or be fulfilled by definition you will never be fulfilled, because even doctors can’t turn you into something other than what your Creator made you to be.

The same is true for a wife who believes she has to turn herself into a “centerfold” to keep her husband’s attention. She deserves to feel cherished and desired for who she is not who her husband wants her to be.

Healthy sex isn’t just about excitement or reaching a climax—it’s about the two of you relating, connecting, knowing, and authentically being there for each other. Of course, finding legitimate ways to enhance pleasure and serve each other is relationship-enhancing; planning something special, being creative, even searching for something “new” can be a generous act of love.

  1. Christian sex affirms your sense of self

In a healthy sexual relationship, you feel that the sexual experience affirms who you are: as a spouse, as parents raising kids together (and protecting/serving their family), as a believer in Christ (sex should never feel as if it is asking you to compromise your faith but rather be an expression of your faith), as a person who is cherished and loved. In unhealthy sexuality, the sexual experience leaves you feeling empty, alienated, almost like you’re role-playing or an object.

You may realize that, for any number of reasons, your sexual sense of self has become distorted. Maybe from a hook-up culture that promotes porn, a repressive upbringing, trying to medicate pain, or hoping sex can create a shortcut to intimate connection. If sex doesn’t affirm who you are, there’s a good chance you’re not being made love to; you’re likely being used. Perhaps you feel like you have to be someone you’re not to keep your spouse interested or from acting out inappropriately. That’s manipulative sex; that’s co-dependent sex, it’s not healthy sex.

Sex should affirm and reaffirm who you are, your sense of worth, your sense of being valued, and your sense of relationship.  A healthy sense of your sexual self will promote both a profound sexual intimacy and an amazing sacred marriage full of deep connecting moments.

As a side note, one of the ways it does this is to remind us who we are as people on the way to eternity. As wonderful as sex can be, as intoxicating as marital passion can feel, we were made for more than this world, and the fact that something as marvelous and even transcendent as sex doesn’t completely fulfill us reminds us that healthy sexuality actually points us toward heaven as our ultimate destination.


If after reading this list you sense you are in an unhealthy or coercive sexual relationship, please note that you’ll want to receive some professional care. There’s nothing I can say in the comments section of a blog to solve or even adequately address your problem. This post is to unmask unhealthy relating in order to point you elsewhere toward a place of healing and redemption.

So, for help:

  • Harry Schaumburg’s website offers many additional articles and advice for those facing sexual brokenness and addiction (including articles and information about intensive programs). His offices are in Wisconsin.
  • My friend Dr. Mitch Whitman specializes in helping men and couples overcome sexual brokenness; he lives and works north of Seattle, Washington, but often counsels via remote website connections.
  • I’ve referred several couples to Dr. Doug Rosenau, whose office is near Atlanta, and who co-founded the organization Sexual Wholeness (.com). Doug is a Christian sex therapist and author. You can find more information about Doug at
  • My friends Dr. Juli Slattery and Linda Dillow have a wonderful site geared for women that can be found at I’m also a fan of Shelia Gregoire’s blog:  Though Sheila doesn’t exclusively address sexual intimacy, she frequently does, and her advice is well thought out and biblical.

Please understand that I’m neither qualified nor able to deal with specific questions here or via email or Facebook.  I would be interested, however, in general posted comments related to other markers of healthy Christian sexuality. Please help us have a redemptive conversation in the comments below.

And if you disagree with me or my conclusions above, please don’t take offense. I don’t have any authority over you, and my intention isn’t to slander anyone—it’s just to offer sincere help to genuinely confused couples where one partner senses something is wrong but isn’t sure why. You are free to disagree with any of the “lines” I’ve drawn—I’m just trying to respond to those who have raised genuine issues and have sought my opinion. I write as a Christian who believes our authority is found in Scripture—if you don’t accept that belief system, or if you think I’ve handled Scripture poorly, I don’t expect you to understand or accept my conclusions.

I’d like to thank Dr. Doug Rosenau, Dr. Harry Schaumburg, and Dr. Mitch Whitman, who all made many helpful suggestions for this extended blog post.


May 6, 2015

Despair or Depend

Gary Thomas — 

DespairorDepend final


“I’m done with this marriage, Gary. It has exhausted me, and I don’t have what it takes to make it work.”

Though they didn’t realize it, Alice and her husband Ian were on the precipice of a really good place, perhaps even a divinely ordered one. Sometimes, God has to take us to the end of our strength to do what He truly wants to do.

You are blessed indeed if your marriage is more difficult than you can handle on your own. You are in a good place when you come to the realization that you simply cannot do it on your own.

Let me explain.

When writing to the Colossians, Paul throws out an intriguing line: “May you be made strong with the strength that comes from His glorious power.” (1:11).

When Paul writes that he wants us to be made strong, the assumption is clearly that we’re not strong already, at least not on our own. In Paul’s mind—and since this is inspired Scripture, in God’s opinion—we are not strong enough on our own to do what God wants us to do. We need the strength that comes “from His glorious power.”

Paul’s observation is written in the context of reminding us how Christ holds everything together through this power: “For in Him all things in heaven and earth were created…whether thrones or dominions and rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…” (Colossians 1:16ff.)

Since in Him “all things hold together,” we can assume marriage is one of those “things.”  What if God allows marriage to be so difficult in part to reveal to us the real power He makes available to us in Christ—to teach us how to access this power, to depend on this power, to put us in a difficult situation so that we learn the truth of allowing Christ rather than our own resources to hold our marriage together?

If I can lift a table on my own, I’ll do it. If it’s an ultra-heavy chest of drawers and Lisa wants to see what it looks like on the other side of the room, I’m going to have to call my neighbor over to help me. In the same way, if I can be married in my own strength, with “natural” patience and “natural” kindness, I’ll do it. That’s just human nature, isn’t it? But if it requires me to tap into a power greater than I possess, then I’ll be all but forced to look elsewhere, to Christ alone who can hold all things together.

The sad reality for many, if not most of us, is that we don’t turn to God unless we have to. We expend all our human effort and only after that fails, for perhaps the hundredth time, then we say, “Well, that didn’t work. Maybe I should try God.”

What if God wants to reverse this process and teach us to turn to Him first?

Learning to rely on God isn’t just for difficult seasons of marriage by the way. God has made achieving the biblical ideal of marriage impossible on our own.  I love the way Rob Rienow puts it in his book Visionary Marriage: “If you think you have it in you to be a godly husband, either you don’t know what God desires, or you have set the bar way too low.” God calls me to love my wife like Christ loves the church. What man truly does that?

And for wives? Paul says older women should train younger women to love their husbands (Titus 2:4). This assumes that the ability to love an imperfect man requires training, study, intention, and purpose. It doesn’t come naturally to any woman. No man is entirely easy to love, because all of us stumble in many ways (James 3:1).

So, yes, marriage may be difficult, but that’s its glory! It forces us outside of ourselves, to a spiritual dependence that sets things right—recognizing Jesus as the only uniting factor between a husband and wife, supplying the power to hold all things together.

Begin each day with an earnest admission and request: “God, I don’t have what it takes to be married today, but I’m placing myself before you. I’m on my knees admitting my need. Renew my desire. Set my sights even higher than I could dream. You want me to have a more intimate marriage than I’ve ever known—to better reflect Christ and the church, to be a witness to the world, to have a happy and spiritually rich home for our children. So here I am, with all that I’m not, asking you to fill up what I lack.”

After confessing our lack, we ask to be continually filled with His Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).  “Lord Jesus I need your power right now. Power to listen. Power to forgive. Power to be sensitive and kind when I want to be hurtful and harsh.”

This attitude—humility and dependence—and the practice of beginning each day imploring God for His fresh filling doesn’t come naturally. Our greatest sin is often our default practice of seeking to live independently of God. So if God is letting you be continually frustrated with your marriage, it might be because He wants to remind you to be continually filled with His Spirit.

You can face the rest of today and tomorrow with one of two choices: keep on despairing or learn to depend.  Which one will you choose?

April 21, 2015

A Lifelong Love

Gary Thomas — 
LLL Paperback

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Live Out a Sacred Marriage

You believe your marriage has eternal purposes. You long for it to reach beyond your home and encourage others. But what does it look like to have a spiritually intentional relationship in the midst of dirty dishes, work deadlines, and car pools?

In Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas showed us that God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy. Now Thomas gives us the practical tools to craft our marriages into inspiring relationships that breathe spiritual life to others.

Whatever season of marriage you are in, A Lifelong Love gives you the practical help you need to infuse your marriage with a spiritual passion that will not only change you but will change the world around you.


Radio Interviews:!/swx/pp/media_archives/160172/episode/55914

2016 Love Like You Mean It Cruise®:
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“This book is incredible. Consider it your road map to obtaining all that God designed your marriage to be. You absolutely don’t want to miss out on this life-changing message.”
– Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts

“Gary’s words carry some needed encouragement, instruction, and hope. This is not just another marriage book; it lifts marriage back to the noble place where it belongs… one of transcendent and magnificent glory.”
– Dr. Dennis Rainey, host of FamilyLife Today

“Marriage is the most important relationship we have apart from the one we have with God. I am thankful for Gary’s passion and commitment to help us experience growth, no matter if we’re newly married or married many years.”
– Dan Kimball, pastor and author of Adventure in Churchland

A Lifelong Love is a powerful reminder that marriage is more than just a social construct or a legal arrangement.  It is a deeply spiritual act ordained by God Himself.”
– Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family

“A profound, beautiful, and lifelong love in a marriage is anchored in our relationship with God. This book takes you there!”
– Dr. Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so many of his works through the years, such as Sacred Marriage and Pure Pleasure, and I am thrilled that he’s contributed yet another marriage-building, affair-proofing, family-strengthening, God-honoring book to guide those of us who take marriage very seriously!”
– Shannon Ethridge, author of the bestselling Every Woman’s Battle series and The Passion Principles

“Gary Thomas has written another deep and powerful book full of biblical wisdom and practical suggestions for a loving, lifelong marriage that is more than simply staying together, precisely because it is God-centered and empowered by the Holy Spirit. A must-read for every married couple!”
– Siang-Yang Tan, professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary and senior pastor of First Evangelical Church in Glendale, CA

“Regardless of the state of your marriage, this book will challenge and encourage you!”
– Dr. Juli Slattery, psychologist and cofounder of Authentic Intimacy

“Many marriage books focus on skills, but this book builds skills on deep theology.”
– Ted Cunningham, pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church and author of Fun Loving You

“If you need a renewed sense of hope and purpose for your marriage, or simply long to become a couple that is more surrendered to God, devoted to one another, and engaged in the world, this book is for you!”
– Dr. Michael Dittman, director of Haven for the Heart

A Lifelong Love is deeply rooted in the Word of God as the ultimate guideline for marriage and is a must-read for everyone: married, thinking about it, single, or struggling in the marriage they are in.”
– Cheryl Scruggs, Hope Matters Marriage Ministries, Inc.

“Gary Thomas builds on the brilliant and challenging message of Sacred Marriage as he helps us discover God’s pathway to “a lifelong love.”
– Kevin G. Harney, lead pastor of Shoreline Community Church and author of Empowered by His Presence and the Organic Outreach series (

“No other author I’m aware of offers such a spiritually rich framework for understanding and thriving in marriage.”
– Jud Wilhite, senior pastor of Central Christian Church and author of Pursued

February 17, 2015

The Watch Dog Fights

Gary Thomas — 

The Watch Dog Fights Final

“The watch dog fights while the wild dog runs away.”

When danger confronts a wild dog, the wild dog runs away. It’s not tied to the home because in its heart, it doesn’t have one; it’s tied solely to its own self-interests.

When danger confronts a watch dog, the watch dog doubles down, as if its life depends upon protecting the home, because it does. It has no other home, no other place to go to. The watch dog’s self-interests are tied to the home, and it will fight or die.

In your heart, in regards to your family and marriage, which kind of dog are you?

We so value our independence that it’s easy to slip into the heart of a “wild dog” even while living the life of a watch dog. It’s possible to have a home but not treat it as a home. Some people can treat their marriage and family as a hindrance, or shackles, even a prison. They secretly want to get out, but are too ashamed to admit it, so they sleep in a home, but their heart roams far and wide. Some “wild dogs” have confessed to me that they have prayed for years that their spouse would have an affair so that they would be free to leave.

A watch dog senses danger and flies into action.  He/she doesn’t play with danger, doesn’t welcome danger, is singularly focused on scaring away the danger as soon as it’s seen, and if the danger doesn’t leave, he/she will fight it. The heart of a watch dog is tied to its home.

When you see distance coming in your marriage, do you call it out and fight it, or do you seek to find enjoyment and amusement outside the marriage? If you do the latter, you’re a wild dog.

When you feel tired or discouraged, do your fantasies roam to another life, dreaming of being married to another person in another house? If so, your heart is that of a wild dog.

When anything threatens your marriage—another affection, another relationship, a busy schedule, a job, you name it—do you stand up and fight, do you say, “This can’t last,” even if you know those words will launch a battle? If so, you have the heart of a watch dog.

Where is your heart? Do you long to be free, but are too ashamed to leave? You must be miserable indeed. You have the constrictions of a watch dog, but the heart of a wild dog, and that’s as frustrating a life as anyone can live. The answer can’t be, if you’re a Christian, to become a wild dog in fact; it’s to humbly repent and seek the heart of a watch dog, someone who is newly refocused on and reinvested in their home.

There is no satisfaction in someone who is living a watch dog life with a wild dog heart. You can’t be satisfied, as the satisfaction you seek—being free from your home—by definition requires the destruction of your home. No true watch dog could take joy in that outcome. You need a change of heart.

My wife and I recently heard yet another story about a man who had a middle-aged affair, fathered a daughter outside of wedlock, but eventually stayed with his wife. The mistress never got remarried and the father of her child actually loved his wife heroically through a later life medical situation.

Why do I tell that story? A watch dog got to “taste” the wild dog life, but then found it so wanting he returned to the watch dog life, even when it was less pleasant and more demanding. When you’re a watch dog dreaming of the wild dog life, you romanticize it. You idealize it. You see the pleasure, but not the pain. You see the freedom, but not the loneliness and alienation. You see the opportunities, but not the isolation.

If you are living a watch dog life, ask God for a new watch dog heart. Fight for your marriage. Fight for your home. Be fully, 100% invested in it. Make it so dear to your soul that you wouldn’t leave your home if it was surrounded by the entire Russian military.

If you have a wild dog heart, I guarantee you that your marriage will crumble. There are so many threats to a marriage nowadays—spiritually, relationally, sexually, financially, time-wise—that if we don’t fight to the death, the marriage will in fact die. Very, very few couples have the luxury of having a “take it or leave it” attitude toward their marriage. And who would want to be in a marriage like that, anyway?

No, the only path to true satisfaction if you’re living a watch dog life is to cultivate a watch dog’s heart.

How, you might ask?

Start fighting, and keep fighting. Refuse any thought of any other solution than victory. The heart follows commitment. Confront issues as they arise.

“But I already have done all that!” some might say, “and the fantasies are so much sweeter.”

A watch dog doesn’t just try. A watch dog starts and never stops. He or she is too busy saving the home to even contemplate leaving it. Every second spent in contemplation of a different life is a second lost in improving your real life.

Never, ever believe the world’s lie that the watch dog lives a “small” life. It is much larger than the wild dog’s life, by far. If a man or woman ferociously fights for his or her marriage and each of their children, if he or she wages war against their own sin that seeks to destroy not just their own souls, but that of their home, they are fighting a cosmic battle over something that truly matters. It is a focused battle, but not a small or meaningless one.

What does the wild dog fight for? His or her own pleasure, happiness, and security. If you think you can be satisfied living for yourself, giving your entire life for the good of yourself, you haven’t contemplated either your own mortality (when your battle will surely and ultimately end) or the emptiness, indeed, the impossibility, of finding satisfaction in a self-centered life.

God has called us to be watch dogs in fact, so let’s be watch dogs in heart as well.

P.S. for singles:

I want to add a quick word for the singles out there—it’s certainly possible to have a “watch dog” heart when you live a single life. There is much fulfillment to be found if God has called you to the single life when you have a watch dog heart for your church and God’s mission and those friends with whom God has called you to be in community. This is a blog focused on marriage and family life, but in respecting that I’m not in any way undercutting your call in life or suggesting that the single life is a lesser life. I’m just trying to encourage those God has called into marriage and family life to be obediently and faithfully invested in that life.

June 5, 2014

A Mom’s Eyes Opened

Gary Thomas — 
By: Photostock;

By: Photostock;

Liz cringed when her daughter lost the election to become student body president just as she had cringed when her daughter didn’t get chosen as a cheerleader.  But this rejection, one year after the election loss was more difficult still. in spite of high grades, a decent SAT score, and after carefully logging her volunteer hours the young woman received a small envelope from her college of choice.

“This has to be a rejection,” Liz thought, but she knew her daughter would want to open the letter herself.  “This is going to devastate her.”

Liz spent the entire day in a state of turmoil.  She couldn’t get anything done.  She found herself crying.  Her daughter had tried so hard, and she wanted this so much.  It just wasn’t fair.

When her daughter got home Liz handed over the envelope, fighting back the tears.  The young woman took the envelope and from the expression on her face, Liz could tell her guess had been correct.  Without saying anything other than, “Oh, well,” the daughter went up to her bedroom, closed the door, and stayed there for a good hour.

Liz was beside herself.  What could she do?  What could she say?  Finally, she knocked on her daughter’s bedroom door.

“Honey?  Are you all right?”

Her daughter opened the door with car keys in her hands.  “Yeah.  I’m going over to Katie’s.  Bye.”

Later that night, Liz called Katie’s mom, as her daughter still hadn’t said a word about the rejection other than to confirm it.  Katie’s mom happened to be a trained counselor and Liz thought that perhaps, with her daughter having spent the afternoon at her house, the counselor could give some tips to help Katie get over the disappointment.

“Liz, can I be honest with you?”  Katie’s mom asked.


“Your daughter is a happy girl.  This wasn’t a big deal to her.”

“She must be in denial,” Liz answered.  “I know how much she wanted this.”

“No, you know how much you wanted it.  The only thing that bothers your daughter is that she feels like she’s let you down, but it’s really not a big deal to her.”

Liz was flabbergasted.  “Are you telling me she really doesn’t care?”

“I’m telling you that she doesn’t feel like a failure.  She just feels bad that her mom thinks she feels like a failure.  She’s happy and even excited about the other schools she did get into it, but she doesn’t think you are so she doesn’t feel like she can celebrate with you.”

This became a life altering moment for Liz, an opportunity to critique herself and her emotions, her sense of self and security, her view of her children, God, and life in entirely new ways.  She came to realize she wasn’t raising her daughter as much as she was depending on her daughter, for her own sense of self-worth, feelings of accomplishment, and her belief in her abilities as a mother.

Perhaps what hurt Liz the most was her friend’s observation that, “your daughter doesn’t feel like a failure.  She just feels bad that her mom thinks she’s a failure.”

Parents, it’s wonderful to have big dreams for your kids but do they see you celebrate their successes—however limited they may seem to you—every bit as much as they see you hurt over their disappointments?  Do our kids see us deriving joy from childrearing or do they more frequently notice our pain, disappointment, hurt, and fear?

Parenting has a knack of making every parent come face to face with our true motivation, shaky sense of self-worth, and conflicted beliefs about what really matters.  One of the greatest spiritual challenges we will ever endure is watching a child fail.  Just the threat of such a failure can paralyze us.

I want to leave an inheritance to my kids but not the inheritance of fear and not the inheritance of disappointment.  I’d like to give them an example of faith, a model of peace, remembrance of courage, and perhaps a few extra dollars to give their bank accounts a little boost.  I hope they don’t inherit my self-absorbed fears.

If I don’t intentionally rein these fears in; however, they will.  Jesus was adamant: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

Did you catch the “do not let…” part?  Can we model that to our kids?  “Whatever the disappointment, we won’t let our hearts be troubled…”

This might be a good verse for some parents to memorize.  It’s normal to have dreams for our kids, but let’s not burden them with our own disappointment when our dreams for them do not come true in the way we want them to.


April 7, 2014

God Oases

Gary Thomas — 


Up until I wrote this blog post, only two people, other than Lisa and me, knew this story, and one of them is dead.

Lisa and I had been married for just a couple months. There was a spiritual crisis of sorts, not threatening our marriage, but freaking us out. We went and visited my boyhood pastor. We talked and prayed with he and his wife and even spent the night at their house. Something about Pastor Boggess made his house (even his presence) seem like a place of refuge, a “God oasis.”

It’s the kind of ministry I pray every Christian couple will aspire to. Consider this prophecy from the book of Isaiah:

Each man will be like a shelter from the wind

and a refuge from the storm,

like streams of water in the desert

and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. (Isaiah 32:1-2)

Notice the power of these lives! A holy man or woman, and certainly a holy couple, is a spiritual force, a “God oasis” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the way they listen and the way they use their eyes to love instead of judge, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy women and men are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation tears this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God-oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out—and they will have something to say.

What happens when people find their way to these God oases?

Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed,

and the ears of those who hear will listen.

The mind of the rash will know and understand,

and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. (32:3-4)

Our faith isn’t about us. It’s about setting our roots down deep, learning to drink from God’s well, and letting the overflow of that spiritual life and vitality become a place of refuge for the hurting, the sick, the discouraged, the ignorant and the tired.

When you work on your heart and then on your marriage, you create more than just a home or a relationship—you create an oasis to which God can direct people who need to feed upon your strength.

Before Gene died a few years ago, my dad met with him as Gene reminisced about his ministry. While many pastors go from small church to medium church to large church, every church that God called Gene to was smaller than the one he left behind. Gene felt a little humbled by this, but he told my dad, “If someone like your sons could come out of my ministry, I guess I did something right.”

My dad handed Gene my latest book, not knowing the crisis point that Gene had shepherded Lisa and I through. That’s the thing about oases. They don’t get credit. No one applauds the hotel or the rest stop that a famous singer or politician passes through on their way to the stage, but whatever they do would be much less if the oasis didn’t exist.

Will you and your spouse seek to build a God oasis in your neighborhood and church? Will you so invite the presence of Christ into your heart and home that when people really need to be touched by God, they come to you? Will your kids’ friends think of your house as a respite? Will your pastors look upon your house as an outpost for God’s work in your area?

You may never get credit, and you may never even see the full fruit of your ministry. But it’s a glorious ministry to inhabit.

March 25, 2014

Who Needs Handcuffs?

Gary Thomas — 

photo: Karin Beil, Creative Commons

(Note: If your name is Allison, Graham, or Kelsey, and you typically call me “Dad,” I suggest you skip this blog post.)

“Talk about world domination!”

My wife had been in a busy season, so I purposefully had planned an evening I knew she would enjoy—dinner at a Jazz Club, followed by an evening of romance. I intentionally let the sexual energy smolder throughout the day.  Well before dinner time, Lisa finally suggested, “Why don’t we just get on with it, already?” but I simply smiled at her and thought, “Not a chance.”

On the way to the club I filled up her gas tank because I know Lisa hates to fill up her gas tank and she was going to be driving the next day. That may not sound so sexually enticing, but it’s not up to us men to determine what constitutes foreplay. Trust me, men—something like that can do wonders; it builds the mood. It makes your wife think, “He’s taking care of me.” A spiritually healthy wife who feels taken care of is supernaturally predisposed to take care of you.

The “dinner” (iceberg lettuce masquerading as a salad, poorly cooked chicken covered with gravy, instant mashed potatoes) was a bit of a disaster given Lisa’s organic bent, but she loved the music and atmosphere. At one point, we were the only white people in the club. It’s not a place I would have gone to on my own—Lisa knew we were there because of her.

My small touches during the dinner were intentional and deliberate, but nothing scandalous. If someone from our church had been sitting right behind us they wouldn’t have even noticed, but I’ve been married to Lisa for 28 years and pretty much know how, even in public, I can slowly bring her near to a boiling point with touches and caresses that no one watching could possibly take offense to or even know what was going on. After nearly 3 decades of enjoying each other, an innocent looking caress, a simple touch, a slight moving of her hair can bring to mind past memories and a future promise that are packed with impending pleasure.

When we got home, I knew what I was going to do, and I did it. It wasn’t anything grand, just intentional and thoughtful, and it showed a little preparation. Within minutes Lisa was lying back saying, “Talk about world domination!”

What she meant was “You have conquered me. Do what you will.”

When it first came out, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy was discussed by more marital and Christian bloggers than could be counted, but my thoughts are a little simpler: Men, if you need handcuffs and ropes to make your wife feel the enticement of full surrender, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Try studying her, getting to know her moods and total body—not just three parts that men typically focus on, but everything.

Try kindness, on a daily basis.

Try spiritual connection—make sure she knows she’s supported in prayer.

Try years of giving pleasure unselfishly so that she knows, once everything gets started, she’s going to be carried away by your touches, not used by your demands.

Try taking care of her kids, and taking care of her.

Try thinking about how you’re going to exceed her expectations.

If you study your wife and then apply all this, you’ll come to a place when you never need handcuffs—what you’ve got is much stronger, more powerful, more exciting and more fulfilling.

When our kids were young and at home, something much more effective than handcuffs was loving on our children. If a kid was in a rough spot and I took them out, or if one of them was starting to make some dubious choices and I sat down with them and talked with them and prayed with them, Lisa’s natural response was, “You’re such a good dad. And let me show you how a wife shows her appreciation for a man who loves her kids…”

My wife’s take is that women would be less inclined to read about sex with an imaginary billionaire if they were fully enjoying real sex with a thoughtful husband. She’s not saying if your wife is reading Fifty Shades that you’re a poor lover—just that it might be a symptom that things have started to slide in the bedroom. “I don’t think most women want pain or the kind of sex described in those books,” Lisa told me. “I just think they want something a little more creative than what they’re getting.”

The world’s form of pleasure is almost always a cheap substitute of the real thing and it’s never as satisfying. A guy can’t get his wife excited, so he looks at porn to watch some other guy get a woman excited. A man can’t get his wife to the place of appropriate surrender, so he resorts to silly things like handcuffs and ropes and not so silly things like pain to bring a little “spice” into the bedroom.

I’m not into constructing Christian lists of “do’s and don’ts.” I don’t want to marginalize something that you and your wife have truly enjoyed, so please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m just saying that long-term sexual satisfaction in marriage has to go well beyond gimmicks. If you want to use a gimmick now and then, fine—it’s your marriage. But if you think something like that is going to sustain you through the years, you’re fooling yourself.

For long-term satisfaction, study your wife, not just a few parts of her body. Build years of trust with kind touching and generous pleasuring. Let her know that if she lets herself go in your hands you’ll make her momentarily forget everything bad going on in her life and feel everything good. If you can’t get her excited in public, fully clothed, if you need to get her “naked and handcuffed” to feel like things are getting hot, you probably don’t know her well enough yet.

And guys, it’s perfectly holy and God-honoring to think about how to sexually please and thrill your wife. Far better to fantasize about ways to take your wife to a new place of pleasure, than to spend one second fantasizing about any other woman.



February 2, 2014


Gary Thomas — 


Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Fenelon (who, with your pardon, we’ll refer to simply as “Fenelon”), was born in 1651 and grew up in frail health. Shortly after his ordination, he acted as Superior of the “Nouvelles Catholiques,” a community founded to instruct and confirm in the Roman Catholic faith women who had previously been converted by the Protestants. Among Fenelon’s first works was a treatise on the education of females.

Fenelon became well-known as a skilled spiritual counselor (to adults and youth) and soon found himself charged with educating and reforming Louis XIV’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne. This might at first sound like a great honor—and in truth it was—but it was also a great challenge. The young Duke was described by a contemporary as “born terrible, and in his early youth he made everyone tremble. Hard and irascible to the utmost passion, incapable of bearing the slightest resistance without flying into a rage… obstinate… passionately fond of every kind of pleasure…”

Modern wisdom might tell us to send such a youth to military training and let strict discipline bring his life into order. Fenelon, however, pursued a different approach. He was gentle, believing that a teacher must “mingle teaching and play; let wisdom show herself to the child only at intervals, and with a smiling face. If he forms a sad and gloomy conception of virtue, all is lost.”

Fenelon’s method must have worked, for the same person who gave us the earlier description of the Duke described the transformation this way: “The marvel is that in a very short space of time, devotion and grace made quite another being of him, and changed his many and dreadful faults into the entirely opposite virtues. From this abyss a Prince was seen to issue, at once affable, gentle, humane, generous, patient, modest, humble, and severe towards himself.”

Fenelon was named Archbishop of Cambrai on Feb. 4, 1695. He became highly influential, due in large part to his association with the aforementioned duke (who was next in line to be king of France).

In the midst of his call to reform others, Fenelon remained very much aware of his own failings. The man who offered so much spiritual advice to others wrote of himself, “I am to myself…the whole of a great diocese, more burdensome than the outside one, and a diocese which I am incapable of reforming.”

Fenelon stressed an authentic internal devotion. He wrote and spoke out against “pharisaic righteousness.” In a scathing rebuke he writes, “They fast and give alms, but without love of God, humility, or sacrifice of selfÉ. Another defect of pharisaic righteousness is that a man comes to lean upon it as upon his own strength. He takes a great delight in considering his own uprightness, in being conscious of his own powers, and in mirroring himself in his virtue, as a vain woman does in her looking glass.”

Fenelon’s role as a spiritual director and pastor had the fortunate result of making his writings particularly practical. He urged those under his care to be diligent about their spiritual life while not taking it “too far.” Those with excessive scruples might lapse into a “spiritual hypochondria” that Fenelon found to be most unhelpful.

When Fenelon was in his early sixties, the duke whom he had largely raised fell ill with spotted liver and died. In that age, to be the friend of a former ruler was often seen to be a competitor to the new one, and Fenelon quickly fell out of favor.

To make matters worse, Fenelon became a strong supporter of (Madam) Jeanne Guyon, another classic Christian writer, who wrote a treatise on Quietism variously called Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ and A Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer. Though the following description doesn’t do it justice, quietism essentially taught a complete detachment from the things of this world. As part of his defense of Guyon, Fenelon wrote Maxims of the Saints in 1697. This book was condemned by Pope Innocent XII, practically forcing King Louis to banish Fenelon from the court, and returning Fenelon to a smaller diocese, where he excelled as a pastor.

Perhaps because Fenelon lived in and wrote to the upper strata of French society, his writings remain remarkably relevant to contemporary Christians, addressing issues such as amusement and the use of leisure time. The temptations faced by the French elite several hundred years ago are amazingly similar to those faced by middle class evangelicals today. Fenelon’s Christian Perfection, a collection of various letters and addresses that were gathered over time, is one of the most helpful spiritual classics I’ve ever read; it’s one you may want to read over and over.

Of course, the quietistic elements of his writing lead to an undue emphasis on humankind’s passivity. Both Guyon and Fenelon took passivity and surrender to such an extreme that they believed we must arrive at a place where we do not even care about our own salvationÑa state that can be reached only through prayer (which, ironically, may not always seem like such a passive activity). The worst elements of quietism extended this out to suggest that, since the quietist has no will of his own, even if he commits actions that would be sins if others committed them, they are not sinful for him (The thinking being that if you don’t have a will, you can’t be blamed for doing anything, sinceÑostensibly—you are operating solely on the will of God). It was this line of thinking that led the pope (and evangelicals) to reject the more extreme forms of quietism.

Fenelon died in relative obscurity in 1715.

February 2, 2014

John Calvin

Gary Thomas — 


John Calvin (1509 – 1564)
Reprinted from the Summer 2002 issue of Knowing & Doing, the teaching quarterly of the C.S. Lewis Institute
by Dr. Art Lindsley

C.S. Lewis Institute; 4208 Evergreen Lane, Suite 222
Annandale, VA 22003 Phone: 703.914.5602

The mere mention of John Calvin’s name (born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France – died May 27, 1564 in Geneva, Switzerland) produces strong reactions both pro and con. Erich Fromm, 20th century German-born American psychoanalyst and social philosopher, says that Calvin “belonged to the ranks of the greatest haters in history.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church maintains that Calvin was “cruel” and the “unopposed dictator of Geneva.” On the other hand, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, says of Calvin, “I have been a witness of him for sixteen years and I think that I am fully entitled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all an example of the life and death of the Christian such as it will not be easy to depreciate, and it will be difficult to imitate.” Philip Schaff, church historian, writes of Calvin, “Taking into account all his failings, he must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best of men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity.” William Cunningham, Scottish theologian, maintains, “Calvin is the man who, next to St. Paul, has done the most good to mankind.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, English preacher, asserts, “The longer I live the clearer does it appear that John Calvin’s system is the nearest to perfection.”

Basil Hall, Cambridge professor, once wrote an essay, “The Calvin Legend,” in which he argues that formerly those who depreciated Calvin had at least read his works, whereas now the word “Calvin” or “Calvinism” is used as a word with negative connotations but with little or no content. Many stories float around about him that are utterly false. For instance, Aldous Huxley puts forward as fact an old and groundless legend, writing, “Our fathers took the fifth commandment seriously—how seriously may be judged from the fact that during the Great Calvin’s theocratic rule of Geneva a child was publicly decapitated for having ventured to strike its parents.” There is no evidence whatsoever in the records of Geneva for this story and no legal grounds in Geneva for this action to have been justified. Likewise, the caricature of Calvin as “cruel” or a “dictator” or filled with “hatred” is either totally false or a distortion of the truth. Who is this Calvin who can be so praised or vilified?


Calvin’s parents, Gerard and Jeanne, had five sons. Antoine and Francois died in childhood. John was the second son to grow to maturity. Gerard had become a successful lawyer and had prominent contacts. He had ambitions for his sons and provided a good education for them. Gerard wanted John to follow a career in the church, and thus he was sent to the University of Paris for his studies. Having completed his arts courses, he was prepared for doctoral theological study. However, Gerard changed his mind and decided that John should study law. John submitted to this request and spent the next several years at the University of Orleans studying law. While there, he was exposed to the classical writers such as Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, Plato, and Aristotle. In fact, his first published work (when he was only 22 years old) was Commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia.’

Sometime during this period, he experienced a profound conversion, although the details of how it came about are not clear. Calvin speaks of this change in his Commentary on the Psalms:

God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honorable office of herald and minister of the Gospel…. What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years…. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by, anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner and a raw recruit.

Calling to Geneva

He eventually became known as a “Lutheran” and had to go into hiding, fearing for his life. Eventually, he made his way to Basel where, still a young man of twenty-seven, Calvin wrote the first edition of what became his classic work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in 1536. (The final edition was completed in 1559.) This first edition was intended as a general introduction for those who had a hunger and thirst for Christ but had little real knowledge of Him. This little book spread quickly and was read by a wide audience. Its appeal was that it showed the faith of the Reformation to be consistent with the great creeds, loyal to the political authorities, and desiring obedience to God’s Law, contrary to opposition caricatures.

During a trip to Strasbourg, Calvin was forced to take a detour through Geneva and happened to spend the night at an inn. When William Farel, church leader in Geneva, heard that the author of the Institutes was in town, he went straight to the inn. Farel desperately desired a helper in his task and saw in Calvin an ideal assistant. He pleaded with Calvin to consider coming to work with him in Geneva. Calvin resisted Farel’s pleas. Calvin saw himself as a scholar and writer and wanted to spend his days in quiet reading and writing, not as a pastor or administrator. Farel became desperate, and as Calvin later described it:

Farel detained me in Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation as by a dreadful curse, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me…he proceeded to utter the imprecation that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to help, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation, I was so terror struck, that I gave up the journey I had undertaken; but sensible of my natural shyness and timidity, I would not tie myself to any particular office.

When Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva over a year later, Calvin finally arrived at Strasbourg and had three enjoyable years of study and teaching. It was during this period that he met his wife, Idelette.


When Calvin arrived in Strasbourg, he initially stayed with fellow Reformer Martin Bucer and his wife Elizabeth. Their home was known as an “inn of righteousness,” and they had a very happy marriage. Martin would often say to John, “You ought to have a wife.” John seems not to have been a romantic as we can see from his qualifications for a wife:

Always keep in mind what I seek to find in her, for I am none of those insane lovers who embrace also the vices of those with whom they are in love, where they are smitten at first with a fine figure. This is the only beauty that allures me: if she is chaste, if not too fussy or fastidious, if economical, if patient, if there is hope that she will be interested in my health.

Various people tried to arrange a marriage for him. First, a wealthy German woman was suggested, but she didn’t seem eager to learn French. Another was suggested about fifteen years older than Calvin. Yet another young woman was brought to Strasbourg for an interview, and Calvin was so hopeful that he set a tentative marriage date. But again, it didn’t work out. Finally, a young widow whom he already knew as part of his congregation, Idelette, was suggested to him by Bucer. Idelette’s husband, Jean Stordeur, had been an Anabaptist leader with whom Calvin debated, and eventually, they became members of Calvin’s church in Strasbourg. Jean later died of the plague. Idelette was attractive, intelligent, and a woman of character. She also desired a good father for her children. John later described her as “the faithful helper of my ministry” and “the best companion of my life.” They had three children: one died at two weeks old, another at birth, and a third, born prematurely, also died. Their marriage lasted nine years. Idelette became sick, probably with tuberculosis, and died at age forty. John wrote to his friend Viret:

You know how tender, or rather, soft my heart is. If I did not have strong self-control, I would not have been able to stand it this long. My grief is very heavy. My best life’s companion is taken away from me. Whenever I faced serious difficulties, she was ever ready to share with me, not only banishment and poverty, but even death itself.

Although Calvin himself was only forty when Idelette died, he never remarried.

Back to Geneva

After the three years in Strasbourg, Farel and Calvin were urged by leaders in Geneva to return. Reluctantly, they did. John and Idelette were given a house by the lake with room for a garden where Idelette grew vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Calvin remained in Geneva the rest of his life.

During his twenty-five year ministry in Geneva, he preached an average of five sermons a week. He preached twice every Sunday and every day of alternate weeks. In the weeks he was not preaching, he lectured three times as an Old Testament professor. He wrote a commentary on nearly every book of the Bible and on many theological topics. His letters alone fill eleven volumes or some 40,000 pages of his Works. He had many meetings in Geneva with pastors, deacons, and visitors. On top of it all, his health was characteristically poor. It is amazing, given his schedule and its constant interruptions, that he was able to accomplish so much.

Even in Strasbourg, his schedule was busy. He writes in a letter about one such day’s work:

When the messenger came to collect the beginning of my book, I had to re-read twenty sheets of printer’s proofs. I also had a lecture, a sermon, four letters to write, a certain dispute to settle, and more than ten visitors, all of whom required attention.

In a letter to Bucer, he wrote, “I cannot recall two consecutive hours without interruption.” At Geneva, it was even worse; he wrote: “I do not even have one hour free.” In another letter, he wrote, “The difficulty is the vexations and brain racking interruptions which occur twenty or more times while I am writing one letter.” Yet Calvin continued to work hard. He did not like to waste time. Even on his deathbed he continued to work. When his friends told him to take it easy, he said, “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”

Calvin had a real love and sensitivity for people. Once when he was sending a letter to his friend Viret using a student as messenger, he noticed another student looking somewhat jealous. Immediately, he wrote another note to Viret telling him to pretend that the note was important and sent it using the second student as messenger.

We particularly see this sensitivity in his letters to his friends. For instance, he was sensitive to any criticism from Bucer, whom he regarded as a father figure. He wrote to Bucer, “If at any point I do not come up to your expectations, you know that I am in your power. Warn or punish. Do whatever is the right of a father toward his son.” Bucer responded, “You are my heart and soul.”

In a letter to Melanchthon, Luther’s lieutenant and a frequent recipient of letters from Calvin, he wrote:

Can we not, as you say, talk more often, if only by letter? The gain would not be yours, but mine, for nothing in the world is more precious than the pleasure I find in reading your charming letters.

Of his friendships with men such as Farel and Viret, he wrote in his dedication to his Commentary on Titus:

I am sure that nowhere have friends ever lived in such close fellowship and companionship as we have done in our ministry… It seems as if you and I are just one person.

That does not mean that Calvin was unable or unwilling to rebuke his friends. For instance, once he wrote to Farel:

I am given to understand that your very full sermons are giving some ground for complaint. I beg you earnestly to restrict yourself, even forcibly if necessary, rather than offer Satan any handle which he will be quick to seize. We do not speak for our own benefit but for that of our people. We must remember proportion in teaching, so that boredom does not give rise to disrespect.… Do not think that you can expect from everyone an enthusiasm equal to your own.

Or to Melanchthon—who seems to have been somewhat timid like the New Testament’s Timothy—he writes:

Let us follow our course with unswerving mind … Hesitation in the general or standard bearer is far more shameful than is the flight of simple soldiers… In giving way a little you have given rise to more complaints and groans than would have done the open desertion of a hundred ordinary men.

Calvin’s Theology

Many books have been written about Calvin’s theology. It is impossible to do justice to the subject in this article, except to mention a few things that Calvin’s theology was not.

First, Calvin’s sole or primary emphasis was not predestination. Basically, he inherited and passed on this doctrine from earlier writers: Augustine (whom he quotes more often in the Institutes than any other non-biblical writer), Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther (Bondage of the Will). In his 1559 edition of Institutes, he devotes only ninety pages of more than 1,500 pages to predestination and covers this doctrine in Book III under the doctrine of salvation and not in Book I under the doctrine of God. In fact, if it were not for a couple of critics, Pigius and Bolsec, to whom Calvin responded with a treatise, we would have very little on this subject in Calvin’s writing. He was particularly concerned with this doctrine (as with others) to go as far as Scripture goes and no further. B.B. Warfield calls Augustine the theologian of grace, Luther the theologian of justification, and Calvin the theologian of the Holy Spirit because of his emphasis and unique development of this Biblical teaching.

Second, Calvin was not a cold, dry theologian. At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary I studied with Ford Lewis Battles, who was a Calvin scholar and translator of his Institutes. I remember him telling me that Romans 1:21 was Calvin’s life verse, particularly the phrase, “they knew God, (but) they did not honor Him or give thanks.” Calvin believed that we live to honor God and to give Him thanks. The section entitled “Prayer” in Institutes, Book III, is classic. Calvin maintained that the “principal work of the Spirit” is faith and the “principal exercise of faith is prayer.” Summing up life in Christ, he says:

The sum total comes back to this: Since the Scripture teaches us that it’s a principal part of the service of God to invoke him … he values this homage we do him more than all sacrifices.

Karl Barth, in his The Christian Life, understands that he is standing in the heritage of the Reformers when he argues that the central virtue of spiritual life is invocation—calling on His name in prayer. Barth then structures the whole of “the Christian life” around the Lord’s Prayer. Calvin, too, saw prayer as the primary thing in our lives.

Third, Calvin was not a narrow parochial thinker. He was openly appreciative of truth wherever he found it. His emphases were later called the doctrine of “common grace.” In his Institutes II.ii 15, Calvin writes:

What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude. Those men whom Scripture calls “natural men” were indeed sharp and penetrating in their investigation of things below. Let us accordingly learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.

In his commentary on Genesis, Calvin ascribes many human actions and advances to the work of the Holy Spirit:

For the invention of the arts, and of other things which serve to the common use and convenience of life, is a gift from God by no means to be despised, and a faculty worthy of commendation…as the experience of all ages teaches us how widely the rays of divine light have shone on unbelieving nations, for the benefit of the present life; and we see at the present time that the excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused through the whole human race.

So, far from being narrow in his perspective and unappreciative of pagan thought, he was willing to value all truth as God’s truth.


The first historical essay I wrote in college was about the episode in Geneva with Michael Servetus, Spanish physician and self-styled theologian, and the controversy over toleration and religious liberty it caused. Servetus was judged by civil authorities as a heretic for vehemently denying the Trinity and other central doctrines of faith. He was burned in Geneva with Calvin’s approval.

Many excuses for this action have been made, such as: death for heretics was part of the spirit of the age; Servetus was foolish in his provoking action by the state; Calvin sought on numerous occasions to persuade Servetus of his errors; Calvin sought a less painful death for Servetus; and the Swiss cities agreed to his punishment. None of these qualifications excuse Calvin. Perhaps the unintended but beneficial consequence was that the reaction by Castellio and others to Servetus’ death had an influence on the belief in religious liberty today.

Last Days

Calvin’s last days were spent working as much as he could, writing, preaching, and teaching. Sometimes he was carried to a chair in the pulpit to preach. When the end was near, “Lord, how long!” was the cry on his lips. In a final meeting with Geneva’s ministers, he confessed his faults and asked for forgiveness for anything he had done to offend them. Calvin gave instructions that he be buried in an ordinary cemetery with no gravestone so that no one would make it a shrine. As a result, his gravesite is unknown.

J.I. Packer sums up this complex personality. Calvin was:

Bible-centered in his method, God-centered in his outlook, Christ-centered in his message; he was controlled throughout by a vision of God on the throne and a passion that God should be glorified… He lived as he preached and wrote, for the glory of God. Good theologians are not always good men, nor vice versa, but Calvin’s life and theology were all of a piece. Consistency was his hallmark, both as a thinker and as a writer.

NOTE: If you wish to do further reading on Calvin, Alister McGrath’s biography, A Life of John Calvin, would be a good place to start. If you are really ambitious, try reading the Institutes, which Wesley (despite some disagreements) claimed was the most valuable book next to the Bible. Or, try any of Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible. His goal of clarity and brevity mixed with much practical application make these works some of the most helpful guides to Scripture anywhere.

Dr. Art Lindsley has served as Scholar-in-Residence at the C.S. Lewis Institute since 1987. Formerly, Dr. Lindsley was Director of Educational Ministries of the Ligonier Valley Study Center and Staff Specialist for Coalition for Christian Outreach. He received a B.S. (Chemistry) from Seattle Pacific University, an M.Div., Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. (Religious Studies), University of Pittsburgh. Art Lindsley is co-author with R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner of Classical Apologetics, and he has spoken and written frequently on C.S. Lewis, postmodernism, and other relevant cultural issues.

Shortly after the young Francis of Assisi embraced a faith that would help color the face of Christianity for centuries to come, he sensed God telling him, “Francis, all those things that you have loved in the flesh you must now despise, and from those things that you formerly loathed you will drink great sweetness and immeasurable delight.” If a believer heard such words today, he or she would likely write them down in a journal and then forget them. Or perhaps the new Christian might compose a poem or a song, celebrating the sentiment. If the person were an author, he or she might even find a publisher and entomb the lofty notions inside a book.

But not Francis. Almost immediately, he applied the divine admonition in a horrifically beautiful way.

As the young Christian rode his horse out of town, he saw what he once most despised — a leper. It is difficult for most moderns to understand the terror of that once untreatable disease. Leprosy is an insidious malady in which bacteria seek refuge in the nerves and then proceed to destroy them, one by one. Since the bacteria prefer the cooler parts of the body, it means the toes, fingers, eyes, earlobes, and noses are most vulnerable. When your nerves lose all sensitivity, you become your own worst enemy, not realizing the damage you’re causing to your own body. You could literally rub your eyes blind.

Eventually, you lose your ability to see, and then you lose your ability to feel, and suddenly, you’re living in a senseless world. The only way to know what you’re holding in your hands is to find any remaining, stubbornly sensitive part of your body—perhaps a quarter-inch stretch of your lips or an eighth-inch spot on your cheek—and try to guess from the texture and the weight what it is you’re carrying.

Even apart from the macabre appearance of a leprosy victim, no one wants to end up alienated from the world, so most people kept an understandably wide berth around lepers. It was one of the most feared diseases of its time. “During my life of sin,” Francis wrote, “nothing disgusted me like seeing victims of leprosy.”

Exuberant in his newfound faith and with joy flooding his soul—and remembering he was now to love and even treasure those things he formerly loathed—Francis chose not to run from the leper, as he would have done earlier in his life. Instead, he leaped from his horse, knelt in front of the leper, and proceeded to kiss the diseased white hand.

He kissed it.

Francis then further astonished the leper by giving him money. But even that wasn’t enough. No, Francis was determined to “drink great sweetness” from what he formerly loathed, so he jumped back on his horse and rode to a neighboring leper colony. Francis “begged their pardon for having so often despised them” and, after giving them money, refused to leave until he had kissed each one of them, joyfully receiving the touch of their pale, encrusted lips. Only then did Francis jump back on his horse to go on his way.

In that indelible moment, Francis’ faith became incarnate. His belief didn’t just inspire him; it transformed him.

Francis’ initial conversion was invisible, exhibited only in the changed expression on his face. That’s as far as many of us ever go—a superficial change of mind in response to a compelling argument for faith. This act was astonishingly explicit—a grotesquely gorgeous parable of a radically changed man. The very instant Francis’s lips touched the leper, what could have been merely a religion crumbled under the weight of a new way of life. The horse no longer carried a man; that beast transported a saint, whose example continues to challenge us yet today.

Knowing the dynamic witness of a young Francis, I feel embarrassed at how small-minded we can be when discussing the Christian faith with young people today. The apostle Paul exalted life in Christ as the most exciting and compelling life anyone could choose. In a marvelous take on 2 Timothy 4:7 (MSG), Eugene Peterson recounts Paul telling Timothy, “This is the only race worth running.”

Today’s believers often lose touch with this sense of the glory of being a Christian. We settle for so little—a tame religion, a few rituals, maybe even an occasional miraculous answer to prayer—and so pass our lives without understanding our true identity in Christ, embracing our calling as God’s children or fulfilling our divine purpose.

Is the Christianity taught today large enough to seize our hearts? Does its promise of transformation so compel us that we would give all we have to take hold of it?

Most of us have heard the modern translation of 2 Timothy 4:7 that says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” An Orthodox monk has pointed out that this is a “strikingly Greek” expression that may best be understood as “I have fought the Beautiful Fight.”What a mesmerizing twist of a phrase! We can easily think of what is beautiful, and our minds can quickly grasp what constitutes a fight.

But putting the two together? A beautiful fight?

Here’s the brilliance of it all: in the Christian life of real transformation and sacrificial service, there is drama, passion, struggle, and vision—everything our souls need to feel alive. And yet compare this exaltation of the Christian life with how it often gets presented today. Far too frequently, Christianity becomes a list of prohibitions.

I’ll never forget talking with one young woman, who said: “Why would I ever want to become a Christian? All they want me to do is dump all the good music from my iPod and wear ugly clothes.” Her words tell me that, at least in our preaching if not in our minds, we have lost our vision for the glorious, transforming presence of Jesus Christ—how He really makes a difference. This transformation goes well beyond a few instances of slightly modified behavior.

Sadly, holiness is practically a wrecked word outside the church. As I write these lines, yet another nationally known pastor has seen his scandalous conduct exposed, confirming the suspicions of so many who think that Christians are pitiful creatures of self-hatred who secretly crave what we most vigorously speak against.

Frankly, I don’t fault the world for celebrating our hypocrisy. I fault us for defining the faith by what we’re not supposed to do, setting ourselves up for constant humiliation. If that’s what they know us for, if that’s what they hear us saying, then we have neither lived nor preached in a way that showcases God’s glory.

Let me ask you—what do you most think about when someone mentions the word holiness? Does it refer to the words you use or don’t use, where you go or don’t go on the Internet, how you express or don’t express your sexuality? What is a holy person? And then ask yourself, can a few prohibitions like this adequately describe the powerful presence of a Francis?

Without this sense of a powerfully transforming faith, we get stuck on lesser battles and smaller aims. We do this primarily by reducing our faith to a set of intellectual beliefs and a list of forbidden practices. Now, doctrine is enormously important, as is morality. But doctrine alone isn’t enough. (“Even the demons believe [the doctrine that there is one God] — and shudder” [James 2:19].) And my problem with those who put so much emphasis on moralism is not that they go too far but that they don’t go nearly far enough. They mistake the means for the end.

Francis would be likely, in today’s world, to spend his time getting drunk, cussing out inconsiderate drivers or frittering away his time on salacious Internet searches. But you could never define him by these restraints. On the contrary, in his day he became known for what he was, not for what he wasn’t.

Here’s the challenge of a small-minded faith based only on prohibitions: we still sin. If a successful Christian is defined by what she or he doesn’t do, we’re all in trouble, because the Bible tells us that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). Preaching mere moralism is the surest way to tire people out, because in one sense we’re all going to fall short of the ideal, and in another sense, spending our lives trying not to do something is far less than we were created for. If our goal in life is primarily to avoid something, then at best we’ll achieve nothing. Such a faith will never capture our hearts. If a young woman won’t even empty her iPod for that faith, why would she ever give up her life for it?

Incarnational spirituality—the living, reigning and ascended Jesus living through us and transforming us into different people—does not exist to uphold a few rules but rather speaks of a process that creates an entirely new person who sees with new eyes, feels with a new heart, hears with renewed ears, and lives with a new passion. It is, I believe, the only life worth living.

You’ve probably heard many sermons and read many books on what you shouldn’t be and shouldn’t do. This book seeks to paint a portrait of what you can become. Our creator God is eager to splash His glory on us. The apostle Peter promises us that “[God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness” so that we “may participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).

God didn’t create you not to do something; if that had been His goal, He never would have formed you, because if you never existed, you never would have sinned. God made each of us in His image, and He wants us to recapture that image, to surrender to His work in our lives so that we “will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lordfor the display of his splendor” (Is. 61:3).

I pray that we will settle for nothing less than the return of this splendor. Holy Available explores how faith in Jesus Christ can be radically different from and better than what we are currently experiencing. Christianity as a spiritual journey is not simply defined by what we believe or how we behave but is marked profoundly by who we are. It is a different type of transformation—a transformation of being, not just allegiance; a transformation of experience, not just confession; a transformation of existence, not just adherence. It is a return to splendor—for the glory of God.