Whole-Hearted Living: Psychology and Christianity in Paul Tournier’s A Place for You

If you’re like me, when it comes to counseling, you’re aware of a certain stigma related to folks who receive counseling services. This phenomenon is especially present in the church, as it seems that many in the church curate a certain suspicion for, or an ambivalence to, the field of psychology. With this in mind, I must tell you of the book I’ve finished reading. It’s by a French-speaking Swiss psychiatrist who was trained as a physician but later turned to counseling as a profession. Practicing in Geneva, Paul Tournier wrote prolifically on the intersection of psychology and spirituality. Tournier, who was a devout Christian, wrote works that received overwhelming reception due to their pastoral nature, and many of his books were translated into English and German.

First published in French in 1966, his book A Place for You attempts to bring together the seemingly separate worlds of psychology and Christianity. He explains how nonbelievers and Christians alike (while they may not have language to express it) seem to “know” the Two Gospels of both worlds, which seem in opposition to each other. The gospel of psychology, as he calls it, is one of “self-fulfillment” and “self-assertion,” while the Biblical gospel is “self-denial” and “renunciation.” (Tournier is careful to point out that this particular conception of the Biblical gospel is just that: a (g)ospel, not the Gospel, but it is nevertheless a gospel which Christian communities immediately recognize.) If, then, we recognize the strain between these two seemingly separate entities, we must ask the question: is there any “place” in which they merge?

Tournier argues that there is. He contends that both movements are necessary for whole-hearted living, but that they must be enacted in a particular progression. He sees the necessity for self-actualization and self-fulfillment to come before renunciation, and the former movement can only occur when children experience attachment in their family of origin – when they have a sense of place within their family. It is out of this sense of place that attachment forms, which is the starting point for young people to develop a healthy sense of self and self-assertion. It is this personhood, this self, which then interacts with a spiritual movement as an adult, when they, as fully formed adults, make true commitments of faith and willingly give themselves up to appropriate renunciation and self-denial.

We are all aware of Christian communities that legislate conformity in behavior and attitude (and dare I say, dress). Further, we are all familiar with Christian communities that deem unacceptable such language as “self-assertion” and “self-fulfillment.” Yet Tournier argues that untold damage is done in Christian communities by curating “premature renunciation” before the member has experienced the appropriate “free expansion” of self, which occurs mostly after having experienced attachment love in the home, when the person felt a place in their family of origin. Without this sense of place, the church’s language of renunciation, to “deny oneself,” becomes painful and confusing. Tournier narrates the progression of a child who does not experience a sense of place in the family, how he begins to imagine that he is not accepted, and he becomes prey to a martyr complex (whether real or imagined), and how he can drift from place to place as an adult, always seeking something he never had, torn by a nostalgia for a place he never knew. It is to this person that the church says, “Give yourself to the service of others, for in the service of others you will find yourself.” Tournier responds in a resounding, “No!” for he understands that since the client “has not been loved, or not loved well, he can neither love nor believe in and accept love.” 

This is the place where psychologists and the Church can work together, if they can understand their respective roles – that is, the psychologist and the counselor attending to the needs for a sense of place (in the consulting room), and the Church rightly interacting with whole-hearted adults who understand the call of Jesus, who says, “Come, follow me.” It is interesting, Tournier notes, the type of person it was who God “called” in Scripture; Tournier notes that those who were called demonstrated a well-formed sense of place. Abraham was well-established in Ur of the Chaldees when God called him. Moses was asked to leave Midian, where he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Jesus called Simon and Andrew to leave their well-established fishing profession. The rich young ruler was just that: a rich young ruler, seemingly self-actualized and well-situated in society. Yet we note that perhaps the Church preaches this self-denial a bit too hastily to all persons before (as Tournier argues) the necessary self-assertion movement occurs.

The actual three best quotes from Tournier’s book:

“We have all seen so many of those men and women who have never grown up because they have been repressed by a religious upbringing, and have been trained since infancy in systemic renunciation.”

“To how many generations of miserable exploited people has the Church preached resignation, acceptance of one’s lot, surrender, and submission?”

“How many mediocre personalities are there in our churches – people who have not the courage to live full lives, to assert themselves and make the most of themselves, and who look upon this stifling of themselves as a Christian virtue, whereas faith ought to create powerful personalities?”

It is astonishing how accurate Tournier’s vision of the church is, considering he lived in French-speaking Switzerland (and over fifty years ago!).

I must tell you that reading Tournier was as worldview-shifting for me as reading N.T. Wright, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. There is something in the writing that rings so true. I’m most struck by the stories of his clients who struggled to fit in as young children, along with his clear vision of the way that the church is experienced in almost a heartless way by its many calls for renunciation. (Interestingly, he has many comments about single women and their journey to detaching from their parents, whether in healthy or unhealthy ways. In one chapter about “place,” he indicates that he could not stress enough how important it is for a woman to move out and have her own home.) I appreciate how he clearly highlights the distinctions between the work of psychologists and the work of pastors, and how he offers a Biblical framework for understanding a sense of place and a sense of self in the context of mature Christianity (hence the title, A Place for You).

A bit more personally, his work is teaching me to have grace with myself as I attend to the Two Movements, perhaps at rates different from my peers. Additionally, I’m learning to have grace with others who use language of attachment with God that I used to think was unbelievably hypocritical or even ignorant, for I boasted, “You cannot possibly feel that way about God,” when in fact, perhaps I did not feel that way about God, but yet somehow, by some grace, those persons had experienced some sort of spiritual ascension which I had not yet found. There is a sense, then, in which reading the book improves your own self-knowledge.  

Like Tournier, I, too, am Swiss!

Indeed, I developed my own little attachment to Tournier because I, too, am Swiss, but more than that, there is something about reading his work which makes one feel seen. And that is one of the best feelings in the world.

If you’re curious to read countless stories of his clients from years in the consulting room (to include single women learning to detach and self-actualize in healthy ways), you simply must read this book. A word to the wise: the book is out of print, so scrounging around Amazon is the best way to go. A few copies show up on Amazon for $20 every few weeks; other than that, original copies sit around $600 for sale (!).

Fun fact: I begged three friends to buy their own dusty copies, made them read it, and forced them to attend my own little book club. I cooked Herbed Artichoke Cheese Tortellini and baked (what I call) somewhat edible gluten-free garlic muffins, and we discussed the following book club questions (written by yours truly) for three hours! Let me know if you want to come next time. 😊  

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1. How do you interact with Tournier’s discussion of children knowing a sense of place? Did you experience a strong sense of place within your family as a child? Why or why not? (See p. 12.) If you struggled with attachment as a child, do you connect with the “increasing and unsatisfied nostalgia” he mentions? Further, did that lack of attachment produce in you “real and imagined persecutions” (18)?

2. Choose one of the following quotes and discuss it:

  • “It is readily understandable that to be denied a place is to suffer a serious moral trauma. It is a sort of denial of one’s humanity” (26).
  • “It is true that [man] has a remarkable capacity for adaptation… Nevertheless his capacity to adapt himself has its limits, and if the evolution in his environment becomes too rapid, it may demand a rate of transformation in man which is beyond his capabilities” (53).
  • [many quotes from 55-57 about how our sense of place as humans is being majorly disrupted by advances in science, travel, communication, etc.] “Time was when each man lived shut up in his own little garden. How the world is swept by one tidal wave after another. How can you ask young people to hammer out a personal spiritual place for themselves in the midst of such a maelstrom?” (57)
  • “[The woman] feels more strongly than the man the importance of places… Having a home of her own is particularly important for a woman… it means she has become a person… what a difference it made in their lives. They could have visitors, they had a place of their own” (59).
  • “It is often very difficult for a patient who has been cured, or at least undergone an improvement in his condition, to feel at home in the Church, even if he wants to. He finds it so impersonal, so cold and conventional, after the stirring experiences he has had in the psychotherapist’s consulting-room” (79).

3. Tournier’s argument begins with his concept of the Two Gospels. Define each gospel, and describe how premature renunciation is problematic (91-93).

4. Explain Tournier’s concept of the Two Movements, and give examples of hindrances to this linear movement (98, 101, 108).

5. Father Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Develop yourself first” (100). Do you agree or disagree? Where might some disagree theologically?

6. Why does Tournier takes issue with the following statement: “Give yourself to the service of others. It is in giving oneself that one finds oneself” (105)?

7. Delineate the movement of Tournier’s female client that begins with a silent girl with quarreling parents and ends with parents shocked by the adult woman literally “coming to blows” with them (109-110). Discuss the “religious blackmail” in the life of this client, and also in the context of, oh I don’t know, Mennonite women everywhere.

8. Do you feel that your own parents in any way inhibited your “free expansion of youth” (115)? Do you, or do you not, agree that there is a tendency by Christian parents to dampen ambition?

9. Discuss premature renunciation. For example, Tournier writes, “The great risk, if one tries to urge someone to be loving and forgiving is that he will pretend to love and forgive” (120). Note, too, the example of the young married man on 129 & 130. With this as a context, how comfortable are you with waiting “to urge self denial on a man” (141)? Discuss your own experience of “false forgiveness, false loves, and false renunciations” (142).

10a. In section III “Supports,” Tournier discusses a kind of anxiety that clients must overcome as they leave the first movement of self-actualization (and its accompanying supports) and enter authentic renunciation. (This anxiety may also be experienced in a preliminary stage of self-actualization, wherein a client may realize their false renunciations and exchange them for authentic self-actualization). Situate yourself within these movements, especially in the context of this comment by Tournier: “The person who has had the benefit of a solid support in childhood from which to launch out into life, will have no difficulty in letting go of that support, and in finding fresh support somewhere else” (163).

10b. Lastly, let’s discuss “infantile regression,” this tendency in both psychology and Christianity for people to remain satisfied right at the point when they should be marching forward (186). Where have you seen folks “fossilized in their satisfaction”? And how does Tournier see this phenomenon in relation to the impulse for basically all of his work (see p 222)?

Add This to Your New Year’s Resolution

While thinking about goal-setting, I was listening to Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain episode, “Where Gratitude Gets You.” He was interviewing psychologist David DeSteno about the role gratitude plays in helping us achieve our goals.

Early in the episode, they reminded listeners that one ingredient for success is delayed gratification. DeSteno points to the infamous “marshmallow test” by Walter Mischel which concluded that children with the most self-control are situated to be the most successful in life. (You’ve no doubt seen plenty of parodies of the marshmallow test on Youtube.)

The Marshmallow Test

What’s so fun is that DeSteno ran an adult version of the marshmallow test at Northeastern University, but this time with cash. He found that adults, not just toddlers, were pretty susceptible to instant gratification, agreeing to accept $17 in cash right away, rather than waiting for $100 in cash in a year.

Another thing that DeSteno found in his research was related to people’s [in]ability to use self-control in order to act with integrity. His team conducted a study where they asked participants to flip a coin in order to decide which of two tasks they would complete for the experiment – a long, tedious task, or a short, fun one. In this willpower test, 90% of participants fudged the coin toss flip to make the answer be in their favor, creating all kinds of stories for why it was okay for them to cheat.

Perhaps you think that you would pass the willpower test with flying colors, but we all know that self-control is hard to cultivate. And what’s more, it is interesting to note that self-control, and not giving in, is, according to research, stressful on the body. DeSteno suggests that using self-control alone to reach your goals brings a stress response that actually affects your health. He cites a study by Gregory Miller of Northwestern University who was working with kids from disadvantaged background, teaching them executive control strategies. He found that over time, those strategies worked, but “the stress level that those children… and adolescents were under began to manifest itself physically. And so if you kind of expand that out, the upshot is, yes, if you’re always trying to exert self-control, you can achieve your goals, but your health is going to suffer.”

For those of you who pride yourselves on being able to win the marshmallow test or to not cheat on coin flips, beware. There’s another caveat for those with self-control superpowers. The interviewers cite a study by Christopher Boyce that indicates how self-controlled folks interact with failure.

DeSteno explained: “This was a study looking at the trait of conscientiousness, which is the ability to kind of put your nose to the grindstone and persevere in pursuing your goals. And people who do that, yes, they succeed. But when they do fail (and they do fail less because they’re working really hard), the hit to their well-being is 120 percent greater than the rest of us. And although the data doesn’t show exactly why that is in that study, personally, I believe that one reason is because these individuals haven’t been focused on cultivating the social relationships that are there to catch us when we fall and to make us more resilient.”

It seems that self-control alone is not enough.   

The role of emotions in achieving your goals

Next, Vedantam and DeSteno discuss emotions in relation to achieving goals, and they hint that emotions may be an important key for success. In fact, DeSteno suggests that we should rethink the “use” of emotions. He suggests that emotions are not about the past; instead, emotions are about protecting ourselves for the future: “Many of us see our emotions as the enemy when it comes to carrying out our resolutions, but we often forget something: emotions can also be enormously constructive and powerful… Emotions are not about the past. They are about the future. And what I mean by that is if you even just think about the brain metabolically, what good would it be to have a response that is only relevant to things that have happened before? The reason we have emotions are to help us decide what to do next. When you are feeling an emotion, it’s altering the computations. Your brain is making your predictions for the best course of action.”

DeSteno’s work explores how cultivating certain emotions allows us to meet our resolutions. In one study, DeSteno’s team found a correlation between gratefulness and being able to practice self-control. That is, when people were in a state of gratefulness, they were able to double their self-control. Now it took participants $31 of cash up front, instead of $17, before they would give in to a cash payout, instead of waiting for $100 in a year.  

Not only did studies show the connection between gratefulness and practicing self-control, but also between gratefulness and lowered stress. The emotion of gratefulness elicited by counting one’s blessings had a powerful effect, as DeSteno notes: “Robert Emmons would ask a certain percentage of his subjects to engage in daily gratitude reflection. So he was making them basically count their blessings as a kind of an experimental intervention. And what he found is that over time, the individuals who did this reported that they were better able to engage in exercise again, a type of sacrifice in the moment for future gain. They reported better quality of their relationships. They reported less symptoms of illness. And so taken together, what this kind of signifies this to me, that it’s practicing gratitude is enhancing people’s well-being and kind of reducing the stress that comes from illness or feelings of loneliness or disconnection.

Additionally, a study by Wendy Mendez shows how gratitude can buffer the effects of stress, and she found that gratitude “was basically like a booster shot for stress reduction.

Vedantam & DeSteno remind us that “it might be better to think of gratitude as a skill rather than as a trade or just simply an emotion, something that just pops up unbidden in our hearts.” Also, “emotions are tools that you can cultivate in your life. When you meditate, you’re building an automatic response to feel compassion more regularly. When you count your blessings daily, you’re engaging in an activity. You’re curating your own emotional states. You’re making yourself feel more grateful.”

[And just think: all of this on a secular podcast about the benefits of gratefulness, while our Scriptures speak about thankfulness upwards of 170 times. It is always so fascinating to find instances of science aligning with spiritual directives given by God.]

Theology and brain science on transformational change

I was pondering this Hidden Brain podcast over the Thanksgiving holiday when I stumbled upon an interview with neurotheologian Jim Wilder, a clinical psychologist who studies the intersection between theology and brain science. He was discussing his new book, Renovated: God, Dallas Willard, and the Church That Transforms. Wilder draws on from multiple conversations with contemporary Dallas Willard (who positions himself as a counselor) to produce his book which asks the question: how is it, exactly, that people change? What causes transformation in people?

Interviewer Skye Jethani asked the question this way: “What leads to real transformation? For a long time in the western church, we’ve believed that knowledge alone is what will change people. Therefore, if we just learn enough of the Bible, if we just have enough theology, our behavior will be transformed. Well, a lot of us have realized that that’s actually not the case, and so in recent years, a lot of us have been drawn towards spiritual disciplines, the practices that change our behaviors, and we’ve come to believe that a combination of knowledge and practice is what really leads to transformation.” But for Wilder, there is a third component, one that is deeply rooted in our biology.

Indeed, we understand the limits of “worldview education,” that is, using sermons, Sunday schools, and Christian schools as the primary means to “communicate” someone into the kingdom of God in order to bring about transformation. (I have blogged extensively about the limits of worldview education as a means of transformational change and as a mode of transferring the Gospel and discipling Kingdom participants.) Certainly, theologians and philosophers like James K.A. Smith (drawing on the work of Charles Taylor) depict other means of imparting the Gospel or forming the imagination and desire, one of the strongest drivers of behavior (for, as Smith puts, “we are what we love”). While many Christian leaders today emphasize theology and worldview instruction (or even a passive education of “knowing all the worldviews so that you can be aware of how they depart from Christianity”), we know through work by Smith and others that factors much stronger than explicit instruction of worldview components (through sermons and high school Bible classes) are the factors that lead to evident behaviors. We call these forces liturgies, or embodied practices that tell us much about the way we see the world than any stated doctrine, and these liturgies (or embodied practices) bend back on us and reinforce the way we view the world. 

In the interview (beginning at 48:00), Jim Wilder (who has the closest thing to a Mennonite or Beachy Amish accent that I’ve heard on air – no relation) speaks as a neurotheologian when he says that if the brain tells us something, and the Bible tells us something, it strikes a theologian that we ought to pay attention. Wilder then argues that the brain needs to learn to be Christian, and that it is the main thing that learns to interact with God. (Admittedly a departure from that recognizable American evangelical Gnosticism that always situates the body and the material as less spiritual.)

Many are familiar with Dallas Willard’s VIM model as a vehicle for transformational change: Vision, Intention, and Means. Wilder breaks down the components this way: “The ‘vision’ everyone can agree on. We have to have the right ideas, the right vision, the right understanding of things. Truth and all of that fits very well on the vision side. The ‘means’ side is what are the actual practices that we have to go through. But the ‘intentions’ side was always the squirrely one. How do you actually get people to try to do this? What’s the motivation?… Dallas knew right from the start it wasn’t willpower. Because there are some people who are willful, but not necessarily better spiritually. How do we go about motivating people to want to be Christ-like?… The strongest motivator in the brain is attachment. It’s who we love. It forms our identity in the brain, it forms our attachments, it shapes our ideas… We are much more changed by who we love than what we believe.

Wilder then explores if there is anything in Scripture that hints at, or supports, a kind of transformational attachment love. (For he acknowledges that “attachment love” as a concept is only about fifty years old in science.) He points us to Scriptures like Isaiah 49:15, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” This example of nurture between mother and child is certainly an example of what we now call attachment love. Wilder points to the difficult-to-translate Hebrew word checed as further Biblical instance of God pointing to the attachment function he created in our brains. (The word appears 248 times in the Bible.) Wilder explains checed love as a kind of gluing us to God: “This attachment is permanent, it is full of good things, it is full of kindness, and it is a source of love for us.” Wilder asks what resembles checed love in the human brain – and it is attachment love.

I was keenly interested in Jethani’s and Wilder’s discussion of how attachment to a group forms our responses and behavior, rather than words or ideas. (Especially as we in the church continue to deal in “truths,” focusing on “having the right ideas.”) They asked the question how we might form deeper attachments to God, which Wilder deemed a very important question, for he pointed out that Willard had not yet heard of a theology where salvation involved a new attachment with God. Jethani agreed, citing that the way many of us have been taught about salvation is agreeing to a set of doctrines, or having intellectual assent to “ideas that are true or are from the Bible.”

Fostering attachment for transformational change

When asked how we might foster a deeper attachment to God (rather than just having a knowledge of ideas about him, or incorporating practices), Wilder responded this way: “I take biological systems to be a metaphor for spiritual life. Jesus talked about your hearing, your eyesight and things like that… they reflect some kind of greater truth. Attachment is the way your brain finds out what gives me life. So we attach to what feeds us. That’s how it starts for every child, for every animal. You want to get your dog to attach to you? You gotta feed it. If you don’t give it food and water, that dog is not going to attach to you, and the same with any living creature. It’s what gives us our food and water. So in one sense you could look at the original sin as letting the wrong person feed us.”

Wilder takes it one step further: “And you would anticipate that if feeding you was very central, then central to most worship service there should be some meal, or some feeding of people. The god when he came to earth would say, ‘Um, you know, I’m like bread for you. I’m the bread that would give you life. I’m the water that would give you life. And the thing is, he actually practiced that in relationship to other people, so now we have life-giving relationships.

Wilder lists a second step: “Once you get past food, the next thing that causes attachment is joy. You will attach to whoever it is who is just super glad to see you.

But the most important takeaway from the interview, the actual kicker, is when Jethani asked, “Any final advice to people who want to foster that deeper attachment to God? What do they need to include in their life or remove from their life that’s going to help their brain form that attachment?

Wilder responded, “Most of the spiritual disciplines are pretty good at removing stuff that shouldn’t be there and creating some space for God, but they’re not particularly designed directly to create that attachment with God. So the number one thing that forms that attachment with God is actually thankfulness or appreciation. Every time something good comes your way from God, make a point to thank him about and then tell somebody you know how grateful you are… I think there’s one other thing I would tell people. The relational system that runs your identity has a firewall in it. It won’t let your identity change unless you have an attachment to the person who you’re interacting with. So if we have a problem, some area of ourselves that needs changing, we actually need to have God’s presence, either through another person or through God directly, be available for us right when we are having our hard time. So the thing that we typically do as religious people is we hide our hard times from each other, so we never have this attachment, and it’s because we think this whole Christian thing is not about permanent attachments. If you don’t like what you see, you’ll dump me. But all attachments for the brain, and I think for God, are meant to be permanent. If we are becoming a permanent people, then if I see you struggling, or having a weakness, my inclination is to bring God into that moment of weakness with you. And if we have a permanent relationship, you’ll let me do that.

I’m intrigued that neurotheologians and secular psychologists both point to gratefulness and thanksgiving as a means of transformational change. (You can be sure that practicing gratefulness is a part of my resolutions for 2021!) Significant, too, is this idea of attachment love both in the spiritual and the relational (especially remembering back to the example of overly-conscientious people who experience hard-hitting failure when they fall, and who may not have cultivated the necessary social relationships in the meantime).

I pray you find much success in 2021 as you cultivate regular thanksgiving into your life rhythms. And may your arms stretch wide as you welcome the good gift of life-giving relationship when it is sent.

The Limits of a Biblical Worldview

One of my reading goals has been tackling James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, the first in his three-volume Cultural Liturgies. The “It-read” of OC 2012, the book arrived on my shelf years ago, and I am finally doing it justice.

In the book, Smith champions a Christian education that is not merely the dispensation of a Christian worldview, because, as he argues, humans are more than thinking machines, and the most important parts of human existence are not heady, intellectual affairs (we at Shasta’s Fog imagine that they nearly are) but rather the habits and loves of whole-bodied persons. He therefore reimagines humanity as “desiring animals” rather than “thinking things.”

Knights

Professor at Calvin College (*cough* theological alliances made clear), Smith writes to a seemingly Protestant audience, one that he finds doctrinally bloated (Ye lucky Reformed brethren! Ye of the orthodoxy!), evidenced by his gentle questions:

“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” (18).

Some worldview definitions reduce “Christian faith primarily to a set of ideas, principles, claims, and propositions that are known and believed. The goal of all this is ‘correct’ thinking. But this makes it sound as if we are essentially the sorts of things that Descartes described us to be: thinking things that are containers for ideas. What if that is actually only small slice of what we are? And what if that’s not even the most important part? In the rationalist picture, we are not only reduced to primarily thinking things; we are also seen as things whose bodies are nonessential (and rather regrettable) containers for our minds… But what if our bodies are essential to our identities?… What if the core of our identity is located more in the body than the mind?” (32)

Smith proves this nature in a creative anthropological study of the American shopping mall (reminiscent of Horace Miner’s “Nacirema” essay) to represent that all embodied humans are religious, chapel or no chapel, and that our behavior rises from a certain vision that we have of the good life, a vision which, cyclically, is reaffirmed through habits and practices. In short, “what defines us is what we love,” not what we believe (25). Humans, then, are creatures of desire. Or as Smith states,

“Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of ‘intending’ the world is love or desire. This love or desire—which is unconscious or noncognitive—is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely linked to our bodily sense” (63).

And so we read Smith’s presentation of the “new,” which rejects humans as merely “believers,” for he questions the capability of worldview, as we understand it, to explain our behavior. “For most people,” Smith points out, “religious devotion is rarely a matter of theory” (69).

(Which, I think, is a *very important* distinction for those of us trying to make sense of [what I would call] forceful contemporary Anabaptist orthopraxy.)

Without worldview as a conceptual framework, Smith must offer us another explanation of reality, and he borrows Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary,” conceivably because “Taylor intuits that what we ‘think about’ is just the tip of the iceberg and cannot fully or even adequately account for how and why we make our way in the world” (65). Convinced of the limits of worldview, Smith then fully explains this social imaginary as a “noncognitive director of our actions and our entire comportment to the world… It is a way of intending the world meaningfully—giving it significance—but in a way that is not cognitive or propositional” (66). Smith notes how Taylor insists that “‘it can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines’” (66). Which means, that the social imaginary must have different means of transmitting itself—through images, stories, and legends.

I want to take a break here and, first, point out how much SENSE the social imaginary makes to one needing an explanation of the “success” of contemporary Anabaptism. How can a denomination self-perpetuate so successfully, for so long, in a seemingly “doctrine-less” context of practice? But that is what Taylor exactly expects: “If the understanding makes the practice possible, it is also true that it is the practice that largely carries the understanding” (67). Which explains the incredulous looks I receive when I question whether Mennonites really know what they believe. Passionate adherents immediately begin listing “beliefs” that are nothing more than ordinances, practices. Which, as we have learned, carry certain understandings about “who I am,” an understanding rarely put into words, but powerful nonetheless.

Second, Smith develops a rich argument for the viability and strength of social imaginary being perpetuated through “images,” images that powerfully (yet subtly) develop a particular vision of the good life. My one fleeting thought (I cannot help myself): what if we went further than shopping mall behavior and assessed the liturgical practice of incessant scrolling? How does this practice/habit/behavior both reflect and refine our vision of life? What does the social media scrolling practice say about what we love? How does it sculpt our loves? How does it redefine them? If the “social imaginary” is conceptually true, then our media habits hold powerful sway in creating and sculpting our loves, for they powerfully captivate our imaginations, compounding in time to drive a stake, claiming our loves.

Since I’m only one-third of the way through the book, I imagine Smith will do several things: (1) more fully work out how the social imaginary is different than “worldview” as we know it, and (2) offer suggestions for how the church must necessarily shift away from thinking worldview-ishly, and begin offering embodied alternatives.

In a telling essay called “Why Victoria’s In on the Secret,” Smith highlights how modern advertising campaigns seem understand our embodied nature better than the church. He writes, “On one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating which a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied desiring creatures” (76). Yet the church seems to be fighting these strong passions and loves with… ideas. And beliefs. In our heads. Which have somehow gotten disconnected from our bodies. Smith writes, “When Hollister and Starbucks haven taken hold of our heart with tangible, material liturgies, Christian schools are ‘fighting back’ by giving young people Christian ideas. We hand young people (and old people) ‘Christian worldview’ and then tell them, ‘There, that should fix it.’ But such strategies are aimed at the head and thus miss the real target: our hearts, our loves, our desires. Christian education as formation needs to be a pedagogy of desire” (33).

(I might note here that Smith uses the term “liturgies” to mean any formative practice, that by repetition, becomes a ritual of identity. Less like brushing your teeth, more like going to Cross-Fit every day or shopping on amazon.com. What does it mean that one goes to Cross-fit every day, and how does that habit or ritual begin to bend back on a person, shaping their desire? What liturgies do we participate in every day? Are there Christian liturgies, and secular liturgies? Smith calls liturgies “secular” when they “capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and drawing us into ritual practices that ‘teach’ us to love something very different from the kingdom of God” (88).)

Finally, Smith will (3) more fully explain how the new conception of the social imaginary comes to bear in what we call Christian education. I love Smith’s definition of education:

“An education – whether acknowledged or not – is a formation of the desires and imagination that creates a certain kind of person who is part of a certain kind of people. The facts and information learned as part of the process are always situated and embedded in something deeper that is being learned all along: a particular vision of the good life” (29).

The full title of the work is Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, because it is when education prioritizes worship (whatever that is) that education can begin to expand beyond the limits of worldview-dispensing into an actual education that recognizes and uses our bodies.

 

 

 

The Marriage Book Every Single Person Should Read

Today I’m posting quotes from a marriage book I read and giving opinions about them.

Try not to be shocked that we at Shasta’s Fog have been looking for the perfect book on marriage for a long time. As a Christian who happens to be single, I think it’s important for me to get my theology straight regarding marriage. (Conversely, it would be good for married people in the church to thoughtfully produce a theology on singleness.) However, I find that so much of the literature that’s on the Christian book market related to sexuality, gender roles, and marriage seems to have been written for (and by) people who’ve been married for at least 10 years. These books are full of prescriptive stereotypes (that writers claim to be Scriptural, yet are weak exegetically) and unhelpful advice (regarding gender roles) that is really only applicable in marriage.

So when I found a marriage book written by a New York City pastor whose congregation happens to be 80% single, I giggled with glee, expecting relevancy. (Finally!) Tim Keller, in his introduction, calls it first, “A Book for Married People,” second, “A Book for Unmarried People,” and third, “A Book about the Bible,” writing that the book’s primary goal is “to give both married and unmarried people a vision for what marriage is according to the Bible.” That is the book I was looking for.

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(I’ll comment here to say that at different times in my life I would have been more or less ready to read a book about marriage. In other words, I have several single friends who are refusing to read this book along with me, and I totally get why.) For the rest of you who are only a little bit curious, you might pick up a copy.

Benefits of Marriage

You can expect that a pastor whose congregation is 80% single has two tasks in this type of book: (1) talk about the goodness of marriage, and (2) be honest about the hard work it entails. For example, a striking benefit of marriage that singles must wrestle with is the accountability it offers: “Studies show that spouses hold one another to greater levels of personal responsibility and self-discipline that friends or family members can. Just to give one example, single people can spend money unwisely and self-indulgently without anyone to hold them accountable” (17). Finances aside, Keller and his wife Kathy spend much of the rest of the book describing how spiritual accountability is the great benefit, or one of the purposes, of marriage. Singles, then, must decide how to actively seek accountability if it is not “built in” to their homes.

The Cultural Climate of Marriage

In the first chapter, the Kellers describe how society’s view of marriage has changed historically, and they hit the nail on the cultural head, in regards to the current vision of marriage being a self-focused (or self-helpful) means of “finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization” in contrast to the historical notion of “finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family” (21). (Because how fun does that sound?)

The studies they cite for self-defined compatibility are laugh-out-loud accurate in their unrealistic idealism, for both genders. Sexual attractiveness aside, men reported that compatibility meant “someone who showed a ‘willingness to take them as they are and not change them’” (24). Women, too, seem to want the best of both worlds: “Both men and women want a marriage in which they can receive emotional and sexual satisfaction from someone who will simply let them ‘be themselves.’ They want a spouse who is fun, intellectually stimulating, sexually attractive, with many common interests, and who, on top of it all, is supportive of their personal goals and of the way they are living now” (26). A little idealistic, don’t you think? But single and married readers alike, recognize that irony. If not, the Kellers drive it home: “You are looking for someone who will not require or demand significant change. You are searching, therefore, for an ideal person—happy, healthy, interesting, content with life. Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse” (27).

The Kellers recognize that not all millennials are selfish hogs, though—there are some who recognize very much the *cost* of marriage and are terrified of intimacy. To these afraid of losing their freedom, C.S. Lewis is quoted: “If you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.” (Are you getting the picture? This book is thought-provoking!)

The Purpose of Marriage

True to his word that the book is a book about the Bible, Keller takes very great pains to be sure that readers know what marriage is: a bumbling metaphor for Christ, and us. The same outworking of the gospel message is what’s expected for the marriage relationship. The gospel gives us this knowledge: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope” (44). Keller then explains in detail how this type of self-knowledge is reflected in marriage, and he does so in very practical and helpful ways. (Okay, I did skip a chapter in there, but not the one where he waxes philosophical about reconciling romance with the drudgery of marriage by quoting Kierkegaard.)

Marriage is Friendship

Speaking of practical, one clear emphasis of the book is that a person’s marriage partner should be their best friend. A lot of people marry someone because they are attractive, or because they are financially stable. The Kellers emphasize that those two qualities are extremely unstable, but finding a partner with whom you can enjoy life is a wiser choice. There’s actually a whole chapter devoted to Biblical friendship! (So helpful. I mean, who’s good at making [and keeping] friends these days?) A clear message about Biblical friendship is that, in part, it should sanctify you. Good friends ought to sharpen each other, pointing out the flaws, if necessary. (Oops, sorry, I guess we do have to change.) So while some see the point of marriage as happiness, God sees the point of marriage (and friendship) as holiness. Again, our society reacts to this because “holiness” does not sound fun or sexy. So the Kellers leave us with a solemn reminder from C.S. Lewis for good measure: “He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. (1) To be God, (2) to be like God and to share his goodness in creaturely response, (3) to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe can grow—then we must starve eternally.” Either have superficial friendships and miss out on the real joy of life, or go deep and find the good earth.

Gender Roles

Probably the book’s greatest success is that the definition of gender roles is reduced to a single paragraph.

MIC DROP.

Notice: in this book, it is argued that the gospel is the starting point which helps us know how to be male and female. The book does not start with grandiose definitions of gender, spend pages and pages citing anecdotal evidence for these flimsy definitions, wallow in Timothy for a while, encourage women to sell Plexus, and then plop Jesus at the end. Instead, marriage is defined through the whole of Scripture, and the Trinity is used to explain a bit how gender roles might work. (In marriage alone, though).

Here are quotes for you to argue with your friends about:

“The family model in which the man went out to work and the woman stayed home with the children is really a rather recent development. For centuries, husband and wife (and often children) worked together on the farm or in the shop” (208).

“Christians cannot make a scriptural case for masculine and feminine stereotypes” (210).

“While the principle is clear—that the husband is to be the servant-leader and have ultimate responsibility and authority in the family—the Bible gives almost no details about how that is expressed in concrete behavior” (209).

(It’s almost as if Kathy Keller has heard of Midwestern evangelicalism and winks, “I see you.”)

Singleness and Marriage

I skipped ahead to the chapter on singleness. What’s noticeable is the Kellers’ recognition of Apostle Paul’s ambivalence regarding marital status. In other words, “both being married and not being married are good conditions to be in.” Literally nobody believes that. But here’s a message for the church, married and singles alike: “We should be neither overly elated by getting married nor overly disappointed by not being so—because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family and the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us” (222). We are reminded how it is possible to have this perspective through the gospel. Also, it is the gospel that creates communities of believers, the church, which become family for all Christians. (Again, I’m certain that many churches have a very long way to go, to develop this culture that is nevertheless Scriptural.)

Last summer I blogged about gender roles, and I wrote about a quote that I had never before seen in print. This summer I found another one, in the singleness chapter, borrowed from Paige Benton Brown’s article “Singled Out by God for Good.”

Here goes.

“I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me.”

I’ve been thinking about this for days.

At first when I read the quote I got excited because I think it silences a pity party that’s easy to have. Then, the silenced pity party made me extremely zealous for singles to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and become busybodies for the sake of the kingdom. In fact, I found myself scribbling this in a notebook:

“Can we stop idolizing marriage, and can we start privileging singleness? Singles, this is on us. Do we take ourselves seriously? When is the last time we asked how our singleness can help us better serve the Lord? I contend that few singles view their relationship status as an out-flowing of the goodness of God for the sake of effective kingdom work, even though Scripture would allow us to make that claim. I wish singles could know that they are loved, highly valuable individuals in the kingdom of God, pregnant with kinetic potential. I wish singles didn’t view their status as a prison sentence.”

But then I read Brown’s full article, and I paused when I realized she disagreed with my hasty leaps:

“Warped theology is at the heart of attempts to ‘explain’ singleness… ‘As a single you can commit yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work’–as though God requires emotional martyrs to do his work, of which marriage must be no part… Accepting singleness, whether temporary or permanent, does not hinge on speculation about answers God has not given to our list of whys, but rather on celebration of the life he has given. I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. The psalmists confirm that I should not want, I shall not want, because no good thing will God withhold from me.”

I invite your reflections in the comments. Meanwhile, I’m welcoming the exchange of self-important busyness for calm rest in the goodness of God.

Now, go read The Meaning of Marriage.

(Also, here is the link to Brown’s full article. If you are single, I caution you—her top-notch sarcasm may leave some of you bleeding. Otherwise, a delightfully refreshing read.)

 

Stop Saying “Everything Happens for a Reason”

Stop saying “everything happens for a reason.”

It’s bad theology.

Why?

First, because you surely do not mean everything. What you mean to say is, “bad things happen for a reason.”

For example, when I ace an interview and get the job that I hoped for, no one shrugs and sighs, “Well, everything happens for a reason.” On bubblegum days, when I get up early, sail through easy traffic, find a great parking space, and rock an especially good hair day, no one pats my back and smiles glumly, “Just so you know, everything happens for a reason.”

The truth is that “everything happens for a reason” is never used in the context of good fortune! Instead, we cry, “Congratulations! Felicitations!” “Well done!” “Right ho!” “Lucky you!” “Bless your heart!” or “Praise the Lord!”

So if instead of “everything happens for a reason” we rather mean “bad things happen for a reason,” is that clarification good enough? Is that statement true?

No, it’s not, if only for the reason that it’s non-specific. (For example, what kind of bad things? Do you mean all bad things?)

I’m aware that people of different religious traditions may hold this view, but it always surprises me when I hear Christians saying it. I would like to point out how this idea does not flow from the Scriptural sources that many believe it does.

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The poor Christian expositors among us will point us to a verse generally taken out of context, Romans 8:28, to support the popular saying: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Poorly-read Christian expositors will use this verse to mean that any sort of inconvenience is God-ordained, imbued with some sort of Magic, a promise that your stubbed toe really did mean something, that Martha snubbing you actually has cosmic significance, that your nasty paper cut has particular meaning. (For example, perhaps the paper cut caused you to pause in the hallway, and had you been further along in the hallway [not thinking about your paper cut] you would have been run over in an untimely accident by the copier repairman who was wheeling out a 10-year-old 500 pound copier. I think. Is how the story normally goes.)

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But is that what Romans 8:28 actually means? No, it doesn’t, and an elementary reading of that verse in context teaches us that “all things” surely does not mean “inconvenient body pain” or botched copier machine accidents, but rather the “things” referenced earlier in the chapter—that is, the multiple ways in which the Holy Spirit works to free us from the corruption of sin. “Sufferings” surely are mentioned, but they are specific sufferings, the sufferings that the whole creation experiences, that is, the “bondage of corruption.” Paul spends nearly thirty verses carefully teaching about the bondage of living “to the flesh” and about how the Holy Spirit is the one who helps us in our weakness (“weakness” being that which God calls sin). Readers of Romans chapter 8 learn that:

  • God sent Jesus to condemn sin in the flesh and to allow us to break free from fleshly living in order to live by the Spirit (“He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” 8:3-4)
  • We live in the Spirit by setting our minds on the things of the Spirit (“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” 8:5)
  • Doing so brings life and peace (“For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” 8:6)
  • If the Spirit is in us, God will give life to our mortal bodies (“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” 8:11)
  • It is by the Spirit of God that we put to death the misdeeds (or sins) of the body (that suffering that Romans 8 talks about) (“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” 8:13)
  • Those led by the Spirit are sons of God, adopted into His family, and we get to have such a close relationship that we can actually call God “Daddy” (the Greek actually says this!) (“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 8:14-15)
  • Our suffering of putting to death the misdeeds (or the sin) of the body is a suffering that we share with Christ. We are called co-sons of God with Christ. (How in the world we’re so near to the same level with Jesus is beyond me!) (“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” 8:16-17)
  • Our sufferings against the deathly deeds inside of us are NOTHING compared to the glory that God plans to put into us through His Spirit. (Good. I could do with a little more Christian character!) (“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” 8:18)
  • We are weak when it comes to living according to God’s Spirit, but the Spirit of God actually searches our hearts and prays (or intercedes) to God for us. (“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” 8:26-27)

It is this context when we get the verse “all things work together for good.” Readers who treat Scripture authentically must recognize that the context is that the Spirit plans to put God’s glory in us while He also rids us of sin.

To use Romans 8:28 to say that “bad things happen for a reason” is simply bad scholarship. Romans chapter 8 gives us rich teachings about suffering, but it is about a particular kind of suffering, the kind of suffering that happens when I feel the tension between my fleshly self and that which God wants (sin versus the Spirit).

But let’s get back to “bad things happen for a reason.” If we can’t use Romans 8:28 to support this idea Biblically, can we use any other Scripture to support this view? Perhaps some Christians will point to other passages from Paul. I suppose if you must use the writings of Paul for support, then you might have better luck using the book of James: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2-4). I would be interested in hearing what kind of “trials,” though, readers perceive these trials “of various kinds” to be. I imagine, still, for it to be something larger than Paper Cut of Apocalypsia, based on the fact that these trials test your faith. Inconveniences such as stubbed toes do not “test one’s faith,” as it were. (I suppose they could “tempt” me to participate in the sins of bitterness, though, or of using foul language, dadblamit.) However, it seems that the trials that Paul speaks of are earth-shattering enough to “test” your faith in God. And these trials are the sort of thing that either make you or break you, in a spiritual sense. Will you steadfastly trust God through this trial? Or will you break faith with Him? If you stand fast, then you will have formed spiritual muscle through perseverance.

But we don’t need to guess, because the later in the passage, the trials are defined for us! Trials are… temptation! And it is the temptation of our own fleshly desires to sin, so clearly stated in verse 14. Fleshly desires multiply like rabbits, the Bible says, and the bastard children of these fleshly desires are sins. Their grandchild? Death and hell.

I think the clearer, more specific cliché that we want to say when we say “everything happens for a reason” (and a more honest and truer restating of God’s Word, a Christian theology) would say, “Trials that test your faith in God are the trials of temptation, and overcoming temptation has a specific purpose, and that purpose is to, by the Spirit, put to death the sins of the body, resulting in God’s glorious character reigning in us.”

Or, the short version, “Trials which tempt you toward sin develop the character of God in you.”

Say that to your friend the next time he responds in anger at a smashed finger or complains in untrusting disbelief because he didn’t get the call back.

But maybe you won’t.

Because we don’t want clichés to be about us and our imperfections being sawed off by a really decent carpenter. We’d rather a distant cosmos to be kind-of-ish ruling in our favor. We rather like the lack of clarity of theology like “everything happens for a reason.”

It’s useful to support each other.

No matter that it’s weak, vague, and untrue.

 

Empowering Single Women as Leaders in the Home

My pet discussion topic this summer has been about women’s issues, and in June I enjoyed essentially a two-week conversation with my parents about how headship is or isn’t experienced by single women, if all women must submit to all men (or not) according to Scripture, the fact that Mary and Martha learned from Jesus himself (and not through their brother Lazarus) and what this means for women and their ability to understand and teach theology, whether men can learn from women or not, and the fact that *most men* aren’t called into the ministry either.

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Some of the driving factors of our discussion were this book and an excerpt from Tertullian (155-240 A.D.), an early church father, on the veiling of virgins.

My recent tour with Oasis Chorale also prompted several conversations about single living and the roles of single women in the church, and in one conversation, I mentioned how Tertullian himself recognizes the fact that some of the headship principles of I Corinthians 11 seem to be speaking to *married* women and men, and he admits that “covered” and “uncovered” virgins were regularly admitted to communion in second century churches. (Check your ESV Bibles; this is how it’s translated!) However, Tertullian indeed offers extensive logical arguments for the veiling of virgins, all of which can be read here. (Another note: Tertullian points out that the exception was Corinth, where virtually all virgins covered their heads.)

It is clear, however, that Tertullian imagines “covered” virgins in a temporary light, and that he expects that virgins eventually marry. He doesn’t really know what to do with, or what to call, a woman who does not foresee marriage, suggesting that a permanent unmarried virgin would have to be some strange third class, or “third generic class.” (It sure feels like that sometimes, buddy.) (Warning: reading Tertullian causes extreme dissociation because he cannot begin to comprehend the possibility of single living for females.)

Which brings me to my question: what is headship, exactly, and how does it apply to single women? (I’m really quite uninterested in reading your opinions; rather, I’m looking for academic, historical, and theological sources on the topic.)

In her book, No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God, Byrd offers that headship is connected to household management and then poses this interesting question: “If headship is connected to household management, are all men to have authority over all women? And what are the responsibilities of heads of households?”

Perhaps you disagree that headship is related household management, yet I would like to offer this opinion: the modern “experience” and the “practice” of headship for single females is something quite very different from a stated belief in it, especially when it feels like our culture expects young women to soon get “married off” and then we don’t have to worry about it, do we? (A little sarcasm for your afternoon reading.)

All of THIS to say, currently, I am my own household manager as I am living by myself for the first time, and I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about how I want to build a Christian home as a single person. (In some ways, I feel like marriage is closely connected to identity and household management, where young people say, “This is who I am, this is who we are, and this is the kind of life we’ll build together.” When is the time for single people to make such assertions?)

Living by myself for the last year, I noticed that I’ve developed some bad habits. I haven’t been very intentional about what I’ve allowed into my home. How do I spend my time? What kind of person do I want to become, and how does the management of my home affect the future me?

As a single woman with no roommates, I am the leader of my home, yet since “leadership” in certain pockets of Christianity is a particularly male trait, I’m coming up short on resources for how to effectively build a Christian home, apart from a traditional family structure. (I may ask here, are we doing ourselves a disservice in positing men (or fathers) only as “leaders” for the home? Does this do a disservice for single women living on their own, single mothers, single men, people living with or without roommates? Aren’t we ALL called to be leaders in the home? What does this look like to manage a household well?)

I suggest that all household managers are leaders, whether they are male or female, and ought to follow their head which is Christ.

Since I haven’t found a lot of sources about how I as a single woman can be a leader in the home (as I don’t have children or a husband), I’m creating my own source here. Here are some practical things to think about if you are a single woman wanting to build a Christian home, following your head which, for lack of a husband, is Christ.

Building a Godly Home

1. Build a Godly home as a single by seeking emotional health.

Many of the sources that I’ve read on the topic of household management and male leadership relate to nurturing love and relationship inside the home. Obviously, this is where the household of a single, childless person diverges from the traditional family structure, creating its own set of emotional issues that merit discussion. Peter Scazzero, in his Christianity Today article “The Road to Emotional Health,” offers four characteristics of emotionally unhealthy leaders which I think are important points of consideration for those wanting to maintain Godly single households. He contends that a lack of emotional health is apparent in the following ways: (1) low self-awareness, (2) prioritizing ministry over marriage or singleness, (3) doing more activity for God than their relationship with God can sustain, (4) lacking a work/Sabbath rhythm.

Regarding low self-awareness, Scazzero says, “Emotionally unhealthy leaders tend to be unaware of what is going on inside them. And even when they recognize a strong emotion such as anger, they fail to process or express it honestly and appropriately. They ignore emotion-related messages their body may send—fatigue, stress-induced illness, weight gain, ulcers, headaches, or depression. They avoid reflecting on their fears, sadness, or anger.” How singles may choose to process their emotions in healthy ways (both personally, and in the community of relationship) is a topic all its own, but I think a place to start is at least with self-inventory. I, for one, have been recognizing the negative pattern of bottling things up, choosing “not to go there,” quite simply because of the pain I would find there. However, I’m learning that I can’t be afraid of my emotions. My helplessness, at times, is the place where God meets me, and where He quietly asks for trust.

Regarding prioritizing ministry over singleness, Scazzero says, “Emotionally unhealthy leaders tend to compartmentalize their married or single life, separating it from both their leadership and their relationship with Jesus. For example, they might make significant leadership decisions without thinking through the long-term impact those decisions could have on the quality and integrity of their single or married life. They dedicate their best energy, thought, and creative efforts to leading others, and they fail to invest in a rich and full married or single life.

I visibly started when I read this. A “rich and full” single life? This is not language we are used to! (For example, one article I found about cultivating a healthy single home was signed, “Single and Surviving.” I’m not sure that that is the same language as is used in articles about marriage. Don’t we have some work to do here? Why is the stereotype of singlehood so negative? We need to change the language.) And, just how one “invests” in a rich, full single life is a topic that is open for discussion, as always, on this blog.

To sum up, singles ought to press in to emotional health by sorting through their emotions and by creatively pursuing an understanding of what a rich and full single life looks like.

2. Build a Godly home by leading spiritually.

Set a sure foundation. A wise (wo)man builds her/his house upon a rock. What strides are you making to set a spiritual tone in your home? Are you reading the Word of God and praying on a daily basis? Jesus sets a standard for Godly homes in the Gospels by quoting from the Deuteronomy 6 passage: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” My next few points are borrowed from the article “How Does a Husband Lead His Family?” from covenantkeepers.org, in which we are reminded, “When you sit at the dinner table, or drive in your car, or at bed time, share what God has taught you from your devotional time in the Scriptures that day. If God has planted His Words in your heart, share them with your wife and children.” Granted, you may not have a spouse and children, but the question can be asked, what are you doing/reading/watching during dinner time? Who/what are you listening to in your car? What takes up your time right before bed? How does Scripture intersect with those you invite or host in your home? Be sure that the Word of God has a prominent place in your home.

3. Build a Godly home by leading morally.

Covenantkeepers.org asks, “Are your moral decisions based upon your own selfish desires or are they based upon God’s truth? Is your life an example of moral compromise or of the godly standards that you declare to your wife and children? Do you speak the truth in love or do you shade the truth when it suits you?” For single people, it is quite easy to live with a lack of accountability. This leads to moral compromise. I challenge single women: do you have a stated morality on the following issues: church attendance, service to the local church, sex (including masturbation and pornography), finances, food, alcohol, social media (what accounts you follow/don’t follow and why), TV and movies, reading material, pride and vanity in personal appearance (Tertullian would roll over in his grave at our modern society’s “see and be seen” social media culture), gossip, loyalty, the study of theology (so that one can make wise and discerning choices in the first place), etc. Be a female leader by taking a stand for moral decisions.

3. Lead by managing.

Be responsible for the details of your home management. Be a responsible renter, home-owner, housekeeper. (I’m sorry, Mr. Landlord, that I didn’t empty the dumpster, but there was a foot of snow and #winter.)

4. Build a Godly home by leading in decision-making.

For some reason, this is one that single women dread the most. However, wisdom is not a trait reserved only for males, and the Proverbs 12:15 offers us this key: “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” (An important reminder for female AND male decision-makers!)

5. Build a Godly home by leading in reconciliation and conflict-resolving.

Chances are, you are connected to family life in some way. It is possible that you are living in a satellite home of sorts, still in some way connected to your first home. Make sure that the reception between your satellite home and your first home is clear and without the static of discord. As conflict naturally arises in relationship, be sure that you are following the Biblical command for all Christians, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). Resist the urge to use manipulation, control, and emotional vomiting with your first family. As a single person, you may also have close friendships with other singles, or other families. Keep Romans 12 in mind as you navigate those relationships.

6. Finally, build a Godly home by being a leader of example.

Can you say to your spiritual children, “I want you to follow my example as I follow Christ”? (If you’re not sure who your spiritual children are, you may want to reassess your stated morality of church attendance, service to the local church, and accountability.) In Bible times, there was a stereotype for single women (in the case of young widows) of becoming idle, and of becoming busybodies. What can be said of the godliness of your speech, your maturation in the fruit of the Spirit (patience, kindness, self-control), your purity, your pursuit of God, personal discipline, and your commitment to moral principles? All of these flow out of the way that you understand your leadership and management and its connection to your head, which is Christ.

Reflecting on these haphazard thoughts, I realize that there is a great need to study even deeper into the Biblical meaning of a “home” and to reflect more fully on the meaning of a home for single women. Had I more time, I would also sift through a lot more Scripture focusing on the more traditionally-thought-to-be-female aspects of household management of hospitality and relationship. Obviously, my list here is incomplete, but it’s a start. Blessings as you ponder.

The Idol of Marriage

Guys, staaaaaap.
Why is everyone so curious what I, the outspoken blogger, thinks about marriage?

“Stats are booming!”

You wackos.

(But thanks. I feel the love!)

In my last post, I gave my exact thoughts about the topic of dating and marriage. In that post I shared mostly what was on my heart. I have, however, decided to throw caution into the wind (due to reader disappointment) and share a few thoughts. (This post has been percolating.)

Here are a few thoughts I have on the subject of marriage, some of which I may or may not have shared in my Practical Christian Living class.

In my opinion, marriage is an idol. Marriage, its place, and its importance have grown far too large in our minds due to our misunderstanding of what marriage actually means. And further, idolizing marriage leads to ineffective Christian witness both inside and outside the church.

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  1. First, a lot of people are confused about what marriage means.

Marriage is a metaphor created by God to represent the future union of God Himself to His pure, beautiful church.

The first “thing” is God and His church, not the other way around. Human marriage is not the “thing.” God one day receiving His pure, beautiful church—THAT is the thing. Marriage is temporary. The church is eternal.

Jesus Himself said, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). (You know you won’t be married in heaven, right?)

Paul reminds us that marriage is not the ultimate goal by a strange inversion at the end of his comments on marriage in his letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to 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. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:25-32).

Just when we think Paul won’t end his moral rampage about husbands, he flips the argument on its side, indicating he’s actually been talking about God and the church the whole time.  (This is not to say that husbands ought to be rude to their wives. Paul’s instructions regarding Christian love still stand.)

Paul’s inversion reminds us that we do not look at marriage and say, “Oh, this is kind of like God and the church.” No, we look at God and His church and say, “This mystery, so amazing, is reflected to me by the human institution of marriage.”

Let us not have such an earthly perspective that we do not see marriage as temporary or that we do not see the church as eternal.

  1. Second, the idolatry of marriage is evident within the church.

It seems like we in the church place great importance on marriage, sometimes at the expense of Kingdom work!

Why is it that many Christian young people find themselves secretly praying, “Jesus, don’t come back until I get married”? (Which is really the subliminal “Jesus, don’t come back until I have sex.”) (And honestly, this is a very common prayer, according to youth!)

Strange isn’t it, that we prefer getting our jollies over the return of our great Lord?

What is it about this marriage relationship or this intimacy that is of utter importance that we cannot imagine getting to the end of our lives without it?

(And married people can’t imagine it. Grown men who are happily married get very uncomfortable by the idea of being celibate for the rest of their lives.) (Though I can’t imagine why. We single people have been doing it for years.)

So where do we get this idea that ultimate satisfaction comes from a romantic relationship (or a marriage relationship)? Is it coming from the church? If so, why?

Or, perhaps, have we bought into the secular message that sexual expression = worth?

Strangely, we in the church forget that our ultimate goal is contributing to God’s kingdom on earth and living in relationship with His people. Building God’s kingdom through the church is the Gospel message, after all.

When people don’t recognize that marriage is a metaphor for something greater, and that marriage itself is not eternal, it can become an idol after which many people seek. People desperately browse the marriage market, follow and like their next new crush, safely marry, and then obsess over all their unmarried friends, attempting to lead them into “Christian bliss,” or marriage, the obvious path to spiritual maturity.

There are people (married or not) who cannot imagine a person living on one’s own (especially a woman living on her own). They cannot imagine “not being known,” as it were, emotionally and physically. They cannot imagine laying down their idol of marriage and instead fully devoting themselves to Kingdom work.

(We know after all, that that’s the whole point of singleness. Paul says in I Corinthians 7:28, 32-35: “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this… I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Paul so clearly outlines the purpose of single living. (Did you hear that singles? We are just SO MUCH MORE SPIRITUAL than everyone. The Bible says so.)

And a side note, perhaps this is what I am saying to you, O gentle reader, who does not wish to be mimic Immoral Married Monica. Help us change the conversation about single people. Instead of the inevitable, “Are you dating?” “Why are you single?” “So have you found anyone yet?” I beg you to instead ask, “Tell me about your Kingdom work.” I know so many single people who have so much to say about how they are influencing the Kingdom of God… either immediate work, or dreams and goals. Can we not talk about these eternal things? Do we have to talk about your second cousin in Goshen who still single and what you would describe as “decent”?

There is a lot to be said about how the idol of marriage appears in church when it comes to preferring marriage to just about ANY other identity, but I’m running out of time, so let’s move on.

  1. This idolatry also creates problems for the church’s witness regarding relevant social issues.

Bellering about marriage convinces young people that they CAN get their jollies in the church, just find a right nice young fella and settle down. However, this does not take care of the problem of people idolizing marriage and refusing to find their identity in Christ alone and refusing to find meaning in Kingdom work. I do not need to explain to you how this could be problematic.

Christians, then, finding their worth in their marriage relationship, or in their partner, haven’t got much to say regarding the sexual revolution in which we find ourselves. You know we’re in a new sexual revolution, right?

How can Christians who find their identity in their partner have anything valuable to say to lonely divorcees? How can Christians who find their identity in being married have anything important to say to single adults, young or old? How can Christians who find their identity in something other than Christ alone have anything to say to homosexuals? How can Christians who find their identity in their partner, and not Christ, have anything to say at all about the fornicating teen who wants to get an abortion due to the consequences of her behavior? (We Christians love to condemn the sin of abortion without ever (or, okay, rarely) thinking about what sin, and what belief about identity, that sin proceeds from.)

It is my personal opinion that sexual the climate in which we find ourselves is in part due to the Church’s improper view of marriage. Perhaps marriage became too important. (In the 50s, maybe?) Then the Church failed to get something across in the 60s, and in the 70s, leading to even more sexual freedom, which led to boredom, which led to sexual experimentation, which led to still more boredom.

That boredom is today’s sexual climate. After all, virginity is on the rise.

Relevant magazine recently pointed this out in an article called “Why Aren’t Millennials Having Sex Anymore?” The article states, “Nearly 40 percent of college students claim they’ve never had sex. Only five years ago, as the Esquire editorial notes, a 25-year, ‘exhaustive’ study called ‘Sex Lives of College Students: A Quarter Century of Attitudes and Behaviors,’ found that college students who say they’re virgins made up only 13 percent. If both numbers hold up, that’s a startling, 27 percent jump in a really short time span. As counterintuitive as this may seem, it’s not totally new information. Earlier this year, data from Match.com—yes, Match.com publishes studies—indicated that one in three of all twentysomethings, not only those in college, are still virgins.”

And we ask, so why HAVE kids stopped having sex? What have they stopped believing, and how does it relate to the church? If sex is not the thing, then WHAT IS? Millennials are asking this question, and we better have an answer.

Back to the issue at hand: if we look to marriage or to sexual expression for our ultimate satisfaction, we will miss our ultimate meaning.

Allow me to quote from Christopher Yuan from his book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope. In this book, Yuan hints at those ultimate identity markers which those of us in Christianity are offered:

“God says, ‘Be holy, for I am holy… God never said, ‘Be heterosexual, for I am heterosexual’…

Holy sexuality means one of two scenarios. The first scenario is marriage. If a man is married, he must devote himself to complete faithfulness to his wife. And if a woman is married, she must devote herself to complete faithfulness to her husband. The idea that I might marry a woman seemed like an impossibility—though God could do the impossible. But the truth was, I did not need to be attracted to women in general to get married; I needed to be attracted to only one woman. Heterosexuality is a broad term that focuses on sexual feelings and behaviors toward the opposite gender. It includes lust, adultery, and sex before marriage—all sins according to the Bible. God calls married people to something much more specific—holy sexuality. Holy sexuality means focusing all our sexual feelings and behaviors exclusively toward one person, our spouse.

The second scenario of holy sexuality is singleness. Single people must devote themselves to complete faithfulness to the Lord through celibacy. This is clearly taught throughout Scripture, and abstinence is not something unfair or unreasonable for God to ask of his people. Singleness is not a curse. Singleness is not a burden. As heirs of the new covenant, we know that the emphasis is not on procreation but regeneration. But singleness need not be permanent. It merely means being content in our present situation while being open to marriage—and yet not consumed by the pursuit of marriage.

Holy sexuality doesn’t mean that I no longer have any sexual feelings or attractions… So the question is, if I continue to have these feelings I neither asked for nor chose, will I still be willing to follow Christ no matter what? Is my obedience to Christ dependent on whether he answered my prayers my way? God’s faithfulness is proved not by the elimination of hardships but by carrying us through them. Change is not the absence of struggles; change is the freedom to choose holiness in the midst of our struggles. I realized that the ultimate issue has to be that I yearn after God in total surrender and complete obedience.”

When we do not find our identity first before our Lord, and when we do not find our ultimate satisfaction in Kingdom work, then perhaps we have some sort of idol.

I believe this idol keeps us from regenerative work both inside the church (in our ministry to singles, homosexuals, single parents, the divorced, the elderly) and outside the church as we seek to bring meaning and true identity to all who ask.