Living in a Sex Saturated Society

March 28, 2009

Paul’s world was not unlike our own-it was a sex saturated society. Permissive sex, homosexuality, perversions, divorce and bawdy theater were a part of the Roman world in the first century AD. In spite of the culture, Paul called Christians to live “…not in passionate lust like the Gentiles” (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, ESV).

Paul notes that God’s will is our sanctification This word implies a process in which the Christian is maturing, growing in holiness, and becoming more like their Father in heaven. Paul later in the letter states, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it’ (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, ESV).

A part of holy living is avoiding sexual immorality. The word, porneia, translated “sexual immorality” and traditionally rendered “fornication” (see for example the KJV) is a broader concept than our English term “fornication.” The word fornication in English means sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other. But concerning porneia the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters writes, “This Greek word and its cognates as used by Paul denote any kind of illegitimate-extramarital and unnatural-sexual intercourse or relationship” (p. 871). For Paul, there was only one kind of legitimate sexual relationship, the one between a man and a woman who are married.

The consequence of sexual immorality is judgment. Paul solemnly warns “the Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thess. 4:6, ESV). Elsewhere Paul warns that the sexually immoral, adulterers, and homosexuals (as well as a list of other sins) will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

To a world that often approaches such issues from a very subjective viewpoint, Paul ends his discussion of sexual immorality with very strong words. “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8, ESV).

God calls us to holy lives even when we are living in a sex saturated society.

The Insatiableness of Avarice

March 24, 2009

Though the covetous grown wealthy
See his piles of gold rise high;
Though he gather store of treasure
That can never satisfy;
Though with pearls his gorget* blazes,
Rarest that the ocean yields;
Though a hundred head of oxen
Travail in his ample fields;
Ne’er shall carking† care forsake him
While he draws this vital breath,
And his riches go not with him,
When his eyes are closed in death.

–Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book III, Song III. (translation by H.R. James)

*a covering for the throat or a covering around the neck, †burdensome

Pleasure’s Sting

March 21, 2009

This is the way of Pleasure:
She stings them that despoil her;
And, like the winged toiler
Who’s lost her honeyed treasure,
She flies, but leaves her smart
Deep-rankling in the heart.

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book III , Song VII.

Imagining Heaven

March 19, 2009

Imagining heaven is not easy for us.  I suspect trying to describe it to us is like describing New York City to an aborigine.  You might say a skyscraper is like a giant hut one hundred huts high, but the reality of a skyscraper is still greater than the description.

Bill Clapper in an article entitled “Beyond Imagination” pictures the difficulty this way.* Picture going back to 1866 and visiting a wagon train going west just after the close of the Civil War. You attempt to explain jet airplanes that can carry hundreds of passengers from the east coast to the west coast in five or six hours. To this group huddled around a campfire, you describe electric lights, hot water coming from a faucet, automobiles, and television. Clapper writes: “We have told them about how we live, and it was beyond their imagination…I can only say that God has prepared a place for us so great that we cannot imagine the wonders of it-any more than people of 1866 could understand the wonders of our time.”

Joseph Bayly captures some of this dilemma in his book, The Last Things We Talk About.  He shares a parable:

I accept [heaven’s] reality by faith, on the authority of Jesus Christ: “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”

For that matter, if I were a twin in the womb, I doubt that I could prove the existence of earth to my mate. He would probably object that the idea of an earth beyond the womb was ridiculous, that the womb was the only earth we’d ever know.

If I tried to explain that earthlings live in a greatly expanded environment and breathe air, he would only be skeptical.  After all, a fetus lives in water; who could imagine its being able to live in a universe of air? To him such a transition would seem impossible.

It would take birth to prove the earth’s existence to a fetus. A little pain, a dark tunnel, a gasp of air–and then the world outside! Green grass, laps, lakes, the ocean, horses (could a fetus imagine a horse?), rainbows, walking, running, surfing, ice-skating. With enough room that you don’t have to shove, and a universe beyond.

Despite our difficulties in imagining it, heaven is real.  In some ways, more real than the world in which we live because it will be eternal, while this world is temporary. Paul reminds us of this: “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18 NIV). Let us keep our eyes on the goal.

*Gospel Advocate  (June 1997):15-16.

Outposts of Heaven

March 17, 2009

I’m a citizen of the City of Grandville. I live here. I’m a citizen of the State of Michigan. I live here. I’m a citizen of the United States of America. I live here. But Paul claims, “But our citizenship is in heaven…” (Philippians 3:20, ESV).

I obviously don’t live in heaven at the moment, although I want to be headed there. What does it mean for me to be a citizen of the New Jerusalem? Paul uses this language in a section of ethical instruction – “join in imitating me…” (Philippians 3:17, ESV). This occurs in a context where for some “their god is their belly.” Paul is writing to Philippi, a Roman colony. How would they have understood citizenship? Are there insights for us? C.B. Caird examines the background.

Paul was by birth a Roman citizen, and Philippi was a Roman colony, i.e., a city situated in one of the provinces, but with the full rights of Roman citizenship… Citizenship of Rome had first been extended to the whole of Italy, and then under the Empire, had been granted to cities in the provinces where veterans from the army were settled, and occasionally to individuals distinguished in public service. The purpose of this policy was that the colonies should be centres of Roman culture, law and influence through which eventually the provinces would become thoroughly Roman; and so successful was it that even in the course of the first century A.D. many of the most distinguished figures in Roman life were of provincial extraction. With this model in mind Paul depicts Christians as holders of the citizenship of heaven, established in the provinces of God’s empire as the means by which the whole might be brought within the influence of his reign.*

While we are on our way to that city, we are to spread the culture and influence of Jerusalem that is above. We are helping extend the borders of the kingdom. Christians are outposts of heaven.  

*G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, pp. 179-180

Two Worlds

March 11, 2009

Peter calls Christians sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 1:1, 1:17, 2:11). The words convey the idea of someone who lives in a place that is not his or her home. This person is a temporary resident. Peter wants us to view life that way. Our home is heaven. We reside here temporarily, but we are always to live true to the ways of heaven.

That means in many ways we will be like our neighbors. We are not to be odd just for the sake of being odd. But it also means that in many ways we will be different.

The Epistle to Diognetus grasps this same but different aspect of Christian living. It was written between A.D. 150 to 225 – a time in which Christians were defending their faith in the circumstances of persecution. The author is unknown. Yet it contains a very thought provoking description of what it means for Christians to be temporary residents.

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.

*The Epistle of Diognetus 5:1-11 in M.W. Holmes, translator, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, p. 541.

Foreigners in Our Native Land

March 10, 2009

Peter tells his readers that they were ransomed from the futile ways passed down from their forefathers (1 Peter 1:18). Later in the letter, he says:

With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery… 1 Peter 4:4, ESV

The word “surprised” is intriguing because it has literary connections in the letter that are not obvious in English. The word translated “surprised” is based on the xeno root which means stranger or foreigner (as in xenophobia, the fear of strangers or foreigners). The standard Greek lexicon defines it this way.

to cause a strong psychological reaction through introduction of someth. new or strange, astonish, surprise*

This connects with a theme within 1 Peter. Peter addresses his readers as “exiles of the dispersion” (1:1). In 1:17, he tells them “to conduct yourself with fear (or reverence) throughout the time of your exile.” In 2:11, he writes:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 1 Peter 2:11 ESV

Since we are redeemed from futile ways, we will be different from the world around us. We will seem like foreigners even in our native land, because we are citizens of heaven. This surprise on the part of others should not catch us off guard. It means we are preparing ourselves for another world.

*A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, p.684.

On the Shoulders of Others

March 9, 2009

It is not a biblical proverb, but I still like it.

Do not make fun of one who is ill-bred, or your ancestors may be insulted. (Sir 8:4, NRSV)

“Ill-bred” renders a Greek word that simply means uneducated. (By the way, I’ve know some people who lacked formal education who were wise and accomplished.)

The proverb reminds me that we stand on the shoulders of others. Do you have an education? Wonderful! But you didn’t get there alone. You likely had parents who encouraged you and teachers who trained you. There may be others in your family tree, who didn’t have your opportunities, but helped provide yours.

My father grew up on his uncle’s tenant farm. His Dad passed away when he was only a toddler, and there was no Social Security at the time. My Grandmother Holden and he moved in with his uncle and aunt. They were poor.

But the intellectual life of this tenant farm family was rich. My Great Aunt and Grandmother were avid readers all their lives. My father was also a lifelong reader. It may have been only a tenant farm, but a world of ideas was available in books.

How did they afford their books? They didn’t.* They used the public library. It was one of the many public libraries built in the U.S. by donations from Andrew Carnegie. It was a grand structure built in 1905 for $12,500. It was the same library I went to as a child. My Dad graduated from the University of Illinois in 1939, the first college graduate of his family.

Are there people who have helped you get where you are today? We stand on the shoulders of others.

*The exceptions were a well worn copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Bible.

In Weakness, Strength

March 6, 2009

The last shall be first. The hungry shall be filled. The meek shall inherit. The weak shall be strong. The Christian walking by faith faces many paradoxes. God often chooses to use us in our brokenness and weakness.

Paul certainly recognized this paradox in his own life. He first preached to the Galatians because of an illness (Galatians 4:13-14). To the Corinthians, he admitted his lack of eloquence and fear (1 Corinthians 2:1-3). He also reminded them that they were not the most influential of people by human standards, although they were God’s chosen (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). Paul struggled with his thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), and he gave this beautiful word picture that describes the paradox:

But we have this treasure [i.e., the gospel] in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7, NIV

Walking by faith isn’t easy. We grow through trials. We are like metal tools tempered by the fire. Finding our own strength insufficient, we must turn to the source of strength. Like Paul we cry, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10, NIV). Listen to the following prayer by an unknown Confederate soldier. I suspect he knew something of the struggle of walking by faith. 

I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health that I might do great things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for – but everything I had hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am among men most richly blessed.


The Law of Diminishing Return

March 5, 2009

C.S. Lewis states the principle this way, “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure….”* The law of diminishing return is observable in sinful behavior. 

We’ve all felt the euphoria of physical exercise or work. It is a wonderful feeling – a God given pleasure. When we chase, however, an artificial euphoria through drugs and alcohol, painful consequences occur. Intoxication or a drug induced high can cause people to engage in risky behavior that harms the user or some innocent bystander.

When these behaviors become addictive, relationships are harmed. Work is harmed. Even the basics of taking care of ourselves are harmed. The euphoria may actually become harder to get, and the pursuit of the false euphoria does physical damage. Ever taken a look at the before and after pictures of a meth user?

The same thing can be said for sexual desire. Sexual desire, after all, is God’s idea. He made us male and female. Within marriage it is part of a wonderful bond that allows two people to grow in a lasting relationship. But pervert this desire into lust, and it works against relationship and a lasting bond. The complaint that it objectifies women (or men, for that matter) is a legitimate complaint.

Allow lust to lead to pornography, and it can degenerate even further. I rely on those who have written about this world. It is too dangerous a world to allow idle curiosity to visit, because it can enslave the visitor. Like most men in our culture, I have been on the edges of this world enough to realize it has an allure. The sirens’ song must be ignored, because the possibility of shipwreck is real. I’ve talked with enough men and women who have struggled with it in their relationship to know pornography has harmful effects.

The softer porn is closer to the natural sexual desire. But like a drug that can only satisfy with ever increasing doses, it can lead people to even more twisted views of sexuality: sexuality with violence, bestiality, and worst of all – child pornography. Even when people don’t make the descent into ever increasing levels of perversity; it still robs people of God’s intention for sexuality. In some cases, it may rob its victim of the possibility of real sexuality. Pornography promises what it cannot deliver – the human longing for intimacy. It is relationship destroying, not relationship building.

Isn’t it interesting that the law of diminishing return is observable? It seems to suggest that we live in a moral universe after all.

*C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, p. 42.