Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Demand and the Promise of Marriage

A Gospel-Centered Wedding Address

NOTE: Last weekend I performed the wedding of two of my favorite 20-somethings, two kids who were in 9th grade when I first became a student ministries pastor. What follows is the charge I brought to them that day.

As many of you know, my wife, Aundrea, and I have known Nick and Meghan for 10 full years. Knowing them has meant growing to love them and enjoy them, and today we are humbly honored and delighted to serve them.

As I considered what to say to them on their wedding day, my mind ran back over a decade of memories—ministry trips, special moments, new developments, long talks, big decisions… 10 years worth of growing up, physically and spiritually. I remember well from 10 years ago the slender young lady with the striking voice and mischievous smile and the dark-complected young man who orbited the youth group like a planet, silent and mysterious. Watching them both grow—better said, watching God grow them—has been a privilege and a delight, and I say again that for me, to know them has been to love them and enjoy them. Now, the rest of what I’m going to say is for them, and you can listen in…

Nick and Meghan, as I pondered what to say to you both today, my thoughts took me back to the very first wedding at the very beginning of time, recorded for us in Genesis 2:

Genesis 2:18 - 25 Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his
wife, and they shall become one flesh.

These instructive words about marriage—this phenomenon of becoming one flesh—imply both a demand and a promise.

The demand of becoming one flesh is the demand of love itself, namely, complete and unconditional surrender. Love requires that we freely and gladly give up everything. Unless you are willing to surrender everything—all that you have and are and hope to be, you’re not really in love.

Before marriage, affection convinces two people that they are the most romantic couple who ever lived, that they are perfect for each other, that no two people have ever loved as they love, that they will never face a problem too great or a sacrifice too demanding for them to overcome. And then marriage comes along asks them to prove it.

Marriage asks us to prove that what we have together is something more than mere emotion, mere friendship… Marriage asks us to prove that we are truly, truly in love! How? By the complete surrender that is required for two independent people to become one indivisible unit—one flesh.

Why is it that a wedding involves sealing our love with an oath? Nick and Meghan, aren’t you both completely captivated by each other right now and eager to spend you whole lives together? So why should you bother with all the business of taking a sacred vow “before God and all these witnesses”?

Here’s why… Wedding vows are simply the natural, verbal expression of love, because real love expresses itself in real commitment. Love is less about how we feel and more about what we do. It’s an act of the will before it’s a feeling of the heart. Even though it seems like the emotions of this moment will never change, God knows that our emotions are notoriously fickle and untrustworthy! Therefore, we enter into the marriage relationship by pledging our lifelong commitment. The well-known and traditional “I do” is your affirmation of this sacred oath. It is, in a sense, your white flag of surrender as you yield to the demand of becoming one flesh.

The demand of being “one flesh” is aptly captured in Wesley’s famous line from The Princess Bride: “As you wish.” Nick, being one flesh with Meghan means that from this day forward, your attitudes and actions toward her are one life-long expression saying “As you wish.” Meghan, as you become one flesh with Nick, the banner that hangs over your life must now be “As you wish.”

To put it in biblical terms, we would go to Philippians 2:3-4: Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

The Scriptures are clear about what this means for both of you. Ephesians 5:33 instructs: Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Nick, becoming one flesh with Meghan demands that you love and care for her in the same way you care for your own body. Meghan, the demand of being one flesh with Nick requires that you respect him. Anything less from either of you will prevent full oneness.

This is the demand of becoming one flesh. But marriage is not all demands and duties. Being one flesh also implies a promise… a great and awesome promise that God makes available to every married couple through His grace.

Becoming one flesh through marriage implies the promise of lifelong blessing from God! Think for a moment of all the blessings that your marriage promises: companionship, friendship, romance, intimacy, security, children, spiritual and personal growth, to name only a few.

Nick, Meghan, do you realize what incredible potential for joy and blessing your future together holds? The metaphor of a wilderness expedition comes to mind… Here you stand, on the brink of a lifelong journey… not a journey into the uncharted territory of some majestic mountain or island paradise—too narrow! Too bland! No, you have embarked on an expedition exploring the single most limitless entity in creation—the soul of another human being, a place of mystery so vast and delights so unimaginable, you have to see it to believe it!

In short, being one flesh is a promise of lavish and undeserved goodness from God! This day is just a foretaste… your wedding day—the day for which you’ve longed and prayed and hoped and dreamed… Is finally here! Just look around you… Isn’t God incredibly good?! And this is just a foretaste, a shadow, these opening notes of the love song of goodness that God means to play through your marriage for the rest of your life!

I think God thought up weddings just so that He could show off His lavish and bountiful goodness! I think God loves weddings. Think about this… the Bible opens with a wedding, in the story we just read of Adam and Eve. That’s quite a statement right there! And then when God’s Son Jesus came to earth, He chose to perform His first miracle at a wedding, when He turned the water into wine. But that’s not all… The Bible also comes to a close with a wedding, as Jesus takes His blood-bought people to Himself and makes them His bride for all of eternity. Weddings form the inspired bookends to all of human history!

Why does God love weddings? Here’s why… because marriage provides a sublime metaphor for the profound good news He wants all people to hear. What good news? This… The paradise of the Garden of Eden, though it was lost by humanity’s fall into sin, has been restored.

At that first wedding God saw something that he said was “not good”—Adam’s aloneness, and so He fixed it by creating Eve and making her one flesh with Adam. But these days the problem is much bigger than Adam being alone. Our whole world is filled with sin and its awful effects.

God looked into this fallen, messed up world and once again said, “It is not good.” Humanity’s sin had destroyed the paradise God intended this world to be, and worse than that, our sin has separated us from our good God, filled us with guilt, and aroused His anger against us. We can see all around and inside us that God is right: “It is not good.”

This time, God’s solution wasn’t to create a woman. It was to send a man into the world, THE Man, His own perfect Son, Jesus. And after 30+ years of living sinlessly, how we were supposed to live, Jesus died painfully, paying the penalty for sin that we were supposed to pay.

God’s verdict of “it is not good” has been reversed in Jesus! Just like He brought Eve to Adam, God brings Jesus to us. And like Adam, we must say, “This is good! This is what we need!” Jesus fixes our ruined world and removes our guilt and brings us back to God so that we can be made one, not with each other this time, but with God Himself!

The demand of oneness was satisfied—Jesus offered Himself in complete surrender. The blessing of oneness is offered freely to us, if we entrust ourselves to Jesus as our only hope of being restored to God.

Nick and Meghan, this wedding will make you one flesh, and being one flesh extends a demand and a blessing. But remember this: both the demand and the blessing of oneness don’t begin here today, at the altar, in your wedding. They began on the cross, with Jesus Christ your Savior. This day is a reminder of that day.

And this day is also a foretaste of the awesome and final wedding day when we will enjoy being brought into perfect fellowship, intimate oneness, with our Savior, Jesus Christ!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Did God Create Evil?

Another Email Q&A

Got this question in an email earlier this week. Here's my answer:

Well, it’s not a simple yes/no answer. On the one hand, you have the logic of God’s role as Creator and Designer of all things which almost requires us to say that, yes, in some sense, God created/planned the existence of evil in our world. Verses like Isaiah 45:7 put Scriptural foundation underneath that logic: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.” Pretty hard to make that go away.

But then you have the truth on the other side that God is not evil, all He does is good, and He couldn’t possibly be the direct cause of something He Himself forbids. You have verses like James 1:13 to support that idea: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”

So my answer is a good, solid “No.” And “Yes.” No, in the sense that He cannot be charged with wrongdoing or held responsible as the direct cause for sinful, evil things in our world. But yes in the sense that all that happens is part of His pre-ordained plan; His plan works in perfect harmony with the personal choices of His free creatures; and ultimately He must be seen as the ultimate reason for all things that have happened, are happening, and ever will happen.

In attempting to say “No, God doesn’t cause evil in any sense whatsoever,” some people suggest that He simply knows what is going to happen and He allows some evil things. I have two questions for these folks.

1) (related to “God knows it”) How is God’s “knowing” that something is going to happen all that different from His “causing” it to happen? To explain what I mean, here’s an example… this morning I had a bowl of grapefruit with my breakfast instead of a banana. God certainly knew I was going to have the grapefruit rather than the banana; and if you think about it, just by KNOWING what I was going to choose, He guaranteed it was going to happen that way. Even though I felt free to choose banana or grapefruit, there was never really any option because the future was already all mapped out in His mind before it ever happened. So the problem isn’t solved by saying “God knew about it, but He didn’t cause it,” because the mere fact that He knew it was coming guaranteed that it would come. Of course, some people object, “Yeah, He knew it, but He didn’t cause it. He just allowed it.” Next question…

2) (related to “God allows it”) If the all-powerful God knows something bad is going to happen and He allows it anyway instead of stopping it, isn’t He guilty of at least negligence, like a police officer who stands passively by while a civilian gets mugged? In other words, saying “He allows it” doesn’t really get Him off the hook in any truly meaningful way. For anyone who disagrees, I would suggest they talk with a skeptic of Christianity and see if the skeptic is really satisfied by an all-powerful God who COULD step in and stop evil but chooses not to. That God sounds like a cold-hearted jerk who acts like it’s not his problem. It’s obviously not a truly helpful answer.

This is still true even when it comes to the “free will” answer that says, “God preserves our free will; that’s why He doesn’t prevent evil things that we choose to do.” That answer doesn’t help, because not all evil is caused by human free will – e.g., the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, etc. Some really bad things happen without any people involved whatsoever, and so we still have to answer the question, “What did God have to do with this?” Saying “He just allowed it; He didn’t cause it” makes me wonder what kind of God He must be, if He could have stopped it and simply chose not to.

My brother-in-law's cancer is a very personal and very real example here. If God simply “allowed” it when He could have stopped or prevented it all along, I have to ask why He doesn’t love my neice and nephew enough to prevent the horrible pain of losing their daddy. But if in some sense He actually brought it about deliberately as part of His great but mysterious plan to bless and increase their sense of His love in the long run, that’s a God I think I’ve seen reflected in my own experience as a child – suffering short-term pain and loss from my father in order to experience greater joy and blessing in the long run.

If all this seems very troubling and confusing, take heart, because your question deals with probably the largest and most perplexing issue that has faced Christianity for its entire existence—the classic “problem of evil.” We are hardly the first ones to ask the question, and we won’t be the last. And men and women far brighter than we are have struggled and argued and written books by the score trying to answer it.

The ultimate answer is, I think, that He is God and we are not, and we just plain can’t figure out everything about Him or the universe He has created.