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.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What Happened In Vegas

When Unexpected Evil Invaded Sin City

I got up for our elder prayer time early on a recent Monday morning, and as I picked up my phone to head out, saw the news of a shooting that had taken place just a few hours earlier with multiple victims in Las Vegas. As the deadly details came in, they brought that terrible feeling that is a combination of disbelief, anger, ache, grief, and bewilderment--probably more, too. I prayed right then for the situation and people, not knowing how much worse the news would get.

I've decided previously not to join in the frenzy of social media commenting right away after such events, even the hashtags urging prayers. Personally, I want to know what's happening and try to process that news before commenting. In the days following, some things became clearer, some became more confusing, and some became very personal.

The clearer details were shocking numbers and what was and was not knowable. One man who had no police record and was not known to be a threat smuggled massive amounts of weapons and ammunition into a 32nd-floor hotel room, where he managed to break the supposedly shatterproof glass and shoot victims who were below at a large country music festival. He apparently converted at least one weapon to fire automatically, leading to the eventual toll of 59 dead (so far) and over 500 injured. He had security cameras set up to monitor whether the police were closing in, and there is evidence he had scouted other locations before choosing this one. Within a day we knew it was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. While ISIS claimed him, there is no evidence yet that the shooter was one of them.

Many were wishing he were because what cannot be known is why he did this. His brother was dumbfounded. Details gathered could only reveal a high stakes poker player who lived in his retirement in the desert town of Mesquite, Nevada. He sent his girlfriend out of the country before he acted. He wasn't on anyone's radar as a threat. He didn't leave a manifesto. He wasn't under a doctor's care or diagnosed with a mental disorder. He was just another 64-year-old guy, until he wasn't. 

Confusion came as people, especially the media and politicians tried to discuss the shooter and the crime. It wasn't enough to say that what happened was "tragic," "horrific," and "unfathomable." None of these expressed what everyone felt. Our public figures and media representatives had to find a better word.It was amazing how they referred to the shooter's actions as "evil." That word is a moral judgment, and its use points to some standard of good and evil that is beyond any one of us--it is agreed by all rational people that this is morally wrong. 

Now I agree wholeheartedly, but I wonder if those who call it evil have ever thought about where right and wrong come from? Evolution certainly cannot account for such a way of thinking. If morality is external to us, its source must be none other than the transcendent law-giver--but this is not acceptable to most of the very people using the word. Contemporary society wants to be able to label evil even as it undermines the possibility of its existence. Confusing times indeed. As believers, I hope we, and other Christians, might not let the discussion move so quickly to debates about gun control and security without bringing people back to this foundational question of whether there is a solution for the problem of evil in our world.

The personal piece came home to me as one friend reported that his son was one of the thousands fleeing the bullets (safely, in his case), and another friend reported that his family had lost a loved one in the shooting. The stories of the dead and of the survivors who thought they would die should remind us that this isn't just about a number of victims. It is individuals whose lives were ended or altered in a moment. Each one is mourned by family and friends, who in turn affect their circle of relationships. Each loss is intensely personal to those who cared. And each one is a soul whose relationship to God is most paramount, and has now been forever settled.

The ad campaign says, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." That was always a lie trying to be cute about hiding ones "indiscretions" while visiting what was historically called "Sin City." This week, we've learned that sin can come and wreak havoc even where it is celebrated and winked at, and at least in this case, it definitely won't stay there.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Another Church Visitor Report

Vacation is a time for a pastor to do a good and hard thing...

I wrote this a few months as Kathy and I finished our summer vacation in Myrtle Beach. If you know us, this is our favorite annual get away ever since we moved east and lost "our" ocean. The one back here is nice, too. Events transpired that made me postpone sharing it then, so here it is now.

I'm a firm believer in vacations, and in making sure you really do get away. We've left our phones away from us, spent little time checking them or other technology, and much more time reading, walking, and talking together. It's the best kind of vacation--long enough to get away, but also to make you ready to return. We are ready to come home.

We've learned never to believe weather reports--had we done so we would have stayed home! Instead, we have had glorious days here with promised rain usually not appearing or coming at night. We've each read a number of books, played games, and are completing a 8-episode movie marathon (last of the 8 tonight--we did Lord of the Rings on our last trip). And the toughest decision has been whether to go to the beach in the morning and the pool in the afternoon, or vice versa.

The middle of our vacation was the Lord's Day, and we decided once again to go church visiting. Our last two church visits in Myrtle Beach have been interesting. We visited a church that had taken over an entertainment complex that didn't survive, and got to watch them honor their high school graduates and talk about a missions trip coming up. So while there was nothing at all negative about the experience, it didn't really draw us back.

You may remember my report our last church visit: where we were welcomed as we drove in, but from that moment to the end, no one spoke to us. We stood outside the venue for 10 minutes while they reduced the seating for the smaller, second service. This church's call to worship was having all of us stand, clap our hands and be encouraged to "Shake it Off!" Yes, the music team covered Taylor Swift's hit (and did a very credible job, too), which was a first for me in a worship service. The worship leader's v-neck t-shirt was appropriately tight to let us know that Cross Fit works, and he led us in other songs that were more familiar in a worship setting than the opener. The sermon was a video, but not just any video. In the summer they were doing a "Best of..." series--videos of congregational chosen favorite messages. This one was about vampires. "Bloodsuckers in the Church" actually. We left pretty sure we wouldn't be back on another trip.

This time, we passed on a multi-site ministry that covers most of the Carolinas with campuses, did enough digging on the web to find out what churches named Cornerstone, Journey, Discovery, Wellspring, Newspring, Arms Wide Open, and Crossroads believe. We found one that was covertly Baptist (not in the name) and a part of The Gospel Coalition, and we went.

Unlike our two previous visits, this was a smaller church of about 100 people, meeting in a shopping center. We were greeted at the door, but the only other person who spoke to us other than the greeting time was another first-time guest. During the greeting time, the couple behind us greeted us, but others around us never turned toward us. The service brought back many memories for us of early days in our previous church in both size and setting. The pastor was on vacation (no complaints because so was I) and their youth pastor spoke from Psalm 7 (can't escape Psalms in the summer!). Afterward, as we made our way out, the youth pastor greeted us at the door.

I enjoy visiting other churches. It is a good reminder of the diverse ways that local bodies of believers function and seek to serve and worship God. The commonalities that we share are encouraging, and the differences, whether size or style, are important to remember.

I also struggle visiting other churches. We are far from perfect, but I miss our fellowship when I'm away. And a common problem for pastors is that we are looking at everything through a "ministry professional" set of eyes. We rate (and often criticize) music, service elements, acoustics and sound, environment, and preaching. I have to prepare myself every time to NOT do these things, and rather to seek to join these brothers and sisters in worshiping the risen Lord. Thankfully, both Kathy and I remarked on the positive opportunity we had to worship with this fellowship.

There was one point, however (and you may have already guessed it), where I was both disappointed and warned. It was in the way that we were welcomed--it was pretty weak. Now, it's not that I am important, or deserving of attention, but corporate worship is meant to be a gathering of souls for the purpose of unified worship to God. It is especially hard for a guest or first-time visitor to enter into a "corporate" experience if those who make up the congregation do not make an effort to include them in the corporate expression. We went in and sat down in an empty row, surrounded by lots of empty rows (we were earlier than many). No one came to sit next to us, and only another first-time guest spoke with us (it turns out he is a church planting missionary who just relocated to a small town 50 miles away). In corporate worship, we follow the lead of those in charge of the service so that we can do things together, but there was no other sense of being together created by the congregation.

The warning to me was clear. We are in a season of LOTS of visitors, especially students (along with families). Will you do this pastor a great favor? Welcome them into corporate worship. Don't just nod or offer a quick hello. Speak with them. Get their names and find out more about them. It doesn't matter if they will be back next week or not--you are meeting someone you may spend eternity with. Volunteer a little information about yourself and our church. I would have loved to learn what this church's "story" was--what is their aim, are they a new church, what do they love about being a part of this fellowship. Don't just go walking by new people sitting by themselves. Stop, introduce yourselves, and maybe even sit with them if they aren't waiting for someone. If there are confusing instructions from the platform (sometimes we use words and abbreviations only long timers would know), lean over and let them know what is being talked about. Speak with them again after the service. Let them know they would be welcomed any time they can be with us. I can tell you from personal experience, there have been three churches I have visited in the last five years (and that includes our 2012 sabbatical) where I felt welcomed like that--and I still remember them. Let's make sure we are in that "memorable" camp--so that people will see the love of Christ extended to them as fellow believers or as those who may need to know that love.