Monday, January 8, 2018

Change is in the Air!

It's all around us: some good, some not, always bringing the "new"

When you get ready to file your taxes this year, you may discover that the recently passed tax bill will make some changes--many predict they will be good. We'll see.

Your favorite baseball teams have been making off season deals, and the lineup you loved (or hated) will be changed from last year. Will this be an improvement? We'll see.

This will be the first year for some of us without a special loved one around, or with a new baby, or living in a new place, or leaving an old job, or beginning a new one, or starting a new relationship, or... well, dealing with a major life change. Maybe it was one that you sought. Perhaps it has taken you by surprise. In either case it might be welcome, or it might seem tragic.

I know some people who are always looking for new challenges, different experiences, and unfamiliar territory to conquer. There is a fair amount of that in me, although I'd like to pick and choose the areas of life where the challenges occur. Others want things predicable and familiar. Routine is wonderful and safe. I have some of this desire as well. I'm guessing there is a "change spectrum" and all of us fall somewhere along it, trending on direction or the other.

But in this world we must always remember two truths:

1. Things change. It may be slow or fast, and it may be small or large, but change will come. It will come to our bodies with every passing day and year. Since your body's cells are constantly replacing themselves (except in the brain), you probably aren't the person you were a year ago!

Families change, both in make-up and in dynamics. As our kids grow, we leave behind some aspects of family life and gain others. It's not good or bad, it's just different. Of course as children become adults the changes in family life grow ever greater with greater independence.

Circumstances change, and what was perfectly normal and acceptable can become awkward and out of place. Or they can go from uncomfortable to desirable by the addition or subtraction of one or more details. We all know or have heard stories of people who had wonderful jobs with a business, and then the company was purchased, new management came in, and a family spirit was replaced with cost cutting and layoffs. Or think of the person who has suffered in great pain, until a new doctor runs a test and discovers its source and brings a treatment that gives pain free living.

Directions change--not on the compass, but in our lives. I cannot tell you how many people I know who have found themselves thinking they would pursue one path, who have found themselves on another entirely, be it education, career, or relationship.

Churches change, which shouldn't surprise us at all given the fact that they are made up of people who change, and are constantly adding (and sometimes losing) members who have unique gifts and talents. As time passes, methods and programs that were effective at one time are found to be less so because the people they are intended to reach or serve have changed. Churches that built their ministries with buses for kids, Sunday school contests, or door to door visitation have either changed their approaches and methods or died.

Many changes are a mix of good and bad from our human vantage points. When we moved across the country to come to Ohio, we said goodbye to so many people and a church we loved. Our first years here weren't always easy, even with so many who loved and cared for us here from the very start. Change was hard, but has yielded incredible good.

Undoing change is nearly impossible. When I was a fourth grader we moved from our town in Michigan to Cincinnati where my Dad got a master's degree at Xavier. We moved back to our old town after that year, but little was the same. We moved to a different house and even though my parents would set up times for me to see my old friends, the year had led to lots of changes for them, and for me; and let's face it, when you are in fifth grade in a different school the five mile difference from your old life might as well be forever.

Change is necessary. Nothing new comes to be without it. Nothing old comes to an end without creating it. But the new that comes is often shaped by the old that was, even though it's not the same. When dear ones in our church who were a vital part of our lives have moved away, God does not "replace" them. I could name all sorts of people in my church life that caused me to mourn when they told me they were moving to a new town. You can probably think of some, too. No one replaces them in your heart or has exactly the same impact on you. Instead, God brings new people who fill voids we didn't know we had, and help us become what God wants us to be today and prepares us for tomorrow.

Our own church is celebrating God's faithfulness in so many ways--remarkable provisions and providences have left us amazed. As we have thought about all the blessings God has given, our staff has recognized that God must be getting us ready for something, even though we are not sure what that "something" will be. That is why we are calling the church now to a concerted time of prayer (and fasting) as the year begins (You can go to our church website to learn more about this, starting next week). But one thing we can be sure of is that this will mean changes will come. I don't know what they will be, and I'm sure some of them will make me (maybe all of us) uncomfortable at times.

This should not frighten us, but excite us that God may well have some amazing new opportunities to serve him here and throughout the world in store. Why should we not be afraid? That's the second truth we must remember.

2. Our God does not change. His word is settled forever. From forever to forever he is God. Because he does not change his people are not destroyed. His promises are unchanging even as his mercies are new every morning. His righteousness is forever. He is the faithful and true One.

He doesn't change, but he seems to love it--in fact, he will not let evil continue unchecked, injustice go unpunished, or abandon his people forever, even when it seems times are tough. Our God is the One who won't let sin, decay, and death win, but instead says, "Look, I am making all things new!"

That "newness" begins when we see ourselves--our "old" self--as sinful, lost, broken, and in need of forgiveness and grace. We see that God is true and right and good and just and merciful, and we cry out for him. We see Jesus, his Son, on the cross, dying for our sin, taking our place under God's wrath, and we ask him to save us. We ask God to replace the lies we've believed with truth, to turn us around and head us toward him, to change us. And he does. We call it being made a "new creation"--and God sends his Spirit into us to bring about that great change from old paths to newness of life. That change is the most important one of all, and how I pray you have experienced it!

In the meantime, before all is finally made new,  he does not leave his people without purpose in the present or hope for the future. He calls us to trust him to use the realities of the present to prepare us for a glorious future. He sometimes acts slowly from our perspective, when we would want change faster. And sometimes he brings changes we don't feel ready for. But because he has already declared the ending of the story before it began, and because of his fierce love for his people, we can breathe in the air of change with confidence now, and the promise of an eternally better future. We can love and celebrate what we have had in the past--and even mourn the loss of what we loved about those days. But we can always look forward to "better"--whether it is in the new tasks and challenges and opportunities God will provide (along with the hardships they will bring), or ultimately when we enter into the "new things" God creates at the culmination of history. And then, brothers and sisters, don't think change comes to an end.  Oh no! We will be living in the presence of the infinite God who will forever be unfolding new things to us-- a million years from now, I believe God will be showing us yet another new thing that will cause us to marvel and praise and go, "Wow, I never would have guessed that!"

Change is in the air. Breathe.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Common Graces

Our desire to see God work may obscure when he does so

So many times in our lives we find ourselves in need, or hurting, or questioning, and we want to see God help us:
"Show me the way, Lord."
"Help me to feel better about this."
"Please take the pain away."
"I need your comfort today."
"I won't make it without your grace, Lord."
Such requests are normal, and should be asked--after all, God tells us to cast our anxieties upon him, to ask for what we need, and to pray without ceasing.

However, I think we sometimes miss it when he answers these prayers. And a book our pastoral team is reading reminded me why this is so.

I like to have our staff read through books that will help us think about matters related to serving the church, and recently we've been reading one about how people grow. Written by a counselor, it is saying all the right things, but in language that is different than pastors normally use, and that makes it catch our attention. The last chapter we discussed talked about how God's plans for our growth involve people--the body of Christ. The author makes the point that such prayers as those above are often prayed with the hope that God will somehow supernaturally show up and miraculously tell us what to do, dispense a miracle cure, or give us a divine hug and an "attaboy (or girl), you can do it!" But that is not how God works.

Instead, God puts his people in our lives, who bring the grace that we need. The author illustrates with the story of a man who lacked self discipline and kept creating a serious problem for himself. His solution? Pray, and ask God to heal him of his problem. The man told his Christian friend about his problem, and the friend guided him toward good counsel, accountability, and a network of people who continued to encourage, check up on, and otherwise move the sufferer in the right direction. After a period of time, the man with the problem realized that it was gone. He was happy, but just a bit disappointed that God hadn't healed him. But God had healed him--through the lives and gracious ministry of the body of Christ.

That is how God usually does his work--not by divine, direct intervention, but through members of the Body exercising their graces and gifts on behalf of others. You are hurting and your prayer is for comfort. How is God most likely to bring it? Not by you going off by yourself and waiting for a heavenly hug. Rather, it will most likely come by you engaging with your spiritual community, sharing your hurt, and letting them love on you. That is not a substitute for God's comfort, it is its supply through his people. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1 that God comforts us in all our affliction, and that we can then comfort others. Notice that we comfort others, which means God's comfort comes through people. And while God certainly can and does give special experiences of assurance of his presence and comfort, even Paul mentions at various times that he was comforted by the coming of certain people when he needed them, or receiving certain news when he was distressed for people--in short, God's comfort isn't just a supernatural "zapping," but is usually through God's people doing what we should do as we see those around us in hard circumstances.

So the next time you pray a prayer that comes from a deep sense of need, may I encourage you to do so from a place where you are in close proximity to the rest of the Body of Christ and being honest about your situation? Because in those circumstances you are in a position for God to answer that prayer in the way he normally does--through his people.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Humbled in Serving

He stood out among my students, and not just because he was taller than them all. Punam, the principal, surprised me when he told me that this student (we'll call him R.--in the picture below he is on my left) had only been a believer for two months when he decided to come to DBI. Now he was deep into the one year program, and he stood out as one of the most diligent note-takers and Scripture finders in the class. When I would call out a reference for us to have read aloud, R. would usually be the one who found it and read it. There was a light in his eyes and a joy in his face that matched the intensity with which he approached his studies. But then, this whole experience was a reminder of a level of commitment and intensity that I don't find much in the more sedate Western church.

R. and his fellow students arose at 6:00 every morning during the week, and would be expected to use the next hour for their devotional time. Then they would do an hour's work around the center, cleaning and organizing and preparing their breakfast (the students were their own cooks, preparing the communal meals every day). Breakfast at 8:00 was followed by getting ready for their morning class. The lunch break was almost 2 hours, because the students had to prepare the meal for lunch, and cooking in India is never a quick matter. After lunch there were afternoon classes, then a break, then cooking for dinner, then study time, and then to bed in the dorms. The boys all slept in one dorm room, along with the two single men who are teachers along with Punam and Dil. These two used to live in the room that is now the girls dorm room on the first floor, but have moved to a room in the new center building, where they also will welcome their first child, Lord willing, by early December. They appreciate the larger space, but Punam says they miss being closer to the students so that they can encourage them more personally. Before the move, all the students and staff lived, studied, and worked in the 700 square foot building of the existing center. 


The students' attentiveness to my lectures was a bit daunting to me--you are treated as if you really are the expert, and they try to write everything down. Some of my sermon notes had been translated into Hindi, and I soon learned that the language they were writing is a complex one--ideas that we take a short sentence to explain may require many more words modifying other words to get the same point across. In some ways, their lack of education was a deficit, and I was often trying to think of ways to make my ideas and points more simple and accessible. But their desire to learn and to share the gospel balanced the lack of formal training, and if they can take the ideas I shared and "translate" them into their culture, they will be so much better at reaching the multiplied thousands of villages in Rajasthan than any educated westerner, even if we learned the language. 

Over and over I saw diligence and sacrifice that I only see in such places. I cannot imagine me, or many of us being willing to accept the deprivations and loss of personal rights and space that was the norm in Jaipur. The obvious working of the Spirit in conversion (all of my students were, to my knowledge, first generation Christians out of Hindu backgrounds) is a strong contrast to the American scene, where we would be hard pressed to find a ministry filled with new converts, let alone staffed by them.

And all of this takes place in an environment of risk. The Jaipur Center is in the neighborhood of the city that is home to the RSS. This is the highly militant Hindu organization whose goal is to make India a Hindu nation only. While they also fight against Muslims, Christians have been much more popular and easier targets, since they don't fight back. The first DBI graduate to ever seek to minister in Rajasthan was martyred years ago. These students face family opposition and the possibility of physical harm, but they seek to learn the Word.

So, I return to you, blessed to have served, but also blessed and humbled by the people I was supposed to teach. They are heroes of the faith in training, and I'm honored to play a part (along with you in sending me), in raising them up. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Don't Call Me "Rabbi!"

Jesus said not to use honorific titles--does that apply to "pastor?"

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.
Matthew 23:8-10
A few days ago I was asked, but not for the first time, about this passage, and its prohibition on the use of titles like "rabbi" or "teacher" or "father" among the followers of Jesus. Since he spoke this prohibition himself, it certainly ought to be obeyed. So, when we call someone (for example, me) "Pastor," are we disobeying the Lord? And should Christian institutions give up such titles as "Doctor" or "Professor" as being unbiblical?

I'm not going to speak to the educational situation and titles, although the same principles below may apply to them in intentionally Christ-centered organizations. But I've wrestled with this question for myself ever since going into vocational ministry. The passage, for example, tells us we are all brothers (stressing equal standing), but often when we use such titles we create hierarchy among believers. And it's not just basic titles like "pastor," either. We sometimes create other titles that can be used similarly. I know that our previous church association had a "national representative" that wasn't called "President" or "Superintendent" because that seemed too authoritative, and yet even the more cumbersome title was used by many in tones of deference to authority. It's just how people are--we seem to gravitate toward "pecking orders" and titles help establish that process. If you are "assistant" anything, you are under someone else, so we know you have some power, but not the most.

When I was first ordained, I was working as an assistant pastor, was responsible for youth, and was in my early 20's in a church with half its people more than twice my age. They called me "Craig" before and after ordination, and I was happy with that. My work was respected, and I didn't have any trouble being "followed" when teaching or leading.

In my only other senior pastorate, which was a church replant, I kept that practice going, preferring to be known by my name and not a title. This passage had some influence on my thinking, but so did the idea that "pastor" is one of the gifts given to the church according to Ephesians 4:11. Since we don't tend to call most people by their occupation or their spiritual gift ("Plumber Paul" or "Helpful Henry"), I was happy to be just plain Craig.

Later, some parents said they didn't want their children calling me by my first name but to show some respect to me as an adult with a title. I suggested that "Pastor Craig" might be a good option, as long as "Pastor" was seen more as an honorific like "Uncle"--and that thought came from my visits to mission fields, where all the kids of missionaries called all the missionary adults and visiting pastors and wives "uncle" or "aunt."

I suggested the same ideas when I came here, but because this is a long established church, what people call me is all over the map. For some, I am "Craig," for others "Pastor Craig," and others use "Pastor Miller." Some address me simply as "Pastor." Some of you may have other names for me, but I don't need to hear them! :)

But is the use of such titles as "Pastor" or "Reverend" wrong? At first look, this passage would seem to say, "yes." Jesus wanted his followers to see themselves on equal footing, all learning and following one true authoritative teacher--himself as the Messiah.

But if we think about the context and history, we may be a little less certain. In the days of Jesus, religious Jews were sharply divided into various camps. We know about Sadducees (mainly priestly families who denied much of what we would consider basic spiritual truths in favor of an ethical, non-supernatural emphasis on the Temple observances) and the Pharisees (teachers of the Law who were zealous for obedience to the Law and strong believers in the supernatural). But Pharisees divided into lots of different, competing groups, following particular rabbis and traditions. These groups often viewed other such groups as being in error. Thus people allied themselves with their own rabbis and these groups were often at odds over who was right. And their "rabbis" were all too happy to have such followers, who would treat them with great honor and deference. They would call them "father," too, and often such men conducted themselves with a great sense of their own importance. When they were crossed, they had very little hesitation about putting the one who disagreed in his place. Your rabbi was not just a teacher you liked--he was an authority you deferred to and obeyed, and who often required his followers to show appropriate respect and obedience.

Jesus is rebuking the idea that any man (or woman) should be viewed as  the authoritative teacher on the truth of God on earth, and by extension that any person should take such authority to himself, with one clear exception. It was Jesus alone to whom believers were to look as their authoritative teacher/explainer of truth, and Jesus who was to receive that kind of honor and obedience.

Interestingly, Jesus told his disciples that in his kingom they would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, so he wasn't saying there would be no authority exercised on his behalf among his followers. The apostles clearly understood that Jesus, by his authority was commanding them to go, teach, and baptize people--having already told them that they could "bind" or "loose" things on earth with heavenly power. So it isn't just authority that is in view here.

Rather, it is the exercise of control by a spiritual leader as if he is the ultimate word on all matters of faith. It is self-promotion and self-aggradizement that is in view here--wanting not just the title, but power and respect from others.

So, I believe that using a title like "pastor" need not be considered wrong, as long as the person using it or being called by it is simply acknowledging God's call to fill this role for the benefit of the church. I've had some people say they see the title as showing respect for the calling or "office" of pastor. What must be avoided is the idea that there is, inherent in the person referred to by the title, an authority and power that should only belong to Christ. And pastors need to recognize that their only authority and power comes as they speak what the Word says and apply it as Christ directs. If the "Pastor" is the big shot and everyone else is expected to follow without question, then we are back in the very circumstance that Jesus was rebuking.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The God Who Sings

Of all our conceptions of God, we may miss this one

God reveals himself to us in manifold ways. The creation reveals his power and his order--including the moral order (remember Romans 1). All people, even unbelievers, see this, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

Jesus came as the express, physical representation of God, being himself fully God, now in human form. This is affirmed in many places in Scripture, including John 1.

The Scriptures are replete with imagery of God that speaks to us of who he is and what he does. He is enthroned above the heavens (Psalm 123:1). He is a righteous judge, who isn't always happy with what he sees (Psalm 7:11). He is "our Father" who gives grace and peace (Matthew 6:9, Ephesians 1:2). He is "great, mighty, and awesome" (Nehemiah 9:32). Time doesn't permit me to survey all the different ways the Bible encourages us to see and understand God--maybe you could take some time later and just begin to recount them all.

But there is one image, one concept, that I came across today (not for the first time), and it blessed me, and I want to share it with you. It is from Zephaniah 3:17--a passage (and a book) you probably haven't been working in recently. Here is what it says: 
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. 

In a prophetic vision of God's judgment and then restoration of Israel as his people in the "Day of the Lord," we find this imagery in the midst of God's comfort and assurances to people. God says to those he has redeemed and rescued in that final day, that in his joy over them, he will break into loud singing.

That is a picture I don't often conjure up when I think of God. I think of God as serious--even in his happiness. I don't know why, but most of my thoughts of God don't consider him so moved with joy, especially over people, that he starts singing--loudly. That sounds too--enthusiastic! But there it is. He says is "in your midst," "mighty," "will save," "rejoices" gladly over his people, quiets them with his love, and exults with "loud singing."

God takes joy in his redemptive work, accomplished through his Son. We are a part of that redeemed people. And that means, by extension, his joy in us and our promised future is the same. The eternal God, not bound by time and not just seeing us now but seeing us as we will be through the work of Christ forever, sings over us. He sings over me, and if you are his child--he sings over you, too.

Take a moment and just revel in that thought. The great God of the universe looks at us, and joyfully belts out a tune of celebration. My old joke that life isn't a musical isn't really true after all. I wonder what the lyrics will be? We can only picture it now, but one day, we'll hear it and experience it. The Father's joy will be full as he brings all the redeemed into his presence. What a picture to hold on to when you wonder what God thinks about you as his child. Let it encourage you today.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Which Bible?

Choosing one may raise some questions--let me help!

Recently one of our members asked me to comment on various versions of the Bible and what I recommend and why. This multi-part question was so good, I decided to write here about it, because there are some great options out there for you to consider, as well as a few matters to be aware of as you make a choice.

First, I know you have probably figured out that I use the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible in my preaching and teaching. But that doesn't mean it is the only "good" Bible translation out there. You also know that I grew up on and still remember much of the King James Version. While I honor its powerful role in English speaking Christianity (and frankly in the English language), I do not recommend it to those who haven't used it regularly, and would humbly suggest that advances in our understanding of the original texts have allowed other versions to be even more beneficial. And while I consider it a good version, the New King James Version (not so new anymore) did not take advantage of some of the advances in our knowledge but sought to remain close to the KJV.

As you consider a Bible, you should know that you will be well served by any of the following versions, but I will weigh in on the pros and cons of each. As I do, I will comment on how literal the version is, and how readable it is as well. Often "the more readable, the less literal" can apply, because trying to be literal in translation often means having to put things in English in a way we would not say them in most conversation. Translators struggle with the question of trying to accurately convey the meaning of words, phrases, ideas, and "figures of speech" from the original language to ours, and that is a daunting task--especially if you are trying to make sure to communicate accurately what God wants his people to know.

So, with great respect for those who have done the work, here are my recommendations. I am only commenting on versions that are currently readily available and fairly widely used, with one possible exception.

Very "literal" Bibles:
  • The New American Standard Version. This has been recognized generally as the most literal English translation. Because of that, it takes more effort to sit and read than other Bibles, but it is very reliable in its rendering of the original language into English in a word for word style translation. By having "American" in its name, this version guaranteed a limited interest among international English speakers, and it has lagged behind the ESV, NKJV, and NIV in popularity. This was the first translation I used other than the KJV, and for many years it was the "go to" translation in conservative churches if you were leaving the KJV behind. I preached from it for years. It is excellent for study, but not the best to give to a young or new Bible student who is not a strong reader.
  • The English Standard Version--Nearly as literal as the NASB, the ESV made readability a goal as well, but also tried to keep some of the poetic feel of the King James and the Revised Standard Version--an older version that was used as its basis. It has become the most popular among the more literal translations--it is John Piper's and Wayne Grudem's favorite! It would be in the top two of my recommendations in almost every case.
  • The Christian Standard Version--this is a new release, replacing the Holman Christian Standard Bible, released by the publishing ministry of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a very good, literal translation. I've taken some time to read it, and I find it very good in the sections I've covered. However, it is hard to see what the need for it was, and whether it will gain popularity and staying power (it does have a major publisher and denomination behind it, so that helps). In my opinion, the one great step that the HCSB had made was to use the name of God in the Old Testament where the original text used it. They rendered it "Yahweh." However, the CSV has removed it, going with "LORD" in caps as other English versions do, which makes it even less "unique" as a version. But it is still a good option.
  • The NET Bible--This is the exception I mentioned above, a version that most of you have never heard of. I include it because of its unique helpfulness in giving the English reader access to understanding matters behind the translation. It has LOTS of notes explaining the original language and why a particular translation was chosen--they are the most extensive language notes of any English Bible of which I am aware. If you would like this tool for free, you can download "Lumina" from the app store on your phone and you will get the translation and all of the notes! There are print versions, too. Chris Miller uses this version and highly endorses it--that's another reason I include it. The downside: if it is your regular version, then you will never be reading what everyone else is reading.

Very "readable" Bibles:
  • The New International Version--This is the most popular modern translation of the Bible into English--I think the KJV still is #1worldwide. The NIV is less literal, but still very accurate as it seeks to give more of the ideas than just the words. Sometimes this is called a "dynamic equivalence" method of translation, but what is meant is that instead of translating word for word, the translators tried to give the meaning of each phrase, and if you had to be less "literal" with a word, that was acceptable to be able to get the basic meaning of the phrase or verse across. The most "controversial" point for this translation in its most recent revision is that they have adopted the contemporary usage of plural pronouns to avoid saying "he" or "him" when that is what the original language says in reference to an individual person. They sometimes turn a verse from a singular like "Blessed is the man..." to "Blessed are those..." so as not to imply gender. Frankly, I don't like that approach, but it's not enough for me to keep from making this the other Bible in my "top two." Tim Keller and D.A. Carson both use and recommend this version.
  • The New Living Translation--This translation is even more of a "translate the idea" rather than "translate each word" version, and does the same thing as the NIV with changing singular to plural references to avoid gender. I find that it gives me quite a different perspective when I read it, which often makes me go back to the original languages to discover how they got to the translation they did. I have great respect for those who worked on it, and find it helpful. But it is not the best version to use if you want to carefully study the meaning of the text. 
Some of you might be saying, "but what about 'The Message?'" This is Eugene Peterson's personal translation/paraphrase into English, and it is a very enjoyable read. Peterson often picks up on aspects of the meaning of words and phrases that are helpful, and as a writer his turn of a phrase can be powerful. But there is imprecision and sometimes doctrinal bias that keep this from being worthy of consideration as a main Bible, in my view.

The two versions I've recommended--the ESV and the NIV--both have excellent study Bibles available. The ESV actually has two I appreciate, The ESV Study Bible, and the Gospel Transformation Bible. The NIV has the excellent Zondervan NIV Study Bible. The first and last have very extensive notes on almost everything. The GTB's focus is what its name implies--seeing the Gospel throughout the Scriptures. 
I hope this is helpful if you are considering a new Bible for yourself or someone else. And one more personal preference I have is looking for a good quality Bible--one with a binding that will last. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Does God Hate Divorce?

The answer to that question is more complex than we think

This question came up in a recent situation, and as I tried to answer it, I thought that it might be good for me to write on the matter as an opportunity to remind and instruct all of us. So here goes.

From early childhood in church, I remember that when the subject of divorce came up, it wasn't too long before someone would quote Malachi 2:16 as a proof of how bad it was: "For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the Lord of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously (King James Version)." The phrase "putting away" was the term used for divorce. We hated divorce, too, and in our church if you were divorced, you weren't free to do all the ministries others could do. Even if you never remarried, if you were divorced, you had been a party to something God hated and that spilled over into a permanent status of being less useful to God and the church.

When the New American Standard Bible came out, it seemed to make it clearer: "For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” By this time, there had been a divorce in my extended family, and I wondered if God hated my family member, and if this sin was worse than others.

But then came the New International Version. It reads a bit differently: “ 'The man who hates and divorces his wife,' says the Lord, the God of Israel, 'does violence to the one he should protect,' says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful."

And later still, the English Standard Version also follows this path: "For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Before I discovered this new direction in translation, my study of the Scriptures related to this subject had led me to conclude that divorce is never God's desire for a marriage. However, Matthew 5, 19, and 1 Corinthians 7 reveal that unrepentant sins against a spouse could rise to the equivalent of covenant-breaking that leads to divorce (the two we see in these Scriptures are immorality and abandonment--I believe there are others related to these, but to hear about that, go online and listen to the sermon from the No Easy Answers series). God allows divorce in such circumstances that manifest the fallen condition of humanity (Jesus referred to it as hardness of heart). But because of my earlier training, I still felt that God somehow hated this sin more because of Malachi 2:16.

It was during my preparation for the "No Easy Answers" series I preached five years ago that I began to dig into the reasons for the translation differences in Malachi. I can't take time to explain all the nuances here, but in the text of Malachi, the Lord is rebuking the unfaithfulness of the men of Israel in a number of ways, and one of them is unfaithfulness to the wives of their youth taken in the covenant of marriage. The Hebrew is better understood saying that the hatred is not God's, but that of an evil husband toward his wife that he chooses to divorce--an act characterized here as selfish wickedness (the Hebrew verb "to hate" is in the 3rd person--"he hates," not the first person "I hate"--so the "hater" must be someone other than the Lord, who is speaking). Even before divorce had become rampant in the culture of Israel at the time of Jesus, God rebuked callous hearts that would cast aside wives so that they could pursue others. He obviously did not "hate" the wives who were abandoned. The KJV hints at what the NIV and ESV makes clear--he hates the unfaithful hearts that would do such a thing to a spouse. To "hate and divorce" is to "cover one's garment with wrong" or "do violence to the one he should protect." Not only does God rebuke this--we should all hate such hard hearted cruelty.

So, in a very real sense, God "hates" the occurrence and consequences of such divorces." But this isn't the same thing that some people mean when they quote this verse. What I hear in some people's citation of this verse is that divorce is especially evil, and by extension anyone who divorces (or is divorced) has to deal with God's special indignation. But as we have suggested, this could not have been directed to the abandoned spouse. Nor, I would argue, is it directed toward those men and women who, despite their efforts, their forgiveness, and their patience, find themselves abandoned or abused by a spouse who flouts their marital covenant, and so finally decide to legally end through divorce or dissolution what their partner has already broken. The unfaithful partner is the one whose actions broke the covenant promises made before God.

So, let's be clear. Because God hates sin, this includes marital unfaithfulness of all sorts. And we could even say that it is especially under his judgment because the promises were made before him as the invited witness. But a spouse that has been so wrongfully treated may decide to end legally that marriage bond. And if they do, they will be acting in a way that God also seems to have chosen when he announced his "divorce" of the faithless northern tribes of Israel (Jeremiah 3:8).

Let's uphold the sanctity of the marriage covenant--it is to be a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, and it requires grace and forgiveness every day. I've not only committed myself to helping each marriage at Grace stay together and get stronger, I've rejoiced to see God help couples overcome difficulties, and plead with you: if there are challenges in your marriage we can help with, come to us and let us walk with you toward God's healing and help. But let us not assume that any time a marriage ends in divorce, that God hates those who experience it. Instead, let's agree with God about the tragic situation of a spouse who is mistreated and abandoned through the callous unfaithfulness of their partner. And let's grieve such brokenness and loss.

Let us also remember what the Lord clearly says he hates:
  • Making idols--objects of ultimate devotion that displace Him--Deuteronomy 16:22
  • The wicked and the lovers of violence--Psalm 11:5
  • ...haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers--Proverbs 6:16-19
  • Robbery and wrong--Isaiah 61:8
Let's praise and thank God that sinners who do the very things he hates can cry out to him for forgiveness through the merits of Christ, and be saved, be cleansed, and be made whole--this obviously includes us if we look at the Proverbs reference and reflect on our own pride, deceitfulness, hatred of others, and so on.

And finally, let's remember that, as with so many other tragic events in this fallen world, God uses divorce, as he uses other violations of his perfect plans, to accomplish greater purposes in us and ultimately to bring about his glory and our good.