The Problem with Church Membership Covenants – bad doctrine hurts God’s people

A modern distinction of the Neo-Cal movement, signed “membership covenants” have no basis in Scripture and are one of the hallmarks of a cult. One of the issues I write about in my upcoming book about spiritual abuse, “Broken Toys”, I was happily surprised to see my friend Tim Fall has already done so.

Tim's Blog - Just One Train Wreck After Another

The Old Testament is full of covenants God made with his people: Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic. If those aren’t familiar to you, don’t worry. The point is that God makes covenants – a type of binding promise – with his people.

Today we live under the new and lasting covenant Jesus established. It had been promised in prophecy centuries before.

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-32.)

Under this New Covenant, God enables you to know him intimately.

“This is the covenant I will…

View original post 871 more words

Rrugëtimi i Sonila Potter

ilira_christmas_16Nga Marie Notcheva

Ky artikull është publikuar në numrin dhjetor 2016 “Ilira”.

Sonila  dymbëdhjetëvjeçare  donte një akullore. I futi duart ngadalë në xhepat e palltos së vjetër të të atit, duke parë mos gjente ndonjë lek të blinte një. Ajo që gjeti në fakt e intrigoi: një varëse me një burrë të varur në një kryq. E hutuar shkoi tek e ëma, e cila po bënte darkën. “Ma, çfarë është kjo? Kush është ky burri?”.

E ëma u kthye me kurriz nga soba, me një vështrim të frikësuar në sy. “Ku e gjete këtë?”, – e pyeti ajo. Liliana, nëna e Sonilës, kishte arsye të fortë të kishte frikë në vitin 1989: familja e mbante të fshehur origjinën ortodokse greke të babait të Sonilës nga frika e ndëshkimit nga regjimi Hoxha-Alia. “Çoje atje ku e more Sonila! Është mall kontrabandë”, – e paralajmëroi Liliana. Më vonë ime më më tregoi sekretin se kryqi portretizonte Jezu Krishtin dhe që Ai vdiq për mëkatet tona. Ajo më tha që, “Nëse i lutesh, Jezusi do të të dëgjojë”, – sjell ndër mend Sonila. “Ajo më ndaloi rreptësisht t’u tregoja të tjerëve për Të, sepse mund të na arrestonin të gjithëve”.

Shembulli pa fjalë i një nëne

Edhe pse Sonila kishte një besim fëmije dhe donte të dinte më shumë për këtë Perëndi i Cili e donte, vetëm kur u bë 15 vjeç, në vitin 1991, mundi të dëgjonte Ungjillin dhe të kuptonte kush ishte Personi dhe vepra e Jezu Krishtit. “Lutesha si fëmijë kur prindërit më treguan për Perëndinë, por nuk kisha njohuri për mëkatin”, – thotë ajo. “Në vitin 1991, kur filluan ndryshimet, misionarët po shpërndanin Ungjillin e Lukës të përkthyer në shqip në një kishë në Tiranë dhe aty mora një kopje. Isha kaq e etur për ta lexuar! Në faqen e fundit ishte një lutje dhe ndihesha sikur më në fund po më hapeshin sytë”, – thotë ajo. “Ndërsa lutesha, fjalët më dilnin drejt e nga zemra. Më në fund kuptova dhe qava ndërsa ia rrëfeva mëkatin tim këtij Zoti, të cilin më në fund mund ta njihja. Ndjeva dashurinë e Perëndisë që më mbështolli të tërën në kuptimin e vërtetë të fjalës”.

Tashmë e lirë për të shkuar në kishë, me nxitjen e prindërve Sonila shkoi në njërën nga kishat e para ungjillore në Tiranë. Pavarësisht vështirësive të jetës në fillim të viteve ’90, si Sonila ashtu edhe vëllai i saj, Genti, u bënë ndjekës të Krishtit, dhe kjo vinte në një farë mënyre edhe nga kuraja dhe besimi i prindërve të tyre. “Ime më ishte këshilluesja ime më e mirë”, – thotë Sonila. “Në fund të jetës së saj, ndërsa vuante nga tumori, më tha: “Mos qaj për mua, Sonilë. Po shkoj të takoj Bariun tim”. Ishte një shembull të cilin vajza e re nuk do ta harronte kurrë dhe dëshmia e nënës së saj mbolli një dashuri të thellë për Perëndinë dhe të tjerët në zemrën e Sonilës.

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Pak pas mbërritjes në Hollandë, 1998

Kur mbushi 20 vjet ajo kishte pasion për punë misionare dhe dëshironte fort ta shihte Ungjillin të predikohej te njerëz të pashpëtuar në Azi dhe në gjithë botën. “Në moshën 20 vjeçe nuk dija pothuajse fare anglisht dhe nuk kisha shumë të holla. Mendoja: ‘Si mund të më përdorë Perëndia mua, një shqiptare që s’di anglisht?’. Kështu që u luta që Ai thjesht të dërgonte dikë tjetër”, – sjell ndër mend ajo. Por Perëndia kishte plane të tjera. Po atë vit (1998) Ai hapi një derë për mua që t’i shërbeja në një hostel të rinjsh të krishterë në Amsterdam të Hollandës. Kisha mundësi t’u flisja për Ungjillin bujtësve në hotel dhe t’u shërbeja në nevojat e tyre emocionale. “Në një konferencë të krishterë në të cilën ajo mori pjesë bashkë me një shoqen e saj amerikane, ato vendosën të bëhen misionare dhe të shërbejnë për dy muaj në Filipine me YWAM (Të rinj me një mission). Menjëherë paskëtaj, Sonila pati mundësi afatshkurtra misioni në dhjetë vende të ndryshme aziatike, ku shërbeu me fëmijët, adoleshentët dhe nënat e reja që jetonin në varfëri ekstreme.

Studio për ta treguar veten  të miratuar…

Ndërsa pasioni i Sonilës për t’i shërbyer Perëndisë rritej, po kështu shtohej edhe dëshira e saj për të mësuar. “Zoti më dërgoi në një shkollë biblike në Gjermani për më shumë mësim dhe njohuri më të thellë të Fjalës së Tij”, – thotë ajo e mahnitur. Me një njohuri më të mirë të anglishtes, ajo tashmë mund të punonte si përkthyese vullnetare e Biblës Wycliffe dhe në Shkollën Biblike Capernwray në Angli. “Ndërsa shërbeja në Azi, lindi në mua një përkujdesje dhe dhembshuri për njerëzit, por më mungonte një njohuri e gjerë [doktrinare]”, – thotë ajo. “Po mendoja të studioja psikologji që të bëhesha terapiste, duke menduar se kjo ishte një mënyrë e mirë për t’i ndihmuar njerëzit. Fatmirësisht, shkolla biblike ofronte kurse këshillimi biblik. Lexova në internet mbi ndryshimin mes këshillimit biblik dhe se ku bazohej psikologjia… dhe vërtet e ndjeva se Perëndia më mbrojti nga e tatëposhta”. Sonila mori diplomë të shkollës së lartë në këshillim biblik dhe më vonë një diplomë të dytë nga Wayne Johnston, Presidenti i Shoqatës së Këshillimit Biblik dhe një Dishepullizimit, duke ndjekur kurse në internet dhe duke studiuar në mënyrë të pavarur.

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Me Peter Reid, Drejtor i Kolegjit Biblik në Bodenseehof, Gjermani, 2001

Ardhja në Amerikë –  Sfidat dhe Mundësitë

Në vitin 2006, burri që do bëhej një ditë bashkëshorti i Sonilës, po shërbente me ushtrinë amerikane në Afganistan. Sonila, e cila jetonte në Angli, e ‘takoi’ Emmett Potterin në një komunitet të krishterë në internet. Dy javë pas bisedës së tyre të parë, Emmett-i dhe Sonila u takuan në Londër. Po krijohej një miqësi dhe Emmett-i i dhuroi Sonilës një DVD të kreacionistit Kent Hovind që ta shikonte para se të kthehej në Shqipëri.

“Ne e vazhduam komunikimin për disa muaj dhe më vonë Emmett-i erdhi në Shqipëri për tri ditë dhe u takua me familjen time”, – thotë Sonila. “Sa herë kishte pushime, ai vinte në Shqipëri dhe ne u martuam në vitin 2007. U deshën tetë muaj që të më dilte viza, dhe kur mbërrita në Miçigan (SHBA), organizuam një ceremoni të dytë martesore”. Ata jetuan gjashtë muaj në Miçigan dhe më pas u zhvendosën në Masaçusets, ku kanë jetuar këto shtatë vitet e fundit. Nuk është e lehtë të jetosh besimin e krishterë në Amerikë, dhe çifti, që ka tanimë tre fëmijë të vegjël, është përballur me sfida.

“Ka një ndjenjë shumë më të fortë komuniteti në Shqipëri. Kur të vijnë miq për vizitë në shtëpi, ata janë pothuajse si familje për ty”, – shpjegon Sonila. “Këtu kjo gjë mungon. Ka ftohtësi,Sonila4.jpg një ndjenjë largësie, veçanërisht këtu në Masaçusets. Kisha thotë që është një familje, por njerëzit vijnë e ikin… rrallë i sheh të vijnë për herë të dytë. Nuk gjendet ajo ndjenja e miqësisë së vërtetë, e të investuarit në jetët e njëri-tjetrit, siç e kemi ne në Ballkan. Jemi prej kaq vitesh këtu, por nuk ndihemi tamam pjesë e një ‘familjeje’ të kishës”, – thotë ajo.

Është çështje tjetër pastaj të rritësh fëmijët në njohjen e Krishtit. Shkollat e krishtera janë të shtrenjta në SHBA dhe Sonila e pranon që ka presion nga ambienti përreth për të kompromentuar bindjet që ka familja e saj. “Ne nuk e festojmë Hallouinin dhe as u mësojmë fëmijëve që të besojnë në Plakun e Vitit të Ri”, – shpjegon Sonila. “Festat janë për të lavdëruar Jezusin
dhe vetëm Atë. Të tjerët jo gjithmonë e kuptojnë apo respektojnë vendimin tonë në këtë drejtim”. Sonila aktualisht po ndjek studimet master në edukim fetar dhe po jep mësim në një shkollë të krishterë, kur bindjet e saj kanë hasur sfida.

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Me instruktorin në Kolegjin Biblik në Bodenseehof, 2001

Krishterim pa kompromis

“Më pëlqen shumë të lexoj nga puritanët”, – thotë gruaja shqiptare që ka një librari të tërë mbushur me komentarë në anglisht. “Shkrimet e Thomas Watson dhe Thomas Brook janë të preferuarat e mia dhe librin e Richard Baxter “Kura për trishtimin” e përdorim shpesh në këshillim biblik. Sot predikojnë një ‘ungjill të holluar’. Në të kaluarën, këta burra të mëdhenj flisnin për mëkatin”, – thotë ajo. “Charles Spurgeon, Princi i Predikuesve, nuk kishte frikë t’i paralajmëronte njerëzit për të keqen”. Sonila flet se si mungesa e dëshirës që shumë pastorë amerikanë kanë për të predikuar mbi mëkatin është një nga arsyet pse kompromisi dhe lëshimi moral janë kaq problem në disa kisha amerikane.

Megjithatë, ishte nëpërmjet ar- dhjes fillimisht në Angli dhe më pas në Shtetet e Bashkuara që Perën- dia hapi shumë më tepër dyer mundësish që Sonila Potter t’i shërbente Atij. Nuk ka mundësi më të mira për studim teologjik dhe tani Sonila i përdor këto në shërbesën e saj si këshilluese biblike. Ajo tashmë ka mundësi t’u shërbejë grave në dy gjuhë, çka është një pasuri e çmuar (jetojnë 16,000 shqiptarë në shtetin e saj Masaçusets dhe ka pak apo aspak kisha ungjillore shqiptare). Dhe me hirin e Perëndisë, kjo nënë me tre fëmijë është plotësisht e lirë t’i rrisë fëmijët e saj në dashurinë dhe njohjen e Perëndisë, pa pasur nevojë t’i fshehë në xhepa xhaketash simbolet e besimit të tyre.

God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce (Review)

protection

by Marie Notcheva

For several months now, I have wanted to review Pastor Herb Vander Lugt’s booklet, “God’s Protection of Women: When Abuse is Worse than Divorce”. As the senior research editor for RBC (now Our Daily Bread Ministries), Lugt’s 1982 book is a concise, yet exegetically-rich resource biblically challenging the view that divorce is never justified by abuse. Far from being a plea to reason based on emotionalism (or even pastoral experience), Lugt effectively shows how a faulty hermeneutic has led many conservative pastors and churches to teach that Matthew 5:32 is the final and definitive word on divorce.

As a former pastor of mine used to say, “Be careful about basing a doctrine on one verse.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in the thorny endeavor to unpack all of what Scripture has to say about divorce (as well as abuse of different kinds; abandonment; and re-marriage). Wisely, Lugt begins with the assertion that “Moses, Jesus and Paul all recognized a range of marital conditions that are worse than divorce”. (P. 3). He then re-caps historical anthropology of women being treated as property, pausing on the Puritans who were a notable exception:

“In the spirit of the Reformation, Puritans didn’t see marriage as an indissoluble sacrament but as a civil contract that could be terminated if either party did not fulfill fundamental duties of marriage. Although cruelty was not a recognized ground for divorce in the Puritan era, there are those who thought cruelty to a wife was a type of desertion.” (p. 4).

Lugt then proceeds to demonstrate how, even in modern times, women have been overly-subjugated by a misunderstanding of the word “helper” in Genesis 2:18.

“There is no sense in which this word connotes a position of inferiority or subordinate status. The word “suitable for” literally means “in front of”, signifying one who stands face to face with another, qualitatively the same, his essential equal, and therefore his “correspondent” (“Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 666-7, IVP, Downers Grove, 1996).”

Before delving into the second section of the booklet, “Protection of Women under the Law of Moses,” Lugt then highlights the fallacy that male domination is a “right” inherited from the Fall — consistent with the rest of Genesis 3, it was a “curse” that, like sickness, thorns and discord, should be resisted and fought.

Mosaic Law

Even the most weak and vulnerable women in Hebraic society — daughters sold as slaves, wives or concubines were protected under the Law of Moses. Quite progressive for its time, Exodus 21:7-11 lists the “three foundations of marital duty” — namely, the provision of food, clothing, and ‘marriage rights’ – often interpreted as affection and marital love. (In fact, the Jewish Ketubah lays these out as a contract, not very much unlike Ephesians 4.)

Breaking these conditions is, in fact, a violation of the marriage covenant. But more significantly, it shows the principle of protection that is seen throughout Scripture, from the lesser to the greater: if God would provide protection and care even for a slave, how much more is owed to a free wife? Verse 11 makes it clear that if the husband fails to fulfill this contractual obligation, he is to “let her go free”. This has been proven conclusively by theologians to mean a formal divorce, the get. Of course, neither rabbis nor Lugt in this apologetic argues that this is the ideal; rather, the Mosaic divorce allowance was given by God for humanitarian means – to protect women from cruelty. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 similarly makes provision for the divorce, protection and remarriage of non-Israelite prisoners of war.

A slightly more obscure passage Lugt addresses in the Mosaic code is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which he points out would cause a man to think twice before deciding to divorce his wife at will (he was now prohibited from re-marrying her). Worthy of note is that the vague term “uncleanness” in verse 1 does not refer to adultery, which would have carried the death penalty. He was, however, precluded from re-marrying her, which underlines the permanence of the divorce and foreshadows Jesus’ warning in Matthew 19:8 against divorcing one’s wife “for any and every reason”. Divorce was a concession; a last-resort, and not something to be carried out lightly.

“The same law that offers penalties for murder, theft, perjury, and adultery also provides consequences when the purpose and covenant of marriage are broken by contempt and abuse.”(p. 12).

Unraveling Malachi 2:16

After demonstrating the similar intent of protection of both Jesus and Moses, (whose Law Jesus upheld completely during His ministry), Lugt turns toward the most oft-misquoted verse in the Bible regarding divorce: Malachi 2:16 (which he quotes from the New King James Version:

“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,”Says the Lord of hosts.” 

Compare this rendering with the more accurate, word-for-word translation of the English Standard Version:

“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.” (ESV).

While Lugt correctly noted that the prophet was dealing with “treacherous” divorces — men who didn’t care about their wives, and abused their power to abandon them to a live of poverty and disgrace — what he failed to do was address the etymology of that verse. As Barbara Roberts (author ofNot Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion”) has pointed out, the verse is often incorrectly and incompletely translated as “I hate divorce” and used as a catch-all conversation stopper to assert that divorce is never permitted biblically. However, this is neither the correct interpretation nor intention of the passage (written during a time period when male casual divorce was rampant). She writes:

“The incorrect translation came about as follows. The word “hates” in Malachi 2:16 is he hates. The Hebrew denotes third person masculine singular = he. The King James version had For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away. Many subsequent translations switched the third person “he” to a first person “I” without any grammatical warrant. For example, the 1984 NIV was “ ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” Possibly translators thought the switch was okay because it retained the sense of the KJV — that God feels the hatred [for divorce]. They did not seem to worry that “I hate divorce” was grammatically inaccurate to the original Hebrew.

But modern translations are starting to correct this mistake. The construction in Hebrew (“he hates… he covers”) shows that the one who feels the hatred is not God, but the divorcing husband. To be faithful to the Hebrew, the verse could be rendered, “If he hates and divorces,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with violence.” It is talking about a husband who hates his wife and divorces her because of his aversion for her. Therefore, Malachi 2:16 is only referring to a specific type of divorce: divorce for aversion, which could be dubbed “hatred divorce”. Divorce for hatred is treacherous divorce: if a man hates his wife and dismisses, he “covers his garment with violence” — his conduct is reprehensible, he has blood on his hands.[1]

Apart from this omission, Lugt’s treatment of Old Testament divorce laws’ protection and provision for women was solid. He correctly points out (quoting biblical scholar Joe Sprinkle) that the context of Malachi 2:16 is a limited one: taken in accordance with the allowances for divorce made elsewhere in Scripture, it is clearly only certain divorces in certain circumstances to which God is opposed. While upholding the sanctity of marriage, Lugt next turns to the New Testament teaching on divorce to demonstrate how Christ, Moses and Paul’s teachings complement one another.

New Testament Application

The reader doesn’t need to be convinced that Jesus demonstrated a concern and caring for women that went beyond the social mores of the First Century. Nor is it hard to see that the God of Scripture is a Protector and Defender of the weak and downtrodden.  Lugt asks then the rhetorical questions, “Does Matthew 5:31-32 over-ride the provision offered divorced women in Deuteronomy? Was Jesus, by this one statement, disagreeing with Moses?

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31-32, ESV)

Of course not. Just as with all of Scripture, a correct hermeneutic demands we examine context (Literal-Historical and Synthetic Principle of Scriptural interpretation.) Jesus was, in the Sermon on the Mount, addressing the Pharisees’ specific excesses and “stretches” in interpreting and teaching the Law of Moses. They had added hundreds of laws onto the original Levitical code, and the abuse of the divorce clause in Deuteronomy 24 was no exception. In reality, divorced women of the First Century were disgraced and had few career prospects outside of prostitution. It is not biblically consistent to say that He was contradicting the conditions Moses had set, but is more consistent with the passage that He was forcing the Pharisees to focus on the condition of their own hearts. Relational sin was the point; the one statement was clearly not intended to be the single and final word on divorce (as Paul later demonstrates).

Later in Matthew 19:3-9, Lugt notes, we in fact see the Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus by confronting Him with the Law of Moses on the same subject. While upholding the sacred ideal of the permanence of marriage, Jesus did not disagree with Moses in allowing divorce.

“Commenting on the allowance made for hardness of heart, Dr. Willard notes: ‘No doubt what was foremost in His [Jesus’] mind was the fact that the woman could quite well wind up dead, or brutally abused, if the man could not “dump” her. It is still so today, of course. Such is our “hardness of heart”. Better, then, that a divorce occur than a life be made unbearable. Jesus does nothing to retract this principle….no one regards a divorce as something to be chosen for its own sake…but of course a brutal marriage is not a good thing either, and we must resist any attempt to classify divorce as a special, irredeemable form of wickedness. It is not. It is sometimes the right thing to do, everything considered.” Professor Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperCollins, 1997. pp. 169-70.

Lugt begins his conclusion by demonstrating again how the Mosaic Code and the teachings of Christ on divorce complemented each other. He argues that Jesus was forcing the hypocritical religious leaders of the time to examine their own hard hearts in putting women in danger           (both by abuse and neglect, and unrighteous divorce), as they were actually ignoring Moses’ rabbinical provision for women. Moses had given the Elders of Israel “a legal basis to free a woman from the neglect, contempt, and abuse of a cruel husband” (p. 21). There was no need for Jesus to cite all of these scripturally-valid grounds for divorce, any more than He explained the full Gospel of salvation by faith alone when speaking to the Rich Young Ruler. As Lugt points out, context is crucial. He was not addressing women in distress; He was addressing the self-righteous men who did as they pleased in “putting away” their wives.

Of course, Jesus also didn’t mention the additional circumstances meriting divorce later cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11:

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

 

Giving these instructions on the basis of Christ’s authority, why is there no mention of the fornication clause? It is evident here that the woman can obtain a divorce (under civil law; for unspecified reasons). And why the no-remarriage clause, Lugt asks, when Paul would have been well-acquainted with Mosaic teaching on remarriage? Lugt argues that the context of chapter 7 suggests Paul was answering specific questions raised by the Corinthian believers about celibacy (advocated by some even within marriage), and about marriage itself. He urges wives not to leave, but as a concession states that they are then to remain unmarried (which brings up another set of questions about divorced Christians re-marrying within the Church, which Lugt doesn’t address). Nor does Lugt address the fact that the New Testament uses the same word for “divorce” as for “separation” – the distinction made by the modern-day church is absent in the pages of Scripture. Nowhere do we see the Early Church pressuring divorced women to “reconcile” with their husbands, under any circumstances.

Conclusion

Lugt’s short book is a helpful resource for pastors, counselors and Christians in abusive or contentious marriages in order to understand God’s original design for marriage; as well as His protection in certain circumstances where divorce is allowed as a concession. Abuse is unequivocally one of these conditions. Actually examining the context and hermeneutic in which certain passages were written is illuminating in dispelling the “abuse is not biblical grounds for divorce” fallacy that exists in some churches, and serves to keep women in bondage. Lugt writes:

“Many…in trying to return to the ideal of marital love and permanence have not seen the wisdom God Himself showed in circumstances of marital abuse….divorce reflects a serious and costly departure from God’s original design. But the solution to the problem is not found in misrepresenting the heart of the law or in ignoring the plight of abused or unloved wives. Neither can we rightly maintain that sexual unfaithfulness or the desertion of an unbelieving mate are the only grounds for a divorce.”  (p. 26).

The brevity of Lugt’s book did not address every possible question that arises from the question of Christian divorce (such as remarriage), and while his exposition of Malachi 2:16 was somewhat lacking, overall “God’s Protection of Women” is an excellently-written and much-needed treatment of an issue that has caused much confusion and additional pain to abused women. It deserves a place in every biblical counselor’s library.

[1] https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/10/24/god-hates-divorce-not-always/ Barbara’s book can be purchased at notunderbondage.com or from any book retailer.

Trichotomous or Dichotomous Man?

by Marie Notcheva
d11a7-mercury_diagramNow here’s a subject of interest for all you theo-geeks: are we a three-part being (body, soul, spirit); or a two-part (soul and spirit used interchangeably to describe the eternal, intangible part of man)?

I was only vaguely aware that there are conflicting views on this philosophical puzzle until a few years ago, when studying for biblical counseling certification. Last week, an acquaintance who is studying for the ACBC exam wrote me, asking about this question.

While I had been taught that the soul is made up of the mind, will and emotions (while the spirit is the core of one’s being, which is enlivened upon regeneration), I confess that I have never given it much thought – until I began studying the theology of biblical counseling.  In preparation for the coursework, I read John Macarthur and Wayne Mack’s “Counseling” and Jay Adams'”The Christian Counselor’s Handbook” back in 2010-11. Neither one was light reading. As it happens, both address the two-part (dichotomous) vs. three-part (trichotomous) understanding of man in early chapters.

Funky chart – but is it biblical??

In my own book, I had taken the trichotomous position; even maintaining that because one’s spirit is regenerated at conversion, if the soul and the spirit were one and the same, the Christian would never again show a proclivity to sin after the new birth. Going back and re-examining that stance in light of Scripture (especially Paul’s discussion of the ongoing conflict between the “old man” and the “new man” in Romans,) it doesn’t hold up.

Jay Adams traces the trichotomous view of man to Greek philosophy and maintains that it is not biblical . Furthermore, its reemergence in contemporary thought is partly due to Freud’s theory of the ego, the super-ego and the id. Uh-oh. He writes:

“Trichotomy is not supported by a superficial appeal to 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where Paul is not distinguishing the parts of man, but simply heaping word upon word to emphasize entirety. Jesus Christ did the same thing when He spoke of loving God with all of one’s “heart, soul, mind and strength” (Mark 12:30). The Scriptures use the term soul (pseuche) and spirit (pneuma) interchangeably. Cf. Luke 1:46, 47, where the two are used in parallelism.”

John Street goes into an even more detailed explanation:

” The typical bifurcation between the soul and the spirit made by some Christian psychologists cannot be biblically sustained. One Christian psychiatrist offered this explanation: “The soul is the psychological aspect of man, whereas the spirit is spiritual…The mind alone lies in the psychological aspect of man and not the spiritual.” Such an artificial distinctions grows from reading psychological meaning into biblical terms. Both “soul” and “spirit” speak of the same intangible aspect of the inner man, the part of man that only God sees. A concordance study of psyche shows that when Scripture uses the term “soul” in relation to man, it refers to that aspect of the innner man in connection with his body. When it uses the term “spirit”, it is that aspect of the inner man out of connection with his body. No distinction exists in Scripture between the psychologically oriented and the spiritually oriented man.”

Not to be outdone, Ken L. Sarles offers a comprehensive look at the usage of spirit/soul both in Hebrew and Greek (whenever a theologian starts a sentence with “If we go back to the original Greek…”, I’m inclined to say, “You win! I’ll take your word for it!”) From “How to Counsel Biblically”:

“The body represents everything material, while the soul represents everything immaterial. In this case, the terms soul and spirit are understood as viewing the immaterial aspect of human nature from different vantage points. That is, the numerical essence of soul and spirit is one. Evidence for dichotomy can be found in Scripture’s interchangeable usage of the terms soul (nephesh in the Old Testament and psyche in the New Testament) and spirit (ruah in the Old Testament and pneuma in the New Testament)….In evaluating dichotomy, the strongest defense is the argument from creation. Genesis 2:7 records that man became a livingsoul. The term is inclusive of everything that has a living, breathing being. It would be more accurate then, to say that man has a spirit, but is a soul. Furthermore, the interchangibility of the terms argues for dichotomy.”

There are very well-thought-out defenses of the trichotomous position, too, which seem to make a strong case from Scripture. However, as interesting as examining the question may be, I personally do not think that it matters too much whether our soul is distinct from our spirit or they are “two sides of the same coin”. In fact, I was rather surprised to realize that this is a point of heated dissension among theologians – somewhat on par with the pre-millenial/post-millenial debate! I want to have this spiritual reality straight in my mind for the sake of doctrinal accuracy, but if it were such a crucial matter I’m sure Paul or the Lord Jesus Himself would have spelled it out a bit more precisely.

Taking the Bible alone, the main point is this: if you have been re-born, you are a new creation in Christ. The old has gone; the new has come. You are no longer a slave to sin. Your inner man has changed – no matter how you wish to call it. Your spirit thirsts for God and He Who began a good work in you will carry it on to the day of completion. I don’t see any indication of a trichotomous man, but nor do I think it’s any big woop – certainly not one worth debating much.

If you go back and read the words in red, (not to mention the Epistles), you don’t see much hair-splitting philosophical debate – even with the Greek dudes in John 12:19-21 who were eager to talk to Jesus. What we DO see is a lot of common-sense, get-out-there-and-do-it commands, coupled with a call to constant devotion and commitment to inner holiness. This should always be our main concern, first and foremost.

But you’ve got to admit, the nit-picking theological questions can be great fun to study out.

A God Who is Not Sovereign is Not God

A God Who is Not Sovereign is Not God

by Marie Notcheva

One afternoon on the way home from work, I caught part of a radio program in which Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) was being interviewed. Kushner was weighing in on a tragedy that befell a family here in Massachusetts: Twin two-year-old girls drowned in their swimming pool, presumably while their mother was inside with a baby brother. It is difficult to imagine the enormity of the family’s loss, and our hearts break with them. This is every parent’s worst nightmare come true.

Kushner, who lost his son to progeria in the 1980’s, made several good points. He observed that grieving parents are incapable of consoling one another (as they would had the loss been a parent or sibling), and they often lash out. He advised the parents to seek counsel from others, and mentioned several bereavement support groups. He noted that the death of a child is something one never really “gets over,” but they may expect to get to a point where they can enjoy life again. He also very wisely cautioned others against offering advice, seeking to minimize the tragedy, or rationalizing it away (“Talk less; hug more”). Seeking solace from those parents who can truly empathize in their grief will also lead to their ultimately being able to offer that same compassion to others. This in turn will counter, in some small measure, the devastating helplessness that they felt when their daughters drowned.

Can We Blame God?

However, when the interviewer turned the line of questioning to whether or not we can blame God, Kushner essentially denied the concept of a sovereign God. (Obviously, as a Jewish rabbi, Kushner’s view of God and redemptive history differ significantly from the Christian position. We needn’t get into soteriology or dwell on self-evident doctrinal differences between Jews and Christians.) What I found interesting was Kushner’s low view of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, and his de facto denial of man’s depravity and the effect of sin’s outworking in the world (hamartiology).

Kushner stated that just as God cannot be blamed for tragedy, (which is true of course; calamity is a result of the fall of man), neither can one say that tragic events are His will, orchestrated by Him, or permitted by Him. That is a disappointingly humanistic worldview, and would be natural coming from a secular psychologist, a Deist, an agnostic, or perhaps Oprah. But follow it to its natural conclusion: if God did not have foreknowledge of a tragedy, then He is not omniscient. This is open theism, and it is heresy. (See Job 37:16; 1 Jn 3:20; Heb 4:13; Mt 10:29-30). Further, Kushner maintains that when people credit or praise God for good events, blessings in their life, or sparing them from disaster, they are actually just putting a “theological face” on their relief at not being the unfortunate victims.

The idea of an omnipotent God is also distasteful to Kushner. He passionately said,

“Given a choice between a deity that is all-good but cannot control what will happen, and an omnipotent creator who allows the death of innocent children, I find the compassionate god much more comforting! Where do we get the idea that power is the highest virtue?”

What disheartens me is that Kushner, who certainly embodies the godly qualities of compassion, empathy, and love for his fellow man – especially the hurting – does not seem to realize that these attributes of God in no way negate His power, omniscience, or sovereignty. If God is not sovereign, He is not God. Kushner seems to be setting up a false dichotomy: If God is sovereign, He allowed those poor children to drown. That would be, in his mind, evil. Therefore, God would not be all-good. If God is all-good, He would not have allowed small children to climb into the swimming pool and drown. If He is good, and had foreknowledge of the incident, He should have done something. He did nothing. Therefore, He is not all-knowing.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that God is both all-good, and in His sovereignty, knew what would happen to the girls. He did not intervene (for reasons we cannot understand, and should not try to speculate upon); and tragically, they died. An additional truth here, which should not be glossed over too lightly, is that His heart is as broken as those of the parents. God is close to the brokenhearted and is moved to compassion by our grief. (See Psalm 34:18; Psalm 147:3; John 11:35; Hebrews 4:15). By contrast, Kushner seems to imply that by allowing what is such a horrific tragedy that the human mind recoils, God is callous or indifferent to human suffering. It is arbitrary; unfair.

Are People Really Good?

Why does the notion of God allowing terrible events seem so repugnant to Rabbi Kushner? A word he kept using was innocent: “What kind of God would allow two innocent girls to drown?” I would counter, “The same kind of God Who let His innocent Son suffer and die on a Roman cross for my sins.” While I agree with Kushner that no family deserves what these folks are going through, if we really examine his argument for innocence (not just of the girls, but of all victims of tragedy), it is flawed. None of us is truly innocent. Only Christ was, and God not only allowed Him to suffer; He ordained it (Isaiah 53:10-11). Does the atonement mean God is unjust, uncompassionate, indifferent?

Even without getting into a debate about Penal Substitution, we can see from the Torah, Law and Prophets alone that we are all, from birth, guilty sinners who inherently deserve nothing but eternal separation from God. We are, in fact, guilty through Adam’s representative act (federal headship), and are born corrupt and therefore oriented toward sin. This is not to say, of course, that individual sin is the reason for calamity (Jesus emphatically dispelled that notion in Luke 13:4); but that when sin entered the world, part of the consequence was misfortune and tragic circumstances. Ultimately, this is the reason for earthquakes and other natural disasters, bloodshed, famine, genetic mutations, childhood illnesses, and the ultimate curse: death (both physical and spiritual). See Genesis 3:14 ff.

Kushner, as the name of his book implies, seems to see human beings as basically good. This is part of the problem with his view of God: He does not see man’s true position in relation to Him. Because Kushner holds a flawed, high view of man, of necessity his view of God’s sovereign will is skewed.

While God is completely holy and completely loving, we humans strike out on both counts. Throughout the entire Scripture, the inherently evil condition of man is set out over against the impeccable nature of God. The term total depravity doesn’t mean we are as bad as we can possibly be; it means that there is no part of our being that has not been tainted by the effects of sin. The following are just a few of the verses pointing to man’s natural condition: Ecc. 7:29; Rom. 5:7-8; 5:12,19; Psalm 143:2; 2 Chr. 6:26; Isaiah 53:6; Micah 7:2-4. Kushner also says that expressing anger at God is fine, and that He can take it. Let’s be clear: Being angry with God is a sin. It is, in essence, denying that He is perfect, and putting one’s self in the seat of autonomy. Jerry Bridges, in Respectable Sins, equates blaming God/being angry with Him to blasphemy. At best, it is certainly unbelief.

I should note that I have not read Kushner’s book, and my observations are based solely on the radio interview he gave. As a biblical counselor, flags go up when a man-centric worldview attempts to understand God through a faulty hermeneutic. Because there is often truth mixed in with erroneous beliefs (both about God and man), the idea of a compassionate yet impotent god may seem more palatable. Many listeners probably swallowed the whole message, without comparing Kushner’s view of God to the One portrayed in the Scriptures.

Relationship and Doctrine: Striking a Balance

Relationship and Doctrine: Striking a Balance

by Marie Notcheva

Have you ever suffered from theological burnout? I have – notably when studying for my biblical counseling certification. One hundred eighty-five hours of video lectures were tremendously helpful and informational; so were the many books I had to read. By the end, saturated in hermeneutics and systematic theology, I didn’t feel like opening the Bible anymore. I felt like God was an algorithm to be approached through diagrams, charts, and verses committed to memory. He seemed as distant as my college chemistry professor (who I haven’t seen since 1990).

There was nothing wrong with the training, of course. A correct understanding of God, human nature, and the Bible is critical in order to understand the issues we deal with in the counseling room (as well as life in general, for that matter). All of the books and training materials I was assigned were produced by Calvinistic authors, as biblical counseling tends to be very heavily Reformed. Reformed literature, by and large, tends to be heavy. Richly doctrinal but not a quick read. There is less emphasis on God’s love and relationship with us than on His other attributes, and to be honest, many times the continual emphasis on exegetical skill (not to mention total depravity) left me cold.

Christ Might Have Died for my Sins?

Don’t get me wrong; the Reformers were the heroes of the faith who rescued Christianity from the mysticism and superstition of the Dark Ages. The Reformed camp, on the whole, produces the highest quality Christian literature there is; particularly in the Christian counseling genre. Sometimes it has seemed to me, however, that in the quest for doctrinal precision and endless parsing, the relational aspect of Christ’s love is lost. Taking an extreme position on the Doctrines of Grace can leave one scratching one’s head.

For example, in one course I was taught that when sharing the Gospel with a potential convert, one should never tell him that “Christ died for [his] sins because you have no way of knowing if that individual is one of the elect or not.” Umm…alrighty then. So…what exactly should we tell him? “Hey! I have great news! Christ might have died for your sins!”

Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

Jesus looked at the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:20-22), loved him, and bid him come and follow Him. And the guy still walked away (which I find staggering). Repeatedly, we see that the invitation is open to all…we all have a chance to be one of “the elect”. We need to hold onto this truth, and not confuse counselees into thinking they can be arbitrarily ‘locked out’ of heaven by a misunderstanding of predestination. We need to give hope, not seek to be more Calvinistic than Calvin.

Overwhelmed by Theology, or Overwhelmed by Love?

Having a high view of God precludes focusing on our own “felt needs.” It is unbiblical (some would say blasphemous) to think in terms of our own value. I understand and agree that we are totally depraved, and the Atonement speaks of HIS infinite worth, glory and value, but there are several places in Scripture where God’s Word indicates that we are precious to Him. If we were truly worthless to God, He never would have sent His Son. I can see where there’s a danger to making the cross all about us, rather than about God (and people do); but even the Puritans recognized Christ’s love for the individual.

I agree God does not exist to meet our emotional needs, but what do you do when you have a tough day? What do you teach your counselee to do? Or do Reformed folks never have a tough day, because of God’s majesty and sovereignty? Do we pour our hearts out to God, or do we text a friend, who seems more approachable?

Sometimes, after reading about the proper view of God, I actually would have a tough time praying. I find it intimidating and don’t really know what to talk about. The Reformers themselves were passionate, emotional, introspective people. Sometimes in today’s literary Reformed camp, one can learn much but feel nothing. One believer I know wrote: “I love Reformed people, but I loathe their “We are the Christian Intellectual Elite” complex. When Christianity is all head and no heart… yep, the balance is lost.”

Getting Back to Basics – with the Puritans

This might be an over-correction made by the modern biblical counseling movement, in response to the touchy-feely theological fluffiness that graces the shelves of today’s Christian bookstores. In stark contrast to the modern “Jesus is My Homeboy” attitude, the correct relationship with God that Reformed writers historically have tried to convey is one of awe-struck intimacy. Consider the following passage, penned by Frances Ridley Havergal in the 19th century:

Some of us think and say a good deal about a sense of Christ’s presence – sometimes rejoicing in it, sometimes going mourning all the day long because we have it not; praying for it and not always seeming to receive what we ask; measuring our own position, and sometimes even that of others, by it; now on the heights, now in the depths about it….It comes practically to this: Are you a disciple of the Lord Jesus at all? If so, He says to you, “I am with you always.” That overflows all the regrets of the past and all the possibilities of the future and most certainly includes the present. Therefore, at this very moment, as surely as your eyes rest on this page, so surely is the Lord Jesus with you. “I am” is neither “I was” nor “I will be.” It is always abreast of our lives, always encompassing us with salvation. It is a splendid, perpetual now. [i]

Does this read as if it were written by someone who saw God as distant, obscure, or harsh? Far from it. The beauty of some of the classical writing of the Puritans (and other early Reformed writers, such as Spurgeon) is that they maintained that balance between holding a high view of God’s majesty, and enjoying an intimate relationship with Him. Humbled by His interest in their lives, the desire to know Him in spirit and in truth fueled their deep study of His Word. Far from seeing theology as dry or irrelevant, we may think of these early Reformed writers as the original biblical counselors.

Learning to Enjoy God all Over Again

It took me a long time to get back to reading devotionals after completing my certification. I got the impression from my courses that devotionals are considered “fluffy” and generally promote bad theology. The answer is to find truly good devotionals – writing that spurs one on to seek God more, and to go deeper in our walk with Him. We needn’t suffer from ‘theological burnout’ or view Reformed/biblical counseling literature as dry or overly heavy-handed.

The answer, for me anyway, was to drop the intellectually-induced guilt over not always having a desire to peruse concordances, categorize passages on index cards, or learn koinos Greek. Of course, if one has the time and desire to do this, by all means she should! Proper interpretation of the Scriptures is not optional; and I have taught on this very subject many times. But there comes a point where the human heart wants to put down the books, and just spend time with the Father. We biblical counselors can easily get out of balance when the very thing we use to know God – doctrinal study – can stand in the way of desiring fellowship with Him. Simply being on guard against this trap (and being honest with ourselves about how we wish to spend devotional time with God) is crucial to our spiritual health, which in turn makes us able to minister to others.

 

[i] “Seasons of the Heart”, compiled by Donna Kelderman, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013.

God Has No ‘Foster Children’

SevFoster Childreneral years ago, I read a book called “Three Little Words,” a memoir of a girl’s horrific childhood in the foster care system. Eventually she was adopted, as a teen, by a loving family. (This wasn’t something I read for pleasure – it was on my daughter’s public school summer reading list, and I was screening it.) While the material was inappropriate for 13-year-olds, it was a painfully raw and all-too-accurate glimpse of what some foster children experience.

Being shuffled through countless homes of indifferent or abusive foster parents obviously scars children. They come to see themselves as unloved, and presumably unlovable. Even the fortunate ones who are adopted face problems – they cannot trust adults, believe that they are loved, or understand what a permanent place in a family means. Many adoptions are actually disrupted when youngsters lash out and display belligerent behavior. Growing up in foster care means existing in constant limbo. Natural parents who don’t come through and foster parents who aren’t “for keeps” breed a deep-seated insecurity. Foster children often expect to be rejected – even after adoption.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter, the author of this particular memoir, describes an incident of teenage rebellion some time after her adoption had been finalized. When confronted by her parents, her first thought was that the adoption was over. She had long since steeled her heart against loving or being loved by anyone, and spent the first several years of her family life waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. She anticipated another rejection and ultimate return to the group home. Against her expectations and previous life experience, her parents assured her that she was irrevocably their daughter, and that it was high time to drop the “poor orphan” act. (They then punished her for her infraction).

That was the turning point for Ashley. Finally, she was able to begin building trust in her mother and father, knowing that no matter how “bad” she was, there was nothing she could do to make them reject her.

An awful lot of Christians are walking around with a “foster child” mentality, it seems to me. This is a mindset I’ve encountered in counseling, and it’s something I have fallen prey to myself at times. What we need to internalize is this: we are adopted sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ, and have a permanent place in the family (Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5; and John 8:35, respectively). Why is this so hard to believe? My answer, and it’s a fairly simplistic one, is because it takes humility to see this.

We did nothing to earn our status as His children; it was all of His grace…completely, freely, and lavishly bestowed on the unlovely delinquents we were when He found us. Pride wants us to earn our keep; to do something that will merit God’s approval. This is the carnal nature that prompted the Prodigal Son’s request to be made a hired servant. Humility, on the other hand, rejoices in the fact that we are fully known, completely loved, and sealed with the spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15). We can cry “Abba, Father” no matter how distant we may feel from God, because He has set His love on us for Christ’s sake (Romans 1:5) and called us His own (Isaiah 43:1; 1 John 3:2). In fact, He loves us even as He loves His only begotten Son, Jesus (John 16:27).

By human standards, this is a difficult concept to grasp. Repeated rejection by human authority figures (and especially by parents) can pervert one’s view of a benevolent God. Nevertheless, the One Who has redeemed our unworthy selves loves us unconditionally, and has made our identity secure. Legal adoption is a binding covenant. John 1:12-13 illustrates this clearly:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

We have assurance that God really is as good as He says He is. He will never reject any who come to Him (John 6:37).

For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ” Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15).

Foster children are literally slaves to fear. They live in constant anticipation of the next infraction – or whim of the legal system – to be the end of whatever tenuous family situation they are in. How does this sad mindset play itself out in a child of God?

Shame.

Guilt over failure and indwelling sin drives the insecure Christian away from the Cross, rather than towards it. He or she cannot face a God who is still perceived as a righteous Judge rather than a loving Father. God is both, of course; but what the fearful believer fails to grasp practically is that His righteous judgment has already been poured out on Christ, and there is no longer condemnation (Romans 8:1). She fails to realize that her sin was already foreseen by God, has been forgiven, and is no longer held against her. As Jerry Bridges writes,

…He is, as it were, coming alongside me saying, “We are going to work on that sin, but meanwhile I want you to know that I no longer count it against you.” God is no longer my Judge; He is now my Heavenly Father, who loves me with a self-generated, infinite love, even in the face of my sin.

Pride.

While on the surface shame and pride may seem at odds with each other, actually they work in tandem. When a Christian sees herself as a foster child of God, she will seek to avoid Him when plagued with guilt – at least until she can “get her act together” enough to approach Him. However, it is actually the height of arrogance to believe that there is ever a time when we are more acceptable to God than another. Putting merit in our own works-righteousness or penance actually demeans the centrality of the Cross. C. J. Mahaney writes,

Paul called himself “the worst of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:16). He wasn’t paralyzed by condemnation. He was exalting God’s grace by recognizing his own unworthiness and sin as he marveled at the mercy of God.

Fear of Man and People-Pleasing.

A child of God who does not realize her true identity is constantly anxious about where she stands with God. Desperately trying to earn the favor of her Father, which she doesn’t recognize she already has, she tries to impress others or appear more spiritual. For example, I had one bulimic counselee tell me she wanted to “redeem [herself] in God’s eyes by becoming a nutritionist, and hopefully help others.”

I confess that I have fallen prey to this mindset myself, when I make idols out of goals or “splendid vices” (George Whitefield’s term for spiritual activity done with wrong motives). Getting my book, “Redeemed from the Pit” published is very important to me, and now that it is becoming a reality I have been preoccupied with obtaining endorsements from well-known authors in the biblical counseling field. When they like my work, I somehow feel God approves of my endeavor. When they decline or suggest revisions, I despair – their opinion of my writing overshadows pleasing God. It becomes too easy to forget that my work is ultimately all for His glory, anyway. Although I would never say so out loud, being thought well of by “celebrity Christians” can eclipse the truth – that God neither thinks more nor less of me based on man’s opinions; and I have nothing whatsoever to commend myself to Him in the first place. He loves me with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3) simply because I am His daughter.

This tendency to think God sees us as others do takes many different forms, but the root is the same – doubting the reality and immutability of God’s personal and tender love.

The Solution

Let’s think about this logically: An omniscient God knew from eternity past exactly what you would be like, He saw every sin and dark thought that would enter your mind, yet He set His love on you anyway by electing you as His child. He called you out of darkness, then transferred you to the Kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). Jesus Himself is not ashamed to call you His brother or sister (Hebrews 2:11), so on what grounds would He decide to kick you out of His family? What, exactly, would you have to do to “disrupt” your heavenly adoption, and get sent back from whence you came?

It’s time, as the Courter parents so bluntly put it, to “drop the poor orphan act” and realize we’re God’s for good. And that’s Good News. Intimacy cannot grow apart from relationship, and the entire New Covenant proclaims that our relationship as children is irrevocable. We didn’t do anything to earn it in the first place – we were all broken and flawed when God called us – so what makes us think we can lose His parental bond? Fellowship may be broken, just as in human families – but God promises to forgive and restore each and every time we humble ourselves to seek Him (1 John 1:9). Craven fear and cringing supplication have no place in the life of a child of God. Repentance is a gift freely offered to all who will accept it and return to God on His terms…no running, hiding, and fear of the boom lowering anymore. The writer of Hebrews poetically banished any possibility of seeing ourselves as foster children when he wrote:

“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

What Does it Mean to Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness?

Blog-John-6-35

by Marie Notcheva

For the last several weeks, I have been doing a study on the Beatitudes with a friend. Today I realized that I have been reading Matthew 5:6 incorrectly for my entire Christian life.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” always sounded to me like a yearning for social justice. As believers in Christ, it naturally follows that we should want to see justice served in this world. This is not incompatible with the Bible’s teaching on caring for the orphans, the widow, and not looking down on the poor – or its many warnings against cheating and falsehood. An earnest desire to see the social structures of this world controlled by Christian morality sounds like a noble desire; certainly something that Christ would call “blessed.” It is reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your Kingdom come; Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10; emphasis mine).

We want to see righteousness in this world, as the nations turn to Christ.

Social Justice or Personal Righteousness?

Except….that’s not really what Matthew 5:6 is about. It helps to take a step back and look at the preceding beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (verse 3); “Blessed are those who mourn” (verse 4); “Blessed are the meek” (verse 5). We see a progression here – in personal holiness. Being “poor in spirit,” as I wrote about several weeks ago, means acknowledging our abject moral failure before God. It means coming to the table empty-handed; which leads to a “mourning” over one’s personal sin. These two verses center on our sinfulness, whereas being “meek” reveals a spirit that is already seeking righteousness. Why? Because meekness centers on God’s holiness, not our sinfulness. We see in the beatitudes not a grocery list of qualities to add to our spiritual resumes, but rather a progression in sanctification.

“Meekness is a by-product of dying to one’s self,” preaches John Macarthur, and it is a result of deliberately yielding to the Holy Spirit. The characteristic of meekness is commanded in Titus 3:2, where believers are instructed to be “gentle and meek” to everyone; and in Colossians, God’s children are told to deliberately clothe themselves with meekness (along with other virtues such as kindness and humility). So, when we get to verse 6, and are told we are “blessed” if we “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” it is not specifically an end to racism or halting political corruption that is in view. It is the believer’s personal holiness and inner striving for righteous thoughts and behavior that Christ is referring to.

How Are We Satisfied in God?

This is a good starting point for almost any context in counseling. While we would all surely say we “hunger and thirst after righteousness” in the global, general sense, the question for heart-examination is deeper. Do we (or a counselee) still have that burning desire to be holy, just as Christ is holy, purely to please our Heavenly Father? Do we still have that sense of awe at His Majesty that we had when we were first saved?

The word in Greek for hunger is peinao, which means to suffer from want or be in need. Metaphorically speaking, it means to crave and seek intensely. Dipsao is the Greek word for thirst; spiritually, it describes those who painfully feel their want of (and eagerly long for) things which will refresh and strengthen their soul. So when Jesus says that such a hungry person will be satisfied, what does He mean?

John 6:35 links Christ’s reference to hunger and thirst to the spiritual realm: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” So, He is declaring “blessed” those who truly hunger and thirst for the “living water” and bread of life that only He provides. Earnestly desiring what Christ came to grant and fulfill leads to receiving from Him the greatest satisfaction there is – a right relationship with Himself. This is the Gospel – the whole Person and Work of Christ; and sincerely desiring His will in our own lives is what He means by “hungering for righteousness.”

The Spiritual Barometer

A sure-fire way to test if we have gone lukewarm is to consider how strongly we desire the righteousness of Christ – not in the abstract, but tangibly. A counselee may be asked what is satisfying her now; what would really satisfy her in the near future? Does she desire acceptance, fame, money, security or another (not necessarily bad) thing that can become a heart-idol? What do we do when we are not seeking or desiring God? A study of the Prodigal Son provides an excellent lesson on consequences of hungering and thirsting after the wrong things (as well as a portrayal of the Father’s extravagant grace in drawing us back to Himself). Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God” is superb reading material for counselees who are prone to seek spiritual satisfaction elsewhere.

Do Expectations Destroy Relationships?

Do Expectations Destroy Relationships?

Posted July 7, 2016 on Biblical Counseling for Women

by Marie Notcheva

Recently, a friend of mine posted a quotation on social media from a female Christian writer. The citation exhorted other Christian women not to expect their husbands to help with housework; meet any of their needs except to economically provide for the family, and to simply try to “make his life as easy as possible.” What most caught my attention was a portion of the quote which was underlined:“Expectations destroy relationships.”

While undoubtedly well-intentioned, this sort of advice targeted towards Christian wives concerns me. It is not about the housework or a division of labor based on traditional gender roles. That is an individual arrangement that can be decided by couples based on preference. If a husband does not feel it is his role to give the baby a bath, fine. If she does not want to mow the lawn or snowplow the driveway, that is reasonable. However, as another reader pointed out, the quote seemed to imply that a woman who is honestly overwhelmed is sinning if she asks for help. She is not.

Many women fall into serious depression because they are overwhelmed by the demands of running a household (often while homeschooling children) and are made to feel guilty if they expect assistance from their husbands. Would we tell men they are wrong to expect their wives to cook their dinner? Iron their shirts? Meet their sexual needs? It would be hard to find a male writer willing to take this stance.

Even so, household chores are not the main issue I had with the quote. It is the notion that in a relationship, it is wrong to have any expectations of the other person.

The Bible sets forth some very clear expectations for both husbands and wives – they are to love and submit to one another (Ephesians 5); he is to be patient and gentle with her (Colossians 3:19; 1 Peter 3:7); she is to be industrious at home and assist with running the household (Proverbs 31); not contentious (Proverbs 25:24). He is not to be a drunkard (1 Cor. 6:10 and elsewhere); both are to be sexually faithful to each other (Hebrews 13:4), and the list goes on. God has set these expectations – why would it be wrong for either spouse to hold them? It would be extremely unhealthy to enter into any kind of relationship with no expectations whatsoever, but particularly into a marriage covenant.

Expectations are Necessary and God-ordained

Telling women “You won’t have a happy marriage if you expect anything from your husband” is dangerous for at least three reasons. First, it demeans men. A godly man seeks to honor and obey God by loving, serving, protecting, encouraging, comforting and helping his wife. He is the spiritual leader in the home, and is the one to whom his children look to see an example of Christ. It is rather condescending (if not insulting) to tell women to “expect nothing” of them.

Secondly, it saddles Christian women with the responsibility of their husbands’ happiness, and additional guilt if they fall short. These women are often already burdened by self-recrimination, trying to live up to their own standards of perfection, and usually blame themselves for their husbands’ short-comings. The last thing they need is to be rebuked for having “expectations.”

Lastly, telling women to have zero expectations in the marriage relationship opens the door to abuse. I have written about this before, and I firmly believe that sanctimonious messages like this contribute to the problem. The implication is that the woman is somehow responsible for any failings in the marriage; that it would all go so much better if she would just be a better “helpmeet” and stop expecting her husband to obey God. When women internalize such unbalanced messages, they are less able to recognize emotional abuse and the Church, by extension, continues to perpetuate the cycle. “Doormat theology” is not biblical.

Live up to It!

While it is certainly not correct (or realistic) to marry expecting perfection of one’s spouse, a healthy regard for the other’s spiritual well-being (as well as that of future children) demands a certain set of expectations. That is, in essence, what the marriage vows are: a commitment to live up to one’s God-given responsibilities (including to love, honor and cherish one another). If a woman does not expect at least this much of her husband, the relationship is already in serious trouble.

Expectations do not destroy relationships. Selfish people destroy relationships. The most important relationship men and women can ever have is with their Creator, and Christ Himself laid out some very clear expectations on His followers: “If you love Me, you will do as I command” (John 14:15). He expects us to live up to what we have already attained (Phil. 3:16), and part of this means behaving in a selfless and Christ-like way in our relationships with other people (most of all, our marriage). Failing to have any standards or expectations in a relationship, on ourselves or other people, is a sure-fire way for it to fail. God has given us the standard of what a healthy relationship should look like, and women need to work toward what God has called them to do – while expecting no less of their husbands.

Do I Want to be “Makarios”?

Do I Want to be “Makarios”?

by Marie Notcheva

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Practically speaking, the fifth chapter of Matthew is one of the most difficult in the Bible. While the theology behind the Beatitudes and Christ’s instruction on how His followers are to conduct themselves is not difficult to grasp, the unattainable standard of holiness He sets forth in this passage has endless implications to the Christian’s personal life – as well as discipleship in the counseling room.

The Beatitudes are counter-intuitive, because some of the states of being Jesus is calling “blessed” we would instinctively avoid. We might be ok with being gentle; and we certainly like to think of ourselves as hungering for righteousness, but mourning? Being persecuted, or slandered? Poor in spirit? What’s “blessed” about that?

The word used for “blessed”, makarios, does not mean “blissfully happy or contented.” Also used seven times in Revelation, (and twice to describe God in 1 Timothy), Jesus is after something much more than temporal warm, fuzzy feelings here. Makarios , from the root mak (large or lengthy), and denotes “the nature of that which is the highest good” (Vine’s Concise Bible Dictionary) and referred in Greek both to the state of the gods, or later, to the upper crust (elite) of society who had achieved material blessing presumably by upright living.

Now, Jesus pronounces God’s blessings on the lowly: The poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, the mourning. He reverses our understanding of what it means to be ‘blessed’. The elite in God’s kingdom, the “makarios”, are those at the bottom.

Is this what we want when we sign on as Christians?

The Blessing of Humility

Throughout the Gospels, Christ makes the cost of discipleship clear. However, Matthew 5 is a concise glimpse not so much at entrance requirements for outsiders; but a declaration of a present reality – what already characterizes the true Christ-follower. Each of the beatitudes is characterized by a type of humility. Perhaps Jesus’ opening statement, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” is the most intriguing – what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Why would I want to be poor in spirit? What is He getting at here?

Spiritual poverty, like material, is characterized by a lack – not having something. Someone who is truly poor, like the beggar of Luke 16, is utterly incapable of helping himself and is awaiting crumbs. Spiritually bankrupt and without anything to offer before our Creator, God values those who seek Him realizing they have nothing of their own merits to offer. Being “poor is spirit” means being able to sincerely say, like the Pharisee of Luke 18, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is the opposite of resting in one’s spiritual pedigree, good works, or ministry accomplishments.

It is the beginning of the understanding of grace.

When beginning discipleship with a new believer, or counseling for a specific issue with a more mature Christian, this is a good starting point. Most of Matthew 18 (and Christ’s instruction to His followers generally) hangs on this first statement – recognizing our own spiritual poverty and brokenness is the beginning of a relationship with God.

The question we need to wrestle through then becomes, “Is this something that I really want?” The problem is, if we are honest, we want some of the glory for ourselves. Of course, we want to be counted as Christians; but how do we really react when mourning – does it challenge our faith, or do we count ourselves ‘blessed’ to have the God of all Comfort on our side?

Checking our Reactions in Persecution: Our Hearts in Anger

After demonstrating His priority on humility in the first part of the chapter, Jesus turns His attention to interpersonal relationships. This is where meekness and Christ-like humility is truly put to the test – it is easy, after all, to be meek, humble or gentle if living on a desert island (or in a convent). But in the messy world of jealousies, rivalries and petty gossip, can we really “rejoice” for being persecuted? Or, if provoked to anger, are we able to see that as seriously as murder? Christ is after heart attitudes here, demonstrating that anger and lust are as serious before God as their logical conclusions (murder and adultery).

What’s so difficult about this chapter is that no one is capable of living up to this standard – apart from Christ Himself. It continually reminds us that our thoughts are as loud in heaven as our shouts, and that God expects our responses to be rooted in humility. Often, people are suffering because of someone else’s sin. When someone continues to hurt us without remorse, it is almost impossible not to want to strike back. This is a good starting point in counseling (including counseling ourselves) to deal with the sting of betrayal or being slandered.

Praying for those who persecute us and loving our enemies is the hardest thing Christ has ever called us to do, but He declares it our greatest good. This is His definition of what it means to be blessed, although it is an intangible and often unappreciated blessing to us in this world. Taking a close look at how God defines blessedness (versus the short-sighted way we often see it) will help us and our counselees redefine our priorities and gain the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).