The Progress of History and the History of Progress

Some ideas influence our actions and emotions, and we are not even aware of it. The powerful idea of progress is one. Christians don’t reject the idea of progress, but they understand it differently than does the prevailing culture. This session is from the class, What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture.

Viewing Time: 37:55
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Purposefully Distracted: What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture

Is there a difference between rest and distraction? Is it possible that we need rest but don’t need distraction? Might we be distracting ourselves to death? This class looks at what the Bible says about distraction, careful thinking, and rest.

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Understanding the Decline of Religion in America

According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PPRI), only 16 percent of Americans surveyed say that religion is the most important thing in their lives. This marks a 4 percent drop in one decade. Melissa Deckman of PPRI says that Americans are “increasingly likely to become religiously unaffiliated.”

With the decline of religious affiliation there is a corresponding rise in unbelief. 18 percent of Generation Z identifies as agnostic or atheist – the highest in U.S. history. There have also been significant changes among the religiously affiliated. 21 percent claim to have undergone a change in religious belief, which is a 50 percent increase from just a couple of years ago.

According to the Pew Research group, Christians in the U.S will be a minority within a few decades if the current decline continues. Religion News Service reports that approximately 4,500 churches close each year while only 3,000 new churches launch. Don Feder, writing in the Washington Times, says that these statistics “should set off alarm bells in our heads.”

The alarm bells have been going off around the Christian community for years now. Dire warnings of apostasy have been issued. After a 2,000 year run, a weary Christianity appears to have collapsed onto its death bed to await the end.

But we’ve heard that before. It looked like Christianity’s downfall was at hand in the fourth century under the Emperor Julian. It wasn’t. At the end of the 18th century in France, and in the early and middle years of the twentieth century in Russia and China, leaders attempted to de-Christianize their countries. They closed churches and persecuted believers, but Christianity survived. In fact, there are now more Christians in China than in any other country.

In the years immediately following the Second World War, C. S. Lewis wrote about the so-called “religious predicament” in England. He claimed that among young, educated adults “Plenty of evidence can be produced that religion is in its last decline.” Similarly, plenty of evidence can be, and has been, produced that religion in America is in its last decline.

Lewis, however, believed that people were misinterpreting the evidence. He was not denying the facts – there really were fewer people attending chapels and churches – but he was questioning the interpretation of those facts and the assumptions behind it.

Lewis acknowledged that “In every class and every part of the country the visible practice of Christianity has grown very much less…” Yet Lewis believed that “the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague theism with a strong …ethical code.”

The great twentieth century thinker Malcolm Muggeridge agreed. In the early 1970s, Muggeridge was predicting “the end of Christendom.” Though he was a devout Christian, he anticipated the end of Christendom as a good thing for Christianity. He, like Lewis, considered Christendom’s “vague theism with ethical code” to be a rival to the true faith and wished it good riddance.

Lewis attributed the decline in the visible practice of Christianity to a change in cultural standards rather than to a change in people’s hearts. He believed that the number of committed Christians – one might call them disciples of Jesus – had remained roughly the same. For example, as soon as society dropped the expectation that “good Christians” would attend chapel services, people who were merely conforming to society’s expectations stopped attending. It is not that they stopped believing; they never really had believed in anything but society’s expectations.

We are seeing something similar in today’s America. In the 1950s and 1960s, society expected good, vaguely theistic people with a strong ethical code to go to church. That expectation has faded, which accounts for much of the decline in the visible practice of Christianity. Yet, committed Christians are still in church, just as they always were.

The good news is that people who are not and never have been committed Christians are waking up to the fact. When they thought they were Christians, they were essentially unreachable. If they are now realizing that they are not, they may prove more open to Christ than ever before.

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Homosexuality and Gender Transitioning (What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture)

Viewing Time: 1:30
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Forgiveness: Doing What Cannot Be Done

Viewing Time: 23 minutes (approx.)

Jesus said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks will come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to say, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:1-4).

The forgiveness Jesus is talking about is not some passive thing. It is not, “Don’t worry about it. It does not matter.” We can say that about foibles and personality differences, but we can’t say that about sin. It requires forgiveness.

This forgiveness is not passive. It is an active concern for the other person. A response like, “Don’t worry about it; it doesn’t matter,” might mean that to us the person doesn’t matter. That is not love. To love someone enough to tell them they are wrong can be a selfless, generous kind of love.

Of course, it could also be a carping, loveless, kind of selfishness. This is why Paul tells the Galatians that it should be the spiritual who restore brothers and sisters who have fallen into sin. The unspiritual, who follow their own agenda rather than the Spirit, will only make things worse.

Jesus and Paul envisioned loving correction to be a normal part of Christian community. Because “it is inevitable that stumbling blocks will come (more literally, “It is impossible that things that stumbling blocks should not come”), we need to live as a community of restorative love. That does not mean – must never mean – that we are on the lookout for things people do wrong. But when we see a brother or sister hurting themselves or others, and we have checked our motives and want the other person to experience God’s blessing and joy, then we go to them.

Have you ever had a fellow church member come to you and tell you that you are doing wrong? It should not be a rare occurrence. All of us should have had someone do that for us – I say, “for us,” not “to us,” for this is a gift. Yet I doubt many of us have received that gift from a fellow church member.

And if we did, how would we react? With bitterness? Resentment? With a, “Who do you think you are?” attitude? Would we get angry and leave the church?

Jesus envisioned correction like this as normal. When it occurs, it should be received with gratitude and humility. But that is only possible among people who know each other well, trust each other completely, and are thoroughly committed to each other. If you have given me no reason to believe that you are for me, yet you rebuke me, I’ll need to be a spiritual giant not to take offence and reject what you say—even if what you say is true.

I have been talking about the church family for the past few minutes, but this kind of thing ought to happen in our biological families too. Let’s stop being deluded idealists. Our children, our parents, our spouses, our siblings, are going to trip over stumbling blocks, and sometimes when they do, they are going to fall and come crashing into us.

That is when we show them, lovingly, graciously, and gently, what they did and what it caused. “If your brother or sister sins, rebuke them” (verse 3). And since sometimes we will be the ones who stumble and fall, we’ll need them to do that for us.

When they do, it is important that we receive them “in the Lord.” If we receive them in our pride, the result will be ugly. We need to turn to the Lord and humble ourselves. Then we can listen and try to understand. If we still think they are mistaken, we can tell them so, but with such love and humility that we preserve the relationship.

Is that possible? Yes, it is possible “in the Lord,” though it is impossible “in our pride.” Imagine how quickly we might grow, how much progress in Christlikeness we might make, were we to love each other in this way. A person who can receive a rebuke with humility and love, and one who can give a rebuke with humility and love, are both on their way to Christlikeness.

But rebuke is only one side of this exquisite equation. There is also forgiveness. Forgiveness is the birthmark of the spiritually regenerate. Jesus’s family members forgive. Nothing shocks the world more – and the world needs this kind of shock like a person whose heart has flatlined needs a defibrillator. When Jesus forgave the soldiers who were nailing his hands to the cross, he shocked their hearts.

Erik Fitzgerald, a young pastor and father-to-be, lost his wife and their unborn son in a car accident, and was left to raise his toddler daughter on his own. The accident was the fault of the other driver, Matthew Swatzell, who fell asleep at the wheel after a long shift as a firefighter / EMT. The D.A. asked Erik if he wanted to pursue the maximum penalty against Matthew, but Erik chose the lesser charge as a way of demonstrating God’s forgiving love.

Erik and Matthew had not spoken until one day when their paths crossed in a store parking lot. Can you imagine how awkward that must have been? At the sight of Erik, Matthew began to cry. Erik went right over to him and hugged him. Since that day, the two have developed a friendship that defies any explanation except the power of forgiveness that is “in the Lord Jesus.”

Such expressions of forgiveness are impossible while we are living in anger and pride, but they become possible when we are living in the Lord. When we define and moderate our interactions with family, friends, and even enemies through our relationship to Jesus (Perkins) rather than through our hurt, what is possible looks very different.

If someone has hurt me and I say, “I cannot forgive,” that may be true: I cannot because I am not living in the Lord; I am defining my relationship with that person through my hurt and fear rather than through the Lord and therefore cannot forgive.

The way to change that is not (initially at least) to move toward the person, but to move toward the Lord. In our connection to him we are empowered to do what we could not otherwise do. He shares his strength, his love, his wisdom with us. When I was a young boy, I could not reach the eight foot ceiling in our living room … unless my dad lifted me up. I cannot reach forgiveness either, unless my Father lifts me up. That only happens in the Lord.

The way Jesus laid this out for his disciples was shocking. Look at verses 3 and 4: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Imagine someone who sins against you – they gossip about you and your friend hears and tells you about it. So, you go to them in love and rebuke them. They admit they did wrong, and you forgive them. So far, you are tracking perfectly with Jesus.

But before you even leave the room, you hear them gossiping about you again! An hour later, your friend tells you they are still at it. Seven times in one day this person repents. Can you really forgive them seven times in one day? Is that even possible? Jesus says it is, but only when you are living in the Lord.

To the disciples, seven times in a day seemed impossible. They cry out, “Increase our faith!” Surely you need to be a giant of faith to forgive like that. But Jesus knows that’s not true. He assures them: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” You don’t need a giant-sized faith to forgive, just real faith – if you are in the Lord. That is where faith is active. It hibernates outside the Lord.

Our families, biological and spiritual, need forgiveness. In some cases, husbands and wives have been divided and resentful for years. Siblings have not spoken to each other. Church members avoid each other. We must dare to do what Jesus has taught us.

You may still believe it is impossible. There’s just too much water under the bridge. You no longer have any affection for the person. You are afraid. They don’t deserve it. They won’t listen. It can’t be done.

Well, try it anyway. This is what Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” We model our forgiveness for others on God’s forgiveness of us. How did he forgive us? I will mention six things.

First, he forgave us in Christ. If you are going to forgive others, it will be in the same way. You will forgive them in the Lord. That is the theme of this message and this Family Month series. In the Lord, we can do things we can never do in our anger or our pride.

Secondly, God forgives all our sins, which is to say no sin is so great as to fall outside the scope of his forgiveness. In Colossians, Paul wrote: “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins” (Colossians 2:13). All, not just the ones we deemed less serious.

That means we mustn’t say, “I can forgive anything but that!” People who say such things are willing to forgive irritations and annoyances but, biblically speaking, we don’t forgive irritations and annoyances: we bear with them. We forgive sins.

Thirdly, forgiving as God forgives means taking sin seriously. He doesn’t overlook it; doesn’t say “Don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal.” He sends his Son to die so that sins might be forgiven. When you forgive someone, you are not saying it doesn’t matter; you are saying it matters enough to warrant the radical and costly act of forgiveness.

This is a major stumbling block for some people. They feel that if they forgive, they’re admitting that what happened to them – the abuse, the infidelity, the deceit, and malice – didn’t matter. But forgiveness means the opposite: it does matter. It matters so much that it cannot be ignored; it can only be forgiven.

Fourthly, God forgives not because we deserve it but because he is forgiving. Some people withhold forgiveness until the offender deserves it. But – and this is important to understand – no one deserves forgiveness. God does not forgive us because we deserve it. Just the opposite: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve” (Ps. 103:10). We don’t forgive people because they deserve it; we forgive because we are the people of Jesus. We forgive because who we are in Christ not because of who the other person is in their sin.

Fifthly, when God forgives us, he does it graciously. The word translated “forgive” in Ephesians 4:32 is χαριζόμaι, from the root word χαριs, meaning, grace.  The idea here is to “grace” people with forgiveness. God is gracious when he forgives.

Some people are not. By the time they’re done forgiving us, we wish we’d never been forgiven. They remind us of what we did; they remind us of the pain we’ve caused. They remind other people of what we’ve done. This is not God’s way. He says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). If we forgive as we have been forgiven, we will be gracious to people. We will not intentionally recall their sins. We will certainly be careful not to talk about them to others.

Sixth, and final point about forgiving the way that God forgives: When he says, “I will remember your sins no more,” he does not mean he cannot remember them.

This is important for us to grasp, otherwise we will think we have done something wrong when we’ve tried to forgive but haven’t been able to forget. We’ll think there is something wrong with us because we still feel angry when we see the person who hurt us. If we had forgiven as the God who remembers our sins no more forgives, wouldn’t the memory and the pain be gone? But forgiveness does not cause forgetfulness, and it doesn’t immediately relieve pain.

I had surgery years ago and for a few weeks I hurt more than I did before the surgery. When I saw the surgeon for my follow-up appointment, I told him as much, and he said (and I quote): “Whud’ja expect?” I expected the surgery to fix the problem, not worsen it. But the problem was fixed. In time, the pain would go away – if I didn’t pick at the incision and cause infection.

It is that way when you forgive. The pain persists until the passing of time and the healing life of the Spirit cause it to fade. But by forgiving we have already dealt with the underlying cause. Now we must refuse to bring it up again and again – we must resist the urge to pick at the incision.


If, after what we’ve just seen in the Scriptures, you still think that you cannot forgive, it may be that you are not living in the Lord. All kinds of things are possible in the Lord – encountering difficulties (Eph. 4:1), working through disagreements (Phil. 4:2), enduring adversity (1 Thess. 3:8) – that are impossible outside the Lord. Forgiveness is one.

Imagine that you want to learn to swim, and you see that a class is being offered in Coldwater. So, you go to the class with your swimsuit in your gym bag, but the instructor says, “You’re not going to need that tonight. We’re going to teach you to swim right here in the classroom.”

You’re doubtful that you can learn to swim in a classroom, but you’re willing to give it a try. The instructor explains that the very first thing you’ll need to learn is how to tread water. She demonstrates how to cup your hands and push down on the water, and how to scissor-kick your feet. Then she tells everyone: “Now stand up and raise your arms over your head. I want you to reach up with cupped hands and then push down with one arm and then with the other – and don’t forget to scissor-kick with your feet.”

You feel ridiculous and, after about a minute, you feel tired. But your instructor keeps you at it for fifteen minutes. “You never know,” she says, “when your life may depend on being able to tread water for hours.”

You go home that night and tell your family, “I really wanted to swim, but it’s too hard. I can’t get the hang of it. I’m going to quit the class.”

You feel that way because you are trying to tread water when you’re not in water. You have no buoyancy, nothing to hold you up. If you were in a pool or a lake, the water would actually help you. But in a classroom, you are on your own.

It’s that way when you are “in the Lord.” His surrounding presence helps you. But if you are in your pride or in your anger, you are on your own. It is in the Lord that forgiveness becomes possible.

So, if you are a follower of Jesus and sin has caused division between you and someone in your biological or spiritual family, and you have not been able to forgive, you need to reposition yourself in the Lord. If you have been away from him, you will need to admit that and return to him, which will mean leaving some attitudes, commitments, or behaviors behind. If you have been unable or unwilling to forgive, come close to the Lord today.

If you are not a follower of Jesus, I invite you in the name of Jesus to become one, right here, right now. If you’re not ready, not persuaded, but interested to know more, talk to me or to some Christian whose life you admire. But if you are ready, tell that to God right now. I’ll give you a model prayer that you can offer to the Lord. But the words you use are not the important thing. It is your intent to entrust your life to God and become one of his Son Jesus’s people.

Lord, even though you made me, and I am yours, I have gone my own way. I’ve lived for myself and not for you. Please forgive me. Now I choose to come to you by entrusting myself to Jesus, who died for my sins and then rose from the dead. Thank you for making it possible for me to be with you, now and forever. Amen.

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Nurturing Faith in Times of Uncertainty

Ordinary people hate uncertainty. In a Dutch study, volunteers were separated into two groups. One group was told that they would receive twenty sharp electrical shocks. The other was told they would receive three strong and seventeen mild shocks, but they would not know when the short shocks would come.

Volunteers were monitored throughout the experiment. Those who knew they would receive twenty sharp shocks had lower heart rates and sweated less than those who knew they would receive only three strong shocks but were uncertain about when they would occur. The uncertainty troubled them more than the shocks.

In interviews with colostomy patients conducted six months after surgery, those who had known from the beginning that their colostomies would be permanent were happier than those told there might be a chance of reversing the procedure. The uncertainty got to them.

Not a week goes by without someone in our church family waiting for the results of a medical test, like a biopsy, blood work, or cardiac stress test. Sometimes, there is a lot at stake. The results could mean significant changes for the patient and their family.

The interval between realizing a problem and receiving the test results is an uncomfortable time. Questions badger the mind: What if it is cancer? What will happen to me? What will happen to our finances? How will the family cope?

We try to set the questions aside, but they come back—sometimes within seconds. Prolonged uncertainty is a painful trial. In good news, our minds can rest. Even in bad news, our minds can find ground on which to reset and steady themselves. (I’ve seen people quickly regain a positive attitude after getting bad news.) But uncertainty gives us no ground to stand on.

Yet, uncertainty serves an essential purpose in our lives. It gives us space for discovery and growth. It reminds us to be humble. It makes room for faith. Because this is true, we need to make room for uncertainty.

The English Romantic poet John Keats, who was only 25 years old when he died of tuberculosis, regarded the ability to live contentedly in uncertainty as a great strength. He called it a “negative capability,” and described it as “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Keats did not disapprove of fact and reason but of the “irritable reaching after” them, which does not happen because we want to learn but because we want to control. We prefer a false certainty that allows us to feel in control to a productive uncertainty that discomfits us. We prefer to rest on solid ground than labor in the loamy soil of uncertainty.

Uncertainty is the soil in which faith grows. When everything is going fine, who needs faith? When everything goes wrong, we are as likely to blame God as trust him. It is when we don’t know how things are going that we learn to trust.

Faith may grow wild in the soil of uncertainty, but it grows best when it is cultivated. Faith needs good seed, which, as Jesus once put it, “is the word of God.” Receiving this good seed – being exposed to God’s word regularly – is necessary for faith to grow and bear fruit. A thoughtful, prayerful reading of Scripture can facilitate this.

The soil of our lives needs to be weeded. Sins must be confessed and uprooted. Doing so will have a profound impact on the heartiness of one’s faith.

Faith also needs to be refreshed, like plants need to be watered. Worship provides this. But it is not enough to attend a worship service; we must actually worship while we are there. And when we are not there. A connection is established with God in worship that builds faith.

Most of us would prefer to avoid uncertainty, but that is not always possible, nor is it necessarily helpful. When uncertainty is our lot, we need to learn to live in it without “irritable reaching after” control. It is prime time for spiritual development and the growth of faith.

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How to Do What Can’t Be Done (Philippians 4)

Some of the things that need to be done to make our relationships healthy are things we cannot do. But they are things we could do if we learned how to live “in the Lord.” The New Testament uses that phrase over 40 times. We can learn to reason in the Lord, agree in the Lord, be persuaded in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, and much more. In this sermon, we explore what it means to live in the Lord and how we can begin to do it.

Approx. 24 minutes. (Text below.)

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Years ago, when I was with a group of Lockwood guys on a remote lake in Northern Ontario, I heard about a lake a few miles away that had some fast fishing for pike. Getting there would mean a trek through the wilderness, a mile long canoe ride, and then one more hike to the lake. I asked my boatmate if he was up for an adventure, and he was.

So, the next morning, we beached our boat at the trailhead, took our rods, tackle, and a small can of mixed gas, and headed into the wilds. The trail, which had been blazed in the past, was badly overgrown. The blazes were faded and some were probably missing. Staying on the path was a challenge.

Fortunately, a babbling brook ran just north of the trail all the way to the lake, which, if I remember correctly, had the name Syko or perhaps sicko (but I think the locals pronounced it psycho). That should have been our first clue that this might not be a good idea. The storm clouds should have been our second, and the swarming mosquitos should have been our third.

More than once we found we had wandered off the trail and into dense thickets and brush. (The only thing thicker than the thickets were the black flies and mosquitos.) When we suspected that we had gone astray, we would reorient ourselves by finding the brook. If we just kept that brook to our left (or north) we would eventually arrive at our destination. The brook was our reference point, our true north. Several times the path – or what we took for the path – led away from the brook, and sometimes we found ourselves out of hearing range of those singing waters. Then we would come back to the brook, get our bearings, and begin heading in the right direction again.

Today, we begin our annual family month emphasis. Navigating family life can be like a wildnerness trek. Our family of origin is the trailhead. Some of us then find a family of choice (we get married). Some travel on to a family swarming with children, but those children eventually head off on their own paths. Spouses die, and we may end up finishing our journey alone. It it confusing and many people get lost. It can feel like we are pushing through brush and thickets as we make our way to Psycho.

Every phase of family life (family of origin, marriage, kids, bereavement, and singleness) has its thickets and swarms and storms. The Bible offers a trail guide, but when people see where that trail leads, they often think, “I can’t do that.” “Wives submit to your own husbands.” “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved.” “Children, obey your parents in everything.” “Fathers, don’t embitter your children.” (Seriously? When they’re fourteen, any sentence with the word “don’t” or with more than 10 words can embitter them.)

Anyway, it’s not like wives decide on their wedding day that they are going to be unsupportive and antagonistic. Husbands don’t resolve to adopt a harsh and unloving relational style. It’s not kids’ goal in life to disobey their parents and, contrary to what they think, it’s not their parents’ goal to make their lives miserable. But on this crazy, sin-tangled path through family life, all those things happen.

As an example, consider Paul’s command in Ephesians 5:22, which he repeats in Colossians 3:18 and Peter addresses in 1 Peter 3:5. “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord.” It is risky to use this particular example because of all the baggage that comes with it. Some people stop listening the moment this verse is mentioned. And you can’t blame them. If I thought it meant what they think it means, I might stop listening too. But it illustrates the difficulty some people have in using the Bible as a guide to family life.

Imagine a woman whose church-going husband is a bully. He is mean. He is controlling. He hit her once and though he hasn’t done it again, she is afraid of him. She reads Paul’s exhortation, “Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord,” and she thinks, “I can’t do that.” And she’s right; she can’t.

So, instead of submitting, she sets herself against him. She starts doing things behind his back and sometimes even disrespects him to his face. The one thing she knows is that submitting to him as to the Lord is impossible and she cannot do the impossible.

But here’s the thing: what is impossible for her now would be possible were her position relative to Christ to change. If both her and her husband’s position relative to Christ were to change, they would be shocked at what was possible for them. Christ makes all the difference. We must learn to orient ourselves to him as we approach every relationship, just as I oriented myself to the singing brook that was my true north.

Nearly all of the instructions I mentioned earlier – wives submitting to husbands, husbands sacrificially loving wives, children obeying parents, parents never embittering their children – are only possible “in the Lord.” Marriages that are failing outside the Lord can flourish in the Lord. Children who cannot obey outside the Lord are able to honor their parents in the Lord. We do what cannot be done not by trying harder but by repositioning ourselves in the Lord.

Take the wife with the church-going husband who is a bully. When she has not positioned herself in the Lord, the best she can do is act on religious platitudes or conform to legalistic traditions. The difference between submitting “in the Lord” and “in religion” is the difference between joy and grief, freedom and compulsion, compliance to rules or reverence for God. In the Lord, submission does not mean being run over or mistreated; it is a beautiful and loving thing, which is not just for wives but husbands too. Outside the Lord, submission is often an ugly and fearful thing.

Learning to do life “in the Lord” – not only to submit but also to work in the Lord, hope in the Lord, boast in the Lord, love in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord – is transformative. An entire family that learns to live “in the Lord” can impact the world for generations.

Some families don’t live in the Lord but in the money. For them, everything happens in relation to money. Life does not have spiritual depth for them; it has economic depth. They do not dwell in the shadow of the Almighty but in the shadow of the almighty dollar. They orient their lives to the cost ratio. It is their true north. They relate to each other and to the world from that position.

Some people don’t live in the Lord but in the party. They orient their lives to politics. They dwell in the shadow of FOX News or MSNBC. They relate to others and to the world from that position. When it comes to particular issues – abortion, gender transitioning, immigration – they figure out where their party is and go from there.

But it is “in the Lord” that a Christian’s relationships are defined and moderated, as Larry Perkins put it. In other words, the relationship to the Lord frames and regulates every other relationship: family, friends, work, and the people we meet. (Larry Perkins, Emeritus Professor of of Biblical Studies at Northwest Baptist Seminary.)

Too many of us are lost in the secular wilderness and are using the wrong reference point to orient ourselves. Without Christ as our reference point, we are liable to end up deep in the woods, which is precisely what has happened to the church in our day.

The phrase “in the Lord” is used 48 times in the New Testament letters, all but once by Paul. It is possible, for example, to do our work (Romans 16:12) “in the Lord.” We can approach opportunities “in the Lord” (2 Cor. 2:12). We can learn to reason things out “in the Lord” (Romans 14:14). We encounter difficulties “in the Lord” (Eph. 4:1). We hope for future events “in the Lord” (Phil. 2:19). We work out our disagreements (Phil. 4:2) “in the Lord.” (Think of what that could mean for a family.) We steadfastly endure adversity “in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:8). I could go on and on, but the point is that we can learn to do life – that is what discipleship to Jesus is about – “in the Lord.”

Think of how it would be to relate to an opportunity “in the Lord” instead of relating to it “in the money.” Imagine you retire at age 50 and are wondering if God might be calling you into ministry. You talk to me about it, and I recommend you enter the Pastoral Leadership Insitute. If you approach that opportunity “in the money,” the first thing you’ll do is look at expenses – how much it will cost? Then you’ll consider how much revenue a church ministry might generate – how much will you make? But if you relate to the same opportunity “in the Lord,” you will postpone the cost analysis until after you have tried to discern the Lord’s will. You will consider whether entering PLI will honor Jesus Christ and provide opportunity to use the gifts he’s supplied.

In the little letter to the Philippians, the phrase “in the Lord” occurs 9 times. The analogous “in Christ” appears 10 more times. Paul had learned to define and moderate all his relationships through his relationship to the Lord and he wanted the Philippians to do that too. The Philippinas had made Jesus their reverence point – they confessed him Lord. Paul wanted them to make him their reference point as well.

Look at chapter 4, where Paul talks about standing firm in the Lord, working through a disagreement in the Lord, and (twice) rejoicing in the Lord. Will take the last, which receives special emphasis in Philippians, first. Rejoicing is an integral part of the Christian life and a key element in Christian witness. It is so important that Paul commands the Philippians to rejoice repeatedly.

Yet in chapter 1 we learned that the Philippians were being persecuted because of Jesus. In chapter 2, we got our first hint that there was conflict inside the church. In chapter 4, we find out that two leaders in the church are at odds with each other. How can Paul expect the church to rejoice with all this negative stuff going on? Can we be expected to rejoice with all the stuff that is going on in our lives?

But Paul doesn’t just expect them to rejoice; he commands them to rejoice. And he models rejoicing for them. He invites them to rejoice with him in chapter 2. He tells them, “I rejoice greatly” in chapter 4. Writing from a cell after years of being imprisoned without a trial, and now at last facing a judge who might issue a death sentence, Paul rejoices greatly.

How? Because he oriented himself not by his life in prison but his life in Christ. We can learn to do that too.

In 4:2, Paul pleads with two church leaders, Euoida and Syntyche, to work out their differences in the Lord (literally, “to think the same in the Lord”). A couple of years ago, we had serious differences in our church over our Covid response. In-person or online services? Masks required or optional? Apply for a PPP loan or not? We had people leave Lockwood because they thought we went back to in-person services to soon. We had people come for the same reason. We had people leave because we didn’t require constant masking. We had people leave because we had a mask-required service. Other people came. We had people leave because we applied for the PPP loan, even though the decision was provisional, based on congregational approval.

Why weren’t we able to come to agreement? Looking back, I think it was because we were orienting ourselves by other reference points than the Lord. We were abiding in the crisis but not in Christ. What seemed impossible – that we would agree with each other – would have been possible had we worked through this “in the Lord.” I consider that to have been a leadership failure on my part (but it has helped me learn to rejoice always).

In 4:1, Paul writes, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” Standing firm is something that we and our families desperately need. Otherwise, the winds of change will blow us off our course. The siren call of culture will draw our children away. We must stand firm, but we can only do that “in the Lord.”

But how? Paul says, “…stand firm in the Lord in this way.” In what way? How do we do this – or do anything – “in the Lord?” The chapter division here, which is not original, is unfortunate. This verse belongs with the previous section, where Paul talked about his own life in the Lord.

If we read chapter 4:1 (“stand firm in the Lord in this way”) in light of Paul’s personal story in chapter 3, we’ll see how to stand firm in the Lord: by going all out. Paul stood firm by constantly moving forward. He “pressed on,” verse 12; he “strained toward what [was] ahead,” verse 13. He pursued, verse 14, the life God had for him. “This,” he says, “is how you stand firm in the Lord, dear friends.” You stand firm by moving forward.

Whether we have been Christians for 4 months or 40 years, we cannot stand firm by standing still. It is like standing up on a bicycle. If you try to stand on a bike while remaining stationary, you’ll quickly waver from side to side, and it won’t be long before you fall down. The only way to stand on a bike is to keep moving. Stand still, and you won’t stand at all. It is the same with Christ. The Christian life is dynamic. It is in motion. To be a Christian is to follow Christ, and that implies change and movement.

If you are a Christ-follower, but you are still where you were a year ago, the only logical explanation is that you have fallen down. The “in the Lord” way to stand firm is to keep moving.

Paul had learned how to do life “in the Lord.” Can we do that? Is there anything that can help us, in our situations with our families, live an “in the Lord” kind of life? We’ll see several things over the course of the month. This morning I want to mention one.

Developing a Proverbs 3:5-6 practice can be a great help. There are three parts to it. First, we trust the Lord with all our heart. This is more than affirming a belief in God or even confessing that Jesus is Lord. This is more than an assent of the mind; it is a motion of the heart. We intentionally, determinedly entrust our day and our activities to God. This is similar to presenting your body to God as a living sacrifice. We choose to do it; we choose to trust.

Second, we refuse to rely on your own understanding. It’s not that we shouldn’t have an understanding of how things are; it’s that we shouldn’t take for granted that our understanding is correct. It has been constructed from things we picked up from parents, friends, TV, movies, news media, and even random, eavesdropped conversations. It does not merit unquestioning allegiance.

The only way to get over an unhealthy reliance on your own understanding is to get God’s understanding, and that comes from a thoughtful reading and careful study of the Scriptures. If you don’t have a regular time for reading or listening to Scripture and thinking about it, you need to start one. It amounts to a daily reorientation to Christ, our true north.

Third, start a practice of acknowledging God in all your ways. Recognize his authority over you, his love for you, and his Spirit in you. This involves praying without ceasing as you relate to others, make decisions, and go through life. It has been called “practicing the presence of God” and is very close to what Jesus meant by abiding in him.

It would be helpful to get a Proverbs 3:5-6 partner – someone to encourage you, help you, and check on you to see if you are keeping up with all three things: Trusting the Lord, refusing to rely on your own understanding, and acknowledging/recognizing the Lord in your daily activities and relationships.

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The Great Story: Plotlines, Character Development, and Story Submissions

I would like to write a novel. This is not something new. It has been in the back of my mind since I graduated from college. Really, the desire was present even before that. In third grade I wrote my first (and only) book to date: an illustrated exposé on my archenemy David P., who sat behind me in class, poked and pestered me, and occasionally got me in trouble with the teacher.

Though I have never written a novel, I have read books on the craft. To write a compelling story, an author needs a protagonist and a problem, or rather, problems. One protagonist will do, if his character is adequately developed, but more than one problem is needed. For the reader to be captivated, the problems cannot be trivial. Something crucial must be at stake. The ante must be upped in each succeeding part of the book.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped, young Davy Balfour has a problem: his parents have died, and he is poor. When he goes looking for an uncle he has never met, his problems increase: his uncle has him abducted, and sent to America as an indentured servant aboard the brig Covenant. The ante is upped again: Covenant is shipwrecked. The story continues with Davy encountering and surviving one problem after another.

Think of any movie, and you’ll recognize the same outline. Luke Skywalker is orphaned. His problem is compounded when he comes into possession of a message intended for Obi-Wan-Kenobi and finds himself embroiled in a plot against the Empire. Throughout the story, Luke’s problems multiply and intensify until at last the Death Star is poised to wipe out the rebel alliance.

Sometimes the problem in a story is not outside the protagonist but within. Unless their fatal flaw is overcome, their lives will be “bound in shallows and in miseries.” In all the stories we love, whether in Stevenson or George Lucas, our heroes encounter problems and overcome them or, in the case of Shakespeare’s tragedies, fall before them.

The stories we learned as children followed the same pattern. Red Riding Hood meets a big, hairy problem at her grandmother’s house. Hansel and Gretel’s problems escalate from poverty to parental rejection, to a ravenous witch. Cinderella has a wicked stepmother and stepsisters who treat her like a slave. As midnight approaches, her situation grows more dire: the magic will fail, and she, a mere peasant girl, will be humiliated.

All our favorite stories feature protagonists who move from one problem to another. We resonate with these stories because they ring true to our experience. Opportunities are almost always entangled with problems and successes are offset by losses.

Someone told me years ago that history is God’s story. If that is the case, one would expect God to have a problem—and not some piddling, low-stakes glitch that is easily put right but a deadly dilemma that can only be resolved at great cost. This is precisely what we find in the Bible.

God has a big problem. Rebellion has marred the beautiful world he made, and the beautiful people he made to rule it. The blessing he gave has been replaced by a curse. This is the gist of the first three chapters of the Bible. The next eight chapters up the ante: we see how awful things have become. Then, in the following chapter, God’s rescue plan begins to unfold.

Those familiar with an effective plotline might expect the protagonist – God – to embrace great risk to overcome his problem. This is what we see in the Bible’s best-known line: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” That Son’s death, which exemplifies and encompasses every evil ever committed, is gloriously surmounted by the resurrection.

This story, unlike the stories produced by even our best authors, is still being told. It is an interactive story. When we submit our stories to the Author, he writes them into his story, masterfully develops – in patient cooperation with us – our character and gives our lives transcendent meaning.

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Here Comes the Bride: The Church as the Bride of Christ

Many of us (I suspect this is especially true of men) have trouble connecting with the image of the church as a bride. But this is, perhaps, the richest of all biblical metaphors of the church. It is full of hope and pulsing with joy.

Viewing Time: Approximately 27 minutes

I did not grow up dreaming about my wedding day; most boys don’t. I, and I suspect many Christian men, have trouble connecting with the biblical image of the church as the Bride of Christ. We might resonate with the image of the church as an army, but we don’t know what to do with the church as a bride.

Yet that is an important and glorious biblical image of the church. God willing (and he is willing), even the macho men in our church family will be longing for the marriage of the Lamb by the time we leave here today. It epitomizes our Christian hope.

If the number of times an image is used is a gauge of its importance, then the images of wedding and wedding feast are exceptionally important. They are used repeatedly in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 16, which we heard read for us earlier, is one example. Nearly the entire book of Hosea is an example. There are many other passages as well: Isaiah 54:5; Joel 1:8; Jeremiah 3; Isaiah 62:4-5; Jeremiah 31:31-33, and many more.

In the New Testament, we find the same image only now the church is the Bride and the bridegroom is the Messiah. There is 2 Corinthians 11:2, where Paul represents himself as the Father of the Bride who has betrothed his daughter (the Church of Corinth) to Christ: “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”

Jesus used the image of marriage numerous times. In Mark 2, he pictures himself as the bridegroom. In Matthew 22, he pictures God as the Father of the groom on the day of the wedding feast. The scene is again a wedding day in Matthew 25, when the friends of the bride all fall asleep while waiting for the arrival of the groom.

At the very end of the Bible, “the Spirit and the Bride” (the Bride!) “say, “Come!” To whom are they speaking? The Bridegroom. That will make more sense when we understand ancient Jewish marriage rituals. They were different in many respects from our contemporary American rituals.

A marriage in ancient Israel began with a betrothal. Often, the fathers of the couple would arrange the wedding, sometimes years before the bride was of marriageable age. The father of the groom would pay a bride price (called a mohar) to the father of the bride. A ketubah, a marriage contract or covenant, would be signed by both parties and by witnesses. After that, if one of the parties changed their mind about getting married, they would need to get a divorce.

(This, by the way, is why in Matthew 2 Mary is called Joseph’s wife even before their wedding, and why he thought about divorcing her before they had lived together.)

At the signing of the marriage contract, a ceremonial glass of wine was shared. Then the groom would go back to his father’s house. The time period between the signing of the ketubah and the wedding day celebrations, when a second glass of wine was shared to seal the marriage covenant, was usually about a year. Couples did not send out a “save-the-date” card because not even the bride-to-be knew the date. Of course, as the time drew near, anticipation rose. The groom’s return for the bride was eagerly awaited.

What was the groom doing during that year when he returned to his father’s house? He was preparing a place for his bride and himself to live. This might be inside his father’s large house, or he might add on to the house, or build an adjacent house on the property. He was doing his best to make a beautiful place for his bride.

The day would come when the new dwelling place was finished, and the groom would return for his bride. On the day of his wedding, a trumpet would announce his coming. As the groom and his attendants passed through the village on the way to the bride’s home, they would shout.

While all this was going on, the bride would take a ritual bath – it was called a mikvah – and then be dressed in white linen. The groom would take the bride, followed by her attendants, back to his father’s house. That is where the ceremony was held, and the marriage consummated. Then the feast would begin, and it would sometimes continue for a week. It was at this kind of feast that Jesus turned water into wine.

Now overlay what I just shared about ancient Jewish weddings with what the Bible says about Christ and his church. Think of the bride price. In a passage where Paul urges the Corinthians to remain faithful to Christ, he reminds them: “You were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). Peter says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ…” (1 Peter 1:18).

In light of the wedding tradition of the groom coming to get his bride at a time neither she nor others knew, think of Jesus’s words: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32) And what about the trumpet blast and the shouts: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16). The pieces are falling together, aren’t they?

Remember that a glass of wine had been shared at the signing of the ketubah, and that a second glass of wine would be shared on the day of the wedding itself. Now recall Jesus’s words at the Lord’s Supper: “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).

After the ketubah, when the bride was promised to the groom and the covenant with was signed, the groom would return to his father’s house and begin preparing a place for his bride and him to live. Do you remember Jesus’s words to his disciples on the night of his betrayal? “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).

Think of all the preparations that have gone on. Jesus spoke of “The kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” “God,” said the author of Hebrews, “is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” It is “The new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Who are all these preparations for? They are for the Bride of Christ, the church. For you and me, and all those to whom we are joined, if we belong to the church. Psalm 45 gives us the sense of what Christ feels for his church: “The king is enthralled by your beauty.”

Beauty? The Church? We who make up the church? We are all too aware of our blemishes and flaws. How can the King of kings find “the church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools,” as someone called it, beautiful?

On her wedding day, Joni Eareckson, who is a quadriplegic, felt terribly awkward. Her girlfriends struggled to get her paralyzed body into her wedding gown. This is how she described it: “No amount of corseting and binding my body gave me a perfect shape. The dress just didn’t fit well. Then, as I was wheeling into the church, I glanced down and noticed that I’d accidentally run over the hem of my dress, leaving a greasy tire mark. My paralyzed hands couldn’t hold the bouquet of daisies that lay off-center on my lap. And my chair, though decorated for the wedding, was still a big, clunky gray machine with belts, gears, and ball bearings. I certainly didn’t feel like the picture-perfect bride in a bridal magazine.

“I inched my chair closer to the last pew to catch a glimpse of Ken in front. There he was, standing tall and stately in his formal attire. I saw him looking for me, craning his neck to look up the aisle. My face flushed, and I suddenly couldn’t wait to be with him. I had seen my beloved. The love in Ken’s face had washed away all my feelings of unworthiness. I was his pure and perfect bride.”

What changed? One look of transforming love from the bright eyes of the groom. That is what will change us too from losers, failures, and fools into the radiant bride of Christ, without wrinkle, stain, or any other blemish. Theologians call it the beatific vision. To lock eyes with the One whose briefest glance sets all heaven rejoicing will transform us forever.[1]

Ephesians 5:21-6:9 lets Jesus’s people see what a Christian’s relationships should look like. Verses 25-31 looks especially at a husband’s relationship to his wife. I have shared what that passage says many times over the years and drawn out truths for us husbands to apply, which is what Paul intended. But today I want to focus on what he says about Christ and the church in verses 25-27. Paul is using Christ to illustrate a point, but the illustration itself is rich and full of truth.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for herto make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” 

This passage tells us what Christ did and what his purpose was in doing it. What did he do? He gave himself up for the church he loved. How did he do that? He humbled himself, took the form of a servant, suffered, and died a sacrificial death on the cross.

But this passage also tells us why he did that. It tells us his purpose. That is easy to spot in Greek because Paul uses the conjunction ἵνα, which means “so that” and denotes purpose, in verses 26 and 27. Christ endured humiliating and painful suffering – now, a literal translation of verse 26 – “so that she [the church] might be sanctified, being cleansed in a bath of water in the word.”

Remember that a first century Jewish bride had a ritual bath just prior to her wedding.

The NIV goes on, “to present her to himself,” but a literal translation runs, “so that” – another purpose statement – “he might present her to himself.” Why did Christ humble himself, take the form of a servant, become obedient unto death, even death on a cross? So that he could save the girl and make her – the church – his bride.

What is it all about – this story of an exalted king who leaves his throne, exchanges his royal robes for a work uniform, endures opposition from sinners, the shame of crucifixion, and an unjust and painful death? It is about that moment – a moment that begins but never ends – when the Lord Christ takes his glorious bride to himself. All history, including our stories with their joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, is headed for this moment.

We, and all who have been on earth since the death and resurrection of Jesus, have lived our lives in that period between the betrothal and the wedding. When this age finally ends (and may it end soon!) the betrothal will also end—not because the groom and bride have gone their separate ways but because they have at last been joined. “Here,” as Dante put it, “begins the new life.” We’ll find, as C. S. Lewis so memorably put it, that “All [our] life in this world and all [our] adventures [have] only been the cover and the title page: now at last [we are] beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”[2]

Scripture addresses these things in various ways but reminds us that for now they are beyond our comprehension. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “If I have spoken to you about earthly things and you have not understood, how would you understand if I spoke to you about heavenly things?” The implication is that even the Teacher of Israel could not understand what awaits us. We need to be changed even to conceive so exceeding and eternal a weight of glory.

Paul says that he was caught up into the third heaven where he “saw inexpressible things – things that no one is permitted to tell” (2 Cor. 12:4). The reason for this prohibition is, I suspect, that even the most eloquent and powerful words are bound to mislead. I suppose that someone who had seen what Paul saw and tried to describe it would start and stop a hundred times – “It was like this … Well, no, it wasn’t like that at all” – and then finally give up.

Jesus speaks of what awaits as “the renewal of all things.” The word he used, palingenesia, means literally, “genesis again.” We were not there to witness the first creation. We will be there for the second. But the second genesis will not only happen around us but in us. We will be part of it. “We will be changed, said St. Paul, “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52). In that instant, we will be transformed: from mortal to immortal, corruptible to incorruptible, weakness to power, dishonor to glory. Anyone who could experience even a moment of that glory would trade his or her entire life for it.

St. Paul, thinking of what awaits us, writes, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Imagine that for a moment. Our presents sufferings. The old man aches and pains I am beginning to feel. The grief I have known as a brother, a son, a friend. I think of all those times I have sat with people who breathed their last breath. Those times when a life support device was breathing it for them until the medical staff unhooked it. The babies, children, and aged parents whose hands I’ve held as they passed out of this life. The impotence I have felt in the face of wrong. The frustration at my own failure. The disappointment I’ve known at the failures of people I trusted.

Our present sorrows weigh heavily upon us. Our own failures and foolishness are a burden we have had to bear. (Thank God, the weightier burden of our sins was born by another!) We have known sorrow and suffering. Yet, look at what Paul says and dare to believe it: “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

In another place (2 Corinthains 4:17) he writes, “Our light affliction …” Pardon me? Light affliction? I would scoff if this wasn’t coming from a man who spent years unjustly imprisoned, was beaten, berated, hated, and mocked.Yet he calls it “our light affliction, which is but for a moment,” and says it “is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” We are destined for glory because we are betrothed to the glorious Christ.

Andrew Peterson was right: “We’ll look back at these tears as old tales.” “And in the end – the end! – is oceans and oceans of love and love again. We’ll see how the tears that have fallen were caught in the hands of the Giver of love and Lover of all, and we’ll look back at these tears as old tales.”

But when will the Bridegroom come and wipe away our tears? When will he fulfill our dreams? After Pearl Harbor, many young couples hurried up and got engaged before the man went off to the other side of the world to fight. The wedding wouldn’t take place until the war ended or he had acquired enough leave to come home. Young women and their mothers would plan the wedding, even print the invitations, but leave the date off. They didn’t know when the bridegroom would return, so they kept abreast of the news and stayed ready. Then one day, the bride-to-be would receive a telegram: “Get your dress ready. I’m on my way.”[3]

There is a war going on and the church’s bridegroom is away. We don’t know when he will appear. But you can be sure there is nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth that will stop him from coming back for us, his church. If you are not part of the church, join us by putting your faith in Jesus Christ. Lend you voice with ours and with the Spirit’s and say, “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”

[1]Will Willimon, This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World, (Zondervan) p. 222

[2][2] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

[3] Adapted fromBetsy Childs Howard, Seasons of Waiting (Crossway, 2016), page 35.

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Living Apart Together: Is Less Commitment Really the Key to Longevity?

Thirty years ago, a teacher in a small town near us was scrutinized and nearly fired when it was discovered that he was living with a partner to whom he was not married. The school board considered their living arrangement to be sufficient cause to question the teacher’s character.

Cohabitation without marriage, which was a mark against someone’s character in 1990, is now broadly accepted. An unwillingness to commit to marriage no longer raises eyebrows. Commitment resistance has gone even further today: many people in long-term intimate relationships now see moving in together as too great a sacrifice to make.

This lifestyle choice is popular enough that it has earned a label, “Living Apart Together,” and an acronym, LAT. Recent surveys show that couples are increasingly drawn to LAT. Nearly 10 percent of adults in Western Europe, Canada, and the U.S. say they have intimate partners but live apart. In Britain, the number is closer to 25 percent.

Paula Cocozza, writing in The Guardian, cites the psychotherapist and broadcaster Lucy Beresford’s opinion that “successful LAT relationships achieve a balance between independence and emotional commitment.”

I am struck by the use of the adjective “successful” in that sentence. What, I wonder, constitutes a successful LAT relationship? Should it be gauged by independence or sexual satisfaction or financial health? How long might a “successful” LAT relationship last? Is it expected to last? If not, is it a source of emotional strength or emotional stress?

Beresford, who is an advocate of LAT, believes that longer lifespans virtually necessitate some such relationship scenario. “If we are going to live to 110,” she writes, “some of our relationships might have a life expectancy of more than 80 years.” The thought of spending 80 years in a committed married relationship appears to her to be unrealistic. Relationships that require less commitment seem to offer greater sustainability.

But is this true? Does less commitment equal longer relationships? The LAT movement has not been around long enough to test that thesis, but I find it highly suspect. Less commitment is usually a predictor of a short life for relationships of all kinds: in romance, friendship, and business.

Leah Rockwell, who is a professional counselor, has written about her own LAT relationship in Good Housekeeping. She explains that she chose to live apart from her romantic partner because: “I’ve come to prefer joy with only a small side dish of turmoil.” I wonder why Rockwell equates living together with turmoil and living alone with joy.

An interviewee in a study published by The Sociological Review agrees with Rockwell. She said, “I have the best of both worlds, I do have a relationship but … I can do my own thing.” Indeed, one of the reasons women frequently give for preferring LAT relationships is that the separation frees them from the traditional feminine roles of homemaker, cook, and cleaning person.

This is, however, not how LAT tends to function in real life. The woman still has her own house to clean and according to research by Simon Duncan, Emeritus Professor in Social Policy at Bradford University, often continues to perform traditional roles within LAT relationships.

Duncan’s research also suggests that many couples consider their LAT relationship to be “a less than optimal choice.” He writes that “research shows a darker motivation – people can end up living apart because they feel anxious, vulnerable, even fearful about living with a partner.

In Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver visits an academy of higher learning on the flying island of Laputa, where research professors explore novel ways to better the world. He meets an architectural professor who, after watching spiders and bees, has come up with a revolutionary approach to construction. His idea is to build houses from the roof down. 

LAT, I suggest, takes a similar approach to building relationships. People try to build a relationship from its roof – companionship and sexual satisfaction – rather than from a foundation of wholehearted commitment. There is an order in which relationships, just like houses, must be built. Violate that order, and things go very wrong.

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