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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.

Perhaps the worst moment in an already sordid history came when Jeff went on a “spiritual” retreat. After years of a daily battle with lust, he decided to get away and focus on the Lord.

During the drive down to his parent’s cabin, Jeff felt that familiar stir, the inexorable pull of illicit excitement that lust promises to provide. He knew he would be alone for the weekend, and the sexual temptation seemed to seize the opportunity. “I knew I should go back right then,” Jeff remembers.

But he didn’t. When Jeff arrived at the house, he found some “smut” novels. All thought of prayer and Scripture was eclipsed as Jeff once again lost himself in the world of pornography.

In his book The Sexual Man, Dr. Archibald Hart reports that almost all (94%) of the six hundred “good men with strong religious leanings” he studied had been exposed to pornography, and only six percent said that “they had escaped its influence.” Mitchell Whitman, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology (whose studies have specialized in sexual deviance), affirms, “In my experience of working with many Christian men, the use of pornography is a very common problem,” particularly among single men.

Porn has become so commercially successful and mainstream that it even has its own industry trade publication, Adult Video News, which claims that the number of rented X-rated videos rose from 75 million in 1985 to 490 million in 1992 to 665 million in 1996. In 1996, over eight billion dollars were teased out of consumers’ hands to purchase time in the presence of sex and nudity: videos, peep shows, live sex acts, sex toys, magazines, cable stations, hotel room adult channels, and sexually-explicit books. In fact, as Peter Kreeft notes, if a successful revival completely wiped out lust in our country, “we would be plunged into the greatest economic depression in history.”

The profit found in producing nude images hasn’t been lost on Broadway. When it was announced that Nicole Kidman would appear au natural in the Broadway play The Blue Room, tickets were sold out before the first show opened. The even more explicit play Closer opened on Broadway March 28. A Vanity Fair writer states, “Knifingly explicit, Closer is further proof that the addictive shortcuts of pornography have entered not only the cultural mainstream, but the bloodstream as well.”

Even more disturbing, recent technological advances have brought porn into most homes and apartments. The anonymity provided by the internet has wreaked havoc on otherwise sincere Christians. Whitman notes, “It’s one thing to drive your car to an adult book store and have to look around to see if anybody is watching before you walk in. In that case, there’s an immediate reinforcement of shame. The entire process of obtaining the porn entails numerous barriers that have to be overcome. On the internet, there is a component of confidentiality and secrecy, even though technically it’s not really anonymous. The barriers that once existed are no longer there.” The fight against using sexually-explicit material has become an all-out war for many Christians.

Sexual Static

Andy Farmer, a singles’ pastor at Covenant Fellowship in Philadelphia, unmasks some of the lies single men often tell themselves to “excuse” their use of pornography:

“I’ve got sexual urges. God hasn’t given me a way to release these, so what else am I supposed to do?”

“I had another lousy day at work with my jerk boss. I just need to enjoy myself for a little bit, and this is the only way I have available.”

“Another Friday night and I don’t have a date. I’ve tried to relate to women and be friendly, but it gets me nothing. This is better than nothing.” “My problem isn’t as bad as Ed’s; as long as I use porn less than him, I’m okay.”

Whitman warns that many single men erroneously believe that marriage will solve their sexual lust problems and wipe out their thirst for pornography. “My counseling experience demonstrates consistently that men who used porn as singles re-started their use of pornography after they were married.”

Farmer urges men to consider the spiritual consequences of using pornography: “An immediate consequence is damage in your relationship to God. Many men never make that connection. They wonder why prayer seems so barren when they’re tolerating these kinds of indulgences on the side.”

A second consequence is less sensitivity to sin. “There is a redrawing of lines,” Farmer says. “What once was considered sin is now redefined as ‘okay in moderation.'” Just as serious, according to Farmer, is the deception that an addiction to pornography brings into someone’s life. “By nature, using pornography is inherently deceptive, the habit grows in the dark.” It leads men to lie, cover up, and make false denials.

Whitman adds that the use of pornography inevitably attacks one’s view of self. “There’s a loss of integrity, and it compromises our ability to speak out on moral issues.” As Christians, we are called to be proclaimers of the Gospel, but, as Whitman points out, “Proclamation in part is truth lived out, and the use of pornography compromises this.” When we hold on to a secret sin, it radically challenges our central mission in life–testifying to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.

Whitman has found that pornography also “entails an objectification of women.” In this, it cuts two ways. When men use porn to mask the pain of not being in a real relationship, it takes away energy and initiative that would otherwise be spent in meeting a real woman and building genuine intimacy. When men are already in a relationship, they will be hindered by the fact that their use of porn has reinforced a fantasy to which no real woman could possibly live up.

Farmer agrees, reminding men that using porn inevitably shapes a man’s view of sex and women, leading to serious consequences in marriage. “Many men have told me they didn’t believe using pornography affected their view of sex very much–until they got married.”

After Jeff came clean and lived without porn for several months, his girlfriend told him she noticed that he was far more “grateful” for her–and it wasn’t until then that Jeff realized how his use of pornographic images had distorted his view of the woman who means more to him than anyone else in the world.

“The Bible presents a view of sex which is self-giving,” Farmer points out. “This is the opposite of porn, which is self-gratification. If a man indulges this sin, when he gets married his orientation toward sex will remain self-gratification. In a marriage like that, sex can be little more than extended masturbation, and his wife just a means to that end.”

Farmer tells his singles, “Self-gratification through using pornography is the opposite of what God intended, not a premature enjoyment of what God intended.”

Even secular sources are recognizing that porn brings consequences. One of the themes of the new Broadway play Closer, according to reviewer James Wolcott, is that “Men have gotten so hooked on the porn reels in their heads that interfacing with actual women proves disruptive–it garbles up the tapes.”

This, indeed, is one of porn’s great dangers–crippling Christian men, sexually, before they get married, making a real relationship problematic, at best.

The Lure

Jeff’s introduction to pornography came early, back in junior high (which is a typical age, according to Whitman). One of his first memories is when some football buddies played a pornographic movie for their friends. Jeff was launched into a near constant pursuit for sexually stimulating material. If he could get hold of a Playboy, he would, but department store catalogues, television, even memories of women at the beach provided enough stimulation when nothing else was available.

“Sexual materials are multiple in our society,” Whitman points out. “Some materials, such as department store catalogues or Victoria Secret advertisements, are not pornographic, but they can be used pornographically.”

In all other respects, Jeff appeared to be a conscientious Christian. “People would look at me and say, ‘that guy is really passionate about God,'” Jeff says, “but they couldn’t see the underlying sin.”

At times Jeff would share his struggles with his single buddies, but since many of them battled the same sin, it never seemed that serious, even as his sin became a near-daily collapse. It got to the point where Jeff no longer even pretended to struggle–he just gave in. Coming home from college, Jeff purposely stayed up late, waited until his parents went to bed, and surfed the channels, looking for stimulating images. There were brief “vacations” from lust. Sometimes, Jeff could make himself go one or even two weeks without fantasizing, but there was never “any heart change.” “I kept telling myself I would change eventually,” Jeff remembers, but eventually never came. Yet by the time I talked to him, he had gone over a year without falling in this area. What happened?

The Path to Freedom

Jeff began his victory by taking his sin seriously. He was almost forced into it. One night, his roommate came home and nearly caught him in an embarrassing situation. Jeff managed to cover up what had happened, and lied when his roommate asked him what was wrong.

Finally, that same night, he just got tired of lying, sinning, and feeling guilty. Jeff went to his room, wrote out a full confession, and read it to his roommate. He was blessed by a roommate who took his confession seriously, insisting that Jeff talk to his pastor. When Jeff did so, he was led into a time of serious, holy conviction. His pastor helped him see how he had deceived his parents, his girlfriend, and members of the church. Together, they decided that Jeff needed to tell his girlfriend about his daily struggle, as the two of them were seriously considering marriage.

“It was a night I won’t forget,” Jeff recalls. Sitting in a mall parking lot, Jeff had to tell her he wasn’t the man she thought he was. As his girlfriend wept, Jeff gave her the freedom to leave the relationship, but she said she wanted to work through it.

Jeff also confessed what he had been doing to his parents. Since he had been in their house, he felt they needed to know. He was tired of the deception, weary of living in the darkness, and wanted to be in the light.It was a humbling, convicting, difficult time. But all the empty promises and “some-day-I’ll-deal-with-this” excuses had convinced him that a half-effort wouldn’t work–he had to take his problem seriously and act decisively. Whitman is also a proponent of confession. “If you’re struggling with pornography, talk to somebody about it,” he urges. “Don’t keep it a secret. Men usually think, ‘I can handle it,’ but the reality is, you can’t. You keep doing it and that’s evidence enough that you have a problem.”

As a second step, Whitman encourages men to recognize that pornography can function like an addiction. “It can be helpful to use the principles that help an individual break any kind of addictive behavior,” he adds, recommending that those who need more help in this area consult Gerald May’s book Addiction and Grace. Whitman has concerns about the “excuse” use of addiction, but believes May’s book provides helpful steps to address problem behavior.

Jeff also takes issue with addiction terminology. “I believe the addiction phraseology is unhelpful for change because it takes the responsibility of sinning off the sinner and places it on a supposed ‘addiction.’ What helped me was that I was confronted with the fact that I was fully responsible for and guilty of sinning against God and needed to cry out to Him for mercy. That is when I received His grace, love, and forgiveness for my sin and was granted the power to change.”

Andy Farmer recommends Jerry Bridge’s Discipline of Grace, stressing that it’s important not to “just be a behaviorist” but to get at underlying issues. “Men who use pornography are in some sense struggling with God’s authority. Pornography can be a convenient rebellion.”

Whitman agrees. “Change in this area entails…addressing the underlying roots. It usually involves dealing with issues such as loneliness, depression, isolation, stress, and losses and grief.”

Farmer also notes that a man’s propensity to use porn can build from “little” compromises that set him up for a bigger fall. “If I go to the beach and I spend my time looking at women in bathing suits and don’t guard my eyes, it’s not inevitable that that will lead to more temptations, but if an opportunity presents itself after that I’ll be more inclined to indulge myself.”

For some men, every time they flip through the television channels or surf the internet, they are desensitizing themselves and becoming increasingly vulnerable to sexual indulgence. That’s one of the reasons Farmer recommends single men don’t live alone.

“Men are so inundated with sexual images in our society that single men in particular are doing battle daily. It’s going to be very difficult to face this alone. The guys I know who experience some degree of success in battling this are in relationships with other guys who confess their sins to each other.”

Too often, men struggling with pornography are focused on becoming unlike the devil rather than like Christ. It is important to “take off” the sinful garment, but Scripture encourages us to focus on “putting on” the new garment–the virtues of Christ. When we allow sin in any one area to stain our soul, we become weaker in all areas. Conversely, when we grow in honesty, humility, patience, and love, we become stronger in all areas.

Ultimately, victory over pornography will be enhanced when a person doesn’t just focus on overcoming lust, but on becoming like Christ in all their attitudes and actions. This is a moment by moment decision over many things that have absolutely nothing to do with sex. When you practice humility and patience all day long, looking to serve others and put them first because that’s what Christ would do, it seems out of character to then act like the devil late at night when you’re by yourself.

Train yourself in godliness throughout the day, and you’ll likely find that the sin which had such a strong hold on you will lose much of its power and even, over time, much of its allure.

A New Habit

Jeff’s addiction to lust almost cost him everything–his reputation, his relationship with his girlfriend, his call to enter the ministry. But today he is grateful to God he can say, “It has been a year and four months with absolutely no relapse.” Though lust had a strong pull on his life, he now realizes it made his life worse, not better.

While Jeff had a definite ending to his use of pornographic images, other men have gained victory over time. A one-time “deliverance” is unusual, according to Whitman. “Normally, behavioral self-control and the re-training of the mind involves incremental steps and reflects the process of sanctification.”

Most men who experience freedom in this area do so by taking the sin seriously, acting decisively, and involving another brother to help them him make the right choices and go through the process of repentance and training in godliness.

“The struggle with pornography can be like mountain climbing in an avalanche,” Farmer notes. “The things coming at us–from the world around us and from our temptations within–can seem overwhelming. But when we remember that our Guide has been ‘tempted in every way’ but did not fall, we can have confidence that He will lead us along the safe paths and steady us when we stumble.”

In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising talks about the bitterness that remains in his soul over how he and his countrymen were treated by the Nazis: “If you could lick my heart,” he says, “it would poison you.” Researchers are finding that this Holocaust survivor’s sentiment is not necessarily metaphorical.

While the biblical practice of forgiveness is usually preached as a Christian obligation, social scientists are discovering that forgiveness may help lead to victims’ emotional and even physical healing and wholeness. Academic interest in person-to-person forgiveness is relatively new. As recently as the early eighties, Dr. Glen Mack Harnden went to the University of Kansas library and looked up the word ‘forgiveness’ in Psychological Abstracts. He couldn’t find a single reference. This earlier neglect is being remedied at a startling pace. Former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot, among others, are co-chairing a $10 million “Campaign for Forgiveness Research,” established as a non-profit corporation to attract donations to support forgiveness research proposals.

In May of 1998, the John Templeton Foundation awarded research grants for the study of forgiveness to twenty-nine scientists. Some of the projects now being funded include Forgiveness After Organizational Downsizing; Forgiveness in Family Relationships; Secular and Spiritual Forgiveness Interventions for Recovering Alcoholics; The Effects of Forgiveness on the Physical and Psychological Development of Severely Traumatized Females; Forgiveness, Health, and Well-Being in the Lives of Post-Collegiate Young Adults; Challenges to Forgiveness in Marriage; and Healing, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation in Rwanda.

Through these and other studies, researchers are trying to determine the parameters of how the spiritual act of forgiveness can promote personal, interrelational, and social well-being. Dr. Harnden is enthusiastic about the personal benefits of forgiveness. “It not only heightens the potential for reconciliation,” he says, “but also releases the offender from prolonged anger, rage, and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer, and other psychosomatic illness.”

Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is president of the International Forgiveness Institute and thus at the forefront of interpersonal forgiveness research. Together with philosopher Joanna North, Enright writes about forgiveness’ benefits to society. “It is an obvious fact that we live in a world where violence, hatred, and animosity surround us on all sides….We hear much about the ‘social’ causes of crime–poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy, for example. We sometimes hear about the need for tolerance and cooperation, compassion and understanding. But almost never do we hear public leaders declaring their belief that forgiveness can bring people together, heal their wounds, and alleviate the bitterness and resentment caused by wrongdoing.”

Enright and North believe that “forgiveness might be useful in helping those who have been affected by cruelty, crime, and violence, and…might play a valuable role in reconciling warring parties and restoring harmony between people.”

The Studies

In 1990, a young mother of three pled for her life after being confronted by an assailant wearing combat fatigues. “Please don’t shoot me,” she whimpered. The murderer cold-heartedly fired anyway, fatally killing the woman. The assailant made so many mistakes in covering up her crime that had the situation not been so tragic, it would have been comic. She sloppily disposed of her clothing and weapon. Colorado Springs police had her in custody within twenty-four hours. Shortly thereafter, they also arrested the victim’s husband after determining that the two had been having an affair.

Sydna Masse lived behind the murdered woman. When she heard about the killing, she responded with hate and rage. “I had a dead friend and now lived behind three motherless kids. I felt I had every right to hate the murderer who caused this.” Sydna grew “physically hot” when the murderer’s name–Jennifer–was even mentioned or her picture was flashed on television. “For awhile, I couldn’t even read the newspaper articles,” she admits. Sydna’s hate wasn’t a solitary affair. “The whole city and state hated her,” she says. Jennifer’s life sentence did little to ameliorate Sydna’s passion. “There was no relief in her sentencing.

That’s the thing with hatred and bitterness–it eats you alive. Every time I passed the house, I missed Diane and became angry all over again.” Shortly after Jennifer received her sentence, Sydna began going through a Bible study which included a chapter on forgiveness. Sydna prayerfully asked God who she needed to forgive, and in her words, “Jennifer’s name came right to my head. I literally did a whiplash and protested, ‘No way I can forgive her. She killed my friend! She killed a mother of three!”

In spite of her reluctance, Sydna finally acquiesced and wrote a carefully crafted letter to Jennifer, expressing her forgiveness. She was caught by surprise by what happened inside her. As soon as Sydna dropped the letter into the mail, “a weight lifted. I felt like I was losing twenty pounds. That’s when I learned that anger, bitterness and unforgiveness keeps you from experiencing the depths of joy.” Sydna’s experience is right in line with what researchers are finding for a wide range of demographics.

In Drs. Coyle’s and Enright’s 1997 study (University of Wisconsin-Madison) on forgiveness as an intervention goal with post-abortion men, researchers sought to determine whether men who identify themselves as having been hurt by an abortion can benefit from a “structured psychological intervention designed to facilitate forgiveness.” The psychological processes involve twenty delineated steps, including confronting anger, a willingness to consider forgiveness as an option, acceptance of the pain, and the participant realizing that he has needed others’ forgiveness in the past. After leading subjects through this process, researchers found significant decreases in clients’ anxiety, anger, and grief.

Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis published a study in 1995 (Journal of Moral Education, Vol. 24, No. 4) examining forgiveness education with college students who judged themselves to be parentally love-deprived. The college students who underwent the more rigorous program had “improved psychological health,” including improved self-esteem, hope, and lowered trait anxiety.

In a study among elderly females, Hebl and Enright found that there was a significant decrease in depression and anxiety among those who participated in their forgiveness program (although the control group experienced some of the same benefits). Furthermore, the researchers found that the elderly women who participated in their study not only used forgiveness skills to reconcile with a single person, but “also to consider more deliberately forgiveness as a social problem-solving strategy.”

Numerous other studies are in progress, many of them headquartered at the unlikely address of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW).

The Father of Forgiveness Research

Dr. Bob Enright of UW is the undisputed father of forgiveness research. He was raised a Roman Catholic, “fell away” from the faith, entered it once again through Methodism, took a journey through evangelicalism, and now is back in Catholicism. He describes himself as an “evangelical Catholic, if there is such a thing.”

In 1985, Enright had finally climbed to the top rung of his profession. He was a full tenured professor, “sitting at the top of the heap,” he says, but getting bored with the mainstream of research on which he focused. “The field of moral development was not going anywhere,” he says. At that time he was bringing in the customary one or two grants a year, but finding nothing that was exciting enough to keep him sufficiently engaged.

“I was enduring a tremendous dissatisfaction with the way I thought my field was going. We were not reaching out to every-day people the way I hoped we would. I wanted to find something in the area of morals that could be of tremendous benefit to others. I took it so seriously that after a sabbatical in 1984, I dumped all my research over a cliff, so to speak, and boy am I glad I did.”

As Enright wrestled with how moral research could actually benefit others, his Christian background ignited a small fire. “I kept asking myself, ‘if the social sciences are supposed to be part of the helping profession, and if the wisdom of the ages–the Hebrew-Christian Bible–is replete with wonderful stories about the success of person-to-person forgiveness, why haven’t the social sciences never thought to study forgiveness as a primary investigation?'” It was his academic “aha!” moment.

When Enright looked into the research literature, he was shocked at the complete absence of any empirical studies examining such a practice. “I was very naive,” he remembers. “I thought there would be something, but there literally was not one study published on the topic [of person-to-person forgiveness] in the social sciences. I would occasionally see the word, but no study focused on it.”

As soon as Enright embarked on his new field of endeavor, he was struck by the dichotomy of his work’s reception. “Everyday people” were intrigued and delighted when he raised the topic. But the academic world was entirely a different matter. “Academic eyes would glaze over ninety percent of the time. Nine percent had hate-filled eyes. One percent was delighted.” The gatekeeper of research is funding, so Enright began applying for grants. His first idea was to go into prisons and help prisoners learn how to forgive others who had wronged them, with the long-term view that by doing this, prisoners might experience empathy for their victims. It was sort of a back-door approach to help prisoners understand how their actions can plague others. The response couldn’t have been less encouraging.

“During one interview, I had a wonderful, hour-long talk with a man who held an editorship from a major psychology journal. Afterwards, he confided to me, ‘This is so creative and important, I’m going to rate this number one.'” Three months later, however, the rejection letter arrived. Enright called the editor, who was “rather embarrassed and very hesitant.” When pressed, the editor admitted, “Bob, once I got into the group meeting, they completely and thoroughly trashed your idea.”

“What did they say?” Bob asked. “People were angry. ‘You should never give money for research with prisoners to teach them how to forgive!’ they said. ‘If anything, prisoners should ask forgiveness of us!'” Enright was discouraged. “I thought, that’s been the problem. We’ve never tried it the other way. I wanted to prime the pump by having prisoners learn to forgive first and then maybe they’d ask for forgiveness themselves.”

The next year, Enright applied for the same grant with essentially the same project. This time, the interview with the preeminent psychologist took all of ten minutes. “Bob,” he warned, “you do know you’re going to have trouble for the rest of your career with this study of forgiveness, don’t you?” For nearly a decade, Enright endured the academic equivalent of a “shunning.” He didn’t receive a single dollar of grant money, which is academia’s way of saying, “Whatever this man is doing isn’t very important.” “It was very embarrassing,” Enright admits. It is even more surprising that Enright stayed with it, considering that the school at which he teaches isn’t particularly interested in the Christian tradition.

“There isn’t a single course on Christianity, per se, at the university,” Enright points out. ” You can major in various religious beliefs, but as far as I know, you can’t take a course on Christianity.”

A fellow believer found out what Enright was doing and exclaimed, “How could you study a topic like forgiveness at the UWM, of all places? You’re either stubborn as a mule or you’re Holy Spirit inspired.”

“I think it’s probably both,” Enright laughs today. “Without tenacity, you couldn’t do this sort of thing.”

After Enright worked for a decade receiving little attention and no money, The Chicago Tribune catapulted him and his brainchild–the International Forgiveness Institute–into the public’s awareness (just as the Los Angeles Times broke the story on Billy Graham over fifty years ago). A reporter wrote an article on Enright and his institute (which at that time was more an idea than a reality), placing the story in the women’s section. The article elicited over 300 calls. “My wife [Nancy] wanted to put the phone out in the woods!” Enright quips. “We realized we were on to something, and [the calls] forced our hand to get the institute going.”

Enright started publishing a newsletter, set up a web site, and kept publishing findings in his field. Finally, the funding caught up to the public’s interest, and with the aforementioned grants, forgiveness research is now a relatively lucrative field of endeavor. “God has a sense of humor,” Enright explains of the grants freely flowing to his fellow academics.

In fact, just recently, the Mendota Mental Health Center, a world-renowned mental health institute, approached Enright about an intriguing idea to help rehabilitate criminals. “Perhaps we could teach them how to forgive first, and then see if that builds empathy for them to seek forgiveness?” Enright responded that he thought the idea was definitely worth exploring.

The Spiritual Father of Forgiveness Research

A book that caught Enright’s attention early on was Lewis Smedes’ 1984 publication Forgive and Forget. “Prior to Lewis Smedes in 1984,” Enright says, “if you collected every theological book about person-to-person forgiveness [as opposed to divine-human forgiveness], you could hold them all in one hand.”

Dr. Mack Harnden was also motivated by Smedes’ seminal work. Fifteen years later, he still can pinpoint the day. “On April 20, 1985, I heard Lewis Smedes speak in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the topic of forgiveness. That speech directed the future course of my life because I felt that forgiveness is the core, most significant factor in both spiritual and psychological healing.”

Initially, Dr. Smedes set out to write a general book on the theological aspect of forgiveness, but soon discovered that “almost everything that was written about forgiveness was about how God forgives sinful people and how they can experience his forgiveness.” As he reflected on the Gospel, it occurred to Smedes that “forgiving fellow human beings for wrongs done to them was close to the quintessence of Christian experience. And, more, that the inability to forgive other people was a cause of added misery to the one who was wronged in the first place.” Wanting, then, to focus on person-to-person forgiveness, Smedes felt he might receive some help from “the literature of psychology,” but soon discovered that psychologists were apparently even less interested in the topic than theologians had been.

The questions Smedes went into his writing with were: “How does forgiveness work? What goes on in one’s mind and spirit when she sets out to forgive someone? What happens after forgiveness? What good comes of it?” He found that in the past, “Human forgiveness had been seen as a religious obligation of love that we owe to the person who has offended us. The discovery that I made was the important benefit that forgiving is to the forgiver. And this is where I think the link between the psychological research and my book is.”

This is precisely the thought that has captured the imagination of social scientists. Smedes presents a real-world view of forgiveness. Rather than seeing the aim of forgiveness as exclusively reconciliation, it becomes a matter of self-preservation. “Ideally,” Smedes says, “forgiving brings reconciliation, but not always. Reconciliation depends on the response of the person who injured someone and is forgiven. But that person may tell the forgiver to take his forgiveness and shove it down the toilet. Indeed, there is never a real reconciliation unless the wronged person first heals herself by forgiving the person who wronged her. “Does that render forgiveness invalid? Not at all.

The first person who gains from forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving and the first person injured by the refusal to forgive is the one who was wronged in the first place.” The same element of forgiveness that seized the attention of social scientists elicited criticism from some theologians. “Some theologians have said my book is an example of egoistic faith,” Smedes admits. “They refer to it as ‘therapeutic forgiveness.’ Yet the very thing that some theologians have criticized in my approach has been taken up by the healing community as a highly significant and promising mode of healing, perhaps the most important element of all.”

Smedes believes that “untold pain is brought about in the world by people’s unwillingness to forgive and the corresponding passion to get even. All you have to do is look at Yugoslavia today and you know that that’s true.”

The Process of Forgiveness

Though Sydna Masse forgave Diane for murdering her friend, she did so initially out of a sense of obligation. “What I didn’t expect was what I got in return,” she says today. Just days after mailing her letter to Jennifer, Sydna received a response. “I’m sorry for killing your friend,” Jennifer wrote. When Sydna read these words, “It hit me like a thunderbolt. I didn’t realize I needed to hear that.” But she did.

As a pen-pal relationship grew, Sydna realized that what she once viewed as an obligation–forgiving Jennifer–ended up ministering to her in some profound ways. She admits that if she hadn’t forgiven first, Jennifer never could have repented to her, as Jennifer didn’t even know Sydna existed. Ironically, Jennifer began ministering to Sydna through her letters. “For some reason, her letters always came on dark days for me. Jennifer became one of my greatest encouragers.”

Over time, Sydna began to consider Jennifer a friend “just as much as I had considered Diane a friend.” Though Sydna’s process was undertaken without the assistance of a psychological model, the results she experienced are what many researchers are after, though there are real problems to overcome. For instance, how can you measure that forgiveness has really taken place–which you need to do to establish that its attainment produces concrete benefits?

This is the concern of Dr. L. Gregory Jones, Dean of the Divinity School and Professor of Theology at Duke University. While encouraged by the appearance of forgiveness as a topic of research, Dr. Jones has some concerns.

He has seen some studies that are very well done, but he has also seen others that use “a largely disembodied therapeutic model of forgiveness that focuses on isolated individuals–the kind of self help discussion that may have made forgiveness a fad in contemporary culture but will lack the staying power, conceptually and theologically, for it to last over time.” Jones adds, “Forgiveness studies need to focus on people in relationship, both on the need to forgive and on the need to be forgiven.

This is, I think, one of the major features of Christian forgiveness that is lacking in a lot of popular descriptions of forgiveness. They focus only on the need to forgive, where Christian forgiveness emphasizes that we need consistently to understand our need for forgiveness.” In the “more problematic” studies, Jones says, “forgiveness is assumed to have happened simply when someone uses words of forgiveness.” He doesn’t believe it’s that simple. “Forgiveness is not an all or nothing affair. It involves the healing of brokenness, and involves words, emotions, and actions.

If persons continue to have feelings of bitterness toward another, there may not be the fullness of forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean there is no forgiveness. Rather, the persons are involved in a timeful process.” The “better studies,” according to Jones, recognize forgiveness as a “complex process.” “There are lots of forgiveness backsliders,” he points out. This brings us to the basic and crucial point. What exactly is forgiveness?

In the study by Al Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis, forgiveness is defined as “one’s merciful response to someone who has unjustly hurt. In forgiving, the person overcomes negative affect (such as resentment), cognition (such as harsh judgments) and behavior (such as revenge-seeking) toward the injurer, and substitutes more positive affect, cognition, and behavior toward him or her.”

Forgiveness is distinguished from justice “in that the latter involves reciprocity of some kind, whereas forgiveness is an unconditional gift given to one who does not deserve it.” Many of the researchers work off a standard twofold definition: forgiveness is releasing the other person from retaliation and wishing the other person well. Smedes prefers a tripartite definition. “The first thing one does in forgiving is surrender the right to get even with the person who wronged us,” he says. “Secondly, we must reinterpret the person who wronged us in a larger format.”

This, Smedes says, is to help us avoid creating a “caricature” of the person who wronged us. “In the act of forgiving, we get a new picture of a needy, weak, complicated, fallible human being like ourselves.” Smedes’ third step is “a gradual desire for the welfare of the person who injured us.” Jones points out the traditional difference between Christian and Jewish notions of forgiveness. “Jesus tells his disciples that they are authorized and sometimes obligated to forgive in his name. For Jews, only victims can forgive.”

Harnden adds that “forgiveness does not preclude the enforcement of healthy and natural consequences on the offender….Whenever an individual offends another, the offender gives up a certain degree of power in determining his or her own destiny with the power being given over to the offended.” This is something with which Smedes would agree. “Some people view forgiveness as a cheap avoidance of justice, a plastering over of wrong, a sentimental make believe. If forgiveness is a whitewashing of wrong, then it is itself wrong. Nothing that whitewashes evil can be good. It can be good only if it is a redemption from the effects of evil, not a make believing that the evil never happened.” It is the element of fighting evil that has some social scientists looking at forgiveness as a political tool, one that was put to good use in Yugoslavia.

Arresting the Violence

“It’s one thing to believe in miracles, it’s another to be part of one,” says Roy Lloyd, a founding board member of the International Forgiveness Institute and the broadcast news director for the National Council of Churches. Lloyd was part of a fifteen-member delegation that traveled to Yugoslavia during April of 1999 in a successful attempt to get three captured American soldiers released. Though the media widely portrayed the “rescue mission” as a Jesse Jackson media stunt, it was actually co-led by Jackson and Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Some years ago, Lloyd and Campbell had several discussions about the role of forgiveness in healing social wrongs in the wake of church burnings.

One young man, who had been convicted of setting fire to a church, was visited by several pastors during his imprisonment and ultimately made a profession of faith. Upon his release, he returned to the church and publicly asked for their forgiveness. The church members surrounded the man and prayed for God to bless him. Following this experience, both Campbell and Lloyd were eager to apply the principles of forgiveness research to the problems in Yugoslavia. Campbell and Jackson’s delegation transcended religious lines– Mainline Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims all took part. “A number of our basic premises were very important,” Lloyd says.

“All throughout the trip you heard people from our delegation saying that the cycle of violence needs to be broken and that past injuries shouldn’t dictate the present or the future. Forgiveness is first of all a gift that you give to yourself. You shouldn’t allow something that happened to you or your ancestors long ago to continue injuring you. The most important thing is wishing the best for yourself as well as for others. In that process, you and those with whom you interact are freed from what has been, and can envision what might be.” Lloyd heard both Campbell and Jackson voice these sentiments on several different occasions, but he became slightly disillusioned by a media that he describes as “narrow minded and lazy.”

On one occasion, Jackson urged reporters to pay careful attention to a rabbi within the delegation, but as soon as Jackson stepped away from the microphone, “the television lights went off. They had their soundbite and didn’t want anything more, even though they were missing a major part of the story.”

That “story,” according to Lloyd, is the role forgiveness played in helping to address the problems in Kosovo. “In meetings with the foreign secretary of Yugoslavia and other political leaders, we made points about how the violence needs to stop in Kosovo. We applied the principles of forgiveness research–that people are responsible, but that we shouldn’t look at others as enemies, but rather as friends if we want to break the cycle of violence.

Forgiveness of deeds long past needs to take place rather than repeating them. We need to envision the best for ourselves and for others, and in that everyone will find a peaceful future.” When members of the delegation met with Milosevic, they were well aware that negotiations weren’t really possible. “We had nothing to offer,” Lloyd admits, “other than a religious, spiritual, and humanitarian approach.” Without political leverage, the leaders spoke of the importance of forgiveness and doing the right thing.

“Our delegation told Milosevic that he was treated so poorly in the press because of what he had done. If he wanted to change the press, he had to change his ways.” According to Lloyd, all nine of Milosevic’s top advisors (several of whom had met with the Campbell/Jackson delegation) spoke with one voice: “Let the soldiers go.” Milosevic ultimately agreed with his advisors, but then it was his turn to practice forgiveness.

“On the very day [Milosevic promised the soldiers’ return], a busload of ethnic Albanians was hit by a bomb while crossing a bridge, killing dozens,” Lloyd remembers. “And then [NATO] bombed the ambulance that was going out to help them.” In spite of these events, Milosevic stayed true to his word. Lloyd says that the released soldiers practiced their own brand of forgiveness. “Each of the three young soldiers were very religious,” he points out, “and one of them, Christopher Stone, wouldn’t leave until he was allowed to go back to the soldier who served as his guard and pray for him.”

In spite of the political ramifications surrounding the delegation, according to Lloyd the fifteen members called themselves “the Religious Mission to Belgrade.” When Jackson finally received the news of the soldiers’ impending release, he held off reporters long enough to gather the delegation together for group prayer. While Lloyd advocates forgiveness, he still believes justice needs to be done in Yugoslavia. “Milosevic has done terrible, evil things,” he says. “One can forgive him, but one can also call for him to indeed be tried in the Hague for crimes against humanity.”

Enright is enthusiastic about Lloyd’s work. “I don’t know of any other instance,” he says, “where a social scientific research program has been able to use its findings to break into US history, and in such a positive way.”

Stories such as this one also reinforce Harnden’s belief that forgiveness has great -potential to solve many social problems, including crime. Retaliation or pursuing vengeance, he says, “often leads to the perpetuation of increasingly more severe retaliatory/violent response.” At an American Psychological Association meeting, Harden suggested that forgiveness, not retaliation, “represents the most strategic intervention in reducing violence in our society.”

Harnden points out that other methods have surely failed. Between 1960 and 1990, for instance, welfare spending increased by 631%, but violent crimes also increased–by 564%! Worldwide trends in violence are no more encouraging. Harnden quotes from research conducted by Don Shriver when he says that from the 1500s to 1800s–a period of four centuries–a total of 34.1 million were killed in war. In the last century alone (the 1900s), almost three times that many (107.8 million) have been similarly killed.

“Forgiveness stops the ongoing cycle of repaying vengeance with vengeance that appears to contribute to the perpetuation of an increasingly violent society,” Harnden says.

Thus for international, national, and even personal issues, researchers are finding that a practice taught by Jesus Christ two thousand years ago may be our most effective tool and response. “Forgiveness is a concept, a process, and a technology whose times has come,” Dr. Harnden told the American Psychological Conference in 1996. “It transcends religion and philosophy and will hopefully someday find its rightful place of prominence in the social, political, and healing arts as well as within the biochemical and neuropsychological sciences.”

Jones, for one, is “very encouraged” by the significant increase in forgiveness research. “The more we can find authentic modes for articulating Christian forgiveness beyond the bounds of the church the better off we all will be. We just need to make sure that the forgiveness being described and conceived is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Even if I’ve never met you, I know one thing that is true about you and your spouse: you’re both married to an imperfect mate.

I also know another truth about you: the Bible calls you to still respect and appreciate your very imperfect spouse. This is true whether you’re a husband (1 Peter 3:7) or a wife (Eph. 5:33).

How do we do this, in a practical sense? How can we honestly and sincerely respect and appreciate someone who is so imperfect?

1) Accept the Reality of Human Relationships

James 3:2 lays out the human condition as clearly and as succinctly as anyone can: “We all stumble in many ways.” Think about the impact of the words “all” and “many.” What James is telling us is that if you were to divorce your spouse, interview two hundred “replacement” candidates, put them through a battery of psychological tests, have follow-up interviews conducted by your closest friends, spent three years dating the most compatible ones, and then spent another forty days praying and fasting about which one to choose, you’d still end up with a spouse who disappoints you, hurts you, frustrates you, and stumbles in many ways.

The word “all” means there are no exceptions. A new spouse might stumble in different ways, but he or she will still stumble. This is the reality of human relationships in light of sin. Your spouse is human; therefore, they stumble—and not just once or twice, but in many ways.

Once I accept that my spouse will regularly stumble, the point of evaluation changes dramatically. Some people compare to their mates to perfection. Well, there was only one perfect person who ever walked this earth, and he never got married. When I embrace the biblical truth that every spouse stumbles in many ways, when my wife acts up, I realize she’s acting normally. This means that, instead of focusing on the occasional disappointment, I can be grateful for the positive acts of love: every spouse stumbles, but not every spouse acts so kindly. Every spouse stumbles, but not every spouse would put up with me for 22 years! By accepting the negative as inevitable, I’m able to appreciate and showcase the positive evidences of God’s grace.

2) Accept the reality of human marriage

During a Sacred Marriage conference, a woman came up to me and said, “I have a very difficult marriage…”

“You don’t have to tell me you have a difficult marriage,” I answered. “That’s redundant!”

It took a while for what I was saying to sink in, but eventually, it did, and the woman smiled.

Because of the reality of sin, every marriage has difficult moments. We’re not marrying gods and goddesses! We’re marrying people that the Bible promises will stumble in many ways. How can that possibly be easy?

Once I accept that marriage is inherently difficult, I’ll no longer resent it when my marriage is difficult.

Disappointment and a lack of respect are often birthed out of unrealistic expectations. It’s not fair to compare your marriage to something you’ve seen in a movie or read about in a novel—that marriage isn’t real. And even if you see a marriage at church, you don’t know what’s really going on during less public moments.

Because of my occupation, I regularly speak to thousands of married couples, and I haven’t found a single one that has told me their marriage has been “easy.” Rewarding? Yes. Soul-forming? Absolutely. But easy? Never.

This understanding gives me great appreciation for my spouse, who is willing to engage in a difficult task with me. Even though it can be really hard, my wife has hung in there with me; we confess to each other, we forgive each other, and sometimes we have to learn to forget what each other did. What an amazing thing that another human being would do this with me instead of running away.

3) Accept the Reality of Your Own Sin

“Gary,” the email read, “What does a wife do when her husband doesn’t love her like Christ loves the church?”

The woman then shocked me by giving the rest of her story: “Before I got married, I read many Harlequin romances and I thought marriage would be like that. For a while it was, but then things cooled off. A couple years later, I found that exciting love once again by having an affair; but after a number of months, that too, cooled off.”

At this point, she threw herself into the church, but after a while even God became boring. That’s when she “fell” into yet another affair that—no surprise, here—also eventually cooled off. In the aftermath of those two affairs, in which she wounded and humiliated her husband about as deeply as a wife can, she wrote to me, consumed with how her husband wasn’t loving her like Christ loves the church.

Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but all of us have hearts that tend toward dismissing our own faults while magnifying the flaws of our spouse. Sometimes we need an extreme example to show us how dark our own hearts really are.

Jesus could not have been clearer: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

If you’re thinking, “But in my case, my spouse really is the worst sinner,” then know this: Jesus is talking specifically about you. This is precisely the attitude he finds so offensive.

While we tend to rank certain sins, in the glory of God’s goodness every mark of sin—whether an errant attitude, a prideful spirit, or a lust of the flesh—is vile and offensive in his sight. I’ve seen wives who have abused food turn around and disdain husbands who struggle with pornography. I’ve seen controlling and arrogant husbands disdain wives who watch too much television. Both seem completely blinded to their own shortcomings.

We’re not called to judge our spouses—ever. We are called to love them. We are not called to recount their failures in a Pharisaic game of “I’m holier than you”—we’re called to encourage them. We are not called to build a case against them regarding how far they fall short of the glory of God—we are called to honor and respect them.

We learn to appreciate our imperfect spouse by getting in touch with the reality of our own sin, humbly asking God for forgiveness, and honestly realizing that we’ll never be asked to forgive anyone as much as God has forgiven us.

4) Accept the Call to Praiseworthy Thinking

I have found Philippians 4:8 as relevant for marriage as it is for life: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Obsessing over your spouse’s weaknesses won’t make them go away. You may have done that for years—and if so, what has it gotten you, besides more of the same? Author and speaker Leslie Vernick warns, “Regularly thinking negatively about your husband increases your dissatisfaction with him and your marriage.” You will have to have to fight the natural human tendency to obsess over your mate’s weaknesses. When I urge you to affirm your spouse’s strengths, I’m not minimizing their many weaknesses. I’m just encouraging you to make the daily spiritual choice of focusing on qualities for which you feel thankful.

To make this realistic, you have to keep in mind that no man or woman is ever “on” all the time. This explains why your husband can be so thoughtful, caring and attentive one day, and so aloof, harsh, and critical the next day. You have to give your spouse room to be a less-than-perfect human, to have bad days, “off” days and “average” days. The spiritual challenge is that you are likely more apt to define your mate by the bad days than you are to accept the good days as the norm. Hold on to the good; begin to define him by the good; thank him (and God) for the good; and thereby reinforce the good.

5) Accept the Reality of Your Decision

Everyone comes into marriage with their own hurts, wounds, and spiritual “baggage.” Maybe your wife’s siblings teased her. Maybe your husband’s former girlfriend cheated on him and broke his heart. Maybe your spouse’s parents were abusive, or neglectful. The possibilities, sadly, are endless.

Before a casual relationship morphs into a permanent commitment, many men and women see a hurting person and think, I want to help them. But something about marriage often turns that around and makes us say, “Why does he have to be that way?” Our spouse’s needs once elicited feelings of nurture and compassion; now those same hurts tempt us toward bitterness and regret.

Before we get married is the time to make a character-based judgment (“Do I really want to live with this person’s wounds?”) Once the ceremony has ended, God challenges us to maintain an attitude of concern and nurture instead of resentment and frustration.

Can you maintain a soft heart over past hurts, patiently praying for long-term change? Or will you freeze your spouse in his or her weaknesses with judgment, resentment, condemnation, and criticism? Can you maintain a nurturing attitude instead of a judgmental one? Remember: this is a spouse you chose to marry. Will you abide by your own choice?

6) Accept the Biblical Call to Respect

Here’s what it comes down to. If you’re a believer, the Bible calls you to respect your husband (Ephesians 5:33) or your wife (1 Peter 3:7). It doesn’t say wives should respect perfect husbands, or even godly husbands. It doesn’t say husbands should respect agreeable or unusually loving wives.

There are no qualifiers, because biblical respect, in one sense, comes with the position, not with the person. The apostle Paul insulted a man with bold language (“you whitewashed wall!”) but then apologized after he learned he had been speaking to a high priest: “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:3-5).

Your spouse, because he/she is your spouse, deserves respect. You may disagree with his judgment; you may object to the way she handles things—but according to the Bible, their position alone calls you to give them proper respect.

7) Form Your Heart through Prayer

It’s one thing to know I’m supposed to respect my spouse, but it’s another thing entirely to do it. Can I retrain my heart? Can I spiritually form my mind to accept them as they are?

Yes, I can. Prayer can be a very practical tool in this regard. Simply practice praying positive prayers for your spouse. Find the five or six things he or she does really well—or even just one or two!—and try to tire God out by thanking him for giving you a mate with those qualities. Follow up your prayers with comments or even cards that thank your spouse personally for who he or she is.

I’ve practiced this with my wife. One morning I awoke early and immediately sensed my frustration from the previous evening. We have an issue in our relationship that we had talked to death over the previous two decades. Lisa acknowledged her need to grow in this area, but events of the previous weeks had convinced me that nothing had changed.

I felt resentful, and in my resentful mood, I can slip into what I call “brain suck.” I start building my case. Like a lawyer, I recall every slight, every conversation, and prove to my imaginary jury how wrong my wife is and how right I am.

I started thanking God for a quality in Lisa’s personality for which I feel very thankful. That reminded me of something else, which reminded me of something else, which reminded me of yet another quality. After about fifteen minutes, I literally started laughing. I saw so much to be thankful for that it seemed preposterous that I should waste time fretting over this single issue.

Prayers of thankfulness literally form our soul. They very effectively groom our affections. Make liberal use of this powerful tool. We have to give it time—one session of thankfulness will not fully soften a rock-hard heart. But over time, thankfulness makes a steady and persistent friend of affection.

8) Ask God to Change You

As soon as you begin offering prayers of thankfulness for your spouse, be sure of this: the enemy of your soul and the would-be destroyer of your marriage will remind you where your mate falls short. You can count on it.

You’ll find yourself growing resentful: “Why should I thank God that my husband works hard when he comes home and won’t even talk to me at night?” “Why should I thank God that my wife has always been faithful to me when she’s so critical?”

You need to respond to this temptation with a healthy spiritual exercise: as soon as you recall your spouse’s weaknesses—the very second those poor qualities come to mind—start asking God to help you with specific weaknesses of your own. That’s right—as backward as this may sound, respond to temptations to judge your mate by praying for God to change you. Go into prayer armed with two lists: your spouse’s strengths, and your weaknesses.

This exercise will help maintain a positive spiritual balance of remaining aware of your own shortcomings, and of staying sensitive to your spouse’s strengths.

We’re All in This Together

Every one of us is married to an imperfect spouse. We confront different trials, different temptations, and different struggles—but each one of us faces the same reality: living as imperfect people, in an imperfect world, with an imperfect spouse. Learning to love, appreciate, and to be thankful for that imperfect spouse is one of the most soul-transforming things you can do. It’s not an easy journey, but it’s a profitable one, and I urge you to remain committed to it today.

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?


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.